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The Pickup Truck Driver

Pickup Truck

The usual unimaginative critic of The Pickup Truck Driver is a stereotype unto himself – that is, he employs the boring cliché that those who sit high in a Ford F-150 are compensating for their small penises, and, worse, he delivers this rote statement with an air of triumphant originality. But this tedious assertion makes no sense when one considers that there are too many PTDs wreaking havoc on the land to not cover the full spectrum of penile length and girth, especially when one takes into account that not a few of this species are women – unless the joke is that a lady PTD has a penis so diminutive as to be nonexistent and so must require the compensatory ownership of a Ford Super Duty Truck F-350. Nay, the actual common trait among Pickup Truck Drivers is an unearned sense of entitlement and the unquenchable urge to be a Dickhead, regardless of the size of their actual Dick, Head and Shaft.

The primary complaint against the PTD is how he will ride up so close to your ass as to risk passing onto you all his sexually transmitted diseases – and if done at night, then made worse by how he will activate his high-beams and thereby direct a veritable maximum-security-prison-flood-light into the interior of your Nissan Altima. This of course is a totally dickhead move, the definition of which is to expend extra time and energy, with little or no reason, to torture a complete stranger.  Yet the exact same PTD who will push the gas to such an obnoxious extent as to push the Altima off the road and into a ditch (this has happened) will also, if in front of the Altima, slow down to the crawling speed of 15 -miles-per-hour on a state highway for the sole purpose of keeping the driver behind him from getting his pregnant wife to the hospital for an emergency C-section. In other words, the only thought that inhabits the reptilian brain of the PTD is how he can ruin the lives of fellow motorists – i.e., how he can raise his Dickheadedness to the level of Joseph Stalin starving 7 million Ukrainians to death because they wanted, like Greta Garbo, to be left alone.

Studies have shown that the same guy who employs his Pickup Truck as a Weapon of Mass Irritation was, before his purchase of a Toyota Tundra, a mere level-one Dickhead who, at a supermarket, manifested his self-absorption by leaving his shopping cart in a prime parking spot, with the cart-collection area only ten feet away. But then comes the day when he climbs into the Tundra, which, to an enlightened person, would seem no more remarkable than pulling a rake out of the backyard shed, but, to this solipsistic, unaccomplished dunce, has the transformative effect of what happens to a mild-mannered reporter who gets bitten by a radioactive spider. In an instant, this Nobody feels imbued with comic book-like superpowers that now catapult him right past levels two, three and four on the Dickhead Scale — past the guy who, at a health club, leaves four hundred pounds of metal plates on a barbell that must then be put away by a 53-year-old, 110-pound lady professor at the local college if she is to do her three sets of light squats – and past the guy who  blasts  Goth Rock music at 4:00 AM in an apartment building filled with families of sleeping children. Yes, this simpleton will now take his Pickup Truck out into the road and, within an hour, he will morph into a Level-Five Dickhead when he parks his behemoth vehicle right in front of the door of a convenience store (so he can buy two packs of Marlboros which will enable him to extend his asshole repertoire to blowing smoke in the faces of asthma sufferers) rather than walk twenty feet from an assigned spot.

You see, Royalty is not beholden by the rules of a civil society, hence why the PTD feels no qualms about knowing full well that patrons to the convenience store will have to twist themselves into an advanced yoga position just to get around his carbon-monoxide-spewing tank so they can buy a bag of pretzels. It is a historical fact that Royalty will eventually produce inbred dummies, hence why this Prince of the Pickup will force his shiny new, expensive aircraft carrier on wheels into a tight parking spot close to the entrance of a mall and then get go into a self-righteous tizzy when the car next to him scrapes his precious identity-solidifier. Dumb people are myopic people who are in turn people who cannot fathom the existence of other people also sharing space in this vale of tears, and so the rest of us responsible adults must accommodate the PTD’s gross and childish need for attention.

Another indication of how this man is not the brightest headlight in a sea of high headlights meant to blind other motorists is how he can only drive ten MPH when he is carting a passenger. This is because he must turn to the passenger when in-articulating another life lesson about how “you win some, you lose some,” or how he “can’t wait for Friday,” or how “life’s a bitch and then you marry one,” or how “life is like a box of used engine gaskets.” He is too ignorant of the laws of sound mechanics to understand that he can look forward at the road and still be heard by the person sitting three feet to the side of him. This is why driving behind this yo-yo is like BEING a yo-yo, since he will slow down when he turns to torture his captive audience with his home-spun drivel and then speed back up when taking a breath and returning his focus to the task at hand. In sum, he cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, though, in reality, he cannot walk at all as evidenced by how he parks an inch away from the aforementioned convenience store entrance.

A simple test will prove true the hypothesis that the Pickup Truck Driver is motivated by nothing more than an unimaginative need to gain cheap ascendancy over his superiors who choose to increase their own self-esteem by more honorable methods like earning a PhD in Neuroscience or training for a Triathlon.  The test is to ask why the PTD drives a pickup instead of an SUV, much less a sensible auto? In most cases, the PTD does not haul lumber, nor collect junk on trash day to be sold for scrap, nor have a job that requires metal pipes. In fact, that bed behind the cap is usually empty so that it would make more sense to just convert it to a tiny house or an office space for a real estate agent, or, better, to just saw it off and use it as a stage for a teenage garage band. The PTD will respond to this argument that he needs the expansive bed of his truck for his tools, yet, if you open his tool chest, all you will find is a few roach-clips and a screwdriver with a broken off tip. Okay, then, he needs the space for his fishing gear, which is tantamount to claiming that you need Yankee Stadium to store your push-lawnmower.

What he will not say is the truth: I need all this empty space to match my empty mind, a mind that equates projecting my vast emptiness into the more productive and meaningful space of my fellow citizens – i.e., I am a total Dickhead, period.

(Check out my website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

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The Cigarette Couple

Cigarette Couple

 Most romantic couples – and couples who are not romantic but are together nonetheless – usually forge their bond around a theme, hobby or shared goal. For example, there are singles who meet in a bicycle club – you know, the ones that require its members to dress like neon billboards in spandex and then back up auto traffic for five miles because these peddlers never got the memo that they are not entitled to take up the road as if they were Mack Trucks hauling grain. This social arrangement is ideal for people who have nothing of import to say but have no problem showing off every crevice of their okay looking anatomies. Thus is borne the couple who communicates by grunting up steep inclines while checking out each other’s genitals and buttocks as outlined by the aforementioned spandex. Then there is the not so fit couple who’s shared passion, the hearth around which they lounge together in domestic bliss, is the cigarette.

The Cigarette Couple’s mutual hobby is smelling like a Chicago speakeasy from the 1920s, a time when inhaling glowing sulfur was deemed attractive and healthy – that is, until the pretty Flapper’s skin turned into wrinkled leather and she died of lung cancer when her last breath was a putrid blast into the face of her respectful grandchildren. The Cigarette Couple also shares a passion for matching yellow fingers, not unlike a dorky couple who walk together in public wearing the exact same purple T-shirts. Their on-point message to the world is: “We smoke, therefore we skink, therefore we love each other.”

The Cigarette Couple’s sole subject of communication is their respective supply of smokes. Honey, where are my cigarettes? Each cannot go out on errands without first asking the other if they have enough cigarettes. Do you need cigarettes while I’m out? Many long-term couples will get a dog and both stare at it when they have run out of things to talk about, and this is what happens with our amorous duo as they stand facing each other, tongue-tied, albeit with lingering glances at their respective, flicked cigarettes. Their oral fixation is so strong that often the husband will wish that his old lady’s clit was a whole lot bigger, perhaps the size of what hangs between the legs of the Marlboro Man. They use the buddy system when out in the world, as one will enter a store while the other will stay outside sucking for dear life so to stock up on nicotine in preparation for the next errand when it will be their turn to enter – the horror! – a smoke-free zone.

Their wedding follows the guidelines as dictated by the Cigarette Couple’s belief system. It is an outdoor affair, being that chain-smoking is not permitted in a church, though the husband did once fantasize about founding a new religion called the Holy Church of the Cigarette. The pastor presiding over the ceremony is himself a three-pack a day inhaler, which explains the small-circular burns throughout the pages of his personal Bible, especially at the passage in the Book of Revelation that reads “and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.” – the reading of which never fails to inspire the good Pastor to burn a cancer-stick. In other words, the bride, groom and the man about to join them in hazy matrimony all have cigarettes dangling from their singed lips.

The clinching of the vows comes when the Pastor snuffs out a cig and quickly relights another one before he looks from the bride to the groom, both enveloped in a loving tobacco cloud, and says, “Do you, Sally, with your foghorn voice, agree to help blacken the lungs of Chuck, in plenty and in want; in joy and in sorrow; in sickness and in health, mostly sickness, since who the fuck can  ever stay healthy with the way you two foul-smelling apes suck down the butts – I say, Sally, do you take this man, Chuck, to be your husband for as long as you both shall live, which, let’s be honest, won’t be long?” Sally now has tears in her eyes from both the romantic sentiment and stinging jet of smoke just blown in her face by Chuck when she announces “I Do.” Then the Pastor turns to the groom and intones, “And do you, Chuck, promise to always make sure that Sally’s dental work remains a bright yellow hue with traces of black tar embedded between the teeth and gums?” Here a proud Chuck puffs out his chest in tandem with puffing another drag from his shortening coffin-nail, and says, “I Do!” Whereupon the Pastor says, “I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride and thereby join your horrid breath with her equally mustard-gas-spewing exhalation – and may those witnessing this feel free to turn away so to avoid throwing up in your mouths.”

The bond felt between the Cigarette Couple tightens when they MUST attend a gathering of civilized people – i.e., humans who are literate in the sense of not ending every statement with “I need a cigarette,” and who value clean air quality. The healthy, well scented hosts are nonetheless obligated to reserve an area outside of the non-gray-stained walls of their homes for these two skink-bombs so that, when the conversation veers toward subjects far removed from the various beards worn by NASCAR drivers or what ashtrays cost at Walmart, Chuck and Sally can flee to their smoggy refuge and there smoke their glowing cylinders and bitch about how all those people inside “aint no better” than them, “fucking a-right.” This is when they see themselves not as halitotic pariahs but as Bonnie and Clyde united against the chicken-shit, afraid-of-getting-cancer world. This romantic vision of themselves is reinforced when they return inside to the gathering and mistake the participants tilting their eye-watering heads backwards to minimize the instant rush of just imbibed cigarette smoke as the ultimate fear and respect due to Bonnie and Clyde.

Squabbles between our pungent couple are often the result of one having pilfered the other’s stash of private smokes. For example, what man worth the spent butts strewn throughout the cab of his pickup truck would be seen dragging on his wife’s Virginia Slim cigarette, and her last one, to boot? The answer, according to Sally, is a selfish man not at all sensitive to her needs, her own repulsive addiction. Yeah bitch, yells Chuck, how about the time you took my last pack of Marlboro Reds AND my truck, forcing me to WALK two wheezing miles to the Seven-Eleven where my hands were shaking so much that only by the grace of our beloved Jesus could I light my cigarette?

