A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I was in my early teens when I met, for the first time, a book that didn’t like me. I’d read by this point plenty of books that I didn’t like. Not that my judgment was reliable: many of these books were simply too complex for my unsophisticated brain (even the simplest Joyce story had the power to drive me to hysterical frustration), while others, such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, required more appreciation for quotidian dullness than I was able to muster at fifteen. Still, I had opinions, and I had vanity, and I had an irrepressible confidence in my love affair with literature that my infatuation with Austen and Brontë and Dickens shamelessly abetted.
I had met all of these comrades by way of my mother; for once I’d finished clear-cutting the juvenile stacks at the public library, she became my primary source of reading material. She was adept at eyeing my emotional condition and assuaging it with the appropriate nineteenth-century novel, and I’m not sure that it would ever have occurred to either of us that I might benefit from a jolt. It did, however, occur to my father, who, rushing through the house on his way to work, paused long enough one day to hand me his paperback copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
To understand my reaction to this book, you need to understand not only how white I was but how naïvely white. And how naïvely female. Of course I knew I was a white girl, sister of another white girl, daughter of white parents. Nonetheless, though my parents were well educated and well read, both had been born into the rural-industrial working class: into small-time farming and coal mining, steel-mill labor and truck driving. My parents had struggled to evade that fate: they’d gone to college; they’d read books; they’d attained advanced degrees. Yet although we now lived decorously on the outskirts of a city, where we patronized bookstores and listened to classical music and supported liberal causes and ate fish (a horrifying food, as far as my Appalachian relatives were concerned), my parents remained fearful of urban dangers and thin-skinned about their past. They were nervous about visitors, suspicious of outsiders’ motives, self-flagellating about their shyness.
As a child, I often and easily imagined our family of four on an island in the center of a deep lake, in a Conestoga wagon jolting across an endless prairie. We were cut off, cut adrift, dependent only on one another; yet also cherished, yet also protected. So when I return to that moment when my father handed me the autobiography, I also see now what I didn’t see then: my father’s bravery. Given his own fears, I can still hardly believe that he was the one person who encouraged me, wide-eyed and clueless, to open a book and crash face-first into cruel, brilliant, unforgiving Malcolm X.
The books that hate me may be very different from one another in most ways, but all share a particular characteristic: they ruthlessly dissect attitudes that I’ve tended to take for granted. Novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, for instance: she’s an author whose books hate me, though on the surface her Edwardian family novels might seem to have more in common with Dickens et al. than with The Autobiography of Malcolm X. But in truth, Ivy is the meanest writer I know, and the especial target of her excoriating comedy is my humane and optimistic assumption that “we can work out this problem if we just sit down and talk about it.” Fat chance, as the opening of her novel The Last and the First makes clear:
“What an unbecoming light this is!” said Eliza Heriot, looking from the globe above the table the faces around it.
“Are we expected to agree?” said her son, as the light fell on her own face. “Or is it a moment for silence?”
“The effect is worse with every day. I hardly dare look at any of you.”
“You have found the courage,” said her daughter, “and it is fair that you should show it. You appointed the breakfast hour yourself.”
Lady Heriot did not suggest that anyone else should appoint it.
Her characters certainly do talk; in fact, talk is about all they do. But they purposely use family conversation to ridicule, to flay, to tyrannize. In a Compton-Burnett novel, nobody ever feels better after a chat. Talk equals damage, and Dame Ivy makes it clear that anyone who believes otherwise is a fool. She is a writer who takes a gleeful, amoral pleasure in identifying with her tyrants, and she is so skilled at her work that a reader quickly, and dreadfully, begins to do the same. As essayist Thomas Rayfiel has written of Dame Ivy, “one is complicit with the artist’s indulgence in her vice, executed so skillfully, argued with such convincing intelligence, you find yourself nodding in unwilling agreement with rapists, torturers, murderers whose actions are justified by arguments that seem, in the context of what she has created, incontrovertible. This can’t be happening, you think. This can’t be happening to me.”
