In the prison in Charlestown, Malcolm X soon earned the nickname "Satan" for his seething hatred and cursing of God, the Bible, and all things religious. His sisters visited and wrote regularly, urging him to embrace the "black man's religion."
They introduced him to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Black Muslims. Malcolm was powerfully drawn to Muhammad's claim that the white man was the devil and that the history of the world was one long story of white men "pillaging and raping and bleeding and draining the whole world's nonwhite people."
As he absorbed Elijah Muhammad's teachings, Malcolm's confidence and dignity began to grow. He wanted to learn more, but his limited reading and writing ability made it difficult. He decided to educate himself.
He borrowed a dictionary and began systematically reading it. "In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting," he later remembered, "I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks. I believe it took me a day. Then aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I'd written on the tablet. . . . I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words — immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I'd written words that I never knew were in the world."
He proceeded to copy the dictionary's next page and eventually copied the entire book. When he was finished, he "could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying."
Through the efforts of his sister, Malcolm was transferred to an experimental prison in Norfolk, which had a large library. He spent the next five years reading. "No university would ask any student to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and understand."
His desire to read was so intense that he would slip out of bed after the 10 o'clock "lights out" order and sit on the floor near the door to his cell, where he...