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    Posted: 31 December 2005 at 4:37am


Malcolm’s attic room told you this was a place where someone worked and thought. I think you’d have felt Malcolm’s presence in his study even when he wasn’t there, and when he was, the walls, it seemed, could barely contain his intellectual energy. The bookshelves told you some of what Malcolm was reading or had read, from the complete Shakespeare, which he loved for the language, to the histories of the Moors in Spain to astronomy to Mendel’s genetics. On the shelves you could find, too, some of what Malcolm had said. Malcolm often taped his lectures at meetings and rallies so that he could review them afterward. Up in the solitude of his attic study he would play them back and analyse them, and then maybe revise them, perfect them. Malcolm worked constantly to perfect both what he spoke and how he spoke it.

Just before dawn, Malcolm would again be up so that he could say his first prayers before sunrise. Like Einstein and Edison, Malcolm did not need but four hours of sleep each night. Still, he never lacked energy for his work. Between his time studying at home and the long hours attending to his ministry at the mosque, Malcolm regularly worked sixteen or eighteen hours a day, and sometimes twenty. I don’t remember that he ever took a vacation, other than his visit to Cassius Clay’s (Muhammad Ali) training camp, or that he took a day off sick. As heavy as Malcolm’s schedule was, especially those years in the sixties before his suspension (from the Nation of Islam), it was bound on occasion to run him down, but it never knocked him out. Malcolm always met his commitment. I sometimes wondered how. I remember times before a speech or lecture when Malcolm would be so tired and hoarse that he could barely speak to me sitting next to him. When he’d get up to the podium, though, he would soon be preaching with such force you’d think he wouldn’t need a microphone to reach even a deaf person in the last row of the audience. Of course, after he’d finish, what voice he had left sounded more like a croak than a whisper. A night that I particularly remember during one of those periods that Malcolm was really being overtaxed by his schedule, he and I were driving up Bridgeport for a meeting at the mosque. Suddenly we veered. Malcolm quickly righted the car and then pulled over to the side of the road. We had been driving inside the speed limit but Malcolm had been driving himself into exhaustion. With a heavy sigh he leaned back behind the wheel. “Can you drive, Brother Benjamin?” he asked me. I told him I could, “Do you have a license, Brother Benjamin?” he asked. I answered no, and he replied, “Well, then, you can’t drive, can you, Brother Benjamin?” Dead tired as he was, he wouldn’t let me drive without a license. He pulled himself out of the car and shook himself awake in the cold Connecticut night. He gargled with some Listerine to freshen his mouth. He perked himself up further with a few deep breaths of the chilly air. Feeling a little better, he slid back in behind the wheel of his Oldsmobile and drove the remaining eighteen miles or so to Bridgeport, where he lectured with such vitality, that you would have thought the man had just risen from a restful bed. At the blackboard or at the lectern Malcolm never flagged.

Teaching exhilarated him. However, tired or terrible he might feel, Malcolm would not fail to meet his commitment to them, his brothers and sisters. Malcolm dressed for his people. So did all the assistant ministers. Our suits and ties, our uniforms did more than identify our brotherhood. They also showed our respect for each other and our people. Malcolm wore any suit the way you would a uniform. The trousers would be perfectly creased, the jacket pressed, the white shirt fresh, his tie knotted neatly and right up to the neck - always. You might catch Malcolm with his shirt tails hanging over a pair of dungarees if he was pitching in to help a brother paint his house or you might discover him in overalls, and his face smudged with grease, when he pushed himself out from under a brother’s car, but you would never find him - or any of us - with his tie loosened around his neck (“What size shirt do you wear brother?” he would ask you the one only time you’d loosen your tie at the neck. “Fifteen and a half,” you might reply. Then he’d ask you what size shirt you were wearing that day. Maybe a little mystified, you’d again reply fifteen and a half. “Well,” Malcolm would return, “you’d better go out and buy yourself a sixteen, because it looks to me like you need more room around the neck.”)

