13 Malcolm X & Alex Haley

Race, Identity, & Social Order
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.”
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
• Read this text as an argument
in the first person, not a
personal affirmation
– The claim is not that Malcolm
X’s experience is remarkable,
but that it is not
• Malcolm Little  Satan 
Malcolm X  El-Hajj Malik ElShabazz
• Atheist  Nation of Islam 
Sunni Islam
Systemic racism
Degradation & dehumanization
Pervasive violence and domination
– False consciousness
– Complicity in own oppression
Oppression of ideas
Liberating power of truth
Race consciousness
Dignity, honesty & order
– Masculinity
• Fear & resistance
Systemic Violence
• “When my mother was pregnant with me, she
told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan
riders galloped up to our home in Omaha,
Nebraska, one night.” (3)
– From even before the beginning
Systemic Violence
• Sundown Towns
– No blacks allowed on streets after dark
• Mother the product of rape by a white man
• Father murdered by white supremacist Black
– Four of father’s six brothers killed by whites
• Home burned to the ground by Black Legion
– “The white police and firemen cam and stood around
watching as the house burned down to the ground.”
Systemic Violence
• Example of systemic racism:
• Father’s skull crushed, laid across streetcar
tracks and cut almost in half
– Ruled a suicide
• “How could my father bash himself in the head, then
get down across the streetcar tracks to be run over?”
– Insurance won’t pay off
– Family sinks into poverty
Systemic Racism
• Mother must raise eight children alone
– Life of constant insult: living on charity and
passing as white
– Fired whenever it is discovered that she is black
• Constant humiliation & degradation
– Stress & shame causes mental illness
– Family broken up by welfare agency
• “The monthly welfare check was their pass. They acted
as if they owned us, as if we were their private
property.” (16)
The oppressive power of names
• “Soon, nearly everywhere my father went,
Black Legionnaires were reviling him as an
‘uppity nigger’ for wanting to own a store, for
living outside the Lansing Negro district, for
spreading unrest and dissention among ‘the
good niggers.’” (5)
– Good = subservient
– To want to live as a free & independent man is
“uppity”, i.e. not to be permitted of black men.
The oppressive power of names
• “The white kids didn’t make any great thing abut us,
either. They called us ‘nigger’ and ‘darkie’ and ‘Rastus’
so much that we thought those were our natural
names. But they didn’t think of it as an insult; it was
just the way they thought about us.” (12)
– Internalizing the contempt of the oppressor
– The contempt is casual, unthinking. So habitual that it isn’t
even thought of as an insult.
– Demonstrates the unquestioned systematization of white
– Part of Malcolm X’s goal is to reveal this power & strip it of
it’s legitimacy
The oppressive power of names
• From his favorite teacher: “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.”
– Systematic racial oppression seen as just the way it is.
– As part of the racist system of oppression, things are
• “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?” (43)
– Don’t be what you are or what you can be, be what the system
of racist oppression wants to make of you.
The oppressive power of names
• “Where ‘nigger’ had slipped off my back
before, wherever I heard it now, I stopped and
looked at whoever said it. And they looked
surprised that I did.
• “I quit hearing so much ‘nigger’ and ‘What’s
wrong?’—which was the way I wanted it.” (44)
Internalizing Contempt
• “I was among the millions of Negroes who were insane
enough to feel that it was some kind of status symbol to be
born light-complexioned—that one was actually fortunate
to be born thus.” (5)
• “How ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there lost in
admiration of my hair now looking ‘white,’… I vowed that I’d
never again be without a conk, and I never was for many years.
• This was my first really big step toward self-degradation:
when I endured all that pain, literally burning my flesh to
have it look like a white man’s hair.” (64)
• “In any black ghetto in America, to have a white woman who
wasn’t a known, common whore was—for the average black
man, at least—a status symbol of the first order.” (78)
Internalized Contempt
• “They prided themselves on being incomparably more ‘cultured,’
‘cultivated,’ ‘dignified,’ and better off than their black brethren
down in the ghetto, which was no further away than you could
throw a rock.
• Under the pitiful misapprehension that it would make them ‘better,’
these Hill Negroes were breaking their backs trying to imitate white
people.” (48)
• “So many of those so-called ‘upper class’ Negroes are so busy trying
to impress on the white man that they are ‘different from those
others’ that they can’t see they are only helping the white man to
keep his low opinion of all Negroes.” (123)
– Division of the black community against itself
– Identification with the oppressor
– “White” understood to mean “better”, “black” to mean “worse”
• “In the ghettoes the white man has built for us, he has
forced us not to aspire to greater things, but to view
everyday living as survival—and in that kind of
community, survival is what is respected.” (105)
– A life of oppression and brutality leaves the individual
– In the absence of even the possibility of better things,
Malcolm X at this point in his life embraces a form of
nihilism. He sees his life of self-loathing, drugs, sex, and
crime as self-degradation.
– This is due in part to a lack of self-knowledge and selfrespect
The color line
• “We laughed about the scared little Chinese whose
restaurant didn’t have a hand laid on it, because the
rioters just about convulsed laughing when they saw
the sign the Chinese had hastily stuck on his door: ‘Me
Colored Too.’” (131)
• “Hymie really liked me, and I liked him. He loved to
talk. Half his talk was about Jews and Negroes. Jews
who had anglicized their names were Hymie’s favorite
hate. Spitting and curling his mouth in scorn, he would
reel off names of people he said had done this.” (143)
• The race card: “Who in the world’s history has ever played
a worse ‘skin game’ than the white man?” (206)
Being toward death
• “I believed that a man should do anything that he
was slick enough, or bad and bold enough, to do
and that a woman was nothing but another
commodity.” (155)
• “Deep down, I actually believed that after living
as fully as humanly possible, one should then die
violently.” (159)
• “I lived and thought like a predatory animal.”
• What does it mean to live and think like a man?

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