In the autobiography by Malcolm X, Malcolm describes the frustration he dealt with not being able to write down the language he spoke so fluently and explains how he came to literacy while in prison. He claimed to be an articulate speaker and hustler out in the street, captivating his audience when he had something to say but was not able to articulate his thoughts on paper when writing to Mr. Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Black Muslims. His frustrations grew to the point that Malcolm had to take action when he felt envious towards, prison mate, Bimbi’s stock of knowledge and how he could take hold of a conversation. In a failed attempt to emulate his prison mate, Malcolm thereafter began copying the dictionary on his tablets word for word and reviewed the meanings of the words within. After realizing his accomplishment and how much he could remember, rejoicing, he continued to teach himself new words. In his autobiography, Malcolm X uses the irony of his situation, becoming free through autodidactism while imprisoned, to emphasize the impact being in prison had on him.
Firstly, Malcolm X was inspired to read by his envy towards Bimbi’s stock of knowledge. Following this, Malcolm attempted to grasp the knowledge Bimbi had through reading, however, the vocabulary overwhelmed him. Frustrated by his lack of understanding, illustrating his bewilderment, Malcolm hyperbolizes that the vocabulary in every book he picked up might as well have been Chinese (173). After skipping the complicated words, it leaves Malcolm with little understanding of what the book had actually said (173). Ultimately, Malcolm’s frustration resolves, he “saw that the best thing [he] could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words,” and “to improve [his] penmanship” (173).
Secondly, after copying the dictionary meticulously, he read the words back to himself. Soon after, Malcolm realized that with a little effort he could recall meanings of words he once never knew existed (173). Besides learning vocabulary, Malcolm learned about people, places, and historical events through the dictionary (173). Broadening his understanding both in English and culture; Malcolm gained autonomy to “pick up a book, and read and now begin to understand what the book what was saying” (173-174). His new found freedom for literacy became the product of his efforts to constantly study to expand his mind.
Thirdly, Malcolm’s command of language is used to emphasize his new encounter with freedom to read what was once inaccessible to him in prison. Malcolm illustrates, “Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened” (174). The new world Malcolm describes is his escape from the prison cell he has gained his liberty from. Furthermore, Malcolm communicates through the second person point of view to affirm his commitment to pursue freedom through literature. He states, “Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every 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” (174). By speaking candidly and directly to the reader he demonstrates his strong command of language by implying how important it was for him to make reading a habit and that he and books were inseparable. Moreover, Malcolm’s full autonomy to language allowed him to exchange letters between Mr. Muhamad, focus on his teachings, and become enveloped in books (174). Although Malcolm remained in prison, his world of literacy allowed him to flee from the confines of his jail cell which he felt so free in. He adds, “months passed without [me] even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life” (174). Malcolm use of irony emphasizes that his freedom stretched out past beyond the walls of the prison.
Ultimately, Malcolm provides evidence that Norfolk Prison Colony facilitated literary enrichment, if, without it, he might not have been able to become free through his autodidactism in reading. The setting provided him with great resources; prominent teachers which came from universities such as Harvard and Boston taught at the school building where the prison library was (174). The library had a vast private collection provided by a wealthy donor, Parkhurst, along with books about every subject (174). Malcolm adds, “Any college library would have been lucky to get that collection” (174). Additionally, Malcolm describes the prison he went to with a strong emphasis on rehabilitation with inmate encouraged to demonstrate great interest for books (174). Lastly, an inmate with an appetite for reading was allowed to check out more than the maximum number of books permitted (174). Malcolm provides such detail to the setting to demonstrate its fundamental role the prison played in order for Malcolm to teach himself to read and in turn, become free through literature.
Lastly, with the autonomy gained from self-taught literacy, a necessity for knowledge developed for Malcolm. Upon reflection of what prison offered him, Malcolm writes, “I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. [. . .] The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive” (175). Malcolm received a thirst for knowledge that could not have been quenched but only sedated when he read.
In addition to his need to learn more, though ironic, Malcolm gained insight on how effectively he taught himself and the great impact it had on his life. He writes, “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” (175).
In conclusion, Prison had such a profound impact on Malcolm X because of the environment he was in, the resources the library prison offered him, and his autodidactism which without, he would have never been able to become free through his immense involvement with literacy.
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