As the autobiography begins, Malcolm X describes how his mother (Louise), pregnant with Malcolm himself, confronts a gang of Ku Klux Klan members who are looking to kill Malcolm’s father, Earl Little. She bravely tells them he isn’t home, and in response the Klansmen break every window in the house and then ride off.
Even before he has entered the world, Malcolm is already forced to confront the realities of racist violence and hatred. His mother’s example of bravery serves as a model for and foreshadows his future stances against racism.
Earl Little, a travelling preacher and a tall, outspoken black man from Georgia, is a vocal supporter of Marcus Garvey and his ideas of Pan-Africanism, or the belief that people of African descent all around the world should join together against the oppression of whites. Earl always believed he would die by violence, and indeed, Earl and four of his five brothers will die from violence. Here Malcolm interrupts to say that he feels that he, too, will die by violence.
In Earl Little, the reader gets a glimpse at the archetype after which Malcolm will unconsciously model himself. Malcolm will reflect his father’s activism and fervent religious belief in his life’s work, and will follow him into an equally violent death—a tragic prediction on Malcolm’s part, and one that readers cannot help but see through the lens of his assassination (which occurred soon after the publication of his autobiography).
Malcolm is born on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, the fourth of Louise Little’s children. His older siblings Wilfred, Hilda, and Philbert were born in Philadelphia, while his younger brother Reginald was born in Milwaukee. Earl had three children from a previous marriage as well: Ella, Earl, and Mary, all living in Boston. Malcolm’s mother Louise comes from Granada, and is a mixed-race woman who looks white; her white father, whom she never met, raped her mother.
The identity of his white grandfather serves as a kind of “original sin” for Malcolm. Of all his siblings, Malcolm is the lightest one, which will bring him certain privileges in life, but it will also haunt him – a visible, intrinsic reminder of the horrors of racism and violence.
After a brief stay in Milwaukee, the family moves to Lansing, Michigan, where Earl plans to open a store one day. However, his spreading of Marcus Garvey’s beliefs attracts the negative attention of the Black Legion, a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan. One night in 1929, which Malcolm calls the “nightmare night,” the Black Legion sets their house on fire. Earl shoots his pistol at the arsonists and then directs the family out and to safety.
By calling it a “nightmare night,” Malcolm underlines the psychological scarring left by this experience. And like nightmares, Malcolm will be forced to relive this experience when, as an adult, his own family’s house is fire bombed. The Black Legion gets its name because they wear black hoods, instead of the white hoods of the usual KKK.
After this incident, Earl Little goes on to build the family a home outside of town with his own hands. This will be the house Malcolm remembers as his childhood home. The police and firefighters, meanwhile, do nothing about the attack, other than to question Earl about his pistol.
When the State, which is theoretically supposed to protect all citizens, fails to act, Earl takes their future literally into his own hands, a lesson for Malcolm in both self-reliance and the racism inherent to the American establishment.
Earl Little was a violent man, Malcolm says, often beating his wife (probably because of Louise’s educated way of talking back) and the other children for breaking his rules. However, he never beat Malcolm, who attributes this to his lighter skin tone, which subconsciously gave him a more privileged status in his father’s eyes.
While Malcolm disapproves of his father’s color bias, he also sympathizes with him. Earl cannot control this unconscious preference (the result of internalized racism) any more than Malcolm can control his own skin color.
Malcolm has memories of his father preaching in various churches, full of emotion as he led the service. However, Malcolm always had trouble believing in the Christian God, even as a child.
Unlike the Nation of Islam later on, Malcolm portrays these Christians as too interested in spectacle, rather than true faith.
The black people who attend his father’s services, Malcolm tells us, were and still are in “bad shape.” By this he means that they were too interested in status symbols. The “leaders” of the community worked in white businesses as waiters and shoe shiners. Meanwhile, the majority of people were on welfare or starved. Malcolm’s family lived better, however, thanks to their country home and garden.
Malcolm’s ongoing feud with “middle class Negroes” began at an early age. Rather than uniting to improve their lot, he sees these “leaders” as merely interested in a fraudulent notion of social status that caters entirely to whites.
The other image Malcolm has of his father Earl is of him leading meetings, spreading Marcus Garvey’s philosophy. At these meetings, they would pass along literature and photographs of Garvey and his massive rallies. Seeing his father as the leader of these intelligent, down-to-earth meetings with their serious politics always made Malcolm more proud than when he saw him as a preacher. His leadership role, in Malcolm’s eyes, confirmed that his father was a “tough man.”
