How to be black in America was the challenge for spirited young men of colour who found their way to Harlem in the troubled years of the 1940s, when music, poetry, dance and art were giving way to drink, drugs, street crime and sex for money. Malcolm Little’s first impulse was to cut loose in the big city where he found himself soon after his 17th birthday in 1942. For a time he worked at Small’s Paradise, Harlem’s famous nightclub near the corner of 135th Street and Seventh Avenue. He had recently been fired as fourth cook on a Boston-to-Washington dining car, and had yet to learn to want anything more than a good time. On any morning that summer, Little might have brushed shoulders with the slender, watchful Ralph Ellison, passing through the Harlem YMCA, where Little roomed for a time only a block away from Small’s. Ellison was preparing himself to write the great black American novel, and he later set an important scene in the Harlem YMCA, which offered a bed and clean sheets to ambitious young black men seeking their destiny in New York. Ellison had been just that sort of man when he arrived in the mid-1930s, sent into the world by black clergymen and educators in Oklahoma who preached the American gospel of opportunity. But Ellison soon noted the reality in ‘the bright, buzzing lobby’ of the YMCA. The annual crop of bright-eyed valedictorians from high schools named after Abraham Lincoln faded year by year into greying black men in threadbare suits, carrying umbrellas and bowler hats, wearing coats with Chesterfield collars, speaking expansively of ‘business’ and ‘finance’, with the Wall Street Journal tucked under an elbow. None of them owned anything. The YMCA lobby was their sole arena of operations. ‘I knew that I could live there no longer,’ says the nameless narrator who provides the title for Invisible Man, Ellison’s only completed novel. ‘That phase of my life was past.’
It was the pretence of the YMCA regulars that saddened and disgusted Ellison. They might dress as bankers and brokers, and talk of points and spreads, but they were lucky to have steady work as janitors or messengers. Ellison’s dream was of a different kind. His friends included the black novelist Richard Wright and critics like Kenneth Burke and Stanley Edgar Hyman; his heroes were Joyce and Eliot; he studied The Golden Bough for the mythical themes he hoped would make his novel immortal. Ellison aspired mightily and he dressed the part as he imagined it: Man of Letters, with carefully knotted tie, dark suit in all seasons, white handkerchief peeping from breast pocket, shoes brightly shined, a pencil-thin moustache. In the last year of the war Ellison would acquire a Scottish terrier, soon joined by a second. Thus he strolled Harlem’s streets with his dogs and his dreams, as extravagantly unlikely as any YMCA titan of finance.
The young Malcolm Little also devoted thought and money to the way a man ought to appear on the streets of Harlem. First to go was his kinky red hair, straightened with a homemade goo called ‘congolene’. His friend Shorty Jarvis guided him through the painful process the first time. The necessary ingredients included two eggs, two potatoes, a jar of Vaseline and a bar of soap, combs with fine and coarse teeth, a rubber apron and a hose with a spray-head, rubber gloves, and a can of Red Devil lye. Shorty mixed the potatoes, thinly sliced, with the lye in a jar, then handed it to Little, who yelped and snatched his hand away. ‘Damn right, it’s hot,’ Shorty said. Vaseline was spread liberally over Little’s head, neck and ears before the searing congolene was combed in. ‘My head caught fire,’ Little told Alex Haley 20 years later when they were working on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, at least half of which deserves to be ranked with the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. ‘My eyes watered, my nose was running,’ Little said. ‘I bolted to the washbasin … cursing Shorty.’
‘The first time’s always worst,’ Shorty told him. ‘You took it real good, homeboy. You got a good conk.’ A good conk was a thick carapace of glistening, straightened hair as sleek as the hood of a new car. ‘After the lifetime of kinks,’ Little told Haley, he was staggered by the transformation he saw in the mirror. ‘I vowed that I’d never again be without a conk, and I never was for many years.’
With a conk, appropriate attire was a zoot suit: ‘sky blue pants 30 inches in the knee and angle-narrowed down to 12 inches at the bottom, and a long coat that pinched my waist and flared out below my knees’. The right stance was feet apart, knees together, and ‘both index fingers jabbed toward the floor’. Add a blue hat with a feather and four-inch brim, a heavy watch chain that ‘swung down lower than my coat hem’, and the boy from Lansing, Michigan, an inch or two over six feet, was ready to take up the hustling life in Harlem as ‘Detroit Red’. By the time Ellison joined the Merchant Marine as a cook in 1943, Detroit Red was a fixture on the street – selling reefers, procuring black women for downtown whites, refilling famous-brand whisky bottles with bootleg liquor, fencing stolen goods, running numbers, carrying a pistol in the small of his back where he hoped it would escape notice in a police pat down. ‘I don’t know,’ he told Haley, ‘how I am alive to tell it today.’
