The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As Elijah Muhammad’s bronchial condition begins to grow worse in 1961, he misses several major rallies and subsequently moves out to Phoenix. As Elijah needs to rest, Malcolm’s workload continues to increase, but he’s still very satisfied. After years of working to build up the Nation’s mosques and to spread its messages throughout the media and into U.S. universities, Malcolm couldn’t ask for anything more. His happiness, he says, is tied exclusively to serving Elijah and the Nation of Islam.
According to Malcolm, he does not wish to take Elijah’s place as the figurehead of the Nation. However, he does feel that it is his obligation and duty to Elijah to take over the functions that Elijah’s health will no longer allow him to fulfill, and doing so also happens to give him great pleasure.
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Privately, Malcolm has one regret, and that is that the Nation has gained a reputation as being all talk and no action. With so many civil rights demonstrations and protests happening across the country, Malcolm feels that Muslims should be allowed to participate and show their solidarity with other black people. But beyond this, he has no complaints.
This private regret highlights that Malcolm is beginning to think about black solidarity as extending beyond the Nation of Islam. Not only would this be good for all black people, but it could possibly increase the Nation’s own numbers.
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Ever since Malcolm has taken on a more public role in 1961, he has heard rumors that some people in the Nation see him as power-hungry and prideful. He pays them no concern, as he remembers that Elijah had prophesied to him that his work would inspire jealousy; instead, he places his faith in Elijah to stand by him should he ever hear such talk.
Even while Malcolm’s reputation is being attacked, he does nothing to defend himself. Instead, he places all his eggs in one basket, so to speak, and assumes that Elijah will always stand up for him.
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Outside of the Nation, it is said that Malcolm is becoming rich from his engagements. This is clearly not true to anyone who knows him, though, as he owns no property of his own and makes no money. The Nation of Islam has loaned him a car and a house to live in and they pay his expenses, but that’s it.
Not only is Malcolm’s reputation completely dependent on the goodwill of the Nation and Elijah, but he has no financial security beyond the generosity of the Nation.
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The only fight Malcolm ever has with Betty is about his lack of foresight regarding money. While she believes that he should make some money on the side to secure his family, he believes that the Nation will always provide for Betty and their kids should anything ever happen to him. That faith, it will turn out, is poorly misplaced.
Malcolm mentioned earlier that Betty was one of the only women whom he ever trusted. This is one of those moments when he did not trust her judgment, and it will cost their family dearly in the future.
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Malcolm receives a lot of credit publicly and privately from people who see him as the face of the Nation of Islam, or as the “Number Two Muslim.” This praise makes him feel very uncomfortable, and he does everything he can to direct the attention and praise towards Elijah Muhammad instead. For example, Malcolm passes out photos for reporters to use of Elijah instead of himself, and he urges them to go visit Elijah and interview the Messenger in person.
While Malcolm’s humility and efforts to keep the spotlight on Elijah Muhammad are admirable, it is easy for the reader to see that they were doomed to fail. No reporter will ever prefer talking to a man a thousand miles away or using his picture when there is a live star right in front of them.
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Around 1962, Malcolm notices that he no longer appears in the “Muhammad Speaks” newspaper that he himself founded. Now run by one of Elijah’s sons, the staff has been given orders to run as little as possible about Malcolm. The Chicago headquarters also grows chilly with Malcolm, even asking him to no longer hold any rallies on his own. They have lost sight of their collective mission in spreading the Nation of Islam to as many African Americans as possible.
While the intended effect may have been to limit coverage of Malcolm, the paper under-mines its own mission by excluding important stories about the Nation that happen to feature him. A similar paradox is at work in the Chicago office, as they ask Malcolm to lead fewer rallies—which means that rallies have smaller crowds.
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However, by 1963, Malcolm consciously starts to try and mitigate others’ jealous comments. He stops appointing new ministers from among his followers and he refuses several major interview requests. He sees these as losses for the Nation and black people in general rather than losses for himself. Nonetheless, Malcolm still has every reason to believe that he enjoys Elijah’s support. In 1963 at a rally in Philadelphia, Elijah embraces Malcolm, makes him National Minister and praises him as his “most faithful, hard-working minister.”
Ever since he joined the Nation, Malcolm has always been “full steam ahead,” and has often been reprimanded for being too enthusiastic. Instead, he now finds himself hesitating and holding off from doing things that he feels would help the Nation. Despite his hesitant feelings, he takes heart in Elijah’s apparent show of support.
