How do we learn to read? Some people are taught by their parents, others learn in school from teachers, while still others are forced to teach themselves. Malcolm X was one of these persons that was forced by his particular circumstance to learn to read all by himself.
Originally known as Malcolm Little, Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925. At that time, the civil rights battle was just beginning to pick up in America. Malcolm’s father, Earl Little was a Baptist minister who was an avid supporter and leader of the Black Nationalists. This meant that Malcolm was exposed at an early age to the violence and brutality that was associated with the civil rights battle at that time. Earl Little was assassinated by a white supremacist organization known as the Black Legion. Shortly after his father’s death, his mother was institutionalized due to the fact that she could not deal with her husband’s death. With both of his parents gone Malcolm and his siblings were split up and thrown into foster homes.
I believe that this rough childhood lead to a rough adolescence as well as a rough adulthood. In 1946, Malcolm X was charged with burglary and sentenced to 10 years in prison. It was during this time in prison that he converted to Islam and became a part of the Nation of Islam. It was also during this time that, even though out on the streets he was the most outspoken gangster, in prison he was a nobody. This caused for an awakening moment in X and a passion for learning was ignited.
This awakening is what Malcolm X writes about in the excerpt from his autobiography. The excerpt is titled “Learning to Read”. Seeing as X does not have any educational background, he is unable to utilize the rhetorical feature of ethos; however, there is a very clear kairotic moment and he does utilize pathos and logos very well in describing the oppression of the white man, and all of the reading that he did in prison. I believe that X was trying to persuade anyone reading this excerpt to join the civil rights cause, but disguised this message in telling a story of how he learned to read.
Malcom X’s goal in life was to right the wrongs that had been done, not only to his ancestors, but also all people of color that the white man had harmed. He was alive in the middle of the civil rights movement which allowed him more freedom to be able to speak out. X’s kairotic moment was his conversion to Islam and his want to be able to correspond with Elijah Muhammad. If he had been born earlier, he would not have had any chance to speak out about his beliefs. Also, thanks to his high position in the Nation of Islam, he had a lot of publicity and became a huge name on the national stage.
X felt had very strong views on the subject of civil rights. He wanted to be able to convey these views to Muhammad through letters, and he felt that the only way to do this was if he was literate. This need for literacy is what prompted him to begin writing, and learning more and more words.
Unlike Martin Luther King Jr., X was seen as more a more radical proponent of civil rights. While he was involved with the Nation of Islam he looked at the white man as the incarnation of the devil. His hatred in his writing is evident, even in the small excerpt from his autobiography. As stated above, it was a volatile time in which it was possible for African Americans to speak out against the wrong doings of white Americans, including slavery, and what modern Americans now call the civil rights infractions. X felt that if he were to be able to speak and write with perfect literacy he would be able to have a strong effect on his followers, as well as people who he wanted to join his cause.
Malcom X became an extremely competent writer while he was in prison. He became an expert of rhetoric thanks to his extensive study of the dictionary and subsequent reading. This is obvious in his use of pathos in the excerpt from his autobiography. X says, “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” (X 354). X is trying to gain sympathy from his readers. He blames the white man for his troubles with never learning to read or right. This was a very powerful strategy for him at the time. Anyone who may have been on the fence in relation to civil rights issues could be easily swayed by Malcolm’s writing.
He continues attempting to gain pity from his readers by putting into print the atrocities done to African Americans during the time of slavery. “I saw descriptions of atrocities, saw those illustrations of black slave women tied up and flogged with whips; of black mothers watching their babies being dragged off, never to be seen again by their mothers again; of dogs and slaves, and the fugitive slave catchers, evil white men with whips and clubs and chains and guns” (X 357). In this quote I believe that X is trying to accomplish two things. He again is attempting to get pity from his readers by mentioning the women and children that were harmed in the slave trade. I believe that he is trying to convince his readers to feel anger as well by mentioning the cruel things that were done to all blacks at that time. He uses specific diction such as “atrocities” and the literary device of repetition by saying “whips and chains and guns.” Instead of listing them in plain tricolon, he repeats and to give his statement more emphasis.
Readers can see Malcolm X’s strongest use of a rhetorical strategy in his usage of logos in the excerpt from his autobiography. I believe that logos can be the strongest rhetorical strategy in any piece of writing. This is because readers like to see facts; X does a good job of providing these factual pieces in his writing, and delivering them in a way that directs the reader in a certain direction. This direction being that he is trying to convince his readers to join in his malice and abhorrence of the white man.
It would stand to reason that a young black man in the time of the civil rights movement would want to read about the history of his people. Malcolm X is no different. He details a couple of the many books that he read, including the origin of the human race, but mostly the cruelty that the black man has suffered at the hand of the white man throughout history.
Malcolm utilizes logos by stating evidence such as the fact that in seventh grade, while studying history in his mainly white school that, “…the history of the Negro had been covered in one paragraph” (Wardle and Downs 356). This was a factual experience that X was involved with first hand. This quote is not as strong as some of the others, because X we cannot count him as credible. He has not proven his credentials and has not received a college education. Yes, he is a very smart man, but he has not utilized ethos in his essay; he is relying on his reader to trust his word for what it is.
I believe that his use of logos is stronger when he alludes to Gregor Mendel’s Finding in Human Genetics. X highlights that, “…if you started with a black man, a white man could be produced; but starting with a white man, you could never produce a black man – because the white gene is recessive” (Wardle and Downs 357). This is a very powerful quote, but X leaves it open for interpretation by the reader by allowing them to make their own conclusion.
While reading his autobiography and other later works, you would believe that Malcolm X had a privileged childhood, and that he received a college education. This, as we know, is not the case. He taught himself to read in prison so that he would be able to articulate his thoughts and opinions on the matters of civil rights. His drive and passion for learning allowed him to master the use of logos and pathos in his writing. He had a strong kairotic moment that gave him a reason to start learning, and he went from there and made himself the best writer that he could be.
"Biography." The Official Malcolm X. Web. 09 July 2014.
History.com Staff. "Malcolm X." History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 09 July 2014.
X, Malcolm. “Learning to Read.” Writing about Writing. Ed. Andrea A. Lunsford. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martins, 2011. 315-18. Print