In August 1943, Harlem was convulsed by a race riot; downtown whites, backbone of the nightclub scene, were scared off and the neighbourhood began its decline. Little hardly noticed; he was too busy hustling booze and drug money and making enemies. By the last year of the war his enemies were too many: a numbers runner known as West Indian Archie, who had paid off his iffy claim of a winning number and wanted his money back; city detectives who put him at the top of their list of bad guys to run out of town; mobsters convinced the skinny black guy who stuck up a Mafia crap game was Detroit Red; the ‘kid hustler’ Malcolm busted in the mouth in a bar who came back with a knife looking to kill him. His friend Shorty whisked him to Boston, where he started a burglary gang. That ended in February 1946, when Shorty and Little were sent to prison. Little blamed his ten-year term on his getaway driver and her friend, both beautiful white Boston girls. ‘You had no business with white girls,’ the judge said. Malcolm was not yet 21. ‘I had sunk to the very bottom of the American white man’s society,’ he told Haley, filling his story with sordid detail as a preamble to what happened next. ‘Soon now, in prison,’ he said, ‘I found Allah and the religion of Islam and it completely transformed my life.’
There are two ready ways to approach the life and fate of Malcolm X, who gave voice to black anger with a furious clarity rivalled in American history only by Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in 1831. The first is to read his indispensable Autobiography, written in collaboration with Haley, who took up writing after 20 years in the US Coast Guard. Rarely have two writers contributed so equally to a book. Malcolm provided the edge of social anger, unflinching and unapologetic, while Haley coaxed the personal details from him that Malcolm in his pride thought beside the point. Haley’s major challenge was to make sense of the chaotic tangle of Malcolm’s big ideas, which routinely claimed contradictory things. Somehow, Haley gave narrative coherence to Malcolm’s life and thoughts in a book, marvellous to read, which Manning Marable, in his careful and scholarly new biography, depends on heavily. A professor of history at Columbia University, Marable died three days before his book was published. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention adds much useful detail to the story as Haley told it, especially to Malcolm’s last years, while suggesting only a single modest revision. Perhaps, Marable offers, Haley and Malcolm exaggerated the latter’s sordid life of sin and crime to highlight, as St Augustine did, the luminous transformation eventually worked by God, or Allah. ‘An investigation of the NYPD’s arrest record for Malcolm Little,’ Marable writes, ‘failed to turn up any criminal charges or arrests.’ Perhaps this only means that Malcolm was one jump ahead of the law. In any event, beyond a few quibbles with the chronology of Malcolm’s Harlem years, Marable contradicts none of the stories in the Autobiography. That being the case, we ought perhaps to let the sinner tell us to what nadir of despair he felt his life had sunk before everything changed with a letter from his brother Reginald in 1948, who told him to stop smoking and stop eating pork. ‘I’ll show you how to get out of prison,’ Reginald added.
Malcolm figured Reginald had cooked up some brilliant scam, and was ready to give it a try. The explanation when it came left him bewildered and speechless. Reginald reported that he had not only found but met God, whose correct name was Allah, and who inhabited the physical form of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad, a light-skinned black man with asthma from Georgia who understood everything. The Messenger of Allah, as he was often called, explained that white men were devils, the result of an ancient scientific experiment gone wrong. Black men had been enslaved and deceived. History had been ‘whitened’ to expunge ancient black kings and civilisations. ‘You don’t even know who you are,’ Reginald said on a visit to Malcolm in prison. ‘The devil white man has hidden it from you … You don’t even know your true family name, you wouldn’t recognise your true language if you heard it … You have been a victim of the evil of the devil white man ever since he murdered and raped and stole you from your native land in the seeds of your forefathers.’
The devil white man was the clincher for Malcolm. It seemed to explain the world that he saw. The preposterous enormity of the rest – from Elijah’s cap with its magic symbols to the mysterious prophet, Wallace D. Fard, who came out of nowhere, preached ‘Yacub’s History’, founded the Nation of Islam and disappeared from this world in 1934 (possibly murdered) – Malcolm simply took in with the guileless trust of a child. He concluded later that giving up pork had opened the door. Fellow prisoners were impressed; Malcolm felt suddenly confident and strong. ‘If you will take one step towards Allah,’ Malcolm said, quoting an old Muslim teaching, ‘Allah will take two steps towards you.’ Confronted with his sins – abuse of women, theft, poisoning his body with drugs and alcohol – Malcolm nearly starved after Reginald left. He forgot to eat, sat in his cell, stared. The whole blinding truth filled him up.
