Journey to Malcolm X

May 19 marks the 89th birthday of Malcolm X. In this essay, Edward Pittman reflects on how Malcolm X influenced his search for black identity and love during the late 1970s. This essay is excerpted from Pittman's memoir, Home Before Dark.

Angie, my girlfriend, worked full-time at the state hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York. My summer job was working with third and fourth grade boys at the city's largest housing project. I'd just graduated from high school and our daughter was about to turn one. Working the camp was a welcomed escape, a space I needed to figure out how to raise a daughter, how Angie and I would make it, whether college was the right thing to do.

First thing in the morning, I read the kids passages from books I kept in my knapsack. A boy named Chris resisted every day. He had broad shoulders and thick, muscled arms.

"What's that book about?" he asked.

Chris was the self-appointed leader of the group, seizing every chance to challenge my authority.

"Black history." I said.

He laughed. "You mean like them Africans, that ugly Kunta Kinte?"

The other boys laughed in rhythm, slapping Chris high fives.

"You came from Africa, right? I said, pointing to a large map on the wall.

"I ain't no African!" Chris said, as more laughter followed.

Despite their protests, the kids prepared for the daily ritual, followed by my lectures on blackness, kinky hair and loving who you are. After lunch we went for long walks past old factories and chemical plants bordering the projects where freight trains rumbled across the intersection of Smith and Cottage. Sometimes we'd cross the tracks and walk over to the Urban Center where Vassar College's Black students with Afros and cornrow braids came like soldiers to free the minds of neighborhood kids. The two-story building, tucked away at the corner of Cottage and Winnkee stood opposite a barren field we called the Coal Pocket where trains dumped environmental waste. When I was ten, I would go to the Urban Center for after-school programs where we'd horse around in the second floor library, running past shelves of books, posters of black leaders, and a glass case of carved wood and ivory statues and colorful maps of Africa.

On the boys' first visit, Chris climbed the stairs too, breathing hard just as my friends and I had done. He stared down the stairwell.

"It's too hot outside!" he said. "Why we have to come here all the time? Nobody wanna be reading. Why can't we go swimming?"

I knew that books and walks to the center were not enough to save the kids from a society that would have little use for them. Years later, I looked back at that summer and understood how the walks were as much about my own search and hunger for positive images than they were about saving those boys. The center was there for black identity and consciousness, the kind I'd seen when black folk took over a park on Main Street and called it Liberation Park, when Muhammad Ali claimed to be the baddest black dude after beating Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden.

In junior high I'd also stumbled upon a thick, red and white paperback. A man with fiery eyes glared through wire-rimmed glasses. His long index finger pointed upward. Red and white letters jumped from the cover. He rose from hoodlum, thief, dope peddler, pimp… to become the most dynamic leader of the Black Revolution. He said he would be murdered before this book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, appeared.

I flipped through the book's worn, yellowing pages—trying to make sense of a chapter called Nightmare, where Malcolm described how the Klan set fire to his father's house. I was hooked. But teachers in junior high never mentioned Malcolm X, much less any black leader. In Social Studies, an eccentric, buck-eyed teacher came to class dressed as American Revolution and Civil War soldiers, leaving us to wonder if black people had contributed nothing but free labor to the country. By the 10th grade, my curiosity about that book and the angry man on its cover had blossomed

Until then, no one had bothered to teach anything but white history. Miss Johnson changed that. She was a honey-colored woman with smooth skin who taught the Black Studies class that students demanded in 1970. She wore African head-wraps and smiled when while walking between our desks. I savored her words, writing down names and events as fast as she breathed them. Emancipation Proclamation, Nat Turner, John Brown, Jim Crow, Plessy vs. Ferguson, Reconstruction, Brown vs. Board of Education, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Montgomery Bus Boycott, March on Washington, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Harlem Renaissance, Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, W.E.B. Dubois, Black Power.

Roots came on television that year too. For eight consecutive nights in January Kunta Kinte's journey unfolded— his capture from the village of Juffure, the ship leaves West Africa, crosses the Atlantic, his arrival in Virginia where black bodies became property. Ma walked to the kitchen several times, shaking her head at plantation fields like those where she picked cotton in North Carolina. The morning after each episode, I walked to school with friends in the cold January air, replaying those scenes in my mind.

