I’m a man who believed that I died twenty years ago,
and I live like a man who is dead already.
— Malcolm X
The still eyes of Malcolm X, stilled by an f-stop and shutter.
Winter, 1965. Malcolm is leaving a car, gelatin-silver print,
portrait of a tenant of fire. He stares into the camera
like a performer breaking scene, the sureness of his death
the missive I read this morning after another chapter
from Marable’s best-selling biography, bookended
by Malcolm’s Pan-Africanism and the firebombing
of his East Elmhurst home. I don’t have to read further;
I know of the week to come—the flight to Detroit,
the Ford Auditorium, the interview where he’ll name his time
a time for martyrs. I know of the Audubon and the smell
of smoke, folding chairs littered like leaflets across the ballroom
floor. I’ve heard who and why as you’ve heard who and why,
and that if it wasn’t them it was surely someone else,
so I’ve left the book open to the insert, Malcolm in a black
fez, dark suit, Malcolm getting out of an Oldsmobile.
The image is editorial, a day after the fire, but the composition
is classical: The Deposition, Christ’s descent from the cross.
Two policemen flank the stoop like the Virgin and St. John,
framing the martyr in motion. Or like guards at a national gallery,
security for the fire. Malcolm’s body is bent; he can rise
or collapse, taut as a spring. His hawk-man’s eyes seem
hollowed out; the horn-rimmed glasses like the lip of a well
at the center of an emptying town where the townspeople
have left behind furniture in the street, an end table
and lampshade, a wingchair no longer worth its weight.
An upturned couch at the foot of an elm. And beside
the wintering tree, in gradations of gray but for the blacked-
out windows and an awning nearly paper white, the single-
family house bought by the Nation of Islam in 1959.
Fire as eviction. Fire as the shape of history.
23-11 97th Street. I was twelve when I first saw it,
the iconic brick long obscured by aluminum siding the color
of public swimming pools. It was summer. A shy kid,
I could go days without lifting my eyes, but on the court
I burned like a blockbuster, crowding you from baseline
to baseline. So after a game at Elmcor—a loss, I think—
our coach, a grave man with a voice that always thinned
by the fourth quarter, gathered us on the boulevard
and took us all to Brother Malcolm’s house. That’s how
he said it, in a low rasp, Brother Malcolm, as if
on speaking terms, as if family. I didn’t know what for.
To me the name alone was dangerous, a mark
on someone else’s map. A past and a threat. I couldn’t know
in a few years we’d sweat Olaf’s, Xs grown ubiquitous
as Starter jackets, Denzel playing hero to the men
on 42nd Street who called out white devil when my father
passed; the threat turning profit, packaged and sold.
I was three trains from home, Coach walking us
through the side streets of Corona. The neighborhood
built this airport,he said, pointing to a control tower
from the corner of Malcolm’s block. Grandfathers. Great uncles.
Not mine. My grandfather came here from Belfast,
the youngest of five boys, and built a life in Brooklyn,
two daughters, a son,and carried with him a thirst
that sent him out of the house, through a seriesof odd jobs—
midnight security at the Navy yard, singing waiter
at The Welcome Inn—to a second family,
until he found himself washing the hardwood floors
at Blessed Sacrament Elementary. All around him
book reports pinned to bulletins framedin lacquered oak—
The Clue of the Leaning Chimney, The Secret of the Wooden
Lady—and math tests stamped Great Work! Outside,
it was fall; the noon shadows slowly folding back
into themselves. He held a mop above the wringer.
He was still. And the more I write the more still
he becomes, another Daphne, transformed from flesh
to idea, forever rooted in the same place.
That’s the problem. I can’t conjure him out of that hallway.
I can’t find a place for him here. Not in Corona in 1989.
Or East Elmhurst in 2017, where my wife and I crouch
to greet a pair of tabbies parading the tree-lined street.
No monument marks the home of Malcolm X,
but People would come here all the time, Mrs. Mack tells us,
hurrying the cats, Biggie and Petite, into her front yard
with a broom. Muslims. White people. But it’s different now,
she says. The neighborhood’s changed. Farrakhan used to come
all the time. He’d block the street; his men taking pictures.
Those boys would brush his suit when he got out of the car.
Give me a break! she adds with a wry smile. A yellow cab
idles in front of a neighbor’s house.The cats idle, too.
Last week my girlfriend said to me, “You never told me
you lived across from Malcolm’s house,” and I said to her,
“I thought you already knew.”