The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As Malcolm continues to speak for the Nation of Islam, he receives more and more mail, overwhelmingly from white people. Besides the random threats, most of the letter writers are concerned with two things: whether or not God will destroy their civilization for oppressing black people, and Malcolm’s thoughts on interracial couples. Malcolm also tries to clarify in his public speeches that when criticizing the “white devil,” he is criticizing society as a whole, every not individual white man.
Malcolm has a complex relationship with individual white people. He describes receiving letters from many whites who think similarly to him, and also clarifies that his critique is a societal critique, not an indictment of individuals. This idea continues to be misinterpreted today in various social justice spheres—an oppressed group condemning their oppressors as a whole doesn’t mean they hate or scorn every individual member of that group, but are simply expressing righteous anger and pointing out systemic oppression in society as a whole.
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One of Malcolm’s brothers from the mosque gets ahold of a confidential sociological report on the “Black Muslims” in Harlem and shows it to him. In it, he finds lots of complicated language about how Malcolm essentially doesn’t understand the “Harlem sub-culture.” Malcolm says reports like this are examples of how educated black people work against the interests of black people at large.
The first half of Malcolm’s autobiography was intended to serve as evidence that he has an intimate understanding of “Harlem’s sub-culture,” so any assertion to the contrary is now seen by the reader as absurd.
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The white man, Malcolm says, is extremely clever and good at getting his enemies to work against each other so that he can advance his own economic and political interests. However, a superiority complex also keeps him from seeing that he acts in a racist way towards non-whites. As proof, Malcolm cites the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, while German Americans were largely left alone.
The example from World War II illustrates two things. First, white society imposed racist policies of segregation and oppression in the very recent past against other racial minorities. Second, society didn’t see its own hypocrisy in not also interning German Americans.
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The year is 1963, and Malcolm is continuously dealing with the press, who frequently turn his statements inside out so that his original words are never printed as he said them. While he feels attacked by other civil rights leaders, he feels he should still support their efforts, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and he says so in his statements. During this time, he becomes very strategic and adept with his interview skills, learning to have prepared answers to typical questions and arguments.
During this period, Malcolm becomes a “professional” at dealing with the press, and this professionalization may have been a contributing factor in his estrangement from the Nation. The Nation’s other leaders may have seen him as too good at his job, as if he were more interested in confrontation and debate than preaching.
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Get the entire Malcolm X LitChart as a printable PDF.
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Malcolm states publicly that he feels the Northern Freedom Riders efforts in the South to be ridiculous, as many Northern cities have just as many problems with segregation and racial equality as the South. While they could be doing more for racial justice in the North, they instead go South. His comments draw the ire of Northern liberals, who do not see themselves as implicit in a racist system. Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad see the honest and upfront racism of Southerners to be much easier to combat than that in the North, where people talk about equality and democracy but rig the system behind the scenes.
This passage should remind the reader of Malcolm’s first “long distance” trip to the South. It was suggested that Malcolm sees the South as practically another country; here, he says something similar. While he supports desegregation efforts in the South, he also thinks that Northerners should deal with their own problems, rather than simply demonizing racists in the South (and considering themselves innocent in comparison).
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Malcolm sees “integration” as a concept that doesn’t really mean anything. While a small number of black people want to live amongst white people, most prefer to live in communities that share their own ethnic and cultural background. The truth is, says Malcolm, that white people and black people are just different, and those differences should simply be acknowledged and accepted, rather than ignored.
While the claim that Malcolm is “racist” against white people is nonsensical, it is fair to say that he has an essentialist view on race, meaning that he sees people from different races or ethnicities as essentially or intrinsically different—and not just in their experience of or treatment by society.
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Until World War II, Malcolm says, there was virtually no honest dialogue between the black and white communities. That’s why when black people started to rise up in civil rights disputes, white communities were so caught off guard that anything was amiss. Rather than true communication, white business and political leaders in cities across America had only talked with black leaders they themselves picked and who didn’t speak for the community.
