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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 there 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.”

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 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!

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

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.”

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

The People’s Republic of Cambridge

Harvard Square

(This is an excerpt from my book The Education of a White Boy: An Honest Discussion on Race.)

My next literary love affair was with the black firebrand, Eldridge Cleaver, and his book Soul on Ice. Eldridge was born in 1935 and then raised – or, better, led a wayward youth — in California. In 1958, he was sentenced to eight years in various prisons for assault with intent to kill. There, like Malcolm, he became a Black Muslim and spent much time in quiet study. He quit the NOI in the wake of Malcolm’s assassination. He left jail in 1966 and plunged into radical politics. He became Minister of Information for the Black Panthers, the most militant of the protest groups. In 1968, he made a Paul Paulson-like run at being elected President of the United States, only to go on the lam to Algeria after having walked the walk of his own talk in a shooting incident. He revolutionized the strategy of finding Jesus as a convenient way to dissociate himself from his criminal past and to ease the transition into a less testosterone-driven middle age and then to write an inspirational book on the conversion, this one called Soul on Fire. This allowed him to return to the country in 1975, whereupon it was back to the slammer till 1980. Six years later, in the ultimate break with the past, he became a Reagan Republican.

But in September, 1986, all I knew of Eldridge Cleaver was what was told to me by the man himself in Soul on Ice, published in 1968 at the height of his radicalism in a country at the height of its protest. Much of it was written in prison – again a case of a guy having the time and the monkish conditions to pursue an intellectual life. There is one chapter on his reaction to the assassination of Malcolm X. By then, he had already left the NOI, tearing from his cell wall the picture of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and replacing it with one of Malcolm kneeling in a mosque in Cairo. The killing only reaffirmed Cleaver’s own experience of how the “quickest way to become hated by the Muslims was to criticize Elijah Muhammad or disagree with something he wrote or said. If Elijah wrote, as he has done, that the swine is a poison creature composed of 1/3 rat, 1/3 cat, and 1/3 dog and you attempted to cite scientific facts to challenge this, then you had sinned against the light, that was all there was to it.” Malcolm and Eldridge, though coming as ignorant young men to the Nation of Islam, had become too well read to believe in this hogwash.

My favorite section of the book was called “The White Race and its Heroes.” Its premise is that circa 1967 the political division is no longer between white and black, rather between young and old. This paradigm shift had been initiated by Jack Kerouac and the Beats in the Fifties who were uncomfortable with straitlaced white society. Here Cleaver quotes, with approval, the passage from On the Road when Jack strolls through the Negro part of Denver wishing he “were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap.” But the rebellion of the Beats lacked focus, and so was manifested in drugs and an unconventional lifestyle. This was not unlike my own days hitchhiking and carousing around the country. Then young whites “began an active search for roles they could play in changing the society.” They ended looking no further than the Civil Rights movement. They joined blacks in articulating the sins of America.

Now these young whites “recoil in shame from the spectacle of cowboys and pioneers – their heroic forefathers whose exploits filled earlier generations with pride – galloping across the movie screen shooting down Indians like Coke bottles.” They are even reassessing the heroes they were taught, in grade school, to worship as gods. “George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of black slaves.” This made them oppressors, not freedom fighters. But Hollywood continues to purvey fantasies. “The ‘paper tiger’ hero, “James Bond, offering the whites a triumphant image of themselves, is saying what whites want desperately to hear reaffirmed: I am still the White Man, lord of the land, licensed to kill, and the world is still an empire at my feet.” Young Caucasians are so embarrassed by such distortions that they are now “taking people of color as their heroes and models,” men like “Malcolm X…John Lewis…Martin Luther King.” The old “white heroes, their hands dripping with blood, are dead.” He ends by saying that if “a man like Malcolm X could change and repudiate racism, if” he himself “and other former Muslims can change, if young whites can change, then there is hope for America.”

In Denver, I had gotten into the habit of keeping a book open on my lap when driving to study at red lights and in traffic jams. One beautiful autumn day, I was idling at the Porter Square intersection in Cambridge, Mass, with my windows open, reading Soul on Ice. Two white, affluent kids were standing on the median strip doing political work. They approached my car and one of them introduced himself as Something Kennedy and wanted to talk to me about his cousin, Joe Kennedy, who was running for…His words faded into a blur, as the ghost of Malcolm X filled my head with thoughts of how the chickens had come home to roost when Uncle John Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. And here was Eldridge Cleaver, on my lap, who, not thirty seconds ago, had told me how the old white heroes were not heroes at all, just “butchers, invaders, oppressors.” And who was more of a prefabricated American hero than Jack Kennedy? I became angry at his nephew for being associated with what Malcolm had called the K.K.K. (John, Robert, Ted) and also for being rich and white. I snapped my fingers for him to stop talking nonsense, then held up Soul on Ice, and, in the superior tone of a working class autodidact, asked:

“You ever read this?”

He stepped back to get a better look. Then he pointed at the cover and, roaring with laughter, said: “Ah, great book, man!”

Eldridge was right about one thing: Youth was radical, and both Something Kennedy and I were still young, malleable dudes.

……………….

Let us go back to the day when I first picked up a book. It was done in reaction to when my supervisor at Purex suspended me for insubordination. He and the corporate authority had brought me into a room and made false accusations, and all I could do in self-defense was let fly with obscenities. Afterward, I vowed never again to be struck dumb by my inability to string together two intelligent words, and reading would be the key to reaching this goal. It was mere coincidence that the first book I read, A Man, had to do with standing up to authority. But there were three other books I was to read within the next six months that were deliberate choices born of my anger at the soulless corporation, Purex. I was not satisfied with a novel about rebellion or a self-help book on how to play the game of business and win – no, I swung all the way to the other side of the reading spectrum and took out from the Levittown Library, in order, the biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky.

I had grown up a diehard Cold Warrior, and so I recognized the names of Lenin and Stalin. They were cartoon villains to white working class kids of that era, like Dr. No in the James Bond movies and the Joker in Batman. Lenin and Stalin were goddamn Commies, enemies of capitalism. But now I felt that corporate America, in the guise of Purex, had insulted me on a personal level, and so fuck you Ronald Reagan and Lee Iacocca, and hello to the Red Revolution.

I was not halfway into the Lenin biography when I came upon the story of the original modern terrorist, Serge Nechaev. He was the one who came up with the strategy of a network of three-man cells that made it difficult for the secret police to uncover the whole operation and that is still popular today among Islamic extremists. He was also the one who inspired the novel The Possessed by Dostoyevsky, the middle-aged author who believed that the young, ruthless and nihilistic students of the 1870s, like Nechaev, were more in league with the devil than on the side of the downtrodden angels, that they were more of an unhinged destructive force (especially within its own ranks) than a group committed to building a better society. Dostoyevsky may have been a fanatic in his own right, but on this issue he was a true prophet. Nechaev set the tone for all Red politics to come when he killed, in cold blood, another student who disagreed with him on how the revolution should proceed to the next utopian level.

