Most of us learn to read through various outlets such as television, books, movies, etc. Becoming literate is essential to functioning in society. Looking back at one of the most influential figures of the 1960’s, it is hard to imagine that at age 21 Malcolm X tried to start a letter with “Look, daddy, let me pull your coat about a cat…” (X 256). He spent 7 years in prison for robbery, and during that time he underwent a self-metamorphosis. His way of putting it is “books opened up a whole new world to me” (260).
History, philosophy, genetics and a whole dictionary all contributed to his learning process. But, as he learned more, he found the terrors of slavery and the other atrocities that the white man had brought upon the world’s non-white people. In this period of time in which he became more versed and more aware, we see the emergence of who people think of as Malcolm X today. He was an intelligent, black, Muslim man that influenced the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.
The literary techniques that Malcolm X uses in “Learning to Read” are imagery, tone, and diction to explore his self-transformation by books. The first of the three devices that are shown in the essay is imagery. His imagery makes it very easy to connect with his story, and put yourself in his shoes. Early in the essay, he talks about his pre-transformation self as someone who can hardly communicate in written word, and by writing out his slang we can hear his voice rather than just read it. Look daddy, let me pull your coat about a cat, Elijah Muhammad” (256). Rather than just saying, “I was barely literate” he lets the reader’s mind fill together the missing parts as he gives his picture of how he was before his transformation. When X tells about his introduction to the dictionary, the reader can instantly relate his story to their own experiences with dictionaries; able to look back on the day when they found that aardvark and zygote are the first and last words in the dictionary.
X also has his own run in with the word aardvark “Aardvark springs to mind… a long-tailed, long eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants. ” This could be a strong visual and emotional connection for the reader. Malcolm states that he transcribed the entire dictionary, and this helped him realize that there were many words that he did not know. From there on the reader sees his dedication to literature “I printed out everything on that first page of the dictionary, down to the punctuation” (258).
Instead of saying he was dedicated to books, he keeps introducing these photos of how dedicated he was to reading. Further into the book the imagery continues as he reminisces, “You couldn’t have got me out of books with a wedge… [and] months passed without me even thinking about being imprisoned” (259). These two quotes are semi-abstract, in a sense, but the reader’s brain still tries to make the connection. Such as, if I was imprisoned, how hard would it be not to think of my incarceration? Or, could they really not pry him out of a book with a wedge? It’s silly, but the brain works that way.
Lastly, we see imagery by X stating that he was able to read about history from outside the white narrative. He articulates it in a way that brings shame to any human who has a heart, “black slave women tied up and flogged with whips; of black mothers watching their babies being dragged off, never to be seen by their mothers again; of dogs after slaves, and of the fugitive slave catchers, evil white men with whips and clubs and chains and guns… ” He doesn’t let the reader off easy. Though it may seem as a call for sympathy, it could be interpreted as more shock to reader to inspire catharsis.
The details are convenient to forget and for a reader who isn’t as well-versed in history, and the illustration that is provided can make a connection between them and X. X’s tone throughout the essay is the most effective tool that conveys his message. X was seen as a strong leader through his time as a social activist, and almost too radical in his ideas (the reason he isn’t a main part of history for public school). His tone ranges from light (where we get his beautiful imagery) to angry nearer to the end of the essay.
To accentuate the differences in the two parts of his essay, two drastically different quotes are seen close in the essay. The first relates to him opening the dictionary, Malcolm says “I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed” (259). His tone sounds akin to a schoolboy talking about a first day of school. The tone changes later in his essay. His use of tone here may have made the reader go back and reread the section again to fact check because it is hard to hear. An example of this is the story of the white man hroughout recordable history and his effect on the non-white people of the world, “The white man had brought upon the world’s black, brown, red, and yellow peoples every variety of the sufferings of exploitation. The so-called “Christian trader” white man began to ply the seas in his lust for Asian and African empires, and plunder, and power. ” (263). The narrative is a stark contrast to the first, from using books to “open a new world”, to the bleaching of history, slavery, Christian trader. By changing the tone directly, the reader’s hand is forced to either get mad or reflect, which is what X would want the reaction to be.
Diction is a very broad term and for X there a few different parts of his writing that separated him from other essayists. X was known for being able to say the right thing at the right time. The irony of a quote from page 260 shows his transformation in a way that only he could “Months passed without me even thinking about being imprisoned… I’d never been so truly free in my life. ” The contrasting of him physically being in a prison and being mentally free and alive causes the reader to reflect on what exactly it means to be free.. A quote that has been already seems to serve every device that X uses.
His change from “Look, daddy, let me pull your coat about a cat, Elijah Muhammad—” (256) to “As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive” (265). This change in vocabulary and properness seems to complete his transformation to an educated, social activist. The diction, imagery, and tone that X used serves to create his voice in the speech even on paper. In his or her head, the reader can almost hear Malcolm X dramatically giving the speech. He has a very strong, confident, persuasive voice. Any writer or speaker who has control of his language has control of his audience.
Also, as a white, Christian, man, this was hard to read. Not because he was different than me. But, hearing the massacres of non-white peoples across the world is something that we don’t get taught in a euro-centric education system. The author suggests that self-education is the true road to self-empowerment and ultimately revolution. Malcolm X’s ability to persuade his audience stems from his proficient utilization of the rhetorical devices to appeal to his audience.
X, Malcolm. “Learning to Read. ” 50 Essays. Ed. Samuel Cohen. Boston: Bedford & St. Martin’s, 2011. 257-266. Print.