In February, 1946, the gang appears in court to receive their sentences. Shorty receives his sentence first, eight to ten years for each count, sentences which are to be served concurrently. However, Shorty doesn’t know the word concurrently, and he collapses at the thought of serving those sentences consecutively. Sophia and Sophia’s sister are given one to five years. At the age of twenty-one, Malcolm is sentenced to ten years in prison.
The opening scene of the chapter presents an example of gallows humor, where a very dark scene is told in a cynically funny way. Shorty’s collapse at the thought of a life in prison may be unnecessary, but it doesn’t negate the fact that they will all spend several years in prison.
Malcolm reflects that he no longer remembers his prison number. This surprises him, as it was such an integral part of prison life. However, neither he nor any other ex-con he’s ever talked to has been able to forget the prison bars. The bars are burned into his memory and never let him forget his time there.
Malcolm’s inability to remember his prison number is not a simple lapse in memory, but rather highlights the traumatic experience of being locked up.
Malcolm’s time at Charlestown State Prison starts terribly. The prison is old and the cells are tiny, with no indoor plumbing, just a pail. Malcolm’s withdrawal from drugs makes him extremely irritable, especially to the prison psychologist, prison chaplain, and Malcolm’s religious brother Philbert, who has written him a letter. Ella comes to visit, but they have very little to say, especially under the watch of the visitor room guards.
While in Harlem and making money, Malcolm felt entirely free, despite the pressures of the hustling life. His early time in prison is marked not only by a radical loss of freedom, but by an imposition of additional hardships, which causes him to reject his family’s empathy.
Malcolm doesn’t remember much of his first year in prison. He spends most of his time getting high on nutmeg or smuggled pills and weed, then intentionally getting in trouble to be put in solitary. His rants and curses against God and the Bible earn him a nickname: Satan.
Malcolm continues to live in his “predatory” mentality of simply trying to stay high and reject his surroundings. This new nickname of “Satan” represents an ultimate low point for him, particularly in light of his later religious fervor.
The first person to make an impression on Malcolm is Bimbi, and old burglar who commands tremendous respect in the prison through his public discussions on educated topics. His language attracts Malcolm, and Bimbi eventually tells Malcolm to start taking advantage of the library and the prison correspondence courses. As his command of written and formal English has fallen to an abysmal level, and as he has the time on his hands, Malcolm decides to follow Bimbi’s advice. After a year he can write a decent letter, and he has even begun a course in Latin.
Bimbi can connect with Malcolm because they are both criminals and because Malcolm still values education and learning. After watching someone that he admires, Malcolm sets himself to imitate Bimbi and starts to pursue his studies again.
Meanwhile, Malcolm begins a new circle of hustles. He first wins packs of cigarettes through dominoes games, and he then takes sports bets (paid in cigarettes). When Jackie Robinson joins the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Malcolm follows him obsessively, listening to every game and tracking his batting average.
In his obsession with Jackie Robinson’s stats, the reader sees how Malcolm’s new life of studying intersects with his old hustling life—both involved a voracious curiosity and resourcefulness. Robinson’s career represents a significant victory for African Americans in sports.
In 1948, Malcolm has been transferred to Concord Prison, when Philbert writes to him about a new religion he’s found, the “natural religion for the black man.” Reginald sends him a separate letter, telling him that if he stops smoking cigarettes and doesn’t eat pork, he’ll help Malcolm get out of prison. While Malcolm curses Philbert, he listens to Reginald, who he assumes is organizing some kind of legal maneuver for early release. He nearly effortlessly quits smoking, and then a few days later, refuses the pork platter at the mess hall. The news that “Satan” didn’t eat pork causes quite a stir, which makes him inexplicably proud.
Malcolm has not yet been exposed to the teachings of the Nation of Islam. Therefore, he can only assume that Reginald’s advice is connected to a new “hustle” to get him out of prison early. Nonetheless, he experiences a lot of pride in holding himself to a higher standard than his peers, which elevates him beyond the level of a “predator” trying to survive.
Ella has been working to get Malcolm transferred to the Norfolk Prison Colony, and she succeeds in late 1948. Upon arriving, Malcolm is struck by its progressive model. With no bars and every inmate having their own room, he feels like he’s in heaven. The prison has regular group debates and lectures from visiting Harvard and Boston University professors, and the library has thousands of books the prisoners are free to browse, mostly dealing with history and religion.