Conversely, there is nothing more romantic than the following scene. The man is laboring beneath his jacked-up truck and is beginning to feel delirium tremens from having gone an epic fifteen minutes without a nicotine fix due to his phalanges being occupied by holding up a transmission pan with one hand while screwing it in with the other hand. Luckily, his cosmic mate has been monitoring him in his hour of need and casually walks toward her Eternal Husband while igniting his Marlboro. Chuck has anticipated the approach of this goddess, his precious Sally, by scooting out from under their piece-of-shit F-150 and sitting up to await disaster relief. His savior squats down, takes a long pull for her own benefit (for this is a fifty-fifty relationship), and then places the cigarette between his sweaty, greasy lips, whereupon, in one long, desperate inhalation, he reduces the butt to half of its original length. They now exchange a tender look that is a clear manifestation of their Transcendent Love. Such a public display of affection would usually elicit an “awwww” from an audience, but in this case the spectator would be too busy backing away so to avoid being contaminated by the fetid odor.

The final portrait of the Cigarette Couple is of them posing together in a tribute to Grant Wood’s American Gothic except that Sally is wearing a pink T-shirt with rhinestones spelling out the words HOT STUFF and Chuck is not holding a pitchfork but rather a five-foot-long torch of a giant cigarette, with the caption reading, “We Love, Therefore We Smoke.”

(Check out my writer website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

Mary Richards Dies from a Botched Boob Job

Mary Richards

NEW YORK — Mary Richards died on Friday due to complications from a botched boob job. The 77-year-old Richards, a New York City resident, had been obsessed of late with her fading good looks, which, in reality, had faded two decades ago when she put on a ton of weight after learning that her husband, Steve, was having an affair with the granddaughter of her friend, Phyllis Lindstrom. The “other woman,” a sex blogger, lived in San Francisco, yet the ever gullible Mary bought her former politician husband’s story about frequent “business trips” out west, though Steve had no business interests, nor aptitude for business, and moreover had been out of politics since the famous scandal involving him and the disappearance of all the change in the tip jar at Sal’s Deli. But eventually it was Phyllis, old pain-in-the-ass Phyllis, who was once Mary’s landlord in Minneapolis until she took up a lesbian lifestyle in San Fran, who told Mary of the tryst while blaming it all on the inherent evil of men. “Why do you think I started licking box?” said Phyllis over the phone.

Mary’s other Minneapolis friend, Rhoda Morgenstern, now Mary’s next-door neighbor on the Upper East Side, was furious at the news of the affair. “What’s wrong with my granddaughter, Myra? Sure she has her grandmother’s weight problem, but so long as she has her own spin-off series and, with it, ABC’s vast grooming, dietary and fitness training resources at her disposal, if only to give viewers an unrealistic picture  of a dowdy, sarcastic young lady with low self-esteem, she can be quite attractive. And, Mary, my Myra, is local. Those flights to California have to be eating into your retirement fund.” A sniffling Mary countered by saying that at least Steve was racking up the frequent flyer mileage, which they could use when they travel to Europe next year.

It must be noted that Rhoda and Phyllis had been sworn enemies since landlord Phyllis had given the attractive Mary her best apartment at a discount price while relegating the chunky Rhoda to the attic – and now the feud had carried into the third generation. In the end, Mary took solace in food, with her and Rhoda working out a six-month plan to hit every ice cream and fudge shop in Manhattan, and then punctuating each day’s binge by standing in the middle of Time’s Square and tossing their tams in the air while singing in perfect harmony “We’re gonna make it after all” – that is, until the inevitable Pakistani cab driver yelled out: “Geet out of dee way, you crazy old beetches!”

Years later, Rhoda went senile, and thus the binging came to a gradual stop to be replaced by another obsession: The Lou Grant Diaries. Lou Grant had been a news producer for the Minneapolis TV station, WJM, in 1970 when he hired the perky, inexperienced Mary Richards to be his associate producer. The entry in Lou’s diary that night reads: “Can’t stop masturbating thinking of this new broad at work, Mary, whom I plan to keep promoting for no other reason than to keep hearing the cherished phrase, ‘Ah, Mr. Grant.’” This was followed by less flattering lines: “Think Murray Slaughter may be a fairy. Who talks with that kind of lilt in Minneapolis?…Ted Baxter is about to get the extra-wide Grant foot up his ass…Wow, two homosexual references – gee, I would read something into that if I hadn’t just loped the mule to Mary. On other hand, I could be bi…”

Little did Lou Grant know that the spunky Mary would trade on her good looks to rise in the TV news industry until she was working in New York as a news producer and marrying a congressman, Steve. The diary during these years grows very dark: “I guess I was nothing but a fat, old man whom this ambitious little slut used and then threw away when she got what she wanted. What a chump, Lou. And to think that I even had my back waxed (when it was not yet fashionable) to make myself attractive to Mary…But I still love her.”

It was at this time that Steve put a restraining order on Grant.

It was also at this time that Murray Slaughter finally came out of the closet and moved to Greenwich Village. This represented the full arrival of Mary Richards, as she now had a “gay friend,” to whom she could confide her personal drama.

Mary’s lone offspring, Rose, had fought her mother about the boob job. “Mom, let’s face it, you can’t be walking around with a seventy-seven-year-old body with this gigantic, perfect rack. My self-image is bad enough with my training-bra-sized titties without being compared to my mother and her spherical double-d’s.”

Mary’s ashes will be spread over Edward R. Murrow’s grave, if he has a grave, while the leaked silicone from her fatal operation will be recycled for Rose – in a deal to prevent her suing the plastic surgeon — to use for her own implants in honor of her dead mother. “If my mother couldn’t attain her dream of a fabulous set of fake knockers, then, as her daughter, I will fulfill that dream. I love you, Mom.”

Yes, Love Was All Around.

(Visit my website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

Kate Austen is “Lost” a Second Time

THE ISLAND – Kate Austen, who grew up in Iowa before relocating to Purgatory for six years, has died a second time due to a malfunction in the Afterlife Phase-Shifter, a device that transitions mended souls from Purgatory/The Island to a Better Place. There is confusion about whether Kate’s encore demise was more terrestrial than corporeal, being that this Island of Purgatory featured a lot of real human blood being spilled as a result of what sure looked like a lot of real guns. Then there was the Earth-like matter of all the sexual shenanigans, as demonstrated within the rambunctious love triangle involving Kate and the Island’s two alpha males, Jack Shephard and Sawyer. Some people got more ass on The Island than in all their lustful years as a mortal on Earth, a factor that made some of them reconsider the value of a higher plane of existence.

Kate’s first Island lover was Sawyer, yeah, just Sawyer – that is, until Kate began calling him by the pet name, James, which turned out to be his real name. Sawyer was the purgatorial bad boy of the group that had all died in the crash of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815. In turn, Sawyer had his own pet name for Kate:  Freckles. Kate had no problem accepting this mock designation, not because she liked it all that much, but it was better than the litany of cruel names that Sawyer bestowed on fellow Islander, and resident blimp, Hurley. Sawyer called Hurley such names as Jabba, Deep Dish, Pillsbury, and the too-long-to-fit-on-a-birth-certificate name of “International House of Pancakes.” Yes, Kate may have associated the moniker Freckles with the always laughable Howdy Doody, but it sure beat another of Sawyer’s Hurley-inspired nicknames, JumboTron.

Kate’s second lover, and Island-ordained soul mate, was Jack, who, though a doctor and all around good guy, was too sincere about his role as Hero to ever possess the light-hearted wit necessary to create nicknames. His idea of addressing Kate in an alternate way was to modify the degree of sweat pouring from his overwrought brow while uttering “Kate” through a tight grimace. The reason Kate ended up with the forever angst-ridden Jack was because the love triangle of Kate, Jack and Sawyer eventually added a new member, the blonde female doctor, Juliet. At first, it made sense that the two doctors, Jack and Juliet, should combine their unsmiling selves to form a Yuppie power-couple; while the two criminals, Sawyer (a former conman) and Kate (a fugitive wanted for the murder of her step-father), should pair off as the wild couple that other people are afraid to invite over to their house. But remember, this was Purgatory, and if Kate and Sawyer were to become better half-mortals, then it followed that both of them would need better halves, and so Sawyer teamed up with the “good” Juliet, though Sawyer did once lose moral ground when he called Hurley “Fat-Fuck,” and Kate went off with the “saint” Jack.

But Kate and Jack did share one major attribute: they loved being the ones to save the day while toting a gun. This insight was furnished by Rose, wife of Bernard, after the two of them had quit the drama of the group to live in solitude in 1970s Purgatory, a phrase which, if you stare at it long enough, especially while recalling disco and cheesy mustaches, will solidify into an oxymoron no less obvious than the term Compassionate Conservatism. Rose had not seen Jack and Kate in a year or two, when, lo and behold, the two chronic heroes came rushing through her camp, wielding guns on another of their self-induced missions, at which point Rose said, to paraphrase, “Are you people still running around the jungle shooting guns?” Of course, it was Jack and Kate that did in fact save the Island when, together, they killed the Man in Black, though, to be precise, it was Kate who put the deciding bullet through his black heart. The moral of the story was, A couple that slays the Prince of Darkness together, stays together. This extreme example of a couples-activity cemented their status as Soul Mates.

How can a non-corporeal body in Purgatory die when, last seen, Kate was all dolled up sitting next to Eternal Husband, Jack, in the church way station along with Sawyer, Juliet, Sayid and the others, all ready to ascend to the next highest spirit level, maybe Heaven or maybe a celestial chocolate factory (no, sorry, that was Hurley’s next stop)? The answer to this question was that the operator of the Afterlife Phase-Shifter was none other than the ancient Roman poet, Virgil, who had once chaperoned Dante through the three dimensions of the Afterlife: Inferno (a tenth ring has since been added for people who take forever to conduct a simple transaction at a retail store), Purgatorio (Dante saw no signs of Kate’s Purgatory of massive blood baths instigated by sadistic mercenaries armed to the teeth with automatic weapons) and Paradiso (Heavenly soul mates are forbidden from expressing carnal love, and so must be content with listening to each other talk about their feelings for eternity). Virgil had been raised on Earth to write verse on parchment, but now, to keep up with the present generation, he had bought the latest iPhone. What happened was that at the exact moment when Virgil was to transport Kate to Paradiso, he received a text-message from Julius Caesar, which distracted him just enough that he mishandled the Afterlife Phase-Shifter and thus Lost the essence of Kate, thus losing Kate to all known life.

The latest report is that Jack has again strapped on a gun and rifle and is ready to play hero and rescue Kate from Death II.

