Malcolm X – “Our Shining Black Prince”

In 1931, Malcolm’s father died in mysterious circumstances, run over by a streetcar. Although it was never proved, the suspicion remained that he had been killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The police recorded the death as suicide, thereby annulling Earl Little’s life insurance.

Malcolm Little

Left poverty-stricken, Malcolm’s mother struggled to make ends meet for her large family. The pressure took its toll and in 1937, six years after her husband’s death, she was committed to an asylum. The children were farmed out to various foster parents and homes. Malcolm went to school where a teacher asked the vulnerable Malcolm what he wanted to be. Malcolm answered, a lawyer. The teacher scoffed, told him to be realistic and recommended, instead, he become a carpenter. Disillusioned, he dropped out of school at the age of 15 and went to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella.

Detroit Red

From Boston, Malcolm moved to the Harlem district of New York City where he got a job as a shoeshine boy. Called “Detroit Red” for the reddish hint in his hair, he drifted into a life of petty crime, involving robbery and drug selling. He lived well off the proceeds but in 1946, following a failed robbery, Malcolm was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Whilst incarcerated he spent much of his time reading in the prison library, obtaining the education he felt was lacking in his life. He converted to Islam and became a member of the Nation of Islam, or the Black Muslims. Founded by Elijah Muhammad, the self-proclaimed Messenger of Allah, the Black Muslims rejected Christianity as a white man’s religion and preached separation of the races.

Malcolm X

Having served six years, Malcolm was released from prison in 1952. He moved to Chicago and founded (or took over – resources differ on this point) the Nation’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, which espoused racially controversial views about the natural superiority of blacks. Malcolm, having shed his “slave name”, advocated black separatism and the use of violence, if necessary, to achieve it. America’s blacks, he said, were in the midst of a revolution and there was “no such thing as a non-violent revolution”. Air time on national television brought him immediate fame, or notoriety. His preaching drew new converts and his charismatic style appealed to much of America’s black youth.

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Malcolm X and ML KingDescribing himself as the “angriest black man in America”, Malcolm rejected Martin Luther King‘s non-confrontational approach and mocked King’s March on Washington (August 1963). Achieving integration through non-violence and, as Malcolm saw it, long-term suffering, would not progress the African American’s place in society. Instead, Malcolm preached independence, black power and black consciousness, a message that had widespread appeal. The Civil Rights Movement had, in Malcolm’s view, “begged the white man for freedom”, and begging for freedom did not, he continued, set you free. “The price of freedom is death”. (See clip below).

(The six foot, 3 inches tall, Malcolm  X and Martin Luther King, Jr met just the once, pictured, in March 1964).

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

Elijah Muhammad, impressed by Malcolm’s undoubted abilities, named him his second-in-command. Although the two men argued over the direction of the organization, Malcolm saw Muhammad as a mentor and a spiritual guide, and perhaps even a father-figure. But Muhammad’s private life failed to match his public persona as a man beyond reproach. Malcolm was left feeling betrayed when he learnt that Muhammad had fathered six children with different women. Their relationship deteriorated further when, following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm said it was a case of “chickens coming to roost”. Malcolm was ordered to observe a 90-day period of silence. Refusing to comply, in March 1964 Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and founded his own Islamic group, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. In 1965 he formed the secular group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Malcolm embarked on a tour of Africa and the Middle East, paid a pilgrimage to Mecca, and, having changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, converted to the Sunni branch of Islam. He returned to the US a more moderate man: “I recognize that anger can blind a man”, he later said.

Assassination of Malcolm X

Having left the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X received numerous death threats. In 1964, Elijah Muhammad said that “hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off”. Indeed, an edition of Muhammad Speaks that year featured a cartoon of Malcolm X’s decapitated head. On 14 February 1965, Malcolm’s family home in New York was firebombed. He firmly believed that those responsible were members of the Nation of Islam.

A week later, on 21 February, as he was about to deliver a lecture at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, Malcolm was shot fifteen times and killed. He was three months short of his fortieth birthday. Three of Elijah Muhammad’s followers were later found guilty of the murder. The last of the three, Talmadge Hayer, having served 45 years in jail and having been refused parole sixteen times, was released from prison in 2010.

Elijah Muhammad, on hearing of Malcolm’s death, said, “Malcolm X got just what he preached… We know such ignorant, foolish teachings would bring him to his own end”.