Then Nechaev wrote something called The Catechism of a Revolutionist. Here are some of its key points: “The revolutionist is a doomed man” and “has no personal interests, no emotions, no attachments…Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution…The revolutionary…has broken all bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilized world with all its laws, moralities…and accepted conventions. He is their implacable enemy and if he continues to live with them, it is only in order to destroy them…He only knows one science: the science of destruction…The revolutionary despises public opinion…He is merciless toward the State and toward the educated classes…For him there exists only one pleasure…the success of the revolution. Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim, merciless destruction…The revolutionary can have no friendship or attachment…He enters the world of the state…of the so-called civilization, and he lives in this world only for the purpose of bringing about its speedy and total destruction…” And it goes on and on to detail who should be killed, who tortured and who exploited once these comrades attain power. The end (freedom) justifies the means, and lies (propaganda) will bring about truth. One could write an entire book on the contradiction and insanity of The Catechism of a Revolutionist.

Nechaev died in a Czarist prison in 1882. Marx, to his credit, denounced him as not a true member of the Cause, though Lenin would later commandeer both men and force them on the Russian people so that, with Lenin’s death and Stalin’s rise to power, Russian society, circa 1936, would be beholden more to Nechaev than to Marx. The only thing crazier than The Catechism of a Revolutionist was being an illiterate kid in Levittown copying it all down on ten pages of legal paper, as if such an act would bring down my evil supervisor and Purex.

I had never heard of Trotsky, the more brilliant of the Big Red Three, until the Lenin biography, and so he was my last study. In between came Stalin, who helped bring me back down to suburban earth and was also the one responsible for bringing a pickaxe down on Trotsky’s head in 1940 in Mexico City. But it was a remark by Trotsky that really jolted me from the Communist dream. He said that in his ideal socialist paradise every worker would do his job with a soldier aiming a gun at his or her back. In comparison, my supervisor at Purex seemed like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, though who is to say, if given the chance, he would not have kept the liquid detergent line operating at the point of a bayonet.

My quest for literacy got off to a wayward start out of pure coincidence at having been curious about Russian Communism after my disillusioning experience at Purex. With a dictionary opened at my side, some of the first words I learned were drawn straight from stale Lenin-Marxist rhetoric. I copied down and studied their definitions, and then, excited by these new toys, would shoehorn them into everyday conversation. I would be hanging out with my Levittown chums swilling down beers and passing around joints and a conversation would come up on the merits of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. I would say that Mick was at the vanguard of rock n’ roll and that he was a street-fighting proletarian full of incendiary ideas, and Keith Richard was the anti-bourgeoisie; or that, on stage, Robert Plante was intrepid and a true comrade, while his band-mate, Jimmy Page and his two-neck guitar, were the result of dialectical materialism. My drinking comrades took these outbursts in stride. We were all so stoned and inebriated on illegal substances that I came off impressing them as their smart and profound buddy. Really, dude.

My honeymoon with the Big Red Three was short and the breakup acrimonious enough to send me back into the capitalistic arms of Uncle Sam. A year later, at the machine shop in Bristol, PA, whenever co-workers complained about the Jew owner, I would defend him, saying that he was the one who had started a business from scratch, always a risky enterprise. If those meth addicts wanted money and freedom, then they, too, should have some balls and take a chance rather than, five mornings a week, sleep-walking up to the time-clock. This was not the Soviet Union, but America, where any smart person could carve out a piece of the materialistic pie. Yet this did not stop me from hating guys like my supervisor at Purex, since they were backstabbing tyrants carving mini kingdoms out of corporations that other people had built from scratch. Then there was the whole debate with Slice over how I thought America had the right to bomb and invade any country that resisted putting up a McDonalds in their back yard. On such evidence, I was no longer a Marxist.

What had set me going in the right direction were the Penguin Classics. That was how I ran into George Orwell, who would become another of my “boys,” though on a less passionate scale. I never went on an Orwell binge. Instead, I picked him up early and for the next five years read his novels at half-year intervals. On the eve of my Civil Rights spree, in Denver, I discovered his essays. He was the voice of sanity that maintained a close enough distance so to step in whenever I was thrown too far off balance by my latest bout of fanaticism.

His first such steadying influence came when I read his allegory on the Russian Revolution, Animal Farm, and then a number of explanations on its meaning by literary critics. The story Orwell told was simple: Capitalism was indeed a ruthless machine that brutalized humanity in its inexorable search for cash and property. Marx was a dreamer who pointed this out and then expressed some hazy idea on how to reverse this trend and died with his head in some fairyland. But his ideas were attractive to young fiery types. Stalin and Trotsky took up Marx and used his philosophy to gain power, thus contradicting the whole premise of the working class rising up on its own to control its destiny. The truth was that the proletariat, far from being noble and capable of self-government, were dumb, docile, and easily manipulated by the words of the party news organ, Pravda, which “could turn black into white.” And if that failed to convert the stubborn working stiff, there was the new secret police to cart individuals off to the gulag or the grave. Trotsky was more capable and intelligent than Stalin, but in politics the prize goes to the best liar and the most ruthless (Nechaev), and though Trotsky could fib and destroy with the best of them, he was no Stalin. Hence the pick axe in the skull. In the end, the capitalist masters were replaced with new masters, as Stalin moved into the old Czarist palace, the Kremlin.

Though Orwell attended the elitist (high) school, Eton, he was an autodidact at heart and would later excoriate the British educational system as run by sadistic and not so bright homosexuals who preyed upon teenage boys. He then moved beyond the reach of the schoolmaster’s whip to become a cop in Burma, where, off duty, he read and reread classic novels. He eventually returned to Europe to become a dishwasher and a bum in an attempt to understand the proletariat. He wrote of this experience in Down and Out in Paris and London, his first novel. I was aware, when reading it, that Orwell was only slumming, as today’s Yuppies do when visiting a jazz club in the black ghetto, but at least that was better than Marx, Lenin and Trotsky glorifying a proletariat they had never met, much less labored beside, in person. Orwell’s next adventure was fighting in the Spanish Civil War. There he came face to face, at ground level, with the real Communism that betrayed the Loyalist cause for the sake of the Party, just as Nechaev had outlined how a true revolutionist should act in order to maintain radical purity. Orwell worked as a journalist during World War II. Afterward, he became disillusioned with political parties and the humans that created them, enough that he moved to a cold, uninhabited island to write Nineteen Eighty-Four. In 1950, he died of TB in London at the age of 46.

People usually associate Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four with Big Brother, the all-seeing and all-knowing government whose picture bears a striking resemblance to the thickly coifed Joe Stalin. But what he and the book stand for above all else is disdain for cant and hypocrisy. Fascism and Communism are the same evil monster, only with different slogans, all lies.

At the heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the study of how language and its abuse lead straight to the loss of freedom. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a member of the Outer Party, the brainwashed functionaries serving Big Brother, whose Stalin-like image is everywhere WATCHING YOU. Winston works at the Ministry of Truth where his job is to go through articles and history books and rewrite them so that past events align with present dogma. The brainwashing never lets up for a second, as Party-controlled telescreens are present in every nook and cranny, much like how they are in American airports and shopping mall food courts, bombarding the Outer Party with propaganda, courtesy of the Thought Police. The viewing idiots are incited to cheer at good news and jeer at bad news. During the Two Minutes Hate, they are goaded into downright hostility toward the enemies, internal and external (the nation is always at war), of the Party, since nothing brings people together more than hatred toward a common enemy. There are also the numerous placards citing the Party’s three slogans: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. The meaning of words are twisted around in an attempt to mold the thoughts of the citizenry. But Winston, whose job is to fabricate lies, begins to entertain thoughts of rebellion. “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” He writes in his secret diary: Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.

