When the NS met Malcolm X

12 June 1964.

At the recent New Statesman debate on the motion "Did the Left Win the 20th Century", one of the strongest arguments in favour was the improvement in global race relations. 50 years ago Brian Glanville interviewed Malcolm X shortly before his assassination in 1965. The article was written three months after his exclusion from the Nation of Islam and his founding of the Muslim Mosque Inc. Malcolm had recently returned from Mecca and was rethinking many of his views and the direction of his racial relations campaigns. Having become a Sunni Muslim and distanced himself from many of his earlier standpoints, Malcolm toned down his aggression, but not his passion.

He focused less on racism and black supremacy and more on equal rights from a Pan-African standpoint. He also became more willing to give interviews and work with other civil rights movements and leaders. In april 1964, two months before the article below was published, Malcolm gave his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, in which he urged all African-Americans to exercise their right to vote. They should tone down the violence, but not forget it was an option should their rights be ignored in the future.

Along with Martin Luther King Jr, whom Malcolm met briefly only once, their speeches in the early 60s became one of the turning points in global race relations. Half a year after this article was published, Malcolm X was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam.

Introduction by Christian Jensen

Malcolm X

"I don't think we’re outnumbered. We’re part of the Afro-Asian world, and that means that we're in the majority. White America is in the minority." The speaker was Malcolm X, the most powerful and eloquent figure in the American 'Black Muslim' movement. The origins of the movement are a little obscure. Probably it began in Detroit some 30 years ago, founded by a man called Wallace Fard about whom very little is known. His followers were poor, humble and largely illiterate. Not long ago, a Hearst newspaper carried the story that Fard was actually a white man, an allegation strongly denied by Elijah Muhammad, the sanctioned leader of the Muslims, who offered a large reward to anybody who could prove that Fard was white.

The question, "Why Muslims?" is one which Malcolm X-brushes quickly aside. "Our people are from Nigeria and Ghana. They tell us we're from West Africa, and I think historically that's sound doctrine. The Mali empire stretched through Ghana, Guinea, Senegal." When the Negroes were imported as slaves, he believes, they "had to be cut off from Islam; Islam does not say turn the other cheek; it says fight those who fight you. If you turn the other cheek, you can be enslaved for 1,000 years."

One can quarrel with his analysis here; white American motives for weaning their Negroes from Islam — if they did — were probably less devious and more evangelic. What the embracing of Islam does represent is a deliberate taking of position against Christianity as a white religion, which has been used to seduce and exploit the Negro. Malcolm X talks of Christianity with hatred. "I went to prison" (he served a seven-year term, during which he was converted to Islam) "as a Christian. and while I was a Christian, I did what most Christians in this country do. Which means I engaged in many vices. That's the Christian way. Christians are drunk. Christians are dope addicts. Christians rob banks. In fact you ask any drunk, 'What are you?' 'I'm a Christian?' When you find him robbing a bank, 'What are you?' 'I'm a Christian.' But when I became a Muslim, I put that life behind me."

Elijah Muhammad, the father of the movement, with whom Malcolm X has now effectively split, was born Elijah Poole in Georgia, 67 years ago. The story goes that the 'prophet' who appeared in Detroit — presumably Fard — appointed Elijah his Messenger. At the time he was without formal education, the son of a Baptist minister, who had little to recommend him but his dynamism.

It was not until the Fifties, and the national growth of the civil rights movement for Negroes, that the Muslim religion began to flourish. Muhammad ran it in authoritarian manner with his sons and his son-in-law as his deputies. The doctrine preached was one of absolute separation between the races. If white wanted nothing to do with black, here was black saying it wanted nothing to do with white; merely the right to set up its own autonomous state within America.

Given the structure of the movement, it was perhaps inevitable that the rise of a forceful young leader outside the family circle of the Muhammads would lead to tension. Malcolm Little, otherwise Malcolm X, a tall, dignified, handsome Negro, born 38 years ago in Omaha, Nebraska, grew quickly in power and popularity. He might profess the doctrine of separatism, but there was no doubt that he could meet the white man on his own ground, and, with his lucid eloquence, fascinate him as well as frighten him. After the murder of Kennedy, a tactless statement about chickens having come home to roost gave Muhammad the opportunity to ban Malcolm from public speaking. Malcolm proceeded to form, in New York, his splinter group, the Muslim Mosque Incorporated, and to trot around with him his own particular trump card and convert, the heavyweight champion, Cassius Clay.

"When we say South," says Malcolm X, "we mean south of the Canadian border. America in its entirety is segregationist and is racist. It's more camouflaged in the north, but it's the same thing." His bitterness is not difficult to understand. When he was a child, his father died in ambiguous circumstances. "They found him one night underneath a street car, dying. They called it an accident, but he was run over by the rear wheels of a street car, which means he was thrown under after the front wheels went by. This wasn't in the South. This was in Michigan."