Here, Malcolm identifies the two traits he most admires in his father: his political activism and his strong masculinity. Not only should one engage in “serious” and intellectual political meetings, Malcolm believes, but one also should be courageous and defiant towards threats. These features will underlie his position in the Nation years later.
Meanwhile, his mother Louise had the enormous task of caring for the home and its eight children, often while arguing with their father about her dietary restrictions (she refused to eat pork and rabbit). Unlike Earl, she frequently beat Malcolm, and he suspects this was precisely because of his lighter skin; she unconsciously despised him because he resembled his rapist grandfather’s skin tone. But Malcolm often escaped harsh punishment by crying loudly so as to alarm the neighbors and embarrass Louise.
Louise appears to be a complex character, who on the one hand embodies the strict self-discipline Malcolm will later embrace in the Nation, but on the other hand unreasonably beats her son for something out of his control. Malcolm, meanwhile, demonstrates a shrewdness that will serve him well throughout life.
At five, Malcolm began going to school with his other siblings. The schools were integrated, but nobody made a big deal about it. There weren’t enough African Americans in the area for it to really matter or for there to be an alternative. And while he did receive racial slurs, Malcolm writes that they were not said “as an insult.”
Racism is presented as simply a benign reality, not something always enacted out of malice. However, with such a small population of African Americans and the threat of violence always present, there is no plausible way for Malcolm to confront the issue, either.
One afternoon in 1931, Earl and Louise are fighting over whether or not she will cook a rabbit for dinner. After killing the rabbit and throwing it at her feet, Earl storms out of the house and heads for town. Louise, suddenly struck with a premonition that Earl will be killed, runs outside, calling after him. But he merely waves and walks on.
After the rabbit is killed and thrown at Louise’s feet, she is struck by a vision, a sequence of events which mimics a kind of religious ritual. Yet Malcolm isn’t sure what to make of his mother’s intuition.
Louise finishes cooking dinner, but is on edge after her vision of Earl’s death. When he doesn’t come home, the family heads to bed, the children all aware of the tension. Malcolm awakes to the sounds of Louise screaming; Earl has been run over by a streetcar. The black community, however, whispers that this was not an accident, but rather murder by the Black Legion; not only was he run over, but he had first been badly beaten.
In both the children and in the black community at large, knowledge of oppression and violence is not something that can be spoken aloud; rather, it is something that is sensed or, at best, discussed behind closed doors. Meanwhile, the police choose to not pursue any investigation, settling for the more convenient answer.
Malcolm doesn’t remember much of the funeral, other than it happening outside of a church – a strange detail, considering that his father was a minister. Family friends come in and out of the house for a week, but then life begins to return to normal. However, the family has practically no income, after one of Earl’s life insurance policies is deemed void. The insurance company justifies this by claiming he committed suicide.
Even in death, Earl cannot get justice. Rather than being ruled a murder, his death has been labeled a suicide, taking his family’s only income away from them. In this way, his death not only goes unavenged, but it has been made into a fortuitous event for the (white-owned) insurance company.
Wilfred, sensing the impending hardship, quits school and begins to work in town. Hilda takes care of the younger kids. Philbert and Malcolm, meanwhile, fight each other and anyone else they meet, with Reginald tagging along. Louise tries to find work as a housemaid, and she finds several positions thanks to her light skin. However, when each new employer finds out she is not white after all, she is let go.
Malcolm’s childhood now exists in a state of suspension. On the one hand, he lives carefree and doesn’t take on any of the responsibilities his older siblings do, but he will be affected by their shifting economic position nonetheless.
Around this time, Welfare agents begin to come frequently around the house, asking lots of questions. The family does begin to receive Welfare assistance, but it comes at the cost of these degrading meetings. Louise tries hard to not only provide for the family, but to do so in a way that she can be proud of. Unfortunately, her pride and the family’s sustenance begin to unravel.
Louise finds herself in a lose-lose situation, a scenario which Malcolm will see repeatedly in others throughout the years. She needs help to survive, but in accepting that help, some intrinsic part of her self-worth does not survive.
By 1934, the family is at its lowest point. The Depression is at its worst and no one in town has enough to eat. Meals for Louise’s family might consist of old bread, cornmeal, or sometimes just dandelion greens, to the amusement of some cruel schoolchildren. Malcolm and Philbert begin to hunt for rabbits and frogs, which they then sell to white neighbors, who support them out of pity.