This better prison environment allows Malcolm the space to completely exit his “predator” mentality. Now that the psychological stress of being in a prison of bars has been removed, Malcolm is better able to pursue his studies. Eventually, this calmer environment will also facilitate his conversion to Islam.
After having seen his nasty reply to Philbert, his siblings (all new converts) have decided to send Reginald to talk with Malcolm. Reginald comes to see Malcolm, looking very well-groomed and discussing the family. Malcolm, meanwhile, is itching to know the answer to the “no smoke and pork” riddle. Reginald takes his time before finally declaring that there is someone who knows everything, who has 360 degrees of knowledge, and his name is Allah.
Malcolm’s siblings work as a team to teach him about Islam. As when they were children looking out for each other when the Welfare Agency tried to break up their family, they now look out for their brother who is under government lock and key.
Allah, Reginald says, came to America and revealed himself to a man named Elijah. But there was also a devil, and this devil only had 33 degrees of knowledge, known as Masonry, which he used to trick people, especially black people. Reginald, while explaining all this, then gestures to the white guards, saying, “The white man is the devil.” Malcolm mentions their old friend Hymie, but Reginald counters that Hymie only ever used Malcolm to make a profit, anyway.
Freemasonry is a fraternal organization of freethinkers without specific religious beliefs, originally founded in Europe. Reginald and the Nation decry the Masons as symbolic of the secular beliefs of European white society.
After Reginald leaves, Malcolm thinks through every white person he’s ever known: the state welfare people, the judges, Mr. Swerlin and Mrs. Swerlin, Mr. Ostrowski, the white people at Roseland’s dances, the railroad people, the people he took to brothels, the prison guards, and Sophia. He concludes that they were indeed all using him or treating him inhumanely.
Malcolm goes through a long list of all the white characters who have appeared in the first half of the book. His current position in prison stands as an indictment against all of them, as if they are all in some way responsible for his misfortune.
To test Reginald’s statement about Masons, Malcolm approaches a Mason in the prison. He draws him a circle and asks how many degrees are in it. When he responds with 360 degrees, Malcolm asks why the Masonic hierarchy only has 33 degrees of knowledge. When the man can give him no good answer, Malcolm becomes convinced that Reginald has spoken the truth.
Malcolm’s connection between the number of degrees in Masonry and God’s total knowledge seems quite strange to the contemporary reader, but this was a central teaching of the Nation of Islam. (It also perhaps recalls Malcolm’s later-revealed tendency of assigning precise percentages to how much he trusts certain people.)
Reginald comes to visit again, and he finds a very attentive Malcolm waiting for him. Reginald then talks to him for two hours about how black men have been oppressed, but says that they are rising up across the world. Black people in America may have been cut off from their history, their own names and language, but they are now rising to overthrow their white oppressors. Malcolm struggles to take in all of this information, which has always been around him but he’s never seen before.
Reginald’s first goal was to show Malcolm that there is more knowledge out there than society has so far given him. His second step is to teach him some of this knowledge about racial oppression. And even though lots of Reginald’s points seem true, Malcolm’s mind resists them, as if even his ability to reason has been oppressed and shaped by white society.
After this Malcolm begins to receive letters from all his siblings—they have all converted to the Nation of Islam. They urge him to accept the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, who is described as a wise, gentle man—and a black man just like Malcolm. Reginald also explains that as a sign of submission to Allah, Muslims do not eat pork, and they do not use tobacco, alcohol, or drugs.
Now that Malcolm is open to hearing them, his siblings begin to pour more information into his open ears.
Malcolm’s knowledge of the truth—as maintained by the Nation of Islam—comes to him slowly. He learns that white men have been oppressing black people for hundreds of years, and that they rewrote history to make it impossible for modern black men to know the truth. Great civilizations and cultures had existed in Africa, but white men have portrayed Africa as full of uncultured barbarians and savages. Slaves, who were stolen from their homelands, were then not allowed to use their own names, languages, or cultural practices. Completely cut off from their own identity, black people were not only physically but psychologically enslaved to white people, seeing them as somehow superior to them.
At the time, the fields of archeology, history, and anthropology knew relatively little about African civilizations, and American society had repressed what knowledge was available to sustain the racist belief that people of African descent were in some way inferior to Europeans. Malcolm’s education consists of learning both about this history and of how it has been repressed.
