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EQUALITY ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Malcolm X vs. Bayard Rustin: Black on Black

I left Community Church some months ago with mixed feelings. The occasion was a so-called debate between Malcolm X. and Bayard Rustin, and the topic was “Separation and Integration.” Being a pacifist, a Negro, and one who has been involved in the racial struggle lately, I expected to be with Mr. Rustin all the way and against Mr. X. completely. My mixed feelings were the result of the discovery that I was applauding more for Malcolm X. than I was for Bayard Rustin.

During the debate — actually it was more a statement of position on both their parts — it seemed to me as though Bayard Rustin were taking the position of the “radical middle.” I know, of course, that this is not the case with Mr. Rustin, but it seemed so as I listened. There is no question in my mind but that he presented the saner attitude, yet the amazing thing was how eloquently Malcolm X. stated the problems which Negroes have confronted for so many years. The biggest difficulty about listening to him — especially for a Negro — is that he wraps the problem up so neatly that one is almost carried on into his faulty conclusions by the wealth of emotions he evokes.

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World of Good

I must confess that it did my heart a world of good to sit back and listen to Mr. X. list the sins of the white man toward the black man in America. He does it well. I daresay that if I were not already convinced of the efficacy of looking on humans as humans rather than as black, white, or any of the shades in between, I might have joined the Black Muslims forthwith.

For too many years, black Americans have not been able to look at white Americans as the same kind of humans, for the most part, and have been placed in a situation where they must make the white man feel comfortable. If they don’t — especially in the South — it can be a matter of life and death.

In his short story “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon,” James Baldwin explains this conundrum. He has the narrator of the story, a Negro who “has it made” In Europe, re­turning to Alabama for a while. The narrator admits that he didn’t ”despise them (the white people) any more than everyone else did, only the others never let it show. They knew how to keep white folks happy, and it was easy — you just had to keep them feeling like they were God’s favor to the universe.”

The point at which I depart from Malcolm X. and the Black Muslims is the very point at which I wish they were strongest. They seem to want to set up a black superiority to replace a white superiority. Both are equally bad. Bayard Rustin stated the case as I see it very well when he said that the question which faces the black man is not what he can do to add to their (the whites’) doom, but what can be done to help in their redemption. He went on to substantiate my own thoughts further by saying that “whether white men like it or not, we need to force them into being their best.”

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Faces it Squarely

One of the many good things I can say about Mr. Rustin’s pro­cess of thinking is that he re­fuses to equivocate about the problem; he faces it squarely. Few of us are either able or willing to do this. I only wish that more Negroes in the van­guard of the movement for ra­cial equality could do it as well as he does.

I might mention my surprise in discovering — according to Mr. Rustin, and with his opponent’s “amen” — that no other Negro leader was even willing to talk with Mr. X. on the same plat­form. When I asked someone about this, I got the shoddy re­ply that “no one should dignify the Black Muslims by appearing together with them in public.”

Dignify them indeed! I am only glad that I heard this from a white liberal rather than from a Negro — though I strongly sus­pect that many Negroes feel the same way. Well, we had better begin realizing that we surely can’t “un-dignify” the Muslims. Like it or not, their audience is growing larger and their voices are becoming stronger.

One of Malcolm X.’s most salient points against Mr. Rus­tin’s arguments was that he, Malcolm X., is not trying reach the middle-class Negro; the Muslims have already recog­nized that the middle-class Ne­gro, for the most part, is not about to risk too much in the cause of raising the level of the masses of black people who seldom have either a decent place to live or a decent way of earning a living. “We talk on the streets,” Malcolm X. said, “and on the corners because the man in the street is the one who is catching hell.” And perhaps that is who needs to be reached.

After reaching him, though, what do you tell him? This is where I earnestly wish that Mr. Rustin and Mr. X. could see eye to eye.

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Let Him Simmer

The Black Muslim position is that since the white man has had so long to do right if he really planned to do so, we might as well accept the fact that he is either unwilling or in­capable of doing so. Therefore, they say, let’s just get away from this devil; let him simmer in his own stew. Messenger Eli­jah Muhammad has said: “Do thank Allah for revealing this evil, deceitful, open enemy, ‘the devil!'” He says that “they, the white race, cannot treat you and me with justice … ” Knowing what I do about how evil some people can be, I am almost will­ing to agree with the Messen­ger. But since some of my best friends are white — and my ton­gue is not in m cheek — I can­not make a blanket statement about the devilishness of white men with all honesty.

If only the black movement which is “recognized” by the white liberals in America could have the verve and sense of dedication of Messenger Muhammad: if only the Black Muslims could have the sense of “un­-apartheid” which most black liberals hare. But perhaps that’s asking too much.

I ought to make it manifest here that I am certainly not going to be placed among those who deride the Black Muslims. While I cannot, on good consci­ence, agree with their accept­ance of separateness, or their “meet violence with violence” doctrine for ameliorating racial problems in America, I do feel they are playing an important role as a catalyst for both black and white who move too slowly. It’s a cinch that if there were enough black liberals who be­lieved strongly enough in their own position — as do the Muslims — we wouldn’t have such a hard row to hoe now.

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Biggest Problem

The biggest problem, I guess, is getting enough people to do what they say they believe. It was interesting to hear again Bayard Rustin’s theory of “so­cial dislocation,” and I have heard him explain it many times. But somehow, in the set­ting ot the Community Church, and with Malcom X. in the background, the theory seemed to make more sense to me. Rus­tin’s idea, to put it in his own words, is that “social dislocation (the use of mass action — really mass action — in order to realize social, political, and economic equality) can be accomplished by using the bodies of masses of Negroes in order to uproot the system of segregation … to make segregated institutions impossible to exist.”

Of course, this is not the first time the same sort of idea has been set forth, but my feeling is that Mr. Rustin means precisely what he says. There are few instances in my own mem­ory where “recognized” Negro leaders have said this and have put it into practice (Farmer, Abernathy, Shuttlesworth, and some of the Negro students are exceptions). I don’t mean to dis­parage others — many of them are doing an excellent job in other areas — but “social dislocation” the way Rustin talks about it just hasn’t been tried as much as it should have been.

It is understandable why it hasn’t been tried. My own short sojourn in a Southern jail makes me wonder it I am equal to the task. But if “social dislocation” is what is called for, then I cer­tainly am willing. It will be after I have tried it again for me to discover my capabilities for withstanding the pressures, but I am, nonetheless, willing. As I dream of the day when masses of Negroes will rise to the call, I keep humming to myself an old spiritual we used to sing: “Here am I send me.”

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As I think over that night at Community Church, James Baldwin’s “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” again comes to mind. The narrator, speaking of his sister, says that “all the white people she has ever met needed, in one way or another, to be reassured, consoled, to have their consciences pricked but not blasted” (italics mine).

Much to the surprise of many white liberals that night at Community Church, both Malcom X. and Bayard Rustin not only pricked but blasted their consci­ences. As a matter of fact, many black liberals were surprised to find a certain unpredicted rap­port between Malcom X. and Bayard Rustin. I am glad this “myth of the rift” was exposed.

Somehow the press has had a journalistic orgasm over the dif­ferences of opinion which occur between various factions of the movement for equality among Negoes today. I hope white lib­erals aren’t fooled by this. Sure­ly, there are differences of ap­proach, program, attitudes, and even methods of resolution of the many problems black people in America are facing. But be ye not deceived. The movement will press forward despite dif­ferences.

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Needs Allies 

As Bayard Rustin pointed out, “the movement needs white allies.” I agree. However, the movement will not rely on these allies fully — though it will welcome their assistance with open arms — but will have a broad base among Negroes of many philosophical and social disciplines.

The white man, inimical or otherwise, had better cultivate an understanding of this because, willy or nilly, there is going to be change. ❖

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BLACK LIKE WHO? On Black Rage

American culture seems to lack two ele­ments basic to race relations: a deep sense of the tragic and a genuine grasp of the unadulterated rage directed at American society. The chronic refusal of most Ameri­cans to understand the sheer absurdity that confronts human beings of African descent in this country — the incessant assaults on black intelligence, beauty, character, and possibility — is not simply a matter of de­fending white-skin privilege. It also bespeaks a reluctance to look squarely at the brutal side and tragic dimension of the American past and present. Such a long and hard look would lead this nation of undeni­able opportunities and freedom-loving peo­ple to acknowledge its legacy of unspeak­able crimes committed against other human beings, especially black people.

Unfortunately, this fact has become trivi­alized — partly by black middle-class oppor­tunists — into a cynical move in a career game of upmanship that reinforces white guilt and paralysis. Yet, as our great artists like Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Lil­lian Smith, and Toni Morrison have shown, the tragic plight and brutal treatment of black people is a constitutive element — not a mere moral mistake — of American civili­zation. To put it crudely, America would not exist without 244 years of black slavery, 85 years of Jim and Jane Crow (including the lynching of a black man, woman, or child every three days for a quarter of a century), and now, one of two black kids caught in a violence-infested life of poverty.

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Black responses to this unique American experience have been shot through with rage — just as were Jewish responses to at­tacks, assaults, and pogroms in anti-Semitic Russia and Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Yet xenophobic czars and au­thorities were not surprised at Jewish rage. Wouldn’t any vicious tyrants expect this response from their victims? In stark con­trast, most American elites, owing to nar­row, self-serving notions of freedom and justice, have been flabbergasted at the ex­pression of black rage. This is so even though most black rage has not been direct­ed at American elites, but rather at other black people (especially women), Italian shopkeepers, Korean grocers, gays and les­bians, and Jewish entrepreneurs. These tar­geted expressions of black rage, though of­ten downright cowardly and petty, signify the social invisibility and relative power­lessness of a people toward whom Ameri­can elites have been and are indifferent.

The ’60s was a watershed period because black rage came out of the closet. As white institutional terrorism was challenged, black rage surfaced with a power and a potency never seen in American history. In fact, it threatened the very social order and stability of the country. The major Ameri­can-elite response to this threat was to re­duce tragic black persons into pathetic black victims and to redirect the channels of black rage in and to black working-class and poor communities. The reduction was done by making black poor people clients of a welfare system that both sustained and degraded them; by viewing black middle­-class people as questionable and stigmatized beneficiaries of affirmative-action programs that fueled their identity crises; and by rendering black working people (the majority of black people!) as nearly nonex­istent, even as their standard and quality of living significantly declined.

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The high social costs borne by much of black America during the Republican years of recession and “recovery” have been dev­astating. Measured in terms of housing, education, jobs, health care, and, above all, the massive social and moral breakdown in nurturing black youth, we may be at a point of no return. And yet the chickens now coming home to roost are not the ones we expected. Instead of a focus on the funda­mental sources of black social misery — the maldistribution of wealth and power fil­tered through our corporate, financial, and political elites, we find black rage directed at racist ethnic individuals and communi­ties, mere small players in the larger game of power in the city, state, and country.

Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of black leadership. In New York, Mayor David Dinkins, a decent man in a desper­ate situation, has failed to make the requi­site symbolic gestures to the black commu­nity in his efforts to disarm white charges of personal bias and racial favoritism. This strategy has backfired. Community spokes­people, like Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Herben Daughtry, two steadfast and courageous activists locked into an endless cycle of immediate reaction to events, are, at times and out of frustration, swept into a rhetoric that embraces the lowest common denominator of black rage. The slide from demands of justice and due process to those of vengeance and vigilan­tism is a shon one for an abused and en­raged people. Yet, as reverends Sharpton and Daughtry at their best recognize, this slide is neither morally right nor politically effective.

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Elijah Muhammad and Martin Luther King Jr. understood one fundamental truth about black rage: It must be neither ignored nor ignited. This is what separates them from the great Malcolm X. Malcolm indeed articulated black rage in an unprecedented manner in American history; yet his broad black nationalist platforms were too vague to give this black rage any concrete direc­tion. Elijah and Martin knew how to work with black rage in a constructive manner: shape it through moral discipline, channel it into political organization, and guide it by visionary leadership. Black rage is as American as apple pie. That is why the future of our city, state, and country de­pend, in large part, on whether we acknowl­edge it, how we respond to it, and the manner in which bold and wise leaders direct it.

Next: “Ghosts” by Joan Morgan

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Malcolm X Factor

Looking For Malcolm: The Man and the Meaning Behind the Icon
May, 29, 1990

Brothers and sisters, we have to talk.

There I was, hanging on the corner of 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, when a low-riding brother and his lady friend strode by, deep in discussion about some­thing very, very, very important. Words and emphasis were, of course, flying every­where, making it impossible to miss this: “That shit was Malcolm.” Meaning, I knew, hype, dope, nice, right, real, as in best. In the ever-evolving vernacular, Mal­colm X has come to mean the real (black) thing, the authentic (black) thing, as close to (black) integrity as close can be.

Just look at all the T-shirts, the buttons, the photographs, the records, the film and video appearances. Public Enemy’s sam­pling him, Spike Lee’s quoting him, Tracy Chapman’s showing him — the young and the black are loving him. Malcolm is to­day’s black hero, a black ideal for turbulent times: the steely mirror image we want our­selves to see. We think we want his words too: Pass the tables on the street and you can hear his words proving some sect’s point; listen to the radio, and Rev Sharpton or somebody else is invoking his name to prove somebody’s truth — our truth — in black soundbites, as black as kente cloth. We wear him this way to celebrate our­selves, because Malcolm was what we want to be — a Black person with integrity in a country that doesn’t value the quality very much, especially when its bearer is Black.

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But there are some hard-to-answer ques­tions floating amid the jubilation. Like: Do many of us know Malcolm story(s)? Like: What does “the real (black) thing” mean to us, anyway? Black Integrity has, after all, a very packed — and vague — significance in our collective consciousness, precisely be­cause we haven’t been able to, and maybe never will, figure out what we want Black to mean. What does Malcolm mean to us? And now we’ve gone and attached our strange notion of Black Integrity to Malcolm’s pho­tograph, and thereby constructed a compli­cated, and decidedly vaporous, memory: Malcolm the Essential Black Man, Malcolm the brown and determined and incorrupt­ible and empty face.

Take a step back and look and see: To­day, 25 years after Malcolm’s murder, home folk promote him as the truest black American that ever lived. So true, in fact, that his aspect has taken on an almost reli­gious significance. No joke: pause for a moment and compare the way many of us consider Malcolm to the way Byzantine churchgoers viewed their religious icons, images that flattened out and hid the per­sonalities of their original personages in order to better communicate an accepted religious message. Just as iconography in a Byzantine church reminds the viewer of a body of stories, rules, morals, et cetera s/he’s already supposed to know, Malcolm’s icon should front a traditional story agreed upon by the community. But the young leaders of our Black tribe have attempted to canonize Malcolm without theoretical, ideological, or religious grounding — with­out, in short, connection to, or reflection on, any community-made story(s) by which to define him.

Today Malcolm is, instead, a religious icon without a religion — a vague memory-­image invoked at gatherings and services and rallies as the epitome of the black fight­ing spirit, and by implication, of Blackness. Making little reference to his place in the flow of history, to the complexity of his ideas (which changed over the course of his life), or to his relationship to political pro­genitors, the community’s voices paint Malcolm X in (un)fairly simple, static terms: Malcolm was an African-style town crier who told the truth. Malcolm played the heavy to Martin Luther King’s softy. Malcolm was grass roots, while the other civil rights leaders were bourgie Uncles. Malcolm was “clear” when everyone else was cloudy. The descriptions tend to sug­gest a Black Integrity, an unexplained, and mostly romantic, concept.

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Any people that considers itself a people needs the kind of figure Malcolm cut in life, a figure whose first fidelity is to the tribe, and upon whose bones the tribe can always hang its clothes. Figures, for example, like the Byzantines’ St. George, who’s reappear­ing all over the Soviet Union’s Russian communities as a symbol of the life of the Russian tribe, showing that it still proudly exists. Use of symbols like Malcolm X and St. George allows members to proclaim themselves without explaining everything: Those who should know, know. You know? But fact is, Malcolm’s iconographic status among black people is, as of this writing, so unexamined by us, so unaccompanied by black story or exegesis, as to be nearly va­cant, and utterly manipulable.

And it’s being manipulated plenty. In these changing times, when my bourgie ho­mies from the Ivy League are in less contact with their poorest brethren than at any point in American history, when cleavages in “the black community” are as wide as they’ve ever been, Malcolm’s image pro­vides a stretched-out, nationalist umbrella for us all. This “unity” hides, rather than acknowledges, our own differences. Ah! but sneaking under that umbrella is oh so se­ductively easy — especially when taking out coverage from the hostile white world is as simple as buying a T-shirt. I own several, but I favor the one a friend gave me: on the front, Malcolm with an AK-47 and the words “BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY”; on the back, the pronouncement “IT’S A BLACK THING! YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND.” Never mind the fact that Malcolm purchased the gun to defend himself from black Muslim attack — just check out the message, people. The “you” on back is clearly whitefolk, who are being told that they are not part of the club because the club is black. So the shirt’s the badge. Of blackness. So there. Which makes it useful to a bad brown man leading a city just as badly as the bad pink man before him: Flash the Malcolm memo­ry and you’re as proudly black as the im­poverished and angry 20-year-old sister with a fifth-grade education and a baby with a hightop fade in her arms. Yes, yes, y’all, both the mayor and the sista (and her baby) are Black. But, so what?

If we are to treat Malcolm as a symbol of blackness — as, in fact, the Essential Black Man — we basically have to figure (I) what Black means to us, and (2) what Malcolm means to us and what he doesn’t mean. Do we focus on what we think is important about his life, without regard to how he changed over his lifetime? Should Malcolm the icon mean Malcolm’s life story or his politics? Or both? Wrestling with these questions might even help us figure out what we’re saying when we use the term Black. And maybe such discussion will move us away from the dubious religion of “essential Blackness,” and toward thinking that it’s all much harder than that — just as hard, in fact, as pinpointing a meaning to Malcolm X, or to the Black “we,” or to the Black “I.” These concerns are not as aca­demic as they sound.

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In a world where identity is so often a function of national/tribal allegiance, or of the denial of those things, the proclamation of “I am” without a nation, or an agree­ment not to have a nation, is bound to be so confused as to be, well, silly. We can’t know who “I am” is without knowing who we are. And, we can’t do shit without knowing who “I” is.

As it stands, the Malcolm icon assumes all kinds of undiscussed information, beg­ging the question. In these times, is black identity, as represented by Malcolm’s icon, an adequate instrument for negotiating self­-understanding, our survival?

Brothers and sisters, we need to talk.  

