The Autobiography of Malcolm X New York: Ballatine Books, 1964
It was because of my letters that I happened to stumble upon starting to acquire some kind of a homemade education.
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 wasnt articulate, I wasnt 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"
Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something Ive said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is due entirely to my prison studies.
It had really begun back in the Charlestown Prison, when Bimbi first made me feel envy of his stock of knowledge. Bimbi had always taken charge of any conversation he was in, and I had tried to emulate him. But every book I picked up had few sentences which didnt 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 Pretty soon, I would have quit even these motions, unless I had received the motivation that I did.
I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldnt even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.
I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionarys pages. Id never realized so many words existed! I didnt know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.
In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.
I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything Id written on the tablet. Over and over aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.
I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but Id written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didnt remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that "aardvark" springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.
I was so fascinated that I went onI copied the dictionarys next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionarys A section had filled a whole tablet and I went on into the Bs. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.
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. Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldnt have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammads teachings, my correspondence, my visitors usually Ella and Reginald and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.
The Norfolk Prison Colonys library was in the school building. A variety of classes were taught there by instructors who came from such places as Harvard and Boston universities. The weekly debates between inmate teams were also held in the school building. You would be astonished to know how worked up convict debaters and audiences would get over subjects like "Should Babies Be Fed Milk?"
Available on the prison librarys shelves were books on just about every general subject. Much of the big private collection that Parkhurst had willed to the prison was still in crates and boxes in the back of the library thousands of old books. Some of them looked ancient: covers faded, old-time parchment-looking binding. Parkhurst, Ive mentioned, seemed to have been principally interested in history and religion. He had the money and the special interest to have a lot of books that you wouldnt have in general circulation. Any college library would have been lucky to get that collection.
As you can imagine, especially in a prison where there was heavy emphasis on rehabilitation, an inmate was smiled upon if he demonstrated an unusually intense interest in books. There was a sizable number of well-read inmates, especially the popular debaters. Some were said by many to be practically walking encyclopedias. They were almost celebrities. No university would ask any student to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and understand.
When I had progressed to really serious reading, every night at about ten p.m. I would be outraged with the "lights out." It always seemed to catch me right in the middle of something engrossing.
Fortunately, right outside my door was a corridor light that cast a glow into my room. The glow was enough to read by, once my eyes adjusted to it. So when "lights out" came, I would sit on the floor where I could continue reading in that glow.
At one-hour intervals the night guards paced past every room. Each time I heard the approaching footsteps, I jumped into bed and feigned sleep. And as soon as the guard passed, I got back out of bed onto the floor area of that light-glow, where I would read for another fifty-eight minutes until the guard approached again. That went on until three or four every morning. Three or four hours of sleep a night was enough for me. Often in the years in the streets I had slept less than that.
The teachings of Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been "whitened" -- when white men had written history books, the black man simply had been left out. Mr. Muhammad couldnt have said anything that would have struck me much harder. I had never forgotten how when my class, me and all of those whites, had studied seventh-grade United States history back in Mason, the history of the Negro had been covered in one paragraph, and the teacher had gotten a big laugh with his joke, "Negroes feet are so big that when they walk, they leave a hole in the ground."
This is one reason why Mr. Muhammads teachings spread so swiftly all over the United States, among all Negroes, whether or not they became followers of Mr. Muhammad. The teachings ring true to every Negro. You can hardly show me a black adult in America or a white one, for that matter who knows from the history books anything like the truth about the black mans role. In my own case, once I heard of the "glorious history of the black man," I took special pains to hunt in the library for books that would inform me on details about black history.
I can remember accurately the very first set of books that really impressed me. I have since bought that set of books and have it at home for my children to read as they grow up. Its called Wonders of the World. Its full of pictures of archeological finds, statues that depict, usually, non-European people.
I found books like Will Durants Story of Civilization. I read H. G. Wells Outline of History. Souls Of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois gave me a glimpse into the black peoples history before they came to this country. Carter G. Woodsons Negro History opened my eyes about black empires before the black slave was brought to the United States, and the early Negro struggles for freedom.
J. A. Rogers three volumes of Sex and Race told about race- mixing before Christs time; about Aesop being a black man who told fables, about Egypt's Pharaohs, about the great Coptic Christian Empires; about Ethiopia, the earth's oldest continuous black civilization, as China is the oldest continuous civilization
I never will forget how shocked I was when I began reading about slaverys total horror. It made such an impact upon me that it later became one of my favorite subjects when I became a minister of Mr. Muhammads. The worlds most monstrous crime, the sin and the blood on the white mans hands, are almost impossible to believe. Books like the one by Frederick Olmstead opened my eyes to the horrors suffered when the slave was landed in the United States. The European woman Fannie Kimball, who had married a Southern white slaveowner, described how human beings were degraded. Of course I read Uncle Toms Cabin. In fact, I believe thats the only novel I have ever read since I started serious reading.
