learning to read by Malcolm X


Before the adoption of the letter X to signify the lack of his African tribal identity, Malcolm X was known as Malcolm Little. He was born in 1925 in Nebraska, and his political activity started with his conversion to Islam. Learning to Read was based on interviews gathered shortly before his death. It is, in reality, an extract from Malcolm's autobiography written by Alex Haley in 1965. Learning to Read is a detailed commentary that describes how X became enlightened and thought for himself while incarcerated. Malcolm's philosophy of white men's evils is also described in Learning to Read. Below is a critical analysis of Learning to Read. It will identify the audience and the purpose of the text. It will further analyze the rhetorical language and appeals of the text.


The audience of the text was meant for the whole world and any person who wants to seek inspiration. However, the message was closely meant for all the minority groups. Even among the minority group, Malcolm X was primarily the activist of the people of color. Malcolm was moving around the globe to spread his philosophies of the black oppression by the white man. As the commentary was written during his struggles in prison, his message also resounds well with the prisoners, especially the young black ones.


X was a school drop-out at grade 8. At a young age, he was taken as a prisoner, for criminal activity. For a person faced with myriads of challenges and tremendous obstacles, he is considered an epitome of great success. He took his personal story and the challenging times into the world of literature. He used the hard time in prison to read in their library and advance his knowledge. This time did not only lead him to his success in the world of academics but also made him a famous human right activist and an influential African-American minister and spokesperson for the Islamic nations. Learning to Read informs the people of the hardships he endured and his inspiring journey to a literate. It educates people of his education which forms an important and significant portion of his life. It is his education that transformed Malcolm into what the people know him today. Learning to Read also spreads the message of hope to all the people that are imprisoned (especially the incarcerated African-Americans). Apart from encouraging people to learn and be educated, the essay also spreads his philosophies and persuades readers to be on his side. Without the power of learning, X eyes’ would not have “…opened, gradually, then wider and wider, to how the whole world’s white man has indeed acted like devils…” (Malcolm,262).

Rhetorical analysis

The rough childhood, adolescence and ten years of imprisonment for burglary opened his eyes to be what X became to be. Even though the most vocal gangster, Malcolm was a nobody in prison. That moment was awakening and ignited his ambition to learn. The excerpt represents this awakening. He did not have any qualification regarding education, and therefore, the readers do not expect a good utilization of the rhetorical feature of ethos. However, Malcolm utilizes kairotic moment and the features of logos and pathos to lay bare the white man’s oppression and his prison’s reading. One can interpret that X was persuading people to join his course for civil rights. The goal of Malcolm was to correct all the evil things and harm the white men did to all the people of color and his ancestors. During that time, the civil rights movements were active and powerful and therefore, he was able to speak freely. Malcolm’s conversion to Islam was a rhetoric moment for him so that he could communicate with Elijah Muhammad. His position in the Nation of Islam gave him the much-needed fame and publicity. He had strong views on the subject matter of civil rights. The only way he would convey these views is through letters to Muhammad. Therefore, the only way all he could achieve this goal was to become literate. It is the desire for literary that made him began to write and learn more words. While in the Nation of Islam, X had a strong opinion that the white man was the incarnation of the devil. He had more radical views when compared to famous activities such as Martin Luther King. Even in Learning to Read, which just forms a small proportion of his autobiography, the hatred of the white term is evident. Further, living in that time was hard as any attempt to oppose the powerful Caucasians was received by punitive actions. The only way he could speak vehemently against their harshness was if he understood the language. It was only through literacy that he could convince his supporters. While in prison, Malcolm became a competent writer and developed the art of rhetoric through wide readership and extensive use of the dictionary. He states that “I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship……it was sad. I could not even write in a straight line” (Malcolm,354). Here, he is seeking sympathy from the readers and blaming the white people for denying him the power to read and learn. That was a powerful way of convincing his followers to oppose to the white men. He vividly describes the evils committed by the whites again the people of color during slavery. “…black slave women tied up and flogged with whips …evil white men with whips and clubs and chains and guns” (Malcolm,357). Such descriptions were not only to seek sympathy from his readers; it also makes them angry for knowing how even children and women were harmed during slavery. He not uses specific diction such as “atrocities” but also repeats them through words such as “whips and guns” to give them more emphasis. He does not merely list the evils; he uses the literary device of repetition to persuade the readers. He further uses logos as another strong rhetorical strategy to persuade the readers. The excerpt has clear usage of logos. They are probably the most convincing strategy in writing. All readers of any particular piece would like to see some facts. Malcolm X uses Learning to Read to provide factual information. He does not only provide the facts but also gives them in a specific way to direct the audience in a certain direction. The direction is to join him to loathe the white man. Any young person of color would have wanted to know the history of the black people during the rise of civil rights movement. Malcolm says that he was no different. He gives the book that he had read to learn about his people. He read the origin of human race and books that deal with cruelty the people of color that endured throughout history. He states facts such as while in his seventh grade and studying history class in a school that was predominantly white, the history of the black man was only covered in a single paragraph” (Wardle and Downs, 356). Such is a factual first-hand experience that one cannot dispute. He continues brilliantly highlighting certain facts. He alludes to Gregor Mendel’s findings in human genetics. He states 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). The statement is not explained further, and the reader is left to make his judgment. It is thought-provoking and inflicts some emotion in any reader who of color.


Learning to Read is an excerpt from Malcolm’s autobiography. The story covers his time of imprisonment during which he developed his literary skills. The main target audience of the story is the young person of color especially those that are incarcerated. However, any person who wishes to drive inspiration can enjoy the reading. It is purposed to encourage people to learn and encourage prisoners. He also uses the story to spread his philosophy of the oppression of the black persons by the whites. The article is highly persuasive. Although Malcolm did not have any formal educational qualification, he was able to use rhetoric strategies to convince his readers. He had kairotic moment during the conversion to Islam. The use of logos and pathos as rhetoric strategies are evident to convince the readers.

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Works Cited

Malcolm, X. (2000). Learning to Read. 50 Essays, A Portable Anthology, 245-254. Wardle, E., & Downs, D. (2014). Writing about writing: A college reader. Macmillan Higher Education.

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