Capitulation is the leitmotif of brainless, amoral actors. And US political establishments have always backed and slobbered over the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., a grinning and typical politician – though King held no formal office.
King’s desires included the ability of all peoples to urinate next to one another after downing sugary drinks together at the local greasy spoon’s counter. King used Protestant Christian imagery, flowering his prose with appeals to the Palestinian Prophet. King was kind, folksy. He wasn’t a threat to those who ran the nation, and as such he was invited to “march” on Washington and "dream".
King huffed about equality, blah, blah, blah. No definition. He spoke of a character’s content, but nothing about content and what that might mean or look like. Blah, blah, blah. It was hard to know if King really even understood the concept of race was itself an antiquated and pseudo-scientific idea.
King was a second-rater in every respect, and cowardice is coddling to Power.
Behind King lurked a man, a man of immense intellectual proportions – a man many times King’s doting and complicit personality.
The White American public shit its collective pantaloons at the thought – a big, steamy fecal clump, piled high. The putrid smell wafted across fifty states in waves of panic and sweaty fear.
White America had a real problem.
If it did not cede to King’s modest shucking and jiving, a man known as Malcolm X was quickly taking the imagination of Black America. Where King was almost effete, and charmingly embraced by the political class, Malcolm was a man’s man, eschewing approval from elites.
By all accounts, Earl Little, Malcolm’s father, was a hard man. Different biographies point to a troubled dude, one of fiery temperament.
About the time of Malcolm’s upbringing, in and around the Great Depression, Black America was in a kind of strange renaissance. I write “strange” because popular opinion has it Black Americans are always and forever down, victims, struggling. I’ll leave that to sociologists’ quibbling. But evidence abounds for what could be called a functional segregation, especially in the North.
Harlem, New York was home to a blossoming of literature, black-owned and operated businesses, and a general embrace of quiet Black nationalism.
Pockets of something like Harlem spread the country, finding its way to the Midwest. Marcus Garvey, himself a difficult man, pushed for Black Americans to RETURN to Africa – take their capital, and bounce, repopulating the continent to get away from the scourge of the Anglo world. There were some takers, actually, and the accounts of their trials once back in Africa make for interesting reading. But Garvey’s message appealed to Earl Little, and Little set about preaching the gospel of return, resettlement.
This made for uneasy times.
It’s one thing to be passive, of course, but it’s quite another to advocate disobedience to the master ... and full-throttle abandonment.
It’s like that old girlfriend.
You were dying to break up with her, looking for an out. Suddenly SHE decides she’s had it with YOU, and so all the sudden you’re the one who is bitter and angry.
More or less, this was White America’s reaction to Garvey-ites. Most whites were like, yeah, get the fuck out! But when they heard the rhetoric, the blame, and the claim of historical righteousness, well, that bitterness and anger bubbled and frothed at uppity blacks.
Garvey and his followers were hounded both by officials and local boobs the country over.
Earl Little was most assuredly swept up.
Louise Little, Earl’s light-skinned Caribbean wife, learned of her husband’s death termed a suicide. The evidence is unclear as to whether it was murder or simple folly, but Earl was done. This left a young Malcolm without a father figure, a mother obviously distraught, and a brood of siblings to be cared for.
The family was broken-up when, by all accounts, Louise could not keep herself or the family together. Reports have her being hospitalized for mental illness.
Malcolm then bounced around, being a bright and rather lost student.
He was a typical Black American young man at the time. He believed himself to be at the mercy of whites, and this did not trouble him.
Intelligence, real intelligence, takes huevos. Balls. A pair!
The vast majority do not like to be told no directly. They especially do not like to be told they’re wrong, how they’re wrong, why they’re wrong, and, uh, there isn’t any shelter here.
Malcolm cut his intellectual teeth on the streets and in hard time (he was down for six years).
In prison he converted to the Nation of Islam (NOI), a thoroughly goofy organization. The NOI’s core values are a queer Black Nationalism combined with an equally strange reading of Koranic philosophy. They take from the three great Abrahamic religions and mesh that insanity with its own special blend of knuckleheadedness. The White man was created by an evil scientist to give the Black man hell on earth. Just trust me. The NOI are complete and utter idiots.
What the NOI did offer Malcolm was an intellectual foothold, a foundation on which to build. That’s often the case, honestly, for most cool thinkers. They come from strange beginnings and find their own way at some point. At least that’s what I’ve noticed. Malcolm for sure follows in this tradition. The NOI ordered his life, down to dietary restrictions, and allowed him laser focus.
NOI’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, became something of a father figure to Malcolm.
The NOI’s foundation gave Malcolm a whole system of thought, and Malcolm took it to its logical conclusion. Race was everything. It explained all of the world’s ills, and it surely did from a cursory glance. It did seem all of human history could be boiled down to race relations. Malcolm ran with this notion.
