Water Man Spouts

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Make It Plain

[1] " ‘Make it plain’ is the code that he used for us to bring him forward. He didn’t like a lot of icing and all that. Just, just plain." – Benjamin Karim
(Malcolm X: Make It Plain; Cheryll Greene; Viking; 1994; page 204)
I frequently quote Minister Malcolm X in my writings. Though I never had the opportunity to meet him, he was a major influence on my thinking as a youth. More, one of my close friends was associated with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s, and in the decades of the ‘70s and ‘80s, I had the benefit of his insights on both men.
Today, younger Americans are able to get to know Malcolm by the wonderful movie by Spike Lee, and by the classic book with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. There are more than one hundred books that provide information and opinions about him. And, while Malcolm himself had founded the newspaper "Muhammad Speaks" while he was a member of the Nation of Islam (aka "Black Muslims"), his most powerful form of communication was the spoken word.
Malcolm developed his skills for public speaking while taking part in debating classes in state prison. He fine-tuned them when he recruited for the NOI on street corners and in living rooms. Soon, he would become famous for his communication skills in larger public forums, including debates on television and on college campuses. By 1964, he was the second most popular public speaker at universities in the United States.
Recently, a friend on the Democratic Underground suggested that I submit an essay that examines some of Malcolm’s strengths as a communicator. I would suggest that people interested in this either read some of the books of his speeches, watch the film clips that are available, and find copies of some of his speeches which were made into a series of records in the late 1960s. I will include a list of my favorites at the end of this essay. Listening to Malcolm is a far more powerful experience than reading what anyone else says to describe his talents.
[2] "Very briefly: The usual pattern is, first, of a break away or departure from the local social order and context; next, a long, deep retreat inward and backward, as it were, in time, and inward, deep into the psyche; a chaotic series of encounters there, darkly terrifying experiences, and presently (if the victim is fortunate) encounters of a centering kind, fulfilling, harmonizing, giving new courage; and then finally, in such fortunate cases, a return journey of rebirth to life. And that is the universal formula also of the mythological hero journey, which I, in my own published work, had described as: 1) separation, 2) initiation, and 3) return: ‘A hero ventures forth from a world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man’."
(Myths to Live By; Joseph Campbell; Bantam Books; 1972; pages 208-9)
The above quote is from a 1970 speech that Joseph Campbell delivered in The Great Hall of The Cooper Union Forum in New York City. The name of the presentation was "Schizophrenia: The Inward Journey," and in it Campbell described the similarities between some types of psychotic breaks and the "hero’s journey" in mythology. I find it ironic when compared to a September 12, 1964 editorial in the Saturday Evening Post, which began, "If Malcolm X were not a Negro, his autobiography would be little more than a journal of abnormal psychology, and the story of a burglar, dope-pusher, addict and jailbird – with a family history of insanity – who acquires messianic delusions and sets forth to preach an upside-down religion of ‘brotherly’ hatred."
Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, was a hard-working, family-oriented man. He was a part-time minister, and a supporter of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African Universal Negro Improvement Association. Malcolm’s eldest brother, Wilfred, has said, "People saw us as oddballs … Whites would refer to us as ‘those uppity niggers’ or ‘those smart niggers’ that live out south of town. In those days whenever a white person referred to you as a smart nigger, that was their way of saying this is someone you had to watch…" (Make It Plain; pg 19).
People did watch Earl Little. At one point, a Ku Klux Klan-type group burned the Little family’s home. When Earl continued to preach Garvey’s message, he was lynched. Malcolm’s mother was left with seven children in the Depression era. Eventually, she was hospitalized, and Malcolm went into a series of foster- and group homes, before eventually moving to Boston with a half-sister. There, he did become a hoodlum in much the manner as the Saturday Evening Post described. This resulted in his being sent to prison, where he was introduced to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam.
At the time, the NOI had an estimated 400 members. When Malcolm was released from prison, and became Minister Malcolm X, he would build the organization to an estimated 40,000 members in 10 years. He was clearly the type of hero that Campbell described. Malcolm’s appeal at that time was primarily to those black Americans who live in the ghettos and the prisons. Malcolm became the public spokesperson for Elijah Muhammad, who, as historian John Henrik Clarke has said, "was the king to those who had no king, and he was the messiah to those who some people thought unworthy of a messiah."
But in 1963, Malcolm was "silenced" by Elijah, partly due to comments made after the murder of President John Kennedy. This would be the beginning of Malcolm’s second journey into the darkness. He would describe his experience as being "in a state of shock …. I felt as though something in nature had failed …. My head felt like it was bleeding inside. I felt like my brain was damaged." (The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Alex Haley; Ballentine; 1964; pages 309-11)
Malcolm would also say that he felt that the moon and the stars had shifted. He would journey to Mecca, and upon his return, would begin to teach orthodox Islam, and begin to become politically active, something the NOI had forbidden. Although the truth about his evolution in thinking was not as neat and tidy as what has become the Malcolm myth – for example, he had out-grown Elijah’s teaching that white people were "devils" by nature, as a result of his experience with several white journalists, teachers, and many students – it is true hat Malcolm X undertook two "hero’s journeys."
[3] "As Gandhi used to say: ‘God never occurs to you in person but always in action.’ And so does a special person manifest himself only in events which are of his making. But here we owe it to ourselves to ask what it may have been in his nature and in his background, in his childhood and in his youth, that fashioned him in such a way that he grew up to be one who would make history."
(Gandhi’s Truth; Erik Erikson; Norton; 1969; page 93)
People tend to interpret or gain meaning those "special persons" that Erikson speaks of in terms of themselves. Hence, black nationals see Malcolm in terms of black nationalism, while socialists will often point to his speeches to the Militant Labor Forum as evidence that Malcolm had begun to advocate socialism towards the end of his life. It also became common in the 1990s for some conservative critics of Malcolm to speak of his life in Freudian terms, including an unconscious search for a father-figure in Elijah Muhammad to replace the missing biological father.
I prefer to view Malcolm in another manner. Readers are probably familiar with Erik Erikson’s theory of human development taking place, in eight general stages. It is interesting to consider these stages as steps on a staircase to maturity, and to recognize that many of the issues we face on the lower steps will manifest themselves in new ways on each future step. Thus, in "Garvey, Lumumba, & Malcolm: Black Nationalists Separatists," (Third World Press; 1972) Shawna Maglangbayan notes that the popular belief that there were "three Malcolms: pre-NOI, in the NOI, and post-NOI" are in error; instead, she notes, there are two Malcolms – the unconscious Malcolm, then the conscious Malcolm. (page 69)
Alex Haley wrote about the notes Malcolm scribbled on napkins when they worked on his autobiography. On page 396, Haley quotes this: "Only persons really changed history those who changed men’s thinking about themselves. Hitler as well as Jesus, Stalin as well as Buddha…" Clearly, Malcolm understood that the evolution of human beings is the evolution of their consciousness, and that a person’s consciousness cannot evolve unconsciously.
[4] "Yes, I’m an extremist. The black race here in North America is in extremely bad condition. You show me a black man who isn’t an extremist, and I’ll show you one who needs psychiatric attention." – Malcolm
Malcolm’s experiences as a hoodlum, along with his observations while incarcerated, taught him that human beings who are oppressed begin to consciously adjust to that oppression. As they adjust, they begin to accept the system of oppression. Soon, they begin to accommodate that system in unconscious behaviors. Those behaviors entrench them in a manner that they become unconscious cogs in the system.
In a February 25, 1965 interview in the Village Voice, Marlene Nadle asked Malcolm about how he planned to organize people for grassroots political activism? "I’m going to create an awareness of what has been done to them. This awareness will produce an abundance of enery, both negative and positive, that can be channeled constructively … The greatest mistake of the movement has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake people up first, then you’ll get action."
