Malcolm X in Boston and Beyond
This Week: Malcolm X in Boston and Beyond. Listen today at 2 pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.
A new play about Malcolm X’s years in Boston has been on stage here in Boston. The play, Detroit Red—closing today at the Emerson Paramount theatre—is written by Will Power, and it’s one of many ways into the history of black activism and intellectual energy in this city. We spoke with Power, along with Malcolm X’s nephew Rodnell Collins, Brandon Terry of Harvard, and Kerri Greenidge of Tufts, to explore Malcolm X’s experiences here, and to discern the wider resonances of Malcolm today.
There were many versions of the man, we’ve learned, from the younger Malcolm of Will Power’s play to the fiery nationalist speaker in later decades. Power told us that this Protean quality became one of Malcolm’s great strengths:
The fascinating thing about Malcolm is not only did he have empathy and could reach different people, but at different points of his life, he had become those people. He was those people, you know. So when he was talking to the the guy hustling on the street, you know . . . he used to be that person. He understood those different things. And that’s just that’s what made him brilliant. He could he could speak to homeless people on the street and he can debate someone at Oxford or Harvard.
At the Frugal Bookstore in Roxbury—which specializes in African-American literature, and which the Bay State Banner calls “an Afrofuturist’s dream”—we talked to readers inspired by Malcolm X while they were themselves incarcerated. In this show, you’ll hear how Malcolm’s story of radical reflection and personal growth in prison continues to resonate through later generations with transformative power.
From Kerri Greenidge, we learned more of the history of Boston’s black radicalism and activism. She’s the author of a new book, Black Radical:The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter, and she described the radical intellectualism in one of the cities where Malcolm X began to emerge.
Here’s the NY Times on Greenidge’s wonderful book:
“Black Radical” opens up a rich seam of inquiry that persists to this day, about the tug-of-war between reformers and radicals, and whether victories that seem purely symbolic at first can ripple out into real-world effects later on. Trotter was always oriented toward the possibilities of the future, rather than the complacency of the present or the irrevocability of the past. Toward the end of his life, he became a compulsive pacer, seemingly unable to stay still. When asked why he kept walking to and fro, he replied, “To think where I am going next.”
Brandon Terry, professor of African American Studies at Harvard, studies black nationalism among so much else, and he has intriguing ideas about the legacy of Malcolm X’s version of black nationalism today, and about the status of black nationalism at the moment:
I think it’s the most fragmented and broken it’s ever been in American history. The most interesting thing in black intellectual life is all of the pieces of black nationalism are moving into radically different streams of American life, in black feminist thought, black Marxist thought, white leftist thought. And we’re in a real moment of recomposition and it’s an exciting time to think through the legacy of someone like Malcolm in light of it.
Terry also tells us about the turning point in Malcolm X’s reputation in mainstream America—the point at which Malcolm X became a more widely recognized, feared figure across the US. This was a TV documentary by Louis Lomax and Mike Wallace, from 1959, called The Hate that Hate Produced. With this, Malcolm X was no longer “a regional figure of minor note,” Terry says. Now, his uncompromised and uncompromising ideas made their way into “everyone’s living room.”
The history of African-American writers and civil rights leaders running through Boston includes so many—Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Monroe Trotter, W.E.B. Du Bois, and more. Du Bois had a wide-ranging Massachusetts life, from the Berkshires to Harvard, and in Darkwater, you can read an expansive, autobiographical reflection on that life. Darkwater starts with an ecological consideration of dwelling in the Berkshires:
I was born by a golden river and in the shadow of two great hills, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The house was quaint, with clapboards running up and down, neatly trimmed, and there were five rooms, a tiny porch, a rosy front yard, and unbelievably delicious strawberries in the rear. A South Carolinian, lately come to the Berkshire Hills, owned all this — tall, thin, and black, with golden earrings, and given to religious trances. We were his transient tenants for the time.
Listen: The Music of Malcolm X
The New Yorker has an essay by Hisham Aidi on the music associated with Malcolm X.
As a young man, Malcolm was famously passionate about music. In his autobiography, he boasts of how, as a shoeshine boy in Boston’s Roseland State Ballroom, he shined the shoes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and other greats. During his Detroit Red phase, Malcolm danced and played drums at jazz bars, under the stage name Jack Carlton.
Malcolm X mentioned in his writings Thelonious Monk, and there was also a brief meeting of Malcolm X and Johnny Hodges in Boston.
Watch: Malcolm X
The Spike Lee movie, Malcolm X, continued to come up in conversations this week, though it’s decades after the film’s release. From a reflection on the film and its influence in The Guardian:
Lee’s film was also a powerful statement against an entertainment culture which routinely prioritised the experience of white saviours in civil rights narratives (see: Cry Freedom, Mississippi Burning), or sweetened the bitter pill with soothing depictions of interracial friendships (The Long Walk Home). Although pernicious white saviour narratives persist today (The Blind Side, The Help, Django Unchained), Malcolm X’s influence does finally appear to be taking hold.
This week’s ephemeral library
Roger Angell’s era-spanning New Yorker career. Wes Anderson’s New Yorker-inspired film. Preparing for a pandemic. Go right into the mind of Tessa Hadley on Elizabeth Bowen. Zadie Smith on Kara Walker. Masha Gessen: Is Pete Gay Enough? Bloomberg’s Billions: An Empire of Influence. Mike Bloomberg is Hacking Your Attention.