Summer of No Sell-Out1 (Entry #8)
How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.
Because I’m armed, my brain contains a bomb/As if I escaped from Vietnam.
As for many, the reading of the Autobiography of Malcolm X (AMX) was a turning point in my life. Its influence has never left me. I had completed my first year at Amherst. A female friend, feeling I had some unresolved racial issues—which I did but not necessarily the ones she thought—gave me a copy of AMX. There is so much that can be said about this book, that God-willing, I will try to devote a series to AMX on my other blog sometime in the future.
Also, I when I speak of the book or Malcolm himself, I am not doing from a rigorous Sunni traditionalist perspective, but simply from the perspective of how the book and the personality influenced me to become something I had not previously know to have existed. Those African-American converts who came directly to the Sunni tradition and did not have a “great black awakening” or those people who were born into Muslim families, may not be able to relate so well, but for myself, Malcolm, and what came in the next couple of years while in Amherst were essential in molding my view of the world.
What Malcolm represented to me was not merely a “conscious black man,” but a human becoming.Although we all know how AMX is going to end, yet, by about half way through the book, each page becomes fraught with change, and by the last couple of frenetic chapters of the book, one has to ask how much capacity does the human being have for transformation—for expansion? This is what I mean that he was a human “becoming.” He was undergoing accelerate transformation without the luxury of a template—of a previous model. From the gut wrenching rural poverty of Nebraska, to the assassination of his Garveyite father by white racists, to his “Mr. Ostrowski Moment,” to running the streets of Roxbury and Harlem—the dope dealing and pimping, to what would become later an almost universal experience among the black male, i.e., incarceration, to the racial and social awakening that took place through the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the so-called Nation of Islam,2 to his break with his mentor who had raised his consciousness to such a degree that he would become the spokesman for that organization, to performing Hajj as a self-professed Sunni Muslim, to giving lectures at Harvard and Cambridge, no black man—no man in history—could claim such for himself.
And it was more than that. It was not merely that his life was, as he said: “…a chronology of changes,” but it was the psychological distance he traversed. He went from a self-hating mentally dead predator and parasite to a man in the full sense of the word—a man with a passion for knowledge; a disciplined man who overcame drug abuse and serial fornication; a man willing to admit he made grave errors; a man willing to change—and keep expanding so he could be capacious enough to embrace the truth and nothing less. He was a man knew that the course he was on would almost certainly lead to his demise at the hands of people who were traitors to their souls—people who simply did not have the breadth and capacity to live with truth.
Malcolm was unlike the black males I knew in Springfield, who typically, at best were just “workers.” Their minds were not animated by knowledge or self-discovery. A few who might have read on occasion sounded like the Dave Chapelle character from Undercover Brother—blathering about what seemed like some far-fetched conspiracy theories very often with dates widely inaccurate and statistics grossly exaggerated. They, like the Chapelle character, were more a source of comic relief than provokers of thought.
As for Amherst, the black people, as I said, were different. But with, perhaps a couple of exceptions, they weren’t protégées of Malcolm. In spite of their professed love for Malcolm, most weren’t willing to take the steps that he did. For me, upon reading AMX, there was no turning back. It was evident that many of the black people didn’t truly understand Malcolm for they, even upon reading AMX and his scathing, albeit indisputably accurate criticism of Christianity, remained devoted to the Black Church. It was clear from what Malcolm said, and what were commonly-known facts of history, that Christianity couldn’t possibly be true, and that Christianity was merely a tool to keep black people in a subservient and intellectually arrested mind state. It was enough to consider that Christianity—long before it reached the black folks in America—had been corrupted and altered beyond recognition.
The Bible had been lost—and nobody could claim to possess the actual book revealed to Jesus—and all the more ludicrous it seemed for people walking around with a “King James” talking about how they possessed the “Word of God” between their hands. Furthermore, there was the simple fact that Christianity was imposed upon black people by the white slave masters to keep the slaves in a state of ignorance, stupidity, and fear. The Black Church was something socially engineered on the plantations of American chattel slavery and segregation. The Black Church could not link black people to a history beyond the shores of America. By its very nature it was confining and could only exist within the dictates of the white power structure. Furthermore, there was the idea of a so-called Trinity and God and/or God’s alleged son being murdered to forgive people for their sins. Even before having any background in Islamic theology, common-sense alone was enough to make me disregard such a doctrine.3
If the black people there at Amherst too afraid to question and shuffle off such a conspicuously false tradition as the Black Church, could it be expected that they would be able to take a sustained and intrepid stand for truth? Although, I was living in the Big House, I wanted to be down with the field slaves—field slaves tempered with the discipline and moral rectitude I saw Malcolm possessing. Anything less than that would be selling out.
Back to life at Amherst…. The semester was over and I was going to have to secure shelter for the summer. I stayed at Newport dorm. There were some international students there, including, one from South Africa (he was what was considered in the Apartheid era, a “Cape Colored”). This would also be the summer in which Nelson Mandela would be freed from prison, and the “Third World” students were abuzz with talk about what the implications would be for the African National Congress, southern Africa, the Continent as a whole, and other parts of the world that were struggling against colonialism and neo-colonialism. In the evenings, we would be joined by other international students from UMASS and Smith College, and we would break bread. The folks would burn up some seriously hot curry, rice, chicken, and whatever else that could be scraped up on student incomes. A lot of Bob Marley was played at those meals, and many good conversations were had.
