Thursday, May 9, 2013

Marvin X Replies to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad on Poetry

Poetry is a science our people do not understand. I am only after the plainest way to get truth to our people!--the Honorable Elijah Muhammad to Marvin X, 1969

Marvin X Agrees with Elijah Muhammad on Poetry

If truth be told, and it must, Elijah Muhammad was/is right about poetry: it is a science our people do not understand. It has taken half a century for me to come to the conclusion he was right, no doubt because I fit his description of the so-called Negro: stiff necked and rebellious, hard to lead in the right direction, but easy to lead in the wrong direction. And so it is rare these days that I read poetry in public, although I still write poetry when the Muse strikes me. 

In the introduction to The Wisdom of Plato Negro, parables/fables, Marvin X, Black Bird Press, 2012, Ptah Allah El describes the transition of both Plato and Marvin X away from poetry:

Recently while reading about the Dialogues of Plato, I came across a quote by William Chase Green, former Professor of Greek and Latin at Harvard University. Greene describes Plato's works by profoundly stating, "In yet another field the Platonic Philosophy seeks to find an escape from the flux. Those poets and artists who are content to record the fleeting impressions of the senses, or to tickle the fancies and indulge the passions of an ignorant people by specious emotional and rhetorical appeals, Plato invites to use their art in the service of truth."

These are timeless words describing Plato's classic works, yet if you simply replace Plato's name with Marvin X in the above quote, and review Marvin's work over the past 40 years, you won't be surprised why he has adopted the title "Plato Negro". In this classic volume, the Wisdom of Plato Negro,  Marvin X truly becomes Plato personified, as we see him transcend from master poet to philosopher.

Plato was once a master poet until the death of his teacher Socrates in 399 B.C. This marked a turning point in Plato's life causing him to fully convert to philosophy. The same can be said now with Marvin X who recently lost his master teacher John Doumbia and has since elevated beyond poetry, reincarnating as the philosopher "Plato Negro"....

It is clear that Marvin X has become the true Platonist of the day by demonstrating his Platonic love for the people, taking us on a symbolic trip through the Parable of the Cave, where all true analysis takes place, inside the true self....

Teaching Diaspora Literature: 
Muslim American Literature as an Emerging Field
by Dr. Mohja Kahf

Is there such a thing as Muslim American literature (MAL)? I argue that there is: It begins with the Muslims of the Black Arts Movement (1965-75). The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of its iconic texts; it includes American Sufi writing, secular ethnic novels, writing by immigrant and second-generation Muslims, and religious American Muslim literature. Many of the works I would put into this category can and do also get read in other categories, such as African
American, Arab American, and South Asian literature, "Third World" women's writing, diasporic Muslim literature in English, and so forth. While the place of these works in other categories cannot be denied, something is gained in reading them together as part of an American Muslim cultural landscape. Like Jewish American literature by the 1930s, Muslim American literature is in a formative stage. It will be interesting to see how it develops (and who will be its Philip Roth!)

I suggest the following typology of MAL only as a foothold, a means of bringing a tentative order to the many texts, one that should be challenged, and maybe ultimately dropped altogether. My first grouping, the "Prophets of Dissent," suggests that Muslim works in the Black Arts Movement (BAM) are the first set of writings in American literature to voice a cultural position identifiable as Muslim. Contemporary Muslim writing that takes the achievements of the BAM as an important literary influence also belongs here, and is characterized similarly by its "outsider" status, moral critique of mainstream American values, and often prophetic, visionary tone. In contrast, the writers of what I call "the Multi-Ethnic Multitudes" tend to enjoy "insider" status in American letters, often entering through MFA programs and the literary establishment, getting
published through trade and university book industries, garnering reviews in the mainstream press. They do not share an overall aesthetic but are individual writers of various ethnicities and a wide range of secularisms and spiritualities, and indeed I question my placing them all in one group, and do so temporarily only for the sake of convenience.

On the other hand, my third group, the "New American Transcendentalists," appears to cohere, in aesthetic terms, as writers who share a broad Sufi cultural foundation undergirding their literary work. Their writings often show familiarity with the Sufi poets of several classical Muslim literatures (e.g., in Turkish, Farsi, Arabic, Urdu), as well as with American Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century, and that which tends toward the spiritual and the ecstatic in modern
American poetry. Finally, the "New Pilgrims" is my term for a loose grouping of writers for whom Islam is not merely a mode of dissent, cultural background, or spiritual foundation for their writing, but its aim and explicit topic. Of the four groups, the New Pilgrims are the ones who write in an overtly religious mode and motivation, like Ann Bradstreet, Cotton Mather, and the Puritans of early American history. This does not prevent them from being capable of producing
great literature, any more than it prevented the great Puritan writers. Here is an example of just a few writers in each category, by no means a comprehensive list:
Prophets of Dissent
From the Black Arts Movement:
• Marvin X, whose Fly to Allah (1969) is possibly the first book of poems published in English by a Muslim American author.

Marvin X's Fly to Allah, 1968,  is the seminal work in American Muslim literature. Muslim American literature begins with Marvin X! --Dr. Mohja Kahf

• Sonia Sanchez, whose A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974) is the work of her Muslim period.
• Amiri Baraka, whose A Black Mass (2002) renders the Nation of Islam's Yacoub genesis theology into drama. As with Sanchez, the author was Muslim only briefly but the influence of the Islamic period stretches over a significant part of his overall production.
Later Prophets of Dissent include:
• Calligraphy of Thought, the Bay area poetry venue for young "Generation M" Muslim American spoken word artists who today continue in the visionary and dissenting mode of the BAM.
• Suheir Hammad, Palestinian New Yorker, diva of Def Poetry Jam (on Broadway and HBO), whose tribute to June Jordan in her first book of poetry, Born Palestinian, Born Black (1996), establishes her line of descent from the BAM, at least as one (major) influence on her work.
• El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X) is an iconic figure for this mode of Muslim American writing and, indeed, for many writers in all four categories.

Multi-Ethnic Multitudes
• Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali, an influential figure in the mainstream American poetry scene, with a literary prize named after him at the University of Utah, brought the ghazal into fashion in English so that it is now taught among other forms in MFA programs.
• Naomi Shihab Nye, Palestinian American, likewise a "crossover" poet whose work enjoys
prominence in American letters, takes on Muslim content in a significant amount of her
• Sam Hamod, an Arab midwesterner who was publishing poetry in journals at the same time as Marvin X.
• Nahid Rachlin's fiction has been published since well before the recent wave of literature by
others who, like her, are Iranian immigrants.
• Mustafa Mutabaruka, an African American Muslim, debut novel Seed (2002).
• Samina Ali, midwesterner of Indian parentage, debut novel Madras on Rainy Days (2004),
was featured on the June 2004 cover of Poets & Writers.
• Khaled Hosseini, debut novel The Kite Runner (2003).
• Michael Muhammad Knight, a Muslim of New York Irish Catholic background, whose punk rock novel The Taqwacores (2004) delves deeply into Muslim identity issues.
• There are a number of journals where Muslim American literature of various ethnicities can
be found today, among them Chowrangi, a Pakistani American magazine out of New
Jersey, and Mizna, an Arab American poetry magazine out of Minneapolis.

New American Transcendentalists

• Daniel (Abd al-Hayy) Moore is an excellent example of this mode of Muslim American writing. California-born, he published as a Beat poet in the early sixties, became a Sufi Muslim, renounced poetry for a decade, then renounced his renouncement and began publishing again, prolifically and with a rare talent. His Ramadan Sonnets (City Lights, 1986) is a marriage of content and form that exemplifies the "Muslim/American" simultaneity of Muslim American art.
• The Rumi phenomenon: apparently the most read poet in America is a Muslim. He merits mention for that, although technically I am not including literature in translation. Then again, why not? As with so many other of my limits, this is arbitrary and only awaits someone to make a case against it.
• Journals publishing poetry in this mode include The American Muslim, Sufi, Qalbi, and others.

New American Pilgrims

• Pamela Taylor writes Muslim American science fiction. Iman Yusuf writes "Islamic
romance." This group of writers is not limited to genre writers, however.
Dasham Brookins writes and performs poetry and maintains a website,, where poets such as Samantha Sanchez post. Umm Zakiyya (pseud.) has written a novel, If I Should Speak (2001), about a young Muslim American and her roommates in college. Writers in this group also come from many ethnicities but, unlike those in my second category, come together around a more or less coherent, more or less conservative Muslim identity.

Websites tend to ban erotica and blasphemy, for example. The Islamic Writers Alliance, a group formed by Muslim American women, has just put out its first anthology. Major published authors have yet to emerge in this grouping, but there is no reason to think they will not eventually do so. My criteria for Muslim American literature are a flexible combination of three factors: Muslim authorship. Including this factor, however vague or tenuous, prevents widening the scope to the point of meaninglessness, rather than simply including any work about Muslims by an author with no biographical connection to the slightest sliver of Muslim identity (such as Robert Ferrigno with his recent dystopian novel about a fanatical Muslim takeover of America). It is a cultural, not religious, notion of Muslim that is relevant. A "lapsed Muslim" author, as one poet on my roster called himself, is still a Muslim author for my purposes. I am not interested in levels of commitment or practice, but in literary Muslimness.

Language and aesthetic of the writing.

In a few cases, there is a deliberate espousal of an aesthetic that has Islamic roots, such as the Afrocentric Islamic aesthetic of the Muslim authors
in the Black Arts Movement.

Relevance of themes or content.

If the Muslim identity of the author is vague or not explicitly professed, which is often the case with authors in the "Multi-Ethnic Multitudes," but the content itself is relevant to Muslim American experience, I take that as a signal that the text is choosing to enter the conversation of Muslim American literature and ought to be included.In defining boundaries for research that could become impossibly diffuse, I choose to look mainly at fiction and poetry, with autobiography and memoir writings selectively included. I have not included writings in languages other than English, although there are Muslims in America who write in Arabic, Urdu, and other languages. I have looked at the twentieth century onward,
and there is archival digging to be done in earlier periods: the Spanish colonial era may yield Muslim writing, and we already know that some enslaved Muslims in the nineteenth century have left narratives. More research is needed. If one expands the field from "literature" to "Muslim American culture," one can also include Motown, rap, and hip-hop lyrics by Muslim artists, screenplays such as the Muslim American classic The Message by the late Syrian American producer Mustapha Aqqad, books written for children, sermons, essays, and other genres.There are pleasures and patterns that emerge from reading this profusion of disparate texts under the rubric of Muslim American cultural narrative. It is time! I hope, as this field emerges, that others will do work in areas I have left aside in this brief initial exploration.

Love And War
by Marvin X
preface byLorenzo Thomas

by Mohja Kahf

Have spent the last few days (when not mourning with friends and family the passing of my family friend and mentor in Muslim feminism and Islamic work, Sharifa AlKhateeb, (may she dwell in Rahma), immersed in the work of Marvin X and amazed at his brilliance.

This poet has been prolific since his first book of poems, Fly to Allah, (1969), right up to his most recent Love and War Poems (1995) and Land of My Daughters, 2005, not to mention his plays, which were produced (without royalties) in Black community theatres from the 1960s to the present, and essay collections such as In the Crazy House Called America, 2002, and Wish I Could Tell You The Truth, 2005.

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 escapefor 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:

peace Mu
it's on you
yo world

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

Read more:

No comments:

Post a Comment