Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523
The primary themes of the poem involve the potential for hypocrisy and deceit within the black consciousness/black nationalist movement of the 1960’s because of deceptive leaders who appear to represent the black movement but who are not genuine representatives such as the icon Malcolm X. The idea of being sold out by black leadership is the ultimate message. However, the poem also operates on a psychological level, urging the reader to question identity through appearance and language. The prevailing theme of appearance versus reality is developed not only through the mockery of black nationalist clothing but also through the criticism of black rhetoric that becomes a cliché. The use of Malcolm X as the icon of trust and integrity is supported by Malcolm X’s own transition from hustler to revolutionary. Malcolm X is portrayed as having shed the outer appearances of the hustler, emerging as a conscious representation of incorruptibility; he is juxtaposed to leaders who are visibly nationalist but who maintain intraracial hierarchies that reflect color distinctions of past eras. The irony is that Malcolm X also sought certain false physical attributes inasmuch as he was known to have straightened his hair during his years as a street hustler.
Though black consciousness can be corrupted through disingenuous leadership, there is also the possibility of infiltration by Caucasians and the undermining of militancy from within. Though the poem is not completely antinationalist, its projection of the physical trappings of the black nationalist as a disguise, its mockery of the dashiki and the natural hairstyle, is a warning against being seduced by language and style rather than adhering to the teachings of Malcolm X, who did not wear the apparel of the black nationalist but who was, nevertheless, an advocate of nationalism. The transformations of the 1960’s that praised natural appearance, African clothing, and black imagery might themselves be contemporary versions of prior emblems of deception such as “blackface.” Distinctions based on skin color are symbols of retrogressive political consciousness as well as the historical roots of intraracial color distinctions. Preference for a certain physical appearance is viewed as a game, a manipulation of appearance for reasons of status. The physical image of African Americans through hairstyles is also used to characterize pre-1960’s identity in which emulation of white appearance (“straighthair”) was associated with achieving bourgeois status. Certain artifacts of 1960’s popular culture are used symbolically: “air conditioned volkswagens” are associated with intellectuals, and the study of “faulkner at/ smith” ironically indicates white liberalism and a trendy connection to the black struggle.
“Malcolm Spoke / who listened?” questions whether transitions in physical style and appearance are also representative of valuable political and social transformations. Essentially pessimistic about those who have overtly made the physical transition, the poet recognizes the possibilities of the “rip-off” in cultural terms, the replacement of color and class distinctions with measures of “blackness” represented in clothing and rhetoric. Though the poem is concerned with deception, it also articulates the outcome of failing to listen to the message of Malcolm X; that is, the possibility of the annihilation of African Americans through acts of genocide that rival the Holocaust.