When Malcolm is still in the womb, his mother holds off Klansman from burning down her house by showing off her pregnant belly. Malcolm is born and becomes one of eight children. His mother is a half-white West Indian, the product of rape. His father is a very black Georgia man who preaches for Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement. Eventually, a Klan-like group kills his father and leaves him on trolley tracks to be cut in half, and the family must find a way to survive.
Why Malcolm might be hard to identify with: At the time the book came out, many readers, especially white readers but also some black readers, would have found him to be unreasonably angry and resentful, but today we’re all more realistic about acknowledging America’s longstanding race war, and the book is universally beloved.
- The bizarre murder-by-trolley, committed by men in black robes, not white, feels uniquely terrifying.
- He remembers lots of odd details from his childhood, like having his own garden before Kindergarten when he grew peas the family would eat.
- He uses lively language with personality: “The day was to come when our family was so poor that we would eat the hole out of a doughnut.”
- His father gives him a motto that will take on different meanings throughout the story: “Up, you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will!”
- His family is the victim of constant racist violence from hate groups, culminating in the murder of his father, but the institutional indifference surrounding these events is almost more offensive to Malcolm. The firemen just sit around and watch their house burn down. The insurance company insists his father committed suicide, clubbing himself on the head then laying down on the trolley tracks.
- Casual use of the n-word surrounds young Malcolm, until he wonders if that’s his real name.
- Malcolm is also the victim of extremely ironic violence at home. His father beats all of the siblings except for Malcolm, because, despite his teachings of race pride, he unconsciously favors his whitest child. His mother, on the other hand, who hates being reminded of her rapist father, beats Malcolm the worst. Malcolm finds deep ironies like these everywhere.
- Malcolm already evidences lots of superpowers, most obviously his extreme intelligence and self-confidence, that will serve him throughout his life (and also endanger him constantly.)
- Malcolm’s whiter skin grants him greater access than anyone else in his world. Being his father’s favorite, only he is taken to the Marcus Garvey meetings. But his father’s superhuman strength also flows in his veins. (“His body was cut almost in half. He lived two and a half hours in that condition. Negroes then were stronger than they are now, especially Georgia Negroes. Negroes born in Georgia had to be strong simply to survive.”) Malcolm comes off as a kind of demi-god, astride so many worlds: Black and white, urban and rural, Christian and Muslim, prisoner and world leader, and many more.