blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

A Reading of  "malcolm"

Karen Jackson Ford (1997)

Smith’s powerful poem fulfills the aspirations of Black Arts excesses and yet also registers deep ambivalence about that rhetorical strategy. "malcolm" apprehends the possibilities and limitations of excess and is structured by these complexities. As in classical elegies, "malcolm" gestures toward lamentation, memorial, transcendence, and reconciliation in its five distinct sections, attempting to treat the death of Malcolm X in a worthy manner. That is, "malcolm" is a poem that recognizes the traditional genre for mourning and recurs to it despite the Black Arts strictures against Anglo-European conventions. However, "malcolm" employs familiar Black Arts excesses in order to reveal the inadequacies of the white tradition for a black poet who grieves for his assassinated black hero. The poem uses excess to reject Anglo-European aesthetics, express the violence of the speaker’s grief, and point toward the inexpressible aspects of that grief; but further it casts excess into dialogue with decorum achieving a dialogic voice that carries tremendous political force.

The poem has six sections, the first, a prelude that falls under the general title, "malcolm," the other five designated "The Nigga Section," "interlude," "Special Section for the Niggas on the Lower Eastside or: Invert the Divisor and Multiply," a second "interlude," and finally "The Beast Section." The divisions attest that complicated, even contradictory, emotions require multiple resources and approaches. The two "nigga" sections implicate African Americans themselves in Malcolm X’s murder; the "beast" section indicts whites and also studies their role in the speaker’s recovery and revenge. The two "interludes" address aspects of grief which are beyond the reach of conventional discourse. They interrupt the logic of the rest of the poem, first with fantasy and then with rage. Excess informs much of the poem, but each section employs it differently. One result of this structural and tonal diversity is to demonstrate the need for excess, while another result is to demonstrate its limits. The poem succeeds in elegizing Malcolm X by mixing flamboyant Black Arts excesses with a subtler rhetorical register.

The first section of "malcolm" is uncharacteristically understated for a Black Arts poem, especially for so incendiary a subject. Even though the stock targets of contempt are here--the "slobbering emaciated man" who "pisses on himself" and is ambivalent about his ethnic heritage and the "fat / jewess" who pretends to support the revolution only to gain sexual access to Malcolm X--they are treated with detachment. In fact, the drunken man and the Jewish woman are part of an impressionistic blur of American culture that includes Malcolm X and his wife Betty in a safe, intimate moment ("in the quiet / after midnight. your hand / soft on her back. you kiss / her neck softly") and the perilous public sphere where children are killed in church bombings ("in birmingham ‘get a move / on you, girl. you bet’not / be late for sunday school.’ / not this morning--"). The speaker sees all this with an eerie detachment that comes of shock not yet assimilated to grief. Though his remoteness has an almost mystical quality that he associates with Malcolm X’s spirituality (in a reference to Mecca), it is too dreamy and "fantastic" to carry him through the stages of grief which the poem--as elegy and as political tract--will require. These social vignettes constitute "a design," a complicated and deadly pattern of personal love and communal commitment, that is reproduced internally in a pattern of psychological contradictions: "the men / inside you fought. / fighting men inside you / made a frenzy / smelling like shit." What Malcolm X taught was how those inner contradictions, the fractured selves of internalized racism, can be gathered up and purged: "you reached into yourself-- / deep--and scooped your frenzy / and rolled it to a slimy ball / and stretched your arm back / to throw." Though the speaker acknowledges his own self-hatred and conflicting selves, he maintains restraint in section one, attending first to his private grief over the loss of Malcolm X:

now you pace the regions
of my heart. you know
my blood and see
where my tears are made.
I see the beast
and hold my frenzy;
you are not lonely--
in my heart there are many
unmarked graves.

These lines end section one without recourse to excess. Still stunned by grief for the loss of Malcolm X, still feeling the personal heartache of that loss, the speaker adopts a quiet, deliberate, mournful tone and an austere style.

The carefully modulated tone of the first section of "malcolm" reflects not only the gravity of the speaker’s mood after the assassination but also the formality of the elegiac mode. The speaker holds his frenzy in the opening part while he absorbs the shock of Malcolm X’s death, but the frenzy is nevertheless gathering force. In part two, "The Nigga Section," the first blast of his rage is directed at the blacks who helped murder Malcolm X:

slimy obscene creatures. . . .
[you] have [murdered Malcolm X] with precision
like the way you stand green
in the dark sucking pus
and slicing your penis
into quarters--stuffing
shit through your noses.
you rotten motherfuckin’ bastards
. . . you have made
your black mother to spread
her legs wide
you have crawled in mucous
smeared snot in your hair
let machines crawl up your cock
rammed your penis into garbage disposals
spread your gigantic ass from
one end of america to the other . . .
and called the beasts
to fuck you hard in the ass
you have fucked your fat black mothers
you have murdered malcolm.

