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Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass Self-Education

In this paper, I would like to discuss the works and principles of self-education created by the two writers Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass.

It is possible for man to educate himself without help or support from others. In fact, when we learn the art of self-education (learning how to learn versus how to be taught) we will find, if not create, opportunity to find success beyond our wildest dreams. Self-educated people are not dependent on others for knowledge. If they need a specialized skill, they know how to acquire it without dependence on authority. Unknowingly, people are promoted by their ability to learn new skills fast. Bosses may not recognize how people learn, but they do recognize the results. People who know how to educate themselves have choices, they have the ability to advance in any endeavor.

There are many ways to acquire a skill that has value to someone else. Everyone is unique and this uniqueness has value, but only the individual can explore and discover what that uniqueness is. People who do not depend on authority for guidance can start now. People who want someone to show them the way may never get started. Dependency on self to develop skills is a powerful skill in itself

Malcolm was born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. During his life he worked as lecturer and also pursued a political career. His father was a Baptist minister and supported the so-called back to Africa movement in 1920’s. Due to this activities his family was often threatened by Ku Klux Klan and forced to move out few times. Eventually his father was killed and his mother was sent to a mental hospital. At this time Malcolm X had to quit school and started the new street life full of drug addicts and criminals. While he served in prison between 1946 and 1952, he read books and also studied the Black Muslim religion, which made him an advocate of black separatism. Later Malcolm X left Elijah Muhammad, who was a Black Muslim leader and stated that whites are essentially evil. Malcolm X started to work for worldwide African American unity and equality.

For his defection, Malcolm X was assassinated. Some of his writings are The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), Malcolm X Talks to Young People (1969), and Malcom X on Afro-American Unity (1970). “A Homemade Education” is from Malcolm X’s autobiography, which was written with Alex Haley.

Most criminals are uneducated – One of the first points Malcolm X makes is that “the average hustler and criminal was too uneducated to write a letter.” Statistics do reveal this to be the case, and I believe that the author made this point to illuminate one of the reasons why some individuals are almost destined to become criminals. Without an education, a person is unable to get a good job and may resort to a life of crime.
The white man is the cause for the black man’s problems – Although I don’t necessarily agree with the author’s opinion, as it relates to individuals today, I can understand how Malcolm X reached this conclusion. Although black Americans no longer had to endure slavery, the legacy of their enslavement continued throughout Malcolm X’s life. Racism flourished in the 1960s, with many black Americans unable to secure decent jobs. Black Americans were not provided the education or the encouragement to succeed, therefore, their struggles continued.
Malcolm X became frustrated at his lack of ability to communicate – Before Malcolm X was imprisoned, he didn’t need to communicate in writing; his relationships were with uneducated individuals. After being exposed to new ideas from educated individuals, his need for communication skills became apparent. The more complex his ideas became, the more he needed a command of the language to express those thoughts and ideas.

Malcolm X copied and studied the words in the Dictionary – The author had incredible insight to realize that his inability to communicate effectively was a result of his limited vocabulary. I am amazed that he found the motivation to copy the entire dictionary by hand! I don’t quite understand though, how he was able to read the words in the dictionary when he couldn’t read words in a book. Obviously, he could read if he could decipher the words in the dictionary.

The use of the word “Aardvark” provides a powerful analogy – I really liked how the author revealed, “Funny thing, from the dictionary’s first page right now, that “aardvark” springs to mind.” Although the author casually refers to his memory of this word, the animal description perfectly illustrates a point that Malcolm X is trying to make. I believe that the author brought forth this image of an “aardvark” to prompt his black readers to refuse to act like aardvarks. Although the mammal came from Africa, just as the ancestors of Malcolm X’s, he refuses to act like the animal. Rather than hiding in a burrow, the author publicly stands up for he believes, and instead of simply waiting for food (substance) to cross his path, the author actively seeks what he needs.

