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Learning to Read by Malcom X: The Story of his Time in Prison

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Academic Analysis: “Learning to Read”

Malcolm X was an African-American Muslim minister and a human rights activist. He believed that blacks deserved to be the leading race and did not condemn the civil rights movement. Instead, Malcolm X believed in black supremacy, not integration. He ended up in prison for larceny and breaking and entering. In his piece “Learning to Read,” Malcolm X speaks of his time in prison and how he taught himself to read and write. The beginning of the piece is about Malcolm X teaching himself, by reading and copying down the dictionary. He talks of his determination and hours upon hours spent reading and writing. Throughout his reading and learning Malcolm X begins to realize that history and writings have all been tainted by the white man. The remainder of his text is spent discussing how the only way he was able to learn about minority history, was through texts written by minority authors. Malcolm X writes about his moments of shock reading about his races history, and also how the white man is playing a “skin-game.” He wraps up the piece by returning to his learning and how he “told Englishman that [his] alma mater was books, a good library.”(174) He completes his text touching on how he is battling the white man. Malcolm X’s writing of “Learning to Read,” allows readers to see from someone else’s perspective the problem with the white man’s view of history.

One of the main issues in Malcolm X’s text “Learning to Read,” is the tainting of history by the white man. He writes about this issue by connecting it to what people in Universities are being taught, versus what he has been able to learn on his own. Malcolm X implicitly criticizes the texts and ways of learning that is instituted on people in schools, and talks of how he learned more in prison than he ever would in a school. The problem Malcolm X has with the way of teaching, is that everything being taught was written and from the point of view of a white man. Malcolm X wants his audience to believe that the white race has shaped history the way they want it to be. He is pitching that people need to realize that there is so much more to minority history, then just a paragraph about slavery in a history book. In the text Malcolm X says, “You can hardly show me a black adult in America- or a white one, for that matter- who knows from the history books anything like the truth about the black man’s role.” (170) This realization is what got him to begin researching and learning about black history. Malcolm X is concerned about people being so uneducated about minority history and not knowing what really happened. This complaint that he is reacting to, is what he realized from reading books during his time in prison. Instead of people just being exposed to the white man’s text, Malcolm X believes that people should take it upon themselves to learn what really happened, from the point of view of someone who was being acted on in that time. This only added to his anger against the white race, and caused Malcolm X to begin fighting for his own race.

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Malcolm X’s determination and dedication to learning is seen all throughout “Learning to read.” He states, “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?” (174) This shows the reader just how much time he put in to studying and learning about history and how “a skin-game is being played.” (Malcolm X, 173) During his time studying, he started to believe that the white man in history has been extremely manipulative to other races. This manipulation allowed the white race to have people believing whatever they wanted. Malcolm X discussed how “the first Opium war was promptly declared by the white man.” (172) He also states in “Learning to Read,” “Those original “Christian traders” sent into China millions of pounds of opium. By 1839, so many of the Chinese were addicts that China’s desperate government destroyed twenty thousand chests of opium.” (172) Malcolm X learned all of this from just reading books that weren’t written by white authors. People never hear about this side of the story though; everyone believes that China was the country to begin the Opium war. Due to the manipulative behavior of the white man, they were able to spin it to being China’s fault, and that is what Malcolm X is trying to get across to the reader. The white media and white written texts are all swayed to make the white race look better, and not even give an inch of perspective from any other race. Malcolm X implicitly states that reading and learning on one’s own is so important. If people don’t reach out to what else is written out there and only stick with what they are taught, then they will only be learning what the white man wants them to know. In Malcolm X’s piece, he repeatedly mentions texts written by minority races such as, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “The Story of Oriental Civilization,” and Mahatma Gandhi’s accounts of trouble. The repetition of stating texts written by non-white authors opens the reader’s eyes to realize that there is so much more out there to be learned than just what is read in school. The one huge binary in this piece, is that of prison versus college. Malcolm X wasn’t saying that people should go to prison, but more trying to get across to his audience that what you are taught in school is not the full truth, it is the truth tainted by the white man. Comparing prison to schools is extreme, but in this case helps Malcolm X get his ideas out to people and also help him to start preaching what he believes in.

This idea of the white man tainting history is something that people had never thought of before. If Malcolm X had not written this piece, his main argument may have never been thought of or heard by the people. His time in prison allowed him to begin fighting for his cause, which is the oppression of the black man by the white man. Malcolm X says, “The American is the world’s most shameful case of minority oppression.” (174) This statement adds to the piece because the reader can start to see how Malcolm X is starting to be influenced to fight for his people. Throughout “Learning to Read,” the reader gets to see the formation of Malcolm X and his influences to start being a human rights activist. He states “How is the black man going to get “civil rights” before first he wins his human rights?” (174) Malcolm X was not part of the civil rights movement because he believed that the black man didn’t even have basic human rights that he deserved. This line implies that Malcolm X is fighting for something bigger than just equality, which he was. This is all caused by him reading and learning. He even would tell people that his alma mater was books, because ultimately it was.

Malcolm X’s structure of the text and the emotion he conveys through the context, work together to get his point across to the reader. His voice in this piece starts out tame and calm, but when he begins to talk about the tainting of America by the white man, his writers voice turns angry and there is much more emotion conveyed. Using this angry writers voice allows the reader to understand just how upset he actually was about this issue. The structure is also something that adds to the piece. The progression of Malcolm X’s learning and realization of all these racial issues, goes along with his progression of fighting for the cause and the reader can see how his movement all started. Malcolm X talks about learning at the beginning and very end of the piece, which brings the writing full circle and reminds the reader that everything he has learned to start his movement, was learned in prison on his own.

One could argue that Malcolm X believes that learning in prison is better than learning in school, but that would be based on only the line “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.” (174) That argument is not valid though. Malcolm X is not stating that prison is better than school, but is saying that learning on your own and going outside of what you are taught is so beneficial. Seeing different perspectives of well-known events is much more useful than just believing one point of view; the white mans’. For Malcolm X, his learning on his own allowed him to start a movement fighting the tainting of this country by the white race. What would have happened for minority races if Malcolm X had never began learning the way he did? And what if he didn’t write this piece exposing the white bleaching of texts and just the world in general? By reading “Learning to Read,” many people are able to understand what Malcolm X was standing for, and get a first-hand perspective of the cause, by someone who started it.

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