With the lingering success of Malcolm X’s Autobiography and the release of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X biopic in 1992, the world developed a renewed interest in Malcolm X, the acclaimed yet controversial Black Nationalist spokesman-turned-leader.
Naturally, these developments led to both scholarly and popular interpretations of Malcolm’s significance and ideological bearing.
Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins suggests that Malcolm was silent on the issue of gender in his critique of white supremacy:
Though Malcolm changed his ideas on race and increased his attention to social class, he overlooked gender as a comparable category of analysis. And, in addition to his silence on the issue of gender, masculinist assumptions pervaded Malcolm X’s thinking, and these beliefs in turn impoverished his version of Black Nationalism (Wood, 74).
Cornell West constructs Malcolm X as an articulate “Prophet of Rage” bent on reviving the psyche of Black people systematically denigrated by white racism (Wood, 48-49). Oba T’Shaka describes Malcolm X as an uncompromising Pan-African revolutionary Nationalist (T’Shaka, 244) while George Breitman – a Trotskyite and Malcolm X biographer – insists that Malcolm’s travels abroad, condemnation of capitalist exploitation and exposure to/respect for African revolutionary movements during the latter part of his life marks him as an evolving socialist (Breitman, 22-23).
Earl Ofari Hutchinson defends Malcolm as a sincere and courageous Black freedom fighter commodified by corporate America and unfairly attacked in his death by Black feminists (Hutchinson, 58-61). Some like Civil Rights attorney turned Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall even question his relevance as a leader worthy of respect at all: “I see no reason to say he is a great person . . . What did he ever do? Name me one concrete thing he ever did” (Jarrett, 32).
Scholar Michael Eric Dyson’s essay “X Marks the Plots: A Critical Reading of Malcolm’s Readers,” describes and critiques scholar’s efforts to interpret the legacy of Malcolm X. Dyson’s historiography identifies four major “readings” of Malcolm X: Hagiography, prophetic public moralist, psychobiography, and trajectory analysis.
Respectively, these reflect the tendency to: 1) uncritically and rigidly praise Malcolm X as an uncompromising Black Nationalist revolutionary, 2) characterize him as a religious fighter for social justice, 3) explore how his personal thoughts and ideas were shaped by his childhood and life experiences, and 4) construct a dynamic map of Malcolm’s growth and ideological/political development (Dyson, 24).
Varied as these assessments are they all represent critical attempts to construct or deconstruct Malcolm’s meaning, via the minds and pens of mostly university professors and intellectuals.
Conspicuously absent from this discourse surrounding Malcolm X are poets, arguably contemporary society’s griots (or our closest approximation). Writing in the Huffington Post one author perceptively notes,
“Poetry is a way of rescuing the world from oblivion by the practice of attention. It is our attention that honors and gives value to living things, that gives them their proper name and particularity; that retrieves them from the obscurity of the general” (Housden).
Nancy L. Arnez in her article “Black Poetry: A Necessary Ingredient for Survival and Liberation” (1980) explicitly details the unique credibility of Black poets and links this to a demonstrated appreciation of Malcolm X when she writes, “It is evident from these poems by our younger Black poets that the spirit of Malcolm X is revered by many of them. These poets are the spokesmen for Black people. They are not ivy tower poets but activists Black men and women who are involved with Black people in their daily work” (Arnez, 8).
Implicit in Arnez’ observation is the notion that Black poets are uniquely qualified and positioned to transmit information and discuss meaning. What then, do Black and other poets have to say about Malcolm X’s meaning, and what can we learn from exploring such works?
This paper seeks to demonstrate that a range of poets across racial, gender and ideological categories constructed meanings of Malcolm X that were salutary and that reveal an appreciation of him which represents similar sentiments of those larger constituencies throughout America in the wake of Malcolm’s assassination.