He went on to say that people had to become conscious of "their humanity, to their own worth, and to their heritage." When people become conscious of their human worth, they choose to behave differently. They no longer will accept being an unconscious cog in the oppressive machine. They will make a conscious choice to become part of a solution to their problems. Malcolm knew that in order for people to do more, they had to become more.
In "The Fire Next Time" (Dell; 1962), James Baldwin noted that Elijah’s NOI was "not an overnight sensation." It was Malcolm’s ministry that made the organization grow. "And now, suddenly, people who have never before been able to hear this message hear it, and believe it, andare changed. Elijah Muhammad has been able to do what generations of welfare workers and committees and resolutions and reports and housing projects and playgrounds have failed to do: to heal and redeem drunkards and junkies, to convert people who have come out of prison and to keep them out, to make men chaste and women virtuous, and to invest both the male and female with a pride and a serenity that hang out about them like an unfailing light. He has done things, which our Christian church has spectacularly failed to do." (page 72)
Two decades ago, I worked next to the director of an upstate NY drug abuse services. He told me that "in the old days," when he and his co-workers in NYC had extremely difficult cases, they would ask Malcolm’s people to assist them. He said that the NOI could work miracles with the most difficult of cases. "There is no shame in saying that you used to be a drunk," Malcolm often said. "But there is shame in remaining a drunk." He would tell audiences that vices like drugs, gambling, and prostitution were "social novocaine" that kept they unconscious of their oppression. "You sit there feeling no pain. Still that blood is dripping down your jar," he would say.
[5] "You came to America on a slave ship, in chains like a horse or a cow or a chicken." – Malcolm
(Malcolm X: Speeches at Harvard; Archie Epps; Paragon House; 1991; page 58)
Malcolm was a master at communicating, in large part for two closely related reasons: he loved books, and he loved words. "People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book," he told Alex Haley. He mentioned one in particular, "The Loom of Language." "Philology, it’s a tough science – all about how words can be recognized, no matter where you find them. ….Philology is related to the science of etymology, dealing in root words. I dabble in both of them" (page 400)
Malcolm was interested in the methods that Aesop used to teach. He learned that "Aesop" was the name the Greeks called an Egyptian slave, who –like Jesus—was able to challenge the social order by means of parables. Malcolm began to use the animal imagery that is associated with Aesop’s "fables." "The white man in America is a wolf and the Negro is nothing but a sheep," is but one example.
He would also make reference to Shakespeare: "There was another man back in history whom I read about once, an old friend of mine whose name was Hamlet, who confronted, in a sense, the same thing our people are confronting here in America," he told students at Harvard University on December 16, 1964. "Hamlet was debating ‘To be or not to be’ – that was the question. He was trying to decide whether it was ‘nobler in the mind to suffer --peacefully-- the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ or whether it was nobler ‘to take up arms’ and oppose them. I think his little soliloquy answers itself. As long as you sit around suffering the slings and arrows and are afraid to use some slings and arrows yourself, you’ll continue to suffer. The OAAU has come to the conclusion that it is time to take up whatever means necessary to bring these sufferings to a halt."
In "The Rhetoric of Malcolm X," (Columbia University Forum; 1966; page 9), John Illo notes that rhetoric is "poeticized logic, logic revised by the creative and critical imagination recalling original ideas. In the rhetoric of Malcolm X, as in all genuine rhetoric, figures correspond to the critical imagination restoring the original idea and to the conscience protesting the desecration of the idea. … Rhetoric, like revolution, is ‘a way of redefining reality’."
Archie Epps quoted historian Kenneth Burke, who noted that rhetorical naming of things and people helps create codes by which people judge the world around them. Malcolm understood that his use of rhetoric would also lead the media to use code words to define him. I think he enjoyed this.