To make a short novel even shorter, Winston becomes enamored of a girl without the Party’s permission, as the two of them enjoy one night and morning of freedom before being arrested by the police. Winston undergoes a few torture sessions at the Ministry of Love. In the end, he writes FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, then TWO AND TWO MAKES FIVE before surrendering himself to the Party and jotting down GOD IS POWER. He falls in love with Big Brother, dark mustache and all.

Again I was reminded of Purex. Here is the story in a three-sentence nutshell: I had been ordered by my African American supervisor to work at a sink washing off labels from liquid detergent bottles, and then, a hour later, the same man told me that I had abandoned my post, when, in fact, I had all the while stood right in front of him listening to him claim that I was not really there in front of the sink. He and the higher-ups at Purex proceeded to tell me that two plus two makes five. I disagreed with this lie using the aforementioned incoherent obscenities, claiming that two plus two makes four, and so I was suspended for three days without pay. That day Big Brother had a mustache like Stalin, though he was a black man from West Philly, who, within the confines of that prison-looking plant in Bristol, PA, could twist reality to fit his ambition to control me, a kid always and forever determined to maintain his individuality.

It was now 1986 and I was living in Boston. I had by now learned that if one wanted to study good prose, then Orwell was the man. This made sense in that anyone, like Orwell, who saw distorted language as the first step to the Gulag, must also be alert to clarity in his own use of language, whether in the written or spoken form. Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” gets to the core of this topic, and it remains to this day my personal mini-Bible. Sloppy language produces sloppy thought. One must use concrete prose if one is to “think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.” He comes down hard on clichés and even harder on Marxist clichés. This is because precision means deliberating over each word to form an original idea, whereas to copy down an entire phrase culled from common usage is to bypass the thought process all together. The goal is to put a vivid image in the reader’s mind, and to do that requires employing the correct words and the correct amount of words, to build the image from the inside out, all of which takes thought and vigilance. If one eases up and falls back on clichés, then the intended meaning can be concealed even from oneself, and the writer becomes a hack (or a New Age/Self-Help spewer of mush). A foggy-minded citizen is ripe for political exploitation.

In reading Orwell’s other essays, I came across two old friends, Charles Dickens and Henry Miller. He pays Dickens a few compliments, saying that he “had little or no formal education, but he lost nothing by missing it;” or that no one ever wrote so well from a child’s point of view; or that he had the “largeness of mind” never to indulge in cheap nationalism.  But, for the most part, he rips the Victorian novelist. I had just thrown the last of those seventeen volumes of Dickens against the wall when Orwell put his finger on what it was about these novels, aside from their vast number, that had come near to crushing my soul: All the stories arrive at a happy ending through the artifice of the rich, cheery guy spreading the wealth to the less fortunate, albeit noble, characters. “Even Dickens must have reflected occasionally that anyone who was so anxious to give his money away would never have acquired it in the first place.” But what infuriates Orwell the most is the total absence of a real working class. Even the bourgeoisie, who have jobs, are never seen doing those jobs. Orwell goes off on a Marxist tangent when he explains Dickens’ answer to life’s problems: “…a hundred thousand pounds, a quaint old house with plenty of ivy on it, a sweetly womanly wife, a horde of children, and no work. Everything is safe, soft, peaceful and, above all, domestic.” Still, Orwell concedes, Dickens must be given the nod for having done what counts – his work has survived to now being required reading in college English and Literature classes.

Orwell is kinder to Henry Miller. In the beginning, the guardian of English prose offers the American expatriate the highest praise. Miller’s first two books, Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring, “give you an idea of what can be still be done, even at this late date, with English prose. In them, English is treated as a spoken language, but spoken without fear, i.e. without fear of rhetoric or of the unusual or poetical word…It is flowing, swelling prose, a prose with rhythms in it, something quite different from the flat cautious statements and snackbar dialects that are now in fashion.” Then he goes on to question Miller’s passive political stance, circa 1939, as the height of irresponsibility. “To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps…Hitler, Stalin, bombs…putsches, purges, slogans…press censorship, secret prisons…Hollywood films and political murder.” The essay is entitled “Inside the Whale” to illustrate how Miller longs to be in the belly of a whale, as in a womb, though a transparent one so he can still view the decay of civilization, but nonetheless be out of harm’s way. “Short of being dead, it is the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility.” Yes, clear prose and thought were a defense against totalitarianism, but if accompanied by zero political engagement, the writer still plays into the hands of Big Brother…On the other hand…

………………

In September 1986, I was not inside the whale. In succession, I became obsessed with Martin Luther King and Civil Rights history, the white-complacency-destroying Malcolm X, and Eldridge Cleaver and his literary bomb, Soul on Ice. My temperamental pendulum was swinging back and forth between the leftist moderation of Orwell and the fanaticism of the kid five years ago who had copied down The Catechism of a Revolutionist.

But a revolutionary attitude was out of place in a year when Ronald Reagan, friend of the rich and foe to Civil Rights, was at the height of his popularity. Such isolation worked to sharpen my anger and defiance. I was Nechaev, and Reagan was Czar Alexander II, and I would have loved to throw a bomb at what Gore Vidal called “The Acting President.” What drove me to distraction about Reagan was that he believed in Hollywood fairytales, in James Bond coming to the rescue at the eleventh hour, in celluloid heroes, all white, and such a world had no room for real American heroes like Martin Luther King. Reagan had opposed for a long time making the birth of King into a national holiday, and had only signed the bill when Congress left him no choice.

The only person I hated more than Ronald Reagan was a Ronald Reagan partisan. I could not fathom how anyone could worship a guy who was so out of touch with reality, a public figure who had given speeches detailing heroic deeds that, as reported by Sixty Minutes, had been lifted verbatim from Hollywood movies. Those who swallowed such lies, and went so far as to defend them and their President, were prime examples of what Orwell meant by lazy thinkers, people who, because they spoke in clichés, would believe anything that sounded pretty, however outrageous and residing square in the Land of Fantasy. And the polls showed that the majority of Americans thought this way, or, rather, bypassed all real thought. Reagan, they said, made them feel good about themselves – yeah, like a narcotic. Nancy may have espoused saying no to drugs, but not the drug of Rambo patriotism that denied the reality that people of color also had a right to exist in this world and were not just cardboard cutouts to be knocked over by Clint Eastwood (“Go ‘head, make my day,” Reagan once said in a speech that made the audience cheer), Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who married into the K.K.K.). The telescreens were everywhere depicting our Acting President making one heroic gesture after another, none of which necessitated him dodging live bullets on Omaha Beach (Reagan had avoided the real World War II and instead made propaganda movies in California) or crawling through the swamps of Vietnam  (Reagan criticized kids who wanted to avoid Southeast Asia). It may have been 1986, but to a fanatic becoming stoked on dissident literature, like myself, it sure felt like 1984.

