My Father and Malcolm X

My father admired Malcolm X, El Hadj Malik El Shabbaz, born Malcolm Little almost exactly a year after my father, on the day before my mother would be born three years later.  They were contemporaries.  They were both burned by the sickening injustice of the world they were born into.  

Both were eloquent, persuasive, quick-witted speakers.  My father must have felt like a pretty good amateur fighter when he watched Malcolm work.  He was inspired by and took pride in Malcolm’s indomitable quickness in the ring, the way he shined in the spotlight, his slick moves.  He delighted in watching the remarkably skilled self-taught boxer in the big fights.

I was eight and a half when I heard the news, on the radio, sitting alone in my parents’ bedroom waiting for something to come on TV, that several men had cut doomed Malcolm down in a hail of bullets in the Audubon Ballroom.  I remember how hard the news hit me that February evening.  I am sickened to this day about the cover-up and the fact that the bloody crime scene was mopped up immediately so that the scheduled dance could be held in the ballroom three hours after the assassination.  

February 21 would acquire further meaning for me as an early love of my life was born on that day, and so was my only aunt.   February 21 was also the day Spinoza had died, and, three hundred years later to the day, my grandfather, strong, gentle, frightened Sam.  Sam had a right to be frightened, his six brothers and sisters, all his nieces and nephews, possibly his old parents and any aunts and uncles still alive, and all of his surviving cousins, had been marched out of the house he grew up in, and the ones nearby, for a bullet in the back of the head and a mass grave in a ravine.  He was only alive because he’d followed his strong-willed fiancee to New York twenty years earlier.

When we talk about history, whether we mention the frequent atrocities or not, this is the kind of thing we are talking about.  My father could minimize the psychological effect of having all of your parents’ aunts and uncles summarily executed at the whim of some hateful fucks, just as he tried to minimize the whippings across the face he’d endured from his mother (her family similarly wiped out) when he was a very young child. Minimizing anguish can only do so much, the violence is always there. .    

All the atrocities one hated could be felt as one while Malcolm whipped some apologist for racism with irrefutable, brutal logic.  Malcolm, at his best, brought a feeling of catharsis to the discussion– to hear someone finally speaking clearly, and strongly about exactly what needed to be spoken of clearly and strongly.  

I learned from reading that part of Malcolm’s genius as a radio debater was his superb sense of timing.  I’m sure my father was very much aware of Malcolm’s clock management skills.  Malcolm X was Michael Jordan in the last thirty seconds of a radio debate.  He’d wait, timing his game winner to come at the buzzer and he rarely missed.  

Debating a black academic of some kind who took a superior tone, Malcolm goaded the man by referring to him throughout as “doctor”.  The man corrected him and finally, in exasperation, said “Malcolm, you know very well that I am not a doctor.”

“Oh,” said Malcolm with feigned innocence, “you speak so authoritatively on the subject of the so-called progress of the Negro that I just assume you have a doctorate in this subject.”  

The shot clock on the radio studio  wall now down to thirty seconds, Malcolm set up the last shot of the game.    

“Are you aware of how white academics where you work, in fact, all the white people where you work, refer to you, doctor, when you are not present?”  

His opponent, who’d been insisting Malcolm’s anger at American racism was not helping matters, gave some prissy demurral, asked how he or Malcolm or anyone in the world could possibly know with any degree of possible certainty, or even hypothetically, what was supposedly being said of him when he was not there.  

Malcolm dribbled for a moment, glanced at the game clock.  Then he sent one in a perfect arc, that hit nothing but net.  “Nigger,” he said, as time ran out.  

“How can you not love that shit?” asks the skeleton of my father from his grave in Cortlandt, NY.


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