It was with some wonder and overwhelming ignorance that I stood outside Louis Michaux’s bookstore on the corner of 125th street and Lenox Avenue in the heart of Harlem on a cold spring day in 1961, staring at the signage:
THE HOUSE OF COMMON SENSE
AND THE HOME OF PROPER PROPAGANDA
BOOK OUTLET ON
AFRICANS AND NON-WHITE PEOPLES
Underneath it were pictures of African revolutionary Jomo Kenyatta, the father of Kenyan independence, and Marcus Garvey, the legendary Black Nationalist. Of course I didn’t know who they were, I only learned that later.
Beneath the pictures on the upper part of the large display window, were large graphic sun rays and the words,
NATIONAL MEMORIAL TO THE PROGRESS
AFRICAN RACE IN AMERICA
And under that were pictures of the twelve heads of African states that had won their independence from colonial rule. I didn’t recognize them either.
Posters hung at street level around the window. Two of them made me laugh: “The White Man’s God,” was a picture of a Hollywood idealization of Jesus except he had kinky hair.
“This can’t be him he has the wrong hair,” it said.
The other one was titled, “The Black Man’s God,” and had a Black Jesus.
“This could be him,” it said. “he has the right hair”
Two other posters that I didn’t think funny hung beneath them.
THIS IS THE TITLE OF THE BOOK
And the other read,
LYING IN STATE
FROM 1 TO 7
Patrice Lumumba, an African Nationalist, and leader in the Congo’s fight for independence against Belgium was the first democratically elected President of a newly independent Congo. He was the reason I was standing outside Michaux’s bookstore that cold spring day.
Lumumba had been assassinated that February during a coup staged by African soldiers under the control of the Belgium government with the connivance of Britain and the CIA. His assassination shocked many.
Just a few days earlier a riot had broken out in the gallery of the United Nation’s General Assembly led by Black Nationalist, James Lawson, and singer/actress Abby Lincoln protesting the murder. The riot at the U.N. introduced a new Black Nationalism to the United States and scared many white Americans. Lewis Michaux’s bookstore was the main gathering place for Harlem’s Black Nationalists.
At the time, I was working as a desk assistant (read copy boy) at CBS News. I was twenty seven and it was my first job after coming to New York. It was still the glory days of CBS News. Edward R. Murrow had just left to head up the USIA, but the legendary staff he had assembled was still there. My job was to do whatever chores anyone needed done. I got coffee for some of the icons of TV journalism, Charles Collingwood, Eric Severeid, Howard K. Smith and Richard C. Hottelett, picked up staff newspapers downstairs in Grand Central Terminal and ripped and posted the copy off the wire services. It was like my army experience: structured, no authority, but also, no real responsibility. After breaking my ass in Law school, the menial work was a relief. I felt myself at the heart of something big and important, and even though I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, or where this job would lead, I loved it. Every day I learned something new.
On my days off, instead of doing my laundry, cleaning my room and running errands I went with reporters and crews as they covered breaking stories in and around New York. I sat in the editing rooms with them as they cut the stories, wrote narration and added voiceovers. It was the beginning of my news and production education.
On one of those days off Sam Jaffe, CBS’s UN Correspondent, got the assignment to cover the Lumumba story in Harlem and I tagged along.
As we entered the bookstore we were ushered into the back room. It was cramped and chaotic. There were no windows, the lighting was bad, there was a jumble of books and papers scattered about, and on the walls, tables and floor were dozens of framed photos of Negro celebrities, from W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson to Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, as well as some prominent African Nationalist revolutionary leaders like Kenyatta, and Kwame Nkrumah.
It was a little overwhelming especially since my understanding of Negro (as we termed it then) culture, like that of most Americans of the 40s and 50s, came from listening to “Amos and Andy” on the radio and following the exploits of Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson. In my freshman year in college I would sometimes go with my friend Bernie to the Oasis, a Black owned jazz and r&b club on south Western Avenue to listen to the Treniers and try to look as cool as the all Black crowd. Afterwards, we’d sit in his car drinking from quarts of Pabst beer and feel sooo hip. I’d read a little while in the army: James Baldwin’s Go Tell it On A Mountain and Notes of a Native Son and Richard Wright’s Native Son. But the number of Negroes I knew personally you could count on the fingers of one hand. There was Timmy Devault, a slick centerfielder whom I played Muni baseball with while in high school, and Sam Brown another center fielder I played baseball with at UCLA and in the Army, and Ethel, whose last name, I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember even though she cleaned our house and cooked our meals from the time I was thirteen until I left for New York after law school. She’d get up at five or six in the morning to take care of her family before boarding a bus for the ninety minute ride to our house in west LA for her day’s work. She’d leave around seven that evening after dinner and the dishes were done for the long bus ride back to Watts. My brother and I had no sense of her life outside of our home except that she was an avid church goer. She and her work were taken for granted. With scant experience of Negroes the celebration of Blackness in the back room of the bookstore was both fascinating and strange to me.