But how do we begin? First by checking out the the place where “Black” was con­structed: in white consciousness, in the white conflation of black resistance and black criminality. (The ancestors came here and then became Black.) Up jumped the Boogeyman: the evildoer from the dark side, the angry true-blood black alien who’s coming to get you (whitey), with cruel vengeance. Just look and you see him — and it’s invariably a him — stuck in all kinds of white conjuring, all over the white Ameri­can imagination. See: WhiteFilm’s King Kong and WhitePolitics’s Willie Horton and Whitefiction’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, published just two years after Malcolm X’s assassination. “As a child I had nightmares about Nat,” said author Wil­liam Styron, who was raised in Virginia, close to where the revolt took place. “I grew up with the tale.”

Whereas Malcolm X learned about Nat Turner in prison. In his autobiography, Malcolm talks about what Nat Turner made him feel:

I read about the slave preacher Nat Turner, who put the fear of God into the white slave­-master Nat Turner wasn’t going around preaching pie-in-the-sky and “non-violent” freedom for the black man … Somewhere I have read where Nat Turner’s example is said to have inspired John Brown to invade Virginia and attack Harper’s Ferry nearly thirty years later, with thirteen white men and five Negroes.

A few pages later, Malcolm notes, “It was right there in prison that I made up my mind to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself — or die.” Imbedded in his telling of the Turner tale is a dramatic rejection of the white construc­tion of Blackness, as well as a number of other radical projects: to resist white supre­macism, to reclaim the right to resist, to put fear in the hearts of white people, and per­haps most surprisingly, to tell the white man about himself. The Boogeyman figure makes, of course, this last desire only so radical — whites, after all, have seemingly enjoyed being thrilled by black anger. Even so, Malcolm spent a good amount of his thought (and time) making whites listen, and they did with much fascination. They could not ignore the Boogeyman actually speaking his mind before them.

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White attention and discomfort are the keys to understanding Malcolm’s signifi­cance in black eyes. To put it simply, the principal reasons behind Malcolm X’s suc­cess as a Hector of black self-respect, and particularly, of black male self-respect, were his attempts before white audiences to turn the unwanted Boogeyman into the proud Essential Black Man. “Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood,” eu­logized Ossie Davis at Malcolm’s funeral. Later, Davis said, “[He] was refreshing ex­citement; he scared hell out of the rest of us, bred as we are to caution, to hypocrisy in the presence of whitefolks, to the smile that never fades.” Not only did Malcolm tell whites off, he heartily chastized black people for acceding to white ideas about African-Americans. In place of the white­-man’s Boogeyman, Malcolm put forward himself, and the Nation of Islam, as the real examples of the spirit of black resistance, the supposed “heart” of American black identity. In countless speeches, Malcolm announced “I’m a field Negro,” indicating to anyone with ears that he was proud of his resistant and basic blackness, his fightin’ Negro/Essential Black Man-ness.

It’s not surprising, then, that Malcolm’s icon finds its textual counterpart in Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. A smoothly laid-out, quasi-mythological ac­count of Malcolm’s life, the book resembles the Biblical Saul-to-Paul story — Malcolm as a lost man who finds his way to truth through two revelations: first, the embrace of his black Muslim identity; second, the embrace of human commonality.

“If it were not for that book,” Alex Haley told me, “by now I suspect Malcolm’s life would be a pastiche of apocryphal stories. A jello of stories.” The stories in Haley’s book come from one source, Malcolm X. “One of the understandings that we had from the beginning, and it was followed to the letter, was — and this was his stipula­tion — that the book would not contain any­thing he didn’t want in it. And I respected that absolutely,” says Haley. What resulted is a true autobiography, a life story almost entirely manipulated by its bearer, Mal­colm X, in order “to help people to appre­ciate better how Mr. Muhammad salvages black people.” Malcolm’s project was to make his life, once written down, the prin­cipal testament to Muhammad’s Truth, a combination of holy text and ex-slave narrative.

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And thanks to this strategy, black folks who’re looking to put flesh to Malcolm’s icon (and many don’t even try) have a book that gives them — and particularly the black male — a model for being black. Inevitably the autobiography also suffers from the agenda; tailored to make points, the book ultimately fails as a comprehensive life-­and-times telling. Malcolm knew this, and offered, after his break with Muhammed, to remake the story along post-Nation, hu­manist lines. But Alex Haley vigorously dis­couraged his subject from making changes, suggesting instead that Malcolm tack on the story of his Mecca trip. That addition — a second strategy — confuses the first strategy by recasting Malcolm’s Black Muslim reve­lation in Black humanist light. What, we just have to ask is: what did Malcolm really stand for? Ultimately, the autobiography says too many different things to be politi­cally or religiously pedagogical, in a coher­ent way. And it ends up concealing Mal­colm X.

Read the autobiography alongside Mal­colm’s speeches, or against some of his var­ious proto-biographies, and its holes be­come plain. Just a few days before his death, Malcolm told a Harlem audience about the Nation’s — and his — involvement with the Ku Klux Klan:

I’m ashamed to say it, but I’m going to tell you the truth. I sat at the table myself with the heads of the Ku Klux Klan. I sat there myself, with the heads of the Ku Klux Klan, who at that time were trying to negotiate with Elijah Muhammad so that they could make available to him a large area of land in Georgia or I think it was South Carolina. They had some very responsible persons in the government who were involved in it and who were willing to go along with it. They wanted to make this land available to him so that his program of separation would sound more feasible to Negroes and there­fore lessen the pressure that the integration­ists were putting upon the white man. I sat there. I negotiated it. I listened to their offer. And I was the one who went back to Chicago and told Elijah Muhammad what they had offered. Now, this was in December of 1960 …

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What Malcolm relates in this passage is deep: In an effort to secure a separate black homeland, the Nation of Islam had taken part in secret negotiations with the Klan, when the group was killing black people. But this important event is absent in our collective (mis)understanding of the man, and in our projection of him. And though it doesn’t invalidate Malcolm’s spirit of resis­tance, it ought to force a rethinking of Mal­colm’s form of resistance: Is the kind of nationalism Malcolm espoused during most of his career naïve, and racist, by nature? Maybe. It’s plain, my people, that facts like these make any simple equations of Mal­colm and Black Integrity very foolish in­deed. And to figure things out, we need more than the iconographic flesh the offi­cial history — the autobiography — supplies.

Brothers and sisters, we have to talk.

What would help is some voices, voices that help us better see the actual man. Though Alex Haley’s epilogue gives an overview of Malcolm’s life and reveals the process of making the autobiography, Mal­colm’s book does not provide a second opinion of the man (how could we expect it to?). Thing is, the black intelligentsia has failed to fill the void, which has led to problems: On the one hand, Malcolm’s flaws — most notably his sexism — go unex­amined, and on the other hand, Malcolm’s legacy gets shaped by those who do choose to write about him. Inside the black com­munity there’s too little critiquing, and out­side of it, there’s more than we can handle.

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Malcolm’s attitudes toward women, for example, are perfect subject matter for a black feminist critique, but the critics are quiet, or being ignored. You only have to turn to Malcolm’s autobiography to eyeball Malcolm’s straight-up anti-woman senti­ments, but rarely are they acknowledged by the community. Listen to Malcolm, for in­stance, on why men visited the prostitutes he befriended as a young man:

Domineering, complaining, demanding wives who had just about psychologically castrated their husbands were responsible for the early rush. These wives were so disagree­able and had made their men so tense that they were robbed of the satisfaction of being men. More wives could keep their hus­bands if they realized their [husbands] greatest urge is to be men.

Men see prostitutes because their wives, with their hen-pecking ways and their disre­spect for mens’ manliness, drive them to it. To this Malcolm later adds, “All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak: They are attracted to the male in whom they see strength,” a thought echoed in one of his last speeches. “[The press does] know that if something were to happen and all these [NOI] brothers, their eyes were to come open, they would be right out here in every one of these civil rights organizations mak­ing these Uncle Tom Negro leaders stand up and fight like men instead of running around here nonviolently acting like wom­en.” Again, women are weak. While Mal­colm’s sexist stance was shared by many of his contemporaries, his equating of the in­tegrity of black manhood with the integrity of the race makes the sexism more trou­bling. Is this the kind of thinking we cele­brate when we celebrate Malcolm X? Yes, if we don’t critique the man, and interpret his self-made history. We simply need more critiques.

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And the critiques must come from us, because we already have several non-Black voices framing Malcolm’s textual legacy. Most prominent among them is the Social­ist Workers’ Party, a Trotskyite group that has long embraced African-American strug­gle as revolutionary. In July of 1939, the SWP — with the encouragement of Trinida­dian Marxist C. L. R. James and the blessings of Trotsky himself — had adopted a res­olution entitled “The SWP and Negro Work,” which began: “The American Ne­groes, for centuries the most oppressed sec­tion of American society and the most dis­criminated against, are potentially the most revolutionary element of the population. They are designated by their whole histori­cal past to be, under adequate leadership, the very vanguard of the proletarian revolu­tion.” The document goes on to argue that the SWP must help form this adequate leadership “through the work of the party among the Negroes and in wider fields in­fluencing the Negro masses to recognize in the SWP the only party that is genuinely working for their complete emancipation from the heavy burdens they have borne so long.” In one stroke, the SWP had begun, according to its own literature, “to present the only consistently revolutionary attitude to black nationalism when that tendency began to assume mass proportions in the 1960s.”

Through two decades the party diligently pursued its objectives, and when Malcolm appeared on the scene, they were ready. By covering Malcolm’s activities in their news­paper, The Militant, and, after his break with the NOI, by offering him places to speak, the SWP tried to help Malcolm throughout his career. The party even helped care for his family after the assassination. “Checks came in from all over the United States and [they] just said, ‘Buy milk for Malcolm’s babies,’ ” says Mal­colm’s widow, Betty Shabazz. “No strings attached.” Shabazz eventually signed an agreement permitting SWP’s Pathfinder Press to publish her husband’s speeches, many of which they have faithfully kept in circulation. They’re white, and they’re Marx­ists, and for 25 years they’ve been doing the most of anyone to foster Malcolm’s legacy.

Yo, we black folk should be ashamed. The SWP also does its critical work: in the form of introductions to the speeches Path­finder publishes, in the form of analyses of the man’s politics, in the form of discussion groups about the meaning of his life. They’re making a Malcolm all their own. It should come as no surprise, then, that their critical approach, while recognizing Mal­colm’s anti-white supremacy project, places emphasis on his last year, underlin­ing an increasing openness to the possibility of working with white revolutionaries, and of adopting ideas important to Trotskyites: anti-imperialism, internationalism, militant activism, and political organization. Ac­cordingly, Pathfinder’s flagship text, Mal­colm X Speaks, contains only one speech made prior to Malcolm’s break with the Nation, while their The Last Year of Mal­colm X provides an excellent explanation of the last year’s speeches from their own point of view. Can’t blame them too much; the’re just doing their jobs. And we aren’t.

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Brothers and sisters, we got to talk.

Surely, the words of a man held sacred by the African-American community should be considered by that community, and wrestled with by that community. Where are the Black Muslim speeches Malcolm made prior to his break with Muhammad? There are smatterings published in Path­finder’s books, or they’re out of print, or they (mostly) have never been published. And where are the black biographical maps that would interpret Malcolm’s words­ — and life — from “a black perspective?” Writing in the VLS (July, 1989), scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. observed:

Although over 300 collective black biogra­phies were published between the late 18th century and the middle of the 20th, and despite the fact that ours is one of the very few traditions in which writers can establish themselves as authors and spokespersons by publishing their autobiographies as first books (autobiography remains the dominant genre in the African-American tradition), only a handful of black writers have recreat­ed the lives and times of other blacks.

The dearth of frank, black discussions of Malcolm X, is, to put it plainly, scandalous. The crisis of quiet in our community extends far beyond any discussion of Mal­colm X. We simply don’t talk honestly enough to one another — the legacy, perhaps, of always whispering when Massa was around. We’re still afraid of who’s looking. “Edit the negative and hold the line!” cries much of the local, and certainly the nation­al, black press. “Edit the negative!” And as a result, ain’t any national places for black writer/thinkers to lay down thoughts for general consumption. Let’s move toward a black perestroika. It’s a wicked irony that Malcolm’s legacy should suffer from our tendency to keep quiet: He spent, afterall, his lifetime trying to raise his (Black) voice. Ours, too. And so we answer with silence, out of fear (of whitefolks, of blasphemy, of tribal traitorism, of losing the badge, of splitting up the community), and we treat Malcolm’s image as a kind of precious cur­rency, hiding his philosophies and leaving his thoughts largely un-critiqued and unengaged.

If we talk, maybe we can put a story to his face, and maybe we can come up with a coherent meaning — a meaning for today — ­of Blackness. Look around, my people, and deal with it: Black masks just ain’t working right. We got to look at each other, and we got to check out the mirror, and we got to see what we see. Malcolm’s face is a fine place to start: We only have Malcolm, and ourselves, to fear. ■

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

On Malcolm X: Can This Be the End for Cyclops and Professor X?

Can This Be the End for Cyclops and Professor X?
November 10, 1992

“I’m not a race man. I’m an X-man,” says Bullrose to Dravidiana, the she-ra with the Hi-8 video camera.

“As in Malcolm, of course?” she crack, whopping them blond dreads out of her face with ye olde roundhouse swing of the dome.

“No, as in Ice Man, Angel, Cyclops, and The Beast. My slave name used to be Scott Summers, dig?” A list that does not leave Dravidiana perplexed, just provoked into Bullrose’s bushwah.

“Whoa, Troop! What happened to X-Girl? You just erasin’ her from the pages of Marvel history?”

The gender interrogation feel like déjà vu to Bullrose. It take him back. Back before Dravidiana turned that lesbonic corner, back when she was his woman and he were her man, back when she routinely took him to task for the masculinist infractions.

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“I remember back in the day when being up on Marvel Comics’ lore was strictly a brother-thang. Can’t nothing be strictly a brother-thang anymore? I know how them all-white country clubs feel. Can’t get away from these niggas nowhere.”

“And woman is the nigga of the world,” proclaimed the she-ra. “But let’s stick to the point. The original question was…”

“… how many peckers did Peter Piper prick?”

“The original question was, why are so many young brothers sweatin’ Malcolm X’s dick so hard these days? Is it ’cause Spike Lee, Chuck D, BDP? Why you got the sleaze-ass likes of Big Daddy Kane saying he aspires to be a combination of Malcolm X and Marvin Gaye, a great Black leader and a sexy entertainer? And a virtual humanist like Vernon Reid coming out the box like he wants to be X and Hendrix rolled into one? How cum? Huh? Huh?”

“Well, all the brothers you mentioned led the way far as the resurrection goes, but X wouldn’t be making this kind of comeback if he wasn’t a bona fide superstar. I mean, the brother had style. He never took a bad photograph in his life. His records still sound dope. And no matter what kinda nigga y0u are, if you read his book you can see yourself in him. Like Chaka Khan said she was everywoman, X was every Black man. I mean, the brother had a multiple-identity crisis going on. Count ’em off: preacher, poet, pimp, prostitute, prophet, player, political activist, warrior-king, husband, father, martyr.

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“X occupies so many housin’ units in the Black male psyche, a brother can’t erase X without erasing himself. I don’t think he shot hoop, and he wasn’t a jazz musician, but he was a great jazz dancer, which is close enough to confer jazzman/jock cache on his godhead too.”

“But what do these brothers really know about brother Malcolm? All they know is what other niggas say about what a nigga he was. Jockin’ on the T-shirts, buttons, and shit. What do they know about his politics, which were like totally fucked up?”

“What does a young brother got to know? X was a smooth operator from the streets with a dope rap who stood up for Black folks and got shot down for doing it. That’s the stuff Black heroes are made of. Staying Black and dying for it. It’s a myth0-pop-poeic world out there. Brother been brought up on it same as everybody else. Malcolm was like JFK or Elvis. He was made for the TV age. Brother man was videogenic and gave great soundbites. The hip-hop nation got to dig him because he could rap, he had street knowledge, mother wit, and supreme verbal flow. You know how we value verbal prowess in the Black community. The brother or sister who can make stone rhetoric swing like a pickax to the brain. All of that is why the young brothers are on Malcolm’s jock so hard.”

“Do you think they’d be following him if he was alive today?”

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“If he was alive today they wouldn’t need to be following him. I mean, do you realize how different America would be today if King and X had been around to provide moral leadership and militant thrust to the Panthers and the Yippies and all them muhfuckuhs instead of them being left out there to freelance and fuck it up for themselves? But, you know, it’s cool, because Malcolm left the brothers their first revolutionary pop ikon. Nat Turner don’t count. Who even knows what he looked like? Coulda been a nerd. And when you dealing with American superstars, baby, all you need to know is he lived fast and died young, a martyr who went out in a blaze of glory. Dying under suspicious and mysterious circumstances helps too. That way you can really hype the conspiratorial element. Live heroes are a problem. They be getting all soft and wet and problematic on you. If you’re lucky enough to die young you can be remembered for being a hard muhfuckuh forever. We celebrate the death of Malcolm X for what it is — the birth of a new Black god. X is dead, long live X. He’s like the Elvis of Black pop politics — a real piece of Afro-Americana. That’s why Spike’s logo is branded with an American flag. Malcolm couldn’t have happened anywhere else.”

“Do you think Malcolm’s spirituality makes a difference to the youth at all?”

“Sure it does because that’s all part of the package, the construct we know as X the martyr. But spirituality is like anything else in America, you got to package it right. Malcolm had the right package. If being Muslim is how you get to be a righteous Black man like Malcolm, then you become Muslim. When you’re young, dumb, and full of cum and, lord knows, you gonna get you some, you like to think you got juice to pass judgment on the world, that youth makes right. Self-righteousness comes with the territory: You think however you living is justifiable because you a sexy young thing, maybe good with your hands or in some sport. But maybe not because it really ain’t as important as being proficient in Black Male Posturing. BMP is a bitch. Carry you farther than you will ever imagine in this world because the whole world gives it so much power. Except for the butch breed like yourself who on the whole are probably less impressed than anybody. And cocky because of it. Yeah, I be checking how arrogantly y’all will ignore a fine brother just because you know it fucks up his whole program. Y’all eat that shit up.”

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“You mean like you, boy-Romeo.”

“Being a loveman is a tough job but somebody has to do it, right? Anything else you want to ask me?”

“When did you first hear about Malcolm?”