Malcolm X has taken up his headquarters in Harlem's Theresa Hotel, where Joe Louis used to stay after his fights and where Cassius Clay stays now, making periodic excursions to the street, to be acclaimed by his joyful admirers. The heavy, painted glass doors of the Muslims' offices are inscribed Eve Nelson Cosmetics. Inside, several Negroes work diligently at a table in a long, light room, with green and white checked linoleum. Their courtesy, in a country where courtesy is so often the thin shell over violence, is immense. On a green, slatted blackboard, words are chalked up, as if in some strange free association: Fuzzy Wuzzy . . . Office schedule . . . Physical fit. . . There is a tide . . . Cowards die many . . . Red letter.. Eyes of the world on you.

The question of violence, how far the movement's aims make it inevitable, is one which increasingly perturbs white Americans. "All I've said," explains Malcolm, "is that if the government is unable or unwilling to defend Negroes, Negroes should defend themselves by whatever means are necessary. If it's lawful to have a rifle club to kill pheasants, it should be just as lawful to have one to kill wolves or dogs that are being sicked on little black babies. In fact it's constitutional. Article Number Two of the constitution" — he takes a handbook out of his inside pocket — "guarantees the right of every citizen to own a rifle or a shot gun."

'We're not opposed to violence, we're opposed to brutality. We're opposed to being the victims of violence. Non-violence didn't even work in India. The Indians are still subservient to the West, whereas the Chinese aren't. I think India and China are the two best examples we can look to, to see the result of these so-called negotiated freedoms. The people of India have gone from physical colonialism to economic colonialism."

As for the American Negro, "we're just as thoroughly colonialised as Angola, Mozambique. This is not a democracy. I don't think any man has exploited, has oppressed and degraded, just based on the colour of another man's skin, as western man has done. And the American segment of western man has done it more evilly than any other man, because they've done it hypocritically. They've condemned the colonial practices of the western European nations, while they're practising colonialism here. Texas is the same as Mississippi, and that's the state from which the present President comes. Now, how can he straighten out the national mess when he can't even straighten out what's going on in his own state?"

When he speaks, the pain is evident, almost palpable, the analysis hard to refute. But the solution, the all-Negro state, seems chimerical, mere pie in the sky. Malcolm X won't have it; when Washington began, he says — a little ingenuously — his task seemed harder still, and he accomplished it. One asks him how long he thinks it will take, a decade? And he answers : "There's not a black man in this country will wait a decade to get this problem solved. This generation wants a solution now." But it will clearly take a long time for the Black Muslims to organise; even those sympathetic to them feel that their cohorts are at best disciplined, rather than trained. Nor is their fundamentalism, their aggressive brand of Islam, carrying the intellectuals; the Baldwins and the Ellisons, men too sophisticated for such easy dichotomies. This is not to say that they are not sympathetic.

When I spoke to James Baldwin — that tiny, endearing figure, now as hotly besieged as any film star, he showed this clearly. "It's impossible to argue with facts. Facts are facts. But obviously I'm not going to teach my children or anybody I know that they're better because they're black; it seems to me it's a repetition, let's say, of the whole doctrine of white supremacy." He feels, though, that "this is the first time in the history of this country where people . . . are forced to recognise some of the facts of Negro life. It's no longer possible for them to contain it and pretend it isn't true. A man like Malcolm X has this utility, that he frightens people so much that finally they'd rather talk even to me than to him." As for the labelling of the Black Muslims as extremists, "there's no great hue and cry as far as I know, calling some of the Senator Eastlands extremists. What they mean is that Malcolm is an extremist because he makes them uncomfortable and because he argues that not all Negroes are non-violent, which happens to be true."

Indeed, a point which has been widely made is that the rousing of the Negro masses must inevitably lead to violence, precisely because protest action so far has been largely in the hands of those diligently trained in nonviolence. "There's another point which is very important," Baldwin continued. "We are one tenth, and it is true that we couldn't hope to win let's call it a shooting war, but it is also true that we're very well placed to bring this economy to its knees."

Where Baldwin and the Muslims differ most profoundly is in the concept of difference through race. "As long as you think people are white or black," said Baldwin, "you fall into the same traps. I'm not a Negro, I'm a man." To which Malcolm X replies, "I don't have to say I'm a man; my actions will speak for me; and if my behaviour doesn't reflect masculinity, then I shouldn't seek to be referred to as a man. And in America the Negro has been robbed of his masculinity and he doesn't get it back by saying 'I'm a man'; he gets it back by deeds. To say 'I'm a man' is not sufficient."

Malcolm X in Oxford before addressing university students on the subject of extremism and liberty. Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution