A highlight of this year’s Black History month will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X in Washington Heights, just north of Harlem, gunned down while he was delivering one of his firebrand speeches to a rapt crowd. In the wake of Ferguson and all the other thousand bullet points of darkness and slow deterioration that have settled upon the Black experience in America since his death in 1965, for many African-Americans the February 21st commemoration will no doubt represent a new appreciation for the militant values Malcolm espoused.
For a few days, political rhetoric will abound, conspiracy theories will make colorful re-appearances, white hands will ring dem black bells, and as with the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution the mainstream media will stim sentimental tears down well-fed cheeks for a news cycle or so, then it’ll be back to baton and macing Dixie to keep her in line. However, I’d like to eschew all that jazz and instead talk about what Malcolm X and I had in common.
Now, you wouldn’t think that someone who grew up in a household where the adults referred to Blacks as ‘jigaboos’ and ‘jungle bunnies’ would have much wisdom in common with the likes of Malcolm X and his army of angry, silent, well-dressed acolytes, but I did: three things, actually.
The first was good old Hate. If love is the twinkly twilight that makes us all feel warm and pretty, then hatred is its dark matter firmament, the source soup or secret sauce connecting the dots of all visible materiality. And, certainly, I shared that dispositional pattern – that hatred — with Malcolm X. We all do, in degrees.
But that’s not what I had in mind. Rather, our common hatred was in the form of the racial lines one must not cross. In the mid-Sixties I was living in Mattapan, a lower middle class and predominately Jewish section of Boston that was (is) separated from lower caste Dorchester by Blue Hill Ave. and Morton Street, and was just a stone’s throw, as it were from Roxbury up Blue Hill a bit, where Malcolm X was firing up local Blacks with his consciousness-raising speeches about the lines of hatred whites had taught Blacks to draw around themselves like cages. And then he’d push his listeners to erase those lines “by any means necessary.”
Morton Street and Blue Hill Avenue weren’t exactly akin to the passage between Israel and the Gaza Strip, but the hostility between the two cultures was sufficiently charged that crossing into the other’s territory was dangerous for whites, and for young Blacks meant immediate surveillance, and likely the cops. This friction between America’s two great ex-slave diasporas, who together have provided more cultural value and depth to American life than any others, dazed and confused me for a long time – until I better understood the corrosive nature of capitalism.
The Jews I lived among were quiet, cultured and devout. On trash collection days my neighbors would throw out amazing stuff (to an eight-year-old) – working bicycles, mounds of books, and antiques, like the old Victrola wind-up with a stash of platters where, right there on the sidewalk, I put on a record and heard a Beethoven symphony for the first time.
The Jews were a quiet lot, and rational. One time a young housewife on the first floor of our three-decker got mad at me for doing puerile imbecilities with a hammer, but instead of the hollering, as I expected, she studied me, then said, “I’d really like to know what makes you tick.” And I have wondered myself ever since.
But Blacks were scary, my Jewish friends said, people to fear and, ultimately, to hate. “If you get off at Dudley [a train stop in Roxbury], you will be jumped,” one of them might say. And so I hated Blscks, for no real reason. That was the line drawn, and I drew it around myself.
The second thing I had in common with Malcolm X was a gone father, a mother prone to nervous breakdowns, and a carousel of foster homes. This may be our deepest sympathetic chord. Because such a combination of seeming abandonment and neglect, of constantly being handed off like a football, creates an existential crisis that is beyond issues of race and goes to the core of one’s being. There’s the Black diaspora, but it is surely blacker to be put aboard a ship that sees no shores. It’s not possible to be anchored in selfhood, when your so-called being-in-the-world is flotsam on a sea of anxiety. Surely, this unmooring in childhood made it not only likely, but inevitable that Malcolm Little would later reject all the attachments and trusts that make up the architecture of society.
I can understand how Malcolm would later reject all authority, until he temporarily found a haven in Elijah Muhammed and his Nation of Islam teachings. Malcolm’s was a deeper journey than mine, perhaps, if for no other reason than his crisis of integument. When he embraced Islam in prison, and set his life “straight” as a result, giving up criminality to become the charismatic leader of a Black supremacy movement under Elijah Muhammed, he may have discovered in his early abandonment the inspiration to think outside the box and the courage to believe in himself. I found similar purpose and inspiration in my later phenomenological studies and Buddhism, which released me from the anxiety of impermanence. Most of the time.
So, I had the demarcated boundary of my neighborhood, barbed wire with hatred and fear of Blacks, but I had not yet been able to ‘leverage’ my early foster home wanderings (with more to follow later), to test the independence of my thinking — catalyzed by early experiences of neglect. That came one night in the early 70s. I was living with a foster family in Groton, Mass., home to two elite boarding schools, one at which I had been a scholarship student. My friends were all Black culture-loving, pot-smoking, middle class ‘hippies’, and we spent hours together getting high and grooving on Dylan, Marley, Miles, Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Sun Ra, and Keith Jarrett.
