How do you write about a legend? Especially one as controversial, as enshrouded in pain, loss, myth, and pride, as the man known as Malcolm X? And how do you write about a legend when the legend has already written about himself?
The answer, to me, was to use historical fiction, a genre as scorned as it is popular. There is a good reason for both attitudes. Historical fiction has been widely abused over the years, converted into a dumping ground for too many writer’ soggy romantic notions, sexual fantasies, stuffy boys’ adventure stories, or far-fetched “alternative” histories (“What if a time traveler gave General Lee a machine gun???”). This sort of bunkum has tended to give the genre a bad odor, when, in fact, good historical fiction can personalize history, making it real to readers in a way that a pile of statistics or chronicle of events—or even the most gripping and inspired accounts cannot.
Just as fiction takes on the forbidding task of pulling the reader into someone else’s life, so does historical fiction—with the added challenge that the life in question is lived during a time, perhaps in a whole world, different from ours. To argue that these past times, these past lives, hve no relevance today, is to say that empathy has no place in human affairs. It is to ignore Faulkner’s famous dictum about the South:
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
So should we regard our past. To explore that relevance was my intention in writing the three books of historical fiction that make up the “City of Fire” trilogy. Strivers Row was the last, a novel set in Harlem in 1943. The previous two novels, Dreamland and Paradise Alley, dealt, respectively, with the Jewish and Irish immigrant experiences in New York City. Strivers Row, name after two blocks of Harlem row houses long occupied by a succession of affluent blacks, is centered on the African-American experience in the first half of the twentieth century. It culminates in that fateful year, in the middle of a world war when the accumulated frustration over the injustice of Jim Crow America has finally exploded in a riot that was a seminal act of black rebellion—and a harbinger of the modern civil rights movement.
The three books tell the stories of how three “outsider” groups—African-Americans, Irish Catholics, and Eastern European Jews—forced their way into the power structure of what was originally an overwhelmingly white, Anglo country adamantly opposed to their very presence, save in the most servile and powerless positions. The novels take place at the time of three critical events—the Civil War draft riots of 1863; the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and garment workers strike, both in 1911; and the Harlem riot of 1943—when each group finds itself at a turning point in its members’ long struggle to become full and equal citizens. Jews and Irish Catholics were, of course, more or less willing immigrants, while the vast majority of African-Americans had no choice in the matter; they arrived in the Americas almost simultaneously with the first Europeans and were from that moment, the most ecluded and oppressed of any minority. What all these people shared, though, was the need to find their own folkways to survival and, eventually triumph. To my mind, their combined stories make up the great, central narrative of American democracy.
For the first two books of this trilogy, Dreamland and Paradise Alley, I sought to write predominantly about “regular” people. Historical figures from Abraham Lincoln to Sigmund Freud made appearances, but they were never the protagonists. Instead, most of the characters were composites or were based closely on obscure, though real individuals.
Using that method enabled me to tell the story of immense social change on a very personal level. In Strivers Row, part of the narrative involves the Dove family, members of which occupy the pulpit of one of the great churches of Harlem. But I also wanted to use, for the first time, a leading historical personage as one of my main characters. Like many Americans, I had been fascinated by The Autobiography of Malcolm X from my first reading of it, back in college. Returning to it years later, I was struck again, not only by the power of the narrative—which outlines Malcolm’s embrace of the Nation of islam and his transformation from two-bit street punk to powerful political leaders—and the central theme of struggle and redemption, but also by what Malcolm plainly was not telling us.
In the Autobiography, for instance, he claims to have been the boon friend and familiar of the greatest names in 1940s jazz, even using his trainman’s pass to travel up and down the Eastern seaboard, supplying them with drugs—only to describe “Minnie the Moocher” and “Hi-de-hi-de-hi-do-ho” as two separate songs,when, of course, the latter is just the chorus in the former—as even the most amateur jazz fan would know. He says that when he was 16 years old, he danced at Boston’s Roseland State Ballroom, where he and his date performed with such skill that they not only cleared the dance floor, but were bowed to by Duke Ellington. More disturbingly, in one passage after another, Malcolm depicts himself as outwitting, patronizing, or standing up toolder, darker-skinned men.