“In my house growing up. I’m an old muhfuhkuh so we talking ’65, ’66 when I was around eight or nine. He was a regular on the turntable. ’longside Otis, Coltrane, and Nina Simone. We lived in a big three-story house. The stereo was a big old piece of furniture. So when my people played Malcolm on a Sunday it would fill up the house, every nook and cranny, you could almost smell Malcolm’s voice smoking up the joint. Seems like on Sunday my people kept Malcolm going like we keep candles and incense going today. Except for Nina Simone and Otis Redding and John Coltrane, the only records I can remember my people playing was X. Now all my mother listens to besides jazz-lite radio and weight-loss tapes is Public Enemy. There’s some kinda continuity there, I guess. I don’t know what happened to all those X records she had. Probably got stolen, or borrowed and never returned. They’re collector’s items really. Probably fetch a fine price on the open market.”

“What do you remember from the X oeuvre?”

“Certain phrases will stick with me forever. ‘I’m the man you think you are.’ ‘I’d do the same as you, only more of it.’ ‘You can’t get a chicken from a duck egg.’ I always liked that image. It always made me see a baby chick flopping around in an eggshell three sizes too big. ‘You can’t have a revolution without bloodshed.’ ‘Doesn’t matter if you’re a Baptist or a Methodist, you’ll still catch hell.’ That conjured an image in my mind too: churches burning down. That one where he talks about how if you were a citizen you wouldn’t need no Civil Rights bill. What’s funny is that even as a child — and I’m talking seven, eight years old — X made perfect sense to me. Maybe because he was talking about right and wrong in such binary terms, like in fairy tales. You know he painted the world as Black equals good and white equals evil. Black could be stupid, punk ass, and illogical but not evil. And white couldn’t be nothing but evil. Do I still believe that? Not expressly. On the other hand I’m not impressed by much of anything white people do except for some painters and photographers, a couple stand-up comics and the theoretical physicist types.”

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“Not to digress but you can be hard on your Black visual artists. Why is that?”

“The evidence speaks for itself. It’s not even about where’s the Coltrane, the Baraka, the Lady Day, the Fannie Lou Hamer of painting, sculpture, and photography. It’s about where is the Jr. Walker, the Iceberg Slim, the Gloria Lynne, the Shirley Chisholm. There’s very little Black visual work that personifies blackness. You got people that do good work but rarely does it not lack for the wit, pathos, and absurdity of Black existential reality. We got people that have rolled up close up on it. But it can get even blacker than that. I think so, anyway.”

“How can you quantify the blackness of visual practice and phenomena?”

“Only by the way it does things white boys can’t even contemplate. Like being a Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Miles Davis. If you a white boy you know there’s no way in hell you could be one of them because you could never step inside of history in their skin. Race doesn’t prescribe experience or predict emotional depth, but there are historical experiences that only being Black in space, time, and mind will make possible. You get my drift?”

“Sounds kinda essentialist to me. What’s really the difference between what you’re saying and calling white folks grafted devils?”

“Are we gonna have that old debate again? Look, there is a special kind of alienation you possess as Black person in this society that is all mashed up with your feeling of love and loathing and loyalty to Black folks as a whole. Unless you were raised among Black people you never develop certain sensitivities or neuroses about race and culture and identity that I believe are a fundamental inspiration for Black creative genius. Du Bois talked about Black folks and double consciousness. I think if you’re a Black intellectual you got quadruple, sextuple, octagonal consciousness beaming around your brain. You’re always trying to square things that have no lines and hard edges. Like where Africa ends and Europe begins. How to develop yourself without alienating those who are interested in development on whose behalf you are developing yourself. You know if Malcolm hadn’t had the Nation of Islam’s save-a-sinner program behind him to smooth all that kinda shit out he woulda been another alienated Black intellectual in deep crisis. Trying to figure out how to relate to the masses and redeem ’em without romanticizing and patronizing or, worst of all, pandering to them. It’s easy to challenge Black folks on self-destructive behavior. Harder to challenge us on reactionary practices like misogyny, homophobia, and thinking that intellectual development is a white thang. But what is Malcolm to you, Dravi? What are you looking for from these interviews and whatnot?”

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“Well, like, I was never raised to have heroes. I was raised to listen to what people said and look for how it contradicted what they did. I learned that the person who did a constructive thing for the community today could be about tearing it down tomorrow. I was taught how fragile and selfish most human beings are — except for Black mothers — and that holding power over people makes them even more fragile, vain and lonely and dangerous. Dangerous to others because their charisma makes folks want to let them do their thinking for them. Dangerous to themselves because they have to give up their humanity on the way to the hall of glory.

“I think history shows us that the revolutionaries and prophets that the state killed got a better deal than the ones who became living symbols. Because there’s nothing at the end of that road but bitterness, regret, and tyranny. How can you respect the common humanity of people who hold your ideas, your utterances as more valid than their own lives? That’s why I got no use for heroes. I can respect heroic acts I can’t respect anybody who’d want idolatry for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

“You don’t think that’s what Malcolm wanted, do you?”

“I don’t know that any real revolutionary starts out wanting that. It’s what people want for you. And the only way you can defeat that kind of imposed demogogic status is by rejecting the people and the power they invest in you. Malcolm was one of the lucky ones. History swallowed him before he swallowed it.”

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“Ahh, the humanist response. Deep. Far as it goes. But if you want to know the real deal, I think X was swallowed by the world of the assassins.”

“The what?”

“The world of the assassins. The world he renounced after his trip to Mecca and after he renounced the Nation of Islam. Anywhere you have a politicized secret society you’re going to draw the secret order of the assassins. They’re a guild that’s been around since about the 11th century. For more on this than I got time for here I suggest you check out Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Anton Wilson. I think X became a target when he threatened to come out of the cultish darkness of Islamic separatism and into the light of pantheistic humanism. The assassins thrive wherever humans dispute over difference, borders, territories, or identity — anywhere difference becomes politicized, the assassins have got a stake and probably a hand in it. They killed JFK and RFK when they threatened to bridge differences between nations. And they did it to Martin when he threatened the Vietnam project as well as their program of American economic apartheid. They could have killed Castro but they realized his presence provided the ‘logic’ that kept state terror and the assassins’ order alive and well in Latin America.

“The assassins uphold no ideology, no. The assassins live only for chaos, disunion, and the perfectability of the art of the political murder. To perpetuate themselves they have to practice their craft. Anyone with political power who renounces them in pursuit of dissolving human difference is dangerous. The assassins want to keep us in the Tower of Babel state. That’s why they had to take out Coltrane, Redding, Hendrix, Marley, and X, and neutralize Clinton and Sly. That’s why you see cats like Chuck D and KRS-One only flirt with humanism but not really embrace it. They know that the assassins are on the nether side of bringing folk together, with a vengeance. When you can convince folks they don’t need ignorance, hatred, and fear or the ism-schisms to survive, you’ve effectively cut the heads off the assassins and tossed their mangy torsos into the streets to be mulled over and masticated by the dogs in the clear light of day. Malcolm was on the way to taking them out of the darkness and into the light like every other progressive prophet who ever came down the pike, and that’s why ‘history’ swallowed him. Dig?”

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“Dig? Niggapleeze. If you don’t get out my face with that warmed-over Illuminati Tragedy-Mumbo-Jumbo Rainbow Coalition bushwah — I still say we don’t need another hero.”

“And I say you still don’t get it. It’s not about us. It’s about an ancient conflict over how the soul of the world should turn.”

“No, it’s about the souls of the men and how easily they turn to violence when they can’t control the earth, nature, or women. If any of these prophets you speak of were truly progressive, they’d realize the only way your assassins could be assassinated will be when the planet is ruled by the cult of woman, which is the cult of the earth. But men are too into keeping up the body count because all they can bring into existence on the planet without bowing down to the feminine principle is murder.”

“I ain’t even steppin’ up into that nonsense. Baby, I’m 5000.”

“5000? Not even that high. More like 33 and a third.”

Categories
From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Burying Malcolm X

Burying Malcolm X

March 4, 1965

By Marlene Nadle

It was a strange funeral on Saturday. At Faith Temple, Church of God in Christ, the altar was decorated with policemen. In a bronze coffin El-Hajj Malik Shabazz, wrapped in the white linen of Moslem ritual, rested beneath two giant murals of Jesus Christ.

The funeral of the man known as Malcolm X was a blend of Islamic faith and Christian custom. The priest wore the brown robes and white turban of the Middle East; the widow the black veiling and clothes of western tradition. Flowers are not part of a Moslem’s funeral. Yet Betty Shabazz sent flowers to her husband. Embossed on the five-by-two-foot bank of red carnations was the Star and Crescent of Islam.

Death for a Moslem is supposed to be a private matter. There is not supposed to be any public exhibition of the body, which must not be kept from the grave beyond two sunsets. Yet they kept Malcolm’s body for a full week, and 30,000 people visited Unity Funeral Home and another 3000 came to the church trying to hold onto the part of them that had died.

For Malcolm had been the spokesman for that part of all blacks that is in constant rage at their life in the land of the rich and the home of the righteous.

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Hiding Tears

Eulogies for Malcolm were heard on every corner of Harlem. But the ones delivered at the funeral were out of order. Nothing is supposed to be done during an Islamic service to create emotion or a sense of bereavement. Nothing had to be done. Even before the service began, a strapping young man sat with his hand over his eyes feigning sleep to hide his tears. An old woman wearing a white crocheted scarf over a jockey cap sat with her mittens clutched in hands wrinkled and worn with scrubbing other people’s floors. Asked what she thought of Malcolm, she said, “I love him.”

At the front of the church Ossie Davis, in a voice that kept cracking, began the first part of the service. “Malcolm was our manhood,” he said. And the people in the pews shouted, “That’s right!”

“They will tell us to write him out of history. They will ask what Harlem finds to honor. And we will smile.

“They will tell us he was a fanatic. And we will ask, ‘Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm?’

“They will tell us that he was full of hate. And we will say, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’.”

The people in the pews shouted, “That’s right!”

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Other Speakers

Ahmed Ossman, head of the Islamic Center in Switzerland, said that he was shocked by the remarks of Carl Rowan, the Negro director of he United States Information Agency. Rowan had said that the African press was mistaken in interpret­ing the death of Malcolm X as the death of a hero. He charged Malcolm wilh preaching separa­tion and black supremacy. Ossman fervantly declared that Malcolm had abjured all racism after making his pilgrimage to Mecca. The mention of Rowan’s name set off a low rumble. Some ­people hissed.

Finally the speeches were over. The second half of the service was conducted by an Islamic priest. There were four takbeers, or prayers. When the phrase “Allahu Akbar” (“God is the Most Great”) was uttered the Moslems — perhaps 50 — placed their hands open at the side of their faces.

Close friends and Malcolm’s half-sister filed past the coffin. They struggled to maintain the dignity and restraint required by the occasion.

When Betty Shabazz, pregnant with her fifth child, stood before her husband, she bit her lip in a fight to control herself. Then she broke. Weeping, she pressed her lips against the glass shield that divided her from his body.

The crowd broke with her, and a moan went up. There was a shriek from a woman in the first row.

The coffin was carried down the left aisle. People reached out.

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‘Making It Worse”

One woman following behind the coffin began to scream “Kill! Kill! Kill them all!” A younger woman put her hand on the other woman’s mouth and walked her out, saying “Stop, Mamma! Stop! You’re only making it worse.”

The coffin went on to a silver-blue hearse. Policemen stared down from the rooftops. The 50-car funeral procession left for Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale.

But the people wouldn’t go home. They tried to get back into the church to get a prayer book. To get a flower. To get something they could hold on to. Eventually the crowd thinned A small cluster of women remained on the sidewalk in front of the church. There was one, a big woman in a black kerchief, who cried as she talked. When she saw a reporter trying to take down the conversation, she turned to her companions and said, “Stop talking. Don’t say anything. They always take words and twist them. That’s what they did with Malcolm.”

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‘Opened My Eyes’

Then, turning on the reporter she said, “That man didn’t teach violence like the papers all say. He taught me about myself. He taught me I was more than a Little Black Sambo or Kinky Hair or nigger.

“They called us junkies and drunks. And I was ashamed. He opened my eyes. He made me see who was bringing all the dope to Harlem. Who was opening all the liquor stores. Black men don’t have that kind of money.”

As the woman named Doris talked, she continued to cry. And as she cried the crowd gathered. Turning to the reporter she asked, “If I slapped your face, what would your normal reaction be?”

“To hit back,” said the reporter.

“Well, that’s what Malcolm told us to do. To defend ourselves. Yet all the papers keep talking about is his violence. It make me sick.”

“Sure,” said a young college student, “they just love him now — the liberal columnists — now that he’s dead. It’s like Kennedy and business. They heaped all kinds of praise on him after he was no longer a threat to their establishment.”

Then a woman wearing a leopard print turban and stole and dancing silver earrings introduced herself as Audley Moore. “I’m 66 years old,” she said. “I was one of Marcus Garvey’s people. I’ve been work­ing in Harlem now for over 40 years. I sat at the feet of Mary Bethune and other leaders trying to learn how to help our people. I fought to get Negro history taught in schools in 1934. I wasn’t a follower of Malcolm X, I was his mother.

“He used to call me his Queen Mother. And I would say to him, ‘Now, Malcolm, honey, why do you have to rob Africa? We are African-Americans, not Afros. How come France produces Frenchmen? And Italy produces Italians? But Africa can only hatch Negroes and Afros?’

“Why, being an Afro is almost as bad as being a Negro. It almost puts us in the same class as that man Rowan. Now, he is a Negro! A real U.S. made and manufactured Negro!

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“The Only Law”

Miss Moore and the people in the crowd began to talk about building a monument to Malcolm X. A Harlem young man walking by in Nigerian dress stopped, raised his stick, and shouted, “Don’t spend money on statues, spend it on guns!”

“What’s wrong with these?” said another young man, raising his fists.

“The only law that exists out there is the law of the gun,” answered the man dressed in Nigerian clothes.

“I don’t believe in turning the other cheek,” said Miss Moore. “But it’s stupid to use guns when they have the Army, the Navy, and the Marines.”

The talk about Malcolm caused Miss Monroe’s sister to suggest that gas be put in the car and everyone go to see Malcolm’s grave. Many people wanted to go. But the seven who finally wound up in the car were a physician from the West Indies, a collector of materials for the African-American Historical Association, a teenager in a plain beret, Miss Moore in her imposing leopard-skin turban, her sister, Doris, and the reporter whose presence had originally brought the crowd together.

A half-hour later the group stood beside the grave of El-Hajj Malik Shabazz. They made impromptu pledges to unity and the struggle for freedom. They each took a leaf from the grave. And made promises to meet again.

Categories
From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Malcolm X: The Complexity Of a Man in the Jungle

Malcolm X: The Complexity Of a Man in the Jungle
February 25, 1965

The following article was written by Marlene Nadle for The Voice shortly prior to the assassination of Malcolm X. It is based on hours of interviewing Malcolm X at his Hotel Theresa office and attendance at rallies at the Audubon Ballroom and Manhattan Center.

The article is presented exactly as it was originally written. No attempt has been made to make it conform to the events of Sunday at the Audubon Ballroom.

Malcolm X has three faces. One is turned toward Africa, one toward Harlem, and one toward Washington.

His masks are more numerous. They are juggled by both the actor and his audience. He’s a charismatic leader. Then a cartoon figure waving a rifle. He’s a racist. Then a Black National gone white. A symbol of hope and Father Divine. An anti-semite and a preacher of brotherhood. An extremist and a man to move the Movement.

In Harlem the people watch the performance.

The black politicians mark the trickle of converts going through the glass doors of the Organization of Afro-American Unity he formed after the split with the Black Muslims in March, 1964. They wait to see if it signals a flood, now that the gates are open to non-Muslims, and now that a separate black state is no longer the destination.

The politicians will not completely associate themselves with him. Nor will they disassociate themselves. The untested potential of Malcolm X keeps people like Adam Clayton Powell careful friends.

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Harlem Cross-section

A cross-section of Harlem comes to measure the man and his methods on Sunday nights at Audubon Ballroom. Seated on 500 wooden folding chairs are the disinherited people who never had any hope or answers and those, whether Nationalist or non-violent activist, who have run out of both. There are children looking for pride, and there are many older church-goers who, unlike Mahalia Jackson, can’t sing, “I found the answer, I learned to pray.”

In the bars and grills — Small’s and Jock’s and the Shalimar on Seventh Avenue, the Palm’s and Frank’s on 125th Street — the debate goes on.

“Malcolm is a genius,” said a man at the bar in the Shalimar. “All he cares about is Malcolm X and money.”

“Malcolm is a creation of the white press,” said a doctor in Frank’s.

“Malcolm is a genius,” said a lawyer in the back room at Jock’s. “He is the most brilliant speaker I have ever heard.”

“Malcolm X is a loser,” said another man at Jock’s. “He’ll have to do a lot better than he’s doing if he wants to make it in Harlem.”

Down the street from Jock’s in his Hotel Theresa headquarters, sat the subject of the debate. With his long frame hunched over a phone in his closet-like inner office, Malcolm made arrangements to speak at Harlem Hospital. He fumbled through the pockets of his dark three-button suit, through his vest and his attache case looking for his pen. Then, hanging up, he pressed his fingers against his eyes and rested.

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Testing Process

Remembering the interviewer he apologized and said, “I usually try and get four hours sleep at night. Last night I didn’t make it.”

The young executive in charge of revolution complained about the pace. About days that too often ran from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m.

Then the mutual testing began. With a half-smile Malcolm said, “A lot of people have warned me about the Village Voice. It’s supposed to be a liberal paper, but they say it is very narrow.”

“Some people on the staff think you’re a con man,” I said, and waited for the reaction.

It exploded out of the chair. Now on his feet, he said, “If I wanted to be just a con man, I wouldn’t be fool enough to try it on these streets where people are looking for my life, where I can’t walk around after dark. If I wanted power, I could have gone anywhere in the world. They offered me jobs in all the African countries.

“Muhammed is the man, with his house in Phoenix, his $200 suits, and his harem. He didn’t believe in the black state or in getting anything for the people. That’s why I got out.”

Do you feel a distorted image of you was created by the press?

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“It was created by them and me. The reporters came with preconceived answers to their questions. They were looking for sensationalism, for something that would sell papers, and I gave it to them. If they had asked probing intelligent questions, they would have gotten different answers.”

Why encourage the distortion?

“It’s useful. The only person who can organize the man in the streets is the one who is unacceptable to the white community. They don’t trust the other kind. They don’t know who controls his actions.”

The man in the street is the one Malcolm has described as living on the bottom of the social heap. The one who has given up all hope, all ambition, all plans. The one who says, like the old blues song, “I’ve been down so long till down don’t bother me.”

Did he plan to use hate to organize the people?

