The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

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.”

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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 among African Americans. The poem identifies historical signifiers of color identity, inverting the “blackface” stereotype of minstrelsy to signify status in the 1960’s based on darker skin color. Aware that privileging lighter skin and other aspects of bourgeois identity might be disingenuous, the poet emphasizes the new appearances (such as “nappy-black” hair) but also warns of false alliances with intellectual whites who might be insincere in their motives even though they are perceived as “authorities on” militant’/ knee/ grows.” Most important, however, is the deception by black spokespersons through rhetoric that is overused and implicitly empty of true meaning.

The third stanza contrasts the pre-1960’s image of the “hipster” with the black consciousness identity of the 1960’s, evident in symbols of apparel. Attitudes of the 1960’s are equated with African designs as opposed to Western clothing: The “doublebreasted” suit is supplanted by the “dashiki,” although the change in physical garb does not necessarily mean a genuine projection of black consciousness. Furthermore, there are references to higher education as a credential of 1960’s activists, but the intellectual association with university training is undercut by the suggestion that the would-be black leader has majored in “physical education,” an obvious criticism of academic depth. The fourth stanza uses the metaphors of “animals” and “colors” to imply that exterior signs of black identity may not necessarily be sincere. The poem projects a genocidal ending for blacks, a black holocaust in the “unitedstates ofamerica’s/ new/ self-cleaning ovens.” The title of the poem is reprised in the ending along with the warning that African Americans need to listen to the message of Malcolm X.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

The principal poetic device is the juxtaposition of pre-1960’s identity symbols with those of the 1960’s. These symbols are especially related to appearance versus reality, not only in physical style but also in the veracity of statements made on behalf of black identity. Because Malcolm X did not wear obvious African apparel, he is used as a measure of integrity without the possibility of deceit through physical representation. The notion of wearing “blackness” as opposed to actually living it is developed throughout. To “wear yr/ blackness” connotes a superficial identity that belies one’s actual political consciousness, which may be anything but black. However, the first stanza also emphasizes the hypocrisy of language if one voices “slogans” that are also indications of insincerity, mimicry, and popular positions. The popularization of black rhetoric is reflected in the metaphor of musical notoriety symbolized by the music charts. Like popular music, rhetoric can also generate a “top 10” list of statements, which suggests widespread appeal but not necessarily depth of content.

The characterization of Malcolm X is achieved through the use of language drawn from street-corner black vernacular used throughout the poem. The phrases “super-cools” and “doo-rag lovers,” referring to Malcolm X’s earlier life as a hustler and his conked or processed hairstyle, are linked to the image of the counterfeit black spokesman, the “revolutionary pimp,” which combines both a progressive and retrogressive identity. Black vernacular is also used to describe color: “high-yellow” is used as a signifier of class prejudice within the black community, and the term “blackface,” drawn from minstrelsy, is used as a parallel to disguise and deception. These images of color are historical markers in that they are derivatives of plantation and postemancipation labels and terminology. Manipulation of language is another key device, particularly the respelling of certain words to achieve emphasis: “negroes” as “knee/ grows,” “your” as “yr,” “black” as “blk,” and “from” as “fr.” The collapsing of the spelling of “United States of America” to “unitedstatesofamerica” is another example of word manipulation used to achieve the effect of seeing the word or phrase in a different linguistic configuration.

The juxtaposition of physical symbols is found in the third stanza, where the “double-breasted” suit is paralleled to the “dashiki.” Both items can be used to manipulate one’s identity and also to deceive, the Western attire indicating the establishment and black bourgeois sophistication, the African clothing implying black nationalism. These images suggest that transitions in attire from European to African may not represent a true development of black identity. The imagery in the fourth stanza is also based on juxtaposition, repeating notions of color used earlier. The implication is that “dark meat”—people of color—and “whi-te meat” (the spelling of “white” is altered to approximate the pronunciation of “whitey”)—people of European descent—can both be subject to deception. The final image of the “new/ self-cleaning ovens,” directly evoking the Holocaust of World War II, uses the modern appliance to further the irony of genocide.

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Themes