After 25 attempts he wrote to the Messenger and received a typed letter in reply containing a five-dollar bill, a kindness that secured Malcolm’s unconditional allegiance. For the rest of his prison sentence he wrote daily to the Messenger and began to read: everything. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Herodotus, Gandhi, H.G. Wells, the history of Nat Turner, all 11 door-stopper volumes of The Story of Civilisation by Will and Ariel Durant. ‘Many who today hear me,’ he said proudly, ‘will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade.’ He plundered what he read for confirmation of the Messenger’s teachings – especially the teachings about the devil white man’s abuse, exploitation and duping of black men throughout history. Malcolm was a changed man by the time he left prison in 1952 (a few months, as it happened, after the publication of Invisible Man, one of the greatest first acts in an American life). Gone were Malcolm’s ‘slave name’, the conk, zoot suits, cigarettes, alcohol and drugs; and physical contact with women. The new Malcolm X learned to pray, slept little and ate one meal a day. He grew close to the Messenger, who named him a minister of Detroit’s Temple No. 1 of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam. And he began to preach.
Within a few years Malcolm went from Detroit to Boston and from Boston to Harlem’s Temple No. 7, soon the largest in the Nation of Islam. He was provided with a house in Queens, a car to drive and a small stipend on which to live. He became an organiser, a holder of meetings, a ‘fisher of men’ on the streets of ghettos, and increasingly a confidant of the Messenger. But it was the preaching of Malcolm X that caught the attention of the world. What he said began always with the words of Elijah Muhammad, whom he quoted at length and often. For 20 years the Messenger had been preaching the separation of the races to save the black man from the oppression of the devil white man. What Malcolm added to the Messenger’s core teaching were passion, energy, a ready intelligence, plain language, an ever growing list of historical examples, a hammering style and an implacable mien. With his raised finger vibrating like radio waves, he warned America that its 22 million black people were turning their backs on Uncle Toms, Christianity, the counsel of liberals, non-violence and the desire to be ‘integrated’ with white devils.
‘My brothers and sisters,’ Malcolm thundered,
our white slavemaster’s Christian religion has taught us black people here in the wilderness of North America that we will sprout wings when we die and fly up into the sky where God will have for us a special place called heaven. This is white man’s Christian religion used to brainwash us black people … This blue-eyed devil has twisted his Christianity to keep his foot on our backs … We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters – Plymouth Rock landed on us!
We’re all black to the white man, but we’re a thousand and one different colours. Turn around, look at each other! What shade of black African polluted by devil white man are you? You see me – well, in the streets they used to call me Detroit Red. Yes! Yes, that raping, red-headed devil was my grandfather! That close, yes! My mother’s father! She didn’t like to speak of it, can you blame her? … I hate every drop of the rapist’s blood that’s in me!
It was strong stuff. One part of its strength came from the dramatic simplicity of the message of Elijah Muhammad, who turned the customary argument about race in America on its head. But the other, more important source was Malcolm’s natural gift for the rhetorical rise and fall of a gathering argument. Once he took hold of a subject he wrung it dry. He did not merely cite the horrors of slavery but dwelled on them, gave numerous examples, beginning with the theft of Africans from their homes, the horrors of the ‘middle passage’ chained between decks across the Atlantic. He cited the unpaid, stolen labour, putting in the blood and the sweat – 12-hour days chopping cotton, or loading steamboats, or stacking cordwood. He described the cruelty of overseers, the burn of the lash, beatings with clubs. And the families torn apart – children taken away from their mothers, husbands sold down the river:
Think of it – think of that black slave man filled with fear and dread, hearing the screams of his wife, his mother, his daughter, being taken – in the barn, the kitchen, in the bushes! Think of it, my dear brothers and sisters! … And his vicious, animal attacks’ offspring, this white man named things like ‘mulatto’ and ‘quadroon’ and ‘octoroon’ and all those other things that he has called us – you and me – when he is not calling us ‘nigger’!