Some of these discrepancies and exaggerations may be attributed to the inevitable trials of publishing a memoir while one’s life is still unfolding. Melcolm was just shy of 40 when he died. The Autobiography was dictated by him over his last two years, a tumultuous period when he split with Elijah Muhammed, his spiritual father and the leader of the Nation of Islam, and was then subjected to both death threats and legal actions from that group, along with constant surveillance by the FBI and other governmental bodies. Further complicating matters, Malcolm’s memoir was set down by Alex Haley, a writer who, for better or worse, brought his own ideas, opinions, and agenda to bear when creating and editing the work.
But the Autobiography is more than simply a memoir; it is both a classic conversion story and a bid for power. Malcolm was seeking to make the case that he had been the baddest of the bad, a “stone” hoodlum who rejected his blackness at ever turn, right down to conking his naturally kinky hari and mocking his dark brothers, even as he provided his own one-man minstrel show with his loud zoot suits and jive talk. Because he had fallen, by his own account into criminal depravity, becomign a drug dealer, pimp, and thief, his rise, through the grace of the Nation of Islam, was all the more dramatic. Having emerged from the very depths of hell,he was eminently qualified to lead. Beyond that, in his memoir, Malcolm tackled some of the traditional, racist stereotypes regarding African-Americans head-on. Yes, his people were better, more uninhibited dancers than white people, and he was the most talented of all, someone who could turn himself into a champion dancer even though he was still an inexperienced teenage boy.
I yearned to delve beneath the image, sculpted to establish his claim to leadership of the black nationalist movement that was emerging in the mid-1960s. I wanted to know what it must have been like for the 18-year old, homesick, less confident Malcolm, living in Harlem by himself. I wanted to know everything about the time in question, 1943, that tumultuous year on the home front, when race riots and confrontations were erupting all over America. I wanted to know everything that Malcolm wold have seen and heard and thought, as a raw youth coming to what surely was an overwhelming part of the city—so heady and vibrant and exciting, yet also dangerous and deceptive and sad, weighted down by decades of racism and poverty
Where to begin? I have been asked whether I thought to interview Malcolm’s relatives, but the last thing I wanted to do was bother the Shabazz and Little families. I’m sure that they must receive many such requests, and I was loath to burden them with any more. Besides, Malcolm’s original sojourn in Harlem was essentially a solitary one, made at a time when he had left his family, but was not yet married or involved with the Nation of Islam.
Because primary sources on Malcolm’s life are scarce, I turned, instead, to alternative written sources, all of which are acknowledged in the back pages of Strivers Row. Foremost among those were Bruce Perry’s Malcolm: The LIfe of a Man Who Changed Black America and Peter Goldman’s The Death and Life of Malcolm X. Perry’s book, well-written (in 1991) and exhaustively researched, relies on interviews with people who knew and rememberred Malcolm to tell the story of a childhood, and a hand-to-mouth existence in Harlem, that were even more devastating than what Malcolm himself described.
Perry’s book differs from the Autobiography, in some significant ways, particularly concerning the life and death of Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, a Baptist minister and an activist in Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Specifically, Perry portrays Earl, as an abusive, exploitive father who had walked out on a previous family before he married Louisa, Malcolm’s mother. He does not seem to have been run out of Omaha by the Ku Klux Klan, as Malcolm states in the Autobiography, but left after a falling-out with Louisa’s sister-in-law, Rose, who accused him of stealing from her. He was almost certainly not killed by the white-supremacist “Black Legion” in Michigan, or under mysterious circumstances, as most accounts of his life state, but was struck and mortally injured by a streetcar, probably because he had lost sight in one eye due to a work accident. And, contrary to the dramatic opening of the Autobiography, in which Malcolm recounts that just days before he was born, the local Ku Klux Klan burned down his family’s home in Lansing, Michigan, Earl Little may well have set fire to the house himself, after a court had ordered the family to vacate because they were in violation of a neighborhood’s “white-covenant.” The incident must have had a tremendous resonance in Malcolm’s own life, more than 35 years later, when the Nation of Islam accused him of burning down his family’s home in Queens, New York, rather than returning it to the Nation. Similarly, Perry portrays Louisa Little—whom he interviewed at length—as a deeply troubled woman, partly because of her own childhood in Grenada, where she was an abused orphan, even before he husband’s death and the breaking up of her family by Michigan’s child-welfare services.