The darkest dungeons of our identity were snapped wide open. Night after night, our eyes were glued to the television—anger and pain and anger and shame seeping into our psyches. Unknowingly, we masked our rage and pain. We made fun of dark-skinned kids who resembled Kunta Kinte and Toby.

"Toby! Toby!" we yelled at them between classes.

Miss Johnson introduced us to poetry several weeks after Roots. I tried to carve that anger into love for black people and wrote poems I thought would cover my scars. Miss Johnson sent several to Essence magazine and the school newspaper. Essence never responded but our school paper printed a full page spread, including one about black women.

Hey, Black Princess. Have you forgotten me? Is your mind so far from reality, Africa? Do you know of true blackness? Do you know of true black love? Do you remember the sixties? Angela Davis? Malcolm X? Rap Brown? Did you hear their words echoing in the night?

Two years had passed since Roots and Miss Johnson's class when I saw these struggles mirrored in Chris and the other boys. They needed to write their own poems to escape the ghettos James Baldwin once said were built for them to perish within.

When I wasn't dragging them to the Urban Center we walked the city's northside to parks in search of shade. Tall Maple treees surrounded one park and a shallow creek separated basketball and tennis courts from an elementary school on a grassy hill. Beulah Baptist was on the corner. The park was a popular spot for youths in the city, bustling with anxious dark bodies. Small children played on the swings and dangled from monkey bars near the creek's stone wall. But with all of its scenic beauty, Morse Park was littered with broken beer and soda bottles, empty candy wrappers and potato chips bags. Rusted hoop rims hung from the backboards and grass climbed the tall chain-link fence. At night, drifters and addicts slept in its dark corners.

While Chris took charge and played the dozens with his friends under a big tree, I realized there were no monuments or parks for people like Malcolm X. We had Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, and Harriet Tubman housing projects, but nothing to honor Malcolm.

That night I typed a petition on Angie's Smith-Corona typewriter.

"Malcolm X Park" had a nice ring. The next day I spoke with Michelle, who'd graduated a year earlier and was a student at Vassar. She had been the student body president, wrote poetry about liberated black women and was dependable, a sister I could trust. Her eyes lit up when I explained the idea for Malcolm X Park and how it would be good for boys like Chris, who she'd met earlier in the summer.

She agreed to help circulate petitions before we approached the city council. On the way home, I tried it on a few people. Some signed without any questions. Others wanted to know more.

"What about Martin Luther King?" a middle-aged man asked while reading the petition.

"We have a housing project with King's name." I said.

The man was hesitant about Malcolm X, but supportive of our idea. In two blocks, I'd collected only four signatures. I stopped at a house I'd passed everyday. Sunlight slipped through the tall, pine trees surrounding the Tarvers shaded porch where they sat every evening, reading newspapers and drinking iced-tea. They were respected black leaders in the city and knew people down at City Hall. Mrs. Tarver was a soft-spoken, brown-skinned woman from Louisiana. She directed the city's urban renewal agency and had been the first black school board president. Mr. Tarver taught at the high school and had directed a community service organization following the 1967 riot that almost burned down lower Main Street.

I pulled our petition from the manila folder.

"We're trying to get the park named for Malcolm X," I said, handing it to Mr. Tarver.

He read it over, pausing to run a hand over a fresh haircut of salt and pepper hair.

"Malcolm X means a lot to young people," I said, while he zeroed in on the first line.

"Look, " he said. "If you want those whites folks at City Hall to listen, you can't go down there demanding things. They'll tune you right out."

Mrs. Tarver nodded in agreement.

I respected the Tarvers, but anything short of demanding sounded too much like begging for something that should already be ours. Having black monuments in our community made perfect sense. Mr. Tarver gave back the petition and told me to re-think our strategy.

"Don't let your pride get in the way," he said.

It was also hard to see his point but after talking with Michelle, I went home and re-typed the petition. I could live with changing a few words as long as we got the park's name changed.