In a way, the same could be said of Malcolm X, who buttresses his opinions and assertions with what seem, in the context of the Autobiography, to be incontrovertible arguments. There’s no answering him. Later, away from the book, I might begin to invent some rejoinder, some defense. But with his book in my hand, his words spilling into my addled brain “like steam under pressure”: then, even when he wrong, he’s right.
“I started to be aware of the peculiar attitude of white people toward me,” wrote Malcolm. “I sensed it had to do with my father. It was an adult version of what several white children had said at school, in hints, or sometimes in the open, which really expressed what their parents had said—that the Black Legion or the Klan had killed my father.”
I was a very fair-skinned child, not quite as pale as a redhead but close: the sort of white kid who is prone to blushes and rashes and can sunburn in half a minute. Around our house my complexion was the focus of fretting and, for my sister, annoyance: as in “We can’t go to the beach because Dawn is too white.” I’d never felt especially happy about my paleness. But until I read the Autobiography, I had never heard it so intensely and obsessively chronicled and generalized—or so reviled.
White, white, white! No longer did the word refer to my own irksome coloring. Now it had become shorthand for every member of my family, all of my teachers, all of the other writers I was reading, all of the violinists I was listening to, all of the composers I was studying. For the first time in my life, I became conscious of belonging to an unsavory subgroup that was not denoted by my relatives, or my parents’ money struggles, or my terrible performances in gym class, or any of the other worries that had heretofore beset me. I was white. That’s all it took. I was white. Therefore, I was tainted.
If I’d been older, I might have gotten angry at Malcolm’s assertions. If I’d been a boy acclimated to heroics and grandstanding, I might have worshipped the fervor while smoothly exempting myself from blame. But I wasn’t able to exempt myself, and this speaker’s fervor, like the fervor of every overbearing man I’d encountered, terrified me into silence. What’s more, I believed he had the right to hate me. For in the same hot and scornful breath as his generalizations, he offered proof. Had my father been murdered by the Klan? No, my father was sitting peaceably in his study grading papers. I may have worried over a million unlikely events, but I had never, ever, worried—not even once—that the Klan would break down our door and murder my father. Malcolm, however, had worried, and his fears had come true.
Thus, within the first twenty pages of his book, did Malcolm X assert his supremacy over me. No matter how unfair he was, how wrong, how hateful, he always managed to twist my arm behind my back; he always managed to win. He accused me of thinking thoughts that I never remembered thinking, of drawing conclusions I never knew I was drawing. He announced, “What I am trying to say is that it just never dawned on [white people] that I could understand, that I wasn’t a pet, but a human being. They didn’t give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position.” He declared, “This is the sort of kindly condescension which I try to clarify today, to these integration-hungry Negroes, about their ‘liberal’ white friends, those so-called ‘good white people’—most of them anyway. I don’t care how nice one is to you; the thing you must always remember is that almost never does he really see you as he sees himself, as he sees his own kind.”
Just before I entered first grade, my family moved from Maryland to Rhode Island, into the house where we stayed until I was almost thirteen. Next door, on the other side of the peeling picket fence, lived Maynard and his parents: Judy and Maynard Senior. Maynard, who was my younger sister’s age, possessed a desirable swing-set and a dippy overactive mongrel named Choo-Choo. Despite these advantages, his yard was small, whereas our corner lot possessed a climbing tree as well as numerous good places to hide. I don’t know whether it was Maynard Senior’s or my father’s idea to remove one of the slats in the picket fence; but very soon after we moved into our house, my sister and Maynard and I were wriggling back and forth through that fence, from one yard to the next—swinging, throwing sand, chasing each other, barking at Choo-Choo, hiding under the rhododendrons.
The year was 1970 or 1971, and Maynard’s family was black. Malcolm X’s assertions vibrated in the aether, but my six-year-old ear was oblivious. Did I give Maynard credit for “sensitivity, intellect, and understanding”? Probably not, seeing as it wouldn’t have occurred to me to give anybody credit for those attributes. Did I treat him “with kindly condescension”? Yes, I did; I certainly did. But not because he was black: because he was a four-year-old kid, the same age as my little annoying sister, whereas I was six and was thus entitled to boss him around.