All these revelations serve to illuminate further the story Malcolm told of himself. Earl Little, for all his faults, was a proud race man who fought in any way he could against the racist system that was imposed on him. If callous white social workers alone did not cause Louisa’s descent into shizophrenia, she was clearly warped by her own experiences with bigotry—beginning with her Scottish father, who abandoned her black mother—and she battled with great tenacity to keep her family together before she succumbed to mental illness. It becomes clear that, in the Autobiography, Malcolm was—as usual—trying to protect those he loved; that, if anything, his childhood was even more wretched and impoverished, more distorted by racism, than he had originally made out. Such details were instrumental for me in rounding out the personalities of Malcolm X and his family.
Peter Goldman’s book, published in 1973, is composed primarily of material gathered from his interviews, when he was a journalist in Harlem, of Malcolm himself, and of his ruminations on the meaning of Malcolm after his death. Yet, he also took the time to look up Malcolm’s onetime familiars in Harlem. What emerges is a picture of a young man who was not nearly as hardened a criminal as he would later describe in his book. Few of Harlem’s older hustlers remembered Malcolm at all, and those who did, recalled that he was no more than a low-level numbers runner and john-walker—a person who accompanied nervous white customers into Harlem brothels. The discrepancy casts doubt on Malcolm’s portrayal of himself as a true desperado—a stickup man and the leading drug supplier to the stars of the jazz world. Indeed, the intriguing question raised by Goldman’s research on a figure who would later be so identified with his call to violent resistance,is whether Malcolm X ever committed a violent act, except in defense of those he loved.
These sources were, of course, just my starting point in researching the novel. I did much more work, most of it at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library’s invaluable collection in Harlem. I spent months there and in other branches of the public library, poring over works that described in great breadth life in Harlem 60 years ago. These included novels and essays by many of the renowned black writers from the time, notably Dorothy West and James Baldwin, and histories of the African-American community in New York, especially Roi Ottley and William J. Weatherby’s collection, The Negro in New York: An Informal Social History, 1626-1940. Among the works on black church life and theology I consulted was, most memorably, Albert J. Raboteau’s A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History. I also spent much time going through microfiches of back issues of the Amsterdam News—then, as now, the leading black weekly in Harlem—lingering always on the columns of the tireless Dan Burley, who not only reported on politics, entertainment, and sports, but also wrote exquisite mood pieces on Harlem street scenes, and jotted down every piece of slang he heard. One of the advantages of my living in New York City, not far from Harlem, was that I could easily walk the actual streets that Malcolm walked, seeing for myself something of how they looked and what he must have seen. I was struck, as always, by the beauty and variety of the community’s many churches, the vibrancy of its culture; the expanse of sky visible above its wide boulevards. But this physical tour had its limits. Harlem is changing rapidly these days, and much that Malcolm knew, has been irretrievably lost. Smalls’ Paradise, the legendary club, where he spent so much of his time, is long gone, as are the Savoy, Connie’s Inn, Creole Pete’s.
For the story of Malcolm’s tangled relationship with the Nation of Islam, I relied primarily on two excellent biographies of Elijah Muhammad: Earl Evanzz’s The Messenger and Claude Andrew Clegg III’s An Original Man. They filled in for me many of the central facts about the religious organizations, especially concerning the lives of the two remarkable men who started the Nation of Islam: Elijah Muhammad, originally Elijah Poole, and Wallace D. Fard.