The excesses (name calling, mutilated or severed genitals, bodily grossness, scornful references to homosexuality, emasculated men and castrating women) accrue and escalate, yet they "culminate" in a plain-spoken last line, "you have murdered malcolm." The poem seems to recognize the limitations of such excesses even as it is compelled, by convention and by desperation, to invoke them. Slicing up penises, stuffing excrement in noses, smearing mucous in hair--these are desperate acts delivered in phrases straining to be outrageous. Likewise, "fuck you hard in the ass" is amplified to "fuck your fat black mothers" to intensify an affront that is already losing its force to familiarity. Such rhetorical accretion and aggravation is reminiscent of the "dozens" and other insult games; however, there is only one speaker here, and though in some sense he is in competition with the speakers of contemporary poems, his primary verbal contest is between words and their meanings. The more outrageous his words are, the more ineffective they sound. When this string of abuses concludes simply with "you have murdered malcolm," it is obvious that no amount of rhetorical excess can approximate the blunt fact of Malcolm X’s death. "The Nigga Section" concludes with a wish that the blacks involved in Malcolm X’s murder will be "smothered / in the fall of a huge yellow moon," an apocalyptic image that suggests how ineffective mere language has been in smothering them. Cultural self-betrayal, self-destruction, and regret mingle ambivalently with accusation and outrage in these lines.

Section three, the first "interlude," makes another abrupt shift in tone, abandoning the obscenities and vulgarities lobbed at the "niggas" in favor of a refined, intimate address to Malcolm X, which repeatedly calls him "Friend." The "interlude" aspect of section three is not merely a pause in the aggressive language of the previous section but also an interruption of setting. Relocating itself to the pastoral scene of classical elegies, the poem attempts to retreat from the "punks," "rodents," and "cockroaches" of contemporary Harlem where Malcolm X was killed. But the natural world is not the place where this poem can go to reconcile itself to the passing of Malcolm X, as in the elegiac convention, where nature and natural cycles offer hope and renewal against the finality of death; instead, it is a place to where the speaker and Malcolm X, as black men in the urban industrial north, could not retreat: "we never spent time in the mountains," never "spent long mornings fishing or laughed / laughed falling all down into the dirt." He and Malcolm X were not even able to enjoy a city park, an urban substitute for the pastoral scene, "we never danced together as men / in a public park," nor were they able to meander in the affluent parts of the city, "we never walked together / down Fillmore or Fifth Avenue / down Main Street together."

The interlude can envision friendship between the speaker and Malcolm X, and can situate it in congenial settings, but cannot deny the fact that they never actually met. Though the speaker loves Malcolm X (we know he has "loaned / [his] heart in exchange / for [Malcolm X’s] voice"), he cannot recall or preserve him in personal memories. The four incantations of "Friend" almost effect an intimacy with Malcolm X, but the six repetitions of the phrase "we never" insistently work against that dream of concord and escape. The cadenced recurrence of "Friend" conveys the speaker’s capacity to love the hero he never knew personally. The first interlude offers a lull in the violence of the speaker’s anger, but it is a paradoxical "interlude" that also demonstrates the impossibility of escape from either the reality of Malcolm X’s death or from the corrupt world where such a thing could happen.

Black intellectuals are the target in the fourth part of the poem, "Special Section for the Niggas on the Lower Eastside or: Invert the Divisor and Multiply." These "jive revolutionaries" have undermined the real revolution, and thus contributed to Malcolm X’s death, by selling out to white liberals, "selling black" the poem chants "for a part in a play," "for a ride in a rolls," "for a quick fuck," "for two lines on page 6,000 in the new york times." Again the speaker employs hyperbole in a diatribe against the Lower Eastside "niggas," and again even the most vile words seem inadequate to the task:

you are gluttons devouring
every cunt in every garbage can on avenue b
you hope to find
an eighty ton white woman
with a cock big enough
to crawl inside
you don’t just want a white woman
you want to be a white woman
you are concubines of a beast
you want to be lois lane, audrey hepburn, ma perkins, lana turner,
    jean harlow, kim stanley, may west, marilyn monroe, sophie
    tucker, betty crocker, tallulah bankhead, judy canova, shirley
    temple, and trigger.