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Morality and specifically chastity have been major parts of Malcolm’s personal life and preaching since he joined the Nation. The Muslim’s strict moral code is seen as the bedrock of their strength. Nevertheless, in 1963, Malcolm starts to avoid preaching about morality and only talk about social doctrine. He has just learned that Elijah Muhammad himself has broken their moral code.
Malcolm shocks the reader by announcing out of the blue that Elijah has not been a spotless example after all. This rhetorical tool allows the reader to experience and empathize with Malcolm’s own astonishment.
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In 1963, Elijah Muhammad faces paternity suits from two of his former secretaries, both of them in their twenties. Malcolm has heard rumors about Elijah’s infidelity since 1955, but he absolutely refused to pay them any heed. It is impossible to reconcile his total faith in Elijah as the moral, perfect head of the Nation with someone who has committed adultery, an offence that normally leads to expulsion from the Nation.
Malcolm presents the problem as a logical puzzle. Directly at the top of the Nation is someone who actually represents an example of someone who should be expelled according to the rules spelled out by that leader himself—a contradiction which Malcolm can’t work out.
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Malcolm remembers how he had rejected his brother Reginald because he had been “isolated” from the Muslim community for a sexual affair. He had put the Nation and faith in Elijah above even the ties of family, a decision that he now finds deeply troubling.
While he doesn’t say so explicitly, Malcolm’s doubts in the Nation are now causing him to feel guilty for his zealous rejection of his brother.
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By 1962, the rumors have already begun to spread throughout the Chicago black community, leading many Muslims to leave the mosque. Thankfully, the rumors spread more slowly to New York and the rest of the country. Malcolm begins having nightmares of the scandal this news will cause when it hits the major press. Yet he still can’t admit the situation to himself. When people ask him “if he’d heard the rumors,” he acts completely ignorant, not wanting to admit it to himself or to them.
Malcolm realizes how absurd it is to pretend ignorance of something that he clearly knows—but he cannot help himself. It’s as if he has partitioned off and repressed the part of himself that knows about Elijah’s affairs, while nevertheless remaining aware of that psychic split.
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Malcolm finally decides to act. He first flies to Chicago, where he meets with Wallace Muhammad, one of Elijah’s sons. He instantly understands why Malcolm has come, and they begin to discuss what should be done. Wallace does not think Elijah will want any large effort to defend him publicly.
Malcolm’s meeting with Wallace is mysterious—while Wallace supports Malcolm and clearly doesn’t want the Nation to suffer, he also doesn’t offer any solutions or ways forward. Wallace (later known as Warith) is presented as diverging from his father in many ways, and indeed when he inherited control of the Nation after Elijah’s death, he disavowed many of his father’s teachings and turned the Nation towards traditional Sunni Islam instead.
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From there, Malcolm seeks out three of Elijah’s former secretaries to hear the story directly from them. They all say that Elijah is the father of their children. Further, they tell Malcolm that Elijah would praise Malcolm in public, but tear him down in private, saying that he would one day leave Elijah behind. Malcolm is very hurt by this.
Malcolm (and the reader) now has a view on a part of Elijah’s life that he’s never known before. In his most private circles, he shares that he does not fully trust Malcolm, and his trust has previously been Malcolm’s most prized possession.
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Feeling disloyal through his inaction, Malcolm decides to write a letter to Elijah, telling him about the rumors that have been circulating about him and asking for guidance. Elijah promises they will discuss it the next time he sees him. Meanwhile, Malcolm and Wallace begin to prepare a “defense” of Elijah’s sin. They will teach the Nation that, like the Biblical figures of Moses, David, and Lot, Elijah’s accomplishments in service of Allah outweigh his human weaknesses.
Malcolm and Wallace’s proposed defense entails admitting that Elijah has indeed sinned, but while also elevating him to the status of a Biblical Prophet. His weakness will actually be used to make him appear even more holy.
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In April 1963, Malcolm flies to Phoenix to see Elijah. They embrace, and then Malcolm tells Elijah about the content of the rumors and how he and Wallace can teach that this is actually prophecy. Elijah immediately jumps on the idea, claiming that he is indeed like King David and Noah.
Malcolm does not confront any of his feelings of betrayal in his conversation with Elijah. Instead, he buries them and proposes a tactical approach to the issue as if he hasn’t also been personally hurt by this.
