Bryan Caplan  

The Autobiography of Malcolm X Book Club, Part 1

Lee Ohanian on the Great Reces... Goolsbee on Romney's Tax and B...
The book club starts today, with future segments every two weeks.  Breakdown:

Part #1: Malcolm's Childhood and Entry-Level Jobs (Chapters 1-5)

Part #2: Malcolm's Life of Crime (Chapters 6-10)

Part #3: Malcolm and the Nation of Islam (Chapters 11-15)

Part #4: Malcolm's Purge, Second Thoughts, and Murder (Chapters 16-19, plus Haley's Epilogue)


Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little in 1925, was the son of a black "back to Africa" Baptist minister, and a half-black, half-white West Indian woman.  Malcolm begins his story by recounting the many acts of violence whites perpetrated against his family.  Malcolm's mother was the product of rape, three of his uncles were murdered by whites, and his father was (apparently) murdered by whitesMalcolm summarizes his father's ideology thusly:
He believed, as did Marcus Garvey, that freedom, independence, and self-respect could never be achieved by the Negro in America, and that therefore the Negro should leave America to the white man and return to his African land of origin.
Malcolm grew up in Lansing, Michigan, a "town with a higher percentage of complacent and misguided so-called 'middle-class' Negroes - the typical status-symbol-oriented, integration-seeking type of Negros."  His family was relatively well-off until his father's murder, but this tragedy put the Little family on a downward spiral that left the children in foster care and the mother in a mental hospital. 

At the age of thirteen, Malcolm is sentenced to reform school for his bad behavior.  But he does so well in his detention home that he gets to attend Mason Junior High School - the first time a ward from his institution has ever done so.  He does very well in school despite his teachers' casual racism: "Though some, including the teachers, called me 'n****r,' it was easy to see that they didn't mean any more harm by it than [the people running his reform school]." 

Mason is virtually an all-white school, but Malcolm is elected class president in 7th grade.  He explains:
My grades were among the highest in the school.  I was unique in my class, like a pink poodle... I didn't really have much feeling about being a Negro, because I was trying so hard, in every way, to be white.
Malcolm tells a sympathetic teacher he wants to be a lawyer, but the teacher gently objects that that isn't a realistic goal for a black - and suggests carpentry instead.  Malcolm grows disgruntled.  When he finishes eighth grade, he is released from his detention home and takes a bus to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella.  In hindsight, he says, "All praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did."  Otherwise:
...I might have become one of those state capitol building shoeshine boys, or a Lansing Country Club waiter, or gotten one of the other menial jobs which... would have been considered "successful" - or even become a carpenter.
When Malcolm X arrives in Boston, he is a self-admitted "hick."  His sister is well-off and encourages him to tour around the city before finding a job.  Ella wants to groom Malcolm for Boston's black elite, but...
Despite her advice, I began going down into the town ghetto section.  That world of grocery stores, walk-up flats, cheap restaurants, poolrooms, bars, storefront churches, and pawnshops seemed to hold a natural lure for me.
Malcolm soon makes friends with Shorty, a musician and hustler, who introduces Malcolm to Boston's semi-legal underworld.  Shorty gets Malcolm a job (a.k.a. a "slave") shining shoes at the Roseland State Ballroom, giving Malcolm the chance to hear a long list of musical legends first hand.  Before long, Malcolm is drinking, smoking, gambling, drug-dealing, pimping, and conking his hair:
It hadn't taken me long on the job to find out that Freddie [his shoeshine predecessor] had done less shoeshining and towel-hustling than selling liquor and reefers, and putting white "Johns" in touch with Negro whores.
Malcolm quits shoeshining and gets a job as a soda fountain clerk, where he meets and starts going out with Laura, a straight-laced, studious black girl.  After exposing her to his hip lifestyle, he dumps her for Sophia, a loose white woman.  Malcolm partially blames himself for the fact that Laura later becomes a prostitute.  Malcolm then gets a job as a busboy. 

