The Education of Malcolm X
Relying on Books, Malcolm X Gave Himself a High School and College Education—While Locked Behind Bars
When asked by a British writer about his alma mater, Malcolm X answered, “Books.” The response would have surprised anyone who knew him growing up—when he was still known as Malcolm Little, before he joined the Nation of Islam, before he went to jail.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925, Malcolm X spent his boyhood in and around Lansing, Michigan. Earl Little, a Baptist preacher and evangelist for Marcus Garvey’s message of black empowerment, was a stern and insistent father. Always agitating for his views, he was killed by members of a white racist group similar to the Klan when Malcolm was just a child. The official story was a street car ran him over, but the family knew better.
The Littles were already in difficult straits but had managed to stay strong. Earl’s murder pushed them over the edge. Eventually the kids were fostered out and mom, Louise, was committed to a mental hospital, where she stayed the next twenty-six years.
Between the murder and the collapse, Malcolm’s, older brother Wilfred began reading. “His head was forever in some book,” Malcolm X recalled in his Autobiography, written with Alex Haley from 1963 to 1965 and from which most of this account is drawn.
Louise, a radical in her own right, had encouraged literacy in her home, having the kids read Garvey’s newspaper, Negro World, aloud to her. But books didn’t appeal greatly to Malcolm X at the time Wilfred was burying his nose in them, nor could he have have imagined himself the subject of one. That honor would come only after—and because—he had learned to love books himself.
In junior high Malcolm X favored history and English, though he had no reason to favor his teachers. His history textbook contained only one brief passage on African Americans, and it was derogatory; the teacher laughed his way through reading it aloud to his students—all of whom were white but Malcolm. His English teacher, who otherwise seemed to have been helpful and decent, leveled an even harsher blow. He encouraged his students to think big about their futures, but when Malcolm mentioned becoming a lawyer the teacher told him to lower his sights.
“We all here like you,” he said. “But you’ve got to be realistic about being a n*****. A lawyer—that’s no realistic goal for a n*****.” What should this bright and promising eighth-grader do instead? The teacher suggest carpentry.
“It was then I began to change, inside,” explained Malcolm X, who would never again agree to the dominant cultural narrative of black inferiority. When his half sister, a well-off African American woman, offered him a place to stay in Boston, he dropped out of school and headed east.
After a few years, Malcolm X settled in Harlem where the would-be lawyer expressed his disillusionment by breaking the law he previously imagined serving. Though he worked legitimate jobs, he gravitated toward crime: selling drugs, prostitution, theft, and even armed robbery. He was eventually caught. Before turning twenty-one, Malcolm X began a ten-year prison sentence.
It was the best thing that ever happened to him.
By the time he entered prison, Malcolm X had forgotten much of what he’d learned in school. “I didn’t know a verb from a house,” he said. That changed when an inmate suggested he try some correspondence courses and make use of the prison library. Envious of the man’s knowledge, he followed his lead.
Malcolm X’s bookish older brother Wilfred also played a part. “I told him, ‘Don’t you serve the time, let the time serve you,’” he recalled several decades later. “While you’re in there,” Wilfred told Malcolm, “spend time in that library. Get into the classes where you can learn something and improve yourself so that when you come out, you’ll be able to do something other than the things that got you in here.”
So Malcolm X started reading, took an English course, and even began Latin lessons. “The mechanics of grammar gradually began to come back to me,” he recalled.
Two years into his sentence, Malcolm X was transferred to a prison with an enormous library packed with books on history, religion, and other heady stuff. Many volumes were above his level. To expand his vocabulary, he began hand copying the dictionary page by page. He seemed to have got the idea from his mother.
According to Wilfred, Louise kept a dictionary on the dining room table when the kids read the newspaper to her. “Whenever you made a mistake,” Wilfred said, “she’d stop you and make you go to that dictionary, look it up, ‘syllablize’ it, get the meaning of it, and that way you began to improve your vocabulary . . . I reminded Malcolm about this, so he started doing that in prison.”
The effect was profound. Malcolm X recalled,
I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened.
Like his brother, now Malcolm X’s face was forever in a book. “You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge,” he said. He read as much as fifteen hours a day. At night he kept going by a stray beam of light that shone through his cell door. He eyesight later suffered, and he blamed the long hours and poor light for the glasses he wore the rest of his life. The trade was worth it.
Malcolm X read history, philosophy, science, mythology, and more. He read, among many others, W.E.B. Du Bois, Will Durant, Immanuel Kant, Gregor Mendel, John Milton, Friedrich Nietzsche, Baruch Spinoza, Harriet Beecher Stowe, H.G. Wells, Carter G. Woodson, even Dale Carnegie. He called these “prison studies” his “homemade education,” and his voracious appetite for literature gave him the sense, sound, and style of someone who stayed in school well past the eighth grade.
I have often reflected on the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.
Working for the Nation
During this same period, encouraged by his siblings, Malcolm X joined the Nation of Islam. It’s where he got his name. Upon release from prison, he swapped his surname for X (repudiating the legacy of slavery inherent in his family name) and put his learning to work.
Thanks to his reading, Malcolm X became a fierce advocate for fellow blacks and a harsh opponent of what he called “the racist malignancy” in white America. “My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness and blindness that was affecting the black race in America,” he said.
Malcolm X became the primary spokesman for the Nation of Islam and easily the most recognizable radical civil-rights proponent of the era, often at odds with the mainstream civil-rights movement. Malcolm X believed leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. were delusional about integration. His reading of western history reinforced the Nation of Islam view that whites would never embrace true equality but rather use integration to co-opt black liberation. Against MLK’s call for nonviolence, he advocated armed self-defense.
While his determination remained unchanged over time, his views, particularly on Islamic orthodoxy and the possibility of racial harmony, did evolve. After more than a decade as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam, he was edged out of the organization. During the period, he converted to traditional Sunni Islam. While on pilgrimage to Mecca, he encountered positive racial pluralism he’d never experienced in America. Though he preferred to work with blacks within his own organization, he now welcomed the support of whites and others outside.
Malcolm X’s new direction was unwelcome within the Nation of Islam, and he’d heard there would be an attempt on his life. He knew his time was short and poured his heart into his work with Alex Haley, finishing his autobiography. “I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form,” he said, and he was right. On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated on stage while speaking.
Never Done Learning
He worked on his book to the end, believing it had “some social value.” His homemade education was on his mind then. Few could match Malcolm X’s ferocious literary habits. He read and read and read. Still, as a necessary autodidact, one of the greatest of the mid-twentieth century, he regretted never finishing school:
My greatest lack has been, I believe, that I don’t have the kind of academic education I wish I had been able to get—to have been a lawyer, perhaps. I do believe that I might have made a good lawyer. I have always loved verbal battle, and challenge. You can believe me that if I had had the time right now, I would not be one bit ashamed to go back into any New York City public school and start where I left off at the ninth grade, and go on through a degree.
There’s a sadness in those words, but it’s also worth recognizing no schooling would have been ample or extensive enough for Malcolm X. He was never done learning.
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