Given its collaborative, intergenerational and interracial nature, the book For Malcolm: Poems On The Life and the Death of Malcolm X, (1969) is an excellent resource for this project. The editors Dudley Randall and Margaret Burroughs divide the poems into four chronological and topical categories: Malcolm’s life, death, rage and the aftermath of Malcolm’s demise.
Yet in terms of constructing Malcolm X’s meaning, there are certain recurring ways in which the poets tend to describe him. We might classify these as “Man,” “Martyr,” and “Maligned Messenger.”
One of the primary meanings of Malcolm expressed in this collection of poetry – as acknowledged by the editors – is that of “manhood,” that “Malcolm was a man, in spite of white America’s efforts to emasculate the Blackman.” (Randall, xxi). Of course the term “man” generally takes on different meanings. In one sense, the term is used interchangeably to mean “humanity” or humankind. Stemming from masculinist notions long since challenged by feminist scholars, the male gender is used universally to represent all human beings. Thus in 1969 upon becoming the first person to land on the moon Neil Armstrong could famously proclaim, “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
A second meaning of “man” relates to the qualities that normatively embody “manhood.” This is the concept of man some poets in For Malcolm reference in describing Malcolm X. Here man is defined as courageous, uncompromising, determined, physically and mentally strong, protective, resistant to injustice, etc. Used in this way the term is problematic due to its patriarchal connotations.
Within the context of the Black Liberation Movement during the sixties, this definition of man led to male-centered concepts of leadership, oppression and victimization.
The struggle for Black people thus became conflated with a struggle for Black men to be respected and treated as “men,” like their white counterparts. Men would be defined as the “natural” leaders of the movement, the people most oppressed by white supremacy, and the constituency innately empowered to liberate Black people. As bell hooks suggests, “Whether we are reading Delaney, DuBois, Douglass, Garvey, Cleaver, George Jackson, King, or Malcolm X, often they suggest that the wounds of white supremacy will be healed as black men assert themselves not as decolonized free subjects in struggle but as ‘men” (hooks, 64-65). James Smethurst who has written one of the seminal works on literary nationalism and the Black Arts Movement adds, “…a paternalistic, often homophobic, masculinism was a powerful strain within the Black Arts and Black Power movements as it was in many of the ideologies and social lives of post-World War II bohemias and countercultures” (Smethurst, 89).
While there is evidence that women (and to a lesser degree their male counterparts) did raise issues of gender equality during the turbulent 1960s, (Smethurst recalls how Askia Toure and Ernest Allen Jr. challenged the lack of female representation on a symposium panel in Harlem. Such critiques were generally not prevalent at the time, as the second wave of the Feminist Movement did not occur until the seventies). Black male and female admirers of Malcolm, even when disturbed by his own masculinism, nonetheless gravitated to what they saw as his unwillingness to compromise their interests, his reclamation of Black pride, and his brilliant and unbridled attack of white supremacy. In their eyes, these qualities distinguished Malcolm as a real “man” in a most endearing sense.
Poets and activists picked up on this theme and reflected it abundantly in their work. Actor and activist Ossie Davis in his Eulogy for Malcolm X noted, “He is our manhood, our living Black manhood! This was his meaning to his people.” In his preface to For Malcolm, Davis goes into further detail noting, “Protocol and common sense require that Negroes stand back and let the white man speak up for us, defend us, and lead us from behind the scene in our fight. This is the essence of Negro politics. But Malcolm said to hell with that! Get up off your knees and fight your own battles” (Randall, xxiv).
Gwendolyn Brooks in her poem “For Malcolm” writes, “He had the hawk-man’s eyes. We gasped. We saw the maleness. The maleness raking out and making guttural the air and pushing us to walls.” Her choice of language here is revealing.
For Brooks, Malcolm was inseparable from and perhaps partly defined by his “maleness.” His keen insight (hawk-man’s eyes), and assertiveness caused actual physical reactions: gasping (in awe or perhaps sexual arousal) “pushing them to walls” and even affecting the physical environment harshly (making guttural the air). Brooks allusions to masculinity, the word “maleness,” and the physicality of Malcolm are then summarized and reinforced in her conclusion which leaves little room for debate about Malcolm’s meaning for her: “He opened us – Who was a key. Who was a man.”