In 1958, Malcolm had married Betty Shabazz, who, like Malcolm, called herself ‘X’. They were to have six daughters, the youngest two, twins, born after Malcolm’s assassination. On 1 June 1997, Betty’s home was set on fire by her 12-year-old grandson, Malcolm Shabazz. Three weeks later, she died of her injuries. Shabazz, who spent four years in a juvenile detention centre, immediately expressed his remorse. Shabazz himself was murdered in Mexico City on 9 May 2013. He was 28.

Malcolm’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, dictated to Alex Haley and written over two years, was published soon after his death, and remains a cult hit.

Marcus Garvey – “One God, One Aim, One Destiny”

Garvey was born in Jamaica and immigrated to Harlem in 1916 at the age of 28. In his homeland he had been an admirer of Booker T. Washington‘s philosophy of self-improvement for people of African descent and had formed the Jamaica Improvement Association. When he arrived in America his ideas expanded and he became a Black Nationalist. For him, Africa was the ancestral home and spiritual base for all people of African descent. His political goal was to take Africa back from European domination and build a free and United Black Africa. He advocated the Back-to-Africa Movement and organized a shipping company called the Black Star Line which was part of his program to conduct international trade between black Africans and the rest of the world in order to “uplift the race” and eventually return to Africa.

Garvey studied all of the literature he could find on African history and culture and decided to launch the Universal Negro Improvement Association with the goal of unifying “all the Negro peoples of the world into one great body and to establish a country and government absolutely on their own”. The motto of the U.N.I.A. was “One God! One Aim! One Destiny.” The Negro World was the U.N.I.A. weekly newspaper founded in 1918. It was published in French and Spanish as well as English. In it African history and heroes were glorified.

The ranks of the U.N.I.A. were comprised of African “nobility” – knights of the Nile, dukes of the Niger and Uganda; knights of Ethiopia, duchesses, etc. Garvey himself was the “Provisional President of Africa” and he and the members of his empire paraded in elaborate military uniforms. Harlem loved parades and street ceremonies, and the U.N.I.A. gave the grandest. During their annual conventions, thousands of delegates from all over the United States, the Caribbean, Central America and Africa marched up and down the streets of Harlem with their banners, uniforms and colorfully decorated cars. Garvey travelled throughout the United States speaking and meeting with African-American leaders. In the post World War I economic crisis and with racial discrimination, lynching and poor housing, the masses of Black people were ready for a leader who was aggressive and had a plan to “uplift the race”. The U.N.I.A. grew quickly. By 1919 there were over 30 branches throughout the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa. Garvey claimed over a million people had .joined his organization in 3 years.

In nine years Garvey built the largest mass movement of people of African descent in this country’s history. It began to fail after he was convicted of mail fraud and was deported from the U.S. The Black Star Line failed because of purported mismanagement and lack of sufficient funds. However, the U.N.I.A. still survives today and Garvey left a legacy of racial pride and identification with a glorious African heritage for African Americans.

 

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

 

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”

Invisible Man is the story of a young, college-educated black man struggling to survive and succeed in a racially divided society that refuses to see him as a human being. Told in the form of a first-person narrative, Invisible Man traces the nameless narrator’s physical and psychological journey from blind ignorance to enlightened awareness — or, according to the author, “from Purpose to Passion to Perception” — through a series of flashbacks in the forms of dreams and memories. Set in the U.S. during the pre-Civil Rights era when segregation laws barred black Americans from enjoying the same basic human rights as their white counterparts, the novel opens in the South (Greenwood, South Carolina), although the majority of the action takes place in the North (Harlem, New York).

In the Prologue, the narrator — speaking to us from his underground hideout in the basement (coal cellar) of a whites-only apartment building — reminisces about his life as an invisible man. Now in his 40s, he recalls a time when he was a naïve young man, eager to become a renowned educator and orator. The narrator begins his story by recalling his high school graduation speech, which attracted the attention of the white school superintendent who invites him to give the same speech at a local hotel to the town’s leading white citizens. But when he arrives at the hotel, the narrator is forced to participate in a brutal blindfolded boxing match (the “battle royal”) with nine of his classmates, an event, which, he discovers, is part of the evening’s entertainment for the “smoker” (a kind of stag party). The entertainment also includes a sensuous dance by a naked blonde woman, and the boys are forced to watch. The boxing match is followed by a humiliating event: The boys must scramble for what appear to be gold coins on an electrified rug (but, which turn out to be only worthless brass tokens). Then the narrator — now bruised and bleeding — is finally allowed to give his speech in front of the drunken white men who largely ignore him until he accidentally uses the phrase “social equality” instead of “social responsibility” to describe the role of blacks in America. At the end of his speech — despite his degrading and humiliating ordeal — the narrator proudly accepts his prize: a calfskin briefcase containing a scholarship to the state college for Negroes.

