The Wisdom of Plato Negro: Parables/Fables
Marvin X was a prime shaper of the Black Arts Movement (1964-1970s) which is, among other things, the birthplace of modern Muslim American literature, and it begins with him. Well, Malik Shabazz and him. But while the Autobiography of Malcolm X is a touchstone of Muslim American culture, Marvin X and other Muslims in BAM were the emergence of a cultural expression of Black Power and Muslim thought inspired by Malcolm, who was, of course, ignited by the teachings and writings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
And that, taken all together, is what I see as the starting point of Muslim American literature. Then there are others, immigrant Muslims and white American Muslims and so forth, that follow.There are also antecedents, such as the letters of Africans enslaved in America. Maybe there is writing by Muslims in the Spanish and Portuguese era or earlier, but that requires archival research of a sort I am not going to be able to do.
My interest is contemporary literature, and by literature I am more interested in poetry and fiction than memoir and non-fiction, although that is a flexible thing.I argue that it is time to call Muslim American literature a field, even though many of these writings can be and have been classified in other ways—studied under African American literature or to take the writings of immigrant Muslims, studied under South Asian ethnic literature or Arab American literature.
With respect to Marvin X, I wonder why I am just now hearing about him—I read Malcolm when I was 12, I read Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez and others from the BAM in college and graduate school—why is attention not given to his work in the same places I encountered these other authors?
Declaring Muslim American literature as a field of study is valuable because recontextualizing it will add another layer of attention to his incredibly rich body of work. He deserves to be WAY better known than he is among Muslim Americans and generally, in the world of writing and the world at large.
By we who are younger Muslim American poets, in particular, Marvin should be honored as our elder, one who is still kickin, still true to the word!Love and War Poems is wrenching and powerful, combining a powerful critique of America ("America downsizes like a cripple whore/won't retire/too greedy to sleep/too fat to rest") but also a critique of deadbeat dads and drug addicts (not sparing himself) and men who hate.
"For the Men" is so Quranic poem it gave me chills with verses such as:
for the men who honor wives
and the men who abuse them
for the men who win
and the men who sin
for the men who love God
and the men who hate
for the men who are brothers
and the men who are beasts"
"O Men, listen to the wise," the poet pleads:
there is no escape
for the men of this world
or the men of the next
He is sexist as all get out, in the way that is common for men of his generation and his radicalism, but he is refreshingly aware of that and working on it. It's just that the work isn't done and if that offends you to see a man in process and still using the 'b' word, look out. Speaking of the easily offended, he warns in his introduction that "life is often profane and obscene, such as the present condition of African American people." If you want pure and holy, he says, read the Quran and the Bible, because Marvin is talking about "the low down dirty truth."
For all that, the poetry of Marvin X is like prayer, beauty-full of reverence and honor for Truth. "It is. it is. it is."A poem to his daughter Muhammida is a sweet mix of parental love and pride and fatherly freak-out at her sexuality and independence, ending humbly with:
it's on you
Other people don't get off so easy, including a certain "black joint chief of staff ass nigguh (kill 200,000 Muslims in Iraq)" in the sharply aimed poem "Free Me from My Freedom." (Mmm hmm, the 'n' word is all over the place in Marvin too.) Nature poem, wedding poem, depression poem, wake-up call poems, it's all here. Haiti, Rwanda, the Million Man March, Betsy Ross's maid, OJ, Rabin, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and other topics make it into this prophetically voiced collection of dissent poetry, so Islamic and so African American in its language and its themes, a book that will stand in its beauty long after the people mentioned in it pass.
READ MARVIN X for RAMADAN!
--Mohja Kahf Associate Professor / Dept. of English, Middle East & Islamic Studies,
University of Arkansas-Fayetteville
photo Kamau Amen Ra
Somethin' Proper, the Autobiography of Marvin X, Black Bird Press, 1998
from the Introduction by Dr. Nathan Hare, the Black Think Tank
In SOMETHIN' PROPER, we quickly see that we are inside the pages not only of Marvin's private political papers, comprising a lyrical diary shaped to be read and enjoyed like a novel by the masterful hands of an internationally noted black poet, but we are being escorted to the cutting edge of a fascinating postmodern black literary genre in the making, the notes of an undying black warrior who refuses to give up, give out or give in!