One night we attended an all-night Jazz festival in a church in Boston. During a break, we went outside for a smoke. My friend, Mark, was holding his Pentax. A young Black man came along, sized us up, and asked if we wanted to score some weed. We hopped in our car together and went to the man’s housing project in Roxbury in the middle of the night, feeling impervious to danger. But when we got there, the man pulled out a long knife and proceeded to rob us of our few valuables. I locked eyes with the man, who immediately shouted, “Don’t look at me,” and flicked his knife, but I continued, looking at him like he betrayed our trust, him looking back angry, desperate, opportunistic, and in no mood to be judged by someone privileged with the right skin color. He ran off, and I muttered, “Nigger.”
To this day, the immediate shame I felt among my peers has stayed with me. Blacks weren’t ‘a problem’ in Groton because they were non-existent, and, early in my poetry writing career, I had penned sympathetic lyrics condemning racism, but that jazz night I responded as if I still lived in Mattapan among the Jews, and even winding up Beethoven in my mind could not save me from the horrid truth of my utterance.
But though I was slow to forgive myself (it took years), I was offended by how condemnatory my friends became; the utterance became a boundary between us, them smug in their middle class virtues and me resenting that they’d never been tested on the front lines of race relations as I had in Mattapan and later Dorchester, where my family, at one point, was the only white family among a neighborhood of Blacks. And yet the white middle class controlled the language of the rules of the game.
When I was robbed by Blacks again, a few years later, it had a more profound effect on me. I was on my way to Harbor Lights, a homeless shelter in the South End, a pre-gentrification Black neighborhood of Boston. It was late Christmas Eve and snowing heavily, and I was coming from my mother an stepdad’s place, after they’d refused to allow me to stay the night. For a Christmas present they allowed me to turn over a large jar of coins they had and nab the silver ones. This gave me two bulging pockets. About a block from Harbor Lights, I was accosted by two Black teens. One held a knife to my throat, while the other searched my stuff. I had an overnight bag with nothing valuable in it and was holding a copy of Dylan’s newly released Planet Waves, which cracked the kids up and may have saved my life – well, that and the bulging pockets of coinage.
They started in with what sounded to me like marijuana giggles when I began pouring coins into the hands of the guy without the knife. That, and I was amazingly calm, making genuine small talk, which had them looking at each other with risible eyeballs. They ran off howling with laughter. I yelled after them, “Hey! Which way to Harbor Lights?” And one of them, without slowing or turning, pointed in the general direction behind me. I started laughing, too. I had a giddy impulse to run after them. I don’t know what happened in our transaction, but I have never had a racist moment since. I was like Malcolm X, freed from the prison within the prison; I saw a kind of light. A harbor light.
The third thing I had in common with Malcolm X was name-changing. As` it was with Cassius Clay, when he changed his name to Muhammed Ali after being sent to prison for refusing to go fight in Viet Nam, so, too, Malcolm Little found that he needed to change his identity altogether, to wrest control of his fate from the white system. Changing one’s name can provide a sandbox in which to experiment with the possibilities of self that were there before the dominant cultural structures imposed themselves on the will, without providing the self with a sense of belonging. Clay and Little rejected the corruptive desires of capitalism, by embracing an Islam that promised purification and a new start.
Similarly, I had long held in reserve a pen name that was in fact a kind of alter ego that allowed me to suspend the self I had been given and focus my attention on the pure act of writing. At the same time, I wanted to make a political statement that asserted a certain conclusion I had drawn about the world. Thus, I began writing some but not all pieces under the name Jim Crowe (the ‘e’ an eyebrow-plucking pizzicato). To me, the world was clearly demarcated by a series of dividing lines that spoke of exclusions, whether race, class, sexuality, or economic control.
During this new commemoration season, as the usual suspect pundits apply their analysis anew to old conspiracy theories about Malcolm’s assassination, I will dwell instead on his legacy of representing the black/white divide that still controls the sociological dialectic of global power. Indeed, aside from the obvious ramifications for future privacy and democracy to be derived from the Edward Snowden revelations, a neglected aspect is that the world is largely controlled by the surveillance nexus known as Five Eyes — the UK, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand – the Mighty Whitey incarnate.
The truth is, I didn’t really learn much about Malcolm X until well into adulthood. I tend to avoid fetishized icons, whatever their stripe. But I have to admit that Malcolm X’s speeches still move today with their prophetic understanding of the underlying dynamics of power and exclusion. His speeches where he posits the consequences of America’s imperial actions “coming home to roost” is, even today, perhaps more so than ever, a fiery, soul-confronting reality check that, when properly understood, goes a long way toward revealing the machinations of the Kissinger-esque New World Order; it’s the same old world order – just the truncheons are shinier and the prisons are fuller than ever with Black angry faces strutting around the yard all cock-a-doodly-doo, like the shape of things to come.
Note to the Reader: This is an extended version of my piece that appeared in the Prague Post today. The Post has a strict word count limit. So I usually do a long version and then edit down to the Post limit. This version contains more personal anecdotal information.
John Kendall Hawkins is a Prague Post Columnist. He can be reached through his blog site at www.tdm.is