“I won’t permit you to call it hate. Let’s say I’m going to create an awareness of what has been done to them. This awareness will produce an abundance of energy, both negative and positive, that can then be channeled constructively.”

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The Bad Symbol

Like the trade-union organizer, Malcolm wants to aggravate the people’s frustration and discontent until anger overcomes apathy and they act on their own behalf. This will be done primarily by attacking the whites’ treatment of Negroes.

The Jew would seem to be an inevitable scapegoat for his attack. For the Jew, like the policeman, is a visible white in the life of the ghetto. Harlem sees them both not only in terms of their own deeds or misdeeds, but as walking symbols of all whites. It’s easy to stir a black audience on both subjects. And stir them is what Malcolm wants to do.

“The greatest mistake of the Movement,” he said, “has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake the people up first then you’ll get action.”

Wake them up to their exploitation?

“No, to their humanity, their own worth, and to their heritage. The biggest difference between the parallel oppression of the Jew and the Negro is that the Jew never lost his pride in being a Jew. He never ceased to be a man. He knew he had made a significant contribution to the world, and his sense of his own value gave him the courage to fight back. It enabled him to act and think independently, unlike our people and our leaders.”

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No Tarzan

To compensate for the pride and heritage that was aborted by slavery, on almost all occasions, but especially at his Sunday meetings, Malcolm assumes the role of teacher.

Unwinding himself from a hand microphone, without any formal introduction, he comes before his class at the Audubon Ballroom. He chats and kids with them for a while and then gets on with the lessons.

He shows them films of Africa he took on his trip last summer. He tells them, “We have got to get over the brainwashing we had. No matter how much of an Africanist we are, it is hard for us to think of Africa as anything but a place for Tarzan. Look at these films and get out of your mind what the Man put in it.”

Narrating from a chair in the first row, he points out the beaches and skyscraping cities and says, “They told us there was nothing but jungle over there. Why, the only jungle I ever saw was right here in New York City.”

He reads them an article about James Farmer in the U.S. News and World Report. He attacks the magazine for being anti-black like all the press, but he tells his pupils to read it. “Read everything,” he said. “You never know where you’re going to get an idea. We have to learn how to think. We have to use our heads as well as our bodies in a revolution.”

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Rhythm Changes

He urges them to watch the kinds of books being used in the schools. “If when we were coming up,” he said, “we had a better idea of Africa and our past, we would think for ourselves.”

He closes the meeting with the announcement that child-care classes are going to be taught at the OAAU office.

Before this black audience, Malcolm has a different sound. The extensive vocabulary, the precise grammar, the level resonant voice go. Even the rhythm changes.

Was it deliberate? I asked him. “Sure,” he said. “Different audiences have different rhythms. You have to be able to play them, if you don’t want to put the people to sleep.”

“Now take someone like Bayard Rustin. He’s a brilliant man, a real whiz, just like Baldwin. But, he talks white. You know, Oxford accent and all. He came up here to Harlem to debate me … Poor Bayard … He spent so much time trying to figure out how to say things and still sound white that by the time he got the words out, I whipped him.”

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Racism Is Mask

During the debate, during the speeches on Sundays past, and during the speeches on Sundays future, Malcolm will continue to try to wake Harlem. He will use a negative attack to produce a positive goal. To a white ear the attacks will sound like the ranting of a racist.

To the man who leans casually against the wall at the Theresa, racism is a mask he dons when it will be effective. But even the mask is different from the way it is perceived. To himself he is a racist because he is concerned with the black race. He is a racist because he will attack all people who abuse that race. He is not a racist who hates all non-blacks.

“I care about all people,” he said, ”but especially about black people. I’m a Muslim. My religion teaches me brotherhood, but doesn’t make me a fool.”

The white world is not the only place that is concerned with his racism. In the parts of Harlem where white means devil, they are also testing him.

He was challenged at a Sunday meeting. A man stood, rocked back on his heels, and very slowly said, “We heard you changed, Malcolm. Why don’t you tell us where you’re at with them white folks?”

Without dropping a syllable he gave a black nationalist speech on brotherhood.

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Militant, Not Dogmatic

“I haven’t changed,” he said. “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.

“Now I know it’s smarter to say you’re going to shoot a man for what he is doing to you than because he is a white. If you attack him because he is white, you give him no out. He can’t step being white. We’ve got to give the Man a chance. He probably won’t take it, the snake. But we’ve got to give him a chance.

“We’ve got to be more flexible. Why, when some of our friends in Africa didn’t know how to do things, they went ahead and called in some German technicians. And they had blue eyes

“I’m not going to be in anybody’s strait jacket. I don’t care what a person looks like or where they come from. My mind is wide open to anybody who will help get the ape off our backs.”

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White Allies

The people he feels that can best help are the students, both black and white. But he con­siders all militant whites possible allies.

He qualifies the possibility. And woven into the qualifications are the threads of the emotions running through Harlem.

“If we are going to work to­gether, the blacks must take the lead in their own fight. In phase one, the white led. We’re going into phase two now.”

“This phase will be full of re­bellion and hostility. Blacks will fight whites for the right to make decisions that affect the struggle
in order to arrive at their manhood and self-respect.”

“The hostility is good,” Mal­colm said. “It’s been bottled up too long. When we stop always saying yes to Mr. Charlie and turning the hate against our­selves, we will begin to be free.”

How did he plan to get white militants to work with him or even to walk into the Theresa with the kind of slings and arrows he was sending out?

There was the half-smile again. Then, thoughtfully stroking his new-grown beard, he said, “We’ll have to try to rectify that.”

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Master Juggler  

He admitted it would be diffi­cult to get militant whites and blacks together. “The whites can’t come uptown too easily be­cause the people aren’t feeling too friendly. The black who goes downtown loses his identity, loses his soul. He’s in no position to be a bridge because he has lost contact with Harlem. Our Negro leaders never had contact, so they can’t do it.

“The only person who could is someone who is completely trusted by the black community. If I were to try, I would have to be very diplomatic, because there are parts of Harlem where you don’t dare mention the idea.”

The diplomatic skill of the master juggler will also be needed to get white militant support. For, while wooing it, he must continue to attack whites for the benefit of his Harlem audience.

Bluntly he says, “We must make them see that we are the enemy. That the black man is the greater threat to this country than Vietnam or Berlin. So let them turn the money for defense in our direction and either destroy us or cure the conditions that brought our people to this point. For if we cannot live in this house as human beings, we would rather be dead.”

As Malcolm finished his comment, he left little doubt that he was willing to go all the way in the fight. Yet he doesn’t seem like a man who is in love with violence. On the contrary, he re­laxed during the course of the interview, the impression conveyed by this soft-spoken, non­smoking, non-drinking Muslim was one of gentleness.

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Concern for People

When he was not on the stage, another side of the man is revealed. The private rather than the public man is seen when you watch him relate to individuals. He stops and listens to a worried white student despite the fact that the police and his party are trying to hurry him out after a speech. He remembers to buy coffee for everyone in the office when he orders some for himself. He interrupts his sentence on the need for black hostility to ask, with genuine concern, whether I was abused coming to the Theresa.

Violence has no real part in his history. Even the crimes of burglary and larceny he committed as Big Red were mercenary not sadistic.

Why then is he willing to go such extremes?

“Only violence, or a real threat of it, will get results,” he said. “The only time the government moves is in reaction to crises. When it’s too costly to let our people continue to suffer, Washington will give the massive federal aid needed to solve the problem.”

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To the South

Violence doesn’t mean a huge race war to Malcolm. His strategy is primarily defensive.

He’ll work on voter registration in the north and south. But if his people work in a place like Mississippi, they’ll be armed. “If the Federal government won’t protect the voters,” he said, his people will.

He has already begun to offer his services in the south. He addressed a voter-registration rally in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 3, was in Selma on February 5, and will speak at a Mississippi Freedom Party rally in Jackson on February 19.

Malcolm is also willing to go along with Bayard Rustin’s strategy of causing social dislocation in the white community, but he is not willing to do it non-violently. For he says the people in Harlem who are willing to get involved in such activities aren’t willing to have a policeman crack their skulls and not fight back.

He will use demonstrations and picketing, but not the kind that play by the rules of the establishment. “Power doesn’t back up in the face of a prayer and a smile,” he said. “The only demonstrations that they pay attention to are the ones that contain the seeds of violence.”

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Black Guerrillas 

There is another tactic he wants to use. It is the exception in his defensive strategy. He wants bands of invisible guerrillas who would strike and slip back into society. Bands that could match the Klan.

“I’ll be the first to join,” he said, “and lots of people you don’t think will, are going to line up behind me.”

It’s over the tactics of violence vs. non-violence — or, as Malcolm puts it, self-defense vs. masochism — that he and other civil-rights leaders disagree. This difference is what has prevented the unity that he feels is one of the keys to the struggle.

“It’s not that there is no desire for unity, or that it is impossible, or that they might not agree with me behind closed doors. It’s because most of the organizations are dependent on white money and they are afraid to lose it.

“I spent almost a year not at­tacking them, saying let’s get together, let’s do something. But they’re too scared. I guess I will have to go to the people first and let the leaders fall in behind them.”

That does not mean ruling out cooperation. He will try and stress the areas and activities where the groups can work together. For he says, “If we are going into the ring, our right fist does not have to become our left fist, but we must use a com­mon head if we are going to win. ”

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Black Schools

Asked if he would support things like a school boycott, he said he would if he agreed with its goals. He would not support it to get more busing. He also wouldn’t fight school construction in black communities. Until a better plan for integration is found, he wants more and larger schools built in black neighborhoods. Even more than in comparable white ones, because of  the birth rate.

In discussing other things he felt should be done, he said, “We must begin to move into politics and economics. They are two areas where our people are very immure. That’s why the OAAU started the liberation school. We want to teach them how to operate.”

The political lessons won’t be just theory. Malcolm wants to  run militant candidates on the local level. They would be race men like the Southern politicians. These candidates would plant angry soap boxes on all the street corners of Harlem. They would make the vote a channel for the discontent for the apolitical man in the streets. Once a political habit is established, it could be a powerful weapon in the struggle.

Would he be a candidate?

“I don’t know at this point,” he said. “I think I am more effective attacking the establishment. You can’t do that as well once you’re inside it.”

Did he think an all-black party like the Freedom Now Party in Michigan was needed?

“Yes, in some cases you have to create new machinery. In other it’s better to take over existing machinery. Either way, we’re going to be involved in all levels of politics from ’65 on.”

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Miami Approach

Malcolm also wants to take a new economic approach to integration. He thinks blacks should use the same strategy as Jews did in Florida. Instead of money on lawyers’ feels and bail bonds for sit-ins, they should pool their resources and buy housing. Then anybody who wanted to could come in.

He also thinks efforts should be made to have blacks control the food, shelter, and clothing in the communities where they live.

As we spoke and drank the coffee he ordered, it became clear that there is one feature common to all Malcolm’s masks. It’s determination. Determination to solve the problems of his people at whatever cost. To smash through the deafness of the white world. To force into actions and words the rage that is churning in the guts of the blacks.

On the train I rode downtown, that black rage broke free in one drunken Negro. He spit his anguish and obscenities into emotionless white faces.

For endless blocks the drunk shrieked against the sound of the subway, “You’re full of shit! You’re all full of shit! You’re killing me! You mothers! You’re killing me!”

That rage is what Malcolm wants to shape into a weapon to be used against the continued moral, spiritual, physical, political, cultural, and economic strangulation of the blacks.

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Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke

Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke
December 1986

Somewhere along the road to probable madness or a meaningful life, I decided that what black culture needs is a popular poststructuralism — accessible writing bent on deconstructing the whole of black culture. Anybody who’s read Harold Cruse’s scathing dissection of black leadership, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, knows his argument that each generation of black leaders has failed from an inability to conceive black liberation totally and systemically. Meaning they failed to develop agendas that fused protest and reform politics with self-­help economics, sophisticated cultural critiques, and a Marxian take on the political economy of capitalism. Twenty years later, the void Cruse railed against remains. If you think I’m going to try to fill it, you got another think coming. I’m bold but I ain’t that bad. This whatchamajiggy here is about how black aestheticians need to develop a coherent criticism to communicate the com­plexities of our culture. There’s no periodical on black cultural phenomena equivalent to The Village Voice or Artforum, no publication that provides journalism on black visual art, philosophy, politics, economics, media, literature, linguistics, psychology, sexuality, spirituality, and pop culture. Though there are certainly black editors, journalists, and academics capable of producing such a journal, the disintegration of the black cultural nationalist movement and the braindrain of black intellectuals to white insti­tutions have destroyed the vociferous public dialogue that used to exist between them. Consider this my little shot at opening it up again.

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Given the lack of debate and discussion among educated blacks today, Harold Cruse’s remedies for the black intelligentsia’s failings seem more quixotic now than 20 years ago — particularly because back then the civil rights and black power movements were pro­ducing a generation of artists and activists who could be provoked into getting hot and bothered. (You ask a buppy mofo his stand on the race, he’ll tell you he favors Carl Lewis.) Cruse presaged the black cultural nationalist movement as conceived by Amiri Baraka and Ron Karenga. While the founding fathers have long taken deserved lumps for the jiver parts of their program (like the sexist, anti-Semitic, black supremacist, pseudo-African mumbo-­jumbo paramilitary adventurist parts), to their credit they took black liberation seriously enough to be theoretically ambitious about it. Perhaps their most grandiose scheme involved trying to transform a supremacist sense of black cultural difference into the basis for a racially bonding black American zeitgeist — one that would serve blacks as Judaism was believed to have solidified Jews. The plan was to convince 30 million people they constituted a nation, not only because they were an oppressed minority, but also because they were superior to the corny white man and his Western civilization. 

A considerable amount of this philosophy was developed by Baba Baraka, formerly a prized black stepchild of Western mod­ernism. Baraka has acknowledged that he derived his black su­premacist gumption from African-American music, which definitely represents the one modernist arena blacks are the masters of. (It is our music, especially jazz, which confronts Western culture with its most intimidating and improbable Other: the sui generis black genius. But that’s a whole other dissertation.) The leap from per­ceiving the genius of jazz to envisioning an Afrocentric master race is quite a doozy. Generously, it could be understood as an extrem­ist’s reaction to blacks being classified for centuries as subhumans without culture and history. Given that context, let’s be generous. Two decades ago, Malcolm X implored blacks to cast aside their differences and unite against the common foe we all caught hell from, the white man. Yet that dream of black unity addressed racial oppression more meaningfully than it did the more crucial dilemma of cultural identity. (If being black meant nothing but being oppressed by white people, black liberation would have no meaning. Like if white people weren’t around to be mad at, people into being black would be out of a job.) 

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What the cult-nats made possible is a conception of black culture where anything black could be considered an aesthetic object of contemplation more beautiful than anything produced by the white man. In this sense the cult-nats were our dadaists. While the dadaists tried to raise anarchy to an artform and bring Western civilization down with style, the cult-nats figured a “black is beau­tiful” campaign would be enough to raze Babylon, or at least get a revolution going. The cult-nats’ black-übermensch campaign obviously didn’t do much toward liberating the masses, but it did produce a post-liberated black aesthetic, responsible for the degree to which contemporary black artists and intellectuals feel them­selves heirs to a culture every bit as def as classical Western civilization. 

This cultural confidence has freed up more black artists to do work as wonderfully absurdist as black life itself. The impulse toward enmeshing self-criticism and celebration present in the most provocative avant-garde black art of the ’70s and early ’80s (cf. Miles Davis, David Hammons, Senga Ngudi, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ishmael Reed, Charles Burnett, Pedro Bell, George Clin­ton, Samuel R. Delany, Richard Pryor, Charles Johnson, Octavia Butler, Jayne Cortez, Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison) owes a debt to the cult-nats for making so much noise about the mythic beauties of blackness that these artists could traffic in the ugly and mundane sides with just as much ardor. (Admittedly, most of these artists have at one time or another confused a passion for black exotica with detached representation. On the other hand, we all know there’s not a single freak in their work without a counterpart even more out-the-box somewhere in the kinky wilds of black America. Such is our mutant diversity.) What’s unfortunate is that while black artists have opened up the entire “text of blackness” for fun and games, not many black critics have produced writing as fecund, eclectic, and freaky-deke as the art, let alone the culture itself. (Some exceptions: Henry Louis Cates, David Levering Lewis, Lor­enzo Thomas, Nathaniel Mackey, Adrian Seaward, Clyde Taylor, Houston Baker.) For those who prefer exegesis with a polemical bent, just imagine how critics as fluent in black and Western culture as the post-liberated artists could strike terror into that bastion of white supremacist thinking, the Western art world. 

In Art After Modernism: Essays on Rethinking Representation, Brian Wallis laments that there’s never been a serious study of the relationship of black culture to institutionalized art. (Like don’t nobody know that since Cubism, black culture and Western mod­ernism have been confused for conceptual kissing cousins; that since bebop’s impact on Abstract Expressionism and the Beats, black modernism has been confused with white alienation and social deviance; that since Duke Ellington compared Picasso to Miles Davis, black genius has been confused with the formal ex­haustion of Western art; that since Norman Mailer wrote The White Negro, black cool has been mistaken for a figment of white heterosexual anxiety; that since Thomas Pynchon shabbily dis­guised Ornette Coleman as McClintic Sphere in V., black alienation has gotten confused with existential parody; that since Ornette Coleman called Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” the most beautiful since Toscanini’s, the power to impose cultural democracy has fallen into the hands of black people with strange ideas; that since I heard a snotty white DJ say he stopped thinking Parliament/Funkadelic was stupid disco when Brian Eno cited them as an influence, I’ve known George Clinton was right when he said that as soon as white folks figured out funk was intellectually acceptable they’d try to hop on board the Mothership.) To this post-liberated black aesthetician, Wallis’s whine sounded like an invite to bomb the white bastion rather than know my place relative to it. At first I thought I’d have to go it alone, but then I discovered a smart, empathetic white man I could cannibalize — one all ready to see MOMA collapse in the dust with an Air Jordan high-top at its throat. 

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***

A big round of applause, then, to my host culture-bearer, Hal Foster, senior editor at Art in America, editor of the post-mod col­lection The Anti-Aesthetic, and now author of Recodings: Art, Spec­tacle, Cultural Politics (Bay Press, $9.95 paper), a primer in poststructuralist discourse and debate with its sights on bringing about the end of Western civi­lization in theory. Taking aim, he blasts away at those involved in rationalizing capitalism through the culture industry. For people who look toward critical theory as a way to outthink the powers that be rather than to disguise fuzzy thinking behind hermetic verbiage, Foster makes a lot of sense. He doesn’t see theory as an end in itself, but as a “toolkit” to pry apart the hidden collusion between the corporate class and its artsy running dogs, like big bad MOMA and those messy Neo-Expressionist painters. Having arrived at the astounding conclusion that criticism is of marginal value to the art marketplace, Foster prizes his marginality as license to speak “out of place.” 