As I grew older, I played with Maynard less often. He was a boy, a younger boy, veering off into boy interests that I didn’t share. But the family stayed in our lives. Judy and my mother occasionally drank coffee together; Maynard Senior kept an eye on our house when we were away. During the six years we lived next door to Maynard’s family, I have not the slightest memory of any parental conversation about skin color, no sense that my father could “never . . . really see [Maynard Senior] as he sees himself, as he sees his own kind.”
What I do remember is that, on the day young Maynard came home from school and found his heart-diseased mother dead on the kitchen floor, my mother was the person he called for help.
A touching story, but Malcolm X would have spit on it. Not a detail, not an anecdote, not even Judy’s dead body would have changed his mind about the speciousness of “‘liberal’ white friends” and the idiocy of “integration-hungry Negroes.” What’s more, simply recognizing that he wouldn’t have fallen for this version of history, knowing how much he would have scorned my so-called “innocent” reverie, makes me question it myself. Clearly, at a level beyond memory or bewildered argument, I share the guilt of my race. But that’s not the only guilt I share, and not all that the Autobiography hates about me.
For yes, it’s the book itself that hates me, and that will hate me forever. Malcolm may have been dead for more than forty years, but his chronicle never stops seething. Its words and paragraphs, its splintering yellow pages, the chipped cover with its creased, angry photograph assemble a composite life. Sometimes, as a child, I seemed to feel the paper smoldering beneath my gaze. Words leapt like portents from another planet: zoot suit, reefer, hustle, daddy-o. “A friend of mine [was] named ‘Sammy the Pimp,’” shrugged the book. “I wore my guns as today I wear my neckties,” it announced. And, dreadfully, “I believe [Uncle Tom’s Cabin is] the only novel I have ever read since I started serious reading”. . . meaning that “I—yes, this scary, in-your-face polemic—I am what equals serious reading. You, with all your novels, your idiotic poems: you know nothing about it.”
The Autobiography was first published in 1964, the year I was born. Its scorching presumptions cowed me when I was fifteen, and they continue to cow me each time I reread the book. Every single page finds a way to remind me that I am ignorant, that novels and poetry aren’t serious reading, that Bach doesn’t hold a candle to Lionel Hampton, that “marriage breakups are caused by these movie- and television-addicted women expecting some bouquets and kissing and hugging and being swept out like Cinderella for dinner and dancing—then getting mad when a poor, scraggly husband comes in tired and sweaty from working like a dog all day, looking for some food.”
This last ignorance may have been the most devastating one to discover. For at fifteen, when I first read the Autobiography, I also learned that I shared the guilt of my sex; and when I say guilt, what I really mean is that deep, habituated, anxious sense of unworthiness that so many women share. For Malcolm X is ruthless about us, and his pronouncements are austere, chilling, irrevocable.
“All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak: they are attracted to the male in whom they see strength.”
“I always had the feeling that Ella somehow admired my rebellion against the world, because she, who had so much more drive and guts than most men, often felt stymied by having been born female.”
“I’d had too much experience that women were only tricky, deceitful, untrustworthy flesh.”
“To tell a woman not to talk was like telling Jesse James not to carry a gun, or telling a hen not to cackle.”
According to the Autobiography, when Malcolm finally does find the perfect wife, she is perfect because she is perfectly obedient to him:
Betty . . . understands me. I would even say I don’t imagine many other women might put up with the way I am. Awakening the brainwashed black man and telling this arrogant, devilish white man the truth about himself, Betty understands, is a full-time job. If I have work to do when I am home, the little time I am at home, she lets me have the quiet I need to work in. I’m rarely at home more than half of any week: I have been away as much as five months. I never get much chance to take her anywhere, and I know she likes to be with her husband.
Nevertheless, he can barely bring himself to admit that he is fond of her: “I guess by now I will say I love Betty. She’s the only woman I ever thought about loving.”
As a devotee of nineteenth-century novels, I’d already read plenty of books that tacitly agreed with such presumptions about women. Writing about Flora Finching, the middle-aged romantic chatterbox in Little Dorrit, Dickens might as well have said, “To tell a woman not to talk [is] like telling Jesse James not to carry a gun.” Writing about Mrs. Proudie, the bishop’s overbearing wife in the Barchester novels, Trollope might as well have said, “She, who had so much more drive and guts than most men, often felt stymied by having been born female.” But these stereotypes, if no less wrenching in fact, were more palatable to me because they were individualized. As a characters, Mrs. Proudie really was an obnoxious loudmouth who made unnecessary trouble for her timid husband. Beneath Flora’s silly chatter, I found a loyal, kind-hearted woman who deserved her reader’s patience and goodwill.
But the Autobiography was different. Its blanket pronouncements claimed to reveal real women, not characters; real white people, not characters; a real hero named Malcolm X, not a character. What else could I do but believe its message? I was fifteen years old. I was longing for love, and smitten with that longing. I was melancholy, overexcited, prone to outburst, vain, nervous, self-defeating, and talkative. Not only was I white, but I showed every sign of growing up to be exactly the kind of woman that Malcolm would have despised. The Autobiography hated me, and the news was appalling.
Thirty years later, I’m a different person, a different reader. I’ve aged. I’ve become better acquainted with the worlds of men and politics and polemic. By and large, I’ve learned to disconnect myself from the prejudices of the books I read. I’ve learned what not to reread: what poisons are too lethal to try twice. I’m also more aware of this book’s authorial mysteries. As the title page suggests, its creation depended on “the assistance of Alex Haley.” Though I can only guess at how much and what sort of aid Haley offered, I know he was a novelist and thus was likely to have influenced story organization and development. Clearly, Malcolm X could formulate his own speeches and polemics, so perhaps what Haley did for the book was to collaborate with the man to create the character.
And that complicated character is why I keep reading the Autobiography. Perhaps my reluctant attachment arises, at least in part, from Malcolm X’s fervent honesty to his own convictions. As my friend Nick reminds me, “he was assassinated for making [Nation of Islam leader] Elijah Muhammad’s many marital infidelities known to the outside world. So [even though] he had some truly close-minded ideas about women, . . . he understood that fidelity is an important aspect of human relationships.” That perception seems, in my case, to apply to literary relationships as well. My fidelity to the Autobiography requires, as marriage does, a certain commitment to blindness—that particular sort of blindness that is the flip side of trust. It’s dangerous, this fidelity; for it tests both self-negation and self-respect. It requires me to believe. This isn’t to say that I have to force myself to accept every one of Malcolm X’s pronouncements. But when I read, I do have to believe in his fervor; I do have to believe in his courage; I do have to believe in his rhetorical intensity and his insistent, rhythmic oration.
Oh, that sound! Really, I think that’s what lures me back and back to this difficult book. It’s like a crazy dance that won’t stop, that won’t ever stop, that will kill you on the dance floor.
If you’ve ever lindy-hopped, you’ll know what I’m talking about. With most girls, you kind of work opposite them, circling, side-stepping, leading. Whichever arm you lead with is half-bent out there, your hands are giving that little pull, that little push, touching her waist, her shoulders, her arms. She’s in, out, turning, whirling, wherever you guide her. With poor partners, you feel their weight. They’re slow and heavy. But with really good partners, all you need is just the push-pull suggestion. They guide nearly effortlessly, even off the floor and into the air, and your little solo maneuver is done on the floor before they land, when they join you, whirling, right in step.
There’s no way in the world I’d ever risk going out onto that floor with Malcolm X. Talk about poor partners: good Lord, he’d be better off trampling me under his sharkskin shoes. No, I can’t dance with this man. Everything about me is wrong. But still, I want to watch from the sidelines. I want to see him work; I want to see him shout. At least, when I’m reading his book, I get to breathe the smoke; I get to listen to the trumpets wail. I might matter less than any other character in the world, but at least I get to play my own pale and clumsy bit part.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
The piece was previously published in Solstice Literary Magazine and is forthcoming in Dawn Potter’s essay collection The Vagabond’s Bookshelf (Deerbrook Editions, 2015).