It is said that the right people come into your life at the right times. That was certainly the case that summer. While one of those dinners was being fired up in the kitchen, I struck up a conversation with probably the lone white guy in this international, politically conscious, semi-Bohemian set. He had just graduated from UMASS in STPEC (Social Thought and Political Economy) and he was sticking around for a while in the “Happy Valley.” Our conversation quickly turned towards rap. He was from the New York area and had grown up on rap, like I had. He was familiar with all the underground cuts; his basketball team’s anthem was “Fresh,” by the Fresh 3 M.C.’s. He knew about all the old school twelve inches from the early days of rap. And he understood the social implications—and potential—in the “conscious” rap of that era.
For the next nine months, I would have the most intense friendship of my life. He was the coolest person—and “cool” is the only appropriate word—i had ever known. And he was cool without having to force it (after all, if you gotta force it, then it ain’t cool). Unlike a lot of other white guys who would feel compelled to concoct something clever to say to impress black people—to prove that they really weren’t closet racists (or suffering from some sort of neurotic white guy guilt trip)—he said and did what seemed to come naturally from him. When he said one time: “I’m down with John Brown,” you felt that this was something genuine—that these were the words of a person who wanted to live free of hypocrisy.
Years later when I came across this quote of Emerson, I was immediately reminded of him—and of Malcolm X:
A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss.
We would take long walks “working out ideas” about society and culture in the lush green Valley that looked like there were hillsides of broccoli heads as far as the eye could see. Walkin’ and talkin’ and what he would call “hoopin” in the vein of Black Elks Speak, he would in simple, plain, and lucid speech keep connecting and interweaving thoughts. It was then that I experienced for the first time what fellow Amherstian, Emily Dickinson, is reported to have said: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I had entered that poetic state of consciousness but wouldn’t realize it until years later.
But there was more. This same friend turned me on to Eyes on the Prize (EOP)—the second series. Many people are familiar with the first series and its standard fare of the Negro Church-based Civil Rights Movement. The second series takes the struggle to the North. I believe that the second series was at least partially censored because of the controversy it generated. Growing up, we were all fed the images of little girls getting blown up in a church, and the dogs being sicced on protesters, the Montgomery bus boycotts, the lunch counter sit-ins, and black people begging for white people not abuse them. It was a history and a culture that I could not relate to, and as one Brother would later say, “there was no dignity in it.” EOP, the second series was different. That summer
I sat in the audio-visual room at the Robert Frost Library watching riveting episode after riveting episode. I had read AMX—now, I was seeing Malcolm X. Upon viewing the footage of Malcolm, Huey Newton, Angela Davis with her GIANT ‘FRO, the Attica Prison riots, the assassination of Fred Hampton by the Chicago police department, and Stokley Carmichael. I. WAS. BLOWN. AWAY. Even yesterday morning after watching the first five minutes of the opening episode of the series, I felt chills run up my spine and my mind was sent racing. This was real, this was relevant black history. And although I was at the time, less than 20 years removed from some of those events, I knew not that such history ever existed.
These black nationalists were not merely talking about a struggle for voting enfranchisement or a modification of the laws, they were talking about, to use Tracey Chapman’s words, “a revolution.” They saw the struggle of black people in America as part of a greater world-wide struggle against racism and economic exploitation. This fitted well with my already internationalists sensibilities. It seemed obvious to me that black folk would have to open up their minds and look beyond America if they wanted to gain true liberation. Also, contrary to what I had previously heard about these black nationalists, they were not merely rabble-rousers, but these were men (and women) who read widely and were not only students of political theory, they were writing their own critiques of racism, capitalism, and the military/prison-industrial complex.4
At the same time, the rap of that era was accelerating my consciousness. I considered rap to be indispensable to the revolution I expected to be on the horizon. Public Enemy’s albums, It Takes a Nation of Millions… and Fear of a Black Planet were catalysts to higher historical, political, and social consciousness. Upon seeing EOP II, I could understand those albums—the names drops and the speeches sampled—in a completely different light. There was also KRS-1’s, Edutainment, which also contained its share of socially conscious lyrics and name dropping. The Revolution might not be televised, but it would be broadcast via black radio. Finally, black folk were going to get it right—the “Brothers were going to work it out.”
I would spend my days that summer when I wasn’t doing security at the Mead Art Museum tripping out on the Meso-American art, at the library reading, and reading, and reading. I remember reading Anta Diop’s book on the Ancient Egyptians and the importance for a people to write their own history and not let others do it for you. I remember sitting in the library not being able to imagine a single African city in my mind (other than, perhaps, those in South Africa). I saw that I needed, as the so-called Nation of Islam said, “knowledge of self.”
I needed to know my real history—and it could not start with the Middle Passage and slavery. After the ABX, the most influential book I read that summer was H. Rap Brown’s, Die Nigger! Die! It is an autobiography written in the vernacular. I was astounded by the level of political and social consciousness that these young men—some younger than I was at the time—had attained. I wanted to follow in their footsteps. I envisioned myself “movin’ the crowd” and giving speeches to my people, just like H. Rap Brown—not out of the desire for fame, but to wake us up out of our catatonic state. I was a small child when these activists were at the peak of their influence, but I grew up knowing nothing about them. How was it that the black youth of my generation had grown up so ignorant and so brain dead. What had happened to us? I had to find out.
2For a clarification between the so-called Nation of Islam and Sunni Islam, please see here: http://facetofloor.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/refutation-of-farrakhanism-the-so-called-nation-of-islam/
3See here for a Sunni Muslim perspective on Jesus: http://facetofloor.wordpress.com/2011/12/17/why-we-dont-celebrate-christmas/
4Let me note that I am not saying that these black nationalists were morally upright or guided. Nonetheless, their speeches and writings were thought provoking, and some of those black nationalists later went on to profess Sunni Islam.