NOI and Malcolm had to meet because Malcolm needed a contrarian philosophy to awaken greatness in him. Left to the typical Black American experience, Christianity, Malcolm would have become just another huckster in the image of mental midgets like Kings, Jacksons, and Sharptons: wildly ignorant, woefully incurious, and deeply pathological.
Nope. Malcolm needed more.
Malcolm raced to the point.
Slavery wasn’t a one-off experience left to the distant past. No. It was an omnipresent cause, and its effects could be felt NOW. Far from portraying chattel slavery as a misguided quirk of history where nobody is really to blame, Malcolm came straight out and SHAMED White Americans.
YOUR comfort, YOUR supposed superiority is a MYTH.
Whites took Blacks from everything they’d ever known, and OWNED THEM. Malcolm himself, he famously deduced, was probably the product of a slave-master cashing in on fringe benefits like humping the help. Whoa. No one had spoken that way before. Malcolm showed pictures of slave ships with bodies packed like sardines. Malcolm put a face and a name to a too often skipped over noun, slavery.
Malcolm then brought the history lesson home. This is WHY things are the way they are today. He brutalized Southern Jim Crow in a way quasi-minstrels like King could never. He told Southerners that if they continued to use violence against Blacks, he and the NOI would mount retaliation. Malcolm wasn’t afraid to suggest self-defense as a natural right. People have the right to defend themselves. There is no sense in allowing oneself to be beaten – THAT is a ridiculous Christian idea. Get up, fool, and HIT BACK.
Soooooooooooooooooooooooooooo many books and dissertations have been written about the Gandhi and King example of nonviolence. It is postulated, often in romantic and very emotional language, how just the witnessing of innocents being beaten and attacked roused White Americans. Maybe.
But lay one, JUST ONE, fucking hand upon ME, and I’ll rouse White Americans with my gun, my fists, and whatever else I can summon. By. Any. Means. Necessary.
I am NOT, not ever, NEVER, going to ask for permission to live. Never.
Gush about King and his ilk all you’d like, Malcolm gave Black Americans their humanity and, most important, their DIGNITY.
There was at least one major problem with Malcolm’s thinking, however. The entire intellectual edifice he built was formed on sand.
NO LONGER A RACIST
Malcolm had found the Truth. It was religious. It was social. It was political.
What Malcolm wasn’t ready for, what none of us are until it happens, was to be confronted by his philosophy’s internal contradictions.
At hearing the assassination of JFK, Malcolm was asked for comment. He said what needed to be said as a contrarian, as that figure of sober honesty and reflection. JFK’s killing was a simple case of chickens coming home to roost. The American government used violence to achieve its ends, and so it was no wonder violence was used against it to achieve other ends.
His reaction roiled White Americans, and it particularly chaffed NOI’s leader, Elijah Muhammad. It would be around this time Malcolm discovered Muhammad was having several affairs with his secretaries, fathering children out of wedlock and refusing to acknowledge them and/or support them.
Malcolm was crushed by Muhammad’s infidelities (Malcolm was famously known for being as straight as an arrow) and for the rebuke the NOI leader leveled against Malcolm in the American press. Malcolm was censured and removed from his post as NOI spokesman.
This turned out to be fortuitous.
Upon further reflection, Malcolm decided to take the Hajj, a pilgrimage Muslims are required to make at some point in their lives. He would finally get a glimpse of pan Islam, the multiethnic and multicultural world religion. None held the strange NOI doctrines on race, and Malcolm wrote to his wife from half across the world to explain the changes he was feeling. He was, he declared, no longer a racist.
When he returned to the United States, he formally announced his break from the NOI. He attempted to gather steam and organize around themes of African unity (the modern predilection for Black Americans to refer to themselves as African Americans is probably due to Malcolm’s historic change).
I believe he was moving toward becoming the first leader of a legitimate Black American intellectual movement. That’s just a guess, and I can only claim it on emotional grounds.
In any event, the NOI was having none of it. Malcolm knew too much, and he had to be stopped. Everything I’ve read has the NOI calling a hit on Malcolm, approving his assassination (at the very least, the US government did nothing to stop it).
Years later, I would make my own pilgrimage to the Audubon Ballroom in New York to visit the place he was killed. It was boarded up and littered with cool murals and graffiti. I pushed my way in, with a friend, and we stood in the dusty room where a great man was taken down.
The story of Malcolm and what happens after his death to his family is interesting, fascinating. His daughters are all nuts. His wife, Betty, becomes something of a minor star later in her life (I caught a wonderful lecture at SDSU), only later to be burned alive by her grandson, … named after her late husband, Malcolm.
What I take away from Malcolm’s life, he would have been 88 this year, is how important it is to continue the project of auto-confrontation, of self examination. When he reached a kind of intellectual maturity, he rejected public opinion. He lived in accordance with principle. He made adjustments as new facts came to light.
He was hardly perfect, and his economics were horrible. His religious views, though more muted later, were ghastly.
But he remained a man, a glorious, admirable man to the very end.
And I mean it.