The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the story Malcolm tells of his experiences and of his own growth. Alternatively, it is the story of his education. That education is not a standard one, with typical schooling. It is rather an education in racism, on the streets, and out in the world – but Malcolm is consistent in his efforts to learn from his experiences and to make an education, however informal, for himself.
As a child, Malcolm does very well in school, and he ranks among the top three students in his class. His dreams of becoming a lawyer, however, are blocked by his white teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, who tells him to set his sights more reasonably and pursue a career in carpentry. This marks one of the first times that Malcolm is acutely aware of being discriminated against because of his race, and he quickly drops out of school. More than teaching him subject knowledge, Malcolm’s official school career makes him aware of racism, of how official society represented by public schools both oppresses black people and justifies that oppression through its view of black people as being inferior – a viewpoint that at least for a time Malcolm internalizes.
Malcolm then turns to a life on the streets, where he receives a very different kind of education, as he learns to “hustle” and to make extra money wherever he can. As another hustler Freddie tells him, "The main thing you got to remember is that everything in the world is a hustle.” This advice becomes a guiding principle of Malcolm’s throughout his hustling career and beyond, for both good and ill. On the one hand, Malcolm explains how it opens up his mind to see how so many relationships and moments which seem innocent actually involve some form of “hustle,” or some hidden play for money, influence, or power. However, Malcolm also explains how it presses him into a “jungle mentality” in which he can only think in terms of survival. Plus, hustling (in this case, burglary) eventually gets Malcolm sent to prison for seven years.
In prison Malcolm’s education shifts, especially after he gets transferred to the Norfolk Prison Colony, a progressive institution with regular lectures, debates, and a large library. With both time and resources that have previously been denied to him, Malcolm rediscovers his love of books and learning, becoming particularly interested in the history of Africa, the American slave trade, and religion. He stays so busy studying that “months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.” This education is freeing not just in that it helps Malcolm pass the time or do something he enjoys, but that it gives him an understanding of things that had previously been hidden from him. It’s freeing because it lets him see the lie in the racism forced upon him by his official schooling, and his own dignity as a black man, and it motivates him to join the Nation of Islam.
After breaking with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm characterizes that time of his life within the group as being “twelve years of never thinking.” But the Hajj to Mecca, where he must learn the beliefs and customs of orthodox Muslims, gives him a final education. The Hajj exposes Malcolm both to a wider world and his own ignorance. For instance, he finds that he does not even know the proper Islamic prayer postures, and his body aches under the strain of practicing them. This education is extremely humbling, especially for a man who has been leading a growing religious movement for years. As Malcolm puts it: “Imagine, being a Muslim minister, a leader in Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, and not knowing the prayer ritual.” By humbling him from the position of minister to just another man simply learning to serve God, this education contributes towards his more tempered views on the goals of social justice.
Malcolm never loses his reverence for education. In fact, as he reflects in the Autobiography shortly before his assassination, he says his only regret is that he never finished his schooling to become a lawyer. He understands that education has been an empowering force in his life, but the one time he was denied further access to it he was forced to learn a different, more destructive way to survive.
Education Quotes in The Autobiography of Malcolm X
I looked like Li'l Abner. Mason, Michigan, was written all over me. My kinky, reddish hair was cut hick style, and I didn't even use grease in it. My green suit's coat sleeves stopped above my wrists, the pants legs showed three inches of socks. Just a shade lighter green than the suit was my narrow-collared, three-quarter length Lansing department store topcoat. My appearance was too much for even Ella. But she told me later she had seen countrified members of the Little family come up from Georgia in even worse shape than I was.
Shorty would take me to groovy, frantic scenes in different chicks' and cats' pads, where with the lights and juke down mellow, everybody blew gage and juiced back and jumped. I met chicks who were fine as May wine, and cats who were hip to all happenings.
That paragraph is deliberate, of course; it's just to display a bit more of the slang that was used by everyone I respected as "hip" in those days. And in no time at all, I was talking the slang like a lifelong hipster.
We were in that world of Negroes who are both servants and psychologists, aware that white people are so obsessed with their own importance that they will pay liberally, even dearly, for the impression of being catered to and entertained.
There I was back in Harlem's streets among all the rest of the hustlers. I couldn't sell reefers; the dope squad detectives were too familiar with me. I was a true hustler—uneducated, unskilled at anything honorable, and I considered myself nervy and cunning enough to live by my wits, exploiting any prey that presented itself. I would risk just about anything.
Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn't have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammad's teachings, my correspondence, my visitors—usually Ella and Reginald—and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.
“Today's Uncle Tom doesn't wear a handkerchief on his head. This modern, twentieth-century Uncle Thomas now often wears a top hat. He's usually well-dressed and well-educated. He's often the personification of culture and refinement. The twentieth-century Uncle Thomas sometimes speaks with a Yale or Harvard accent. Sometimes he is known as Professor, Doctor, Judge, and Reverend, even Right Reverend Doctor. This twentieth-century Uncle Thomas is a professional Negro . . . by that I mean his profession is being a Negro for the white man.”
And that was how, after twelve years of never thinking for as much as five minutes about myself, I became able finally to muster the nerve, and the strength, to start facing the facts, to think for myself.
I told him, "What you are telling me is that it isn't the American white man who is a racist, but it's the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man." He agreed.
He talked about the pressures on him everywhere he turned, and about the frustrations, among them that no one wanted to accept anything relating to him except "my old 'hate' and 'violence' image." He said "the so-called moderate" civil rights organizations avoided him as "too militant" and the "so-called militants" avoided him as "too moderate." “They won't let me tum the corner!" he once exclaimed, “I'm caught in a trap!"