Malcolm X's Black Orpheus

On the ninety days of silence that gave Malcolm his best songs.

John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, and when an instigating newsman decided to ask Malcolm X how he felt about the incident, Malcolm replied cooly—seems like the chickens have come home to roost.

What he meant was that the US’s  policy of deposing foreign leaders by assassination had at last visited its own soil, that hypocrisy of that magnitude is karmically impossible without retribution. Malcolm was brazen and real by necessity— we should not expect sentimentality from a man who saw his own father murdered by whites who were angry that he was a shop owner, with no one suffering any consequence but Malcolm’s own family, dissipated by the loss. His father’s murder was sanctioned by his surroundings. He understood that a country that could abide that much casual hatred and violence could also sabotage itself eventually. But despite how logical and restrained his response, Malcolm had been unsentimental about a beloved American president, and he had done so live, on television. This was terrible press for the already-under-siege Nation of Islam, and the nation’s leader Elijah Muhammad decided to condemn Malcolm to ninety days of silence as punishment for the remark. He was told not to preach at his own mosque in Harlem, or speak to the press. Begrudgingly, but with his signature elegance, Malcolm obliged. He became quiet like an omen, not quiet like chastised child, quiet like you get when you realize the person you’ve been enamored with is deranged but have to keep placating them until you can steal yourself away. Quiet like the prayer you conjure from within as you steal yourself away. 

I’ve explored elective speechlessness as a black healing technique at its best, and a familiar rite-of-passage through trauma or stupor at its most fraught, but an orator forced to stifle the language and thought pouring out of him will transcend both of those potentialities and become a keener and more intense listener when his sound is threatened. I want to think about what Malcolm X listened to during those ninety days, how that forced hiatus sounded to him, and how he sounded then—quiet and brooding, with that wild eternally unfolding smile swallowing every inch of the world his eyes touched. I want to imagine what he listened to on purpose during that time, and what rumors, messages, and dreams he overheard. I want to imagine what songs he danced to with his wife Betty at home, which musicians he taught his kids to cherish through osmosis, and how much austerity he warded off with a tonal shift to pleasure, repose, and the intimacy of listening. Music is the dignity of our lives, especially within the lives of those men and women who popular opinion reduces to one-dimensional political signifying. Malcolm X, was a secret audiofile. He loved music so much he almost came to fear it for how it might tempt him away from his other commitments, to family, the NOI, and to black liberation. I imagine his three months of silence as a time when he crawled back into songs he had abandoned reluctantly for his own urgent speech-music. I imagine he retrained his ear for beauty and freedom then, that when he was told to be ashamed of his honest assessment of the American drama, he decided to be attentive instead, and knew the peace of his most private sensations again for a while.  

Maybe he heard John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’s “My one and Only Love,” released that year, and let Hartman’s muscular baritone cradle him, and whenever the light swaying in the arrangements somehow made him think of trees and of lynchings and his familiar dead ones, he would pivot toward romance and mysticism with the help of that lyric and Coltrane’s légère touch throughout the two minute solo before Hartman comes in singing like an April breeze on the wings of spring. Maybe he even became whimsical inside of that song, an infatuated boy again, playful and fearless about romance, and maybe he kept part of himself there eternally, discovering a new path to self-preservation as a public figure— singing. Maybe Malcolm lives in a song he found refuge in when he was not exactly silenced, but sensed as the force of truth he was and contained for a time by a friendly enemy whose spite only enhanced him. Maybe that ninety days was an exorcism, a cleanse through the inversion of sound and silence.

Maybe he considered giving it all back and returning to hustling and live jazz but then looked up from the phonographic spell and remembered the past is impossible to return to except through song. He likely played Art Blakey’s “Caravan” also released that year, and entered its warm but also chilling propulsion forward in drum lines that ripple and bulge with energy of a prowling, teasing cobra. Jackie McLean’s spacious, pensive, Let Freedom Ring might have helped Malcolm consider his own lack of freedom in the NOI and the fact that he had been treated unjustly. Duke Ellington’s My People, could have added fodder to that with its cheerful praise songs demanding revival of source energy. And there was Sam Cooke’s Night Beat, a blend of soul and spirituals to haunt Malcolm with the shadow of his own range, new Ella Fitzgerald, New Freddie Hubbard. It was a good year to be sentenced to 3 months of deep listening and maybe Malcolm realized that the new songs he fell in love with would become his paths to the new phase he would enter in the break, reminded that music could be an accomplice without being a vice. Malcolm loved us so much that he deferred his love of music to try to teach us to love ourselves. His forced retreat complicated his sound, reminding him he was a soloist and not easily jaded or cajoled by anything outside of his own heart, not even when his heroes betrayed him and tempted him to go their way. 

The masochism of excess speech is that you can’t hear nobody when you’re busy saying everything. In that anguished hush, allow us the indulgent myth that there was total retribution in the interlude between silence and music where the griot resides, telling us the collective story we’re afraid to confess to ourselves. Malcolm X’s love of music had to be accompanied by a love of silence, silence sounds as good as a good song, so for ninety days Malcolm was reintroduced to a true love he had given up for a calling. And in the song he entered he saw his mother and father, his alternate universe, his chance to slip into a forever reverie, and he saw the turning of his own pure soul, its smoldering. He saw that he would have to part ways with another father figure, Elijah Muhammad, who he had discovered was both shady and dictatorial, sleeping with young girls while preaching impossible piety. As hard as it would be, being raised without a father makes turning on power hungry authority figures relatively easy, even for a loyal man, and Malcolm was getting ready, deep in the song of himself. The prescription that had been meant to leave him docile and dejected found him reinvigorated by the bleakness of his own legacy of alienation. Here he went again into the breach, here he would be in the song swaying and recanting and walking out smoothly as if he himself had initiated the ritual of no words in order to find the ones he had been too smitten to utter before. 

And maybe he never made it out of the songs he entered then, maybe the ability to turn austerity into pleasure reminded him of a his infinite magic and he decided to send an emissary back, a body double, while his spirit attached to Trane’s notes like a third lung in the blowing. 

One of Malcolm’s favorite books was Sartre’s Black Orpheus. His translated copy is full of notes and markings, a Paris metro card tucked between pages. It’s opening lines: When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what were you hoping for? For them to sing your praises? What was Elijah Muhammad hoping for? I assume he thought Malcolm would get in line and repent, and be a lot less autonomous in his future statements to the public, realizing he was a mouthpiece for the whole of the NOI and everything he said was scrutinized like it came from ten thousand screaming black mouths. Instead, Malcolm came back into speech exuberantly, and declared separation from the Nation of Islam and Elijah as his first speech act after silence. Instead of being abandoned or betrayed or emotionally blackmailed any more than he already had been, he made his famous, fated, getaway. All that music he had gathered during his silent/silenced days imbued him with a new more ruthlessly honest tone. He was relaxed when he announced his plans, like they were the most natural thing in the world to him. What could have seemed drastic became a gasp of ease. Tyrants, be careful who you try to silence. A man who can get into songs and become them will always be heard. A man trapped in speeches and sermons will be healed and renewed when the quiet comes. What did they hope for when they removed the gag from Malcolm’s mouth, that he would sing their praises?