The margins from which Foster speaks are indeed extreme — so extreme that by book’s end he’s set himself up against not only pluralism, Neo-Expressionism, postmodern architecture, primitiv­ist-modernism, and The New Criterion crew, but Barthes, Baud­rillard, Hegelian dialectics, and the very idea of Western history. (The “enemy” identified throughout Recodings is “the white, pa­triarchal order of western culture and its pretenses of sovereignty, supremacy and self creation.”) In the early sections Foster goes about exposing those postmodern artists who profess autonomy from corporate power or pretend to be political by acting like social outlaws. To this end he is such a thorough deconstructionist that not even artists he admires escape his powers of dissection. Though his demolition of Neo-Expressionism (“The Expressive Fallacy”) comes as no surprise, it’s unexpected when an infatuated appre­ciation of Robert Longo’s work ends on the downbeat. “A utopian principle of hope may be evoked here but no actual community is engaged. This work has no social basis (other than the dominant class whose representations are collided). Its mix of archaic and futuristic forms attests to this absence — as does its apocalypticism, which is symptomatic of the failure of the dominant culture (and its ‘artist guardian’) to conceive social change in terms other than catastrophe. In the absence of such a social basis utopian desire may well become a will to power — or an identification with the powers that be.”

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Behind the facades of the postmoderns, Foster never fails to detect the presence of the corporate class. Echoing Baudrillard’s crucial revision of Marx, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Foster opines that the corporate class, having achieved mastery of accumulation, now desires mastery of “symbolic production,” meaning mass media and modern art. The “penetration of the sign by capital” is a major theme of Recodings, along with the problems that penetration represents for those committed to “cultural resistance,” Foster’s favorite form of theory-mongering. 

Where others find total freedom in the pluralistic postmodern marketplace, he finds no more than the franchised freedom of the commodity. Here artists suppress all desire for social change and are rewarded for producing consumable art, “safeguarding social inertia by participating in an illusion of democracy.” Equally sus­pect is the return (through Neo-Expressionism) of the myth of the modern artist as bourgeois transgressor and last refuge of “humanist values.” (This gets kinky when you consider how much transgressive shock value, and hence “humanism” in modern art, derived from the moderns’ primitivist ideas about Africa.) Though these myths once served early modernism by making the artist an adversary of the bourgeoisie, today they serve the corporate class by making artistic transgression “a posture available to everyman.” (Reading this brought to mind the Jean Michel Basquiat behind the bar in the Palladium’s Michael Todd room.) Attacking post­modern architects for elitism, Foster finds in their vernacular re­vivals not a populist modernism but a supercilious lowbrowism, not a regeneration of modernist ideals but a regression to classic architectural forms for the myths of authority they sing to the powerful. 

For Foster, the most provocative American art of today situates itself at a crossroads where representations of sexual identity and social life can freely intervene in critiques of institutional art, mass culture, and the corporate class. Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Hans Haacke, Cindy Sherman are artists Foster finds significant because they don’t just make consumable objects but also manip­ulate signs, seeking to make “the viewer an active reader of mes­sages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic or consumer of the spectacular.” The history of these artists’ practices begins in the adversarial site-specific work done in the ’70s by Hans Haacke and Daniel Buren. At that time their work centered on confronting the power of the museum to marginalize radical art, updating Duchamp’s antiaesthetic. Yet Buren believed that the real perfidy performed by galleries and museums was not aesthetic but economic: they protected the very idea of the art market by supplying exchange-value to art. Foster notes that this critique became particularly crucial once the bourgeoisie had abandoned its classical culture for a consumerist one, and reinvested in the museum as modernism’s warehouse. Barbara Kruger, Jenny Hol­zer, and other feminist manipulators of “sign-value” revise the work of these male artists by mocking the power invested in official language. In “For a Concept of the Political in Contemporary Art,” Foster draws on Baudrillard’s critique of a belief held clear by Marx, Walter Benjamin, and the Russian constructivists: that political art must be aligned with the production of the industrial worker. Baudrillard found that model faulty because it identified the white male worker as the sole force for social progress. This denied the significance of struggles by those outside or subordinate to production: students, blacks, gays, women. Because the site of their struggles is as much for representation, for significance and signification within academia and the media, their active resistance of patriarchal and racist practices must take place there. The intent is not to segregate the struggles of blacks, gays, and women from those of the white male worker under capitalism, but to equalize them. Rethinking political art today means recognizing that per Foucault, power derives its authority not only from social consent and economic determinism but from those “disciplinary institu­tions” which control behavior and the body through “social regi­mens” (at work, school, the corporation) and “structure our lives materially.” 

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It is the realization that disciplinary institutions produce “so­cially adjusted individuals” which has brought poststructuralist concerns with representation, sexuality, textuality, and totalization to the foreground of contemporary political art. Baudrillard rec­ognized that the commodification of culture has rendered obsolete the distinctions between art and commerce, culture and economy, and any reading of signs (art and media) as if they were impene­trable by capital. Since the corporate class dominates symbolic production, art has become a capitalist comprador, out to protect commodity values rather than those of classical bourgeois culture. “According to this position, the bourgeoisie no longer needs a traditional culture to impress its ideology or retain its rule; the commodity no longer requires the guise of a personal or social value for us to submit to it: it is its own excuse, its own ideology.”‘ 

Traditionally, modern art has sought to resist collusion with capital or shock the bourgeoisie through either primitive transgres­sion or formal elitism. But these strategies failed to be truly radical because they didn’t intend to better society and may, says Foster, even have prepared society to consent in the “social transgressions of capital.” He believes that the shock-of-the-new impulse of early modern art contributed to “subtly reconciling us to the chaos of the late-capitalist world.” Nostalgia for avant-garde transgression Foster finds not only nihilistic but of little value to political artists today. What he proposes is a practice which views culture as an arena where “active contestation is possible.” From this vantage point, capital would not be seen as a megalith to be shocked and liberated by, say, “primitivism,” but as a network of disciplinary institutions and sign systems to be constantly targeted for adver­sarial deconstruction. Resistance, then, doesn’t aim for transcen­dence of corporate culture’s limits into some mythical liberated zone, but for critical intervention in the process by which capitalism is rationalized through mass culture and modernism.

Foster believes these interventions could become more than merely theoretical if Western political artists were able to forge cultural revolution alongside subcultural Others — those whose col­lective practices not only create new languages of representation but signify a disbelief in mass culture, modernism, and the West. Among these subcultural practices he cites reggae, black gospel, and Latin American fiction. Where others such as Barthes, Baud­rillard, Deleuze, and Guattari have sought out subcultural codes to call the West’s supremacist ideas of history and difference into question, Foster closes Recodings by pronouncing that Western theorists should chill, and open the field for blacks, gays, and feminists to command the critical foreground of cultural resistance. 

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***

What Recodings has to say about cultural resistance, commo­dification, representation, and Western supremacy is fascinating to mull over from a black perspective, particularly since so much black aesthetic and political debate has for years been concerned with these issues. If I’m so gung-ho about integrating Foster’s poststructuralist toolkit into a discussion of black culture, it’s not because black culture lacks Foster’s mind but because it lacks his bent for knowing and dissecting his subject in total. In the past, the sectarian nature of black art and politics has worked against a “unified field theory” of black culture. The person who seems to be moving most determinedly in that direction is, ironically, a white man, Yale’s Robert Farris Thompson, whose books and lec­tures on African art and philosophy in the “Black Atlantic tradition” are milestones of comparative analysis on the continuum which runs between black culture in Africa and the New World, spiri­tually, aesthetically, and philosophically. 

Thompson’s work disproves and demolishes at every turn the myth that classical African culture doesn’t derive from as systematic and highly evolved a tradition of critical thought as Europe’s. (Yoruba sculpture, for example, is no less a product of conscious conceptualization than art in the Greco-Roman tradition. The dif­ference isn’t a matter of intellect but of intention.) Thompson ar­ticulates the critical infrastructure at work in classical African art, music, and dance, and its impact on the New World. Yet even that breadth of learning barely touches on what black culture has evolved to in 20th century America. I’m pushing for a popular black poststructuralism because we need theoretical and critical tools as exacting as those that produced a work like Recodings: writings which ask hard questions about where our culture stands in history, what total liberation means to black people living now, and how black art can continue to express that desire for freedom. Another reason, more self-involved in nature, is that I’m part of a generation of bohemian cult-nats who are mutating black culture into something the old interlocutors aren’t ready for yet. 

Though nobody’s sent out any announcements yet, the ’80s are witnessing the maturation of a postnationalist black arts movement, one more Afrocentric and cosmopolitan than anything that’s come before. The people in this movement find no contradiction in de­riving equal doses of inspiration from influences as diverse as Malcolm X and Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton and George Romero, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lisette Model, Zora Neale Hurston and Akira Kurosawa, William Burroughs and Romare Bearden, Barnett Newman and Sun Ra, Jah Rastafari and Johnny Rotten, Toni Morrison and Laura Mulvey, George Jackson and Samuel Delany, Albert Ayler and Andrei Tarkovsky, Rudy Ray Moore and Nam June Paik, Black Elk and Bud Powell, Cecil Taylor and Joel Peter-­Witkin, Chester Himes and Jacques Tati, Ishmael Reed and Maya Deren, Anthony Braxton and Bruce Lee, Jean Rhys and Nona Hendryx, Antonin Artaud and Amiri Baraka, Robert Farris Thomp­son and Professor Longhair, Julia Kristeva and Chaka Khan, Kurt Schwitters and Coptic scrolls, Run-D.M.C. and Paolo Soleri, Fred­ric Jameson and Reverend James Cleveland, Katherine Dunham and Meredith Monk, Darryl Dawkins and Ndebele beadwork, Ra­mayana and Elegba-Eshu, Kathy Acker and Nina Simone, Audre Lorde and the Maasai, Duane Michals and John Coltrane, Skip James and Bill Viola. Cornucopia for a New Negro Bohemia? Hey, every generation’s got to have one. And that list of odd couples only represents those favored by the freaks I know about. (No telling what kind of black bizarro worldviews are being cooked up by members of the cadre still underground.) But even though quotation is the postmod thing to do, I’m not just namedropping here. The point is that the present generation of black artists is cross-breeding aesthetic references like nobody is even talking about yet. And while they may be marginal to the black experience as it’s expressed in rap, Jet, and on The Cosby Show, they’re not all mixed up over who they are and where they come from. 

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These are artists for whom black consciousness and artistic freedom are not mutually exclusive but complementary, for whom “black culture” signifies a multicultural tradition of expressive practices; they feel secure enough about black culture to claim art produced by nonblacks as part of their inheritance. No anxiety of influence here — these folks believe the cultural gene pool is for skinny-dipping. Yet though their work challenges both cult-nats and snotty whites, don’t expect to find them in Ebony or Artforum any time soon. Things ain’t hardly got that loose yet. 

Black culture as these artists know it is a debased commodity within black and white popular media, and even within the avant­-garde. Their targets for the kind of “cultural resistance” and “in­tervention in codes” Foster speaks of are complicated by the artists having to take on racist representations and black self-hate si­multaneously. For these reasons Spike Lee’s success, in both commercial and artistic terms, with She’s Gotta Have It, represents a coup of staggering proportions. It is in fact a populist black post­structuralist’s dream. 

Not only does Lee overload his “joint” with black in-jokes and semiotic codes (I’m thinking now of the references to Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, Eleanor Bumpurs, Edwin Perry, and Black Reconstruction that turn up, as well as things like using straight-­ahead jazz to underscore hiphop humor, and the conjugation of “drugs” and “jheri curls” to mark them as equally vile) but he pushed such an uncompromisingly black vision to blacks through mainstream distribution, exhibition, and media channels. Lee’s making a success out of a film shot for jackshit with a collectivist cast and crew demolishes Hollywood’s mega-budget mystique. Now, if all that’s not culturally resistant, I don’t know what is. And Lee’s staunch raceman interviews have been even more rad, breaking on Whoopi’s blue contacts, Michael’s nose, The Color Purple, as well as threatening letters from Quincy Jones’s office (not to mention the MPAA, which he says tried to give him an X because softcore black sexuality tweaked their uptight, racist nerves). The sweetest aspect of Lee’s success is that the only formula it offers for those who’d desire to emulate or exploit it is faith in the brilliance of black culture. What we need now is black criticism as balls to the wall as She’s Gotta Have It.

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Because black people don’t have institutions for serious, so­phisticated study and advancement of our culture, my dream of a populist black poststructuralism is actually kind of loony, but every man needs his own Moby Dick. What I envision is an Afrocentric cross between MIT, MOMA, MGM, Macmillan books, and Motown, a self-supporting facility equipped to bankroll a braintrust of B-boys, feminists, philosophers, visual artists, musicians, athletes, scientists, theologians, historians, political activists and economists, and produce their findings and artifacts for mass audiences. Since I can’t underwrite this black tower of Babel, I can at least target a few white whales for it to harpoon, a few black holes for it to get sucked up into. First off, if it were to take up the Brian Wallis project, a study of the relationship of black culture to institutionalized art, there’d be a need for an encyclopedic reference book on black visual culture. 

Given the kind of money the de Menils are sinking into their Eurocentric project, Images of the Black in Western Art, I’d hire a staff of editors, designers, and critics (Richard Powell, Judith Wil­son, Kellie Jones, and Rosalind Jeffries come to mind) to produce a multivolume bricolage of black images from every source con­ceivable: police mugshots, graffiti, Cubism, race riots, newspapers, hair product ads, comics, black independent cinema, advertising, music videos, lynchings, minstrelsy, break dancing, iconic jazz photography, Bauhaus furniture, images of blacks in Western art, modern art by black artists such as Twin Seven Seven, Leroy Clarke, Skunder Boghossian, Calvin Reid, Al Loving, Senga Nen­gudi, Daniel Dawson, Charles Abramson, Janet Henry, Houston Conwill, Ed Love, Rikki Smith, Nelson Stevens, Selim Abdul Mubdi, Edgar Sorrells-Adewale, Emilio Cruz, Martha Jackson­-Jarvis, Lorna Simpson, Jack Whitten, Randy Williams, Sandra Payne, Jules Allen, Pedro Bell, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Albert Chong, Romare Bearden, Wilfredo Lam, plus the art of every black ethnic group in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The text for these volumes would be drawn from as varied a collection of sources — all making for a veritable postmodern bible of black visual rep­resentation and critical difference. Publish that bad boy and all this bulljive we hear about the impoverishment of black visual culture would have to cease. Next on the agenda would be a series of symposiums on topics like Institutionalizing the Production of Black Musical Geniuses; the First Annual Conference on Black Mother Wit, Phylogeny, and Dub; Zen and the Art of Skip James; Harlem as Hyperreality: Reading Chester Himes; Rags, Hickeys, and Wops: The Etymology of Doo; Jazz and the Heat-Death of the Universe (A Comparative Analysis of the Death of the Author in Postmodern Painting and Jazz); Breakdancing as Telemetry; Genii in the Genome: George Clinton and Jeremy Rifkin’s Rhythm The­ories of Evolution; Race Mutation Theory and Quantum-Black Myth; The Mathematics of Graffiti: Ramm-El-Zee’s Ikonoklast Pan­zerism; The Political Economy of Scratch; and Beat the System to Death: Bootstrap Capitalism and Guerrilla Warfare. The possibil­ities are frightening. You fill in the blanks. 

Now I know some people are going to read all this and level charges ranging from silliness to rank sophistry to Bakuninism. Let them come on with it. My mission is clear. The future of black culture demands that this generation bring forth a worldly-wise and stoopidfresh intelligentsia of radical bups who can get as ignant as James Brown with their Wangs and stay in the black. Give me such an army and we’ll be talking total cultural black rule by the time the eco-system collapses, SDI bottoms out Fort Knox, the Aryan Brotherhood is officially in the White House, and Wall Street is on the moon. 

***

This is the beginning. We’ll be inviting some of the people you’ve just read about to get together and tackle issue raised in this essay. The results will appear in future issue of VLS.

 

 

Categories
From The Archives From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Black History Month: Malcolm X vs. the “Radical Middle”

In the September 20, 1962, issue, the Village Voice offered its Press of Freedom column — “a department open to contributions from our readers” — to Robert Brookins Gore, a self-described pacifist “involved in the racial struggle.”

In the piece, titled “Black on Black,” Gore was clear that he was unexpectedly swayed by the way Malcolm X “stated the problems which Negroes have confronted for so many years. The biggest difficulty about listening to him — especially for a Negro — is that he wraps the problem up so neatly that one is almost carried on into his faulty conclusions by the wealth of emotions he evokes.”

The guest author also references one of Jules Feiffer’s cartoons, which skewers the middling politics of those who don’t have a point of view.

Below we offer Feiffer’s wit, some excerpts from Gore’s piece, and the entire article as it appeared in 1962, along with photos of the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy and a bit of surrealist whimsy from the cartoonist JAF.

I left Community Church some months ago with mixed feelings. The occasion was a so-called debate between Malcolm X. and Bayard Rustin, and the topic was “Separation and Integration.” Being a pacifist, a Negro, and one who has been involved in the racial struggle lately, I expected to be with Mr. Rustin all the way and against Mr. X. completely. My mixed feelings were the result of the discovery that I was applauding more for Malcolm X. than I was for Bayard Rustin.

During the debate — actually it was more a statement of position on both their parts — it seemed to me as though Bayard Rustin were taking the position of the “radical middle.”… I know, of course, that this is not the case with Mr. Rustin, but it seemed so as I listened. There is no question in my mind but that he presented the saner attitude, yet the amazing thing was how eloquently Malcolm X. stated the problems which Negroes have confronted for so many years. The biggest difficulty about listening to him — especially for a Negro — is that he wraps the problem up so neatly that one is almost carried on into his faulty conclusions by the wealth of emotions he evokes.

I must confess that it did my heart a world of good to sit back and listen to Mr. X. list the sins of the white man toward the black man in America. He does it well. I daresay that if I were not already convinced of the efficacy of looking on humans as humans rather than as black, white, or any of the shades in between, I might have joined the Black Muslims forthwith.