I was eager to explore the roots of the Nation because so many obvious parallels seemed to exist between the life of Elijah Muhammad and that of Malcolm X. Both were intelligent, industrious, ambitious men who never received the kind of education they desired. Both came to big Northern cities at an early age, only to fall into degradation and despair. Both were uplifted by religious mentors and rose to dizzying heights of influence. Their families even hailed from the same parts of rural Georgia. That they were so similar, makes all the more tragic Malcolm’s falling-out with Muhammad. His further disillusionment came about when his spiritual mentor refused to take action following the murder of fellow Muslims by the Los Angeles police, and after Malcolm discovered Muhammad’s dalliances with several Nation secretaries. And then came Malcolm’s murder at the hands of his onetime brothers in the Nation, almost certainly at the order, direct or indirect, of Elijah Muhammad.
I felt it necessary to let some part of this relationship figure in Strivers Row, even though it began years after Malcolm’s first stay in Harlem. Taking one of the liberties that I feel historical fiction allows, I had Malcolm learn something of the Nation, of Fard and Elijah Muhammad, both by the good graces of an African nationalist bookseller and through dreams and visitations.
It is important here to remember that historical fiction is still fiction and that readers should be as wary of it as of everything else they read, and not regard it as “cold, hard fact.” Even so, I do believe in trying to cleave to the historical record as much as I can, and the “leap” I took ws really a pretty small step. In fact, the young (and the older) Malcolm did frequent the Harlem store of the relentless black nationalist Louis Michaux. And, in the Autobiography, he does write of having received a visitation, while in jail, from Wallace D. Fard—a passage, as at least one commentator has pointed out, that describes a spectral figure who liked a lot more like Elijah Muhammad, than like Fard. I moved this visitation back a few years, to the summer of 1943.
Yet nothing I wrote evoked such consternation among my editors and publisher as my account of Malcolm’s turn to mysticism. Their unease, I imagine, though I cannot say for sure, sprang from a couple of related concerns. One many have been their surprise at encountering some of the more esoteric tenets of the Nation of Islam. The Nation’s particular version of world history—its belief in a superior black civilization of the “Original People,” founded in Mecca; the invention of all other races by Dr. Yakob, the sinister big-head scientist”; the white man’s rise to power through the “science of Tricknology”—probably seemed as bizarre to them as it does to many Americans, black and white.
Again, while I cannot say for sure, I suspect that they feared that the Nation would come off in the book as an insensitive racist caricature. If these indeed were their fears, I can certainly understand them, but I also agree with James Baldwin’s observation, in The Fire Next Time, that the theology of most major religions can appear equally weird to the unbelieving and the uninitiated; that the Nation is, as Baldwin states, “no more indigestible than the more familiar brand asserting that there is a curse on the sons of Ham.” The appeal of the Nation’s rewriting of American and world history, like that of almost any religions, can be found in its metaphorical truth—in this case, its story of a people robbed of their homeland, their language, and any acknowledgment of their cultural legacy.
For Malcolm to give himself to this alternative culture of the time was to reject all that white America had foisted on him. My editors hinted that I should provide what I call a “George Washing moment,” some scene in which the young Malcolm Little would give every indication of being a future American leader in the traditional, schoolbook sense. I do not think they understood that Malcolm was the stone that the builder had rejected; that he would, in turn, make an adamantly rejectionist stand toward America right to the end of his life, even after his fatal divergence from Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. His was not the expected feel-good story, and even now, after his death, deeply American though his life was, he stands apart from the accepted national narrative. The much ballyhooed enlightenment he gained from his pilgrimage to Mecca did not relate to the American nation-state. It concerned, rather, his recognition that established Islam believed in a universal human experience.
It was on that level, too, that I searched for Malcolm, just as I have sought out all my characters in parts of my own experience. I have not, of course, endured a life as poor or as plagued by racial hatred and family tragedy as Malcolm’s was. But I have known what is like to come, as a poor boy, to a great city, all alone, a little frightened, but thrilled by the possibilities. I like to think that in this, too, I learned at least a bit of what Malcolm must have felt—through the use of that basic human empathy, which often seems such a poor and inadequate thing, but without which, we have nothing.