Even stranger, was an open coffin in the center of the room. Inside the coffin lay, not a body, but a likeness of a body, a paper mache likeness of the body of Patrice Lumumba — a protest designed to call attention to the CIA’s involvement in his assassination. The room was so small that I was in the way as the crew began setting up to film the coffin and interview Michaux. so I wandered out into the main room to explore the shelves.
The front room of the bookstore facing the street, featured books by American and Caribbean Negroes, Africans, and revolutionaries from around the world and even though I considered myself pretty well read, most were new to me.
Above the book shelves and along one wall were pictures of a Black Jesus surrounded by Black angels. I was looking at those pictures when a man said,
“I’ll bet you’ve never seen a Black Jesus before.”
I turned and saw a very tall, light skinned Negro with a goatee watching me. He wore a dark overcoat which, even though we were inside was buttoned, a dark suit, white shirt, dark tie, a dark hat and rimless glasses, that gave him a scholarly look. I admitted I hadn’t seen a Black Jesus before.
“Nor Black angels,” he said.
His manner was quiet and polite,
“Why do you think that is?” he asked
When I admitted I didn’t know, he went on,
“Because whites have stolen him…Jesus was a black man… Black people were the original people…whites stole Jesus. They also stole the great African cultures like the Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations, and made them appear as white Europeans.”
I didn’t know whether that was true or not, but he said it with such certainty that I wasn’t going to argue, especially since I didn’t know my ass about it, had never thought about it, and didn’t have an opinion, so I decided just to listen.
Then, in the same even matter of fact voice he quietly switched his focus,
“All white men are racists, ” he said.
I felt myself get angry. Was he goading me? Was he picking a fight?
“I’m not a racist.” I protested
“Yes you are. All white men are racists”
“What makes me a racist?” I demanded, trying to remain cool.
“Because you live in and prosper from a system of white supremacy.”
I laughed. I had a menial job, made $60 a week and lived in a tiny rented room on 108th street and Riverside Drive. I could barely make ends meet.
“I hardly prosper,” I shot back
“Yes you do. How’d you get your job?”
He didn’t wait for me to answer, he didn’t have to. He knew I probably got my job through a connection. And he was right. Before I came to New York my Dad introduced me to a guy who introduced me to a guy who was visiting LA, and was high up at CBS News. When I got to NY and needed a job I called him and the rest is history.
“How many so called, “Negroes” are there where you work?”
I didn’t have to say anything, he knew the answer to that too. There weren’t any Negroes or any people of color there.
“White men prosper, deny they’re racist, and brainwash the Black man,” he said.
I saw some truth in what he was saying but still felt personally attacked,
“How are they brainwashed?” I asked.
“The white man tricks Black people into thinking integration is good for them.”
“You mean it’s not good?” I said with more vehemence than I intended.
“It’s only good for the white man.” he said, “It deceives the Black man. It’s like strong, black coffee. If you integrate it with cream it gets weak. And if you put a lot of cream in it, there’s no more coffee. It’s cool instead of hot, weak instead of strong. It puts you to sleep. That’s what integration does to the Black man, it puts him to sleep.”
He reached up and pulled a book off the shelf and handed it to me saying,
On the dust jacket was a picture of a fat black man with a mustache in three quarter profile dressed in a comic opera emperor’s jacket and tricorn hat, replete with gold braid and a medal, scowling out of the corner of his eye at the viewer. The book was, “Black Moses: the Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association.”
I thought he was kidding.
The tall man saw me hesitate.
“Read it,” he insisted. “You’ll learn about Garvey and why the Black man doesn’t need integration. He needs his own country.”
If it wasn’t for his dress and even tone, I would have mistaken him for just another New York crazy. I started to argue about the sacrifices young Negroes in the South were making to bring down segregation, but before I could respond Sam and the crew came out of the back room and said it was a wrap. I went to the counter and paid for the book, and as I was leaving I turned to him and said, “goodbye.”
“If you want to know why the Black man needs his own country read Garvey and come back on Saturday,” he said.
That is how I met Malcolm X — and how he jolted me out of my comfortable whiteness.
My parents would have been shocked if someone were to call them racist.