(Check out my website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

James Baldwin: A Tribute

(Here is an excerpt from my book, THE EDUCATION OF A WHITE BOY)

In a famous essay, Irving Howe bemoaned Ralph Ellison’s lack of militancy, and then he chastised another African-American writer, James Baldwin. The argument against Baldwin was that what militancy he did have was unleashed, not on the white man, but on Richard Wright, and not just once or twice, but on three separate published occasions. What made it all the more baffling – or perhaps all the more explainable – was that Baldwin, like Ellison, owed much of his career to the author of Native Son.

In 1949, a twenty-five-year-old James Baldwin, a black American expatriate living in France, published an essay, on both sides of the Atlantic, called “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” It begins with a review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, is called a prude, a sentimental do-gooder and a bad writer. The only way the chaste Mrs. Stowe could bear to write of a naked dark male was to transform the title character into a black Jesus, a myth, one who “has been robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex.” Uncle Tom prefigures the cinematic Sidney Poitier, who, though he may come to dinner to meet the parents of his white fiancée, will not touch the girl until their wedding night and only with mom and dad’s permission. The white public, no matter how liberal and advanced in their racial views, becomes uneasy at the idea of a normal, flawed brother wanting to get laid as much as the next guy. But since Mrs. Stowe’s intentions are so noble, the book is forgiven the “excessive demands” it makes “of credibility.” The “aim of the protest novel” is little different from “the zeal of those alabaster missionaries to Africa to cover the nakedness of the natives, to hurry them into the pallid arms of Jesus and thence into slavery.” Then, midway through the final paragraph, Baldwin calls to the stand Bigger Thomas and asks if he is not an inverted Uncle Tom, another stock character that allows white Americans to breathe easier by reinforcing their preconceived notions of the no good nigger. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Richard Wright “are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle: the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.” Wright had modeled himself on naturalists writers like Sinclair Lewis, never imagining that one of his disciples, Baldwin, would associate him, Wright, with a Victorian lady abolitionist writing fantasy. When he and Baldwin met on the street after the publication of the essay, the younger man defended himself by taking refuge in Greek mythology, screaming that the “sons must slay the fathers.”

Two years later, Baldwin, in “Many Thousands Gone,” resumed the slaying, with a more thorough attack on Native Son. He discounts Wright’s claim to realism. Bigger is too isolated from his family and friends for even the most antisocial black kid. This gives the reader the misguided notion that “in Negro life there exists no tradition.” – and a tradition is “nothing more than the long and painful experience of a people” that comes “out of their struggle to survive.” In this observation, one can imagine Ellison standing over Baldwin giving dictation. But, just as fast, Ellison steps away and the young writer goes in an independent direction to say that Wright played into the hands of white America by verifying their worst fears about the black man who wants to rape and kill their women. Baldwin avows that blacks have no desire to wreak vengeance upon the state, since “Negroes are Americans and their destiny is the country’s destiny.” As for Bigger, “he wants to die because he glories in his hatred and prefers, like Lucifer, rather to rule in hell than serve in heaven.”

Though Baldwin continued to obsess over Wright, it was not until the latter’s death in 1960 that he again took out the hammer and this time nailed shut the coffin. This was done in a mini memoir entitled “Alas, Poor Richard.” Baldwin now suspects that Wright was not even a good protest writer, for he had no “real sense of how a society is put together.” Perhaps he should have, instead, labored in the theatre. But now, sighs Baldwin, the man…who meant so much to me is gone.”

Baldwin remembers how, at the age of twenty, he begged an invitation to meet Wright “because he was the greatest black writer,” the man who had produced “Native Son and, above all Black Boy,” works that “I found expressed, for the first time in my life, the sorrow, the rage, and the murderous bitterness which was eating up my life and the lives of those around me.” The older novelist was polite and supportive and helped him to win the Saxton Fellowship. In 1948, Baldwin moved to Paris where, once off the plane, he was met by a one-man welcoming committee named Richard Wright, who introduced him to the editors at Zero magazine, a favor Baldwin repaid by using the organ to publish “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Now, ten years later, he admits that “Richard was right to be hurt,” and, yeah, he, Baldwin, may have “used his work as a kind of springboard into” his own. Then again, Wright had been his idol by proving that a black kid from “the Mississippi nightmare and the Chicago slums” could rise in the literary world, and had died, as he “also hoped to do, in the middle of a sentence,” and “idols are created in order to be destroyed.” Still, he does not know how he will take the same treatment when his time comes. And it would come.

James Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem. He was a different kind of African-American from the start, becoming one of the few black men ever to prefer the name “Jimmie,” another example being Walker, as in the Kid Dy-No-Mite! It was not long before Jimmie felt the impulse to slay fathers, and for good reason. His own father was a vicious, abusive and borderline insane task-master, and, further, was not even his real dad, a secret that was not divulged to him until his teens. The old man was a factory worker and a storefront preacher, and when not thus occupied, he was knocking up Mrs. Baldwin. In the end, Jimmie would have eight younger half siblings. He was a high-strung and sensitive kid who suffered when his dad called him ugly, which hurt worse than the subsequent beatings. James arrived at books early and read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dickens and later Dostoyevsky, in each case holding a volume in one hand and the latest baby in the other – anything to escape the raging patriarch. He dreamed of killing that sonovabitch preacher of an old man.

He attended Frederick Douglass Middle School where a white lady teacher noticed his precocity and began, away from class, taking him to plays and movies, though dad resisted such secular activities as un-Christian. But then, at thirteen, he was “saved” and so he renounced the teacher, who said to him: “I’ve lost a lot of respect for you.” This may have hurt Jimmie, but now he had the Lord to soothe his chronic injuries, both real and imaginary. For the next three years, he was a child preacher, a star at the Fireside Pentecostal Faith Church in Harlem. This served two purposes: He received love and affirmation all throughout his sermons. That’s right, Brother James! Second, in excelling at daddy’s profession, he was also taking the old man down one Proverb at a time.

Meanwhile, he attended high school with a large Jewish student body in the Bronx. At sixteen, he began to again read serious literature. It was Dostoyevsky who helped ruin his Christian faith, for the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov could turn even Jesus into an atheist. He graduated high school in 1942, after which he worked for a year in New Jersey in a defense factory. He was an undersized black kid with oversized eyes and effeminate mannerisms. The white guys at the plant hated and abused him with total abandon, being that this was an era that long predated today’s society that holds up gay people as heroic celebrities. Then, the biggest abuser of all, Daddy Baldwin, after a stint in a mental institution, met his death. Jimmie came home to bury the bastard on the same day as the Harlem riot of ’43, the one Ellison covered for the New York Post and was to use as fictional fodder in Invisible Man. Baldwin was now free in a sense. He moved to the Village with the purpose of becoming a writer and a full-blown homosexual. When he was not getting rejected by editors, he was getting his ass kicked by gay-bashing drunken goons. He collected his injuries to fuel his art. Then he made the pilgrimage to Richard Wright.

He wrote for various magazines as the token black guy reviewing African-American subjects. He lived in France for the next eight years, where he practiced his craft until his first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain was published in 1953, which put him on the literary map. In this autobiographical coming of age story, the character is based on his father who, of course, takes a literary beating. He wrote two more acclaimed novels by 1962, Giovanni’s Room, about gay white men, and Another Country, in which the sex is hetero- and homo, interracial and a few other forced combinations. His later fiction was a mediocre.

What Baldwin is best known for are his essays. If Du Bois was correct to say that blacks, as odd men out of white society, have double vision, then Baldwin, as someone even further off on the periphery due to his homosexuality, had triple-vision. This outsider status coupled with his reaching maturity during the McCarthy era made him an original voice. It was in the Fifties that he came to appreciate the blues of Bessie Smith, which added more texture to his literary gifts, until he became a prose stylist second to none. To take a highlighter to his early nonfiction is to color the entire page yellow, for no thought stands alone without the next one, and so on, and to paraphrase him is to attempt a different way of drawing a straight line. His every observation was made three-dimensional on paper. He could call Richard Wright both the greatest black novelist and a hack destined to spend eternity with Harriet Beecher Stowe, and still make sense. Not that he was ever above mauling himself, as when, in his last nonfiction work worth reading, No Name In The Street, he asks what was he “but an aging, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak?” Such self-examination can be traced back to the opening of his first collection of essays when he outlines his primary goal: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

His first good essay, “The Harlem Ghetto,” is reminiscent of his hero Dickens in Sketches of Boz, wherein the young English author takes the reader on a casual tour of London’s streets. This time a young black man guides us through his old ‘hood in a gentle and reassuring way so as not to scare us off before he can make his point. He reminds us that “the white man walking through Harlem is not at all likely to find it sinister or more wretched than any other slum.” But do not be fooled by the commonplace veneer, as just below the surface is an explosion waiting to happen, and which did happen in 1935 and 1943, whereupon the rest of the city shook its head at these troublesome Negroes. Politicians made speeches and launched investigations, and then authorized the construction of playgrounds and housing projects. Baldwin introduces us to the black politicians, many of whom make a living from Harlem’s misfortune – think Al Sharpton. He also sits us down and reads to us from a few African-American newspapers. This one is dedicated to crime and sensation, a tabloid, while another follows the achievements of a limited number of black celebrities, with Lena Horne writing her own column. Then there are the storefront churches, which are “a fairly desperate emotional business.” The services emphasize the Old Testament in that blacks can commiserate with the Jews held in bondage and wishing to flee to the Promised Land. Thus the “images of the suffering Christ and the suffering Jew are wedded with the image of the suffering slave.” Yet Jews own much of Harlem, and so blacks also resent the Chosen People. In the end, Boz stands with us on a street corner and issues an unsettling truth: Just “as a society must have a scapegoat, so hatred must have a symbol. Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew.”

Each essay, regardless of the subject, starts with James Baldwin and his ongoing self-examination. Toward the end of his life – he died in 1987 in France – he did a slim book on the Atlanta child murders that was almost a satire of his own youthful writing technique. Here, in Atlanta, there were dozens of dead kids and a murderer, Wayne Williams, each with their own stories, and still Baldwin has the need to tell of his growing up in Harlem. He could never get to a subject without first running the gauntlet of his own related – even non-related — experiences. But the early self-exploratory pieces were brilliant, and never more so than in “Notes of a Native Son” – a title filched from the slain Papa Wright and written in 1955.

