The section of Malcolm X’s autobiography entitled “Literacy Behind Bars” (2007) was written in the mid-1960s and deals with the intense process of self-education that X undertook while he was a prison inmate. It details both the methods which he used in order to improve his reading abilities, as well as the existential feeling that such study brought to him and to his self-image, something that remained important in his life long after he was released. As such, the text presents itself as providing an insight into a vital moment of X’s life and the turning point in his transformation from a criminal life-style in New York to the world famous activist and political figure that he would become.

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Malcolm X begins his passage by commenting on the fact that he undertook little formal education, despite the fact that people often assume that this must have been the case. Although he admits that he often gives off the impression of being very well educated, he insists that this is only a result of the private, self-motivated study which he undertook while an inmate at Charleston Prison. Having established this, X discusses the initial envy that he felt for a well educated fellow image named Bambi. X describes Bambi as being assertive and as being able to take charge of any particular conversation that he found himself in. He then admits that it was this feeling of envy and of embarrassment at his own inability to read well that provided the motivation for his obsessive study.

Malcolm X then proceeds to describe the methods that the undertook in order to teach himself and to raise himself to a higher intellectual level. He insists that this took the form of a pragmatic and serious approach to study which involves copying out thousands of words from the dictionary by hand. He would learn these words every day and claims that he would wake up thinking about them. Having done this, he was then able to begin to explore the prison library and to read as often and as widely as he possibly could. He insists that this reading formed the focus of all the spare time which he had in prison, and that he could rarely be found doing anything else.

Alongside, X mentions receiving encouragement from Elijah Muhammed, head of the Nation of Islam, of which X would become the most vocal member. He states that, alongside the enjoyment that he received in reading and in feeling himself grow intellectually, the desire to better understand Mr. Muhammed’s teachings provided the primary motivation to continue his studies and to read as much as possible. Not only did this reading serve to increase his own knowledge about the world, but X also insists that it increased his own eloquence and that he would take a large amount of pride in being able to use words which he had learned in his studies in general conversation. Indeed, he remarks that the process of intellectual growth and freedom which he underwent led to him becoming experiencing a level of freedom that he had never known, either before or since.

Malcolm X then comments that his reading was actively supported by the prison authorities in Charleston. An interest in reading suggested that a prisoner was interested in rehabilitation and, as such, X was able to borrow more and more books from the prison library. Indeed, he remarks that this ability to read in his own cell meant that he was able to study even more and that he effectively turned his cell into his own library. Despite this, however, he does note that he would occasionally encounter antagonism from prison guards when he insisted on reading after lights out. Indeed, X notes that he would stop reading and pretend to be asleep should a guard complete a round by his cell, but that he would eventually inevitably return to his reading as soon as he had the opportunity.

Finally, X comments that as well as opening himself up to new areas of knowledge and understanding, his reading enabled him to understand the struggles of African Americans with a greater emotional sensitivity and intelligence. He claims that he book which he read was targeted towards understanding this struggle and that it became more and more clear to him through the process of his self-education that his calling was to understand and to participate in this struggle. He then ends the passage with a comment that, even now, he reads at every possible opportunity and that he is never seen without a book close to hand, whether it is at home or travelling towards one of the public-speaking engagements in which he would frequently participate at the time of the writing of his autobiography.

The final thought of the essay consists of a reflection on the nature of college as opposed to the nature prison. X goes as far as to suggest that studying in college would be a study that was full of distraction and of the diversions of social life. His experience of prison was unique as it did not contain any of these distractions and that, as such he was able to pursue a truly intensive and unique project of self-education. X closes, therefore, by stating that it was only as a result of his imprisonment that he was able to pursue the education that he did, and that, were it not for such imprisonment, his would never have reached such a level of intellectual competence and awareness.

  • X, Malcom. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Penguin, 2007.