For too many years, black Americans have not been able to look at white Americans as the same kind of humans, for the most part, and have been placed in a situation where they must make the white man feel comfortable. If they don’t — especially in the South — it can be a matter of life and death.…

The point at which I depart from Malcolm X. and the Black Muslims is the very point at which I wish they were strongest. They seem to want to set up a black superiority to replace a white superiority. Both are equally bad. Bayard Rustin stated the case as I see it very well when he said that the question which faces the black man is not what he can do to add to their (the whites’) doom, but what can be done to help in their redemption. He went on to substantiate my own thoughts further by saying that “whether white men like it or not, we need to force them into being their best.”…

As Bayard Rustin pointed out, “the movement needs white allies.” I agree. However, the movement will not rely on these allies fully — though it will welcome their assistance with open arms — but will have a broad base among Negroes of many philosophical and social disciplines.

The white man, inimical or otherwise, had better cultivate an understanding of this because, willy or nilly, there is going to be change.

—From “Black on Black,” by Robert Brookins Gore

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

On the Set, the Street, and at Dinner with ‘Malcolm X’ director Spike Lee

Picture This
On the set, the street, and at dinner with X director Spike Lee
November 10, 1992

At 6:58 on Tuesday, September 29, the Odeon, a Tribeca institution since 1980, played host to relatively few patrons. There was the sudden cold spell to consider. There was Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Grill to consider, too. The modicum of quiet blanketing the restaurant like so many snowy white tablecloths was not unusual. Still reeling from the blissful consumerism of the ’80s, art world people, film people, writers — in the main, the Odeon’s star clientele — dined late and sparingly on mashed potatoes, spinach, and martinis.

A busboy flicked a napkin in the direction of one or two flies. At table number 25, Sylvester “Spike” Lee, filmmaker, sat alone, making notes in his agenda at the time of the first public (but very private) screening of his long-awaited epic, X, a film that, having been nearly 10 months in the making, and with a $33 million budget, has generated more advance publicity, criticism, and debate than any “bio-pic of a slain leader” (as Variety termed it) since Conspiracy became a movie nexus.

The avalanche of press — “Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass” (Esquire), “Do the Wrong Thing” (New York Post), “Spike’s Pique” (Vanity Fair), “Spike Lee’s X Factor” (L.A. Style), “We were gonna call [my book] X…but I realized…it might look like I was copying Spike” (Madonna) — didn’t affect the bored insouciance of the Odeon’s maître d’ leaning at her station, or Lee himself, who, from the distance of the street where I stood looking as I fumbled with the overcoat of the Observer, seemed small and separate from the near meta controversy that’s sprung up around his film, a film Lee has described as “a spiritual journey… three hours and 21 minutes [the opening of which] should be considered a holiday for black people and their families.”

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That Lee’s statement did not insist on Malcolm X’s birthday as the appropriate day for national celebration was an indication of just how much X might become intertwined with its creator’s image — the black Woody Allen, a camera-wielding Sharpton, a gifted charlatan, an inspiration, a generous sort, a media hound (or barker). So much so, in fact, that Malcolm X — “Our shining black manhood” (Ozzie Davis), “A father, my brother” (James Baldwin) — might pall in comparison. Under the media’s remitting X watch, Malcolm has become a cardboard icon of sorts. Very little reference has been made in the press to what it is he actually did, believed, or said, besides what Lee has appropriated as a moniker for his company, 40 Acres and a Mule: By Any Means Necessary.

Nor does Malcolm seem as vocal as his filmographer.

“The media has tried to poison me. That woman from Esquire who did that piece,” Lee says, referring to Barbara Gruzzuti Harrison’s smarmy, I’m adorable and who’s Spike Lee? brand of old New Journalism. “She spent three days with me trying to prove how liberal she was. That’s all she wrote. She kept telling me how liberal her upbringing had been, like I give a fuck. I called Esquire and told them I didn’t like it. I never said I hated anyone’s cracker ass. How many times do I have to say I didn’t say it!”

Lee’s locution, his “I was robbed!” and “White America is responsible for the racism in this country” speech, contradicts the need fans and critics have for him. And not just as a cultural necessity. In the last several years, as Lee has evolved, more and more, away from the loud ineptitude of his early Jerry Lewis–like screen persona — I’m skinny! I’m funny! I’m a geek! — and into the goatee-sporting, public image unlimited voice of black male rage, he has become something of a father figure.

Spike Lee and Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X”

We have watched Lee grow up with a certain misty nostalgia. His rise from street urchin to adult has been the story of boys we used to know who’ve left the neighborhood but haven’t left us. Perhaps reversing the “truth” in many black homes: that Dad doesn’t exist at all, that’s he’s a long way from home. Not anymore. There he is as Spike Lee, filling the void on TV, in the news, with unequivocal authority. The subject? That the black male is a great, untapped American subject. And regardless of what Lee says about it — sometimes trenchant, sometimes stupid — he says it like Dad would, sound mixed with fury. Whatever one may think of Lee, he owns his authority.

“Next year, after X, the belt is mine,” he’s said, throwing the gauntlet down at the feet or our Dionysian Mom, Madonna. It is Lee’s complaining the public minds; it is as disjunctive as anyone’s Dad crying over the milk he hasn’t spilled — yet.

Which raises the question: Can Lee get out of his own way well enough to be specific and distanced about Malcolm X’s tale of stoicism and petty bigotry, the personally transformative effect and power of prayer, the self-reflective gaze of the truly isolated, one who was reviled, believed, feared?

“Listen, he’s a genius,” one former Lee acolyte has said. “But at exactly what, I can’t tell you. As a producer, yes. Definitely. But I’m not sure if Malcolm can survive a Spike Lee movie, especially if Spike’s in it. He can’t not compete. What’s happening with all this X press is backfiring. It’s beginning to look like Costello working Abbott over for top billing.”

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Over X lines have been drawn, turning it less into a film than a condition of the community out of which it is born, a community that, notes theologist James Cone, has “three characteristics: the tension between life and death, identity crisis, and white social and political power.” This community has become part of the image world too. And it is a bumpy montage that includes Rodney King, the debacle in Crown Heights, white shoe polish being thrown on black schoolchildren in the Bronx, Anita Hill — the greatest story never told. It is a parade of images that calls out for one voice, one vision — that of the Great Black Father — who, upon removing his glasses and never donning cape fear, has power. And can put out a word. Loud but heard. Which speaks — hopefully — to and about history. George Jackson and Medgar Evers, Malcolm and Angela Davis, and children wearing X hats, staring at posters: By Any Means Necessary. It’s a dictum Lee has illustrated by having completed X. Sho’ Nuff. Can Ya Dig It?

And which Lee might become the victim of. Should X not fly as anything more than an interesting cultural moment, Lee could become just another Baldwin, especially after The Fire Next Time — Baldwin’s essay on the Nation of Islam and religious conversion — garnered all those magazine covers and lectures and interviews that eventually cowed him as an artist. The clamor that met the piece turned Baldwin into a Spokesman, a public Self who, like Richard Wright and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. before him, became committed to speaking out but could never return in, into that dark and private distanced place out of which one’s art grows, tangled and intense, but one’s own.

Where will X leave Lee who, in the not loving glare of publicity, already looks so different from the movie-loving boy he must have been, sitting alone now at table 25, making notes in his agenda on the person he has to be next week, and the week after?

Outside the Odeon, the traffic lights continued to change. The wind shifted. Pulling my coat even tighter, I entered.

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Lee is excellent at projecting a tone of voice that conveys mock umbrage and other aspects of Dad/boss man disapproval. “You’re late. (Pause.) Again,” he said, as I slid into his booth. To make up for my time-lagged butt — or sensibility — he motioned for a waiter.

In bad French-inflected English with a little early B-boy thrown in, Lee said, “Mon-signor, zee food please. Can we get some attention over here? I mean, like service,” and placed both our orders.

I asked if meeting at the Odeon had been convenient because he was putting the finishing touches on X at the Tribeca Film Center.

“Hell no,” he said with the abruptness he often uses to pull the verbal rug out from any interlocutor. Turning away from establishing even the most superficial intimacy is an aspect of Lee’s speech. Often, he prefers to project the arrogance of the shy, the physically small man, who bullies before being bullied. “I’m mixing the final sound at Magno, uptown. We haven’t finished the final images yet, but people have been coming by. De Niro, as a matter of fact.”

“And?”

“And what?

“The reaction. To the film.”

Lee paused. He shifted in his seat. No reaction seemed forthcoming except another wave of his shyness, the artist’s reluctance to pass judgment — even if inferred — on himself. This time, and for more than a moment, his defensive tone could not shield his quietness as he said, “He liked it.”

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Then, “Scorsese came too.” Scorsese, in his collaborations with De Niro — especially Mean Streets, that ode to the dream and ultimate failure of re-creating some life with father — has had a seminal influence on Lee.

“I sat in back of him while he watched the movie. I could feel the way he watched it — this man who loves cinema the way I love sports. And I could feel what he thought. You know the way he takes a shot and puts it back together for you, so that the audience knows what’s going on? That’s the way he took my film apart.”

Dinner was served. Lee picked up his fork, and held it, on an angle, in his left hand. He attacked his food with great relish. He did not use a knife. Bits of perspiration collected on his sparse, dark mustache. He ate, by turns, his mashed potatoes from one plate and salmon from another, using long slow strokes. His thin shoulders and slight frame floated somewhere inside his oversized denim shirt, over which he wore a red tie with diamond patterns. Gone were the Malcolm X–style glasses seen in one or 10 or 50 photographs; they had been replaced by elegant black tortoise-shell frames, through which Lee’s gaze, his large and unblinking eyes, like Baldwin’s self-described “frog eyes,” were the most physically forceful aspect of his person. This gaze did not disturb the vulnerability one feels is wrapped around him clearly, like plastic. The signature diamond stud was in his left earlobe. His earlobe seemed to signify so much, so nearly naked and delicate, I had to think twice before deciding not to stroke it.

Lee, whose eyes miss nothing, said, in his best guerrilla filmmaking voice, “We had so much shit to get through to bring this off. We have to bring it off. There was the pressure of not messing Malcolm up. ‘Don’t mess Malcolm up,’ is what me and Denzel heard all the time. We had to respect Malcolm. And Dr. Betty Shabazz and Shorty, Malcolm’s real close friend from the Boston days, whom I play.

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“Then you had the people who thought I was trying to bumrush the show all the time. Like, when Norman Jewison was chosen as this film’s original director.” Lee smiled at the memory. “I said, ‘Hey Norman, you might have to give this one up.’ He very graciously bowed out when I had a talk with him to explain how maybe he wasn’t the best person qualified to do Malcolm.”

Before I could raise the question with Lee of whether or not he was qualified for the job, he silenced it with more speech, continuing his X travails narrative. This is a recognizable device used by artists to protect themselves against the public’s judgment on their work. The enormity of the judgment facing Lee accounts, in part, for the intensity of his criticism of the press — another power. As Lee talked, his eyes blinked slowly, more than before.

“People said, ‘Look at Spike trying to take credit for James Baldwin’s script,’ ” he continued. “The script was written 25 years ago when Marvin Worth, our producer, hired Baldwin to translate Malcolm’s book to the screen. I never didn’t want Baldwin to have credit, but his sister, Gloria, his executor, didn’t want to have anything to do with this project. Don’t ask me why.

“There have been a million scripts done. I mean, David Mamet did a script. He put Alex Haley, Malcolm’s coauthor on the Autobiography, in as a character in the film. We finally have a credit that reads: Arnold Perl and Spike Lee.”

Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X” David Lee/Warner Bros.

The making or not making of X has been chronicled for years, most notably by James Baldwin in his essay The Devil Finds Work. “At the top of 1968,” he writes, “I flew to Hollywood to write the screenplay for The Autobiography of Malcolm X.… I think that I would rather be horsewhipped, or incarcerated in the forthright bedlam of Bellevue, than repeat the adventure.”

Baldwin’s screenplay, published as One Day, When I Was Lost, is a masterpiece. Adapted for the screen in a series of flashbacks and other time jumbles, it is presented as cinema verité but very precisely structured. Although Baldwin originally intended to adapt the book for the stage as a collaboration between himself, Haley, and Elia Kazan, the play, like the film, was never produced. What did eventually make it to the boards, nearly 20 years later, was Anthony and Thulani Davis’s X, an opera that enjoyed a brief success d’estime. While noted for the subtlety of its language and harmonic structure, the opera was limited to just a few performances. At the time of its New York premiere — 1986 — there was no Big Moment to help sell it: no public bloodletting, no Rodney King, no X hats, no Spike Lee.

As Lee’s voice went on describing, with the chilly but fascinated detachment of the survivor of a bad dream, the film’s financial problems — its takeover, at one point, by the Completion Bond Company when X went over budget; the $3 million fee he reduced to $1 million to help keep the film afloat; his eventual call to a number of black entrepreneurs (Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Prince, Janet Jackson, Michael Jordan) for “a gift — not a loan, not an investment” to retain his right to final cut; his commitment to “never financing a film like this again. If anyone asks me to, they can kiss my black ass two times” — I wondered what the aesthetic demands of the film might have been. I wondered about Lee’s handling of his actors. I commented on having seen Cynda Williams in Carl Franklin’s One False Move and how, well, different she seemed in Mo’ Better Blues.

“That girl just walked in off the street!” he said, folding in on himself in the booth. It occurred to me then that Lee’s vulnerability, the turning away of a shoulder, a sidelong glance, a bark, may account for his more preposterous public statements. Rather than appear in the least vulnerable and therefore open to criticism, he had decided to appear as invulnerable as possible, the angry laughing figure beyond reproach, beyond comment.…

I had heard a great deal about Malcolm…and I was a little afraid of him.… I saw Malcolm before I met him. I had just returned from someplace…I was giving a lecture somewhere in New York, and Malcolm was sitting in the first or second row of the hall, bending forward at such an angle that his long arms nearly caressed the ankles of his long legs, staring up at me. I very nearly panicked.… I stumbled through my lecture, with Malcolm never taking his eyes from my face.  — James Baldwin

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Looking into Lee’s face for some further point of connection between Baldwin’s image of Malcolm and the reel-upon-reel image of Malcolm created by Denzel Washington, I asked Lee about directing him.

“We got to know each other better on this project,” he said. “And Denzel had played Malcolm before, in When the Chickens Come Home To Roost, a play — I never saw it.

“It was amazing for me to watch his absolute dedication, especially during Malcolm’s religious conversion. I watched him humble himself, kneel and atone, just like Malcolm did. We knew our careers were not just at stake on this one, but our lives.”

“Is this going to lead to another collaboration? Like Scorsese’s with De Niro?”

Spike (with a smile): “This is only our second film together. But wouldn’t that be nice?”

For those with no vested interest in its process, movie making is a tedious undertaking. On a set, the eye is inclined to drift. Before a director yells “Print!” and the crew applauds at a scene’s completion, time yawns. Very little happens as everything happens. Everyone wonders what the dailies will look like. No one knows how the scene will look. Everyone has an idea, though. The hyperreality involved in being what one is on a movie set — actor, sound engineer, reporter — elicits a certain self-conferred authority but not the authority: the director’s.

On X’s set, it was interesting to watch Spike Lee. This for a number of reasons, the primary one being the freedom inherent in his pivotal role as Authority. He never seemed to doubt this authority, nor did he seem especially aware of its effect in relation to the rest of the crew who were generally watching themselves watch him, as if for a cue.

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On certain days, Lee’s marcelled hair stuck out from beneath his X cap (“I had it conked to play Shorty”). On other days, his turned-in feet and loping stride carried him to this place: To his cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson’s side. Sometimes Spike Lee smiled. More often, though, he didn’t. More often, as Dickerson or someone else talked, Lee would listen, offering no more than an inscrutable nod. It became clear, as Lee did these things, that one of his principle responsibilities — aside from directing, running interference with producers, fielding questions from actors, being sure script rewrites were in place for the next day’s shoot, and interviewing caterers — was to appear as if none of this was of particular concern. On Lee’s face, it was not clear whether any of this was cause for stress. Mostly, he maintained a relatively impassive veneer. Sometimes members of the crew imitated this stance, especially when approached by members of the press. When crew members approached Lee, this stance was dropped. Lee preferred his face to be in repose.

These were the things I saw on my first visit to the X set, late on December 4, 1991, a bone-chillingly cold evening.

It had taken some months of negotiation to arrange that visit. Lee was not directly involved in this. My request was fielded by the publicist hired expressly for part of the shoot (“Spike wants to know what kind of story you’re planning to do. Is it major or can we back burner this?”) and Lee’s assistant Desirée, a pleasant young woman. “You want to see a script?” she asked, with a giggle, in response to my request. “I don’t think so, but I’ll ask him.”

I did not receive a script. I did, however, receive the call sheet for December 4, which read, in part, like this:

CALL SHEET: MALCOLM X.
DAY: 58 OUT OF 75
CREW CALL 6P SET # INT
MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY (1957)
MALCOLM PROVES PORK IS FOUL.

This was rather a lot of shots for one day, amounting to a 13- to 24-hour work day, costume changes, and a considerable amount of tension.

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“Yes, yes,” said the unit publicist emphatically, crankily, into her walkie-talkie as she stood outside the Museum of Natural History’s basement entrance. “Jesus,” she said as I approached her, having first walked past the Winnebagos lining Central Park West, directly in front of the museum. In the cold dark the white trucks with white lights in them looked like white, frozen, prehistoric things, guarded by young men in dirty brown parkas, a nose ring or two and big Negro hair.

“They’re shooting the scene in which Malcolm begins courting Betty Shabazz,” said the unit publicist, leading me indoors, past the museum’s great hall, past the aimless techies and gofers — primarily black — circling the floor or sometimes sitting dazed and huddled on it, X hats discarded here and there, X jackets used as pillows for those who had been felled by the re-creation of history, or making of it.

“Here we are,” she said. “Here we are, getting back to the two of them the way they were, authentic. This is part of where it happened.”

The room in which the scene was to be filmed was replete with large, glassed-in environments featuring stuffed bears, a boar in the woods, struck dumb in perpetuity. The set was not “dressed.” It was, however, stiflingly hot and weighed down by a large crane, a 35mm camera, now big and dumb with nothing to show for itself. A video monitor off to one side flickered blue and then white, a further refracting of reality in the playing of scenes as they maybe didn’t happen. Nothing appeared on the monitor for some time. Nothing happened. Extras drifted around the space in early ’60s summer clothing, in Stay-Press suits and black hats with small brims — brims too small for most of the men’s heads. The women, some of whose hair was not processed but covered in ill-conceived or ill-fitting wigs, studied their nails or the boar. Their hats on top of wigs were of no period I can recall.