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In order to prepare for the moment when the rumors go public, Malcolm decides to tell six other ministers about them and about his planned teachings. However, this move is then recast by the Chicago headquarters as Malcolm spreading rumors about Elijah, rather than as him trying to defend him. The plan, apparently, is to unite Muslims around blaming and hating Malcolm, rather than seeing Elijah’s sin.
Once again, Malcolm is betrayed by his willingness to trust other people. By gathering a small circle of people around him in order to save the Nation, he creates the conditions for others to accuse him of doing the exact opposite.
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As he grows more and more tired and feels more estranged from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm begins to have contact with a few white reporters. This is huge, as he hasn’t had friendly relations with any white person since becoming a Muslim. But one reporter in particular seems very sincere, and they discuss history and archeology together for nearly two hours, giving Malcolm a welcome distraction from his worries.
Throughout the book, Malcolm generally does not discuss personal anecdotes, especially after his conversion. This makes these conversations seem all the more touching and important to him. In it, the reader can see a foreshadowing of Malcolm’s increasingly complex and accepting views.
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On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas. The Nation of Islam sends out a directive telling all ministers to make no public comment on the assassination. A few days later, Malcolm goes to an event to speak in Elijah’s place, and he delivers a prepared speech on how white America will reap the hate it has sown. When asked about JFK, he calls it “a case of the chickens coming home to roost.”
As Malcolm recounts it, this incident was simply a case of unfortunate timing and an insensitive comment, but not particularly different from his past statements. He limits his culpability and tries to convince the reader in advance that any criticism of his words will be overblown.
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Malcolm then flies out to see Elijah, where he feels that something bad is going to happen. Elijah brings up Malcolm’s comments about JFK, which are in all the major newspapers. Elijah then says that Malcolm will be “silenced,” or barred from public speaking, for the next ninety days to allow this to cool down. Shocked but humble, Malcolm submits to the order.
Malcolm is caught off guard, as he did not feel that his comments were truly incendiary. However, he still wants to show his respect for the chain of command, despite the doubts he has been gathering about Elijah.
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The Chicago headquarters swiftly informs the press of Malcolm’s silencing, and they then put out the word to the Muslim community that he will be reinstated “if he submits.” Malcolm clearly reads their implication and feels they are trying to set him up. Finally, he hears that people have begun to loosely talk about how he should be killed for what he’s done, a serious threat which he feels could only occur with Elijah’s approval.
Malcolm discusses two levels of discourse related to his punishment. There are the official communications coming from headquarters, and there are the gossip and rumors flying around amongst the Muslim community, which both point to a coordinated campaign against him from above.
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Under great psychological stress, Malcolm reaches out to his friend Cassius Clay, who invites him and his whole family to come stay with him in Miami as Cassius trains to fight Sonny Liston. While they are no longer friends, Malcolm says, he is extremely grateful for Cassius’s hospitality and support at the time.
Having had his voice “removed” from the discourse around him, Malcolm then physically removes himself from the poisonous atmosphere in New York, giving himself the space to think and recover.
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Malcolm meets Cassius in 1962, when he comes into the Muslim restaurant in Detroit before Elijah is about to speak in the mosque. A handsome, likeable person, Cassius and his brother make quite an impression on Malcolm and all the other Muslims present. After that, Cassius continues to pop into various mosques around the country.
Malcolm takes great care to portray Cassius as an imposing figure in both his personality and his physical stature. These details show not only his respect for Cassius, but a tender affection.
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Cassius’s infectious and genuine personality really touches Malcolm, and he invites him to his home to meet his family, who all love him. They discuss many things together, including how Cassius intentionally acts cocky in public, hoping to psyche out and trick Sonny Liston into coming to the fight underprepared.
Here Malcolm testifies to the intelligence of his friend, who is often criticized within the media as just a big mouth. Those boasts, he tells us, are actually strategic and said with intent.
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Back in 1963, Malcolm is at his wits’ end both emotionally and psychologically. He compares his sudden estrangement from the Nation to suddenly being asked for a divorce. Malcolm goes around Cassius’s training camp, talking with people and with the press, but he’s mostly not paying attention. Instead, he’s thinking through the last twelve years, trying to come to grips with this “divorce,” as he is more and more certain that after ninety days, he will not be reinstated. Instead, he will probably be suspended indefinitely, and then either isolated or assassinated.
Malcolm’s difficult emotional break with the Nation of Islam illustrates how the Nation had become much more than simply his faith organization. Rather, the Nation had been his family. It is also important to note that the Christian Church is often called the “Bride of Christ,” so Malcolm’s metaphor is actually a classic religious image.
