Malcolm X, Prison…and Moss

February 26, 2007 at 1:13 am 9 comments

When Malcolm Little (later known as Malcolm X) was incarcerated in 1946, he found the prison experience to dramatically transform his life.  By painstakingly copying the dictionary page by page, he expanded his vocabulary and evolved his penmanship.  Thanks to the well-furnished library of the Norfolk Prison Colony, he educated himself on a variety of subjects including history, philosophy and religion.  Finally, by participating in the weekly debates, he discovered he had a passion for public speaking.  Some quotes from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (most from Chapter 11 – Saved) on his prison experiences:

Effect of Prison Studies
“Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade.  This impression is due entirely to my prison studies.”

Truly Free
“Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk.  You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge.  Between Mr. Muhammand’s teachings, my correspondence, my visitors– usually Ella and Reginald– and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned.  In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.”

Prison vs. College
“I don’t think anybody ever got more out of going to prison than I did.  In fact, prison enabled me to study far more intensively than I would have if my life had gone differently and I had attended some college.  I imagine that one of the biggest troubles with colleges is there are too many distractions, too much panty-raiding, fraternities, and boola-boola and all of that.  Where else but in a prison could I have attacked my ignorance by being able to study intensively sometimes as much as fifteen hours a day?”

On Public Speaking
“Standing up and speaking before an audience was a thing that throughout my previous life never would have crossed my mind.  Out there in the streets, hustling, pushing dope, and robbing, I could have had the dreams from a pound of hashish and I’d never have dreamed anything so wild as that one day I would speak in coliseums and arenas, at the greatest American universities, and on radio and television programs, not to mention speaking all over Egypt and Africa and in England.

But I will tell you that, right there, in the prison, debating, speaking to a crowd, was as exhilarating to me as the discovery of knowledge through reading had been.”

If Motivated…
“In the hectic pace of the world today, there is no time for meditation, or for deep thought. A prisoner has time that he can put to good use. I’d put prison second to college as the best place for a man to go if he needs to do some thinking. If he’s motivated, in prison he can change his life.”

I know very little about prison.  The closest I’ve come to it was a few years ago, when I got a call at 5 AM to pick up a former co-worker who had partied a little too hard before driving.  So that means the depth of my experience is provided by episodes of Law and Order… and Oz.  From that little experience, I’m prone to believe that Malcolm is right– that there is no one out there who could get more from prison than he did.  It’s easy to believe that because it is my perception that the opportunities Malcolm had, the libraries and the debates, aren’t as prevalent.  I could certainly be wrong, but as it stands, I don’t perceive prison these days to be as a good of a place to reflect and think.

Well regardless of the accuracy of my perceptions, the February 2007 issue of Discover magazine does indicate that there are at least some people out there still managing to learn and uncover their passions while incarcerated.  A short article entitled “Laboratories in Lockdown” highlighted some moss cultivation experiments headed by Nalini Nadkarni.  She’s from Evergreen State College (isn’t that Alex‘s alma mater?), and to help with her experiments she enlisted the aid of inmates from the Cedar Creek Corrections Center. 

She gave them four species of moss, data books, instructions on a few experiments, basic training on measuring techniques and let them have at it.  Not only did Nadkarni get a lot of good data, the exercise was beneficial, and even inspiring, to some of the inmates.

Of the 36 men who cycled through Nadkarni’s greenhouse duty, one inmate went on to study horticulture after he was released.  “He was almost evangelical about his experience because he felt he had something to contribute to science,” she says.
– “Laboratories in Lockdown”, February 2007 issue of Discover

“The turning point for me was volunteer-appreciation night at the prison,” Nadkarni said. “Wayne [Hudspeth, one of the inmates,] spoke about the moss-growing project, saying, ‘It gives me hope and will help sustain me when I get out of here.’ I was bowled over he felt so strongly about it.”
-“Inmates cultivate moss — and new interests in life” from the October 24, 2005 issue of The Seattle Times

Cultivating moss may not cultivate the next Malcolm X, but it is warming to know that there are still people whose lives are getting changed for the better while behind bars.


Entry filed under: Discover, Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Clint  |  February 27, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    boola-boola?! HAHAHEHEHHEHE…

    That is all. 🙂

  • 2. Ryan Somma  |  March 5, 2007 at 10:50 am

    Awesome post. EC has a very high incarceration rate. The prison for such a small town is enormous. Malcom X’s ability to turn his incarceration into a positive experience is inspiring, and I especially like his comparing it with the distractions at college.

    The article on inmates doing science is fantastic too. I couldn’t find the discover article online, but I’ll see if I can’t get ahold of it in the print version.

    Thanks for posting these!

  • 3. Weenos and Boola-Boola « TGAW  |  March 5, 2007 at 11:19 pm

    […] I connect this topic to the modern day!  In a post last week I included a number of quotes on Malcolm X’s prison experiences.  Amongst those quotes, Clint found a word that may be as amusing to him as “weeno” […]

  • 4. tgaw  |  March 5, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    Yeah, I couldn’t find the article on either– usually I have no problems finding electronic copies there.

  • 5. Villager  |  May 20, 2007 at 5:50 am

    Malcolm X was born on May 19, 1925. This weekend we celebrate what would have been his 82nd birthday. Please join us on the Electronic Village and share your thoughts on this African American hero. Let your voice be heard. peace, Villager

  • 6. Pedro E. Ochoaperez  |  May 1, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    Well, I did three years in the California Youth Authority when I was a teenager, and one of my favorite moments in there was reading, not that I like being there, but that was the dilemma. In short, being alone in my room enabled me to concentrate in depth as to actually obtaining knowledge from the books that I read. Being a gang-member and having a history of drug abuse in my life as a young adult, jail has given me the opportunity to consider correcting my life by offering me books to read; reading books such as: The Bilble, novels, etc. To comment from experiece, jail can only help you if you help yourself.*

  • 7. TGAW  |  May 1, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    @Pedro– Thank you for posting and sharing. Your description of being able to concentrate in depth seems to mirror Malcolm X’s experience. And I am glad to hear that reading played a role in your rehabilitation.

  • 8. 3 Year Blogiversary « TGAW  |  March 3, 2009 at 1:04 am

    […] Malcolm X, Prison…and Moss […]

  • 9. Anabel  |  December 16, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    So what you are trying to say is that we should all go to jail because it’s a possitive expirience and will be smarter???
    just stay in school and you will be even smarter!!!! come on ppl!!!!


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