On the map of Eastern Massachusetts, the town just left of Boston reads “Cambridge,” but to residents in the area it was called “The Republic of Cambridge” – and Harvard Square was the Kremlin. Here the women wore no makeup and refused to shave their legs or their faces. To do so was to objectify themselves in an evil patriarchal society. They were human beings with real thoughts, not sexual playthings, though there was no man alive who would argue the latter point. To utter a sophomoric joke around a Cambridge woman was to invite their loud wrath, and if in a crowded public arena, an even louder wrath. Their male counterparts would also chastise a regular guy for calling a woman a chick or a babe. If you were walking down Mass Ave. and someone bumped hard into you, don’t worry, it was only some bearded intellectual with thick black-rimmed glasses too absorbed in solving the problems of the world to notice pedestrian traffic. There were Karl Marx look-a-likes and others who wore red or black turtleneck sweaters. There would be one man donning the same hat Lenin wore when he disembarked at Finland Station and began the Russian Revolution, and, at his side, a Cambridge woman who looked and dressed like Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya. Harvard Square 1986 was a place and time that confused itself with St. Petersburg 1918 or Paris 1968 – a place untouched by the Reagan Revolution.

One day, in Harvard Square, I passed a sign that read “The Revolutionary Bookstore.” If Harvard Square was the Kremlin, then this must be the Lenin Library. In the display window there were pictures of Mao and Che Guevera and a poster of the Black Power fist made famous by John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics. Up until now, all the books that I had jammed into my head had been written in the past or about the past, and all had been read in a vacuum, my having met very few intellectuals, much less sat down and conversed with them about matters requiring vast erudition. This was why, after striking up a conversation with the clerk at The Revolutionary Bookstore, I remained there for two hours. Hallelujah, I had found an actual intellectual, a Radical Communist to boot! The next logical step was for me to stalk the poor bastard.

The Radical Communist did not quite look the part, lacking the black sweater, the Lenin hat, the beard and the thick glasses. He was about thirty and dressed as how Joe Kennedy and his young cousins might at Hyannis Port after the touch-football game on the front lawn and just before Uncle Ted walked in with the booze – that is, in chinos and an oxford shirt. But he did possess the two most important characteristics of his trade – a voluminous knowledge of history and politics…and NO sense of humor.

At the start, I submitted my credentials to him by praising my two new heroes, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The RC was pro-Malcolm (a true militant) and anti-King (ineffective and a compromiser). The latter comment made me a little hot under the blue collar. I asked how he could dismiss a man who had gone to jail and been beaten for standing up to Jim Crow, and who, in the process, had helped bring down Jim Crow. None of that mattered, countered the RC, for King was temporizing, and the so-called end of segregation was a ploy to make blacks think they had won freedom, when, in economic and political fact, they had gained nothing but the right to eat a hamburger at a Woolworth. This, I knew, was straight from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I now became tentative, saying, But you have to admit that blacks are better off than they were before Civil Rights. The RC shook his head, as if to pity my ignorance. He pulled out the heavy artillery – statistics. He explained how the standard of living for the average African-American in 1986 was well below that of 1926 and then he proceeded to reel off five minutes worth of numbers as proof. The capitalist regime had frustrated the black race at every turn. Pre-1965, the racist persecution had been visible as lawful segregation; now it was covert in the form of a tacit agreement among the white power elite to prevent the black man and woman from becoming free citizens in full control of their own destiny. Giving blacks token governmental posts was just a way to appease them, to create the illusion of progress. Allowing them in the army and on the police force was an ingenious ruse to implicate them in their own oppression. There were thousands, perhaps millions, of government agents throughout the land whose primary task was to devise other, more elaborate ways to keep down the black populace.

I could barely follow his argument until he started on Reagan and how he was behind the whole plot. Now, at last, the RC and I were united by a common source of hatred, Reagan. I thrilled as the RC riddled the Acting President with overwhelming statistical evidence as to his insidious plan. Never mind that I had judged the former star of Bedtime for Bonzo as too much of a scatterbrain to be capable of organizing such an evil web of intrigue, for I was too smitten with the RC to fret over the false logic of his presentation. I was like the nerd who has a chance with the town beauty so long as he indulges her every whim and convinces himself that, yes, Vogue Magazine does have a lot to teach society, except the object of my adoration was a Leftist Political Nerd.

I admitted to the RC that I was only an uneducated printer, but was willing learn about the world. He scratched his chin and studied me for a moment, as he would a lab rat, or a minor capitalist pig. Then his eyes lit up with the self-love of a person about to save a lost soul. He said, yes, he had the perfect book with which to set me on the road toward Marxist enlightenment. It was called A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, a professor at Boston University. Once home, I told Judy that I had met someone – her face darkened – a guy – a kiss on the cheek – an intellectual – say what?

A People’s History of the United States begins with the first (maybe) white man to visit the Western Hemisphere, Columbus. (Malcolm X had once lectured at Harvard — where, perchance, Zinn attended – on the subject of the captain of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria: “Then Columbus landed on this island, San Salvador, and told the people, ‘I have discovered you in the name of the Queen of Spain,’ which is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. How can you discover a human being?…They must have looked at each other wondering, like, ‘Where did this fool come from?’”) But, as Zinn tells it, the Columbian dialogue was not so lighthearted an exchange. Right off the bat, Columbus writes in his log that the Arawak “have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…They would make fine servants…With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” The only problem was that he and his white sailing buddies had all brought ashore a festering disease that led to an epidemic that wiped out the entire Arawak tribe. Now Columbus had to fetch his own water.

As a Philly native, I had always been partial to the gang of ’76. Now I learned that they really were a gang – of rapacious plutocrats. George Washington was the biggest landowner in the colonies, and John Hancock and Ben Franklin were two of its richest feudal lords. This was not a battle of humble farmers against an oppressive monarchy, but rather a small posse of rich guys wanting to get even richer and using the yeomen as cannon fodder.

Thomas Jefferson was the author of The Declaration of Independence, except when it pertained to his own slaves. The U.S. Constitution – that sacred document – was really “the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support.”

The War of 1812, when the “the rockets’ red glare” were first observed at Fort McHenry, had little to do with self-defense and more to do with “the expansion of the new nation.” The hero of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, of twenty-dollar bill fame, was a genocidal maniac, doing his Old Hickory best to wipe out the Creek Nation.

Remember the Alamo? More like, remember the U.S. ordering troops into Mexico as a clear act of provocation and then feigning shock when Santa Anna defended his territory – and, no, as regular white guys now joke, several thousand Mexicans did not arrive at San Antonio in three Toyota Corollas.

The Civil War was not an altruistic campaign to free the slaves; it was a conflict between two very different economic systems, industry against agriculture. Abraham Lincoln never had any intention of ending slavery. His overriding ambition was to keep intact the Union, regardless of whether half of it was a Gulag operated by pretty women named Scarlett and guys with skinny mustaches named Rhett. Even the Emancipation Proclamation was a misleading document. All it did was declare slaves free in the South, which the Union had no dominion over, while saying nothing of those slaves under Union Control. This was not unlike an abusive parent railing against other people beating their children.

