In “Writing for an Audience,” Linda Flowers first makes a case for the importance of a writer understanding his or her audience, and she presents three factors that a writer must take into consideration when analyzing their audience: the audience’s knowledge, attitudes, and needs. Flowers argues that the goal of the writer is to “create momentary common ground between the reader and the writer,” and that a thorough understanding of the audience is essential in ensuring that the reader is drawn to the writer’s perspective, even if he or she does not necessarily agree with it ( ). This essay examines how Flowers’s principles of analyzing the audience are apparent in Malcolm X’s essay, “A Homemade Education.” This essay first summarizes “A Homemade Education” before discussing how Malcolm X creates a momentary rapport with his audience by understanding and challenging his readers’ possible preconceived notions or attitudes and by creating common ground with his audience by describing the joy of reading and learning.
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Malcolm X was one of America’s most prominent and notable African-American civil rights leaders. His detractors say that he advocated violence and black supremacy but, in reality, his views changed significantly throughout his life. Towards the end of his life, Malcolm X’s views were in line with prominent African-American civil rights leaders, and he no longer advocated violence as a solution to the problem of racism in America. Malcolm X was notable for his charisma, public presence, and persuasiveness, which is notable in light of the fact that his education was almost entirely self-education. In “A Homemade Education,” Malcolm X describes how he was able to transform his English language abilities, understanding of racism, and generally become a better leader through self-education. Impressively, this self-education occurred when Malcolm X was in prison. In “A Homemade Education,” Malcolm X describes how he was inspired by a fellow prisoner at Charlestown Prison, who he refers to as “Bimbi” ( ). Bimbi was a confident, knowledgeable prisoner who was able to dominate conversations, and Malcolm X was impressed by his abilities. However, Malcolm X had difficulty reading books because he struggled to understand the vocabulary, due to his low level of formal education. Instead of giving up, Malcolm X began reading the dictionary at Norfolk Prison Colony. It was this attempt that led to his homemade education, as Malcolm X’s mind and knowledge was dramatically expanded through reading the dictionary. He describes himself as being almost unaware of being imprisoned as he read and learned, stating that he had never felt so “truly free” ( ).
A primary reason why “Homemade Education” by Malcolm X is such a moving and powerful essay is because Malcolm X challenges the underlying assumptions and impressions that his readers bring to the essay. In “Writing for an Audience,” Linda Flowers emphasizes the importance the writer understanding his or her audience’s attitudes towards the subject matter. She states that much of what a reader knows is not explicit or formal but instead a set of associations or attitudes. In order to prove this point, Flowers give the example of different attitudes towards the word “lake.” Flowers has negative associations with the word “lake” such as “cloudy skies, rainy days, and feeling generally cold and damp.” In contrast, Flowers’s friend associates the word “lake” with sun, swimming, sailing, and happiness. In order to present a compelling argument or story to the reader, Flowers claims that understanding the audience’s attitudes towards the subject matter is essential. Malcolm X applies this principle in “Homemade Education,” because he understands that his audience has negative connotations of African-American men in prison, and that they most likely associate them with crime, violence, danger, and not with books, knowledge, or intellectualism. Malcolm X skillfully uses this understanding of his audience’s assumptions about prisoners, particularly African-American prisoners, to narrate an experience that challenges these assumptions and reveals his drive to self-educate. This contrast between the audience’s attitudes and the reality of Malcolm X’s experience creates interest and draws the reader into the essay.
In addition to understanding his audience’s attitudes towards prisoners, Malcolm X creates a connection with the audience through his descriptions of the joy of reading. He writes: “I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened” ( ). Here, Malcolm X creates common ground between himself and his audience by illustrating a common experience the writer and the audience have had. By recalling their own experiences with reading, books, and discovering new things, the audience feels a connection to Malcolm X. This connection through shared experience is able to surmount the possible differences of social class, race, and education between Malcolm X and the reader.
In conclusion, Linda Flowers emphasizes the importance of understanding one’s audience when writing, and she describes several techniques for analyzing the audience. Two of these techniques can be found in Malcolm X’s “A Homemade Education.” Malcolm X draws the reader into the essay by understanding the underlying assumptions that the reader may have towards African-American prisoners and challenges these assumptions by describing his intellectualism and thirst for knowledge. In addition to challenging the reader’s assumptions, Malcolm X creates a connection between himself and the audience by describing a common experience: the joy experienced through reading. Malcolm X’s use of these two techniques creates a powerful and moving essay that has captivated audiences for decades.
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