An analysis of two seminal works from African-American literature, both drawn from the authors’ autobiographies, reveals that the processes of learning to read and write is conceptualized as the means of personal and social liberation. While Frederick Douglass’s “Learning to Read and Write," a chapter from his ”Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave“ was written in 1845 and Malcolm X’s “Learning to Read," an excerpt from his ”The Autobiography of Malcolm X“, was written more than a century later in 1965, common themes can be identified. The analysis of these themes helps provide the reader with a sense of historical continuity that defines African American civil rights movements. The two texts demonstrate how important the basic reading and writing skills that so many people take for granted become the simple tools that can facilitate profound and lasting personal and social change. As both of these works reveal, there is an important connection between the concept of freedom and the process of writing, reading and becoming fully educated.Both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X devote an extensive amount of detail to describing the processes by which they learned to read and write, and, as important, the obstacles that they confronted in order to do so. Douglass explains that he had to acquire his reading and writing skills surreptitiously and, in one of the important quotes from “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" regarding literacy, it is said, He “had no regular teacher" (para. 1), and his owner and his mistress consider slavery and education to be incompatible. Douglass equates illiteracy with living in a “mental darkness" (para. 1), and from an early age, he devotes himself to learning first how to read and then how to write by appealing to the kindness and the egos of young white boys, whom he challenges to word duels. Just as with Malcolm X, Douglass thrills at the challenges of learning to read and write and sees this as part of the road to his salvation from the “mental darkness" that once enslaved him. Similarly, Malcolm X responds to his intense passion to learn to read by creating the conditions that made such learning possible despite challenging circumstances. While in prison, Malcolm X teaches himself to read by going through the dictionary page by page. In order to concretize what he has learned, he copies every single page, and years later, he can recall words and images that astonished him. He explained in one of the important quotes from ”The Autobiography of Malcolm X“, “I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn" (para. 6). Both of Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass understood the power of language and as their progressed toward their goals of fluency, each was amazed at his ability and in awe at the opportunities afforded by such skills. Both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X sense that words can be powerful agents of both a personal as well as a vast social change. In their autobiographies, both men offer homage to the texts that opened their minds and shaped their perspectives on social conditions and politics. Douglass is deeply moved by an exchange between a slave and his master in The Columbian Orator; Malcolm X is equally provoked by a number of books on a wide range of subjects. He starts with a history of Africans and African Americans, acknowledging the influence of seminal texts such as The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B DuBois and Woodson’s Negro History. Then, he branches out and begins to learn about oppression throughout the world; the historical and sociological texts that he reads give him a broad social consciousness that shaped his political thoughts and actions. By harnessing the power of the written word and literacy, both Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass are able to understand their lives within the context of the experiences of others and can thus go on to share with others this same gift.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Malcolm’s Changing Perspective on Racism
Malcolm’s changing views of America’s racial problems reflect the development of his character. When, as a child, he sees both of his parents destroyed by white society, he feels despair about the plight of blacks. His attitude changes, however, after his experiences in the black ghettos of Boston and New York develop in him the philosophy that black people should not accept help from white people. The teachings of the Nation of Islam that he receives in prison effect a further change in both Malcolm’s character and his view of white people. He simultaneously abandons his wild past and embraces a systematic hatred of whites. His later travels in the Middle East cause another profound change; his break from the American Nation of Islam coincides with his newfound belief that blacks will be successful in their struggle for equal rights only if they identify with oppressed peoples across the globe. His attitude at the end of the work contrasts with his previous beliefs in that he now supports white participation in the struggle for black emancipation, whereas he earlier does not. Only after passing through so many phases and seeing the race problem from so many different perspectives is Malcolm able to settle on a philosophy in which he truly believes.
The Similarity Between Hustling and Activism
Though Malcolm gives up gambling, smoking, and crime while in prison, his experience as an evangelist after prison is similar in ways to his earlier experience as a hustler. Malcolm retains insights, skills, and values from his years as a hustler that serve him in his later role as a religious authority and media personality. For example, Malcolm uses the knowledge he gains in Harlem—to distrust people, to know his enemies, and to craft his public image carefully—in his dealings with the Nation of Islam and with the press. Near the end of his life, Malcolm jokes to a university audience that he took his bachelor’s degree on the streets of Harlem. This comment emphasizes the usefulness of the skills that he gained while living a life of hustling. Though he now condemns his former lifestyle, his words show that he appreciates what that lifestyle taught him about how to interact with people effectively. The skills Malcolm uses as a hustler and later as an activist are not developed with these future roles in mind, but rather are built upon the necessary survival skills that Malcolm learned at a young age, emphasizing that life is a matter of survival for the urban black man. Though Malcolm’s young life is very different from his adult life, his ability to fight for survival in America’s racist culture is equally important at both stages of his life.
Humanity as a Basic Right
In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm focuses on how racism against blacks dehumanizes them. The white people around Malcolm often view him as something less than human, and Malcolm’s desire to correct this perception drives his fight for racial equality. He experiences subtle racism in his youth from his family and school, who treat him differently from others because he is black. Though his foster parents and some of the people he encounters in school are nice to him, Malcolm thinks these people treat him nicely in order to show how unprejudiced they are. He feels that they are using him because he is different, as though he were a “pink poodle.” Malcolm in turn dehumanizes certain white people as revenge for his own subjugation. In Boston, he displays his white girlfriend Sophia as a status symbol, viewing her less as a person than as an enviable object that he owns. However, when after many years of anti–white rhetoric in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm meets white-skinned people in Mecca who treat him as an equal, he begins to acknowledge the humanity of individual whites.
More main ideas from The Autobiography of Malcolm X