Teddy Roosevelt, the short guy who claimed to talk softly and carry a big stick, expressed loud disapproval in response to the even shorter Filipinos expecting independence from white imperialism after the U.S. had won the Spanish-American War. Teddy’s rationale was that since we had freed them from the Spanish, it was now our right to own and operate the place. Those natives who thought otherwise were exterminated like cattle in a Chicago stockyard, with the number of Filipino deaths reaching into the several hundreds of thousands. The Filipinos ended up on the short end of that big stick.

Even World War II, the one fight that remains righteous in the minds of all Americans, appears less holy when examined by Professor Zinn. The attack on Pearl Harbor was not the random act of evil as described in the grade school history books. The U.S. was indignant when Japan had moved into its own imperial playground, China, and so, in retaliation, FDR had instituted a total embargo on steel and oil against those uppity Japs, who, in turn, saw no alternative but to hit back – where it hurt, as in sinking the majority of the American Naval Fleet.

Then there was the darling John Kennedy, who was no darling to anyone who failed to serve his political ambitions. He would not commit to Civil Rights because of his true commitment to Southern Democrats. He sold the Freedom Riders down the river until TV footage of the massacres at Anniston and Birmingham made him look bad to Khrushchev.

The victims of these marauding patriots came in four categories: Indians, blacks, women and the poor working man. The privileged white man’s unilateral war against Native-Americans began with the decimation of the Arawak and progressed from one massacre to another, culminating at Wounded Knee in 1890, and reaching an anticlimax in a second, less murderous Wounded Knee in 1973. Zinn relates the three hundred and fifty-year woes of black Americans from the twenty kidnapped Africans who landed at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 to when, in 1969, the FBI unleashed two hundred rounds into a Black Panther apartment killing two members, one while he lay in bed. White males even lorded it over their own wives as illustrated in 1776 with Abigail Adams writing to her husband, and future American President, John, that, when organizing the new union, to “remember the ladies,” since “all men would be tyrants if they could,” and onward to Margaret Sanger, who, in the early 1900s, underwent a mental breakdown due to a suffocating marriage prior to leading the Suffragist crusade, and thence to the many women who, fifty years later, battled to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. The plight of the working man began in 1839 with the Anti-Renter movement in New York when, long before Eddie Murphy made the words famous, the proletariat was shouting “Kill my landlord!” Such agitation reached its peak in the 1920s and 30s during massive labor strikes only to have been for naught in lieu of how today our corporate economy rewards the one percent who are already rich and makes poorer the other ninety-nine percent. This was not George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and saying he could never tell a lie; instead this was Uncle Sam cutting down the lives of its citizens and telling them they should be happy.

Malcolm X had already discredited two of my old white heroes, the bookends of American history, Columbus and Kennedy. Still, I had clung to the belief, drilled into me since first-grade, that the men who appeared on U.S. currency and Mount Rushmore were good and noble demigods; and that, at its core, America was a beacon of light held up by a beautiful woman on Ellis Island. Now it turned out that it was all a sham. It was a traumatic experience for me, not least because of its suddenness. A six hundred-page book from a professor at B.U. had brought down a lifetime of acquired mental scaffolding of believing two plus two makes five. Eldridge Cleaver’s hyperbole that the old “white heroes, their hands dripping with blood, are dead,” was now supported by scholarly evidence. It hurt to know that two plus two makes four.

I sought the guidance of the RC. He listened to my reaction to A People’s History of the United States. When I finished describing the whole that was now in my heart, he said that was why this country needed a revolution from top to bottom, a total dismantling of a corrupt, imperialist and racist system. Capitalism was the root of America’s evil and could only be corrected by a new socialist order, of the workers rising up and taking control of the government.

When, a month previous, I had been going back and forth between Malcolm and Cleaver, I had also discovered Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident. I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward and the autobiographical The Oak and the Calf. Solzhenitsyn was no well-fed intellectual peering at Russia from the other side of the world and thereby making it conform to his own wishful thinking based on personal grievance, but a guy who had lived the horror of the Gulag and the continuous persecution from the KGB. In Russia, Big Brother did a lot of watching. What Solzhenitsyn wrote about the Soviet Union from his own experience and from collected eyewitness accounts made Zinn’s America seem like Utopia.

I told the RC that, sorry, communism doesn’t work. Look at the Soviet Union. He could not tell me that living in Moscow was better than living in Boston. He shook his head in the manner of a virtuoso toward a well-meaning clod, and then educated me on the difference between real Communism and the version now practiced in Russia. Lenin-Marxism was good socialism, while what Stalin and Khrushchev had made of it was bad socialism. I knew that Lenin was no innocent man, that he had memorized The Catechism of a Revolutionist and had not forgotten it once in power when he created forced labor camps and the Cheka (the precursor to the KGB). Stalin had only enlarged pre-existing Leninist institutions. Solzhenitsyn had verified the story. But I was not infatuated with Solzhenitsyn, and so kept mum, as the real object of my ardor, the RC, went on to extol Marx and Lenin. They were the ones I should look to as heroes, said my intellectual flame. The RC almost convinced me that I had been wrong in questioning the moral supremacy of the founder of the Soviet Union.

The RC reserved his highest praise for Mao Tsetung, a non-white hero that Cleaver had recommended to fill the vacuum left by the dead white heroes. The RC instructed me that it was the immortal Chairman whose words I should imbibe like milk from the Socialist teat. I answered that, come to think of it, there was a biography of him sitting in a box in my bedroom. Is it by Russ Terrill? he asked, snorting with contempt. Ah, yeah, I said, dreading further censure. Don’t read that. Why? Because no Western capitalist writer will tell the Truth. He nodded to a shelf that stocked only Maoist literature. You should start there, he said. The reason I had not opened the Mao biography at home was that all those Chinese names and places were too much for my Anglo-Saxon brain, and not even the RC was going to get me to wrestle with all those Xueliangs and Pengfeis. Even the most hen-pecked man must somewhere draw the line.

As a compromise, the RC pointed me toward another author, Bob Avakian, Chairman of the American Communist Party. He also had his own shelf stacked with books and shoddy pamphlets that appeared to have been run off on a mimeograph machine designed by a Soviet collective. There was a photo of Avakian as a thick-bearded man wearing a turtleneck sweater and a Lenin hat. His body was tilted at a romantic angle in a transparent attempt to be the next Che Guevera. In one of his books, it read that he had been a “major voice on the revolutionary left since the 1960s,” working with the Black Panthers and the S.D.S., after which he “emerged as the leading Maoist thinker in the United States.” Then, in “1980, under threat of more than a lifetime in jail – as a result of trumped-up charges…Bob Avakian was forced into exile in France.” To appease the RC, I bought two of Avakian’s books and also a copy of The Revolutionary Worker, the weekly organ of the American Communist Party that just so happened to be edited by none other than Bob Avakian, and went home to study these texts.

The Revolutionary Worker was a shrill publication full of exclamation points and sinister pictures of masked rebels who, to my proletarian eye, looked like spoiled kids still at home with mommy and daddy and who were only playing at revolution. Inside was a long article on Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The RC was determined to get me to know the Chairman one way or another. The Cultural Revolution sounded like a cool thing, as it incorporated two of my favorite words, and so I started reading the essay, and stopped at ten paragraphs. Orwell was right: Marxist writing was bad writing. All I could grasp was that the author deemed the Cultural Revolution one of the great endeavors in the history of Man.