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Principal actors were being called to their places. Denzel Washington, with reddish brown hair, cut short, combed back, Malcolm glasses in place, entered followed by one or two or three men, each of whom held these things: a bottle of water, a down parka, and a script. Dressed in a black suit and white shirt with black tie, he appeared trim and grim as he stood on his mark, making round O shapes with his mouth, intended, I assumed, to talk and talk.

Ernest Dickerson stood huddled near the video monitor, the blue images flickering in his face like the electronic light from an electronic fireplace, waiting for something to appear. Something did as an assistant yelled “Picture!” and Lee assumed his customary pose — arms draped across his chest, right hand cupping his chin — as the crane snaked down and nearly onto Denzel and Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz, who took her place moments before. Bassett seemed amused watching herself play Betty Shabazz, nodding and smiling and nodding again as Denzel-as-Malcolm talked on and on. His body language conveyed, by turns, and in subtle ways — a flick of the tongue, a sidelong glance — an innocence, an awkwardness, that reminded one of Spike Lee at social gatherings.

Shot, from my medium distance: The video monitor showing Denzel-as-Malcolm motioning toward the white bear, his arms then crossed over his chest, his right hand cupping his chin. Bassett on video monitor: amused. Denzel: solemn. Cut. No take. Lighting not quite right. Lee confers with Dickerson. Some standing around. Extras bored. Two make-up people come up to Washington and Bassett and dab at their faces. Angela looks up as her cheeks are patted. Angela smiles. Denzel laughs at her smiling.

Angela Bassett and Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X” David Lee/Warner Bros.

It was interesting to watch Lee — attired, besides X cap, in jeans and X T-shirt (which he sold on the set at somewhat of a reduction) — grapple with this bit of technical problem solving. There was his impassive stare again, the calm of a Yogi whose enlightened space was a movie set. One or two or three minutes pass before another A.D. yells “Quiet!” and another yells “Sound!” and someone else says “Picture!” Everyone began again, as if nothing had stopped and everything had to be started.

The scene, which was about three minutes in length, took about three hours to record. After its completion, a source close to the production told me in the men’s room, during the set-up of another scene, that the contretemps between Lee and Dickerson had reached epic proportions. They have remained polite, though, says the source, committed, as they are, to the project, although it is known that Dickerson is exhausted by his work on Juice, his first feature, which he’s in post-production with. Lee, the source then says, wiping his hands, is nervous for and about Dickerson, the future of their collaboration, wondering if Juice or X will survive their anxiety about their separate projects.

The source, a young man, whispers all this to me in the most hushed, most anxious of tones, gripped, as he is, by the pervasive HUAC paranoia that keeps most movie sets shut solid, but also because he’s alarmed by what he hasn’t said: The fact that Lee does not demand more of him and seems to rely invariably on just two or three people — Monty Ross, Denzel Washington, and Ernest Dickerson. It was clear, then, that Lee’s offhanded stance left little room for discussion. The thing I heard Lee demand most on the set was quiet. He creates a space by not speaking and in which everyone — A.D.s, actors, caterers — is committed because what Lee wants remains oddly unspoken.

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On whatever location I happened to visit, it was not unusual to see one or four of his or someone else’s personal assistants circle him on sneakered feet, faces imploring to be told what to do. Which Lee would eventually do, slowly, softly, and with a directness that implied that while this idea might work he would have another, in no time, and another and another. Generally Lee’s stance suggested that the success or failure of someone’s ability to execute their task was the success or failure of the project as a whole.

Of course, there were those who reacted to Lee with some bitterness, and expelled this bitterness in a covert remark or two, fearful of identification. It became clear that what Lee dealt with, almost continually, were relationships that had to be negotiated again and again in order to see the image of what he wanted to see, in the picture.

Like in the interior of a hotel a few, still bone-chilling nights later. The meeting hall of the hotel is flanked by a dais, behind which Malcolm sits with some of his staff, to announce, at a press conference, his departure from the Nation of Islam. It was a heartbreaking scene, played with great restraint by Washington as he considers, publicly, and for the first time, why he is leaving home (the Nation) and Father (The Honorable Elijah Muhammad). The scene is written this way:

Pg. 162 Revised 11/16/91.
181. INT. JFK AIRPORT — DAY. A large PRESS CONFERENCE: mikes of every network, every newspaper and wire service presence. Malcolm sports a beard.

As played by Denzel, the words, the camera snaking in a great low arch before him, were choreographed to great effect, were mesmerizing: as the camera moved to the left, Washington’s head would turn right, his eyes taking in the extras playing reporters, the reporters playing themselves, David Lee, the unit photographer, clicking away, the publicist holding her cup of coffee, and Lee himself, grinning — or the hours this moment took to capture, as Washington took us all in, made his leave-taking a part of our responsibility. When Lee yelled “Picture!” and everyone applauded, an extra turned to me and said, “Wonderful. But why does everything have to be so fucking perfect?”

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The secrecy surrounding X was part of the project’s aura, so much more interesting than the Controversy. In Lee’s not too distant past, so much of this Controversy would have worked to his and the film’s advantage. Regardless of what the critics would have said in the halcyon past, the public knew who he was and was charmed and sufficiently provoked by the creation of Spike the Icon, the only (publicly) certifiable Negro star who was not a basketball player or a rapper, to see whatever movie he was touting.

Not so with Malcolm. X was different. Malcolm X was not an invented subject. Malcolm did not belong to Spike but to history, which always makes an audience approach such a project — a filmography — with some derision. The conjecture — was Lee making a film in the public’s best interests or would Malcolm become another fall guy to Lee’s ambition? — provoked, from one fan, this reaction to the proliferation of X hats and X tote bags: “Does Spike know that now a brother is selling X potato chips in Philly?”

Someone to whom I had applied for X information said, “No one will really talk to you about Spike. Why should they? Let’s face it, Spike is a power. And like most people in power, he has to protect himself. And if he has to protect himself by being vindictive, fine. And if you don’t like X, fine too. You have to know he’s tried to make it about Malcolm, but he couldn’t. That particular bit of subject matter is his biggest competition in the black attention market. Martin wouldn’t have meant the same thing. Black, revolutionary, intelligent — all the things Spike is or wants to be. He’s got the power. Now he has to figure out what to do with it. I mean, everyone wants a job in his business. He’s made black film an industry. He’s an entrepreneur, a brilliant producer, and a not even mediocre filmmaker. Even critically, you can’t touch him without looking like a fool, or a racist.

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Culture needs the “bad nigger” or two — Lee, Basquiat, Naomi Campbell, Malcolm X — but eventually punishes them. For being ornery, a loud mouth, a champion of “kissing my black ass two times” they receive headlines such as “Do the Wrong Thing,” which speak scornfully of the Negro who speaks. If not solely an artist, Dad, or “bad nigger,” what will Lee become to his public? X and the criticism it is bound to provoke will push past Lee’s familiar image. And Malcolm’s.

How has Malcolm changed in our collective imagination since he’s gone before the cameras? In the 26 books slated for release around the time of X’s opening (November 18), he is pictured as angry, unjoyous. He is, in his Denzel-as-Malcolm guise, pictured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine and in L.A. Style or whatever, no longer a challenge. The cult of personality — but dead. Is he a representative of all those mad, mad colored folk not burning the mother down — again?

Medium close-up: A young woman sitting by a pool in L.A. Flat, ugly light off the hills, which are burning. Nearly everyone connected with X has gone to Mecca. I had gone to L.A.

“He makes money,” said the young woman, her back arched. A yellow sheen is emitted from her Bodymap bathing suit. The young woman said, “I mean, he’s in your face with these themes and whatnot, but he makes money. I happen to have liked Do the Right Thing. It had that edge, that New York edge people out here just are not into, being idiots. I mean, writers are paid a million dollars for a script that’s eventually not going to be their vision. What the million dollars is for is to keep the writer quiet as your work goes to shit. What with producers and actors with more power than God meddling in everything, you have to take the money and run. Spike doesn’t do that. He’s anything but complacent about what he means to say. Personally, I hope he tears the roof off of this one.”

The young woman dipped her pink heel into the pool.

“God I hate this place,” she said.

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“The book that goes along with this project is called By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of Making Malcolm X While 10 Million Motherfuckers Are Fucking With You,” Spike Lee said, back at the Odeon. We laughed.

Our relative isolation created somewhat of the feeling that we were sealed off, alone, a feeling Lee, noticing everything and saying nothing, tried to decompress by asking about a film I had been rather closely associated with. Making a stern, protective, big brother gesture toward me — placing his right hand flat on the table with a thump — he gave me advice about the film community, which he has been cultivating for 13 years. I reacted to this advice as comfort. And since this comfort had taken so long to establish, I asked him about his. Where did he find it?

His mother, as I knew, had died relatively young, of cancer.

“My mother was responsible for my love of cinema,” he said. “She took me to see West Side StoryAn American in ParisCarmen Jones when I was a kid.”

“All of those films are about the hope of integration still existing in foreign, hostile environments,” I said.

“Yeah, I guess so. I didn’t know cinema was about making it back then. I didn’t know it was something anyone could do.”

Spike seemed enlivened by the memory, the internal picture of this: Spike in the dark, looking at the screen, unaware and then aware of its possibilities.

“For a long time, I didn’t know anyone did it, making pictures,” he said. He put on his X hat, his X jacket.

“Which way are you going?” I asked.

“Brooklyn!” With a feigned growl that put us both at ease, we were suddenly at the end, in close-up, nervous and expectant, as directed by Spike Lee.

He said: “Maybe I’ll go home and watch one of those movies.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

Read Our 1992 Profile of Spike Lee and the Making of “Malcolm X”

Spike Lee’s masterpiece Malcolm X celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. (Go here to read Odie Henderson’s recent appreciation of the film, discussing its prescience and continuing power.) Back in 1992, on the eve of the film’s release, Village Voice writer Hilton Als interviewed and profiled Spike Lee. Als had visited the film’s set and spent months tracking its production. Lee’s ambitious epic was the most anticipated movie of the year; it was already being fought over politically and culturally well before its release. And the director at the time was one of the most exciting and controversial filmmakers in the world. Als’s piece expertly captures the anticipation and trepidation in the air before the film’s opening. You can read the piece below. We’ve also included the actual pages from that November 10, 1992, issue of the Voice.

 

Picture This
On the set, the street, and at dinner with X director Spike Lee
November 10, 1992
By Hilton Als

At 6:58 on Tuesday, September 29th, the Odeon, a Tribeca institution since 1980, played host to relatively few patrons. There was the sudden cold spell to consider. There was Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Grill to consider, too. The modicum of quiet blanketing the restaurant like so many white tablecloths was not unusual. Still reeling from the blissful consumerism of the ’80s, art world people, film people, writers — in the main, the Odeon’s star clientele — dined late and sparingly on mashed potatoes, spinach, and martinis.

A busboy flicked a napkin in the direction of one or two flies. At table number 25, Sylvester “Spike” Lee, filmmaker, sat alone, making notes in his agenda at the time of the first public (but very private) screening of his long-awaited epic, X, a film that, having been nearly 10 months in the making, and with a $33 million budget, has generated more advance publicity, criticism, and debate than any “bio-pic of a slain leader” (as Variety termed it) since Conspiracy became a movie nexus.

The avalanche of press — “Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass” (Esquire), “Do the Wrong Thing” (New York Post), “Spike’s Pique” (Vanity Fair), “Spike Lee’s X Factor” (L.A. Style), “We were gonna call [my book] X…but I realized…it might look like I was copying Spike” (Madonna) — didn’t affect the bored insouciance of the Odeon’s maître d’ leaning at her station, or Lee himself, who, from the distance of the street where I stood looking as I fumbled with the overcoat of the Observer, seemed small and separate from the near meta controversy that’s sprung up around his film, a film Lee has described as “a spiritual journey…three hours and 21 minutes [the opening of which] should be considered a holiday for black people and their families.”

That Lee’s statement did not insist on Malcolm X’s birthday as the appropriate day for national celebration was an indication of just how much X might become intertwined with its creator’s image — the black Woody Allen, a camera-wielding Sharpton, a gifted charlatan, an inspiration, a generous sort, a media hound (or barker). So much so, in fact, that Malcolm X — “our shining black manhood” (Ossie Davis), “A father, my brother” (James Baldwin) — might pall in comparison. Under the media’s remitting X watch, Malcolm has become a cardboard icon of sorts. Very little reference has been made in the press to what it is he actually did, believed, or said, besides what Lee has appropriated as a moniker for his company, 40 Acres and a Mule: By Any Means Necessary.

Nor does Malcolm seem as vocal as his filmographer.

“The media has tried to poison me. That woman from Esquire who did that piece,” Lee says, referring to Barbara Gruzzuti Harrison’s smarmy, I’m adorable and who’s Spike Lee? brand of old New Journalism. “She spent three days with me trying to prove how liberal she was. That’s all she wrote. She kept telling me how liberal her upbringing had been, like I give a fuck. I called Esquire and told them I didn’t like it. I never said I hated anyone’s cracker ass. How many times do I have to say I didn’t say it!”

Lee’s locution, his “I was robbed!” and “White America is responsible for the racism in this country” speech, contradicts the need fans and critics have for him. And not just as cultural necessity. In the last several years, as Lee has evolved, more and more, away from the loud ineptitude of his early Jerry Lewis–like screen persona — I’m skinny! I’m funny! I’m a geek! — and into the goatee-sporting, public image unlimited voice of black male rage, he has become something of a father figure.

Spike Lee and Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X”

We have watched Lee grow up with a certain misty nostalgia. His rise from street urchin to adult has been the story of boys we used to know who’ve left the neighborhood but haven’t left us. Perhaps reversing the “Truth” in many black homes: that Dad doesn’t exist at all, that’s he’s a long way from home. Not anymore. There he is as Spike Lee, filling the void on TV, in the news, with unequivocal authority. The subject? That the black male is a great, untapped American subject. And regardless of what Lee says about it — sometimes trenchant, sometimes stupid — he says it like Dad would, sound mixed with fury. Whatever one may think of Lee, he owns his authority.

“Next year, after X, the belt is mine,” he’s said, throwing the gauntlet down at the feet or our Dionysian Mom, Madonna. It is Lee’s complaining the public minds; it is as disjunctive as anyone’s Dad crying over the milk he hasn’t spilled — yet.

Which raises the question: Can Lee get out of his own way well enough to be specific yet distanced about Malcolm X’s tale of stoicism and petty bigotry, the personally transformative effect and power of prayer, the self-reflective gaze of the truly isolated, one who was reviled, believed, feared?

“Listen, he’s a genius,” one former Lee acolyte has said. “But at exactly what, I can’t tell you. As a producer, yes. Definitely. But I’m not sure if Malcolm can survive a Spike Lee movie, especially if Spike’s in it. He can’t not compete. What’s happening with all this X press is backfiring. It’s beginning to look like Costello working Abbott over for top billing.”

Over X lines have been drawn, turning it less into a film than a condition of the community out of which it is born, a community that, notes theologist James Cone, has “three characteristics: the tension between life and death, identity crisis, and white social and political power.” This community has become part of the image world too. And it is a bumpy montage that includes Rodney King, the debacle in Crown Heights, white shoe polish being thrown on black schoolchildren in the Bronx, Anita Hill — the greatest story never told. It is a parade of images that calls out for one voice, one vision — that of the Great Black Father — who, upon removing his glass and never donning cape fear, has power. And can put out a word. Loud but heard. Which speaks — hopefully — to and about history. George Jackson and Medgar Evers, Malcolm and Angela Davis, and children wearing X hats, staring at X posters: By Any Means Necessary. It’s a dictum Lee has illustrated by having completed X. Sho’ Nuff. Can Ya Dig It?

And which Lee might become the victim of. Should X not fly as anything more than an interesting cultural moment, Lee could become just another Baldwin, especially after The Fire Next Time — Baldwin’s essay on the Nation of Islam and religious conversion — garnered all those magazine covers and lectures and interviews that eventually cowed him as an artist. The clamor that met the piece turned Baldwin into a Spokesman, a public Self who, like Richard Wright and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. before him, became committed to speaking out but could never return in, into that dark and private distanced place out of which one’s art grows, tangled and intense, but one’s own.

Where will X leave Lee who, in the not loving glare of publicity, already looks so different from the movie-loving boy he must have been sitting alone now at table 25, making notes in his agenda on the person he has to be next week, and the week after?

Outside the Odeon, the traffic lights continued to change. The wind shifted. Pulling my coat even tighter, I entered.

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Lee is excellent at projecting a tone of voice that conveys mock umbrage and other aspects of Dad/boss man disapproval. “You’re late. (Pause.) Again,” he said, as I slid into his booth. To make up for my time-lagged butt — or sensibility — he motioned for a waiter.

In bad French-inflected English with a little early B-boy thrown in, Lee said, “Mon-signor, zee food please. Can we get some attention over here? I mean, like service,” and placed both our orders.

I asked if meeting at the Oden had been convenient because he was putting the finishing touches on X at the Tribeca Film Center.

“Hell no,” he said with the abruptness he often uses to pull the verbal rug out from any interlocutor. Turning away from establishing even the most superficial intimacy is an aspect of Lee’s speech. Often, he prefers to project the arrogance of the shy, the physically small man, who bullies before being bullied. “I’m mixing the final sound at Magno, uptown. We haven’t finished the final images yet, but people have been coming by. De Niro, as a matter of fact. “

“And?”

“And what?

“The reaction. To the film.”

Lee paused. He shifted in his seat. No reaction seemed forthcoming except another wave of his shyness, the artist’s reluctance to pass judgment — even if inferred — on himself. This time, and for more than a moment, his defensive tone could not shield his quietness as he said, “He liked it.”

Then, “Scorsese came too.” Scorsese, in his collaborations with De Niro — especially Mean Streets, that ode to the dream and ultimate failure of re-creating some life with father — has had a seminal influence on Lee.

“I sat in back of him while he watched the movie. I could feel the way he watched it — this man who loves cinema the way I love sports. And I could feel what he thought. You know the way he takes a shot and puts it back together for you, so that the audience knows what’s going on? That’s the way he took my film apart.”

Dinner was served. Lee picked up his fork, and held it, on an angle, in his left hand. He attacked his food with great relish. He did not use a knife. Bits of perspiration collected on his sparse, dark mustache. He ate, by turns, his mashed potatoes from one plate and salmon from another, using long slow strokes. His thin shoulders and slight frame floated somewhere inside his oversized denim shirt, over which he wore a red tie with diamond patterns. Gone were the Malcolm X–style glasses seen in one or 10 or 50 photographs; they had been replaced by elegant black tortoise-shell frames, through which Lee’s gaze, his large and unblinking eyes, like Baldwin’s self-described “frog eyes,” were the most physically forceful aspect of his person. This gaze did not disturb the vulnerability one feels is wrapped around him clearly, like plastic. The signature diamond stud was in his left earlobe. His earlobe seemed to signify so much, so nearly naked and delicate, I had to think twice before deciding not to stroke it.

