One of the driving influences in Malcolm’s life is his ongoing relationship with race and racism in America. Malcolm’s journey starts from a passive acceptance of the effects of racism around him; he then begins to gain and strongly emphasize self-respect for all black men, before ultimately coming to believe in the potential for brotherhood between all men.
As a child in rural Michigan, Malcolm’s understanding and perception of racism is at first quite limited. For instance, when his family is forced to move multiple times because of inhospitable rural communities, Malcolm does not at first connect this to racism, perhaps because racism is such an integral part of rural society, and most of rural Michigan had so few African Americans, that he doesn’t perceive African Americans’ inferior position in the rural North as something abnormal. In fact, even after his father Earl is murdered (likely by the Black Legion, a white supremacist group), his mother Louise is hounded into insanity by government officials, and he is separated from his family and sent to a foster home run by the Swerlins, who use the word “nigger” a hundred times a day, Malcolm still cannot hear any malice in the slur and never finds it odd. The racism surrounding him is so powerful and enduring that he internalizes it, as do many others. During his late teens and early twenties in Boston and New York, Malcolm describes his relationship to race as mirroring that of the other young black men around him, in which “whiteness” is seen as good and desirable, while “blackness” is to either be covered up or exploited. This is exemplified in Malcolm’s relationship with Sophia, who as an attractive white woman brings him “status” throughout their relationship. Furthermore, he met Sophia while on a date with Laura, a young African American woman, underlining his rejection of blackness in favor of whiteness.
Later, while in prison, Malcolm’s brother Philbert comes to visit, and he starts Malcolm on the path of conversion to the Nation of Islam by challenging his previous views on race. He tells Malcolm that the black man is the child of God, and the white man is a “devil.” Malcolm responds to this shift in mentality by studying the history of the world, and African history in particular. In learning this history, Malcolm is able to see himself and other black people as having dignity and being worthy of respect, something that the racist society of both the country and the city never allowed him to see. In taking the last name “X”, Malcolm symbolically is referring to this ennobling history that he feels has been hidden – or stolen – from him and other black people. And in the Nation of Islam – with its self-confidence, orderly manners and dress, and strong emphasis on community – Malcolm finds both fellow thinkers and expression for his shifting views.
However, part of what is notable about Malcolm is that even as he joins groups, he never entirely gives up his independence of thought. Ultimately, this leads to his ouster from the Nation of Islam after conflict arises when its leader, Elijah Muhammad, fails to live up to what Malcolm believes are the ideals of the organization. After Malcolm gets kicked out of the Nation, he decides to follow through on his own religious ideals and makes the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which according to Islam is a religious obligation for all able-bodied Muslims to do at least once in their life. On the journey to and during the Hajj, in both Europe and the Middle East, Malcolm is confronted by the possibility that the racial issues of the United States are not universal but rather particular to America. He is stunned, for instance, by the hospitality shown to him in Egypt by Abd-Al-Rahman Azzam, a man who would be considered “white” in America. Further, Malcolm sees how the Hajj is an inherently color-blind and multiracial event, where all Muslims are brothers and sisters. These realizations force him to reconsider his previous stance on race. In fact, Malcolm comes to believe that all people are brothers under one God, and that racism is not inherent in the nature of whites but rather is a product of social structures that make whites act in racist ways.
These new beliefs do not mean that Malcolm abandons his critiques of white society in the United States he saw around him. Rather, as Malcolm comes to believe in the possibility of brotherhood between races, he sees it as all the more necessary to resist and fight against the specific system of oppression and racial prejudice in the United States, because that system both oppresses blacks and stands in the way of the brotherhood he now believes possible.
Race and Racism in America ThemeTracker
Race and Racism in America Quotes in The Autobiography of Malcolm X
It has always been my belief that I, too, will die by violence. I have done all that I can to be prepared.
Back when I was growing up, the "successful" Lansing Negroes were such as waiters and bootblacks. To be a janitor at some downtown store was to be highly respected. The real "elite," the "big shots," the "voices of the race," were the waiters at the Lansing Country Club and the shoeshine boys at the state capitol. The only Negroes who really had any money were the ones in the numbers racket, or who ran the gambling houses, or who in some other way lived parasitically off the poorest ones, who were the masses. No Negroes were hired then by Lansing's big Oldsmobile plant, or the Reo plant… The bulk of the Negroes were either on Welfare, or W.P.A., or they starved.
Eventually my mother suffered a complete breakdown, and the court orders were finally signed. They took her to the State Mental Hospital at Kalamazoo.
It was seventy-some miles from Lansing, about an hour and a half on the bus. A Judge McClellan in Lansing had authority over me and all of my brothers and sisters. We were "state children," court wards; he had the full say-so over us. A white man in charge of a black man's children! Nothing but legal, modern slavery—however kindly intentioned.
"Malcolm, one of life's first needs is for us to be realistic. Don't misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you've got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer—that's no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You're good with your hands—making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don't you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person—you'd get all kinds of work."
I spent the first month in town with my mouth hanging open. The sharp dressed young "cats" who hung on the corners and in the poolrooms, bars and restaurants, and who obviously didn't work anywhere, completely entranced me. I couldn't get over marveling at how their hair was straight and shiny like white men's hair; Ella told me this was called a "conk.”
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.
In one sense, we were huddled in there, bonded together in seeking security and warmth and comfort from each other, and we didn't know it. All of us—who might have probed space, or cured cancer, or built industries—were, instead, black victims of the white man's American social system. In another sense, the tragedy of the once master pickpocket made him, for those brother old-timer hustlers, a "there but for the grace of God" symbol. To wolves who still were able to catch some rabbits, it had meaning that an old wolf who had lost his fangs was still eating.
The Boston draft board had written me at Ella's, and when they had no results there, had notified the New York draft board, and, in care of Sammy, I received Uncle Sam's Greetings. In those days only three things in the world scared me: jail, a job, and the Army.
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.
It was in this way that for one period, one of our best periods, I remember, we specialized in Oriental rugs. I have always suspected that the fence himself sold the rugs to the people we stole them from. But, anyway, you wouldn't imagine the value of those things. I remember one small one that brought us a thousand dollars. There's no telling what the fence got for it. Every burglar knew that fences robbed the burglars worse than the burglars had robbed the victims.
“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.”
The white liberal may be a little taken aback to know that from all-Negro audiences I never have had one challenge, never one question that defended the white man. That has been true even when a lot of those "black bourgeoisie" and "integration" -mad Negroes were among the blacks. All Negroes, among themselves, admit the white man's criminal record. They may not know as many details as I do, but they know the general picture.
Back at the Frankfurt airport, we took a United Arab Airlines plane on to Cairo. Throngs of people, obviously Muslims from everywhere, bound on the pilgrimage, were hugging and embracing. They were of all complexions, the whole atmosphere was of warmth and friendliness. The feeling hit me that there really wasn't any color problem here. The effect was as though I had just stepped out of a prison.
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.
But this was the kind of evidence which caused many close observers of the Malcolm X phenomenon to declare in absolute seriousness that he was the only Negro in America who could either start a race riot—or stop one. When I once quoted this to him, tacitly inviting his comment, he told me tartly, "I don't know if I could start one. I don't know if I'd want to stop one." It was the kind of statement he relished making.
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!"