Although easy to read by almost anybody wishing to do so, SOMETHIN' PROPER (apparently a phrase from the drug subculture, i.e., BREAK ME OFF SOMETHIN' PROPER), presents us at once with an opportunity for a deeper understanding of a panorama of participants in the often poignant but sometimes hilarious inner workings of the black male psyche, from the middle class bourgeois pretenders such as "tenured Negroes" on the academic plantation and their "negrocity," to "coconuts" in the corporations, and across the spectrum to brothers in the hood, particularly the way in which utility and haughty demeanor conceal and mask the panoramic and pervasive depression of the black male.
Before his death at the early age of 36, Frantz Fanon, the black psychiatrist who lived and wrote about the relations between the oppressor and oppressed in the battle of Algiers (Wretched of the Earth; Black Skin, White Masks, and A Dying Colonialism), presented us with clear psychiatric paradigms for the struggles Marvin deftly captures for us.
Marvin is able to give us insights into himself and his affiliates (Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Little Bobby Hutton, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Angela Davis, et.al., that are original but reminiscent of Fanon, because Marvin is bearing the covers on his life and the life of others.
Of all the many disorders and distortions that plague the black male, each and every day, perhaps the ones that take the heaviest tool on his ravished brain are those that—if not contained by armed resistance—revolve around the painful difficulty of gaining control over his individual and collective destiny, around what is known in mental health circles as "the locus of control," the dilemma of resistance to the enemy from without and the enemy from within (including the self, if we consider that there can be no master without those who, for whatever reason, are willing to be a slave). Might makes right but not for long.
If we honor the likes of Patrick Henry for saying "give me liberty or give me death," it is no matter that when the Negro says give him liberty or death the white man tries to give him death! The so-called Negro is confronted with a choice Patrick Henry had not reckoned with, something Fanon called "reactional disorders" or "psychosomatic pathology" that is the direct product of oppression.
But out of a last ditch desperation in self-medication and the management of his pulverized and thwarted emotions, in a mindless effort to soothe his psychological and social wounds, the black male is introduced unwarily if discreetly to the vicious cycle of self-mutilation and induced addiction, which takes hold and spreads like an epidemic virus as part of the psycho-technology, historically, of the white man's oppression of the North American African and others around the world.
In his powerlessness and victimization, with nothing left to lean on, the black man is likely to mount the seesaw, if not the roller coaster of racial psycho-social dependency and messianic religiosity (becoming the mad-dog religious fanatic, believing in a savior other than himself) on the one hand and the individual chemical dependent on the other, i.e. the dope fiend.
Marvin decontructs both. In the bottomless caverns of addiction in any form, there seems no amount of religiosity, coke, crack, alcohol or sex sufficient to sedate the social angst and shattered cultural strivings.
The more the black man tempts to medicate his anxiety and to mask his depression and self doubts with pretense and hostility, the more he finds himself in trouble with the persons he must love and be loved by than with the alien representatives of the society that would control and castrate his manhood.
Novelist Richard Wright, addressing these paradoxes and dilemmas in his own autobiography BLACK BOY, explained that, "Because I had no power to make things happen outside of me in the objective world, I made things happen within. Because my environment was bare and bleak, I endowed it with unlimited potentialities, redeemed it for the sake of my own hungry and cloudy yearning."
The catch is in the way these things turn out after the boy has been taken through the meat grinder of growing up within the machinery of white social control. In response, the strategy or road most taken by both Marvin X and Richard Wright, to put it simply, is FLIGHT (what Wright as a matter of fact names the middle passage of his novel, Native Son, book 2 of 3).
As surely as the individual who accepts oppression is constantly in flight from his racial identity, the black man who rejects it is constantly on the run from the agency of white supremacy that must control him and wishes to annihilate him outright. And here is where Marvin's story is most valuable to us , helping us to grasp the meaning of the tradition of escape within our race, literature and history, stretching back to the slave trade and slave ships of the middle passage, down to the demanding requirements of escape from coercion, incarceration and surveillance in the modern era: he takes us through a childhood of continual efforts to avoid juvenile hall, to the flights of his father (despite punishing ambiguities, Marvin X dedicates his book to both his parents in memorial), calling upon pure personal honesty and the deepest levels of understanding to appreciate the parental struggles of his own and the resulting psycho-sexual and social conflicts.