In Malcolm’s view, true leaders spring from among the people, rather than being chosen and imposed from the outside. If a black leader was too friendly with white leaders, then this proved he could not possibly be representing the true interests of the African American community.
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Malcolm believes that an uprising against Western countries and the governments they control is happening worldwide in the Third World. And while the West exports its ideas about equality and democracy, the violence and repression against blacks in America stands as evidence of the West’s hypocrisy.
In the early 1960s, multiple revolutions and rebellions against European powers had either recently happened or were ongoing in formerly colonized countries, and these movements often supported each other.
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Instead of trying to integrate, Malcolm wants the black community to focus on pulling itself up. Through the creation of locally owned businesses and initiatives to lower drug and alcohol abuse, among other things, the black community needs to build up its self-respect. Malcolm says there are a few African Americans who have lots of wealth and spend it all at fancy, white-owned restaurants in an effort to seem white and cultured—but he holds this group in contempt.
Malcolm does not have an egalitarian belief system; he is not opposed to the idea of some people gaining wealth and rising above others. However, he is opposed to middle- and upper-class African Americans who don’t use their wealth to lift up other African Americans who have been less fortunate.
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The only real integration, Malcolm says, would be intermarriage, an idea that he opposes. With so much racism in the world, mixed-race couples are just asking to not be welcomed in either community and to create a complicated situation for their children to navigate. He sees the separation of races as the only way for them to preserve their own culture and heritage. An example of how integration has failed, he argues, is the Jewish Holocaust in Germany. While Jews were major contributors to every part of the German economy and culture, and many had married into ethnically German families, they were nonetheless targeted and killed en masse.
Malcolm presents his argument from a pragmatic point of view. Mixed-race couples are a bad idea because they pretend that racism simply doesn’t exist around them and only make life harder for themselves and their children. Furthermore (at least as Malcolm sees it), the minority partner in a mixed-race couple can more easily forget that they have fewer privileges in society, which could lead to a catastrophe like the Jews being caught off-guard by Nazi persecution.
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Another example of shallow integration politics is what Malcolm calls the “Farce on Washington.” At the time a largely leaderless, young, and angry movement is growing nationwide in both the countryside and the city centers. Fearing that such a group could pose a serious threat to the government in D.C., the White House asks national civil rights leaders to stop the march, but they aren’t in charge. So in order to quell the tension and defuse the radical demands of the March, the White House publicly endorses the March. Then, the “Big Six” civil rights leaders are offered funding by a white philanthropist if they will begin to direct the March’s organizing process. As they portray themselves as the leaders of the March in the media, the people planning to participate shift from a predominately poor, black group to a mixed-race, middle class group. Instantly the political atmosphere of the March is completely changed. Meanwhile, according to a poll, not even one Congressman changes their position on civil rights post-march.
This is a very different history of the March on Washington than the one the reader is probably familiar with. Malcolm complicates the March’s history by describing its class background. The poor are always the ones in society who suffer the most from social inequality, so they are also the ones most likely to pose radical demands for change in the political dialogue. Because of this, the white “power structure” used more mainstream black leaders, who represented the middle classes, to redirect the tone and atmosphere of the march. It then became largely a symbolic gesture, rather than a revolutionary occupation of the nation’s capital.
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A month before the March on Washington, The New York Times reports that Malcolm is the second most sought after speaker throughout the country’s universities. Many schools have made Lincoln’s book, The Black Muslims in America required reading, spreading the Nation’s fame. Overall, Malcolm enjoys speaking to colleges, as he finds the debates with faculty members and objective questions from curious students to be exhilarating and a way for him to continue improving his own arguments.
Later, Malcolm will say that his one regret is not having a university education. This regret and his admiration for college students’ open minds reflects his respect for the power of universities to shape people’s minds and perhaps even change the world.