Before long, World War II breaks out.  Malcolm is only 16, so he isn't eligible for the draft.  But Sophia, who seriously overestimates his age, encourages him to get a draft-exempt job on the railroad.  Malcolm likes the idea because it gives him a chance to see the country - especially New York.  He takes to selling sandwiches on the train like a fish to water:
I went bellowing up and down those train aisles.  I sold sandwiches, coffee, candy, cake, and ice cream as fast as the railroad's commissary department could supply them.  It didn't take me a week to learn that all you had to do was give white people a show and they'd buy anything you offered them... The dining car waiters and Pullman porters knew it too, and they faked their Uncle Tomming to get bigger tips... [W]hite people will pay liberally, even dearly, for the impression of being catered to and entertained.
In Harlem, Malcolm X rubs shoulders with the giants of jazz.  He gets fired for bad behavior, but easily finds work on another railroad.  He soon loses that job as well, so he starts working as a waiter for Small's Paradise.  He excels:
I learned very quickly dozens of little things that could really ingratiate a new waiter with the cooks and bartenders.  Both of these, depending on how they liked the waiter, could make his job miserable or pleasant - and I meant to become indispensable.  Inside of a week, I had succeeded with both.  And the customers... couldn't have been more friendly.  And I couldn't have been more solicitous.

"Another drink?... Right away, sir... Would you like dinner?... It's very good... Could I get you a menu, sir?... Well, maybe a sandwich?"
Wherever he works, though, Malcolm is never far away from the world of crime - his next big career move:
Every day I listened raptly to customers who felt like talking, and it all added to my education... I was thus schooled well, by experts in such hustles as the numbers, pimping, con games of many kinds, peddling dope, and thievery of all sorts, including armed robbery.
Critical Comments

The early pages of Malcolm X's autobiography lead you to expect an non-stop tale of violence and victimization.  But that simply isn't the story he tells.  Violence makes Malcolm an orphan, but his subsequent experiences are surprisingly pleasant.  He repeatedly meets genuinely nice people - some white - who take him under their wings and provide opportunities.

Modern audiences will no doubt be horrified by the casual racism young Malcolm endures.  But even he admits that the racism was usually thoughtless rather than malevolent.  His worst memories are of snubbing, not cruelty.  Particularly striking: Despite his conversion to Islam, he apparently continues to see a life of crime as somehow better than a life of honest menial labor.

The most striking fact about Malcolm's life is how early it begins.  By fourteen, he's a grown man with a job.  By eighteen, he's traveled the Eastern seaboard, personally met many of the legends of jazz, lived in Boston and New York, and had a series of girlfriends.  Despite his eighth-grade education, he has no trouble mastering new occupations - and making decent money - in a matter of weeks. 

Malcolm often demeans his success on the job as "hustling."  As we'll see later in the book, Malcolm tends to see only two alternatives in life: predation and philanthropy.  The "middle way" of honest industry is almost invisible to him.  For Malcolm, the main difference between charming customers for tips and pickpocketing is that charming customers is humiliating.

We should remember that when Malcolm enters the labor market, he's only fourteen.  We should expect him to be a bit immature.  But it's still shocking to tally how much money he blows on alcohol, drugs, gambling, and the like.  His half-sister Ella probably would have let him live with her rent-free if he just behaved himself.  The upshot: If Malcolm had simply managed his money prudently, he could easily have amassed enough to pursue advanced education or open a business.  He often talks as if he had no good options.  But he would have had far better options if he'd been careful with his money.

Modern readers will naturally emphasize all the options that blacks didn't have in Malcolm X's day.  But don't ignore the many options that they clearly did have.  At least in Boston and New York, blacks in the 30s and 40s worked in a wide range of occupations, owned businesses, and created timeless art.  All this happened despite black's extraordinary rates of substance abuse, gambling, and worse.  Imagine the trajectory of black success if they had been sober, frugal, and puritanical.

Actually, you don't have to imagine this trajectory.  Just keep reading the book.  You'll soon discover what happens to Malcolm and many other blacks after they embrace the ultra-puritanical ethos of the Nation of Islam.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Tracy W writes:

Were blacks' rates of substance abuse, gambling, etc, extraordinary in the 1930s-40s? (Genuine question, there's lots of tales of alcoholism in the Pakeha side of my family.)

Carl writes:

Fascinating. That's it, I'm getting the book and joining in.