Edward Richer in his poem “Some Whites Mourn Malcolm, As If,” (37) generally questions the motives and sincerity of fellow whites who presume to mourn Malcolm X’s death. Yet in the poem’s beginning he refers to Malcolm as “Not quite yet the prophet, king, or president, But more than just a man . . . a black man’s man.” Interestingly, Richer indicates that Malcolm was not yet a prophet, king or president, implying that he might have achieved such recognition or status had he not been slain. Does “black man’s man” refer to an African American male that faithfully represents the interests of his people? Is he the type of man that Black folk admire and rely upon, whose counsel and wisdom they seek?
We can certainly infer the term to be salutary given that it describes a person that was “more than a man” and possibly one his way to becoming something divinely appointed, royal, and invested with great earthly authority. Malcolm X: A super man of sorts, perhaps?
The second theme or construction of Malcolm’s meaning that resonates throughout the book For Malcolm concerns the view of him as a maligned messenger. This is closely related to the martyr theme we will explore later. Oppositional forces (intelligence agencies and governmental authorities) are threatened by and fearful of individuals whose words and actions rally people to challenge their oppressive apparatus.
While outright assassination is often a viable option, oppositional forces often attempt to discredit activists, thereby sabotaging the solidarity of their potential organizing base while simultaneously muting or distorting their anti-establishment message.
Malcolm himself recognized this and often cautioned his audiences about white propaganda aimed against Black folk. During a speech in December of 1964 Malcolm noted,
The press is so powerful in its image-making role, it can make a criminal look like he’s the victim and make the victim look like he’s the criminal. This is the press, an irresponsible press.” . . . . “If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing. (Breitman, 96-114).
Years after Malcolm’s death we learned how accurate his assessment was. The FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, referred to as Cointelpro, began formally in 1967. It’s introductory memorandum eventually talks about the need to curb Black Nationalist violence, but begins revealingly in this manner: “The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters” (Cointelpro).
While Malcolm’s followers had little empirical evidence of conspiratorial government attempts to smear and discredit him, they were able to observe one-sided and distorted characterizations of him in the popular media. Depictions of Malcolm as a hatemonger, reverse racist, or demagogue did not sit well with many people that truly appreciated the nationalist politics he espoused.
Poets/artists in the 60s – fulfilling their roles as griots with their artistic fingers on the pulse of the Black community – constructed Malcolm-as-maligned-messenger within some of their poetry, and attempted to provide corrective assessment. Again, Ossie Davis’ eulogy of Malcolm provides great evidence of this discourse:
There are those who will consider it their duty, as
Friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him
To flee even from the presence of his memory, to
save ourselves by writing him out of the history of
our turbulent times . . .Many will say turn away –
Away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon
a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man.
They will say that he is of hate – a fanatic, a racist –
Who can only bring evil to the cause for which you
Challenging these perceived mischaracterizations of Malcolm, Davis asks, “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?”
In his poem “They are killing all the young men” (54) David Henderson makes quick reference to the media’s smear campaign against Malcolm, referring to him as “Big Red the cocaine sniffing jailbird.” Here Henderson identifies one technique used by the media, to discredit Malcolm by digging up his petty criminal past.
In similar fashion, George Norman in “To Malcolm X” (23) being slandered cursed and misunderstood, while For Malcolm co-editor Margaret Burroughs laments in “Brother Freedom,” “They stilled his trumpet voice. They smeared his soul with lies” (22).
Clarence Major in “They Feared That He Believed” believes that whites’ fear of Malcolm’s truth and Black perspective led them (via the press) to spread mistruth about him and ultimately to kill him. The first line reads, “The press boys tried to erase what he said. Smear it. Change it” (6). The poet goes on to note that “they” were afraid of Malcolm because he did not see things from their normative vantage point: “This frightened them: And his death came.”