Lee, whose eyes miss nothing, said, in his best guerilla filmmaking voice, “We had so much shit to get through to bring this off. We have to bring it off. There was the pressure of not messing Malcolm up. ‘Don’t mess Malcolm up,’ is what me and Denzel heard all the time. We had to respect Malcolm. And Dr. Betty Shabazz and Shorty, Malcolm’s real close friend from the Boston days, whom I play.

“Then you had the people who thought I was trying to bumrush the show all the time. Like, when Norman Jewison was chosen as this film’s original director.” Lee smiled at the memory. “I said, ‘Hey Norman, you might have to give this one up.’ He very graciously bowed out when I had a talk with him to explain how maybe he wasn’t the best person qualified to do Malcolm.”

Before I could raise the question with Lee of whether or not he was qualified for the job, he silenced it with more speech, continuing his X travails narrative. This is a recognizable device used by artists to protect themselves against the public’s judgment on their work. The enormity of the judgment facing Lee accounts, in part, for the intensity of his criticism of the press — another power. As Lee talked, his eyes blinked slowly, more than before.

“People said, ‘Look at Spike trying to take credit for James Baldwin’s script,’ he continued. The script was written 25 years ago when Marvin Worth, our producer, hired Baldwin to translate Malcolm’s book to the screen. I never didn’t want Baldwin to have credit, but his sister Gloria, his executor, didn’t want to have anything to do with this project. Don’t ask me why.

“There have been a million scripts done. I mean, David Mamet did a script. He put Alex Haley, Malcolm’s coauthor on the Autobiography, in as a character in the film. We finally have a credit that reads: Arnold Perl and Spike Lee.”

Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X”

The making or not making of X has been chronicled for years, most notably by James Baldwin in his essay The Devil Finds Work. “At the top of 1968,” he writes, “I flew to Hollywood to write the screenplay for The Autobiography of Malcolm X.… I think that I would rather be horsewhipped, or incarcerated in the forthright bedlam of Bellevue, than repeat the adventure.”

Baldwin’s screenplay, published as One Day, When I Was Lost, is a masterpiece. Adapted for the screen in a series of flashbacks and other time jumbles, it is presented as cinema verite but very precisely structured. Although Baldwin originally intended to adapt the book for the stage as a collaboration between himself, Haley, and Elia Kazan, the play, like the film, was never produced. What did eventually make it to the boards, nearly 20 years later, was Anthony and Thulani Davis’s X, an opera that enjoyed a brief success d’estime. While noted for the subtlety of its language and harmonic structure, the opera was limited to just a few performances. At the time of its New York premiere — 1986 — there was no Big Moment to help sell it; no public bloodletting, no Rodney King, no X hats, no Spike Lee.

As Lee’s voice went on describing, with the chilly but fascinated detachment of the survivor of a bad dream, the film’s financial problems — its takeover, at one point, by the Completion Bond Company when X went over budget; the $3 million fee he reduced to $1 million to help keep the film afloat; his eventual call to a number of black entrepreneurs (Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Prince, Janet Jackson, Michael Jordan) for “a gift — not a loan, not an investment” to retain his right to final cut; his commitment to “never financing a film like this again. If anyone asks me to, they can kiss my black ass two times” — I wondered what the aesthetic demands of the film might have been. I wondered about Lee’s handling of his actors. I commented on having seen Cynda Williams in Carl Franklin’s One False Move, and how, well, different she seemed in Mo’ Better Blues.

“That girl just walked in off the street!” he said, folding in on himself in the booth. It occurred to me then that Lee’s vulnerability, the turning away of a shoulder, a sidelong glance, a bark, may account for his more preposterous public statements. Rather than appear in the least vulnerable and therefore open to criticism, he had decided to appear as invulnerable as possible, the angry laughing figure beyond reproach, beyond comment.…

I had heard a great deal about Malcolm…and I was a little afraid of him.… I saw Malcolm before I met him, I had just returned from someplace…I was giving a lecture somewhere in New York, and Malcolm was sitting in the first or second row of the hall, bending forward at such an angle that his long arms nearly caressed the ankles of his long legs, staring up at me. I very nearly panicked.… I stumbled through my lecture, with Malcolm never taking his eyes from my face.  — James Baldwin

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Looking into Lee’s face for some further point of connection between Baldwin’s image of Malcolm and the reel-upon-reel image of Malcolm created by Denzel Washington, I asked Lee about directing him.

“We got to know each other better on this project,” he said. “And Denzel had played Malcolm before, in When the Chickens Come Home to Roost, a play — I never saw it.

“It was amazing for me to watch his absolute dedication, especially during Malcolm’s religious conversion. I watched him humble himself, kneel and atone, just like Malcolm did. We knew our careers were not just at stake on this one, but our lives.”

“Is this going to lead to another collaboration? Like Scorsese’s with De Niro?”

Spike (with a smile): “This is only our second film together. But wouldn’t that be nice?”

 

For those with no vested interest in its process, movie making is a tedious undertaking. On a set, the eye is inclined to drift. Before a director yells, “Print!” and the crew applauds at a scene’s completion, time yawns. Very little happens as everything happens. Everyone wonders what the dailies will look like. No one knows how the scene will look. Everyone has an idea, though. The hyperreality involved in being what one is on a movie set — actor, sound engineer, reporter — elicits a certain self-conferred authority but not the authority: the director’s.

On X’s set, it was interesting to watch Spike Lee. This for a number of reasons, the primary one being the freedom inherent in his pivotal role as Authority. He never seemed to doubt this authority, nor did he seem especially aware of its effect in relation to the rest of the crew who were generally watching themselves watch him, as if for a cue.

On certain days, Lee’s marcelled hair stuck out from beneath his X cap (“I had it conked to play Shorty”). On other days, his turned-in feet and loping stride carried him to this place: To his cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson’s side. Sometimes Spike Lee smiled. More often, though, he didn’t. More often, as Dickerson or someone else talked, Lee would listen, offering no more than an inscrutable nod. It became clear, as Lee did these things, that one of his principle responsibilities — aside from directing, running interference with producers, fielding questions from actors, being sure script rewrites were in place for the next day’s shoot, and interviewing caterers — was to appear as if none of this was of particular concern. On Lee’s face, it was not clear whether any of this was cause for stress. Mostly, he maintained a relatively impassive veneer. Sometimes members of the crew imitated this stance, especially when approached by members of the press. When crew members approached Lee, this stance was dropped. Lee preferred his face to be in repose.

Those were the things I saw on my first visit to the X set, late on December 4, 1991, a bone-chillingly cold evening.

It had taken some months of negotiation to arrange that visit. Lee was not directly involved in this. My request was fielded by the publicist hired expressly for part of the shoot (“Spike wants to know what kind of story you are planning to do. Is it major or can we back burner this?”) and Lee’s assistant Desirée, a pleasant young woman. “You want to see a script?” she asked, with a giggle, in response to my request. “I don’t think so, but I’ll ask him.”

I did not receive a script. I did, however, receive the call sheet for December 4, which read, in part, like this:

CALL SHEET: MALCOLM X

DAY: 58 OUT OF 75

CREW CALL 6P SET #INT

MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY (1957)

MALCOLM PROVES PORK IS FOUL

This was rather a lot of shots for one day, amounting to a 13- to 24-hour work day, costume changes, and a considerable amount of tension.

“Yes, yes,” said the unit publicist emphatically, crankily, into her walkie-talkie as she stood outside the Museum of Natural History’s basement entrance. “Jesus,” she said as I approached her, having first walked past the Winnebagos lining Central Park West, directly in front of the museum. In the cold dark the white trucks with white lights in them looked like white, frozen, prehistoric things, guarded by young men in dirty brown parkas, a nose ring or two and big Negro hair.

“They’re shooting the scene in which Malcolm begins courting Betty Shabazz,” said the unit publicist, leading me indoors. Past the museum’s great hall, past the aimless techies and gofers — primarily black — circling the floor or sometimes sitting dazed and huddled on it, X hats discarded here and there, X jackets used as pillows for those who had been felled by the re-creation of history, or making of it.

“Here we are,” she said. “Here we are, getting back to the two of them the way they were, authentic. This is part of where it happened.”

The room in which this scene was to be filmed was replete with large, glassed-in environments featuring stuffed bears, a boar in the woods, struck dumb in perpetuity. The set was not “dressed.” It was, however, stiflingly hot and weighed down by a large crane, a 35mm camera, now big and dumb with nothing to show for itself. A video monitor off to one side flickered blue and then white, a further refracting of reality in the playing of scenes as they maybe didn’t happen. Nothing appeared on the monitor for some time. Nothing happened. Extras drifted around the space in early ’60s summer clothing, in Stay-Press suits and black hats with small brims — brims too small for most of the men’s heads. The women, some of whose hair was not processed but covered in ill-conceived or ill-fitting wigs, studied their nails or the boar. Their hats on top of wigs were of no period I can recall.

Principal actors were being called to their places. Denzel Washington, with reddish brown hair, cut short, combed back, Malcolm glasses in place, entered followed by one or two or three men, each of whom held these things: a bottle of water, a down parka, and a script. Dressed in a black suit and white shirt with black tie, he appeared trim and grim as he stood on his mark, making round O shapes with his mouth, intended, I assumed, to talk and talk.

Ernest Dickerson stood huddled near the video monitor, the blue images flickering in his face like the electronic light from an electronic fireplace, waiting for something to appear. Something did as an assistant yelled “Picture!” and Lee assumed his customary pose — arms draped across his chest, right hand cupping his chin — as the crane snaked down and nearly onto Denzel and Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz, who took her place moments before. Bassett seemed amused watching herself play Betty Shabazz, nodding and smiling and nodding again as Denzel-as-Malcolm talked on and on. His body language conveyed, by turns, and in subtle ways — a flick of the tongue, a sidelong glance — an innocence, an awkwardness, that reminded one of Spike Lee at social gatherings.

Shot, from my medium distance: The video monitor showing Denzel-as-Malcolm motioning toward the white bear, his arms then crossed over his chest, his right hand cupping his chin. Bassett on video monitor: amused. Denzel: solemn. Cut. No take. Lighting not quite right. Lee confers with Dickerson. Some standing around. Extras bored. Two make-up people come up to Washington and Bassett and dab at their faces. Angela looks up as her cheeks are patted. Angela smiles. Denzel laughs at her smiling.

Angela Bassett and Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X”

It was interesting to watch Lee — attired, besides X cap, in jeans and X T-shirt (which he sold on the set at somewhat of a reduction) — grapple with this bit of technical problem solving. There was his impassive star again, the calm of a Yogi whose enlightened space was a movie set. One or two or three minutes pass before another A.D. yells “Quiet!” and another yells “Sound!” and someone else says “Picture!” Everyone began again, as if nothing had stopped and everything had to be started.

The scene, which was about three minutes in length, took about three hours to record. After its completion, a source close to the production told me in the men’s room, during the set-up of another scene, that the contretemps between Lee and Dickerson had reached epic proportions. They have remained polite, though, says the source, committed as they are to the project, although it is known that Dickerson is exhausted by his work on Juice, his first feature, which he’s in post-production with. Lee, the source then says, wiping his hands, is nervous for and about Dickerson, the future of their collaboration, wondering if Juice or X will survive their anxiety about their separate projects.

The source, a young man, whispers all this to me in the most hushed, most anxious of tones, gripped, as he is, by the pervasive HUAC paranoia that keeps most movie sets shut solid, but also because he’s alarmed by what he hasn’t said: The fact that Lee does not demand more of him and seems to rely invariably on just two or three people — Monty Ross, Denzel Washington, and Ernest Dickerson. It was clear, then, that Lee’s offhanded stance left little room for discussion. The thing I heard Lee demand most on the set was quiet. He creates a space by not speaking and in which everyone — A.D.s, actors, caterers — is committed because what Lee wants remains oddly unspoken.

On whatever location I happened to visit, it was not unusual to see one or four of his or someone else’s personal assistants circle him on sneakered feet, faces imploring to be told what to do. Which Lee would eventually do, slowly, softly, and with a directness that implied that while this idea might work he would have another, in no time, and another and another. Generally Lee’s stance suggested that the success or failure of someone’s ability to execute their task was the success or failure of the project as a whole.

Of course, there were those who reacted to Lee with some bitterness, and expelled this bitterness in a covert remark or two, fearful of identification. It became clear that what Lee dealt with, almost continually, were relationships that had to be negotiated again and again in order to see the image of what he wanted to see, in the picture.

Like in the interior of a hotel a few, still bone-chilling nights later. The meeting hall of the hotel is flanked by a dais, behind which Malcolm sits with some of his staff, to announce, at a press conference, his departure from the Nation of Islam. It was a heartbreaking scene, played with great restraint by Washington as he considers, publicly, and for the first time, why he is leaving home (the Nation) and Father (The Honorable Elijah Muhammad). The scene is written this way:

Pg. 162 Revised 11/16/91.
181. INT. JFK AIRPORT — DAY. A large PRESS CONFERENCE: mikes of every network, every newspaper and wire service presence. Malcolm sports a beard.

As played by Denzel, the words, the camera snaking in a great low arch before him, were choreographed to great effect, were mesmerizing: as the camera moved to the left, Washington’s head would turn right, his eyes taking in the extras playing reporters, the reporters playing themselves, David Lee, the unit photographer, clicking away, the publicist holding her cup of coffee, and Lee himself, grinning — or the hours this moment took to capture, as Washington took us all in, made his leave-taking a part of our responsibility. When Lee yelled “Picture!” and everyone applauded, an extra turned to me and said, “Wonderful. But why does everything have to be so fucking perfect?”

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The secrecy surrounding X was part of the project’s aura, so much more interesting than the Controversy. In Lee’s not too distant past, so much of this Controversy would have worked to his and the film’s advantage. Regardless of what the critics would have said in the halcyon past, the public knew who he was and was charmed and sufficiently provoked by the creation of Spike the Icon, the only (publicly) certifiable Negro star who was not a basketball player or rapper, to see whatever movie he was touting.

Not so with Malcolm. X was different. Malcolm X was not an invented subject. Malcolm did not belong to Spike but to history, which always makes an audience approach such a project — a filmography — with some derision. The conjecture — was Lee making a film in the public’s best interests or would Malcolm become another fall guy to Lee’s ambition? — provoked, from one fan, this reaction to the proliferation of X hats and X tote bags: “Does Spike know that now a brother is selling X potato chips in Philly?”

Someone to whom I had applied for X information said, “No one will really talk to you about Spike. Why should they? Let’s face it, Spike is a power. And like most people in power, he has to protect himself. And if he has to protect himself by being vindictive, fine. And if you don’t like X, fine too. You have to know he’s tried to make it about Malcolm, but he couldn’t. That particular bit of subject matter is his biggest competition in the black attention market. Martin wouldn’t have meant the same thing. Black, revolutionary, intelligent — all the things Spike is or wants to be. He’s got the power. Now he has to figure out what to do with it. I mean, everyone wants a job in his business. He’s made black film an industry. He’s an entrepreneur, a brilliant producer, and a not even mediocre filmmaker. Even critically, you can’t touch him without looking like a fool, or a racist.

Culture needs the “bad nigger” or two — Lee, Basquiat, Naomi Campbell, Malcolm X — but eventually punishes them. For being ornery, a loud mouth, a champion of “kissing my black ass two times,” they receive headlines like “Do the Wrong Thing,” which speaks scornfully of the Negro who speaks. If not solely an artist, Dad, or “bad nigger,” what will Lee become to his public? X and the criticism it is bound to provoke will push past Lee’s familiar image. And Malcolm’s.

How has Malcolm changed in our collective imagination since he’s gone before the cameras? In the 26 books slated for release around the time of X’s opening (November 18), he is pictured as angry, unjoyous. He is, in his Denzel-as-Malcolm guise, pictured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine and in L.A. Style or whatever, no longer a challenge. The cult of personality — but dead. Is he a representative of all those mad, mad colored folk not burning the mother down — again?

 

Medium close-up: A young woman sitting by a pool in L.A. Flat, ugly light off the hills, which are burning. Nearly everyone connected with X has gone to Mecca. I had gone to L.A.

“He makes money,” said the young woman, her back arched. A yellow sheen is emitted from her Bodymap bathing suit. The young woman said, “I mean, he’s in your face with these themes and whatnot, but he makes money. I happen to have liked Do the Right Thing. It had that edge, that New York edge people out here are just not into, being idiots. I mean, writers are paid a million dollars for a script that’s eventually not going to be their vision. What the million dollars is for is to keep the writer quiet as your work goes to shit. What with producers and actors with more power than God meddling in everything, you have to take the money and run. Spike doesn’t do that. He’s anything but complacent about what he means to say. Personally, I hope he tears the roof off of this one.”

The young woman dropped her pink heel into the pool.

“God, I hate this place,” she said.

 

“The book that goes along with this project is called By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of Making Malcolm X While 10 Million Motherfuckers Are Fucking With You,” Spike Lee said, back at the Odeon. We laughed.

Our relative isolation created somewhat of the feeling that we were sealed off, alone, a feeling Lee, noticing everything and saying nothing, tried to decompress by asking about a film I had been rather closely associated with. Making a stern, protective, big brother gesture toward me — placing his right hand flat on the table with a thump — he gave me advice about the film community, which he has been cultivating for 13 years. I reacted to this advice as comfort. And since this comfort had taken so long to establish, I asked him about his. Where did he find it?

His mother, as I knew, had died relatively young, of cancer.

“My mother was responsible for my love of cinema,” he said. “She took me to see West Side StoryAn American in ParisCarmen Jones when I was a kid.”

“All of those films are about the hope of integration still existing in foreign, hostile environments,” I said.

“Yeah, I guess so. I didn’t know cinema was about making it back then. I didn’t know it was something anyone could do.”

Spike seemed enlivened by the memory, the internal picture of this: Spike in the dark, looking at the screen, unaware and then aware of its possibilities.

“For a long time, I didn’t know anyone did it, making pictures,” he said. He put on his X hat, his X jacket.

“Which way are you going?” I asked.

“Brooklyn!” With a feigned growl that put us both at ease, we were suddenly at the end, in close-up, nervous and expectant.

He said: “Maybe I’ll go home and watch one of those movies.”