Time hounded Malcolm’s consciousness. One day Malcolm noticed that his gold, spring-wound wristwatch had begun to lose time. He had evidently but uncharacteristically neglected to wind it. So that he could reset it correctly, he asked one of the brothers the time. After checking his watch and reading Malcolm the time, the brother added that he kept his watch running five minutes fast so that he could be wherever he had to be five minutes before he had to be there. That way he’d not be late. Malcolm responded with surprising vehemence. He told the young brother never to set his watch ahead of the correct time. Being on time, said Malcolm, did not mean arriving five minutes early. That was merely wasting time, he said. He explained that our lives are measured by time, so we shouldn’t lose the time that we might spend any number of times every day waiting five minutes for a time that according to our watches has already been and gone. After that all the brothers set their watches on the correct time.

Being on time did not mean arriving five minutes late, either. Malcolm did not tolerate unpunctuality. On one of the occasions that the mosque was sponsoring an excursion to a special Nation of Islam meeting in Philadelphia we chartered several buses so that the brothers and sisters from Number Seven could travel as a group with Brother Malcolm and the assistant ministers. One person arrived for the buses at the mosque a half hour after our scheduled departure time, and so made every other one of us thirty minutes late. We were all put out. I could tell Malcolm was rankled, but he hid his irritation until our next meeting at the mosque. That Sunday he informed us that Number Seven was not one of those so called Negro organisations that accommodated itself to one person’s behindhand habits or another’s lackadaisical pace. Punctuality, he said, demonstrated Muslim self discipline and attested to our respect for sisters and brothers who valued their time. Malcolm then announced that on all future excursions charted buses would depart no more than five minutes after the scheduled time, no matter who had not arrived. A half dozen brothers and sisters arrived six or seven minutes for our next excursion. They missed the bus.

I don’t think Malcolm’s mind ever stopped. His eyes seemed always to be quick with concern or alive with thought, even when he was relaxing over a cup of coffee and a piece of bean pie. He could be easily matching someone’s wit or fully enjoying a lengthy anecdote at the same time that his mind was running on another, totally different track, and his hands were rarely quiet. All the while we’d be sitting at a table in the temple restaurant or in Malcolm’s booth at 22 West, Malcolm would be doodling. If he wasn’t doodling, Malcolm was doing everything else you’ve seen an earnest man do in a hospital waiting room while his first child is being born. He was pacing, he was tapping his fingers and feet. He was like a piece of jelly, and his fourth cup of pale coffee was turning as cold as the three before it. He was chattery.

One minute he’d be talking about temple business and the next he would again be telling us that he had decided to name the child after the king of the Huns, who was also known as the Scourge of God, if the child was a boy, although you couldn’t really predict these things as the boy might in fact be a girl, but he somehow hadn’t been counting on that, or so he guessed, because he hadn’t come up with any other name that that. Eventually a doctor came down the corridor. Malcolm stopped pacing. He discovered that he was the father of a healthy baby girl. He glowed, and whatever he may have predicted or expected didn’t matter at all. He gave the baby the one name he had: Attila.

Malcolm really didn’t speak that much about his family, but he’d sometimes mention how his mother’s mind had been broken by the hard times in America’s thirties and by his father’s death at the hand of white supremacists. Malcolm did not believe his father was accidentally killed on streetcar tracks; he claimed that a gag was in his father’s mouth when the body was first found. White supremacists and a white man’s economy, then, had finished what a generation earlier a white slave master had begun. Malcolm’s mother had been born of miscegenation; her mother had been raped by a white slave owner. Malcolm bore his mother’s colour in his light skin and reddish hair and maybe, too, in the gray shadows of his eyes. He said sometimes he hated it. He hated the oppressor’s whiteness of it. Malcolm wanted his skin to be the same colour as his soul. Pure black.

I’ve known no one more purely or more proudly black than Malcolm. He taught that pride to us all. Pride was what he was teaching us in his lectures on self-discipline and self-respect as well as in his personal example of continual self improvement. Pride lay in discovering our capabilities and extending them, even with a hoarse throat. It lay in obeying the law, in properly knotting a tie, in arriving on time. Pride brought real hope to the birth of a child. Our pride was black, and with Malcolm we learned to find it both in ourselves and in each other. !

Benjamin Karim now lives in Virginia.

"I am a slave. I eat as a slave eats and I sit as a slave sits.", Beloved, sallallahu alyhi wa-sallam.
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