After many drafts and attempts to express himself, Malcolm manages to write a short letter to Elijah Muhammad. He receives a very gracious typed response in which Elijah tells him to have courage—and also gives him five dollars. Elijah also tells Malcolm that black prisoners symbolize the oppression white men enact on all black people in America.
Elijah Muhammad’s response is very empathetic to Malcolm’s situation, but it is also very strategic. By supporting prisoners and calling them a symbol of the movement, he virtually ensures their support for the Nation.
The hardest thing Malcolm ever has to do in his life is to repent and submit himself to Allah, or in other words, to pray. He has to continuously try to force himself down to his knees, and continuously force himself to try and reckon with his past sins. Finally he manages to kneel, but then has no idea what to say.
This is an extremely intimate moment in Malcolm’s life – as he says, it’s the hardest thing he’s done. But he also says relatively very little about it, perhaps because he wants to keep it private.
Almost instantly, Malcolm’s old life falls away, and he dives head first into his new faith. He writes two letters a day, one to Elijah and one to one of his siblings. Meanwhile, he also writes letters to all the people he once knew in New York and Boston, like Sammy the Pimp, letters which he’s sure gained him a reputation as insane. He writes further letters to politicians, but receives no replies.
This scene resembles Pentecost in the Christian tradition, when the apostles were so caught up in their religious fervor that they immediately went out preaching to every community. In Malcolm’s case, he “preaches” to his old hustler friends.
Malcolm grows increasingly frustrated that he cannot express himself more articulately and can only construct his thoughts in slang. And while he “reads,” he often skips the words he doesn’t know, and so acquires no knowledge. Finally, he resolves to remedy this by studying and copying out the entire dictionary. He starts by copying the entire first page, and marvels that he remembers those words the next day. He continues like that every day until he completes the entire dictionary.
Throughout his life, Malcolm has always thought very logically. It’s important to understand the basics, and then move on from there. His decision to study the dictionary is then like a radical example of that principle.
Armed with his new vocabulary, a whole new world of knowledge opens to him in the books he reads. From then on, Malcolm spends nearly all of his time reading or else writing his letters and dictionary entries, either in the library or in his bunk. He prefers the solitude of his room, however, where he can truly focus. The only thing that holds him back is the 10 PM lights out, but then he reads by the light coming from the crack under his door.
Malcolm’s newfound passion literally knows no bounds. Not only does he study all day, but he pushes himself to study and learn even when he can barely see. This follows a pattern of Malcolm becoming convinced of new ideas or a new lifestyle, and then immediately devoting all his energy and brainpower to that worldview.
Elijah Muhammad’s teachings about the “whitening” of history really struck a chord with Malcolm and thousands of other black people who could remember there being no mention of black people in their history books as children, other than as racist caricatures. Therefore, Malcolm resolves to focus particular attention on history books that explore the history of black people in Africa and in America. These include Carter G. Woodson’s Negro History, The Outline of History by H. G. Wells, and The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois. Malcolm is also drawn to genetics, and reads Gregor Mendel’s Findings in Genetics, which reinforce Malcolm’s belief in Elijah Muhammad’s teachings.
From now on, the most important thing in Malcolm’s life will be his faith. All his studies can therefore be seen not as a separate pursuit, but as an attempt to support his religious beliefs with facts and arguments. This fusion of academics and religious belief will make Malcolm a very persuasive and effective preacher and debater.
Malcolm is particularly horrified by the history of slavery and the atrocities done to black people. He reads about these in books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and in pamphlets distributed by abolitionists before the Civil War. He also reads about Nat Turner’s rebellion, in which Turner led slaves to rebel against and kill their masters, before he was finally captured and hung.
To the contemporary reader, it may be easy to assume that everyone in American history has always been aware of the horrors of slavery. However, Malcolm’s surprise and disgust prove how much of this history had been forgotten or actively repressed.
Other authors such as Herodotus, Will Durant, and Mahatma Gandhi teach Malcolm about the horrors of colonialism and empire that have been perpetrated for millennia by white Europeans against people around the world. While always coming masked as Christian missionaries, these European conquerors plundered Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Two examples Malcolm gives are: the British control of India and the carnage that followed the 1857 Rebellion against colonial rule; and the First Opium War in China, in which the Chinese objected to the British distributing opium in the country.