Jeremy writes:

"But even he admits that the racism was usually thoughtless rather than malevolent. His worst memories are of snubbing, not cruelty"

... other than the violent murder of his father (and family) and the systematic dismissal of his intellect/aspirations, which some might consider cruelty.

Given the fact that white society was shutting off non-menial opportunities (he could never be a high-status individual in a white world), doesn't it make sense that he would seek an alterative path that would grant him that status?

Anonymous writes:

" All this happened despite black's extraordinary rates of substance abuse, gambling, and worse. Compared to what other ethnic groups?

Sherwood writes:

What kind of good IS status? Isn't it a good that has no substance other than that it is desired by other? The "other" then serves as both model and obstacle (basic mimetic theory -- see Rene Girard). One can only be denied status if one desires it and the desire is born of the rival to it. It is the type of good that is in essence scarce and bound up with the opposition/rivalry that makes its pursuit frustrating.

That's pretty condensed, but the point is that Malcolm seems at the same time to be offended that he is denied status (in the eyes of "Whites") while trying to find a form of status in which he can can be the successful possessor against someone else who can't have it. He is caught in what Girard calls (after Gregory Bateson) a "double bind."

Doug writes:

"other than the violent murder of his father (and family) and the systematic dismissal of his intellect/aspirations, which some might consider cruelty."

I think the point to draw is that Malcolm's life in the context of racism was much less worse than his parents and grandparents.

The mainstream/naive view of history is that Blacks were living under Jim Crow segregation uniformly around the country until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Then Blacks everywhere gained rights within a very short window.

What this glosses over if you actually look at the data, i.e. measurement of black participation in the middle class was that the Civil Rights movement wasn't anything extraordinary. Blacks were gaining ground continuously from 1865 to 1980 (when the crack wars started).

The gains made by the median black from 1954 to 1972 were on the same order as say 1924 to 1942 or 1894 to 1912. The difference between Malcolm's life and his parents drive this point home. The Civil Rights movement is well remembered, but its just a blip in a larger trend.

The second point is that the treatment of blacks was not uniform around the country. Blacks had much more rights in New York and Boston than they did in Omaha, Nebraska. While the treatment was abhorrent in the South, the presence of the exit option meant that people could simply leave if they believed things were too bad. Also, unlike unskilled blacks of today, there were no minimum wage laws or labor regulations that made it difficult for them to re-settle and get a new job.

Most people would say that blacks in 1920 Alabama were more oppressed than Mexicans in Oaxaca today. However remember the former had the right of exit to a better life, whereas the latter does not.

Matt C writes:

> His worst memories are of snubbing, not cruelty.

Father murdered.

> Despite his conversion to Islam, he apparently continues to see a life of crime as somehow better than a life of honest menial labor.

Er, this is not my recollection. Where does he say this, or something like it, post his conversion to Islam? (This would be important if I missed it. Anybody?)

Previous to that, yes.

Note that a life of honest menial labor would be considered a very disappointing outcome for a white person displaying his abilities. It's not surprising that he resented the attempt to put him on that path.

Lots of people, including square people, find the criminal lifestyle interesting and somewhat attractive. It's not a safe preference, but surely one of Malcolm's outstanding character traits was courage. For someone who is long on courage, short on scruples, and has a taste for excitement, criminality isn't a greatly surprising outcome.

> If Malcolm had simply managed his money prudently, he could easily have amassed enough to pursue advanced education or open a business.

Sure. But if he had been prudent, he wouldn't have become a criminal and made those thumping sums of money in the first place.

Are there ever criminals who make huge piles of cash and quietly launder it away to retire to a modest lifestyle at 45? I suppose there have to have been a few, but I've never once heard a "my life in crime" story that went like that. Maybe it's selection bias.

> He often talks as if he had no good options.

Mmm, that was not my reading. My read was that, after the fact, he regretted his hustler days as evil (he uses that word several times) but nevertheless an important step toward becoming his adult self.

Doug B writes:

I can't understand why the KKK would persecute people for espousing the ideas of Marcus Garvey about blacks leaving the US and returning to Africa.

Does Malcom remember incorrectly when he writes about this in Ch 1.?

Jim Rose writes:

great book. very easy to get jobs back then.

doug, the greatest economic gains for African Americans since the early 1960s were in the years 1965 to 1975 and occurred mainly in the South, as John J. Donahue and James Heckman found.