“Notes of a Native Son” deals with the death of his father and the Harlem riot that accompanies the funeral that is also his nineteenth birthday. Such a collision of events reinforces the idea that he, James Baldwin, stands as a pivot around which turns the entire history of Mankind. This is also his first mention of the racial Armageddon that he will speak of so much in later works. He states that he “had declined to believe in that apocalypse which had been so central to” his “father’s vision; very well, life seemed to be saying, here is something that will certainly pass for the apocalypse.” He describes how the old man had come north from New Orleans, the Southern town in which, at the same time, another black child was running the streets — Louis Armstrong. Yet Daddy forbids his own kids from listening to Sachmo because the music is un-Christian. He is proud of his blackness, though bitter, too, that it has “fixed bleak boundaries to his life.” When the white schoolteacher takes Jimmie to plays and movies, Daddy relents only because, deep down, whites intimidate him, however much he may rage against them in private. The year the younger Baldwin spends in New Jersey at the defense factory marks his baptism in hardcore discrimination. Harlem may be dangerous, but it still insulates one from white persecution. Now Jimmie is taunted and thrown out of restaurants and movies and anything else that frowns upon a dark face. Then he is informed that Daddy is ready to meet, postmortem, the white Jesus Christ, and so he rushes home in time to witness the rendezvous. Baldwin remembers three years ago when he was preaching with less frequency – his faith being on the descent – and his father, out of the blue, had asked him: “You’d rather write than preach, wouldn’t you?” “Yes,” answered the son. This was one of their few real conversations. Now Baldwin looks down into the open casket and sees “simply an old man dead, and it was hard to believe that he had ever given anyone either joy or pain.”

In the months leading up to this day, the streets have been tense. Black people who would otherwise not mingle are now nodding toward each other as comrades in this world run by the Man. Hookers speak with church matrons, and Garveyites with zootsuiters. It is pissing them all off that their brothers and fathers are going to war in Europe but only after being trained down South where they are experiencing Jim Crow. For whose freedom are they risking their lives? Not their own, that’s obvious. On the night of the funeral, “a Negro soldier, in the lobby of the Hotel Braddock, gets into a fight with a white policeman over a Negro girl.” – and the rumor spreads that the cop has shot the brother dead. Then comes the riot, “for Harlem had needed something to smash.”

In the next morning’s aftermath of broken glass, as Baldwin accompanies his father to the grave, he says of the old man: “This was his legacy: nothing is ever escaped…Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.” This leads to the epiphany that a black man must “hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance.” The “second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept…injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.”

Throughout his work there are a few consistent themes. One is “reality” and the other is “identity,” and both go hand in hand. White Americans live in a fantasy world, unaware that the rest of the world does not share its high self-regard. They are even more deluded when believing that there is no such thing as Negro individuality; that blacks exist only as told they should by whites. But, as Baldwin says: “If I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either!” Due to a stronger sense of reality, blacks know whites better than whites know themselves, and only by facing facts will all of us achieve a solid identity.

At the same time, the very definition of what it means to be an American is nothing more than the search for an identity. This country is so new and lacking in tradition that we are making it — and ourselves — up on the fly. That is why exile is so instructive. “The American in Europe is everywhere confronted with the question of his identity.” What distinguishes one seeker from the other is how each “come to terms with their confusion.” It is hoped that from “the vantage point of Europe” this person may discover “his own country.”

“Stranger in the Village,” though another brooding meditation on self (Jimmie Baldwin) and racism, offers a few key insights. Baldwin repairs to a tiny Swiss town in which not one resident has ever encountered a black person in the flesh. These white hamlet-dwellers are innocent, and that is why he is forbearing when the children follow him, a gay black man from Harlem, down the street shouting Neger! Neger! They have no idea of the implications that the n-word carries back in the states. There is also “a custom in the village” of dropping spare francs into a box “decorated with a black figurine” for the purpose “of ‘buying’ African natives” so to convert them to Christianity. Last year they “bought” six or eight of them, and the villagers think Baldwin “might now breathe more easily concerning the souls of at least six of” his kinsmen. He recalls his father and how he never forgave “the white world (which he described as heathen) for having saddled him with a Christ in whom…they themselves no longer believed.” What is ironic is that Baldwin, for all his accomplishments in the Western literary tradition, is still deemed less of a descendant of European culture, due to genetics, than these ignorant villagers, many of whom have never left this isolated spot, nor read a book. Back in America, the two races are stuck together and whites have lost their grip on reality by forcing the insane laws of Jim Crow on the country. In this, the “white man’s motive” is “the protection of his identity; the black man” is “motivated by the need to establish an identity.” But, contrary to the official scorekeeping, the black man’s “battle for his identity has long ago been won. He is not a visitor to the West, but a citizen there, an American.” The biggest problem facing white Americans is their wish to live as do these villagers, to return “to a state in which black men do not exist” – and people “who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” an apocalypse. In the end, Baldwin must concede that the white American is a better man than his European counterpart, since at least he is trying to become “involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa,” and not just tossing some coins into a box on some abstract principle and following a skinny gay black man through the street like the Pied Piper yelling Neger! Neger!

In the fall of 1956, Baldwin and Richard Wright and some others were walking to lunch when they came upon a newspaper kiosk. On all the front pages were photographs of a black fifteen-year-old girl, “Dorothy Counts being reviled and spat upon by” a white mob “as she was making her way to school in Charlotte, North Carolina.” That decided Baldwin to return to America, though he was frightened by the prospect; or, as he churned the thought around in his hyperactive mind, “am I afraid of journeying any further with myself?” Either way, everybody “else was paying their dues, and now it was time I went home and paid mine.”

His father had often told him bedtime stories of what happened to black men in the South. He grew terrified of the region and avoided it all his life until 1957 when, at the age of thirty-three (do we need to dwell on the Christian significance of this number?), and with two controversial novels to his name, he toured the region. He was on a plane as it approached Atlanta and looked down on the fabled terrain and pondered whether the “rust-red earth of Georgia” had “acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from the trees” in which young black men had been hung, “while white men watched him and cut his sex from him with a knife.” His “father must have seen such sights.” After landing on terror-firma, he met Martin Luther King and then listened to him preach in the Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery. Baldwin was surprised to be moved by King’s words, being that, as a former minister himself, he knew the tricks of the trade and suspected all religious leaders as frauds. It helped that King was five years his junior, as there would be no need of Oedipal execution. He went on to Little Rock and Tuskegee and came back to New York committed to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Movement radicalized Baldwin and transformed him into not only a protest writer, and one that made Richard Wright seem an ivory tower intellectual, but into an actual protester. He began speaking at fundraisers and colleges. He summoned his old gifts of oratory and, with his intense nature and increasing identification with the injured black Southerner, made it a personal issue and would thunder down from the pulpit in all his apocalyptic fury. He often joined Malcolm X on radio and television programs. They were supposed to represent opposing sides of the race issue – separation versus integration – but Baldwin, off the air, agreed with much of Malcolm’s doctrine, and came to love the Nation of Islam minister and considered him one of the kindest and most gentle men in the world. He met James Meredith, the man who, with twenty-thousand U.S. Army troops, broke the color barrier at Ole Miss, and, while in the neighborhood, befriended Medgar Evers, a leader in the NAACP, who was shot dead in his driveway in Jackson in 1963. The killers of Evers confessed to the crime and were still acquitted of murder. Baldwin was at the March on Washington and then fell into a rage days later when the four black children were killed in Birmingham from a bomb tossed at a church by white patriots. He was also present at King’s greatest moment when the Civil Rights Movement culminated in the march from Selma to Montgomery where they brought Ole Dixie down.

Throughout these years, his essays became more hard-hitting. He slew two old mentors, William Faulkner and Langston Hughes, the latter being one of the black poets of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Faulkner was a racist who thought that black and white relations had improved, because, according to police figures, only “six Negroes were killed by whites in Mississippi last year.” As for one of the pioneers of black literature, every time he reads Langston Hughes, he is “amazed all over again by his genuine gifts – and depressed that he has done so little with them.”

Then, in 1963, all that had gone into the making of Jimmie Baldwin – the illegitimate birth; the abuse from Daddy; the teenage stint as a preacher; the insults and persecution from cops, whites and homophobes; Bessie Smith; Richard Wright; the hard fight to gain a prose style that was leaning toward apocalyptic language and increasing bitchiness – now came together in one great book-length essay that set out to slay the ultimate father, Uncle Sam. The book was called The Fire Next Time.

It begins, as always, with the personal, a letter to his nephew, James. He wastes no time in summoning Daddy Baldwin and the theme of identity. The old man “had a terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.” The reason whites are compelled to label blacks as inferior is that to abandon such a myth will result in “the loss of their identity.” It is now our duty, James, to “force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” Signed, Your uncle, James.

The next part of the book is entitled the “Letter from a Region in My Mind.” He rehashes how he had become a serious Christian at fourteen and thence to view the Harlem streets through a more menacing lens. He could already predict where his peers were heading in life just by taking a hard look at all the older, broken souls drifting up and down Lenox Avenue. His friends were “unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was ‘the man’ – the white man.” Thus crime became, not “a possibility, but the possibility.” Money was not “made or kept by…adherence to the Christian virtues,” at least not “for black Christians.” But young Jimmie did not want to be a crook, nor would he “let any white man spit” on him. Therefore, preaching became his racket.

He goes on to recount the psychology behind the religious experience when one falls to the floor and gives oneself over to God. The feeling of renewal comes from letting go of the will to keep fighting a losing battle against white power, of being released from “guilty torment.” A black church service hitting on all cylinders is one of the most thrilling events on earth, and it affords blacks, with otherwise stunted lives, a healthy release.

Young Jimmie was not a born follower, and so, when saved, he became a minister. Then came Dostoyevsky and a change of heart, or, better, a change of mind. Christianity was actually not a release but the very thing that held back his people. He wished they would “throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize…a rent strike.”

Yes, he left the church, but in doing so he was also running from what gave the black version of Christianity its vigor — the blues. This “zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster” was “very moving and very rare.” White Americans knew nothing of this code. To these simpletons, “happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad.” Only blacks, “who have been ‘down the line,’ know what this music is about.”

Baldwin reminds us of what Malcolm X says: that the “white man’s Heaven is the black man’s Hell.” Europeans came to Africa holding a Bible and left with human cargo to work American plantations. In this world, it is power that reigns supreme, and in “the realm of power, Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty.” This white god, Jesus, has done nothing but persecute blacks. Perhaps, then, “it is time we got rid of Him” – and replace him with a black god.

Now we are introduced to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Baldwin has heard variations of the white devil rhetoric all his life from having grown up in Harlem. What makes him now take notice is how the cops, “in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces,” behave at the Muslim rallies. They are afraid of these self-respecting African-Americans — in contrast to the past when the police held the power and struck fear into any black individual they chose to select for abuse. And power “was the subject of the speeches.” The Muslims had good news: “white people are cursed, and are devils, and are about to be brought down” – as everyone turned to the shuffling cops.

Elijah Muhammad has been able to do what generations of welfare workers have failed to do: “heal and redeem drunkards and junkies,” keep “men chaste and women virtuous” and make African-Americans stand up straight and be proud of their race. How has he “managed it?” Elijah says it is not him “who has done it but time,” for time “catches up with kingdoms and crushes them,” and time is up for Christianity and White Power. This gives black people hope, since they have lost all hope of ever getting a fair shake from the status quo. “God is black.”

