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The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Submitted by Taylor Stoehr (profile)
Title and Author: The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley)
Theme: The famous hoodlum who converted to the Nation of Islam in prison, and whose subsequent career made him a national icon, as celebrated as Martin Luther King, Jr., although for opposite reasons
Class type: Best with male students, especially groups that are racially mixed
Although we have taught this book in its entirety in our Dorchester program, we ordinarily read only excerpts, matched to passages in other works (and especially to chapters in our core text, Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave). Our course begins with an emphasis on childhood experience, and we typically combine readings about Douglass's childhood, essentially parentless, with passages from Malcolm's autobiography telling, among other things, of his father's death and his mother's sufferings and ultimate breakdown. We have sometimes assigned, for its ironic parallels, an excerpt from Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery, telling of his own fatherless childhood. We usually include passages from Bill Russell's autobiography, Second Wind, in which his luck having two strong parents contrasts with these other fates.
Our students are invited to think and write about questions like the following:
--What are the most important things a child needs in order to grow up "normal" - as a healthy, happy, worthy person? Douglass grew up without his parents, Washington without a father, and a young Malcolm X lost his father. Yet all three became great men. Is having a father necessary?
--How do people learn to face the things that life will demand? Where do people get their courage, self-esteem, and righteousness?
These questions are spread out over the several weeks that we devote to thinking about childhood, gradually moving into issues of self-determination and schooling. When we discuss the latter, we again focus on the same authors, choosing passages in which they describe learning to read and write - including Malcolm's extraordinary account of training himself as a public speaker by mastering the dictionary while serving time in prison. We often add a passage describing Muhammad Ali's very different literacy, which is a combination of minimal reading skills and quick-witted verbal eloquence.
Questions for thinking and writing:
--What role should a parent play in teaching?
--What is society's responsibility for setting and enforcing educational standards?
--When is the use of coercion necessary?
--Can a genuine desire to learn be encouraged through coercion - enforced attendance, assignments, etc.?
--How did you learn what you needed to know in your childhood? Make a list of events in your childhood when you learned something important.
--What part did school play in these moments?
Malcolm's example works as an implied challenge in the background of such questions, but we do not exhort our students to model themselves after him, nor do we ever draw attention to problems of literacy in student writing. If they are to make any progress in such areas, it will be because the urge comes strongly from within, not from any agenda imposed from without.
Many probationers have seen the Spike Lee film about Malcolm and are already familiar with his career, so that a few excerpts from the Autobiography can bring up a wide range of concerns. Sometimes we talk about his prison experience and his religious conversion. More often, we get into discussions of Malcolm's challenge to Dr. King's nonviolent activism, a debate that dominated civil rights discourse in the Sixties. All of this is useful for getting some distance on issues of self-respect and social responsibility and helping probationers form new attitudes toward their own problems. Our experience suggests that the most fruitful conversations come from comparisons between Malcolm's story and similar accounts from authors like Douglass, Russell, and others, including Dr. King.