Donahue and Heckman discovered "virtually no improvement" in the wages of black men relative to white men outside of the South over the period from 1963 to 1987. The southern gains were mainly due to the antidiscrimination provisions in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

As Richard Epstein observed:
• At its best, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 sought to break the control of the local segregationist forces over their political institutions. The Act was intended to counteract the manifest abuse of state power that fostered segregation.

• The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was welcomed by virtually every national company that did business in the South, for at long last it put federal power in opposition to corrupt state power. The instantaneous levels of compliance with its mandate were well-nigh universal. The South was a freer place after its passage than before.

David Bernstein made similar observations: segregation and discrimination in the Jim Crow South involved the equivalent of a white supremacist cartel, enforced not just by overt government regulation like segregation laws, but also by the implicit threat of private violence and harassment of anyone who challenged the racist status quo.

Daron Acemoglu and James Robison are among many who have documented the differences between de jure and de facto political control in the old south. Southern elites still possessed considerable de facto power through their control over economic resources, their greater education, and their relative ability to engage in collective action.

Unlike the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens’ Councils met openly and was seen as "pursuing the agenda of the Klan with the demeanor of the Rotary Club” by "unleashing a wave of economic reprisals against anyone, Black or white, seen as a threat to the status quo”. In Mississippi, the State Sovereignty Commission funded the Citizens' Councils.

Doug F writes:

First, thanks for setting up the book club. I had never read The Autobiography of Malcolm X but now I have and I am grateful that you provided the impetus. Good summary, also, of the first chapters.

A few reactions to your critical comments:

“Modern audiences will no doubt be horrified by the casual racism young Malcolm endures.”
This was, in fact, my dominant reaction to the first part of the book. It is shocking how little the attitude of whites (at least as perceived by blacks) at that time had changed since the Civil War. Blacks were commonly regarded as inferior beings and it was acceptable – routine, even - in ‘polite’ society to say so. Changing this attitude seems to me to be one of the great advances in race relations since Malcolm X lived. I think the current generation of young white Americans would be aghast at the suggestion that blacks are limited in their abilities or their chances of success at a given profession.
“His worst memories are of snubbing, not cruelty.”
Badly wrong. The violent deaths of several of his family members. His hatred of his mother’s white rapist father. His “earliest vivid memory” of his house being set on fire by two white men and of the white police and firemen subsequently standing around watching the house burn down. And the systematic denial of any future other than menial labor (“A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a nigger”), even disregarding the fact that Malcolm was one of the smartest in his class, is cruel. (Even if the actual opportunities available to Malcolm were greater than he perceived, which is by no means clear, we are talking about his memories.)
“If Malcolm had simply managed his money prudently, he could easily have amassed enough to pursue advanced education or open a business…he would have had far better options if he'd been careful with his money.…don't ignore the many options that [blacks] clearly did have.”
No doubt true but the vast majority of blacks he sees and interacts with are not pursuing advanced education or opening a business. They are struggling to get by in a society that has erected numerous race-based roadblocks. Malcolm’s impression is that those blacks who are getting ahead are doing so by denying their own heritage and "acting white." (Is it so different from those Jews in anti-Semitic societies who converted to give themselves a chance to succeed economically?)

No doubt many blacks built decent lives for themselves and their families by working hard and being careful with their money. But to Malcolm they were still denied the opportunity to achieve their full potential. “I’d guess that eight out of ten of the Hill Negroes of Roxbury, despite the impressive-sounding job titles they affected, actually worked as menials and servants.”

I think Malcolm had the germ of a belief, which was developed more fully later on, that unless blacks had the same options available to them as whites, the discussion of the limited options they actually did have was degrading.

Alex C writes:

The critical comments are spot on. Why would Malcolm X fight for further rights for blacks when he could have accepted a cushy life of mediocrity. I mean, the possibility of a position that would have granted him 2/3 of the potential that a similarly educated white person would have should have made him ecstatic. Why strive to have the same opportunities as another race when you can just accept the status quo, and enjoy a less privileged (but not awful) existence. Reminds me of the attempts to portray slavery as "not so bad" for blacks because they were treated "well".

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top