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.
Collection Christophel/Alamy
Show Hide image

Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

0800 7318496