Malcolm’s message brought a harsh new vocabulary to the conversation on race: no more prayer and gospel singing, no more petitioning and reaching out, no more patient waiting for a better day. The Nation of Islam was jolted by his torrent of words and began to expand dramatically, from a doubtful thousand or so in 1953 to tens and then scores of thousands. The country as a whole took notice in 1959 when a black journalist, Louis Lomax, and a white television reporter, Mike Wallace, produced a five-part series on the Nation of Islam for New York City’s Channel 13, The Hate that Hate Produced. Nothing that hadn’t been said a hundred times before was included in the film clips of the Messenger, Malcolm and a fiery young Muslim from Boston, Louis Farrakhan, but their bald and angry words shocked Americans. Elijah Muhammad was the Messenger but it was Malcolm as his spokesman who attracted the media’s attention, and his was soon among the most famous faces in the country. Few Americans have sprung from obscurity so deep to fame so pervasive in so short a time.
Established black leaders and white liberals both feared that the civil rights movement would be derailed, while the FBI and local police departments were alarmed by the same things that troubled moderates: the threatening tone, the embrace of an alien religion, the secretive black guards, called the Fruit of Islam, who policed rallies; and the all-black crowds of faces. By the end of the 1950s black ‘hate groups’, the Nation of Islam prominent among them, had pushed the American Communist Party aside as national security threat number one in the eyes of the FBI. It is here that Marable’s meticulous book makes its most significant contribution, quoting liberally from FBI files and the once secret files of New York City’s Bureau of Special Services and Investigation, beginning in June 1950 when Malcolm wrote a letter to Truman on the outbreak of the Korean War. The FBI file opened then ‘would never be closed’, Marable writes. In it accumulated agent reports, overheard conversations, background files on relatives and colleagues, intercepted letters, and an ever expanding grab bag of rumour and denunciation by rivals, enemies and Elijah Muhammad loyalists who feared that Malcolm sought to take over the Nation of Islam.
Some of his fellow Muslim ministers, feeling overlooked, carried their grievances to the Messenger, who reacted cautiously at first to the wave of publicity, then welcomed the attention and the new members Malcolm attracted. ‘Brother Malcolm,’ Elijah assured him, ‘I want you to become well known. Because if you are well known, it will make me better known. But, Brother Malcolm, there is something you need to know. You will grow to be hated when you become well known.’
The Messenger’s warning strangely echoes a central episode in Invisible Man. There the nameless hero is taken up by the Brotherhood (a thinly veiled version of the Communist Party, to which Ellison belonged for a time) after he stirs an indifferent Harlem crowd to righteous anger over the eviction of an elderly couple from their apartment. Ellison devotes many pages to his hero’s passionate oratory, which gushes out irresistibly, much in the manner of Malcolm X’s hammering tirades against the devil white man. The party has great plans for Nameless, whose life is transformed. But in his office one day, sitting beneath a portrait of Frederick Douglass, Nameless opens an unsigned letter from a black Party member: ‘Brother,’ it begins, ‘this is advice from a friend who has been watching you closely. Do not go too fast … you know that this is a white man’s world … They do not want you to go too fast and will cut you down if you do.’
Malcolm’s enemies, when they appeared, came from an unexpected quarter. In early 1963, whispers reached him that the Messenger of Allah ignored his own preaching against sexual licence. It was said that attractive young women who accepted jobs in his Chicago headquarters were called to the Messenger’s bed and that several bore his children. Complicating matters, Marable reports, was the fact that one of the women, Evelyn Williams, had been a girlfriend of Malcolm’s during his Boston days. Deeply upset, Malcolm confronted three of the women, including Evelyn. ‘From their own mouths,’ Malcolm told Haley, ‘I heard their stories of who had fathered their children.’ They added that the Messenger spoke of him with two tongues, telling his lovers that Malcolm ‘was the best, the greatest minister he ever had, but that someday I would leave him, turn against him – so I was “dangerous”.’
At first, Malcolm tried to help the Messenger finesse the problem, proposing a religious defence based on prophecies and exculpatory verses found in the Quran. The Messenger briefly pondered this approach, but in the end allowed Malcolm’s rivals to suggest an easier solution: blame Malcolm for spreading malicious stories, denounce him as a hypocrite and drive him from the Nation of Islam. Malcolm made it easy in December 1963 when he remarked that JFK’s murder might be seen as retribution for America’s sins – ‘the chickens coming home to roost’. In the uproar that followed, the Messenger suspended Malcolm for 90 days, but it was soon apparent that the break was irreparable. Within days Malcolm learned that a once trusted assistant was saying to others in Harlem’s Temple No. 7: ‘If you knew what the Minister did, you’d go out and kill him yourself.’ ‘Silenced’ by his suspension, Malcolm was not permitted even to deny the rumours. From that moment onwards, he seems to have known his time was short.