Baldwin pays a visit to Elijah in his South Side Chicago mansion. Baldwin is frightened because of the tension in him “between love and power, between pain and rage,” and he does not want to be seduced into a bad decision. He is confronted by a small and delicate man “with a thin face, large, warm eyes, and a most winning smile.” Baldwin is “drawn toward his peculiar authority.” Elijah tells him that there is “no virtue in white people,” and that “the power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.” But that’s all right, since whites are a global minority, and “the sword they have used so long against others can now, without mercy, be used against them.” Or, as Malcolm would phrase it, the chickens will come home to roost. Elijah walks Baldwin outside and they stand together alone, and the writer confesses that he feels close to the old man and wishes that he could “love and honor him as a witness, an ally, and a father.” But this is one father he dares not try to slay, especially after what will befall Malcolm in two years.

Baldwin ends with a twenty-page sermon. He throws in the famous Du Bois quote that the “problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” But the problem started long before that when “a white Christian named Baldwin” compelled him to kneel at the foot of the cross in order to obliterate his African identity. The Muslims are right to replace the slave name with an “X.” But now it is getting more difficult for the so-called master race to hold down the black man, who has never bought into the American myth that white “ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes.” Blacks have “been down the line” and are tough and “take nothing for granted” and “hear the meaning behind the words.” They know that whatever life “brings must be borne.” Whites, on the other hand, with their infantile need for happy endings, refuse to accept “that life is tragic” and that “one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time.” Power does not last forever, as summed up “when we say, Whatever goes up must come down.” If whites continue to shy away from reality, there will come “the fulfillment of that prophesy, re-created from the Bible in a song by a slave: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

1968 was a difficult year for Jimmie Baldwin. He attended Martin Luther King’s funeral and was never again the same man. He lost all faith in white America. Everything he wrote thereafter ended with something about “the shape of the wrath to come” or some other apocalyptic vision. This was also when Eldridge Cleaver’s book, Soul on Ice, gained popularity. One chapter is entitled “Notes on a Native Son.” He first talks of how he, like so many other blacks, “lusted for anything that Baldwin had written…He placed so much of my own experience, which I thought I had understood, into new perspective.” Then Cleaver turns on his former mentor, calling him “a white man in a black body.” And let us not forget how he “drove the blade of Brutus into the corpse of Richard Wright.” He then equates Baldwin’s homosexuality with “baby-rape or,” worse, “wanting to become the head of General Motors.” Baldwin now became the slain father figure. But he was man enough to admit his hurt feelings borne from hypocrisy, thus achieving the goal he had set at the start of his career: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

………………………………………………..

My own book, The Education of a White Boy, is drawing to a close. It may never reach the public forum, as it is not adaptable to a You Tube video; or, in truth, it may just not be good enough to sit on the shelf of a Barnes and Noble store. But that’s all right. The private Jimmy Johnson has still been enriched by the process of writing and researching — and, ten years later, rereading and editing — this book. I have learned a lot of life lessons from Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Du Bois, and especially the Big Three of African-American Literature.

Jimmie Baldwin reinforced the idea of starting from a personal view and then fanning outward to embrace the wider scope of history and social dynamics. He is also a warning not to take the same notion so far as to sound like a drama queen, and that is why humor is a key ingredient to any memoir. More important, the writer must let other people take center stage. Even the most gifted and charismatic actor, if alone too long in the spotlight, will bore the audience.

Ralph Ellison proved that one’s literary ancestors do not have to be of the same race and that my instincts were correct when, at eighteen, in Trenton, I gravitated to Joe Zook and the blues. Ellison showed me, too, the wisdom of sometimes having to go underground in order to lick my wounds and, with Louis Armstrong playing soft and low, tell my tale.

And the great Richard Wright made it laughable that I should ever use a lack of formal education as an excuse not to measure myself against the best in literature. All it takes is “the imagination and the will to do so.”

(Visit my website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

 

Malcom X and Me

 

(This is an excerpt from my book, THE EDUCATION OF A WHITE BOY)

In African-American Studies, you learn that MLK is the good son, a chip off the Old Testament block, the one who evinces more maturity as an eight-year-old than the rest of us do when welcoming our first grandchild, because he understands early that he is expected to take over the family business, and so feels the weight of responsibility at a time when other kids are the weight of responsibility. But for every good son there is the rebellious son, the Cain to Abel,  the Whitey to William Bulger, who, yes, looks up to the Chosen One, but also tries to kick the legs out from the chair that lifts the good son high to respectability. In a lot of ways the black sheep is smarter, more capable, quicker on his feet than the heir apparent, only he is a born troublemaker. He is the opposite side of the same coin. In African-American history, the coin is Civil Rights – heads is Martin Luther King and tails is Malcolm X.

He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925. His father, Earl, was a dreamer and proved it by becoming a follower of Marcus Garvey, the West Indian native whose organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, called for black Americans to return to Africa. Earl also liked to hear his own voice and would go around to neighboring towns preaching the Garvey doctrine. He would give an unrealistic speech in someone’s home and be rewarded with an ample dinner while his own brood went hungry. He was a notorious womanizer, which, back then, was just part of the legend of being a Negro preacher. The adult Malcolm would describe a much different Earl Little, a strong and heroic man who stood by his family and stood up to the Ku Klux Klan. But what he was really describing was Malcolm X in 1964.

Malcolm’s mother, Louisa, was an educated West Indian who could almost pass for white. She never met her Scottish father, whom Malcolm insisted was a rapist. In Montreal, she met Earl Little, who gave her some bullshit story about being a widower, though his first wife was alive, albeit not well, raising their three children alone in Georgia after he had abandoned them. The marriage was not a happy one, not least because Louisa’s light skin and formal diction made the darker and semi-illiterate Earl so insecure that he would resort to beating her and the kids to prove a masculine point.

Malcolm was light-skinned just like Louisa and a redhead to boot. One of his brothers, Philbert, was dark and the two boys would become rivals. Earl, for all his talk about black pride, was most proud when showing off his near white son. Louisa, on the other hand, pushed for the boy to linger in the sun so to gain some color. Epidermal shades would obsess Malcolm to the end and play no small part in his racial diatribes.

The myth he created around his father was never more Delphic than on two specific counts, 1) the burning of the Little home in Lansing, Michigan in 1929 and 2) the patriarchal death in 1931. Malcolm blamed the hooded Klan for both tragedies, whereas it seems the true culprit was Earl. The courts had ordered that the Littles to be evicted from their house on a flimsy charge. Papa Earl got so angry and felt so powerless over this travesty that he burned down the house. Two years later he got caught underneath a streetcar, a circumstance not usually equated with further life on this Earth. Louisa called it murder. Everyone else in town thought it was either an accident or that he was running from a jealous husband. Whatever Earl’s faults, he had at least been around the clan in some form or another and was something of the Biblical prophet. Now Louisa was faced with the sudden prospect of raising seven kids without a husband.

Louisa soldiered on for a couple of years, but soon this spare and hyper-intelligent woman began to crack under the pressure, which was augmented with the birth of an illegitimate child. She would never divulge the father’s identity. Between the impossibility of supporting this large brood and the whispering campaign she faced when walking around town, she closed the curtains and retreated into fantasy. She was committed to a state mental hospital and would remain there for twenty-six years. The kids were parceled out to various foster homes.

Malcolm spent most of his childhood among whites. He was, as he called it, the little black mascot. Kids and teachers alike called him nigger dozens of times a day, as if it were a term of endearment. He later wrote: “…it just never dawned upon them that I could understand, that I wasn’t a pet, but a human being. They didn’t give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position.” What galled him in particular was that, in the seventh grade, he was the class president and top ranked student, after which a teacher asked him what he planned to do with his life. Malcolm said he wanted to become a lawyer, an aspiration not out of the realm of possibility for such an academic star. But the teacher took the opposite view: “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 something you can be. You’re good with your hands…Why don’t you plan on carpentry?”

That was the end of Malcolm’s formal education. He moved to the Roxbury section of Boston to live with his half-sister, Ella, who was part successful entrepreneur and part inveterate criminal. She lived on the Hill, which was an elite black enclave. She pushed him toward success, but instead he fell into menial jobs, as a shoeshine boy, a dishwasher and a soda jerk – and then into petty crime. He conked his hair, meaning he endured a painful process whereby an afro was transformed into a straight, shimmering cut. He donned a zoot suit and became an accomplished lindy dancer. It was at the Roseland State Ballroom that he was picked up by a white girl named Bea (Sophie in the autobiography). To him, this was a good enough substitute for Ella’s worldly success. For a black man to parade around with a white woman was the ultimate status symbol.

Meanwhile, he found employment as a waiter on the New Haven Railroad. The job entailed sucking up to white passengers for tips. Malcolm became cynical about the relationship. As he put it, he and his fellow waiters “were in that world of Negroes who are both servants and psychologists, aware that white people are so obsessed with their own importance that they will pay liberally, even dearly, for the impression of being catered to and entertained.”

His psychological instincts were put to further use when he conned a professional psychologist at the Army draft board in 1943. He entered wearing a zoot suit and yellow shoes and declared that he wanted to join the army – the Japanese army. Then he told the doctor: “Daddy-o, now you and me, we’re from up North here, so don’t you tell nobody…I want to get sent down South. Organize them nigger soldiers, you dig? Steal us some guns and kill up crackers!” Uncle Sam thought better of wanting him.

For the next two years, he worked intermittently on the railroad, selling drugs, not sandwiches, on board. The rest of the time, he dealt drugs and ran numbers on the streets and in the bars of Harlem. Sometimes he guided older white men to black prostitutes specializing in domination. His white girlfriend, Bea, whose husband was overseas fighting in the war, would come down often from Boston. “Even among Harlem Negroes, her looks gave me status.”

Then he got into trouble with a rival underworld figure and had to leave town. He moved back to Boston to live with his white girl friend. The two of them, along with Bea’s sister and Malcolm’s best friend, came up with a harebrained scheme to rob the houses of rich white folk. A month later, they were nabbed in the act. The judge let the girls go with a slap on the wrist. A first conviction for burglary was usually two years in prison, but Malcolm and his partner were given a ten-year sentence. That was because theft was only incidental to their larger crime of sleeping with white women. Bea testified against Malcolm and then went on to live the good life with her soon-to-be wealthy husband – in a word, she resumed her identity as the All-American girl.

Malcolm went on to live the not-so-good life of a convict for the next six years. The first eleven months were spent in Charlestown Prison, a hellhole. He earned the nickname “Satan” for his hostility toward Christianity. But it was there that he sought out the most intellectual of the inmates, John Bembry, who asked him: “Hey, Satan, how you doin’, man?” Malcolm shuffled and then came right to the point: “Do you believe in God? God the father, God the son, God the Holy Ghost, and all that crap?” That question marked the first step in the ascent of Malcolm X. Bembry guided him to the prison library, which he took to like his former junkie self would have taken to a room full of dope. He did not have a strong vocabulary, so Bembry gave him a dictionary. He studied it word by word, definition by definition. He copied down certain entries and examined them in detail. This enabled him to read more difficult books. He poured through Shakespeare, Aesop’s Fables and tackled the great Moby Dick, which he summed up by saying: “A god damn white whale.”