Perhaps I would have better luck with the two books by Avakian. The author had the same desire as Zinn to shed light on the dark side of the American Dream, but, after twenty pages, it was obvious that he lacked the Professor’s ability to tell a good story – which is to say, Avakian wrote Marxist prose. Getting through the next five hundred pages was no less an ordeal than were the seventeen tomes of Dickens. He exhausted whole chapters refuting Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Paine for deviating from the dialectical-materialist interpretation of history and failing to include the proletariat in their visions of a better society. How Plato, in the day of the olive grove and hand-plow, was supposed to champion a nonexistent proletariat and advocate the dismantling of a yet to be created capitalist superstructure was a mystery to me, especially when it was explained using indigestible phrases like “predominate ideology” and “nonaristocratic strata.”

Avakian was fond of juxtaposing sound erudition with the use of exclamation points. An example was when he wrote how, in the Civil War, the Union enlisted freed slaves as soldiers, and “nearly two hundred thousand did so, often fighting on the front lines of the most fiercely contested battles and incurring a death rate of 20 percent, which was 35 percent higher than the rate for white Union soldiers, even though they were only paid about half the wages of these white soldiers!” Elsewhere he described – this time forsaking the exclamation point for a barrage of Marxist jargon – the mistake made by the Black Panthers. Huey P. Newton, their leader, did not realize in time that gaining power “can only be done in the fullest sense through the application of a comprehensive, all-around view of reality and the principles involved in its development – which is the science of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought.” Avakian’s prescription for the ills of society was the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that will somehow rise up and usher in a new millennium, though actual manual labor was not mentioned as part of this utopia, much how Orwell had observed of Dickens that his answer to life’s problems was a vague future of domestic idleness. Thus was joined the American Marxist and the Victorian promoter of bourgeois values.

If I were to review these books today, one sentence for each would suffice to explain my opinion. Of the first book, A Horrible End or An End To The Horror?, I would quip: “It depends on whether Bob Avakian stops writing his tortured prose.” In summing up the second one, Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?, the answer would be: “No.”

I would also review another of his books, this one on Chairman Mao, without even reading it. I have since learned that the Cultural Revolution was nothing more than the government encouraging kids to rat out their parents, which, to anyone with teenaged children, is scarier than being watched by Big Brother. Another of Mao’s crazy schemes was his Great Leap Forward that resulted in thirty million people leaping into the grave from starvation. Avakian’s book is called Mao Tsetung’s Immortal Contributions, which, in my review, I would rename Mao Tsetung’s Mortality Contributions.

I would then update the status of Bob Avakian. He is the chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, meaning, I guess, that he sits on a chair in a room by himself holding forth to the walls. He is still editing The Revolutionary Worker, now called just Revolution, in which he continues to make grand statements. For instance, he has a sixteen-point draft programme (the spelling of a guy too long in Europe) that could have been issued by the pre-1917 Lenin in his hideaway in Zurich. Here is a selection: “1) The Party and the Masses…2) Revolution Means Waging People’s War…8) Proletarian Dictatorship, Democracy and the Rights of the People.” Then he resurrects the forgotten ghost of Nechaev, and writes: “The whole system we now live under…is completely worthless and no basic change for the better can come about until this system is overthrown.” This language when used by a romantic youth can be excused as a bout of philosophical growing pains, but it sounds absurd from a man of seventy. A mature scholar should understand that life, the kind that is lived in the biological world, is oblivious to dogma. He should also admit that Czar Alexander II did actually free the serfs and was gradually bringing democracy to Russia, but was stopped short when he was assassinated in 1881 by a student radical group called the People’s Will, disciples of Nechaev, which led to a brutal reaction by his successor that ended further progress. That is what happens when revolutionaries try to level the whole system. Life is evolution, not revolution. Avakian remains in self-imposed exile long after Communism has at last been put out of its misery because he claims that the American government is trying to kill him. The final sentence would read: Bob, dude, you’re not that important.

But I was not so detached at twenty-six. Though I hated every moment spent with Avakian, he did manage to further stoke the radical flame that was now consuming my brain. I tried to keep my visits to The Revolutionary Bookstore at long enough intervals so as not to alarm the RC, who did seem to be growing unnerved by my frequent visits. I asked him to clarify how a dictatorship of the proletariat equaled freedom to the citizenry. Was this what Orwell had in mind in Nineteen Eighty-Four with The Party’s slogan FREEDOM IS SLAVERY or IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH? The RC was close to losing his temper when he said that the dictatorship of the proletariat was just a necessary step toward the perfect society. Then I pulled back, realizing I was pushing him away and could lose my first and still only intellectual friend. On each visit, I departed with another leftist book.

I became a social menace, as my native sense of humor was being buried under the fast accumulating mountain of guilt at the pain and suffering of the world. I now agreed with another of Orwell’s comments, lifted from the Dickens essay, that a bourgeois (American) lifestyle is irresponsible because it leads people to “see everything in terms of individual success, with hardly any consciousness that the community exists.” Anyone whom I noticed not daily concerned with the plight of African-Americans received from me a sermon and then was told to go and sin no more. I questioned twenty-year friendships on the basis of past use of the n-word, and lucky for them (and me) that I now lived three hundred miles from Levittown. When I asked people what their thoughts were on Civil Rights and was given the response of What did Martin Luther Coon ever do for me?, they were disowned, to say nothing of strangled during one of my frequent vengeance fantasies. To me, with the imminent birth of my child, black and white relations were of the utmost urgency. My radicalized mind saw only strife and mayhem ahead, and whites had better address the racial situation now or our kids were going to wind up swinging from lampposts as payback for the sins of our ancestors. Even such appeals to the saving of our children – usually a cheap and sure way to win converts — left my white compatriots cold or laughing at all “my crazy talk,” and, yes, they began to avoid me like a self-righteous plague. I concluded that Malcolm should never have altered his first opinion of whites — they really were devils.

If I now suspected all white people of bad intentions, then my view of African-Americans was the opposite. They were angels, all of them. Any harm certain blacks had ever done to me or to society in general was really the fault of white society, of the chickens coming home to roost. Jesse Jackson, whom I had before considered something of a charlatan when he ran for President in ’84, I now hoped would run again in ’88 and this time be the victor. As a lifelong enemy of the L.A. Lakers, I decided that, on second thought, the black Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were admirable fellows. The most significant change in my relations to black people was that I began giving them preferential treatment, something years of frontline experience had taught me was the quickest way to earn their contempt. But I was too far down the radical path to think with a clear head.

In the past, I had often wondered why some blacks were prone to violence. Now I was baffled as to why all tens of millions of them were not applying the torch to the white power structure and killing every last one of its architects. This assessment was nothing short of realistic when one understood their history and present condition. One day, I made a survey of my past employers, some twenty to twenty-five men, in order to ascertain which of them would have hired a black person and which would have yanked down the “Help Wanted” sign at their approach. I found that the only ones with black workers had been the large corporations, with Purex going so far as to have a black supervisor (whom I now forgave) while the smaller businesses employed not a single person of color. I recalled many of these petty bourgeoisie owners telling me, pointblank, that they would only hire a nigger under governmental threat, though it would be tempting to first shut down the place. I broadened this microcosm to the whole nation until it became irrefutable that blacks were discriminated against in the job market and thus were left with little choice but to explore other, less law-abiding ventures, or to simply burn down the whole rotten edifice.