Later in life, Malcolm will take a more international perspective on the struggle of people of color against white colonizers. However, his early education in Gandhi’s writings and world history shows that he already was gaining an awareness that African Americans were not the only oppressed group in the world.
In assessing the damage done by white men throughout the world, Malcolm concludes that now (in the early 1960s) the ex-colonial nations are joining in alliances together against Europe and America. While some complain that this kind of alliance is a “skin game,” Malcolm sees that as hypocritical, given that Western imperialism has always involved racism.
Malcolm’s argument is similar to the argument against “reverse racism.” It’s hypocritical to say people of color are playing a “skin game” by simply acknowledging that they’ve been the victims of racism for centuries.
Malcolm’s studying is always aimed at helping him to better understand the oppression of black men and how to defend the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Rather than seeking a degree or some kind of recognition, his studying is meant to serve others and to satisfy his own lifelong “craving to be mentally alive.” Even today, he says, whenever he has even fifteen minutes to himself he will constantly be reading and learning whatever he can.
Malcolm connects his current studies to his time in prison. This is worth thinking about: while in prison, he was completely immersed in his studies and felt “completely free” (despite his physical incarceration). Even in his present life, then, Malcolm makes sure to find moments to return to this space of intellectual freedom and exploration.
In at least one way, Malcolm appreciates the time he spent in prison. Where else, he asks, would he have the opportunity to study with so few distractions and with such intensity? He would never have learned as much in a university, he asserts.
For Malcolm, his time in prison studying was not a punishment, but a liberating experience, which is a very hopeful message for all those who feel trapped.
Malcolm’s philosophical readings include Kant, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer, whom he sees as mostly debating useless issues, rather than ones that can actually make the world a better place. In fact, he holds most of Western philosophy in contempt as being too entangled with Western history and racism.
Western philosophy up until Malcolm’s time rarely dealt with issues of race. According to Malcolm, philosophers thus made themselves complicit in their racist societies by ignoring the issue or even justifying racist actions.
Meanwhile, Malcolm points to the discoveries that are being made in modern-day archeological digs in Africa, discovering priceless artifacts and pieces of art. These pieces attest to the great civilizations which were destroyed by conquerors or intentionally erased by white historians. Even many black scholars don’t know about this history. One example is the discovery of ancient human remains in Africa, which proves that Africa is the birthplace of humanity.
As was seen before, Malcolm actively tries to “uncover” the facts that prove the Nation of Islam’s faith is the true faith—in his religious zeal he works backward from a conclusion, rather than drawing a conclusion after reviewing the evidence. He sees the fact that humanity was born in Africa as proving that Yacub’s History is indeed true.
After having spent so much time studying and learning about how ignorant he had been made of black history, Malcolm sets about teaching his fellow prisoners this history. He tries to go slowly, as people cannot easily have their entire worldview turned upside down.
This is one of Malcolm’s first attempts to preach, but it is not his first time to spread knowledge: don’t forget his time spent “schooling” Reginald.
If one of his pupils seems to be wavering and about to report Malcolm to the guards, he tells them, “The white man is the devil,” which shocks them and gets them thinking about it until they come back around. Malcolm says that criminals, since they have been forced to do terrible things to survive, are the most ready to believe that the system has been rigged against them from the start. They have received the worst treatment from society their whole lives, and now sit behind bars, caged up. How could they not believe their captors/masters to be evil?
Malcolm’s argument runs like this: if all black people in America are oppressed, then surely the most oppressed are those in prison for crimes they had to commit just to survive. So, if he wants to teach someone to see how black people are oppressed, then the most oppressed are the most likely to agree.
Malcolm also begins to debate with the other well-read prisoners in weekly public debates. Once he gets a taste of it, he falls in love with the intellectual rigor of debating. And always, if he can, he includes what he’s learned about history and the oppression of black people. These debates cover many topics, including the need for compulsory military service, the existence of Homer, and the identity of Shakespeare (Malcolm’s theory is that King James used “William Shakespeare” as his pen name).
