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Free Study Guide-The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X-Free Notes
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PLOT SUMMARY (Synopsis)

The book traces the life of Malcolm X from his childhood, his life in the streets of Harlem, the transformation that occurs in the prison where he first comes in contact with the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and finally his break with the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X, the protagonist, is looking back into his past and narrating incidents to Alex Haley, who becomes his close friend and confidante during the course of writing the book.

The book can be broadly divided into four parts. The first part deals with his childhood in Lansing, Michigan. Malcolm loses his father Rev. Earl Little when he is four or five years old. Because his mother is unable to get a job anywhere due to his father's reputation (he was a member of Marcus Garvey's organization U.N.I.A, feared and despised by the local white population), she is forced to turn to the Welfare Department for charity. Due to constant meddling of the Welfare Department into their private affairs, the family breaks up. While Malcolm is sent away to a foster family, his younger siblings are sent away to close friends who agree to take them in. His elder brother and sister continue to stay in their own house. For young Malcolm, the break up of his family and his mother eventually losing her senses is extremely traumatic. Though he used to keep in touch with his siblings and his mother (who is sent to a sanatorium), he holds the Welfare Department responsible for interfering in and breaking his family.

The second part of the book deals with Malcolm's life in the streets of Detroit and later in Harlem. Malcolm drops out of school in the 8th grade, and goes to Boston where his sister Ella lives. He gets a job as a shoe shine boy with the help of Shorty. It is in Boston that he meets Laura, a black high school student who is very fond of dancing. Malcolm dates her till he meets Sophia, a white girl who loves hanging around with black men. During this period, Malcolm has several jobs including shoe shining and working at a drug store. Later, he gets a railroad job, where he sells food and cigarettes to the passengers travelling between Boston and New York. It is in Harlem, New York, that he learns to gamble when he takes a job at Ed Small's bar. Malcolm (still in his teens) starts living dangerously. He begins bartending, drug peddling and hustling (a form of gambling with numbers), in addition to pimping and robbery. One day he is caught along with his accomplices, Sophia, her sister Rudy, and Shorty. Malcolm and his friend Shorty are sentenced to prison.


In jail, (the third part of the book), he learns about the Nation of Islam and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. His sister and brother are already members of the organization. They urge Malcolm (through letters), to write to their spiritual leader Mr. Elijah Muhammad. Deeply moved by what he hears from his brother Reginald about the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, he decides to write to the man - who was considered a messenger of Allah by his black disciples. The need to communicate to his family members and Elijah Muhammad makes him re-learn English which he had completely forgotten. While he is in jail he studies history and religion and was an active member of the debating society formed by the inmates. The prison became a college of sorts for Malcolm. He studied and learned to express his views on a variety of subjects. This is where he is transformed himself from "Detroit Red" to the fiery spokesperson of the Nation of Islam-later known as Malcolm X. Once he completes his term in jail, he becomes actively involved in strengthening and increasing the membership of the Nation of Islam. Soon he becomes the right-hand man of Elijah Muhammad and rises to the position of a minister in the Nation, where he has an entire unit or 'Mosque' consisting of the Nation of Islam's members. Almost every day, he addressed gatherings of students at schools across the country who wanted to hear him speak.

The final part of the book deals with Malcolm's break with the Nation of Islam. In this part, Malcolm tells us of the disagreements and the incidents that led to his suspension from the Organization. Soon after the suspension, Malcolm leaves for Mecca. On the way there, he visits several African and Gulf countries. His visit abroad gives Malcolm X a better understanding of Islam. Also the time away from his home gives him a chance to reflect and develop a deeper insight to the problem of racism. Malcolm returns home to announce the formation of his new organization - OAAU or the Organization for Afro- American Unity. His earlier perception that all whites are devils changes due to his own experiences. He has met several white media men and students who are opposed to racism and injustice.

Moreover, he feels the need for black unity on an international basis - cutting across religious and national barriers. Only such a unity, he felt, would help check the cancer of racism. However, before he can translate his ideas into reality, Malcolm X was assassinated in February 1965. The autobiography is a powerful and moving saga of the triumph of human will and spirit over the dreadful conditions destroying black youth in America. It is a story of a man's struggle against a society, which was pushing it's youth (especially blacks) towards crime and drugs. Malcolm X struggled and overcame what can be considered the worst in civil society. He rose from the very depths like a phoenix from ashes to become a hero of his people.

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