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Malcom X and Me

February 9, 2017

 

(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)

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