The next day I met Michelle to collect more signatures and prepare for the City Council meeting the following Monday. We recruited our friends to go with us. With butterflies in my stomach, I approached the microphone where the public spoke.

"If we have a place we can take pride in," I remember saying, "youths will have more respect for the park—a name with dignity and self-respect"

We were surprised when several council members spoke. One white member, a history teacher who later became Mayor, actually praised Malcolm X. "He was a good man and a great American who inspired whites and blacks," she said.

We expected a bigger fight, but the council passed a resolution to support re-naming the park. They did, however, send us to the school board because they owned the park. Two weeks later we showed up at a school board meeting. Everyone was receptive except Mr. Hogan, a chunky man with dark eyes. He had not taken time to read anything and believed the myths that Malcolm X was a crazed black militant out to kill all white people, that he went to prison for murder and that he was absolutely unworthy of having a park in his honor.

Hogan couldn't see what we saw in Malcolm and his face turned redder as the hearing went forward. The other four, including the one black member, voted for the park. The local paper ran a short article the next day: "PARK RE-NAMED FOR BLACK LEADER."

Years later, Hogan was charged with embezzling money from the school district. I felt sorry for him.

After our victory we started the Afro-American Youth Movement and met in a storefront office on lower Main Street run by Harold, a big-time community leader. Like Mr. Tarver, he'd worked the streets during the riots and organized voter registration drives to elect several black officials in the 1970s. But now he walked with a hobble and had lost all his teeth.

"You young jitterbugs have to help us old folk now," he said, chuckling. "Take this key and keep your nose clean because we're tired."

We pledged to dedicate ourselves to the struggles of black people, parroting Malcolm's words and, spending hours discussing politics and dissecting national and world events. On Sundays we watched Like It Is, a talk show with journalist Gil Noble who interviewed John Henrik Clarke, Yosef Ben-Jochannan and other black historians. Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and former members of SNCC and the Black Panthers also explained black power and Malcolm's ideas on self-determination and racial pride.

I thought of Chris when Malcolm told us that you can't hate the roots of a tree or Africa without hating yourself. Sometimes we sat in the park, debating what Malcolm might say or do about this or that problem in the black community if he were alive. The more we listened to speeches and read from his autobiography, the more we understood how much there was to learn. Malcolm was the man who most epitomized, in our eyes, what it mean to be black, what it meant to love and think for oneself.

One Saturday night while we listened to a speech Malcolm gave in Detroit, a shadow appeared beyond the storefront window. I went over and pulled the curtain back. No one was there. We turned the volume down and waited. Minutes later the figure returned.

"It's probably some drunk," someone finally said to break the silence. "But we should leave"

"Right," Michelle said. "But who would want to spy on us?"

Later that night while putting my daughter to bed, I thought about the lurking shadow and how it made us think twice about what we were doing. The more I tried to forget what happened, an elderly man's words one afternoon in Watson's Barbershop came back to me. He'd pulled a worn book from a briefcase and held it above his head.

"As soon as you start reading and speaking this shit," he said to no one in particular, "you're a dead man. Look at Malcolm. Look what they did to King. You think they loved King more than Malcolm?"

Each January on the Sunday night before King's birthday, black ministers and white politicians talked about his dream. There were prayers, gospel singing and speeches about blacks and whites loving each other after film footage of German Shepherds and water hoses and horses and night sticks and Nigger this and Nigger that while the movie flickered in the dark school auditorium. But the preachers and politicians never spoke Malcolm's name. It wasn't until Miss Johnson's class that Malcolm X and King came together for me. When I started college that September I knew it was time to think about how to raise a little black girl and love a black woman, and how to love those black boys in the same way that Malcolm loved us all.

Edward Pittman is a writer and educator who has worked as a higher education administrator and lecturer for 30 years. He graduated from Vassar College and earned a Doctorate in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. Pittman is a co-founder of Malcolm X Park in Poughkeepsie, NY and is currently working on a coming of age memoir, Home Before Dark.

[Illustration by Jim Cooke]