Malcolm was transferred to Concord Reformatory, a more humane institution, and then to a veritable country club, Norfolk Prison Colony. There his brother, Reginald, helped convert him to the Nation of Islam, a black separatist organization limping along under the leadership of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. A now focused and disciplined Malcolm forsook smoking, eating pork and, most telling of all, his conk. He learned not to be ashamed of his blackness, but to love and embrace his African roots. Elijah Muhammad taught that Caucasians were not the superior race, not by a long shot. If anything, they were an inferior lot and should be called blue-eyed white devils.

Elijah Muhammad said that sixty-seven hundred years ago there were no white people, just black Muslims. Then a bigheaded scientist, Yacub, a rebel from Mecca, was exiled to the island of Patmos accompanied by 59,999 of his followers. He discovered genetic engineering long before Gregor Mendel published his Laws of Inheritance. What he did with this knowledge was breed an army of freaky white beasts, who, five hundred years following Yacub’s death, returned to Mecca and raised living hell. But the black Muslims managed to repulse them from the Arabian Peninsula. The white devils ended up in the cold European hinterland living in caves and getting around on all fours. Once they became a more civilized race (part of the criteria that they now walked on two legs), Allah agreed to let them rule the earth for six thousand years, at which time the original human beings, the blacks, would resume their command – and that time was nigh.

The library at Norfolk was top of the line, and so he began a systematic study of history. He became one of the few people ever to plow through all eleven volumes of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization and Outline of History by H.G. Wells. He consulted the two African-American scholars, W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, both of whom enlightened him as to the bitter realities of slavery and the early Negro revolts. He read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and would later use the name of the title character often in connection with Civil Rights leaders. He poured over accounts of Nat Turner, the escaped slave who went on a Day of Judgment-like rampage killing fifty-seven white people; John Brown, the crazed abolitionist who also snuffed out whites to free blacks, and who was the only white man to elicit Malcolm X’s unqualified praise; and the whole account of how Britain maimed and tortured the dark people of India for two hundred years before Gandhi helped drive away the white devil.

He tackled philosophy, too — Plato, Aristotle, Schopenhauer, Kant and Nietzsche (though not Hegel). He took a shine to Spinoza, being that the great Dutchman may have had a trace of African blood coursing through his Rationalist veins. Malcolm later remarked on the circumstances that had enabled him to undergo such a far ranging intellectual quest: “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.”

Malcolm had always shied from physical confrontation. He became adept at talking his way out of trouble – and into trouble. It was this theatrical talent that had enabled him to avoid the Army draft. His street hustling was of the sort that placed greater emphasis on brains than brawn. In Harlem, once the threat became physical, he fled north. Now, in prison, he began to put sharp wit and golden tongue to more constructive use. At Norfolk, he led a debating unit that challenged teams from Yale and Harvard, and beat the team from M.I.T.. As he told the Deputy Warden Edward Grennan: “When I leave here, I’m going to devote my life to hurting you people.”

On August 7, 1952, he was released and lost no time in fulfilling his prophecy. He became a part-time minister for the Nation of Islam, at the Detroit temple, where he came up with his first gem: “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!” He went on to become the lead minister in Boston, Philadelphia and then the big one, New York’s Temple No. 7.

Like other members of the Nation of Islam, he dropped his last name in favor of an X. This was how he explained the custom: “The Muslim’s “X” symbolized the true African family name that he never could know. For me, my “X” replaced the white slave-master name of “Little” which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears. The receipt of my “X” meant that forever after in the nation of Islam, I would be known as Malcolm X.”

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad had little charisma, less oratorical ability, and he was borderline illiterate. His real name was Robert Poole. In 1930, he met a traveling raincoat salesman named Wallace Delaney Ford, who first came up with the idea for the Nation of Islam. He was a complete charlatan, but he met his match in Robert Poole, who, in 1934, ousted Ford from his own creation and declared himself the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the True Messenger of Allah. But he could never expand his domain beyond a seedy, rag-tag outfit. Malcolm X had the charisma of a televangelist, the verbal arsenal to move mountains, and the erudition of a history professor. On becoming Elijah’s right-hand man, he built the Nation of Islam into a movement that covered all the major cities of America.

He gained converts in two ways: attacking the blue-eyed white devil and ridiculing Christianity. He was at his best when covering both subjects at the same time: “My brothers and sisters, our white slave master’s Christian religion has taught us black people here in the wilderness of North America that we will sprout wings when we die and fly up into the sky where God will have for us a special place called heaven. This is the white man’s Christian religion used to brainwash us black people! We have accepted it! We have embraced it! We have believed it!…And while we are doing that, for himself, this blue-eyed devil has twisted his Christianity, to keep his foot on our backs…to keep our eyes fixed on the pie in the sky and heaven in the hereafter…while he enjoys his heaven right here…on this earth…in this life.”

It was in 1957 that Malcolm X and the NOI first made headlines. A black man, Johnson Hinton, was beaten senseless by the New York City police and thrown into jail to die of his wounds. This was a routine event in America, as cops did what they wanted to blacks, and tough shit, coon. What these officers failed to understand was that Johnson Hinton was a member of the NOI and that Malcolm X was a new kind of Negro. Malcolm was informed of the arrest and shifted into action. He organized fifty brothers and had them stand in formation outside the police precinct. Soon other black people gathered behind them, curious and excited by the confrontation. Then Malcolm marched inside and demanded to see Brother Johnson in order to ascertain if he needed medical treatment. The cops blew him off as if he were just another powerless black man, claiming they had no such man in custody. Malcolm stood his ground and said this was not a request but a demand; that he and his men were not budging an inch until they saw Brother Johnson. Now the cops admitted that they did have Hinton. Malcolm found him unconscious and ordered an ambulance. Malcolm then led his disciplined men, followed by an unruly and ever growing mob, on a march through Harlem to the front of the hospital where they stood outside waiting to hear word of Brother Hinton’s condition. The police ordered the dispersal of the crowd, to which Malcolm replied, in so many words, that the cops were in no position to tell him what to do, that only when he found out from the doctors that Johnson was all right, would the Brothers leave the area. Once Malcolm was reassured that the patient was doing well and would continue to receive treatment, he faced his men and issued a silent command with his arm. They responded like an army and marched back to the Temple. One white cop, seeing this, said that no man should have that much power.

In 1958, amidst his busy schedule of calling out the white devil and building more Temples, he managed to find the time to get married to Betty Sanders. She had been raised by foster parents and had put herself through nursing school. Malcolm liked the fact that she had few relatives, remarking: “My feeling about in-laws was that they were outlaws.” He would practice what he, as a minister of Islam, preached and never stray from the marital pact, though, as a burgeoning media star, he would have ample opportunity.

The electronic media exposure started a year later when a pre-60 Minutes Mike Wallace did a five-part television story on the NOI called The Hate That Hate Produced. It scared the bejeezus out of white Americans, as the press, in its self-righteousness, called Malcolm to the carpet and demanded an explanation. He snapped back, saying the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was not teaching hate, but rather self-respect, “trying to uplift the black man’s mentality and the black man’s social and economic condition in this country…For the white man to ask the black man if he hates him is just like the rapist asking the raped – or the wolf asking the sheep – ‘Do you hate me?’ The white man is in no moral position to accuse anyone else of hate!” Later he was more to the point: “I rejoice when a white man dies!” A media star was born, and soon the reporters got over their initial shock and thereafter could not get enough of this man who always had something thrilling to say and was not afraid to say it. Malcolm X would rarely be out of the news.

His most scathing comments were reserved for Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights leaders. They were the house niggers on the American plantation, living in comfort, at the beck and call of the white massa. They did not wish for sweeping change, as could be seem by how they helped to keep the field niggers in the dark about their horrible condition to prevent them from rising up like Nat Turner. Such a rebellion would end the privileged status of the house nigger…Today’s house nigger was “usually well-dressed and well-educated” and “often the personification of culture and refinement”…and sometimes spoke “with a Yale or Harvard accent,” and sometimes “known as Professor, Doctor, Judge, and Reverend, even Right Reverend Doctor.” He was “a professional Negro,” meaning his profession was being a Negro for the white man.” They were “black bodies with white heads!” But the joke was on them. “Do you know what white racists call black Ph.D.’s?: ‘Nigger!’”

When asked “What’s your alma mater?” Malcom answered: “Books!” He had read as much, if not more, than any Ph.D., but, like any autodidact, no matter how erudite, his lack of formal education bothered him in that, without a certificate of proof – a diploma – people were liable to discount his knowledge. Thus he scourged the educated class who were content to idle behind their big-lettered titles instead of meeting Malcolm, mano-a-mano, in the field of intellectual combat. Meanwhile, he continued to read in a paranoid attempt to match the men with degrees, white and black. As he told Alex Haley in 1964: “You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I’m not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man.”

It was inevitable that the more he read and the more he consorted with educated white people, whether in debate or in a relaxed setting, the harder it became to take serious the intellectually bankrupt teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The Dr. Yacub story alone would send any person with a comprehensive knowledge of natural and cultural history into howling fits of laughter. One of the monumental feats attributed to the busy Yacub was how he had drilled a ten thousand foot hole in the Earth and out from it shot a huge rock that became the moon. That was why Malcolm would always preface such fairytales with “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad says…”

Still, in the early Sixties, he did not let up on the blue-eyed white devil, or on King and the other Right Reverend Doctors. He was of two minds about the Civil Rights Movement. He felt guilty that he was not a participant, yet angry that black leaders allowed themselves to be beaten by white thugs just so they can “eat next to a cracker on a toilet.” He kept asking, if whites and everyone else in the world were entitled to hit back, to return fire with fire, why not African-Americans?

He attended the March (Farce) on Washington. “Yes, I was there, I observed that circus. Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing “We Shall Overcome…Suum Day…” while tripping and swaying along arm-in-arm with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against? Who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily-pad park pools, with gospels and guitars and “I Have A Dream” speeches?…And the black masses in America were — and still are — having a nightmare.”

But he and King were on the same page on the subject of the American government instigating wars against foreign people of color. On a napkin Malcolm once scribbled down an equation on the Vietnam imbroglio that read: “Here lies a YM [yellow man], killed by a BM [black man], fighting for the WM [white man], who killed all the RM [red men].” He expanded this logic further by saying: “Why should we [BM] go off to die somewhere to preserve a so-called ‘democracy’ that gives a white immigrant of one day more than it gives the black man with four hundred years of slaving and serving in this country?”

It was natural that these critiques against American foreign policy should upset white patriots, and even black patriots (as when Civil Rights leaders would later admonish King on his anti-war commentary), but, starting in 1962, Malcolm was rebuked by the unlikeliest of sources – Elijah Muhammad. The very man who taught Malcolm to hate the white devil now wanted him to stay silent concerning the biggest white devil of all – the U.S. government. And the reason was not hard to find. People may come in different colors – white, black, red and yellow – but, in the end, they are all corrupted by the same color: green.

