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Malcolm X

February 6, 2015

                       Stupid animals that killed him. – Amiri Baraka, “Malcolm”

I.  During the fall of 1964, in my fourth year of studying lit, teaching as a Grad Assistant, and doing what I could in the Civil Rights Movement, my family simply had to have a better income. It appeared that by the next school year I would be All But Dissertation, with a chance at a real faculty position, so I entered the market. By February I was into the on-campus interview stage of the display, including an invitation to Central Missouri State University. I shaved my beard (such as it was), trimmed my hair, and got on a train.

The ride to Warrensburg was pleasant, especially the last miles through a charming, softly wild, almost spiritual, mild late winter landscape of woods and small rivers. At dusk, the Department Chair met me at the station, and over a pleasant dinner we shared an enthusiasm for Mark Twain (his teaching specialty). I knew I would start out teaching freshman comp, but I hoped for a crack at some American lit.

Early the next morning I began my dance: the College Dean, the English tenure-track faculty, lunch with the contract faculty kids who would be my actual peers. They were very open about the department; they felt exploited and hopeless; but they showed no animosity toward me, and I want now to praise them for that.

I don’t remember the afternoon. But after dinner, the Chairman took me to the station, and when I was about to board he told me that he had talked with the Dean and in the morning he would put an offer in the mail. I thought that Phyllis and I would accept. It would be a decent income, we would be raising our kids in a pretty countryside, I knew I would enjoy teaching—because I always did, and I felt that my young colleagues were a good bunch who would make enjoyable friends at the beginning of my career.  But there was something else.

II.  Picture me at 8:00 that morning, sitting in the typical office of a College Dean, who I hope will offer me a job. He doesn’t know I’m only a day clean-shaven, he certainly doesn’t suspect activism, and I’m not going to let on. Or rather, in Tom and Huck’s terms, I am “letting on” that I am just the right kind of folks.

Probably trying to make me comfortable, the Dean notes that I’ve come from the East, but until recently there had been a faculty member who wore a beard;…even a student had grown a beard,…and he remembers that some students had carried their books in green canvas bags like they do at Yale…here in the foothills of the Ozarks.

He’s sitting at his desk, his back to high windows, I’m sitting across the desk, the Chairman is sitting on a couch behind me, and I’m trying to wake up. The morning paper lies folded on the desk, ready for the Dean’s attention, and I strain to read an upside-down headline.  Malcolm X Shot

Inside I turned upside-down. But I didn’t turn inside-out. I kept right on letting on. Suppose I hadn’t even seen the paper.  All day I didn’t say a thing about it, and neither did anybody else.

On the train through that night there was water streaking the windows and water misting in my eyes. I was in grief. I struggled to deal with Malcolm’s likely death, and to deal with my feelings about it. I was white, and I wanted to speak directly to him, to tell him how much I had admired him, how grateful I felt for what he had been, in America’s struggle for truth and justice and in my life, how much I had counted on his willingness to stand up and (verbally, with that knowing look in his eyes) fight back.

III. That was before the publication of The Autobiography. We didn’t know about the hajj and his beginning of a turn away from racial separation to his affirmation of a common humanity, struggling to keep its humanity.

His self-named X had made sense to me, because I had read James Baldwin. I had only seen him, and heard him speak, in news clips and a short film. But even a moment was enough. Malcolm stood in his intelligence a self-freed man (just as, shortly before his death, he freed himself from hatred). I heard him insist that he would speak the truth, no matter what; and I heard him say things to white people (many of whom were trickster figures trying to be tar babies), things that took profound courage to say, things that frightened many white folks to their bones, things I knew to be true (and, I believe, they knew, in their bones), truths that could easily get him killed—by people who were our masters. And I could see, and everyone could see, that he knew it, and that he would not acquiesce, he would not, and probably simply could not, accommodate their lies and their brutality.

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