A highlight of this year’s Black History month will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X in New York’s WashingtonHeights, a neighborhood just north of Harlem. He was 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 Feb. 21 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 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 by racial slurs 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.
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 blacks, 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.
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.
The third thing I had in common with Malcolm X was name-changing. 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.
Little rejected the corruptive desires of capitalism, by embracing an Islam that promised purification, equality 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. 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.
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 our 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.