Study Guide

The Autobiography of Malcolm X Language and Communication

By Malcolm X and Alex Haley

Language and Communication

In the summertime, at night, in addition to all the other things we did, some of us boys would slip out down the road, or across the pastures, and go "cooning" watermelons. White people always associated watermelons with N****es, and they sometimes called N****es "coons" among all the other names, and so stealing watermelons became "cooning" them. If white boys were doing it, it implied that they were only acting like N****es. Whites have always hidden or justified all of the guilts they could by ridiculing or blaming N****es. (1.68)

So while the whole watermelon thing is obviously really loaded, we're going to focus our attention on how language is used here. Coon was a racial slur similar to the N-word, but the way that it's being used here doesn't just refer to black people. It's being used to describe bad behavior, and in doing so, implying that acting like a black person is always bad behavior. What modern examples of this kind of word usage can you think of?

Where "n*****" 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 "n*****" and "What's wrong?"—which was the way I wanted it. (2.80)

This scene happens after Malcolm X returns from Boston to his predominantly white high school in Michigan. The meaning of the N-word hasn't changed, but Malcolm X's reaction to it has. Why?

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. (4.1)

Clearly, Malcolm X was one real hep cat!

I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad. In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there—I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn't articulate, I wasn't even functional. How would I sound writing in slang, the way I would say it, something such as, "Look, daddy, let me pull your coat about a cat, Elijah Muhammad." (11.19)

Looks like Malcolm is having a bit of trouble with code switching. Code switching is when you swap one language for another depending on the context. While he's totally proficient in jive, Malcolm has a bit more trouble with Standard American English. Why does he want to write to Mr. Muhammad in Standard American English? Also, what do you think of the use of the word "standard" in these past few sentences?

Two other areas of experience which have been extremely formative in my life since prison were first opened to me in the Norfolk Prison Colony. For one thing, I had my first experiences in opening the eyes of my brainwashed black brethren to some truths about the black race. And, the other: when I had read enough to know something, I began to enter the Prison Colony's weekly debating program—my baptism into public speaking. (11.69)

Malcolm learned the skills that he would use later as an orator on his prison debate team. How is debate similar to speech making? How is it different?

Each family member, even children upon meeting each other for that new day's first time, greeted softly and pleasantly, "As-Salaam-Alaikum" (the Arabic for "Peace be unto you"). "Wa-Alaikum-Salaam" ("and unto you be peace") was the other's reply. Over and over again, the Muslim said in his own mind, "Allahu-Akbar, Allahu-Akbar" ("Allah is the greatest"). (12.15)

It may not seem like a big deal, but Malcolm is shocked by the way his brother's family speaks to one another. What effect do you think these kinds of greetings and the constant mantra of "God Is Great" may have on the person's thoughts?

Every phrase was edited to increase the shock mood. As the producers intended, I think people sat just about limp when the program went off. (14.139)

Sounds like reality TV to us.

White reporters, anger in their voices, would call us "demagogues," and I would try to be ready after I had been asked the same question two or three times. “Well, let's go back to the Greek, and maybe you will learn the first thing you need to know about the word 'demagogue.' 'Demagogue' means, actually, 'teacher of the people.' And let's examine some demagogues. The greatest of all Greeks, Socrates, was killed as a 'demagogue.' Jesus Christ died on the cross because the Pharisees of His day were upholding their law, not the spirit. (14.38)

Remember how Malcolm literally copied the entire dictionary? That's probably why he has such a keen attention to words and their proper meanings.

The program hosts would start with some kind of dice-loading, non-religious introduction for me. It would be something like—and we have with us today the fiery, angry chief Malcolm X of the New York Muslims…" I made up my own introduction. At home, or driving my car, I practiced until I could interrupt a radio or television host and introduce myself. "I represent Mr. Elijah Muhammad, the spiritual head of the fastest-growing group of Muslims in the Western Hemisphere. We who follow him know that he has been divinely taught and sent to us by God Himself. We believe that the miserable plight of America's twenty million black people is the fulfillment of divine prophecy. We also believe the presence today in America of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, his teachings among the so-called N****es, and his naked warning to America concerning her treatment of these so-called N****es, is all the fulfillment of divine prophecy. I am privileged to be the minister of our Temple Number Seven here in New York City which is a part of the Nation of Islam, under the divine leadership of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad—" I would look around at those devils and their trained black parrots staring at me, while I was catching my breath—and I had set my tone. (14.54)

Excuse the humongous quote, but you had to see Malcolm X's entire self-introduction. Imagine him spouting all of that, rapid fire, in a single breath. It almost seems like he's using words as a weapon, doesn't it?

After a Harlem street rally, one of these downtown "leaders" and I were talking when we were approached by a Harlem hustler. To my knowledge I'd never seen this hustler before; he said to me, approximately: "Hey, baby! I dig you holding this all-originals scene at the track . . . I'm going to lay a vine under the Jew's balls for a dimegot to give you a play . . . Got the shorts out here trying to scuffle up on some bread . . . Well, my man, I'll get on, got to go peck a little, and cop me some z's" And the hustler went on up Seventh Avenue. I would never have given it another thought, except that this downtown "leader" was standing, staring after that hustler, looking as if he'd just heard Sanskrit. He asked me what had been said, and I told him. The hustler had said he was aware that the Muslims were holding an all-black bazaar at Rockland Palace, which is primarily a dancehall. The hustler intended to pawn a suit for ten dollars to attend and patronize the bazaar. He had very little money but he was trying hard to make some. He was going to eat, then he would get some sleep. (16.148)

Earlier we said that Malcolm was having trouble code switching, but obviously he's completely fluent by now. What advantages do you think Malcolm has as a leader because he is able to speak jive as well as Standard American English? Are there any disadvantages?

Aside from the basic African dialects, I would try to learn Chinese, because it looks as if Chinese will be the most powerful political language of the future. And already I have begun studying Arabic, which I think is going to be the most powerful spiritual language of the future. (19.88)

Oh, we just wanted to point out that Malcolm X is a language dork. Probably didn't know that, huh?

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