This enslavement, according to the Nation of Islam, found its greatest example in Christianity. Black people were forced to convert to their masters’ religion, in which they would worship a blonde, blue-eyed savior as a God, who they soon equated with all whiteness. Meanwhile, Christianity indoctrinated in black people a morality of “turn the other cheek,” which acted as a further way to keep them from rebelling against the injustices done to them while waiting for justice in heaven.
In most classical representations of Jesus Christ, he is portrayed as having European features and skin tone. According to the Nation of Islam, this was not simply an artistic choice, but an ideological one which equated white Europeans with being more divine, while blacks were seen as savages.
Looking back on his reception of all this knowledge, Malcolm believes that his very sinful previous life actually prepared him for such a full conversion to the truth. By having so much guilt, and admitting it, he could make room inside of himself for the truth to take hold. While Malcolm denies any likeness to the Apostle Paul, he claims to understand Paul’s experience of being struck dumb by the truth.
In Arabic, the word Islam means submission, which also means to admit one’s own faults. By having so many faults, Malcolm has the potential to submit more and thus receive more of the truth. The Apostle Paul was famously struck blind by a vision of Jesus that suddenly converted him.
But before that reckoning moment comes, Malcolm first spends weeks in contemplation, hardly eating. The other prisoners, the guards, and the prison doctor all try to figure what is wrong with him, but there is nothing to be done. He is coming to terms with the reality of oppression around him.
Malcolm’s time spent reflecting on his own sins and on the world around him is similar to a religious ritual, in which one cleanses themselves through contemplation, repentance, and fasting.
Malcolm’s siblings gather their funds to send his older sister Hilda to come and visit him. She urges Malcolm to write to Elijah Muhammad, who understands the hardships of prisoners, as he himself just finished a five-year sentence for draft evasion. She then begins a tale, as taught by the Nation of Islam, of how black and white men came to be on the Earth, known as “Yacub’s History.”
Hilda’s trip is very symbolic of the ethics of the Nation of Islam in general. The whole community (his family) sacrifices to send a wise “prophet” to go and spread the truth to a potential convert.
In the beginning, Hilda says, there were only black people, who founded the Holy City of Mecca. Then, around sixty-six hundred years ago, a dissatisfied and extremely intelligent scientist called Mr. Yacub learned the secrets to eugenics (breeding races). After Yacub began to gain a significant following, he and his followers were exiled to the island of Patmos. As revenge against those who exiled him, he decided to use his knowledge to create a “devil race” of white men to plague the black men.
While “Yacub’s History” may not be factually true, some of its points are interesting because they describe the Nation of Islam’s powerful ideology. For example, by saying that in the beginning all men were black, Yacub’s History teaches that black men are not inferior, but actually superior to white men.
After six hundred years of careful eugenic breeding, the island was finally filled with white, blue-eyed savages. These men eventually returned to their homeland, where they sowed discord and misery among the black people. However, they were finally exiled to Europe. Allah then showed mercy on them by raising up Moses to lead them, and his first followers were the people known as Jews. The white race would then rule for the next six thousand years and bring black people as slaves to America. But then, a mighty race of black people in America would rise against the evils of the white man and lead the oppressed people of the world to overthrow him. The original founder of this movement is Master W. D. Fard, the mixed-race founder of the Nation of Islam, who then left Elijah Muhammad in charge of leading it.
From the very beginning, according to Yacub’s History, white men have been a plague towards virtuous black men. However, there is hope. Even though white men have ruled the world for thousands of years, Allah has foreseen this—and also foresaw that their rule would be overthrown and people of color all over the world would be liberated. Finally, the weight of this entire prophetic overthrow rests on the shoulders of Elijah Muhammad, which makes him an extremely powerful and divine figure in the Nation’s theology.
While this tale stuns Malcolm and he is speechless as Hilda leaves, later in life he will disavow this story and other parts of the Nation of Islam’s doctrine. These tales are not supported by orthodox Islam, and infuriate its followers. However, Malcolm partially blames them for allowing such “religious fakers” to pretend to represent Islam.
Malcolm the narrator’s tone in this entire section has been very impartial, simply telling the story as he heard it. By waiting until the very end to call it false, he gives his criticism even more force (and shows how much his views have changed since then).