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For one of the first times, Malcolm emphasizes how important Betty is to him. As a loving, supportive, and strong wife, she holds him up in this difficult period, and she understands exactly what he is going through. While this surprises him, he feels reassured by her support.
It is extremely interesting that Malcolm professes his love for his wife right after describing his split with the Nation as a “divorce.” Breaking with one “spouse” allows him to truly appreciate the other.
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Malcolm is still trying to convince himself that Elijah’s mistakes were actually divine prophecy, and therefore not really mistakes. But he cannot deny that Elijah has not stood up and either admitted his mistake or maintained it was prophecy; instead, he has chosen to hide behind the scandal being created around Malcolm. That lack of bravery then destroys Malcolm’s faith in Elijah as a nearly divine figure. And finally, after so many years of blindly following Elijah, Malcolm begins to think for himself.
Elijah’s mistake is essentially two-fold. First, he doesn’t admit his sin, and everyone must be able to ask for forgiveness and admit their shortcomings. Second, he uses Malcolm as a scapegoat to cover up his cowardice. These mistakes point to deep character flaws, which are even more serious than his original sinful relationships.
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Malcolm briefly returns with his family to New York, but he wants to support Cassius in his fight, especially as Cassius is now a Muslim. So he flies back to Florida to be his spiritual advisor. There, Malcolm tells Cassius that this fight is a modern crusade, and Allah is on his side against the Christian Liston, who represents a religion which has oppressed people of color for centuries.
Both Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay are African American men. However, Malcolm has maintained that Christianity is a means for brainwashing black people to support white society. Therefore, in Malcolm’s view, only Cassius is truly fighting for himself and for other people of color.
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For Malcolm, Sonny Liston represents the class of wealthier black individuals who move to white neighborhoods and try to integrate into their communities. Cassius, on the other hand, loves to take evening walks through the black neighborhoods, a trait he shares in common with Malcolm.
According to Malcolm, Sonny’s rejection of black society becomes complete when he earns more money and chooses to leave black neighborhoods in order to appear more “white.”
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The night of the fight comes, and Malcolm and Cassius stand at the back of the Convention Hall, watching Cassius’s younger brother in his first professional fight. Cassius is extremely calm and collected, dressed in a black tuxedo. After his brother wins, Cassius goes to prepare for his own fight. Malcolm and Cassius pray together to Allah, and then it’s fight time.
Cassius takes on a truly heroic aura before the fight. Dressed in a smart tuxedo, calm and praying to Allah, he is not only a modern crusader, but a modern Greek hero, nearly a demigod. His victory seems inevitable. (And indeed, his continued legendary status even many decades later affirms this view.)
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Malcolm rather drily describes the fight as going “according to plan.” From his point of view, this was essentially an intellectual fight, in which Cassius knew that Liston would get tired quickly, and then he would have the advantage.
Malcolm’s brief description of the fight reflects his attitude that Cassius’s victory was never in doubt, but it also reflects the Nation of Islam’s doctrinal rejection of sports.
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That night, Cassius and a few friends come over to Malcolm’s motel. There, they simply talk while Cassius eats ice cream. After Cassius the “boyish king” feels sleepy and takes a nap, he decides to go back home.
While Cassius previously appeared godlike, now he is childlike. In fact, Malcolm’s tender description could even have been about his own child.
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The next morning at breakfast, Cassius tells the press in simple terms that he is a follower of Islam. A media uproar is created at the idea of a Muslim holding the heavyweight title. Malcolm sees this as ridiculous, especially when Floyd Patterson, another African American boxer, declares that he wants to fight Cassius as a Catholic.
To Malcolm (at this point at least) unity amongst all African Americans is more important than a confrontation between Christianity and Islam. Malcolm believes that Floyd Patterson should support Cassius regardless of his religion.
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An official at Mosque Seven orders one of his underlings to rig Malcolm’s car to explode. However, as the assistant is aware of how faithful Malcolm is to the Nation, he cannot do it and instead goes to Malcolm with the news. Afterwards, Malcolm begins to see Muslim men following him everywhere. These threats finally allow him to begin his “psychological divorce” from the Nation.
This is the first explicit claim Malcolm makes that the Nation of Islam wants to kill him and has the means to do so. However, the propaganda machine set up against him cannot undermine the solid reputation he has been building up for years.
