Homemade Education: Malcolm X in Prison

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?

Malcolm X

I have recently taken the opportunity to revisit several books which I read when I was younger. Taking advantage of an Audible 2 for 1 sale, I purchased The Autobiography of Malcolm X, narrated by Laurence Fishburne. One of the most important books of the 20th Century, when I listened to it last week, The Autobiography’s impact on me was every bit as profound as it had been the first time that I read it. Fishburne’s performance is exceptional.

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In the words of Kevin Young, Director of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture: ‘People’s lives aren’t linear, they’re messier than that… but writer Alex Haley sought to create a narrative of Malcolm’s personal development marked by clear epiphanies that signal either complete or critical breaks with a previous stage of himself.’ It is this aspect of the book, the chronology of change, which I have always found to be most inspiring. Whilst Malcolm’s indomitable spirit is evident throughout almost every stage of his life story (regardless of whether or not he was playing the role of Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, Satan, Malcolm X or El Hajj Malik el Shabazz), his mental, physical and spiritual development is continuous and subject to constant re-evaluation.

Because of my work as a Drug and Alcohol Worker at a Public Prison, I am particularly interested in two episodes from The Autobiography: Malcolm’s awakening in prison – and his description of the ‘Muslim six-point therapeutic process’ for treating drug addicts. This article features extracts from the chapter of The Autobiography which concerns Malcolm’s time in prison.

MCI-Norfolk was founded in 1927 as the Norfolk Prison Colony, a “model prison community” conceived by sociologist and penologist Howard Belding Gill (Harvard 1913, M.B.A. 1914), who was appointed its first superintendent in 1931. It was built on the philosophy of keeping incarcerated people engaged with, rather than removed from, the world. It had dormitories, not cells, a school, a quad, an auditorium.

Malcolm X was incarcerated at Norfolk, and he attended the prison school, where he furthered his education far beyond the eighth grade. The prison school and library are where he picked up his love of reading and where he learned how to articulate and debate his points in an argument, as he was part of the Norfolk Debating Society. He has even stated that he began his education here by copying down an entire dictionary word for word, learning the words and refining his handwriting the whole time.

During the 1950s, the Norfolk Debating Society, a team consisting of prison inmates, beat a number of university teams including the Oxford Union at Oxford University.

An extract from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 

From Chapter 11 – ‘Saved’

The first man I met in prison who made any positive impression on me whatever was a fellow inmate, “Bimbi.” I met him in 1947, at Charlestown. He was a light, kind of red-complexioned Negro, as I was; about my height, and he had freckles. Bimbi, an old-time burglar, had been in many prisons. In the license plate shop where our gang worked, he operated the machine that stamped out the numbers. I was along the conveyor belt where the numbers were painted. Bimbi was the first Negro convict I’d known who didn’t respond to “What’cha know, Daddy?” Often, after we had done our day’s license plate quota, we would sit around, perhaps fifteen of us, and listen to Bimbi.

Normally, white prisoners wouldn’t think of listening to Negro prisoners’ opinions on anything, but guards, even, would wander over close to hear Bimbi on any subject. He would have a cluster of people riveted, often on odd subjects you never would think of. He would prove to us, dipping into the science of human behavior, that the only difference between us and outside people was that we had been caught. He liked to talk about historical events and figures. When he talked about the history of Concord, where I was to be transferred later, you would have thought he was hired by the Chamber of Commerce, and I wasn’t the first inmate who had never heard of Thoreau until Bimbi expounded upon him. Bimbi was known as the library’s best customer. What fascinated me with him most of all was that he was the first man I had ever seen command total respect. . . with his words. Bimbi seldom said much to me; he was gruff to individuals, but I sensed he liked me. What made me seek his friendship was when I heard him discuss religion. I considered myself beyond atheism – I was Satan. But Bimbi put the atheist philosophy in a framework, so to speak. That ended my vicious cursing attacks. My approach sounded so weak alongside his, and he never used a foul word. Out of the blue one day, Bimbi told me flatly, as was his way, that I had some brains, if I’d use them. I had wanted his friendship, not that kind of advice. I might have cursed another convict, but nobody cursed Bimbi. He told me I should take advantage of the prison correspondence courses and the library.

When I had finished the eighth grade back in Mason, Michigan, that was the last time I’d thought of studying anything that didn’t have some hustle purpose. And the streets had erased everything I’d ever learned in school; I didn’t know a verb from a house. My sister Hilda had written a suggestion that, if possible in prison, I should study English and penmanship; she had barely been able to read a couple of picture postcards I had sent her when I was selling reefers on the road. So, feeling I had time on my hands, I did begin a correspondence course in English. When the mimeographed listings of available books passed from cell to cell, I would put my number next to titles that appealed to me which weren’t already taken. Through the correspondence exercises and lessons, some of the mechanics of grammar gradually began to come back to me. After about a year, I guess, I could write a decent and legible letter. About then, too, influenced by having heard Bimbi often explain word derivations, I quietly started another correspondence course – in Latin. Under Bimbi’s tutelage, too, I had gotten myself some little cellblock swindles going.