They were Roosevelt Democrats, proudly liberal. Yet, black people to them were “Schvartzes.” My mother was especially prone to use the word, as in the “Schvartze” did this or the “Schvartze” did that. And, they often thought of Negroes as children. My dad told stories of how they played practical jokes on the Negro porter at the factory to frighten him and how he’d react just like Step ‘n Fetchit, the Negro character actor in the movies who made his white audiences laugh when he rolled his big eyes and acted scared.
But it was complicated. One day a man rang the bell of our modest house in west LA. I answered, I must have been about twelve. He asked to see my father. When my father came to the door the man, who was holding a clipboard with a petition on it, introduced himself to my father, said he lived around the corner on Westbourne drive, and that he had been going door to door talking with all our neighbors. My father just looked at him, so the guy continued,
“We’ve got a fine neighborhood here, and I don’t want anything to happen to it,” he said. “And, I’m sure you don’t either.”
“What do you mean?” my father asked. I could hear the suspicion in his voice.
“A Mexican family has been looking at homes in the neighborhood,”
“So?” my father said.
“Well, if they should buy do you know what would happen to our property values? They would plummet,” he paused for emphasis, “and soon there’d be more Mexicans and then Negroes…and our property values would plummet even more. So I’ve gotten up a petition to keep these people out. I hope you’ll join us by signing it.”
My father who had a temper started to lose it,
“No. I’m not going to sign it,” he barked. “Those people have as much right to live here as you and I.” And he all but slammed the door in the man’s face and called to my mother,
“Libbie, do you know what that son-of-a-bitch wanted me to do?” I was so proud of him. Even though I didn’t entirely understand it, I knew he had done something very right.
After meeting Malcolm, I began hanging out in Harlem on Saturday afternoons standing, along with dozens of others, all Black except for me, listening to Malcolm and other Black nationalist soap box orators. (Actually, they stood on ladders) outside of Michaux’s bookstore, dubbed “Harlem Square”. Malcolm was a fiery orator, and when he spoke he invoked the name of “the honorable Elijah Muhammad,” the founder and leader of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad called white men, “blue eyed devils,” and said that black people were blessed by God. He preached Black pride and the separation of the races. Muhammad may have been the Nation of Islam’s leader, but Malcolm was the public face and chief spokesman for the movement.
Before I began listening to Malcolm the only knowledge I had of the Nation of Islam was through the polite young Negroes in black suits, white shirts, black bow ties and hats who handed out free copies of “Muhammed Speaks,” the Nation’s newspaper, in Times Square. I barely glanced at the paper before dumping it in the nearest trash can. Listening to Malcolm speak I was embarrassed that I’d had so little curiosity
Along with my friend, Irv, a writer at CBS News, I began interviewing other Black Nationalists, with the idea of writing about this new Black nationalism for The Reporter magazine. I interviewed James Lawson, head of the United African National Movement, who had led the protests around Lumumba’s death at the UN, and Carlos Cooks, head of the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement. Like Malcolm, they were Garveyites. Garvey had preached Black pride and separation of the races and led a Back to Africa Movement. Neither Lawson nor Cooks had large followings, but along with Malcolm they were the pillars upon which the Black Power movement of the ‘60s was to be built.
These were interesting men. Cooks was the first to clearly delineate Black from Negro and sought to abrogate Negro as a form of racial identity. He was the first to say, “Buy Black” and start a Harlem coop. It was Cooks who initiated the concept of natural hair as a source of Black pride by holding a Miss Natural Standard of Beauty Contest and supported various African Liberation Movements.
Even if I didn’t agree with their separatist notions, (and sometimes thought they were full of it) I began to recognize certain things about America I’d not seen before. I began to see America as two separate countries, one white, the other black and brown, one prosperous, the other poor. I slowly began to see the pervasiveness of what today is called structural racism — how housing patterns affect health care and education; how access to jobs and services, like banks, grocery stores, cleaners – services I’d always taken for granted – impact the life of a community. They helped me become more aware of my environment, often in small ways. For example when I got on the subway at 96th or 110th street to go downtown to work, the cars were usually filled with black women. As we headed south those women got off to go to their jobs as nannies and maids in white people’s apartments and their place was taken by white people on their way downtown to their office jobs. Malcolm had said that if you go to almost any ghetto in America you will find that the major stores are owned by whites. When I began looking along 125th street I realized what he said was true. I also saw that those white owned stores hired very few Negro salespeople. I also saw that except for 125th street, there were almost no other amenities in Harlem like cleaners, shoe repair shops or super markets that were in every other neighborhood in the city. I learned that Blacks in Harlem had to pay deposits to get telephones, and how store prices went up the first of every month when the welfare checks came out. For the first time in my life, I was becoming aware of the notion of white privilege, even though we didn’t call it that, and to pay attention to the history of racism in the country, racism that went back to before the revolution and was built into the Constitution.