My job was as a printer at a mental hospital, a corporation. One of my co-workers was a black man about my age from Jamaica. He had the disposition that even a lieutenant in the Moral Majority would have been hard-pressed to hate due to his skin color. He was never angry, nor blue. Yet I would try to rile him with inside information on the atrocities that whitey had committed against his people over the last three centuries. I advised him to throw off the yoke of oppression and to stand up to the white menace and demand his freedom. Okay, then he should at least quit being so nice to these blue-eyed devils and not let them think he sanctioned the status quo. He would respond by smiling and patting me on the back, and inform me that things had improved for his race and were getting better every day, regardless of what those leftist books and the Radical Communist proselytized to their narrow audience. He chuckled that if white corporate America wanted to con him into a false sense of security by enabling him to lease a new car, which he had just done, or to subsist at an unchallenging job with an above average benefits package, which we both had, then it sure beat toiling on a sugar plantation back in Jamaica for poverty wages. “In fact,” he said, “I hope they try to con me some more.”

Another employee at the mental hospital was a white man in his forties and another pleasant soul. One day, he mentioned how much he loved Ronald Reagan. He may as well have called my pregnant wife the town-pump, so instant was my desire to slam his stupid red face (which before I had viewed as cheery) into a nearby mailing machine. I asked him the exact reason why he liked such a buffoon, to which he replied that Reagan stood up to the liberals. There it was – the L-word. My gentle red-faced co-worker helped put into focus what it was that so much bothered me about the Acting President. His fuzzy Hollywood grasp of reality had transformed a word that commonsense saw as good into something denoting evil. In Webster’s Dictionary, the word “liberal” means “generous…broadminded…ample and full,” whereas its opposite, illiberal, is listed as “stingy…bigoted…lacking in culture and refinement.” It followed that most of the Republican nation believed that to be a good American one had to be mean-spirited, xenophobic and uneducated and yet be dedicated to family values. On telescreens everywhere the Great Communicator had America thinking (or not thinking) that two plus two made five, and that IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. I had to walk away from the red-faced man so as not to get physical, which would have only aggravated another of my personal relations. But I promised myself that if I ever saw him lying on the side of the road with his body mangled head to toe, I would heed his opinion and, instead of being a bleeding-heart liberal and lending him a compassionate hand, I would be a good illiberal Republican and walk away and let him bleed to death – perhaps even kick him in his red face just to demonstrate my patriotism.

I was starting to wish I were a black man. Then life would be simple. I would not be torn by this internal conflict between my biological identity and my adopted sympathies, and no longer have to struggle to  accept people I had always loved who did not even try to live up to a higher ideal. I could be pro-black and anti-white without any confusion as to my personal identity. I would be expected, like the black Malcolm X, to tell the cracker where to go and afterward not feel a tinge of remorse or embarrassment. I could be a fanatic that made sense.

Other times, I would get nostalgic for the old days when, not liking nor respecting blacks as a group, I got along with them much better as individuals. My view of race back then was unobstructed by historical data and radical dissent. I saw personalities, not human beings wrapped in dogma. Ignorance was bliss, or Strength, whereas now enlightenment was clouding my street-level judgment.

The author who brought my radical fever to the meltdown point was someone whom the RC touted as an oracle – Noam Chomsky. He was a Professor of Linguistics at MIT (not far along Mass Ave from The Revolutionary Bookstore), a field he had dominated since the Fifties with his innatist theory of language, which had something to do with the idea that grammar was wired into our brains at birth. But what Chomsky was better known for were his political writings.

His thesis can best be explained as follows: America is bad and every other country is good. To be more specific, for all our blather about promoting freedom abroad, in practice, we (the CIA) go around the world overthrowing democracy in order to set up rightwing dictatorships. This is to clear the way for our expanding corporations, which need stable environments to allow them to grow into humungous cash cows, and nothing is less stable than a nation in the throes of early democracy. The Third World countries that have been wrecked by our need for “profits over people” are, to name a few, Cuba in 1898, Italy in 1948, Guatemala and Indochina in ’54, Iran in ’56, Chile in ’73, East Timor in ‘75 and Nicaragua in the 80s. We encouraged genocide in East Timor and used chemical warfare to kill one-quarter of a million South Vietnamese. Corporations are, by nature, hierarchical, and so are at odds with government by consent. Worse, the money generated by these foreign-based companies go to the executives back in the U.S., leaving Third World natives, who have had their lives and homes leveled under the advance of economic progress, to fend for themselves amid depleted environments. But we American citizens know nothing of this global depredation because the media is owned by these same conglomerates. If reporters want to keep their privileged jobs, they will toe the party line and paint the U.S. as good and altruistic. And don’t even think that this is all the result of the free market, since all the welfare mothers on the planet do not receive a fraction of the government money that is given to large corporations. Boeing is one example of a company that owes its entire existence to government handouts. Lee Iacocca, the exemplar of rugged individualism, was not the guy who saved Chrysler; instead, he was the guy who begged Uncle Sam to save Chrysler. Every technological advance has come not from bold entrepreneurs, as myth would have it, but from “enormous state subsidies and intervention.” The “public pays the costs and the rich get the profits.” Our evil foreign policy works in tandem with how we manipulate the United Nations. We use it when condemning other states that we perceive as out of line – that is, resisting our capitalist encroachment – and then ignore it when the international tribunal calls us to the stand.

Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver may have upset my complacency, but, as witty and engaging writers, they also supplied a comic edge to my growing anger. Also, they had some positive things to contribute to the discourse, even about the blue-eyed devil. Zinn had demythologized the standard American heroes, but it was an important piece to my education, to say nothing of an intellectual spark of Big Bang magnitude. These guys brought me to the political table, which would have pleased Orwell, since the table is outside the belly of Henry Miller’s whale. Chomsky, on the other hand, made me want to forsake the table – and the whale and the ocean, too — and commit suicide. A world made so bleak and sinister by its most enlightened ambassador, America, was beyond repair.

To lighten up, I began to alternate leftist polemics with real literature, which, as chance would have it, ended up adding to the conflict. At the mental hospital, one of my educated customers told me that if I wanted to be a writer, then an English prose master to study was Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita. I was to learn that, yes, he was one of the great stylists of the twentieth century, but also that he was born a Russian aristocrat and had been uprooted by the Bolshevik Revolution. It was not until twenty years later that he started to write novels in English. His father had been part of the provisional government that had assumed power in February 1917 and was composed of well-rounded men intent on democracy. But true freedom would have entailed a slow, multi-voiced process, which inspired in Lenin (the spiritual descendent of Nechaev) zero tolerance, as everything had to be torn down so that utopia would rise up out of the ether in some far off day. Trotsky’s Red Army killed or drove out of Russia anyone with an original idea or who was at least capable of nuanced thought — and no one fit that description better than Nabokov and his democratic father.

The first of his books I read, The Gift, was half a love letter to butterfly collecting and half a mock biography of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, an early Russian revolutionary, on whom all things that make for a worthwhile life, like an appreciation of nature and colorful winged insects, was lost in favor of political orthodoxy. This was the same guy who wrote the radical tract What is to be Done?, a title which Lenin later borrowed for his own panacea for what ailed mankind. Lenin and Chernyshevsky were of the same dull, humorless and one-dimensional stamp. Soviet fashion, the ugliest in history, issued from the likes of these men.

The second book was the autobiographical Speak, Memory. It is prose at its evocative best on the charms of pre-hammer-and-sickle Russia. Nabokov has no patience, like Solzhenitsyn, for anyone who judges Leninism an improvement over Czarist rule. Toward the end, he clinches his argument by stressing how the two regimes treated political prisoners. He writes that when “revolutionaries [under the Romanovs] did get caught, banishment to Tomsk or Omsk (now Bombsk) was a restful vacation in comparison to the concentration camps that Lenin introduced. Political exiles escaped with farcical ease, witness the famous flight of Trotsky – Santa Leo, Santa Claws Trotsky – merrily riding back in a Yuletide sleigh drawn by reindeer: On Rocket, on, Stupid, on, Butcher and Blitzen!” Yes, even when I sat down with an art-for-art’s-sake author, revolution was in the air.

There still remained the biggest source of my inner tension – MY PROLETARIAN LIFE. I was not like Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Zinn, Avakian and Chomsky, none of whom had ever done a single day of real, back-breaking labor. Nor was I like the socialist Simone Weil, the French-Jewish writer who worked in a factory to demonstrate her commitment to the working poor; or the socialist Jack London, who, before achieving literary fame at a very young age, knocked about at different low wage jobs; or the socialist Upton Sinclair, who would snoop around various industries before sitting down to pen his latest protest novel. Instead I was working class, with little hope of ever moving beyond its clanking, heaving borders. When these authors and dictators extolled the proletariat as noble and heroic and the foundation of a glorious future, I had to give a double-take and say, along with Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver: You talkin’ to me?

Listen, I wanted to tell them, it’s understandable that you guys need a body over which to drape your ideas of social engineering, but trust me, the proletarian is not your man. He could care less for equality or universal brotherhood. Most working class Americans idolize the anti-labor Ronald Reagan. This should be all the evidence needed to prove that all they really want is to be rich so to never again have to labor in the salt mines. They want the magical end of a Dickens novel, not the depressing, chaotic grind of a revolution. Proletarians are greedy, selfish dolts, to whom inspiration comes via The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous rather than The Lives of Plutarch. They are as far from noble and heroic as you, Mao Tsetung, are from reality. To call a drone noble is to say two plus two makes five, though a drone would answer six, as in a six-pack. You predict that if the proletarian spent fewer hours on the job, he would be afforded more time with which to improve himself through art and literature. Let me tell you, assembled Chairmen, the only art and literature a working man wants to ponder is the word “Hooters” stretched over a pair of firm breasts. Trust me, I have tried to interest these people in books, even your books — and you know what?  THEY DON’T CARE. Why do you think I’m stalking the RC? And here’s the biggest news: WORK SUCKS, especially if done in a society that pays in deferred dreams, like Communism. At least you get paid for your labor in America. A workers paradise is an oxymoron. If work is so great, then how come you guys have avoided it all your lives?

On my last visit to The Revolutionary Bookstore, I repeated all this to the RC. He grew flustered and said that, if I was right about the typical American worker, then it was the fault of society, not the individual. Did you ever think, I asked, smiling for the first time in weeks, that society is the way it is because of these people, and not vice versa? And wouldn’t that make this country already a worker’s paradise?

That’s when the romantic spell broke in me, and, once the winds of real life experience blew away the utopian mist, I saw the RC as a very ordinary man. Gone was his intellectual mystique. In fact, I now considered him kind of stupid to not realize that blue collar work is pure torture. What did I ever see in him in the first place? Then I asked him one final question: Will you ever be happy? I could not imagine any joy in being forever saturated with Avakian prose and Maoist absurdity – it sure had darkened my life of late. In answer, he raised his eyes toward the window, as though gazing into the elusive distance, and said: I’ll be happy when the revolution comes and sweeps away all the world’s injustice. Well, I returned, with the smile now gone from my face, I guess you’ll never be happy.

At last, commonsense intervened and told me that even the brilliant Noam Chomsky could not be right all the time, and nor could the U.S. always be in the moral wrong. The Professor, as an expert on language, wanted to hold America to the letter of the U.N. Charter. But life was not a document. There was no better proof of this than the true Christian trying and failing every minute of every day to conform to Biblical scripture. If an individual could not measure up to the printed word, then what hope was there for a teeming, multi-voiced nation of former immigrants to do the same? Besides, if we, as entire people, ever did succeed in marching in lock-step unison to a legal brief, that would be orthodoxy, and that has never led to any good – just look at the historical, real-life evidence.

When George Orwell wrote that Henry Miller’s desire to remain in the belly of the whale was “the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility,” he was not done mulling over his subject. Later in the essay, he admits that the “atmosphere of orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all it is completely ruinous to the novel,” and that Miller is a novelist during a time, the nineteen-thirties, when one cannot walk around the corner without smacking into dogma. Perhaps, then, Miller is justified in “fiddling while Rome is burning, and, unlike the enormous majority of people who do this, fiddling with his face toward the flames.” Miller knows that fanatics like Chomsky have a point — but so what? He would rather stop fighting against the world-process “or pretending that you control it,” and “simply accept it, endure it, record it.” Was this what prompted Orwell, at the close of his life, to retreat to a rocky island and write Nineteen Eighty-Four?

At the beginning of Tropic of Cancer, Miller writes – nay, celebrates – that “there will be more calamities, more death, more despair…The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness…I am the happiest man alive.”

I left the RC to continue despairing over capitalist society while I walked outside onto Mass Ave. in the middle of the Republic of Cambridge. It was a magnificent autumn day. The windows of my mind were now thrown open to allow the fresh breeze of acceptance. I felt the disorienting radical dream world, or nightmare, subside into an interesting memory. I observed the many different kinds of people milling about Harvard Square, none of whom seemed worried over America’s failure to live up to the Declaration of Independence or the U.N. Charter. Students discussed grades and teachers and the party this coming weekend. Shoppers lugged around their capitalist goods, unconcerned about whether they had been manufactured in horrid Third World conditions. A professor and his mate held hands, and said nothing, as even they were taking time off from meditating of the fate of Man. Somerville boys elbowed one another to check out the kid with the orange Mohawk. Everyone avoided the bum asking for spare change. A block away came the muffled song of a street performer, the subject of which had nothing to do with leftist dogma. I breathed deep the rich New England air. I was totally passive, letting real life wash over me. Two plus two made four.

I walked around the corner to a semi-biker bar. Here there were no intellectuals scheming to save the proletariat. Instead there was a messy gang of actual proletarians scheming to get drunk. This was the working class I knew and they made me feel right at home. I ordered my first of many beers that day, then walked over to the jukebox. I may have been an intellectual in progress, but, underneath, I would always be a white trash punk from the Seventies who, in a pinch, would look to rock music for the last word. I played a song to fit the moment:

Say you wanna a revolution,

Well I don’t wanna see the plans…

And if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao,

You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow…

Don’t you know it’s gonna be – all right…

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