Many saw Malcolm as a martyr and the perception seems valid.Examine the following criteria of a martyr:
- 1. A well-known hero devoted to a noble cause or principle
- Opposition to that hero and his or her cause
- A “foreseeable risk,” whereby the hero anticipates harm from opposition because of his or her beliefs/actions
- Despite this risk, the hero continues their advocacy out of commitment to her or his cause
- The opposition kills the hero because of their continued adherence to and advocacy of his or her cause
- The hero’s followers/admirers commemorate his or her death, often referring to the hero as a martyr and sometimes becoming inspired to continue their cause (Wallace, 218).
Malcolm X meets all the above conditions of a martyr. As an internationally recognized champion of Black liberation (self defense, self determination, and Black solidarity), he attracted the wrath of formidable opponents with motivations to silence him and sabotage his political activities. Despite death threats/attempts, the bombing of his home, being poisoned in Egypt, and constant government surveillance, Malcolm indefatigably continued to travel, develop organizations to advance his political/religious interests, and to advance his cause through public speeches and interviews. He was eventually killed by his opposition (while conducting a political meeting) and became a major cultural icon and political inspiration for students, activists and intellectuals after his death.
Additionally, Malcolm X found himself the target of two oppositional forces: 1) elements within the Nation of Islam that deemed him “a traitor worthy of death” for renouncing their Islamic heterodoxy and publicly “slandering” their leader, and 2) elements of the United States Intelligence community threatened by Malcolm’s condemnation and exposure of American human rights violations during the Cold War, his advocacy of retaliatory violence, and his increasingly receptive audience among and possible alliance with revolutionary leaders and students of African, and Latin American nations. Indeed, the introduction of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program memo states as one its goals: “To prevent the rise of a “messiah” who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement. Malcolm X might have been such a ‘messiah;’ he is the martyr of the movement today” (Cointelpro).
It is no wonder then that artists, particularly poets writing in the 60s, the modern-day griots, captured and echoed the Malcolm-as-martyr theme. Concluding his eulogy to Malcolm X, Ossie Davis notes that he “didn’t hesitate to die because he loved us so” (Davis). Thus the veteran actor constructs Malcolm-as-martyr because of his perception that Malcolm X faced imminent death due to his love for Black people.
Robert Hayden, 56 years of age by the time For Malcolm was published, represents like Gwendolyn Brooks, a generational view of Malcolm X, who is most associated with inspiring younger students, activists and intellectuals. In his poem “El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz” (14-16) Hayden writes, “He X’d his name, became his people’s anger, exhorted them to vengeance for the past; rebuked, admonished them” (15). Certainly it was not his internal chastisement of fellow Black people that made him a martyr, but his urging them to seek revenge for past indignities and oppression. In the next verse Hayden writes, “Time. ‘The martyr’s time,’ he said, Time and the karate killer, knifer, gunman,” mentioning Malcolm X’s self-reference as a martyr. In the last verse Hayden mentions that upon making Hajj and proclaiming orthodox Islam, Malcolm “rose renewed, renamed, became much more than there was time for him to be” (16). Hayden complicates Malcolm’s martyrdom, metaphorically associating his conversion to a “killing” of his former self, followed by a resurrection in which he emerges more powerful.
In “For Malcolm,” (20) Joyce Whitsitt begins with “Oh beautiful, black martyr,” then goes on to implicate both threatened Blacks and whites in his assassination (“cut down by black hands, Held down by little white minds”). She makes messianic references to Malcolm (“Were you to be the leader Of a new flock from the dark skinned nation”), and then implores him to “Send back your song to a century wrong Yet seeking one of your golden throat,” implying that Malcolm’s words were redemptive and liberatory. Her references to Malcolm as leader of the flock, and his golden throat represent subtle allusions to Biblical imagery of one divinely anointed to guide and liberate oppressed people in bondage. What we are left with is a construction of Malcolm as both martyr and messiah.