Without professing to do so, Marvin X speaks here most effectively of all black men, exposing their triumphs and follies, telling all he knows about everybody, including himself, always seeming to exact the hardest toll of all on himself, inviting us openly and unashamedly into the intricacies of his youthful endeavors to love too many women, including more than one try at the practice of polygamy (at one point he had four wives, in the Islamic tradition), until he realizes that if monogamy is the love and marriage of one woman, polygamy is the love or marriage of one woman too many!
I predict that SOMETHIN' PROPER (the life and times of a North American African Poet) will readily emerge as an underground classic as well as a classic of the black consciousness movement and the world of the troubled inner city, a manual of value to any brother who has lost his way and the sister who would help him to understand or know how to find it, to find it within himself, in the intriguing story of Marvin X, who has been there and the women and political fellow-travelers in the black movement who were there with him in his often daring escapades, his secret flights and open confrontations with white supremacy.
In the end, is he bitter? Or is he happy as a negro eating watermelon on massa's plantation? Well, in the beginning white people are devils—but by the end, all people are devils—in Marvin's world. After all, this is his story. Nevertheless, by the end we are convinced Marvin has regained faith in himself, his God and his people.
And it is gratifying in an era of the sellout, the faint hearted and the fallen, to see that Marvin X was one black man who met the white man in the center of the ring and walked with him to the corners of psycho-social inequity, grappling with him through the bowels of the earth, yet remained one black man the white man couldn't get.
I'm glad I stopped that day on Market Street and bought a pair of Marvin's sunglasses, but I wish I knew where to find those sunglasses now, because I could feel so proud to wear them, or, better yet, I could lend them to some other brother who was trying to find his way to SOMETHIN' PROPER while moving in the direction of the sun.
--Dr. Nathan Hare
Marvin X is the USA’s Rumi, and his nation is not “where our fathers died” but where our daughters live. The death of patriarchal war culture is his everyday reality. X’s poems vibrate, whip, love in the most meta- and physical ways imaginable and un-. He’s got the humor of Pietri, the politics of Baraka, and the spiritual Muslim grounding that is totally new in English –- the ecstasy of Hafiz, the wisdom of Saadi. It’s not unusual for him to have a sequence of shortish lines followed by a culminating line that stretches a quarter page –- it is the dance of the dervishes, the rhythms of a Qasida.
Stay connected to . they really can feel you. as much as you dislike rap. your style is very hip hop. Lol! brash. raw. in your face. not givin a F what anybody thinks albeit a much stronger message.
--Muhammida El Muhajir
ELDRIDGE CLEAVER - MY FRIEND THE DEVIL: A Memoir
Marvin X‘s newest book, “Eldridge Cleaver: My Friend, The Devil” is an important Expose!, notonly of whom his good friend really was… (I confess I thought something like that, in less metaphysical terms, from the day we met, at San Francisco State, 1967) But also of whom Marvin was/is. Now, Marvin has confessed to being Yacub, whom Elijah Muhammad taught us was the “evil big head scientist” who created the devil. (Marvin’s head is very large for his age.)
What is good about this book is Marvin’s telling us something about who Eldridge became as the Black Panther years receded in the rear view mirror. I remember during this period, when I learned that Marvin was hanging around Cleaver even after he’d made his televised switch from anti-capitalist revolutionary to Christian minister, denouncing the 3rd World revolutionaries and the little Marxism he thought he knew, while openly acknowledging beating his wife as a God given male prerogative, I said to Marvin, “I thought you was a Muslim” . His retort, “Jesus pay more money than Allah, Bro”, should be a classic statement of vituperative recidivism.
But this is one of the charms of this memoir. It makes the bizarre fathomable. Especially the tales of fraternization with arguably the most racist & whitest of the Xtian born agains with Marvin as agent, road manager, co-conspirator-confessor, for the post-Panther – very shot- out Cleaver. It also partially explains some of Cleaver’s moves to get back in this country, he had onetime denounced, and what he did after the big cop out. Plus, some of the time, these goings on seem straight out hilarious. Though frequently, that mirth is laced with a sting of regret. Likewise, I want everyone to know that I am writing this against my will, as a favor to Yacub.
Marvin X Articles on AALBC.com Include
Movie Reviews by Marvin X on AALBC.com include: