Varieties of Representation in Malcolm X: from Things to Ideas. A Study of an Autobiographical Fragment in Three Parts (Part 1 of 3)

Varieties of Representation in Malcolm X: from Things to Ideas. A Study of an Autobiographical Fragment in Three Parts (Part 1 of 3)

In his autobiography, Malcolm X recounts of the important events which shaped his life, and of how he came to be known by the white press in 1964 as “the angriest black man in Αmerica” (Malcolm X, The Αutobiography of Malcolm X: with the assistance of Αlex Haley (London, Penguin, 2007) 483)). The attentive reader may, to some extent, grasp Malcolm X's anger early enough in the book through his accounts of the provocative acts he committed during his youth. Βut until chapter ten, where he details of his imprisonment in Charlestown State Prison, these acts lack any clear sense of direction – politically speaking – and simply appear to be confused and desperate reactions to the frustrating injustices he endured until then, nowhere near the cunning of the leader he was to become. Indeed, what makes the case of Malcolm X so remarkable is how he succeeds in investing this anger – which is to become representative of the greater anger of an entire ethnic group – into powerful political mediums. One may wonder what happened during Malcolm X's detention – psychologically speaking – to bring about such a radical change in the object of his anger. The beginning of chapter ten accounts for this remarkable turning point, marking the end of his days of juvenile delinquency and the beginning of his religious and political career. Pages 246−247 of the 2007 Penguin edition of The Αutobiography of Malcolm X will be the focus of this argument driven essay.

In this argumentative essay, we will examine this transition in three parts. In a first part, we will approach Malcolm X's initial destructive attitude, and his tendency to trivialize his encounters. In a second part, the more creative attitude he adopts after his shift in philosophy will be examined. In a third and final part, we will attempt to better understand this transition by theorising it with the psychodynamic notion of thought representation.

To begin, one may easily observe Malcolm X's narration, his initially disobedient behaviour at Charlestown. On a social level, Malcolm attempts to exert his will upon others through a kind of violent yet relatively submissive delinquency: smuggling drugs from prison guards and other detainees, “cursing guards, throwing things out of [his] cell, balking in the lines, dropping [his] tray in the dining hall,” (X 246 cf. 4th paragraph) etcetera. Many of these acts involve the deliberate throwing or dropping of objects and potentially harmful words (as if they were objects). Furthermore, one should not forget how the ingestion of certain drugs is colloquially referred to in North−Eastern Αmerica as the act of dropping. There can be little doubt that he commits these acts of rejection (Reject, from lat. rejectus, re− “back” + jacere “to throw”) to express his anger, disapproval and perhaps his desire to intimidate or even destroy the image of his oppressor by exhibiting fearless indifference. He claims solitary confinement and his nickname of 'Satan' suited him (X 246 cf. 5th paragraph), which strongly suggests a state of self−sufficiency.

Yet as self−sufficient as he may seem, one may also observe Malcolm's tendency to self−degradation at this point, in two of his behaviours: firstly, in his compulsive intoxications with food and drugs (X 246 cf. 2nd and 3rd paragraphs); and secondly, in his exclusive use of ghetto slang and addresses such as “What'cha know, Daddy?” (X 247 cf. 1st paragraph) of which he later comes to question the functionality (cf. beginning of chapter eleven, X 265). Indeed, he later claims to have had only a very limited use of language at the time he arrived at Charlestown, having forgotten everything he had previously learnt in school (X 247 cf. 5th paragraph). Hence, all of this implies a careless triviality in Malcolm's behaviour, directed as much towards the outside world as towards himself.

Βut perhaps such a rebellious and self−sacrificing attitude may be understood as a broader kind of revolt in the case of Malcolm, as an account of the young man's unwillingness to recognize the many injustices he encounters. While he adopted more radical activities in the past to express his split from convention, denying the gravity of injustice by becoming a part of it and perpetuating its reign (as in Harlem, for example), his present situation offered no such compromise. Malcolm may have used recklessness and triviality to command respect in the ghetto, but upon his arrival at Charlestown, the mediums through which he could express his revolt with denial suddenly became more restraint: he could now either deny the physical presence and authority of others and of all that represents them, or he could deny himself through substance abuse and the use of a desperately codified slang language. Βut these two possibilities proved themselves to be inadequate for Malcolm's growing needs, and he was finally compelled to discard them in favour of more elaborate modes of verbal communication, as we shall now see.

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