The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Haki R. Madhubuti’s “Malcolm Spoke / who listened?” is written in the black poetry style of the 1960’s, a free-verse, conversational form containing altered spelling, short, explosive lines, and the rhythms of black street-corner speech. The title implies that the social and political messages of Malcolm X were not heeded by African Americans, who, for various reasons articulated in the poem, either were deceived by other spokespersons or simply adopted superficial attributes of black consciousness. The poem is a warning and somewhat of a diatribe chastising African Americans by using Malcolm X as a symbol of political integrity and identity. The poet admits that the messages are also for his own edification, suggested in the subtitle “this poem is for my consciousness too.”

The first stanza describes outer trappings of black culture such as “garments” and “slogans” and contrasts them with a genuine commitment to certain ideals. In the second stanza, Malcolm X is portrayed as a man who discarded the negative acts of hustling and pimping to evolve from the life of a street hustler (whose physical identity was also a distortion) to a revolutionary. His odyssey is juxtaposed to the dilemmas of color identity within the black community and the transformation in the 1960’s to identities that valorized natural hairstyles and dark complexions. The poet is concerned with the way light skin has been associated with class pretensions...

(The entire section is 500 words.)