Understanding the life and fate of Malcolm X requires a grasp of two central facts: that for ten years he believed the Messenger’s claim that he had been sent by Allah, and that, beginning in the early 1960s, he ceased to believe. Malcolm in his Autobiography describes his belief; Marable charts the progress of his doubts. Faith in the big thing – the Messenger’s relationship with Allah – was the hardest to swallow and the last to go. First came the chipping away of Malcolm’s trust in the Messenger’s word on smaller matters. Following the Messenger’s lead, Malcolm condemned ‘so-called leaders’ like Martin Luther King, whose 1963 ‘Farce on Washington’, he said, was only another trick to brainwash ‘so-called Negroes’ into believing they would overcome some day. Malcolm was skilled in the rough and tumble of debate with longtime civil rights activists like Bayard Rustin, appealing to the angry mood of young blacks. But at some level he recognised that his razor wit might score points on television and in meeting halls, but delivered little in the here and now. As he gained stature, other black leaders increasingly urged him to join their campaigns to find practical solutions to practical problems like discrimination in housing and employment. The Messenger, who barred his followers even from voting, pushed Malcolm in one direction while his naturally combative political instincts pulled him in another. For a time he would denounce Uncle Toms in one speech and call for black unity in the next. At some point, never announced, he realised that in fact he respected political activists like Adam Clayton Powell Jr, pastor of Harlem’s huge Abyssinian Baptist Church, who fought and won many political battles; and Percy Sutton, the black lawyer, chief of the local NAACP branch and future president of the borough of Manhattan, who represented Malcolm when the Nation of Islam tried to evict him from his house in Queens. By early 1964 he stopped denying the plain truth: the no-politics strategy gave Elijah Muhammad what he wanted – reverence for his role as the Messenger of Allah, plenty of dues-paying followers and a stable of young women – but it offered nothing to black Americans.
Breaking with the Messenger over the importance of politics was not easy; it forced Malcolm to take back or revise or explain away most of what he had been urging blacks to do for a decade. But recognising that the Messenger was not sent by Allah, that he was only a fallible man (a far greater error on the face of it), was somehow simpler to achieve. He did not have to figure it out by himself; the Muslims he met on a trip to Mecca in 1959 were the first to tell him plainly that Islamic belief, the Shahada, accorded no special status to the Honourable Elijah Muhammad. The Quran was not ambiguous: ‘There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.’ Elijah Muhammad’s claim was therefore false. All educated Muslims knew this, but they did not insist that Malcolm reverse himself in mid-stride. The moment of acceptance is not recorded, but the process was complete by early 1964. For the rest of his life – not long – Malcolm gave all credit for his personal salvation to the Honourable Elijah Muhammad, but he no longer believed that Mister Muhammad spoke for Allah.
Thus Malcolm, doubly liberated, was confronted with the classic question of the American who has made a bold beginning: now what? He had fashioned a powerful new rhetoric of anger that challenged American faith in steady as she goes, slow but sure, all in good time. Detroit Red, on the road to nowhere, had been transformed into a national figure, the second most frequently invited speaker on college campuses (after Barry Goldwater). His opinion was sought by journalists on every pressing issue of the day. He had the nation’s attention. Other black leaders sought his friendship and his support. Numerous members of the Nation of Islam were leaving the church to follow his lead. Now what?
The question was never answered. Much of his last year Malcolm spent travelling in Africa and Arabia, where his commitment to orthodox Islam was reaffirmed. Long letters to his wife and friends recorded his inner ferment. He urged his followers to keep faith. He was determined to renew the struggle, but for nearly six months he lingered abroad. He was in danger as soon as he returned.
It was Invisible Man that had identified clearly for the first time America’s refusal to acknowledge, recognise or even see the black man in its midst. Ellison lived for another 40 years, never straying far from Harlem, but he failed to complete a second novel. Malcolm X, who stood up and shouted out the anger festering in Ellison’s unnamed hero, was murdered before he figured out what to do next. It happened on 21 February 1965, in the Audubon ballroom in Harlem. In the audience were his wife, his four daughters and friends who had urged him to take more care. His killer was a man who pulled a sawed-off shotgun from beneath his overcoat, strode forward, and shot him in the chest. Marable thinks the investigation of the murder was botched and that some of those who participated in the killing went free. It may be so. But what struck me was the abundant evidence in Marable’s book, as well as in Malcolm’s own, that his years with the Nation of Islam were only a prelude: he had a second act in him.