Beyond the Myth of Malcolm X
(The Atlantic) - Black Boston had a profound effect on the figure whom the artist-activist Shirley Graham Du Bois later referred to as “the most promising and effective leader of American Negroes in this century.”
When he described 1940s Black Boston to Alex Haley as they worked together on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, two decades of distance had left him with barely concealed disdain for the Dale Street neighborhood. The cocky teenager had once marveled at the number of Black people in Dudley Square and the upper South End. But the man known variously as “East Lansing Red,” Prisoner 22843, Malcolm X, and Malik el-Shabazz told Haley that the enclave where he and Ella once lived was a bastion of middle-class Black pretension and snobbery. Yet despite this disavowal, Black Boston had a profound effect on the figure whom the artist-activist Shirley Graham Du Bois later referred to as “the most promising and effective leader of American Negroes in this century.”
At the city’s jazz clubs—the Hi-Hat, the Savoy, and Wally’s Paradise—East Lansing Red fell in love with Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, and Ella Fitzgerald. As a shoe-shine boy, he arranged sexual dalliances between white people and those he referred to as “Negro streetwalkers,” and went on to court a pious Black teenager at Townsend Drugstore on Humboldt Avenue, smoke copious amounts of weed, and fraternize with his Armenian American lover on Beacon Hill. When Malcolm performed his own crooner act at various South End clubs, he went by J.C., borrowed from the stage name Jimmy Carlton, used by his talented half brother, Earl Little Jr. The original J.C. had died of tuberculosis shortly after Malcolm’s arrival in Boston, and Malcolm used the nickname throughout his life.
Today, with the exception of Wally’s on Massachusetts Avenue, few of these landmarks of Malcolm Little’s Boston remain. Gentrification has turned the skeletons of mid-20th-century Black Boston into condos and restaurants, and 72 Dale Street is no longer the worn house with the overgrown lawn that I remember seeing as a child in the 1980s, when my grandparents pointed it out to me on the way home from my cello recital. Back then, in the age of Ronald Reagan and deindustrialization and crack cocaine, the neighborhood was frequently mentioned with the dismissive sigh that political pundits reserve for the “inner city.” Then, too, the area was riddled with the broken promises made by the Massachusetts liberal establishment: The 1970s busing crisis and the failed 1983 mayoral campaign of the Black community activist Mel King had left Black Boston with neither the quality public schools nor the representative political power that its residents demanded.
Today, No. 72, which has been designated a historical landmark by the Boston Landmarks Commission, is still in need of paint, but its lawn is freshly mowed, its porch decorated with banners announcing the Malcolm X–Ella Little-Collins House. It is owned by Rodnell Collins, Ella Collins’s son and Malcolm X’s nephew, and is marked by a weathered plaque on a stand in the grass.
Like his early childhood in Omaha, Nebraska; his troubled preadolescence in Lansing, Michigan; and his immersion in street-corner politics in 1950s Harlem, Malcolm’s coming-of-age in Boston shaped his radicalism as profoundly as the Nation of Islam and his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca did. And yet, in our current political moment, as Black scholars and activists demand that America reckon with the structural and institutional mechanisms that threaten Black existence, it is easy to forget the complexities of community, of place, of Blackness itself that shape Black lives. In order for Black lives to matter in the radical ways that we demand, we must reckon, honestly and humbly, with the personal histories of those who have made our present movement possible.
Precisely this kind of textured attention to Black life and community, whether in Omaha or Boston, Atlanta or Accra, distinguishes Les Payne’s masterful biography, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X. Payne takes as a given that Malcolm was neither the propagator of hate that his critics claimed—a radical messiah manipulated by an extremist cult, as many Black leaders at the time considered him to be—nor the tragic transnational revolutionary assassinated before he could be fully redeemed. Rather, The Dead Are Arising is a meticulously researched, compassionately rendered, and fiercely analytical examination of the radical revolutionary as a human being.
Haley’s 1965 Autobiography asked us to truly see the passion that Malcolm had for Black people, to meditate on his willingness to die, as Ossie Davis said at his funeral, “because he loved us so.” Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011) dissected Malcolm’s personal and intellectual relationship with the Black radical tradition, providing new revelations about his sexuality and constant political reinvention. Payne has combed this scholarship, yet draws above all on thousands of hours of interviews with Malcolm’s family, friends, enemies, and converts. Completed after his death by his daughter, Tamara Payne, whose research was crucial all along, Payne’s biography forces us to understand Malcolm X as his various communities experienced him—as a brilliant, troubled, selfish, generous, sincere, ugly, and beautiful Black radical whose faith in working-class Black folk was surpassed only by his compassion for the communities from whence they came.