After Joe Louis knocks out James J. Braddock to become the Heavyweight World Champion, Philbert begins to gain an interest in boxing. He does well in his amateur fights, gaining the praise and respect of the community. Malcolm, seeing his brother’s success, decides he should give it a try, too.
Joe Louis’s championship bout was a key moment in history for African American solidarity and pride nationwide, and Malcolm makes sure to note its impact on his life, as well.
Malcolm’s first fight is against Bill Peterson, a white boy. Bill is so scared of Malcolm that he decides to take the offensive, frequently knocking Malcolm down and easily beating him. Malcolm’s reputation is completely destroyed within the black community, but worst of all, his adoring brother Reginald simply doesn’t mention the fight at all. After training hard and going for a rematch against Bill, Malcolm loses almost immediately by knockout. Thankfully, he retires from fighting.
Bill Peterson’s fear comes out of racial stereotypes about the ferocity and strength of black men. Ironically, by beating Malcolm so badly, Bill proves that Malcolm, a young black boy, is just a regular kid and not an amazing fighter simply because of his race.
One day, while being punished for wearing a hat to class, Malcolm places a thumbtack on the teacher’s chair, resulting in his expulsion from school. He isn’t surprised, and even welcomes it; he imagines that now he will be free to do as he pleases, or perhaps work. But then he is dragged to court, where he is told he will go to a detention home and then to reform school.
For just a second, the reader is fooled into believing the same fantasy that grips Malcolm: that he is free from school and free from authority. Then, we are dragged back into reality, a reality in which Malcolm is a minor and a ward of the state, and therefore under its care (or control).
Mr. Maynard Allen, a nice man from the Welfare Agency, accompanies Malcolm to the detention home and gives him advice on how to further himself. Mr. and Mrs. Swerlin run the detention home in nearby Mason, Michigan; they are kind people and treat Malcolm well. He has his own room and is allowed to eat with the Swerlins at the dining table. As a young black man, he is unaccustomed to being welcomeed to dine with white people, except at the Adventist revivals.
While Malcolm does not give the name of his teacher or the judge serving at the court, he takes great care to name and describe Mr. Maynard Allen and the Swerlins as kind and supportive people. While the court appears as a shadowy and impersonal institution, Mr. Allen and the Swerlins bring some humanity back into Malcolm’s life.
His good behavior gets the Swerlins’ approval, and they like Malcolm. At the same time, however, they seem to like him as a “mascot” or a pet, rather than as a thinking human being. They frequently talk about him while he is in the room as if he isn’t there, or they make general racist observations about other black people in the area.
As a “mascot,” Malcolm may be extremely well behaved and polite and even smart; however, he never has others’ respect as an equal human being – a prejudice they seemingly don’t even realize they carry.
Malcolm goes to Lansing often to visit his siblings. While his brothers want to go out with some of the local girls their age, Malcolm isn’t much interested. Instead, he heads for the “Negro” bars, where he hangs around listening to the jazz music playing and watching the young people dance.
Throughout the book, Malcolm is taken to be older than he really is, thanks to a tall frame, his mature character, and perhaps an unconscious bias many people have to judge black boys as older than they are.
Malcolm keeps waiting to be sent to reform school, but Mrs. Swerlin keeps pulling strings to allow him to stay at their home. Eventually, Malcolm goes back to school at the local middle school. Like in the Swerlins’ home, he is well accepted and popular, thanks to him being the only black student in class.
As the only black student, Malcolm is something rare and therefore precious. He is certainly being “tokenized” by his white peers, but in the process enjoys a special kind of popularity and attention.
Mrs. Swerlin helps Malcolm to get his first job washing dishes in a local restaurant so that he can have some spending money. He enjoys his work and takes great pride in making his own money. His first purchase is a green suit and some sweets for his classmates, both of which make him very proud.
Working his own job and earning spending money gives Malcolm a sense of independence, which will be a key component of his character as he continues to grow.
Malcolm joins the basketball team at his middle school. He experiences some prejudice in the way other teams would talk about him, but he isn’t really bothered by it. At the local dances after games he avoids the white girls, knowing they are off-limits. These things are never said; rather, he senses the social norms restricting him.
Here, Malcolm’s limitations as simply a “mascot” rather than an equal come out. He is allowed to play on the basketball team, but when it comes to social settings, he knows almost instinctively that he is not really welcome.
Some of the white boys Malcolm’s age try and push him to “go for” some of the other white girls. If he were to do so, then the boys would have leverage over the girls, forcing them to accept their own advances. They assume that he instinctually knows more about sex than they do. And while Malcolm does in fact flirt with some of these girls, he does so quietly, and it never goes anywhere.
Malcolm’s refusal of the white boys’ suggestions is largely driven by an instinct of self-protection (recognizing the potential violence he could face if he did try to date a white girl). He also rejects their belief in his innate knowledge about sex, which is based on racial stereotypes of black men as more primitive.
On the other hand, Malcolm has seen plenty of race-mixing in Lansing. Late at night, white men would pick up black prostitutes walking certain streets and white women would go to meet black men waiting at a particular bridge. These arrangements were largely based on myths about black sexual prowess. Nevertheless, they were quite common and very little fuss was made about it.
Here, we see the same stereotypes and preconceptions that his peers had about Malcolm’s supposed sexual prowess being played out by adults. As these myths were practically considered fact, no one says anything about this casual but exploitative race mixing.
Things continue to go well for Malcolm. One day, his class takes a vote, and they declare him class president. Malcolm is extremely proud of this accomplishment; only later does he see it as a futile attempt to integrate into white society. He has been elected president as a “mascot,” not as a peer.
Not only is Malcolm singled out by being the only black student in the class; now, he is installed as the President, an honorable yet isolated position.
Malcolm manages to visit his siblings in Lansing nearly every weekend. Hilda and Wilfred still live in the old house, while Reginald and the others are with various families in Lansing. Malcolm likes to give the younger ones some pocket money from the money he makes washing dishes.
The Littles work hard throughout their lives to remain in contact with and support one another. Even with their parents gone, they maintain their ties to each other as a crucial source of support in their often chaotic lives.
One day Ella, Malcolm’s half-sister, writes to the family and decides to come from Boston to visit. A strong, dark-skinned woman who is proud of her appearance, she impresses Malcolm with her no-nonsense and self-made businesswoman persona. She gives him a sense of pride in being part of the Little family, which has several successful members in the North and South. Ella suggests they all go to visit Louise together, and the visit goes surprisingly well.
Ella is the first black woman Malcolm knows who is proud to be dark-skinned. She does not hide from her race, but rather revels in it. This pride, along with her independence, attracts Malcolm; he comes to see her as an early role model of black pride.
In 1940, Malcolm catches a Greyhound bus while wearing his green suit. He’s headed to Boston, where he’ll stay with Ella for the summer. He soon falls in love with the thriving black culture in Roxbury, from the jazz music on the jukeboxes to the smell of “down-home black cooking” wafting from the restaurants. After trying to write home, he discovers that he can’t find the words to express how wonderful it is here.
Roxbury quickly floods Malcolm’s senses with smells, sounds, and sights, to the point where he can no longer describe them. Confronted with so much information, he cannot process this new world that enchants him, but he is clearly delighted to find a place that embraces black culture so wholeheartedly.
After his time in Roxbury, something changes in Malcolm. Upon returning to Mason, he discovers that he is no longer comfortable there, where he is constantly surrounded by white people, unlike in the mostly-black community of Roxbury. He begins to react negatively to people using the n-word and is uneasy at being treated differently.
When he returns to Mason, Malcolm finally begins to process his time in Roxbury. All that life and culture he experienced was black life and culture, something seemingly missing in Mason.
Nonetheless, Malcolm stays on top of his studies and is at the top of the class. One day Mr. Ostrowski, his teacher, finds a moment to pull him aside, asking what he wants to be. After replying “a lawyer,” Mr. Ostrowski tells Malcolm he should set his sights more realistically, such as towards carpentry. Malcolm can clearly feel the double standard towards him, despite being one of the smartest students in class – perhaps the smartest student.
Until now, as a popular kid and the class president, Malcolm has more or less believed himself to be the equal of his classmates. But now, when he knows that he is objectively smarter than them, he is told he is not smart enough (or able) to pursue his dreams, an injustice which strikes at his very core.
Malcolm’s ensuing unease is perceived by others as a form of rebellion or acting out. Mrs. Swerlin and Mr. Allen speak to him in the living room, trying to figure out “what’s wrong.” When he doesn’t explain himself, Mrs. Swerlin tells him he will be sent to the Lyons’ house. She can’t understand what’s changed about him, and he can’t verbalize it, either.
At this time, Malcolm doesn’t steal and isn’t rude or disrespectful. His crime, so to speak, is simply to no longer be content with the inequality and dehumanization of forever being a “mascot.”
Finally, Malcolm decides it’s time to get out of Mason, and he writes to Ella. She helps him arrange to come and live with her in Boston, and he heads out as soon as he finishes the 8th grade. He reflects that if he hadn’t have left at that time, then he probably would have never left Lansing in his whole life.
Though he’s not quite sure why, Malcolm knows that he needs to get out of Mason. He heads to the one place he knows that electrified him and caused a shift in his sense of self, and that’s Roxbury.