The world opened up to him as his word-base broadened – Knowledge, gained through his ability to read, opened up his world. Rather than being confined to a prison, his “homemade education” allowed him to augment his own ideas with the ideas of others. His increased vocabulary enabled him to communicate with a wider audience, which, in turn, opened up new avenues for him to explore. The more he learned, the more his world changed, which is what education is all about. I think that Malcolm X was trying to impress upon his readers the need to be educated. Knowledge set him free, and he wanted his readers to find this freedom as well.

Another author I would like to discuss is Frederick Douglass and his approach to home education or self-study. Frederick Douglass was born in 1818 into slavery on a little farm on the territory of Maryland. His mother was a slave, her name was Harriet Bailey, his father was a white man that is all we know about him. When he was just a little boy, Frederick used every opportunity to learn how to read, even though it was illegal for slaves. When he turned 14, he started a teaching practice at a Sabbath school for black children, and later on he created a secret Sabbath schools for slaves to learn reading.

Frederick Douglass worked for Hugh Auld in Maryland and in 1838 with assistance of some free blacks he escaped from slavery. A free black sailor has given Douglass papers proving that he was a free man. Right after this Frederick went on a trip to New York, and stayed there after changing his name from Bailey to Johnson to Douglass to avoid being caught. Eventually he married Anna Murray and moved with her to Massachusetts, where they had five kids: Rosetta, Lewis, Frederick, Jr., Charles, and Anna.

In New York around 1845, Frederick Douglass wrote “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” – his autobiography about evils of slavery. The author used his real name and the name of his owner in this book, and so endangered himself of being caught. To avoid this, Frederick went to England. Frederick’s friends in England bought the papers “owning” Frederick, which made him a free man. In 1847, Frederick returned to the United States. Frederick also wrote My Bondage and My Freedom and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

While living with the Auld family in Baltimore, Douglass found a good teacher of writing and reading in Mrs. Auld: “Having no fear of my kind mistress before my eyes, (she had then given me no reason to fear,) I frankly asked her to teach me to read; and, without hesitation, the dear woman began the task, and very soon, by her assistance, I was master of the alphabet”.

When Mr. Auld found out that this was taken place, he unwillingly taught Frederick another very important lesson: “Master Hugh was amazed of the simplicity of his spouse, and, probably for the first time, he unfolded to her the true philosophy of slavery, and the peculiar rules necessary to be observed by masters and mistresses, in the management of their human chattels. Mr. Auld promptly forbade the continuance of her instruction; telling her, in the first place, that the thing itself was unlawful; that it was also unsafe, and could only lead to mischief. To use his own words, further he said: “if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell;” “he should know nothing, but the will of his master, and learn to obey it.” “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world;” “if you would teach that nigger – speaking of myself – how to read the bible, there will be no keeping him;” “it would forever unfit him for the duties of a slave”.

Frederick Douglass, as a consequence of this, felt a mental awakening: “It was a new and special revelation, dispelling a painful mystery, against which my youthful understanding had struggled, and struggled in vain, to wit: the white man’s power to perpetuate the enslavement of the black man. ‘Very well,’ thought I; ‘knowledge unfits a child to be a slave.’ I instinctively assented to the proposition; and from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom.”

He later sums up: “It is perfectly well understood in the south, that to educate a slave is to make him discontented with slavery, and to invest him with a power which shall open to him treasures of freedom; and since the object of the slaveholder is to maintain complete authority over his slave, his constant vigilance is exercised to prevent everything which militates against, or endangers, the stability of his authority. Education being among the menacing influences, and, perhaps, the most dangerous, is, therefore, the most cautiously guarded against.”

Let us remember the importance of education. We are mental beings, capable of thinking. This is a gift that we must all cultivate, and give others the chance to cultivate as well.


  1. Ansen, David.
  2. “The Battle for Malcolm X”: Spike Lee’s upcoming movie on the prophet of black pride ignites a debate. Newsweek v118, n9 (August 26, 1991):52
  3. William McFeely, “Frederick Douglass” 1991 Ch 25 “Port-au-Prince” & Ch 26 “Mole St. Nicolas”

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