Malcolm had, over the last ten years, adhered to his role as an ascetic minister devoted to the selfless idea of raising up his people, but Elijah and his family and other top ministers had been all along lining their coffers. The more converts Malcolm enlisted to the organization, the more cash flowed into Chicago headquarters. Like the Soviet economy, the NOI oversaw a captive market by establishing businesses and ordering members to buy from these same stores at inflated prices. They were also required to hawk two hundred copies a week of the in-house periodical Muhammad Speaks, but not before purchasing all the issues themselves, at thirty dollars, to insure that Elijah recouped his investment. Most of these NOI members were poor, working class heroes, and they were now being exploited by the very man who had been preaching that they should resist being exploited by the white devil. Elijah’s personal assets were vaster than that of a Third World dictator. He owned a half-million dollar mansion, another home and five other real estate holdings in Phoenix, Arizona and still another dream house in Cuernavaca, Mexico. There was also the three million bucks stashed away in the bank. What made this an especially lucrative scam was that, as a religious organization, it was tax exempt. In other words, Malcolm, don’t upset the U.S. government or they will send in the IRS to investigate the NOI’s finances and discover the impropriety of its controlling a sprawling business empire.

Elijah was also becoming jealous of Malcolm’s increasing renown. He was in total denial as to who had really inspired the mass NOI following. The $150,000 jewel-studded fez Elijah wore was going to his head. In his opinion, he had made Malcolm a big man, not the other way around, and it was no secret that Elijah had a history of making bad things happen to men who he perceived as getting too big for their Muslim britches. Some believed that the reason the original founder Wallace Ford had vanished from this earth was because Elijah had him killed in cold blood.

The tension grew worse when rumors began circulating in December 1962 that Elijah had fathered six illegitimate children from various young personal secretaries. Malcolm had been a true believer in this man and his call for monogamy and a strict moral code, and like any loyal disciple, he was crushed by the mounting evidence that Elijah was a fraud. The former streetwise hustler had been hustled in the biggest way. Throughout 1963, the two men were at odds, though not in public.

The end came in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination. Malcolm had tried hard to obey Elijah’s dictum not to say anything controversial about the U.S. government and was now under immense pressure to keep his mouth shut, though, in private, on hearing the news, he had said: “The old devil is dead!” In his next address, at Temple No. Seven, he called Kennedy a segregationist who had been more interested in tearing down the Berlin Wall than the Alabama Wall. But this was not a national audience, so he was safe from NOI censure.

Nine days later, he gave another speech about Kennedy, with a few white reporters in attendance, and still said nothing inflammatory, though it was obvious that he was biting his lip. Toward the end, someone egged him on about the assassination. Then he let loose and claimed that it was a case “of the chickens coming home to roost,” and followed with an anti-white man diatribe, which he later summarized using these words: “I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, finally had struck down this country’s Chief of State.” He finished the actual tirade by saying that, “as an old farm boy myself…chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.”

That was all Elijah needed to hear before taking action against his former protégé. Malcolm was suspended from the ministry and forbidden to utter a single word in public. But, using another farm poultry metaphor, he said: “It’s hard to make a rooster stop crowing once the sun has risen.” On March 8, 1964, he broke with the Nation of Islam. At a press conference, he no longer spoke for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad; the words would be his own. He would defer all talk of separation of the races and concentrate more on helping black Americans gain their economic and educational independence. To demonstrate his commitment, he was “prepared to cooperate in local civil rights actions in the South and elsewhere…” Not long after, he started to receive death threats from the NOI that would continue until they became a reality.

He extended a huge olive branch to the Civil Rights, saying: “I’m not out to fight other Negro leaders or organizations…As of this minute, I’ve forgotten everything bad that the other leaders have said about me, and I pray they can also forget the many bad things I’ve said about them.” He even sought out Martin Luther King in Washington and shook his hand. But his participation in Civil Rights would never materialize, not least because he was caught in a Catch-22. As he put it: “…for militants, I’m too moderate; for moderates, I’m too militant.” His past invective now left him no room in which to maneuver in public and thereby make an impact.

He could think of only one way out of this dilemma of changing his stance and still saving face, and that was to go away for a while and come back a new man, as one who has been to the mountain and seen the light. He spent April and May of 1964 in the Middle East, the goal being a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Holy City of the real Islam, not the half-baked version handed down by Elijah Muhammad. There he gained a broader perspective.

In a famous letter home, he wrote: “Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experiences and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth…During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or the same rug) – while praying to the same God – with fellow Muslims whose eyes were the bluest blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white.” This was quite an advance for someone who once said: “The only thing I like integrated is my coffee.”

He went on to tour the African countries of Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal, Morocco and Algeria. On his return to New York, he made a stunning announcement: “In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I will never be guilty of that again…In the future, I intend to be careful not to sentence anyone who has not been proven guilty.”

The trip was successful in opening up his political options. He formed his own movement called the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) dedicated to doing “whatever is necessary to bring the Negro struggle from the level of civil rights to the level of human rights.” One of its goals was to lead voter registration drives, though he would occasionally revert to his old sloganeering, as when, commenting on nonviolent resistance, he quipped: “It’s time to stop singing and start swinging.” The pilgrimage to Mecca was a mixed blessing in connection with the Nation of Islam. It was good in that it helped to further expose them as a seedy cash scheme masquerading as a religion led by a perverted old man; and bad in that it made them more determined to kill him.

Before he could find out just how many black Muslims wanted him dead, he took off again on another world tour. This one lasted from July 9 to November 24, 1964. In Cairo, he attended the African Summit Conference where he lobbied United Nations delegates to bring America before the court of international law for its crimes against its black citizenry. The way he saw it, if South Africa could be sanctioned for Apartheid, then why should not the U.S. for practicing Jim Crow? The argument was so logically sane that it was insane, especially since the U.N. building was in New York City. That seventh grade teacher who had told young Malcolm Little to forget about becoming a lawyer was so wrong that he was the one who should have been realistic and become a carpenter.

Afterward, he visited eleven other African countries and spoke with their leaders. The former street hustler was now a global hustler, as each nation put him up and paid his expenses. He also made trips to Switzerland and France.

On his return, the NOI stepped up the intimidation. The future Louis Farrakhan wrote threatening articles in Muhammad Speaks: “Malcolm shall not escape. The die is set!” Gangster-looking men followed him around in cars. Phone calls were made to his house warning of death to all traitors. Then he and his family, now with four daughters, were ordered by the courts to vacate their house in East Elmhurst, New York. It was owned by the Nation of Islam and they wanted it back. But it became a moot point when, on February 14, 1965, the place was burned to a husk. Malcolm accused the NOI of the firebombing, while they countered that he had done it himself out of spite.

A week later, on February 21, Malcolm was to address an OAAU rally at the Audubon Ballroom. He knew the end was near. On arriving at the Audubon, he said: “I don’t feel right about this meeting. I feel that I should not be here. Something is wrong.” Backstage he snapped at his associates, odd because none of them had ever seen him lose his cool. He may have talked of violent revolution, but, in practice, he was the gentlest of men. He was about to mount the stage when he turned to a woman, and said: “You’ll have to forgive me for raising my voice to you. I’m just about at my wit’s end.” His wife and their four children were in the audience. Once at the podium, a smoke bomb went off, and then a Black Muslim named Thomas 15X shot him twice with a sawed off shotgun. Two other NOI members jumped up and stood above Malcolm and fired at him with pistols. The great Malcolm X was dead.

At his funeral, the actor Ossie Davis gave a stirring eulogy:

 

Here – at this final hour, in this quiet place, Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes — extinguished now, and gone from us forever…Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain – and we will smile…They will say that he is of hate – a fanatic, a racist – who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle!…And we will answer and say unto them: Did you ever talk to brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him: Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves…And we will know him then for what he was and is – a Prince – our own black shining Prince! – who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.

…………………

 

In Boston, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with the history of the Civil Rights Movement permeating my brain following my racial awakening in Denver. It was a disturbing experience, not least because of what he wrote about Martin Luther King. I was unsure of how to take someone who could label MLK, who had walked into the lion’s nest of Birmingham and Selma, as an Uncle Tom. Then, toward the end of the book, he gave King the nod, and my faith in Malcolm X’s intelligence was restored to its high place.

I had a lot invested in the outcome of Malcolm’s mental state because, at the part of the autobiography describing his self-taught literacy, I began to recognize a kindred soul, however bizarre it may sound to an African-American. We both had a fanatical side that at one time or another found an outlet in religious extremism. He had once embraced the tale of how Allah would soon restore the black man to ascendancy six thousand years after the big-headed Dr. Yacub created the blue-eyed white devil; and I had reconfigured my life around the Second Coming of a Jewish carpenter two millennia after his First Coming. Our first steps toward literacy and knowledge ran a parallel path. We both had a dictionary at our side in case we got stuck on unrecognizable words, which was often, and both eschewed simple, popular books and went straight to the big guns. When Malcolm described those early days, it could have been me reminiscing about my own first year at the library: “I didn’t know what I was doing, but just by instinct I liked books with intellectual vitamins.”

I became jealous when he wrote about how prison was the ideal place for study. One had no need to worry about hustling for a living or coping with relationship problems. It was the life of a monk – uncluttered and given to poetic contemplation. My reading was done before and after long days in the print shop, and then with a young wife at my side demanding equal time and a kid on the way who would become a screaming lunatic. It made me want to rob a bank while naked and holding a toy pistol so that, in jail, I could settle down and focus on literature and history, and maybe get done some writing of my own. But in prison, as a cute white guy, I would have been distracted in a different way – getting raped by large black men. But Leroy, I’m a huge Malcolm X fan…Yeah, and if he were here, I’d fuck him in the ass, too. I would just have to hope that someday I would be free of the printing trade.

We both had discovered books at about the same age – twenty-one for him, twenty-two for me – after living wild on the streets and on the road, and so came to all the more appreciate knowledge conveyed through written language. Again, in his own words: “I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. I certainly wasn’t seeking any degrees, the way a college confers a status symbol upon its students.” We both went on to have mixed emotions about college, understanding the importance of education and wanting people, all people, especially our children, to enjoy its fruits, but becoming contemptuous of the ninety-nine percent of those who did graduate college and were still our inferiors in terms of erudition. The educational experience was wasted on drones who did it only to get a good job, concentrating on one narrow trade, whereas our idea of learning was to get a firmer grasp on Life, the Universe, Humanity – just what the hell this thing called Existence is all about! We should have been the ones to have gone to college, if only we had been raised under different circumstances. Nonetheless, beneath our superior posturing, we would always feel a little inadequate around any college graduate, drone or otherwise.