This litany of famous white women scours the dominant culture randomly from Marilyn Monroe to Betty Crocker to the Lone Ranger’s horse Trigger; however, its very range reveals the broad spectrum of American culture that entices and excludes black men. Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe are sexy, blonde beauties who inspire both lust and loathing. Betty Crocker represents the American dream of domestic order, plenitude, and bliss. And Trigger, the white horse of the white cowboy, concludes the list with an absurdity that indicates exasperation with black men who don’t understand that wanting those women is the same as wanting to be a white woman (that is, desiring whiteness is ultimately to put oneself in servitude to white men) and that to be the "concubine of the beast" is to be his beast of burden--his horse or even his slave.

The section concludes with "turn white you jive motherfucker [white space] and ram the bomb up your ass," but the predictable reference to sodomy as the ultimate insult, even magnified to the global level with the substitution of the nuclear bomb for the phallus, conveys an exhaustion (the white space in the middle of the line seems to be looking for something to say) with these formulas.7 While the rhetorical violence of excess has served to identify and excoriate the black bohemians who are implicated in Malcolm X’s death, it has not succeeded in eradicating them from the external or internal "design" that killed Malcolm X and that Malcolm X himself recognized.

The next "interlude" registers the need for some fuller expression and points up the inadequacy of conventional language for the tasks of elegy, catharsis, recovery, and action, by simply transcribing, as it were, the speaker’s inarticulate frenzy:

does not hear my screams
screams . . .
screams scraping my eyes
screams from guns
the witches ecstasy . . .
ecstasy king ecstasy salazar rowan ecstasy
screams . . .
screams in my head screams
screams six feet deep.

The speaker gives full vent to his anguish, using the repeated word "screams" to simulate non-verbal shrieking, and purges the "shit" inside him (by expelling the names of the shapers of culture: Ochs, Sulzberger, Oppenheimer, Galbraith, Kennedy, Johnson, Franco, Bunche, King, and others). The screams reverberate everywhere, spreading, like the "gigantic ass" in section two, "from one end of america to the other," replacing the betrayal that encompassed the country in that earlier line with genuine anguish from "st. louis" to "the laughter of children" to "black faces." Though Malcolm X is beyond the reach of these screams, the speaker can hear the screams that emanate from Malcolm X’s grave ("screams six feet deep") and can take them up as his own.

The excesses of the second "interlude" carry an emotional force that is not articulated to intellectual concerns. The flood of noise that dislodges Kennedy, Johnson, King, and Schlesinger exorcises them without analysis or other engagement, without, that is, the sort of intellectual entanglements that the jive revolutionaries succumb to.

After this purgation, the speaker can address the worst enemy, whites, with a rhetorical equilibrium and argumentative sureness that are more ominous than excess. In "The Beast Section" he refuses to quibble over who killed Malcolm X--not because he exonerates whites but because he knows that they control everything. He even gives whites their due for being dominant,

    your civilization
compares favorably with any known
your power is incomparable
i understand why you would destroy
the world rather than pass it to lesser
people. i agree completely,

but he will also take what’s due from them by mastering their culture and destroying them. We know he is already well schooled in the dominant culture when he cites Aristotle ("aristotle tells us in the physics / that power and existence are one")--even if we did not already sense his authority in the studied tone and diction of this final section.

At the end of the poem he offers whites a taste of their own medicine, so to speak:

i’ve made you a fantastic dish
you must try it, if not now
very soon.

And we realize that he has the subtle skills of refinement, articulateness, learning, flattery, and self-control that will eventually entice whites to taste his deadly concoction.8 Unlike the jive revolutionaries "who will never tear this house down," our speaker will succeed in dismantling the dominant culture from inside: "i am comfortable in your house." In the most threatening line of the poem, he says something even more to the point, "i am comfortable in your language," a fact to which this final section attests. Indeed, it is this mastery of the master’s language-- and its dialogic relation to Black Arts linguistic excesses--that makes the end of the poem ominous and powerful. The rhetorical frenzies of "malcolm" remain an absolutely necessary part of the radical, revolutionary, uncompromising rejection of the dominant culture--a deliberately unseemly assertion from below--but, in the end, they are not sufficient for a widespread and effective cultural movement. Other kinds of discourses need to be brought in, and they eventually are. These are the complexities of "the design" that Malcolm X "knew" in the opening of the poem, complexities that the speaker now understands. His elegy to Malcolm X succeeds not only because it laments and memorializes its subject but because the speaker has become a person in whom the meaning of Malcolm X’s life can live and flourish. He is no longer paralyzed by grief or contorted with rage; he is comfortable in the language, as Malcolm X was, and prepared for another kind of battle.

From, Karen Jackson Ford, Gender and the Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997): 182-190.

 Return to Welton Smith