I read Herodotus, "the father of History," or, rather, I read about him. And I read the histories of various nations, which opened my eyes gradually, then wider and wider, to how whole world's white men had indeed acted like devils, pillaging and raping and bleeding and draining the whole world's nonwhite people. I remember, for instance, books such as Will Durants story of Oriental civilization, and Mahatma Gandhis accounts of the struggle to drive the British out of India.
Book after book showed me how the white man had brought upon the worlds black, brown, red, and yellow every variety of the sufferings of exploitation. I saw how since the sixteenth century, the so-called "Christian trader" white man began to ply the seas in his lust for Asian and African empires, and plunder, and power. I read, I saw, how the white man never has gone among the non-white peoples bearing the Cross in the true manner and spirit of Christs teachings meek, humble, and Christ-like.
I perceived, as I read, how the collective white man had been actually nothing but a piratical opportunist who used Faustian machinations to make his own Christianity his initial wedge in criminal conquests. First, always "religiously," he branded "heathen" and "pagan" labels upon ancient non-white cultures and civilizations. The stage thus set, he then turned upon his non-white victims his weapons of war
Over 115 million African blacks close to the 1930s population of the United States were murdered or enslaved during the slave trade. And I read how when the slave market was glutted, the cannibalistic white powers of Europe next carved up, as their colonies, the richest areas of the black continent. And Europes chancelleries for the next century played a chess game of naked exploitation and power from Cape Horn to Cairo.
Ten guards and the warden couldnt have torn me out of those books. Not even Elijah Muhammad could have been more eloquent than those books were in providing indisputable proof that the collective white man had acted like a devil in virtually every contact he had with the worlds collective non-white man .
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. I certainly wasnt seeking any degree, the way a college confers a status symbol upon its students. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America. Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London, asking questions. One was, "Whats your alma mater?" I told him, "Books." You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which Im not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man .
Every time I catch a plane, I have with me a book that I want to read and thats a lot of books these days. If I werent out here every day battling the white man, I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity because you can hardly mention anything Im not curious about. I dont 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?
Its a crime, the lie that has been told to generations of black men and white men both. Little innocent black children, born of parents who believed that their race had no history. Little black children seeing, before they could talk, that their parents considered themselves inferior. Innocent black children growing up, living out their lives, dying of old age and all of their lives ashamed of being black. But the truth is pouring out of the bag now.
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 Colonys weekly debating program my baptism into public speaking
I began first telling my black brother inmates about the glorious history of the black man things they never had dreamed. I told them the horrible slavery-trade truths that they never knew. I would watch their faces when I told them about that, because the white man had completely erased the slaves past, a Negro in America can never know his true family name, or even what tribe he was descended from: the Mandingos, the Wolof, the Serer, the Fula, the Fanti, the Ashanti, or others. I told them that some slaves brought from Africa spoke Arabic, and were Islamic in their religion. A lot of these black convicts still wouldnt believe it unless they could see that a white man had said it. So, often, I would read to these brothers selected passages from white mens books. Id explain to them that the real truth was known to some white men, the scholars; but there had been a conspiracy down through the generations to keep the truth from black men
You let this caged-up black man start thinking, the same way I did when I first heard Elijah Muhammads teachings: let him start thinking how, with better breaks when he was young and ambitious he might have been a lawyer, a doctor, a scientist, anything. You let this caged-up black man start realizing, as I did, how from the first landing of the first slave ship, the millions of black men in America have been like sheep in a den of wolves. Thats why black prisoners become Muslims so fast when Elijah Muhammads teachings filter into their cages by way of other Muslim convicts. "The white man is the devil" is a perfect echo of that black convicts lifelong experience.
Ive told how debating was a weekly event there at the Norfolk Prison Colony. My reading had my mind like steam under pressure. Some way, I had to start telling the white man about himself to his face. I decided I could do this by putting my name down to debate.
Standing up and speaking before an audience was a thing that throughout my previous life never would have crossed my mind. Out there in the streets hustling pushing dope, and robbing I could have had the dreams from a pound of hashish and Id never have dreamed anything so wild as that one day I would speak in coliseums and arenas, at the greatest American universities, and on radio and television programs, not to mention speaking all over Egypt and Africa and in England.
But I will tell you that, right there, in the prison, debating, speaking to a crowd, was as exhilarating to me as the discovery of knowledge through reading had been. Standing up there, the faces looking up at me, things in my head coming out of my mouth, while my brain searched for the next best thing to follow what I was saying, and if I could sway them to my side by handling it right, then I had won the debate once my feet got wet, I was gone on debating. Whichever side of the selected subject was assigned to me, Id track down and study everything I could find on it. Id put myself in my opponents place and decide how Id try to win if I had the other side; and then Id figure a way to knock down those points. And if there was any way in the world, Id work into my speech the devilishness of the white man.