In “Learning to Read,” an excerpt found in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, author Malcolm X attacks his illiteracy while imprisoned for battling the white man. Malcolm in his conversations with other prisoners realized he wasn’t the most articulate hustler any more as he used to be in the street. Bimbi a fellow prisoner in Charlestown Prison would take over conversations because of his vast vocabulary and knowledge from reading. Malcolm was not only impressed but aspired to be as intelligent. Malcolm explains “Bimbi made me feel envy of his stock of knowledge. When he started his sentence the highest education he had was at an eighth grade level he received as a child. So Malcolm begins reading to acquire the same eloquent speech, but he comes across a problem. Malcolm couldn’t understand but every few words in such sophisticated books as Bimbi read. Malcolm became frustrated because he could only read the words he knew but in the end had no understanding of what he just read. Malcolm felt as though he was reading another language, such as Chinese.
While in Norfolk Prison he checked out a dictionary, tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony School. After months of crash course memorizations of the dictionary, books start to reveal stories, meanings, and to teach history. As his new found knowledge increased from reading every book he could get his hands on, so did his disgust for the whitened world in which he lived. His education started with the teachings of Mr. Muhammad who stressed “how history had been whitened” meaning when the history books were written by white men, the black man was simply left out.
This bothered Malcolm and because of this he hunted down any book in that library that had any information at all about black history. Books like The Wonders of the World and Negro History taught him about black empires before black slavery and the early Negro’s struggle for freedom. He also came across some bound pamphlets of the Abolitionism Anti-Slavery Society of New England. In these pamphlets he learned of a slave preacher named Nat Turner who, according to Malcolm “wasn’t going around preaching pie-in-the-sky and “nonviolent” freedom for the black man. He read how in 1831, Nat Turner and seven other slaves one night in Virginia, started a revolution, by killing 57 white slave owners.
After that night there were about seventy rebel slaves following him until about two months later, a small army hunted them down and hung Nat Turner. In short through multiple violent stories he learned that over 115 million African blacks were murdered or enslaved during the slave trade. Malcolm shares “Ten guards and the warden couldn’t have torn me out of those books. When asked one time by an English writer what his alma mater was Malcolm responded “Books. ” Every free moment Malcolm had in prison it was spent reading and studying, up to 15 hours a day. Months would pass without him even thinking about being in prison. Every additional book he read he used as tool to aid the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America. From Malcolm’s life up to his homemade education in prison he never had been so truly free.