Amiri Baraka is generally credited with formally initiating the Black Arts Movement both by coining the term and establishing the important though short-lived Harlem-based Black Arts Repertory Theatre in 1965 prompted by the assassination of Malcolm X (Smethurst, 8). His “A Poem For Black Hearts” (61-62) is important for its explanation of Malcolm’s qualities/actions that made him endearing and threatening. Like the previous poem it also contains subtle references to Malcolm X as martyr and messiah. The title of the poem likely refers both to the hearts of Black people, and the profound sadness and mourning of Black people due to Malcolm X’s murder. Referring to Malcolm’s eyes, hands and words as weapons and tools for empowerment, he notes that he was “killed, for saying, and feeling, and being/ change…” hence the allusion to martyrdom. He goes on to acknowledge Malcolm as “black god of our time” and “prince of the earth,” and urges Black people to avenge his death.
Using the poetry compilation For Malcolm: Poems On the Life and the Death of Malcolm X, we have demonstrated that some poets across gender, racial and ideological spectrums respected Malcolm’s courage, sacrifice, and commitment to the liberation of Black people in America. Some of the authors cited were Black Nationalists; others were communist, some young and some middle-aged. In like manner, it would be interesting to see new scholarship on Malcolm X make better use of non-traditional cultural sources like plays, songs, and graphic art as ways to distill his meaning.
A few of the poets reviewed like Amiri Baraka were leading participants of the Black Arts Movement at the time of the book’s release, and others like Gwendolyn Brooks (and Baraka for a short time) would go on to become Poet Laureates. Despite these difference however, they all amassed a collection of poetry that honored Malcolm’s legacy and which constructed his meaning as a “man,” maligned messenger, and martyr for the Black Liberation Movement. This book presents a compilation of over 50 poems which were outside the scope of this paper in analyzing, but which provide us with a rich variety of literary lenses with which to view Malcolm.
While not considered “scholarly” in the conventional sense, the pieces of memory constructed by these individuals nevertheless provides us with important information about Malcolm X that might otherwise be obscured by traditional scholarship. For as Nancy Arnez reminds us, many of these poets during the 60s lived, worked, and struggled with the Black people they write for and about. Moreover, poetry reveals Malcolm’s influence on other groups of people struggling for identity and liberation throughout the world.
Arnez, Nancy L., “Black Poetry: A Necessary Ingredient for Survival and Liberation,” Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Sep., 1980), pp. 3-22.
Breitman, George, ed. Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, New York: Ballantine Books, 1964.
Cointelpro Memorandum, http://www.icdc.com/~paulwolf/cointelpro/blacknationalist.htm, accessed on April 20, 2012.
Davis, Ossie, “Eulogy for Malcolm X,” February 27, 1965, http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/071.html, Accessed on April 15, 2012.
Dyson, Michael Eric, “X Marks the Plots: A Critical Reading of Malcolm’s Readers,” in Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
hooks, bell, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, (New York: Henry Holt, 1995).
Housden, Roger, “Why Poetry is Necessary,” The Huffington Post, June 26, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/roger-housden/importance-of-poetry_b_884319.html, accessed on April 28, 2012.
Hutchinson, Earl Ofari, The Assassination of the Black Male Image, (Simon & Schuster: New York, 1994).
Jarrett, Vernon, “Thurgood Marshall sticks pin in Malcolm X revival balloon,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 24, 1992.
Randall, Dudley and Margaret G. Burroughs (eds.), For Malcolm X: Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X, (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1969).
Smethurst, James, the black arts movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
Wallace, A. J. and R. D. Rusk, Moral Transformation: The Original Christian Paradigm of Salvation (New Zealand: Bridgehead, 2011).
Wood, Joe, ed. Malcolm X in Our Image, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at email@example.com.