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Assessing his position, Malcolm recognizes that he has a huge microphone and that anything he says will be picked up by the news. He also notes that he has quite a following of non-Muslims in New York, who started to respect him after the confrontation with the police years back. Furthermore, his knowledge of the streets and their slang lets him get much closer to the people, especially the poor, than is possible for other black leaders. And finally, he understands that the “most dangerous black man in America was the ghetto hustler.”
While he may have been silenced within the Nation of Islam, Malcolm has an audience that extends far beyond the mosques. In fact, he not only has the ability to speak to the black community at large, but he has a responsibility to continue to be a leader for that community.
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Hustlers have no professional skills and no money to fall back on. They must make their entire living constantly feeding off working people through various criminal activities. However, this constant struggling also makes them very frustrated, and with no ethics or religion, this frustration can quickly bubble up into violence.
Malcolm is describing the situation of hustlers that he sees around him, but he is also referencing his own life and experiences, of course.
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Malcolm first became aware of this potential for violence at a rally in Harlem. Malcolm felt he had been used by the other leaders to draw a crowd, and so he walked off stage. This caused a lot of young people to get upset, and the rally had the potential to explode into a riot any minute. Malcolm jumped up on a car and was able to calm the crowd down; the papers later said he was the only black man in the country who “could stop a race riot – or start one.”
There are a few takeaways from this episode. First, Malcolm does not want to start riots, hence why he stopped one. Second, the masses respect him and will follow his leadership. And finally, he may not be advocating for violence, but without changes in the current oppressive system, it can emerge at any minute.
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Malcolm reflects that a lot of this anger has been caused by more or less forcing blacks into urban ghettos where there are then no avenues for them to make a stable life for themselves. That anger and resentment has been bubbling across America, and the riots of the summer of 1964 are just a taste of how bad it could be, if something isn’t done.
This description sounds very similar to Malcolm’s description of hustlers. Like hustlers who must struggle to survive every day, the black community at large must struggle with no long-term way out.
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Malcolm’s task seems clear. He knows that he already occupies a leadership position in the ghettos and that the people trust him. So, he must build an organization that is committed to raising them up and curing them of their various “sicknesses.”
Notice how “Messianic” Malcolm can seem at times. In other words, he almost presents himself as the only one who can save Black America.
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According to Malcolm, the black population is mentally sick from accepting white culture as good, spiritually sick from Christianity’s false promise of brotherhood, and economically sick from a lack of black-owned businesses that could support the local economy. Above all, it is politically sick from allowing white men to divide them up between Republicans and Democrats, when neither group helps them. In order to wield any political power, the black population must learn to vote in a bloc for their own interests.
The scope of Malcolm’s new organization goes beyond the goals of the Nation of Islam. While the Nation had emphasized increasing social awareness, starting black-owned businesses, and accepting its brand of Islam, Malcolm also recognizes the need to push into electoral politics to assert the demands of the black community to the nation.
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As Malcolm begins to gather a picture in his mind of his planned organization, he calls a meeting in the ballroom at the Theresa Hotel. More and more Muslims from Mosque Seven have broken with the Nation to come with Malcolm, and he has increasing support from non-Muslims across class boundaries. The news of the upcoming meeting generates a huge outpouring of support from across the country, as many people wish to get involved.
At the outset, Malcolm’s new project appears very promising. He has gathered exactly the kind of coalition he hoped for: Muslim and Non-Muslim black people across class boundaries. Perhaps, however, it will be too good to be true.
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Malcolm calls a press conference and announces that he is starting a new mosque called Muslim Mosque, Inc. The mosque will serve as the spiritual basis for a larger movement meant to represent and work for the interests of the African American community.
The new organization reflects Malcolm’s changed values. Religion still serves as his base, but the organization’s responsibilities go beyond matters of faith.
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Malcolm continues to be aware that he is being followed and that the Muslim brothers intend to kill him. He knows this because he himself taught them to follow Allah’s will, which may include killing an enemy of the Nation.
When Malcolm served the Nation blindly, he inadvertently set up the mechanism for his own death if he were ever to leave the Nation.
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However, Malcolm does not feel prepared to start a new mosque without first preparing himself spiritually. He travels to Boston to once again ask for the help of his sister, Ella. He tells her he wants to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, a spiritual requirement for all Muslims at least once in their lives. She agrees to help immediately.
Malcolm has never had any financial resources of his own since he left prison, so he must ask humbly for help. Ella’s generosity reflects their deep bond and her awareness of his social calling to lead.
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