I had learned from the example of Henry Miller that the art of autobiography is also the art of self-promotion. Therefore, I was not disillusioned to learn later that it was not the Klan that had burned down his family’s home, but his own dad.  Nor did I blink to find that his mother did not have a nervous breakdown because white social workers had dispersed her family; social workers dispersed the family because the mother had a nervous breakdown. More bothersome was the episode in the autobiography when he inserted one bullet into the chamber of a six-gun and held it up to his head for the benefit of Sophie (Bea) and his friend, Shorty. He pulled the trigger three times. Then he said: “Never cross a man not afraid to die.” The truth was that he had palmed the bullet and so it had all been an act. But that was okay. Just as Miller’s “prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art…” was designed not as an academic measuring of facts but as a literary bomb, so was The Autobiography of Malcolm X an incendiary assault on four hundred years of white complacency.

In 1992, when Spike Lee made a film about Malcolm starring Denzel Washington, I had a petty reaction. By then, I had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X three times and had come, in my megalomania, to regard the former scourge of the white devil as my own property, irony intended. I was prejudiced toward the movie even before its release and was especially irked at the marketing that caused every hip-hop-loving brother to sport the “X” hat to complement his Raiders jacket. I asked many of them if they had actually read The Autobiography, to which the answer was a unanimous no, but, hey man, they planned on watching the movie. Well, then, I brooded, you have no right to wear that lid. They added that Malcolm stood up to the white man. True, but he also stood for literacy, anti-materialism and adult responsibility, not what the hip-hopper espoused – four-letter words, conspicuous consumption and unlimited sex and violence. But I was a Caucasian and had to come to grips with the reality that Malcolm X fought for all black people, no matter their cultural pursuit. He belonged to them, not me.

I had no great desire to see the movie. I only half listened to Spike Lee talk about the making of the film. I may or may not have heard him implicate the FBI — or was it the BBC? — in Malcolm’s death. I reasoned that such a polemicist must have made a movie that was a shrill and one-sided piece of nut-bag propaganda. This was the same guy who wrote that the AIDS epidemic was an American government conspiracy. I loved Malcolm, but did not want to see him converted into some fantasy cartoon super hero just to make black people feel good about themselves. That was the role of Mr. T. I stayed away from the theater and soon forgot about X.

Then, in researching this chapter, I forced myself to make the three and a half-hour commitment to watch the movie. And you know what? Spike did good, real good, though he almost lost me in the beginning when the Klan torches the house, and the social workers are depicted as cardboard villains. I braced myself for an evening of unabashed propaganda. Then came the Russian roulette scene. I leaned back and awaited the biggest, self-promoting lie of all: that it was a loaded gun. I saw the bullet go into the chamber and the chamber close and then spin in dramatic fashion. What followed was even more exasperating to my sense of the facts. Denzel Washington not only holds the gun to his own head, but also to another man’s head, which, even if Spike is forgiven for sticking verbatim to Malcolm’s own words, makes it a double fiction, because that was not in The Autobiography. Now I wondered if I should even bother sitting through the next three hours. But then Spike Lee, playing a minor character, takes Malcolm aside and asks if he had palmed the bullet. Malcolm smiles and opens his hand to reveal a shining bullet. That won me over and the rest of the film was nothing short of brilliant.

He took some more liberties, but they were necessary cinematic techniques. The Baines character is a composite of Bembry (the older prisoner who lent Malcolm his dictionary), Reginald (Malcolm’s brother, who indoctrinated him into the NOI) and John Ali (Elijah’s right-hand man and all-around bad guy). This streamlines the narrative, for everything Baines does and says are drawn from these three real life people. Phrases are shifted around, as when he says just before going out to the podium at the Audubon Ballroom: “It’s time for martyrs.” That was really said on an earlier date to a reporter. But it would have been poor screenwriting to air it that way.

The FBI’s presence stayed close to the facts. They keep Malcolm under constant surveillance, but do no plotting. It is never hinted that they drugged the assassins into believing that Malcolm was Dr. Yacub come back to receive due justice, which was one theory among some black people. The FBI even gets the best line in the movie. Two agents are eavesdropping on Malcolm, in a hotel room, talking on the phone to his wife on the night before his death, when one agent says to the other: “Compared to King, this guy’s a saint.”

Then there is the virtuoso Denzel Washington, who finds out the hard way just how often Malcolm spoke during his thirty-nine years. There is barely a scene in which the actor is not called on to hold forth, whether as the young country boy just arrived in Boston, or the hustler in New York, or the rebellious prisoner, or the fiery NOI minister, or the pilgrim to Mecca, or as the embattled leader of the black ghetto. When Denzel is not talking an anti-white streak, he is the narrative voice of The Autobiography. This is one actor with no right to complain at not having enough lines.

Jackie Robinson, who knew a thing or two about enduring hardship for his people, once had this to say: “Malcolm has big audiences, but no constructive program. He has big words, but no record of deeds in civil rights. He is terribly militant on soapboxes on street corners of Negro ghettos. Yet he has not faced police dogs in Birmingham, as Martin Luther King has done; nor gone to jail for freedom, as Roy Wilkins and James Farmer have done; nor led a March on Washington, as A. Philip Randolph did; nor brought about creative dialogue between business and civil rights leaders, as Whitney Young does daily.”

This was a legitimate point and one that puts any Malcolm X supporter on the defensive. But Spike Lee comes up with the perfect sequence to illustrate the relationship between Malcolm and the Civil Rights Movement. It starts at a convention with Malcolm at the podium saying that the NOI doesn’t teach its flock to hate white people, but to love themselves. The speech continues as a voiceover when the scene shifts to him sitting in a hotel room watching the events of Birmingham on the television. Bull Connor is issuing orders that the fire-hoses be turned on black children. Then Malcolm is back at the podium saying how one hundred years ago the devils “put on white sheets and sicced blood hounds on us; now they have traded in those white sheets – well some of them have traded in the sheets – for police uniforms and traded in the blood hounds for police dogs.” In the room again, the anger in his face is mounting as cops bash in the heads of Birmingham blacks and the dogs are tearing apart young children. At the convention, he is pointing his finger, talking about these chicken-pecking Uncle Tom Negro leaders who tell us to love our enemy, an enemy “who bombs us, who kills us and shoots us, who lynches us, who rapes our women and children…That’s not intelligent.” Now the movie depicts images of Klansmen burning crosses and a black man hanging from a post. Somewhere in this montage is King being thrown into a squad car. In his room, Malcolm is seething with rage, and you know it is not because he dislikes King, but because he loves him and wishes he would stop singing and start swinging. It is unbearable for him to watch these Southern black people getting slammed into walls by Bull Connor’s goons. He ends by saying that the white man, and everyone else in the world, reserves the right to defend themselves – “and so do we. This is only natural…The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us not to hate the white man; he teaches us to love ourselves.”

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were indeed the ying and yang of black protest in the early Sixties. King provoked the racists into showing their true colors to be witnessed by the entire world, and then Malcolm stepped in to describe those colors in unforgettable and stinging language. One took the high road and the other the less than high road, though one more elevated than the one taken by normal folk. King had a dream, yes, but Malcolm provided the single best insight into the Caucasian race: The white man “loves himself so much that he is startled if he discovers that his victims don’t share his vainglorious self-opinion.” The Baptist preacher and the NOI minister were an unwitting tag team, one using the other to make the same case. Malcolm came to Selma just three weeks before his death, to remind the white man to cooperate with Dr. King, or the alternative would be something less than Christian. It was too bad that Malcolm, in Selma, did not visit King in jail for a private chat with no klieg lights to formalize the dialogue. I think they’re going to kill me, Dr. King…Yeah, Malcolm, and I think they’re going to kill me, too. They would have commiserated that it was tough being a symbol and knowing full well that martyrdom was part of the deal.

At the end of X, Nelson Mandela is speaking to black school children about Malcolm X. Then, in succession, a number of kids stand up, and declare: “I am Malcolm X!” I had just spent three and a half hours with my old hero, and now I, too, wanted to stand up in my living room, and say: “I am Malcolm X!” But as a white man, that would have been absurd — though not as a fellow autodidact. I am Malcolm X!

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T.O. Wants a Chinese Quarterback

 

T Owens

DALLAS, TX – Last Sunday marked a victory for Mankind when the Dallas Cowboys were eliminated from the playoffs by the Philadelphia Eagles. The score was 44-6, a trouncing severe enough to lift all of humanity from darkness into the light, and bring hope to even the outer reaches of the galaxy. One three-headed organism from the planet LaGuardia, in the Dinkins Nebula, said that he, or she, or it (three genders are represented on that world, including one that humans call “women with bushy eyebrows”), would rather see the hated Cowboys relegated to the sidelines than survive a death-ray from neighboring planet, Koch. But then the shadows returned when, in an interview, Terrell Owens opened his mouth to announce that he would lobby team owner, Jerry Jones, to have Tony Romo replaced by a Chinese quarterback.

“I’m all about diversity,” screamed Owens. “Everyone says that I’m all about T.O., but that’s not true. I understand that what this country needs is more Affirmative Action. Now listen: In San Francisco, the fag capital of the world, I ruined the life of Hispanic-America quarterback, Jeff Garcia. I even gave my opinion that he was a fag. Why else was he playing in San Fran?”

“But, T.O.,” interjected a reporter, “Jeff Garcia is married to a former Playmate of the Year.”

“Please, bitch, that marriage is airbrushed.”

“Okay, then what about the fact that you also played for San Fran? And come to think of it, no one has ever seen you with a woman – just a lot of men, who you take showers with after every game and practice.”

“Hey, just like there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ there’s no ‘T.O.” in ‘cocksucker.’”

“Actually, there is an ‘O’ in ‘cocksucker.’”

“Shut up! That’s just a media invention. Where was I? Right, diversity. After destroying the life of a Hispanic-American, I absolutely mauled the psyche of an African-American quarterback, Donovan McNabb. That chump will never look at his life the same again after I called him a coward and a mama’s boy.”

“But, T.O., Donovan’s Eagles just slaughtered your Cowboys, forty-four to six.”

“Oh,” laughed Owens, “you think that was my fault? Nah, that loss was all on our Italian-American quarterback, Tony Romo.”

“Who you destroyed like your two previous quarterbacks, right?”

“Right, but that was only because I’m an equal-opportunity quarterback obliterator.”

“Which is why you now want a Chinese-American quarterback?”

“Exactly, man,” said Owens, who dropped to the ground and did fifty sit-ups, after which he banged out fifty push-ups. Then he jumped to his feet, and said: “Do you think that Chinese motherfucker can do that? I bet he’s a fag just like Garcia, and a pansy just like McNabb, and an un-drafted joke like Romo. I haven’t met the guy yet. Man, I’ve never even heard of a Chinese quarterback, but I need him to complete my grand-slam of QBs who failed to center their personal and professional lives around me, Terrell Owens. Maybe Yao Ming has a brother, or something, some freak Chinese dude who can throw me the damn ball, though he’ll never throw it to me enough times.”

At that point, Owens performed a bad imitation of a Chinese quarterback, slanting his eyes and pretending to karate-chop a football, and yelling out, “No tic-kee, no throw to dat beautiful wide-out, honorable T.O. As-sole, grasshopper…See, I’m already screwing with his head.”

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