For packs of cigarettes, I beat just about anyone at dominoes. I always had several cartons of cigarettes in my cell; they were, in prison, nearly as valuable a medium of exchange as money. I booked cigarette and money bets on fights and ball games. I’ll never forget the prison sensation created that day in April, 1947, when Jackie Robinson was brought up to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson had, then, his most fanatic fan in me. When he played, my ear was glued to the radio, and no game ended without my refiguring his average up through his last turn at bat.

Norfolk Prison Colony represented the most enlightened form of prison that I have ever heard of. In place of the atmosphere of malicious gossip, perversion, grafting, hateful guards, there was more relative “culture,” as “culture” is interpreted in prisons. A high percentage of the Norfolk Prison Colony inmates went in for “intellectual” things, group discussions, debates, and such. Instructors for the educational rehabilitation programs came from Harvard, Boston University, and other educational institutions in the area. The visiting rules, far more lenient than other prisons’, permitted visitors almost every day, and allowed them to stay two hours. You had your choice of sitting alongside your visitor, or facing each other. Norfolk Prison Colony’s library was one of its outstanding features. A millionaire named Parkhurst had willed his library there; he had probably been interested in the rehabilitation program. History and religions were his special interests. Thousands of his books were on the shelves, and in the back were boxes and crates full, for which there wasn’t space on the shelves. At Norfolk, we could actually go into the library, with permission-walk up and down the shelves, pick books. There were hundreds of old volumes, some of them probably quite rare. I read aimlessly, until I learned to read selectively, with a purpose.

Many a time, I have looked back, trying to assess, just for myself, my first reactions to all this. Every instinct of the ghetto jungle streets, every hustling fox and criminal wolf instinct in me, which would have scoffed at and rejected anything else, was struck numb. It was as though all of that life merely was back there, without any remaining effect, or influence. I remember how, some time later, reading the Bible in the Norfolk Prison Colony library, I came upon, then I read, over and over, how Paul on the road to Damascus, upon hearing the voice of Christ, was so smitten that he was knocked off his horse, in a daze. I do not now, and I did not then, liken myself to Paul. But I do understand his experience. I have since learned – helping me to understand what then began to happen within me – that the truth can be quickly received, or received at all, only by the sinner who knows and admits that he is guilty of having sinned much. Stated another way: only guilt admitted accepts truth. The Bible again: the one people whom Jesus could not help were the Pharisees; they didn’t feel they needed any help. The very enormity of my previous life’s guilt prepared me to accept the truth. Not for weeks yet would I deal with the direct, personal application to myself, as a black man, of the truth. It still was like a blinding light. Reginald left Boston and went back to Detroit. I would sit in my room and stare. At the dining room table, I would hardly eat, only drink the water. I nearly starved. Fellow inmates, concerned, and guards, apprehensive, asked what was wrong with me. It was suggested that I visit the doctor, and I didn’t. The doctor, advised, visited me. I don’t know what his diagnosis was, probably that I was working on some act. I was going through the hardest thing, also the greatest thing, for any human being to do; to accept that which is already within you, and around you.

Regularly my family wrote to me, “Turn to Allah . . . pray to the East.” The hardest test I ever faced in my life was praying. You understand. My comprehending, my believing the teachings of Mr. Muhammad had only required my mind’s saying to me, “That’s right!” or “I never thought of that.” But bending my knees to pray – that act well, that took me a week. You know what my life had been. Picking a lock to rob someone’s house was the only way my knees had ever been bent before. I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up. For evil to bend its knees, admitting its guilt, to implore the forgiveness of God, is the hardest thing in the world. It’s easy for me to see and to say that now. But then, when I was the personification of evil, I was going through it. Again, again, I would force myself back down into the praying-to-Allah posture. When finally I was able to make myself stay down – I didn’t know what to say to Allah. For the next years, I was the nearest thing to a hermit in the Norfolk Prison Colony. I never have been more busy in my life. I still marvel at how swiftly my previous life’s thinking pattern slid away from me, like snow off a roof. It is as though someone else I knew of had lived by hustling and crime. I would be startled to catch myself thinking in a remote way of my earlier self as another person.

Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t 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 I’d 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 I’d 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 didn’t 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 on-I copied the dictionary’s 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 dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet-and I went on into the B’s. 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 couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge.

The Norfolk Prison Colony’s library was in the school building. A variety of classes was 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 library’s 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, I’ve 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 wouldn’t 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. I read more in my room than in the library itself. An inmate who was known to read a lot could check out more than the permitted maximum number of books. I preferred reading in the total isolation of my own room. 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.

When I discovered philosophy, I tried to touch all the landmarks of philosophical development. Gradually, I read most of the old philosophers, Occidental and Oriental. The Oriental philosophers were the ones I came to prefer; finally, my impression was that most Occidental philosophy had largely been borrowed from the Oriental thinkers. Socrates, for instance, traveled in Egypt. Some sources even say that Socrates was initiated into some of the Egyptian mysteries. Obviously Socrates got some of his wisdom among the East’s wise men. 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 wasn’t 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, “What’s your alma mater?” I told him, “Books.” You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I’m not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man.

But I’m digressing. I told the Englishman that my alma mater was books, a good library. Every time I catch a plane, I have with me a book that I want to read-and that’s a lot of books these days. If I weren’t 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 I’m not curious about.

I don’t 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?

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