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Contentiously, Malcolm asserts that he can tell when a question is coming from a Jewish audience member just by its content. According to Malcolm, Jews tend to ask very subjective questions that concern how they may be affected by Malcolm’s beliefs. Malcolm does not begrudge them this attitude, as Jews have been the subject of persecution for centuries, so they are naturally defensive. However, he also believes that this insular view means that Jewish business owners in black ghettos tend to care more about their profits than about the good of the community.
Malcolm (and the Nation in general) has been accused of anti-Semitism, but he denies this charge here and throughout the book. Instead, he asserts that Jewish culture simply has certain aspects which he can recognize in Jewish people. This goes back to his essentialist views on race, which largely reduce individuals’ actions and attitudes to being attributable to their ethnic background.
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While some black people may defend society as good overall when in mixed company, Malcolm asserts that no black person has ever challenged his accusations against white society when it is an all-black audience. While they may want to gain favor by denouncing Malcolm around white people, they all are perfectly aware of the crimes committed by white people, such as slavery, segregation, and lack of rights.
This is part of the reason why Malcolm supports the Nation as an all-black organization. It is always difficult to talk about racism, but if black people are going to confront racism even in sympathetic whites, then they first need to have solidarity before complicating the dialogue.
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Malcolm tells Elijah that these speaking tours allow more people, especially those in elite universities, to hear their message, which is good for the Nation. At the time, Elijah doesn’t seem to supportive of these events, something Malcolm doesn’t understand. But later, he learns that Elijah is secretly jealous of Malcolm’s ability to handle such intellectual and educated debates.
Once again, the question of whether to trust Malcolm’s explanation comes up. Malcolm certainly does have quite a reputation as a public speaker and debater, but it’s his word against Elijah’s whether his skill inspired jealousy or pride.
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While audiences are generally surprised to hear Malcolm talk about Jesus, he explains that he is one of the central Prophets of Islam, along with Moses and Muhammad. However, the message of love preached by Jesus has been largely ignored by Christianity and Western imperialist nations.
One of Malcolm’s key strategies is to surprise his audience. While they always expect a simple message of racial antagonism, he always presents a more complex point.
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Malcolm tells the story of a young white college student who came to him at the Muslim restaurant in Harlem after having heard him speak. Clearly from the South, she asks if he believes there are any good white people, and if there is anything she can do. He replies no, and she runs out crying.
Malcolm’s harsh response to this one girl reflects his attitudes on confronting racism in general. He will later come to regret this interaction, but it accurately reflects his feelings at the time—since white people were created as “devils,” none of them can truly be “good.”
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When Malcolm is invited to speak at Harvard Law School, he suddenly realizes that he is near to his old burglary ring’s hideout. At that moment, he sees how much he’s changed and grown, thanks to the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad. This awareness makes him more grateful than ever for how Elijah has led him through that darkness.
Harvard Law is the oldest and most prestigious institution in the country, and its proximity to Malcolm’s criminal hideout is thus an instance of ironic juxtaposition. Malcolm’s speech there represents an apex of his speaking career, and he recognizes that he owes so much to Elijah for helping him to reach this point.
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Then the Greek myth of Icarus flashes through Malcolm’s mind. In the myth, Icarus’s father makes him artificial wings so they can fly away together (and escape prison). His father warns him not to go too high, but Icarus, enjoying himself so much, keeps going higher. Finally, the beeswax holding his wings together begins to melt in the sun, and Icarus goes crashing into the sea. Malcolm vows to himself to always remain humble and remember that his wings were given to him by Islam, not through his own merit or greatness.
Malcolm’s vow unfortunately appears to come too late. He has already risen all the way to the halls of Harvard Law, and now he vows to be humble. His “father,” Elijah, gave him his wings to rise up, but has been left far behind Malcolm/ Icarus’s ascent. His eventual fall thus appears all but inevitable—though in his case it is not necessarily his own fault, but more as if Daedalus (Icarus’s father) had grown jealous of his son and pulled him down himself.
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