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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 499 words.)