Later in life, Malcolm will believe that every “white man is a devil.” But here, when his family is at its lowest, he draws attention not only to how cruel whites can be, but also to how they can show compassion and pity.
The family, and especially Louise, begins to deteriorate psychologically. Malcolm, fed up with being labeled a Welfare recipient, starts to become criminally deviant and steal food. Alternatively, he will visit other families such as the Gohannases around dinner time, fishing for an invite to stay. His activities attract the attention of the town and the Welfare people, who begin trying to take him away from the rest of family.
The family essentially has nothing left to eat, and they’ve lost even their pride after being continually mocked and degraded. With nothing to lose, Malcolm begins to take a “devil may care” attitude—which then threatens the one thing he does still have, his family.
Louise also begins to receive visits from Seventh-Day Adventists, a conservative but welcoming religious organization, and she takes the family to their meetings out in the country. Malcolm thinks they are extremely friendly, even if a little eccentric. The main attraction, however, is the plentiful food that accompanies each of their meetings. Malcolm observes that white people don’t season their food the way black people do.
The Adventists represent an image for Malcolm of white people and race relations at their best. On the one hand, they are extremely friendly and welcoming. On the other, they are undeniably eccentric and have different tastes and customs from the black people Malcolm is used to—not better or worse, just different.
The Welfare people continue to come, looking to separate the family and to take Malcolm away in particular. As the pressures from running the home and dealing with the state increase, implications that Louise is going crazy begin to circulate. Her religious dietary restrictions, spurred on by the Adventists, further these comments, as she refuses to cook pork for the family, even if it is free and they have nothing else.
The Welfare agency continues to try and gain more and more control over the Littles’ lives, a fact that Louise recognizes. Her resistance to relinquishing her dietary habits is therefore not only a question of religious zeal, but of resisting total control by the State, a resistance which is then labeled as “crazy.”
In an effort to make the family more secure, Louise begins to see a “dark man from Lansing” in 1935. She works hard to get him to marry her, but it would be an enormous burden for him to take responsibility for feeding eight stepchildren. After about a year, he finally walks away, a decision Malcolm understands. But he also understands his mother’s attempts to save the family any way possible.
Malcolm describes this figure as resembling his father, and by not giving him a name, and thereby casting his identity in shadow, Malcolm turns him into a ghostly resurrected version of his father. Then he forgives this “ghost” when it must pass on, as if Malcolm is moving on as well.
At this point, Louise really starts to lose control of her mental state, and the state agencies begins to seriously discuss sending Malcolm to live with the Gohannases, who have offered to take him in. He doesn’t want to leave his siblings, whom he loves very much. But, he is finally taken away.
Louise, on the other hand, cannot handle losing her last hope. If this “ghost” man allows Malcolm to move on, it only pushes Louise further towards her breaking point.
Malcolm shares a room with Big Boy, and they get along well. The boys would go hunting with Mr. Gohannas, and they would flush out rabbits. Malcolm figured out a way to get them for himself before the other hunters would have a chance, and they never caught on. He takes it as a lesson in how to be successful: if there’s an established system, then it can be made to work in your favor.
The anecdote about the rabbits illustrates Malcolm’s entrepreneurial instincts and his ease with deception. Later, when he runs “hustles” in New York and Boston, these skills will serve him well.
Malcolm continues to visit home, where his mother is mentally deteriorating. Finally, Louise breaks down and is sent to the State Mental Hospital. The children, meanwhile, are now fully under the protection and the watch of the state. Malcolm equates this state custody to the total control of black lives under the regime of slavery a century earlier.
Malcolm cannot help but notice the sinister parallel to slavery, when black children’s lives were completely determined by white outsiders. Now, with one parent killed and the other carried away, the state entirely controls the futures of the Littles.
Louise will be in that hospital for 27 years, and visiting her will cause emotional pain for Malcolm for years to come. He tries to talk with her, but she often doesn’t recognize him, and he feels totally crushed by her lack of recognition. He avoids discussing her with anyone to avoid lashing out emotionally or violently, and eventually he stops going to see her altogether.
Malcolm’s mother becomes a stand-in for the most sensitive part of his own psyche. Not only can he not bear to see her physically, but he cannot bear to even think about her or discuss her. More than anything else, her illness deeply wounds him.
Wilfred and Hilda are allowed to stay on in their family’s home, as they are nearly adults anyways; the rest of the children are sent to live with various families in the area. However, they manage to stay in touch and see each other often in Lansing.
Malcolm’s siblings, despite being separated, do everything they can to maintain their unity, a unity which revolves around their childhood home.