These debates illustrate that Malcolm’s knowledge went way beyond the teachings of the Nation of Islam and extended into many areas. This reflects Malcom’s personal passion for learning and knowledge of every kind, which shows him to be more than a religious fanatic, as some would have the reader believe.
When Reginald comes to visit Malcolm, Malcolm tries to share some of his studying and learning with his brother. But Reginald is uninterested, and in fact begins to speak poorly of Elijah Muhammad. Then Malcolm learns that Reginald has been expelled from the Nation of Islam for maintaining an improper sexual relationship. Malcolm writes a letter to Elijah, pleading on his brother’s behalf.
Malcolm’s first instinct is to protect his younger brother and advocate on his behalf. Even though he knows that sexual relations outside of marriage are not allowed in the Nation, he cannot bear the thought of losing his brother.
The night after he mails the letter, while praying vigorously, Malcolm receives a vision of a man sitting in his cell with him, a brown-skinned man in a dark suit. Malcolm can’t place his ethnicity, other than to say he is non-white. Then, just as suddenly, the mysterious man disappears. Later, Malcolm believes this to be Master W. D. Fard.
One possible interpretation of how Malcolm thinks about this vision is to see it as a visit from his new family. If he loses Reginald, it’s okay, because W. D. Fard and the Nation will still be with him, and can be his new family.
Elijah responds to Malcolm’s letter, asking why he does not trust in the truth. He knows his brother’s conduct was in the wrong; so why question that? At the time, Malcolm cannot know that Elijah will one day be accused of the same sins. But at the time, his letter sways Malcolm, and Malcolm no longer lets Reginald influence him in any way.
As soon as he receives and reads Elijah’s letter, Malcolm disavows Reginald and entirely devotes himself to the Nation. This may be a result of his vision, or it may simply be a result of his immense faith in Elijah as a kind of personal savior.
Reginald continues to visit him, but Malcolm pays little heed to his conversation. Reginald’s appearance grows shabbier, and he goes back to Detroit. Then Ella comes to visit, and tells Malcolm that Reginald showed up at her door in Boston, saying he walked from Detroit. At the time, Malcolm firmly believed that this was Allah working his revenge upon Reginald’s senses for having attacked his Prophet and teachings.
Malcolm and his siblings steadily reject Reginald more and more as he deteriorates mentally and physically. However, Malcolm connects his state to a divine punishment, rather than to social or personal causes.
Reginald later begins to hallucinate and then say strange things, like how he is the Prophet, or how he is greater than Allah. Eventually he is institutionalized. In later years, Malcolm no longer sees this as divine retribution, but the result of his entire family turning their backs on him in favor of Elijah’s teachings.
Malcolm’s belief in the social and psychological causes of Reginald’s breakdown is not a repudiation of his faith. Rather, his faith has matured so that he no longer believes Allah would punish his brother in that way.
Malcolm then returns to the subject of his mysterious visitor. He believes that he had a pre-vision (a vision of someone one has never met) of Master W. D. Fard, the original founder of the Nation of Islam.
It seems plausible that the figure of W. D. Fard is connected to Malcolm’s brother Reginald, as the loss of one signals the “arrival” of the other.
After Malcolm has spent so much time spreading the word of Islam, the authorities at Norfolk grow concerned and have him transferred to Charlestown prison. Here he has much less mobility, but decides to attend the Bible class, where he can perhaps spread his own beliefs.
Malcolm’s assertion that the Nation of Islam attracts lots of prisoners seems to be backed up by evidence, since the prison officials are especially concerned about his evangelism.
Malcolm acknowledges that the young seminary student from Harvard leading the class really knows his Bible. Nevertheless, Malcolm finds a way to upset him and provoke discussion. Malcolm asks if it’s true that Paul was black, and the seminarian says yes. Malcolm then asks what color Jesus was. The seminarian says brown, and Malcolm lets the issue rest there. Malcolm’s fame in the prison spreads, giving him leverage to start spreading Elijah Muhammad’s teachings.
Malcolm’s description of the young seminarian is quite interesting, as he generally describes his adversaries so negatively. Instead, he respects the man’s knowledge of the Bible and relative honesty about Jesus’ ethnic history. This reflects how even at this point in his faith he can never see all white men as “devils,” but always operates within some kind of spectrum.