- Historic Sites
Discovering what a particular time in Harlem says about the whole nation
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
At the same time, thousands of Harlem’s sons were being drafted and shipped South to basic-training camps. There, in the service of a nation that claimed to be fighting a global war for human dignity, they were abused by racist officers and routinely arrested, beaten, bullied, and even killed by local white lawmen and citizens. Nor was this sort of persecution confined to the South. Attempts by blacks to integrate defense plants and shipyards were greeted with brutal mass assaults by white workers in Chester, Pennsylvania, and Beaumont, Texas, and with three days of pitched street fighting in Newark, New Jersey, that killed a 15-year-old boy—to name just a few examples. Attempts to integrate new housing projects for defense workers in Detroit led to a vicious white-on-black riot that left 34 people dead.
Reports of these disturbances fell on Harlem like a steady drip of poison. Throughout that summer, James Baldwin would recall seeing “the strangest combinations” of people gathered “on stoops and on corners and in doorways”—all of them, it seemed, “disturbed by the bitter letters they received, by the newspaper stories they read. . . .” He remembered that “on each face there seemed to be the same strange, bitter shadow.” Their rage would soon explode, in another riot that would kill six people, and devastate their community.
The life of Malcolm X was an American story, even though he probably would have denied that to the end.
Strivers Row tells the story of this fateful moment through two main protagonists. One of them is the Reverend Jonah Dove, a fictional, composite character, whose story is based in part on the experiences of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., “the Big Cat,” longtime minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and Harlem’s first congressman. Jonah, who lives on Strivers Row itself, among the community’s elite, is the pastor of one of Harlem’s leading churches, a position he no longer feels worthy of fulfilling. He fears he will be unable to protect or lead his people in the ever more violent world he sees emerging everywhere, and he is thinking of deserting his flock and imitating his sister by trying to “pass” in white society.
The other main character is a young Malcolm X, still known as Malcolm Little, who was in fact a teenage street hustler in wartime Harlem. To write anything about such an iconic figure is to confront some obvious obstacles, for Malcolm X was the ultimate irreconcilable, a bone in the throat of America. Malcolm didn’t want equal rights; he wanted out . For most of his adult life he was the chief spokesman of a cult that considered all white people to be literal devils, the degenerate creation of a mad black scientist. There could be no compromise with such creatures, only separation.
It has often been pointed out that Malcolm modified these views somewhat near the end of his life—but only somewhat. In order to discover just what Malcolm did believe, one must begin with his own words, or at least his words as recorded by Alex Haley in the Autobiography that was published following his assassination in 1965. Malcolm’s life story has become a totemic American text, and deservedly so, but like all auto-biographies, it is less than wholly reliable, and like most, it reveals more than it intends. The Autobiography is both a classic conversion story and a bid for power, and as such Malcolm skirts certain aspects of his life and exaggerates others, including just how bad he really was in his hustler days. Having been down the farthest, he could make the case that he had risen the highest.
Yet what I found most intriguing about The Autobiography of Malcolm X was what was written between the lines. Again and again, Malcolm recounts episodes of how he fooled, thwarted, or patronized older (and presumably darker) men. Whether he is outwitting an entire hunting party of black neighbors, or winning over a barful of hustlers by making a fuss over an ancient pickpocket, or facing down a pimp and then a fearsome Harlem gangster, it is always the younger (and probably lighter) Malcolm who triumphs. He repeatedly expresses dismay and embarrassment over the uninhibited passion that marked the black church services his parents took him to, yet he claims an inherent black superiority at dancing and rhythm, including an almost preternatural ability for himself.
Over and over again Malcolm’s story reveals the tension in which he lived, suspended between the white world and the black. When he was a boy, his father mocked him for the white ancestors he had through his mother’s side, but he beat him much less than he did Malcolm’s darker brothers and sisters, and he liked to take him with him whenever he was visiting either black or white neighbors. Malcolm’s siblings and black neighbors teased him with nicknames such as “Milky” and “Blondie,” “Chink” and “Freak of Nature” for his skin color, at the same time that his predominantly white classmates called him “nigger,” and “darkie,” and “Rastus.” Those same white classmates liked him well enough to elect him class president, and they pitied the abject poverty in which he lived enough to chip in and buy him a brand-new coat. And yet he was told by his homeroom teacher that the most he could possibly hope for was a life of a carpenter. Malcolm insists on the second page of his autobiography that he “learned to hate every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me.” Yet even at the end of his life—with his stories of outwitting all those older black men—he did not seem to notice just how much of white racial attitudes he had yet to purge.