Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925, was assassinated in Harlem in
1965. The ultimate influence in this powerful civil rights leader's career is still
difficult to assess, partly because his own views changed from black militancy to black
nationalism to a deep sense of the brotherhood of man.
The following extract is about his experience in junior high school at Mason, Michigan,
early in 1941.
I kept close to the top of the class, though. The topmost scholastic standing, I remember
kept shifting between me, a girl named Audrey Slaugh, and a boy named Jimmy Cotton.
It went on that way, as I became increasingly restless and disturbed through the first
semester. And then one day, just about when those of us who had passed were about to
move up to 8-A, from which we would enter high school the next year, something happened
which was to become the first major turning point of my life.
Somehow, I happened to be alone in the classroom with Mr. Ostrowski, my English teacher.
He was a tall, rather reddish white man and he had a thick mustache. I had gotten some
of my best marks under him, and he had always made me feel that he liked me. He was, as
I have mentioned, a natural-born "advisor," about what you ought to read, to do, or
think-about any and everything. We used to make unkind jokes about him: why was he
teaching in Mason instead of somewhere else, getting for himself some of the "success
in life" that he kept telling us how to get?
I know that he probably meant well in what he happened to advise me that day. I doubt
that he meant any harm. It was just in his nature as an American white man. I was one
of his top students, one of the school's top student - but all he could see for me was
the kind of future "in your place" that almost all white people see for black people.
He told me, "Malcolm, you ought to be thinking about a career. Have you been giving it
The truth is, I hadn't. I never have figured out why I told him, "Well, yes, sir, I've
been thinking I'd like to be a lawyer." Lansing certainly had no Negro lawyers - or doctors
either - in those days, to hold up an image I might have aspired to. All I really knew for
certain was that a lawyer didn't wash dishes, as I was doing.
Mr. Ostrowski looked surprised, I remember, and leaned back in his chair and clasped his
hands behind his head. He kind of half-smiled and said, "Malcolm, one of life's first
needs is for us to be realistic. Don't misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you
know that. But you've got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer - that's no
realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about thing you can be. You're good with
your hands - making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don't you plan
on carpentry? People like you as a person - you'd get all kinds of work."
The more I thought afterwards about what he had said, the more uneasy it made me. It just
kept treading around in my mind.
What made it really begin to disturb me was Mr. Ostrowski's advice to others in my
class - all of them white. Most of them had told him they were planning to become farmers.
But those who wanted to strike out on their own, to try something new, he had encouraged.
Some, mostly girls, wanted to be teachers. A few wanted other professions, such as one
boy who wanted to become a county agent; another, a veterinarian; and one girl wanted to
be a nurse. They all reported that Mr. Ostrowski had encouraged what they had wanted.
Yet nearly none of them had earned marks equal to mine.
It was a surprising thing that I had never thought of it that way before, but I realized
that whatever I wasn't, I was smarter than nearly all of those white kids. But apparently
I was still not intelligent enough, in their eyes, to become whatever I wanted to be.
It was then that I began to change-inside.
I drew away from white people. I came to class, and I answered when called upon. It became
a physical strain simply to sit in Mr. Ostrowski's class.
From: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1964, Random House
1. Do you think that Mr. Ostrowski's advice to Malcolm arises from prejudice or from
an honest desire to be 'realistic'? What does Malcolm think?
2. Malcolm considers the incident with Mr. Ostrowski as a 'turning point' in his life. Do you believe him taking
into account that he must have experienced similar incidents before?
3. Why ist it surprising that Malcolm went to a desegregated school? Answer in view
of what you know about segregation of whites and blacks e.g. in the 1950s.
4. Creative writing: Describe a childhood confrontation with a teacher or other adult.
Write a brief introductory paragraph, a longer body (c. 100 words), and a brief concluding