Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.
Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith.
392 pp., $28.99.
Muhammad Ali, the man who, in this writer’s 1970s childhood, was baaadddd enough to beat even Superman to a bloody pulp, called, essentially, a coward and “puppet in the assassination plot against Malcolm X?” Malcolm a desperate manipulator of his friend and liar? Black America, this reviewer believes, is ready in 2016 for a real Malcolm X and a real Muhammad Ali. Good thing, that, because the authors of this historical depiction of the friendship between the two Nation of Islam followers between 1960 and 1965 provide a gripping, well-documented narrative that expands the understanding of both men by analyzing their individual and collective lives, one week at a time.
Roberts and Smith are good historians but better nonfiction narrators, the kind of storytellers that filled magazines three to four decades ago. They merge primary source materials of white newspaper and magazine sportswriters with Africana Studies texts and Malcolm biographies with FBI files of the Nation, material that normally would not share intellectual space outside one of Ali’s many biographies. The sports historians immerse themselves, to the best of their considerable ability, into that five-year period and bring the two men together, then apart.
Following Cassius Clay and Malcolm as they interact, detailing practically every shared moment by moment, turns out to be a fascinating study of how a friendship dissolves in public. What Smith and Roberts present is a Malcolm—on the outs with the Nation because of his increasing power within the organization—attempting to utilize his mastery of public relations skills to his own benefit through Cassius X. Stated simply, Malcolm, who kept publicly saying he was back in the Nation when he and it knew otherwise, wanted to use Cassius as a bargaining chip to get back into NOI founder Elijah Muhammad’s good graces, and wanted to take the champ with him if he couldn’t get back in. Fresh from his victory against Sonny Liston in 1964, Cassius X—presented in this book as a young follower-type with daddy issues—was the loose football on Black America’s and Africa’s field, and both Clay’s mentor, Malcolm, and Malcolm’s former mentor, Muhammad, were fighting over who was going to be the ball carrier. But it was too late for Malcolm; Muhammad won the scramble, and gave the champ his new name and the kind of visibility within the Nation that only Malcolm had enjoyed.
By the time the two cross paths in front of a Ghana hotel in 1964 (Malcolm had practically run him down), sides had been chosen, the splinters made visible. “Brother, I still love you and you are the greatest,” said the goateed El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, wearing robes and sandals. “You left the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” said the NOI-attired Ali, with his Nation entourage present. “That was the wrong thing to do, Brother Malcolm.” Ali, now believing the NOI whispers that Malcolm had some screws loosened by his ouster (“Man, he’s gone. He’s gone so far out he’s out completely”), turns his back on his former mentor, and both go their separate ways, off to shatter 20th century African/Black history into before-and-after chunks like peanut brittle. When prompted, Ali assisted the Nation’s public campaign to discredit his former friend. Malcolm was a “jailbird,” said Ali on television after the former’s house was bombed in early 1965, and a man who could not be trusted. When Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s wife, confronts him in the lobby of the Hotel Theresa (“You see what you’re doing to my husband, don’t you?”), he plays dumb. Malcolm X is soon assassinated, and Ali—safe within the iron bosom of the Nation, but afraid that the brothers would harm him like they did his former friend if he ever went AWOL—just shrugs. As the years progressed and the original Nation and Ali evolved to Orthodox Islam, the champ, now 74, has said repeatedly that he deeply regrets how he treated Malcolm.
The authors make the most of their use of space and narrow focus. The many characters of Ali’s life, often seen in film and television documentaries as almost cuddly characters, express blunt, in-real-time 1960s opinions here of Cassius/Ali, Malcolm and the Nation. Assuming these newspaper and magazine articles and previous interviews are accurate, the players’ frank comments in the heat of the moment show nuance that is cut from the summary nature of popular history. The book emphasizes, importantly, that both the Kentucky boxer and the Harlem African internationalist are present at the beginning of the television age they would shortly master.
Smith and Roberts come to the same conclusion as many of Ali’s biographers: that the “real” Muhammad Ali may never be found under the masks he wore so well. But they find an Ali that adjusted and performed in his relationships, while Malcolm X, with no choices in his past left, evolved to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, then Omowale, and then into the world-historical space occupied by assassination and martyrdom. Ali never really replaced Malcolm X, not in the Nation of Islam or anywhere else; he became his own cultural and historical entity, his own noun, one of the world’s greatest men. This book does a good job in taking both Black American icons down off their pedestals, examining them thoroughly, albeit briefly, and finding them wonderful and wanting.
Boycott Christmas? I have to admit–that’s REAL Black and radical! LOL! 🙂
At the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. yesterday, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan said it was a mass action Blacks could use to punish the whites who enslaved their Ancestors centuries ago and whose police shoot them down in the street today.
Here’s four reasons why what the Minister wants will be difficult to implement:
1) Yes, Black people have buying power, but they don’t have wealth. Black people spend money for the same reasons as every other group–to sustain themselves. And let’s be real: many Christmas gifts are practical items people seriously need.
