Study Guide

The Autobiography of Malcolm X Education

By Malcolm X and Alex Haley


This was my first lesson about gambling: if you see somebody winning all the time, he isn't gambling, he's cheating. (1.70)

Gambling is probably not the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about lessons, but education doesn't have to happen in the classroom.

Later, I remember, we came to the textbook section on N**** history. It was exactly one paragraph long. Mr. Williams laughed through it practically in a single breath, reading aloud how the N****es had been slaves and then were freed, and how they were usually lazy and dumb and shiftless. (2.32)

How do you think the majority of African American children would have reacted to this kind of history class? How would it have influenced their views of traditional education?

It was a surprising thing that I had never thought of it that way before, but I realized that whatever I wasn't, I was smarter than nearly all of those white kids. But apparently I was still not intelligent enough, in their eyes, to become whatever I wanted to be. (2.77)

Malcolm X was actually the valedictorian of his school, so it's doubly insulting that his teacher implied he wasn't smart enough to be a lawyer while all of the white children were encouraged to follow their dreams.

But I saw other N****es better off; they lived in blocks of rundown red brick houses. The old "Colonial" railroaders had told me about Washington having a lot of "middle-class" N****es with Howard University degrees, who were working as laborers, janitors, porters, guards, taxi-drivers, and the like. For the N**** in Washington, mail-carrying was a prestige job. (5.12)

Howard University is a prestigious and historically Black University. So the unfairness of the situation is kind of like if the majority of Harvard graduates could only be janitors because of their skin color.

Every day in Small's Paradise Bar was fascinating to me. And from a Harlem point of view, I couldn't have been in a more educational situation. Some of the ablest of New York's black hustlers took a liking to me, and knowing that I still was green by their terms, soon began in a paternal way to "straighten Red out." (6.10)

Why do you think these hustlers felt they had to educate Malcolm X? Exactly what kind of education was he getting?

Out of the blue one day, Bimbi told me flatly, as was his way, that I had some brains, if I'd use them. I had wanted his friendship, not that kind of advice. I might have cursed another convict, but nobody cursed Bimbi. He told me I should take advantage of the prison correspondence courses and the library. (10.28)

Bimbi was a convict in the same prison as Malcolm who was known for his intelligence. Why do you think Malcolm gets so cranky when Bimbi tells him to get his butt into the library?

But every book I picked up had few sentences which didn't contain anywhere from one to nearly all of the words that might as well have been in Chinese. When I just skipped those words, of course, I really ended up with little idea of what the book said. So I had come to the Norfolk Prison Colony still going through only book-reading motions. (11.21)

Malcolm X sounds like a kid who doesn't want to study for his midterms here. Remember guys: the dictionary is your friend.

I have often reflected upon 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. (11.57)

Two words: Reading Rainbow.

I don't think anybody ever got more out of going to prison than I did. In fact, prison enabled me to study far more intensively than I would have if my life had gone differently and I had attended some college. I imagine that one of the biggest troubles with colleges is there are too many distractions, too much panty-raiding, fraternities, and boola-boola and all of that. Where else but in a prison could I have attacked my ignorance by being able to study intensely sometimes as much as fifteen hours a day? (11.60)

When Malcolm X was isolated from all of his hustler friends in prison, he was able to focus on studying. He managed to get himself an education before you could get a college degree in prison.

"I am not ashamed to say how little learning I have had," Mr. Muhammad told me. "My going to school no further than the fourth grade proves that I can know nothing except the truth I have been taught by Allah. Allah taught me mathematics. He found me with a sluggish tongue, and taught me how to pronounce words." (12.102)

Mr. Muhammad had even less education than Malcolm X did. He stopped going to school in fourth grade. Why do you think he credits Allah for his education?

I would just like to study. I mean ranging study, because I have a wide-open mind. I'm interested in almost any subject you can mention. I know this is the reason I have come to really like, as individuals, some of the hosts of radio or television panel programs I have been on, and to respect their minds—because even if they have been almost steadily in disagreement with me on the race issue, they still have kept their minds open and objective about the truths of things happening in this world. Irv Kupcinet in Chicago, and Barry Farber, Barry Gray and Mike Wallace in New York—people like them. They also let me see that they respected my mind—in a way I know they never realized. The way I knew was that often they would invite my opinion on subjects off the race issue. Sometimes, after the programs, we would sit around and talk about all kinds of things, current events and other things, for an hour or more. (19.89)

In other parts of the book Malcolm X mentions religion and race as things that can unify people, but here we can see that a love of learning can transcend the boundaries of race.

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