Haley wrote of a reporter telling Malcolm that it was being said that he was the only black man in America who could start – or stop – a race riot. "I don’t know if I could start one. I don’t know if I’d want to stop one," he replied. "It was the kind of statement he relished making," Haley wrote. (page 403) When he appeared at the Philadelphia Convention Hall for a WCAU radio show, he was asked if he was "the man who has said, ‘All Negroes are angry and I am the angriest of all’; is that correct?" Haley writes, "Malcolm X said crisply, ‘That quote is correct!’ (and) the gathering crowd of bystanders stared at him, riveted." (page 404)
Malcolm was accused of advocating hatred and violence. "Concerning nonviolence: it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks. It is legal and lawful to own a shotgun or a rifle. We believe in obeying the law," he told a reporter. This was the type of statement that led the editors of Playboy to question if they should publish the interview Alex Haley did for their May, 1963 edition. In their introduction, they called him Elijah Muhammad’s "business manager, trouble shooter, prime minister, and heir apparent ….. (who) spoke with candor and … the impersonal tone of a self-assured corporation executive. Many will be shocked by what he has to say; others will be outraged. "
Malcolm’s rhetoric frightened many white people. He even made some black people uncomfortable. With the advantage of 20-20 hindsight, we know that this fear was misplaced.
[6] "Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain – and we will smile …. They will say 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 he ever really 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 …"
--Ossie Davis; Eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral
After the split with the NOI, Malcolm began to organize black people for political action. "He began in late 1963 to work with me – attending meetings in my political club and being seen with me out on the street. He helped me register voters and make telephone calls. In Albany, people were wondering, ‘Who is this guy, Percy Sutton, bringing in that revolutionary Malcolm X?’ But that was the first thought. Then came the conservative Republicans and conservative Democrats who wanted to take a picture with Minister Malcolm, wanted to shake his hand. He was a celebrity," NY Assemblyman Sutton says on page 168 of "Make It Plain." (On the opposite page is a photo of Sutton and Charles Rangel flanking Malcolm on the steps of the NYS Assembly, with a crowd of 50+ spectators watching.) Malcolm also began to work closely with Representative Adam Clayton Powell.
Less well known is that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., were beginning to communicate, though indirectly. Their communications were largely through an attorney in Chicago. It is certain that Martin had become impressed with Malcolm’s attempts to make "civil rights," which he saw as limited to a domestic issue, into a "human rights" issue to be considered at the United Nations. On his international travels, Malcolm had been making progress on this front. In doing so, he became a concern for people within the Johnson administration. In his last year of life, for example, there came a time when he was denied entry into France.
Malcolm knew that this was something beyond the influence of Elijah Muhammad. Still, he was under intense pressure from an on-going struggle with the NOI. He was aware that the NOI leadership was urging members to kill him. Shortly before his death, his house was burned by NOI forces. Yet during this final stage of his life, Malcolm delivered the word.
On a January 19, 1965 radio interview, he was asked his opinion of integration and intermarriage? "I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being – neither white, black, brown or red; and when you are dealing with humanity as a family there’s no question of integration or intermarriage. It’s just one human being marrying another human being, or one human being living around and with another human being."
At a February, 1965 OAAU meeting, a man challenged Malcolm on his changing his position on white people. "I just see things on a broader scale. We nationalists used to think we were militant. We were just dogmatic. It didn’t bring us anything. …. If you attack (a man) because he is white, you give him no out. He can’t stop being white. We’ve got to give the man a chance. … We’ve got to be more flexible."
One of the last things Malcolm told Alex Haley was, "The young whites, and blacks, too, are the only hope America has. The rest of us have always been living in a lie."
(Note: Xenon has a 1 hour film, "Malcolm X: El Hajj Malik El Shabazz," that features some good segments of Malcolm’s public speaking. Charisma Records has four of Malcolm’s speeches on LPs; these include "A Message to the Grass Roots"; "Ballots or Bullets"; "The Blue-Eyed White Man"; and the 2-LP "Last Message." Warner Bros. Has a soundtrack LP from Marvin Worth’s "Malcolm X" which features clips from several speeches.)


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