2) Yes, Black people are angry about the public epidemic of police shootings. But historically, boycotts work when an aggrieved community decides collectively that their interests will be served by the group sacrifice. (See Montgomery, Alabama and Martin Luther King.) If there was an actual, practical end result that was measurable for Black people–an actual gain that, for example, would make them safe in the presence of the police–I believe the people would follow Minister Farrakhan and make the sacrifice. But if not, no.
3) Economic boycotts have to be well-organized. Is the NOI going to spend the millions in organizational support, media advertisements, etc., it would take to organize 40 million people in roughly 40 states? To do it right, it would have to be on the scale of a presidential election campaign.
4) Black people love Christmas–all of it. For many Blacks, all of the X-Mas traditions are as important to them as their churches. (It’s why Maulana Karenga, the founder of modern-day Kwanzaa, set up the holiday between Christmas and New Year’s as an alternative/substitute/supplement to it, because he understood the deal.)
What Farrakhan is asking for, and how he is talking about doing it, is admirable, but without the buy-in (if you forgive the expression) of a substantial part of Black America, the call has all the potency of, say, demanding statehood for the District of Columbia: maybe someday it will happen with a lot of struggle, but not today–and definitely not this Christmas.
Near me a Sigma and a Delta brought their children, who sat on their child lawn chairs, eating and working on a puzzle book. Apologies to Sly and the Family Stone, but….
The Nation of Islam showed that it may be the first Black group to understand that youth must be served by publicly serving. The emcees–Tamika Mallory, a former youth leader for the Rev. Al Sharpton, Nuri Muhammad of the Nation of Islam (who talked about Black people’s war with police, which he called the “Blu Klux Klan” and also with “niggativity”) and upcoming leader the Rev. Jamal Bryant, were presented as emerging leaders, not “youth leaders.”
Farrakhan, 82, was a grandfather talking to his grandchildren. He said what the Nation and the crowd knew: “What good are we if we think we can last forever and not train the young to follow in our footsteps?”
OCTOBER 14th UPDATE: My friend Linn Washington Jr. went. Here’s his public take:
Saturday’s Justice march was “powerful” in the words of my 12-year-old grandson. I went primarily to take him so he could experience it – I was there as a participant not a reporter.-But I can report that the 200k participant ‘guess-ta-ment” for the 10/10/15 Justice march is not far off.-That event did not have anywhere near the million+ of the ’95 M3 event…yet there was that spiritual-like ’95 unity vibe albeit not as INtense and focused as 1995.-In ’95 I walked from the Capitol steps back to the Washington Monument to get a scope of the crowd (i knew the media/authorities would lie on the count)…and in ’95 it was a solid sea of men on the Mall spilling into parallel streets. Saturday, the multitude did not have the people-per-square-inch density or Capitol to Monument seamlessness of participants…occupying the Mall only and the distance of a few blocks back. (And, fidelity to fact: I didn’t do the Capitol to Monument stroll on Saturday but could see open space around Monument unlike in ’95)-Below are a few observations from a participant not from a thorough reporter:–Saturday’s event did have a more diverse crowd – 8 to 80, 8 as in eight months old. A striking aspect for me on Saturday was the presence of families (Dad/Mom kids) and extended families lil ones to grands, all rolling as a ‘crew’ – a lot of women were there also…and whites were there (seemingly not on a ‘zoo visit’ attytood)– Saw a few Native Americans but did not see many Hispanics.-Yes, there were a lot, A Lot of 20-30 somethings in the crowd and there were organizations galore in ‘see-me’ attire from black Greeks to the New Black Panther Party.-Of course, in 2015: it was ‘selfie’ city…saw folks popping into the NBPP formation to get their pics taken…-Judging from tee shirts and other attire items, folks came from north/south, east/west to attend.-A few similarities between Saturday & 1995:-Much media coverage was not in-depth…for example, didn’t see mention in articles that I read about the on stage remarks by a sister of Sandra Bland, the father of Michael Brown and the mother of Trayvon Martin — Justice or Else definitely includes police brutality so how can cover an anti-police abuse event and not report on symbols of that struggle???-Another similarity between 1995 & 2015 (and I will probably get my ‘Black Card’ revoked for this observation): Farrakhan talked TOO much. I respect the Brother Minister deeply, but, Yo, cogent and concise hits harder. (Grandson and I toured the entire Smithsonian Native American Museum from top to bottom, beginning visit 15 minutes into Farrakhan’s remarks, we did all four floors of the museum and when we exited Farrakhan was still talking. Interesting seeing [again] how ameriKKKa JERKED the Indians like they jerked us -broken treaties, abusive justice system, LIES aplenty, attacking the victim for opposing their oppression, etc.)-The trip Saturday to Justice or Else for me was about the grandson: He said the event was “really cool.” Said he liked that people “are coming together.” Said he doesn’t want to group up and have to “deal with” brutal cops. He liked “the support” he saw at the march Saturday.
Black public affairs television at its finest!