That night, the narrator’s dead grandfather — a former slave — appears in a dream, ordering him to open the briefcase and look inside. Instead of the scholarship, the briefcase contains a note that reads, “Keep This Nigger Boy Running.” The dream sets the stage. For the next 20 years of his life, the narrator stumbles blindly through life, never stopping to question why he is always kept running by people — both black and white — who profess to guide and direct him, but who ultimately exploit him and betray his trust.

Focusing on the events of one fateful day, the narrator then recalls his college days. Assigned to chauffeur Mr. Norton, a prominent white visiting trustee, around the campus, the narrator follows Mr. Norton’s orders and takes him to visit two sites in the nearby black neighborhood — the cabin of Jim Trueblood, a local sharecropper, and the Golden Day, a disreputable bar/half-way house for shell-shocked World War I veterans. The narrator, however, is expelled from his beloved college for taking Mr. Norton to these places and sent to New York, armed with seven letters from his dean (Dr. Bledsoe). The letters, he believed, are letters of recommendation, but are in reality letters confirming his expulsion.

Arriving in New York City, the narrator is amazed by what he perceives to be unlimited freedom for blacks. He is especially intrigued by a black West Indian man (later identified as Ras the Exhorter) whom he first encounters addressing a group of men and women on the streets of Harlem, urging them to work together to unite their black community. But the narrator’s excitement soon turns to disillusionment as he discovers that the North presents the same barriers to black achievement as the South.

Realizing that he cannot return to college, the narrator accepts a job at a paint factory famous for its optic white paint, unaware that he is one of several blacks hired to replace white workers out on strike. Nearly killed in a factory explosion, the narrator subsequently undergoes a grueling ordeal at the paint factory hospital, where he finds himself the object of a strange experiment by the hospital’s white doctors.

Following his release from the hospital, the narrator finds refuge in the home of Mary Rambo, a kind and generous black woman, who feeds him and nurses him back to health. Although grateful to Mary, whom he acknowledges as his only friend, the narrator — anxious to earn a living and do something with his life — eventually leaves Mary to join the Brotherhood, a political organization that professes to be dedicated to achieving equality for all people. Under the guidance of the Brotherhood and its leader, Brother Jack, the narrator becomes an accomplished speaker and leader of the Harlem District. He also has an abortive liaison with Sybil, a sexually frustrated white woman who sees him as the embodiment of the stereotypical black man endowed with extraordinary sexual prowess.

But after the tragic death of his friend Tod Clifton, a charismatic young black “Brother” who is shot by a white policeman, the narrator becomes disillusioned with the disparity between what the organization preaches and what its leaders practice. As a result, he decides to leave the Brotherhood, headquartered in an affluent section of Manhattan, and returns to Harlem where he is confronted by Ras the Exhorter (now Ras the Destroyer) who accuses him of betraying the black community. To escape the wrath of Ras and his men, the narrator disguises himself by donning a hat and dark glasses. In disguise, he is repeatedly mistaken for someone named Rinehart, a con man who uses his invisibility to his own advantage.

The narrator discovers that the Harlem community has erupted in violence. Eager to demonstrate that he is no longer part of the Brotherhood, the narrator allows himself to be drawn into the violence and chaos of the Harlem riot and participates in the burning of a Harlem tenement. Later, as he flees the scene of the burning building and tries to find his way back to Mary’s, two white men with baseball bats pursue him. To escape his assailants, he leaps into a manhole, which lands him in his underground hideout.

For the next several days the sick and delusional narrator suffers horrific nightmares in which he is captured and castrated by a group of men led by Brother Jack. Finally able to let go of his painful past — symbolized by the various items in his briefcase — the narrator discovers that writing down his experiences enables him to release his hatred and rediscover his love of life.