photo by Alex Lear


memories of death


my first unforgettable death scene was a man’s body all cut up. some man i didn’t know. i had gone to meet my father at his job. a laboratory technician, he worked on the third floor (or was it the fourth floor) at the veteran’s hospital. sometimes he would show us how he mixed chemicals with body fluids, mainly blood or urine. it was kind of fun but not really exciting once you had been there a couple of times. this particular time, i remember i was in seventh grade, and he told me he wasn’t ready to go. often i would go to the main library, which was only a few blocks from the hospital, and afterwards meet my father when he got off from work. on a few occasions i would get there earlier than his getting off time of 4:30pm and would sit around reading until he was ready. but this particular time it was after 4:30. he said he had some extra work he had to do. as most children do, i said, ok.


he told me, come on. follow me. and we got on the elevator and headed to the basement. i walked behind him trying my best to keep up. my father was a fast walker. i’ll never forget his story about walking to new orleans from donaldsonville, louisiana. we twisted and turned through the basement. down this corridor, through that door, into another hallway, through another set of doors. i really wasn’t paying much attention. didn’t read any signs or anything. i didn’t have to. i was following my father.  and then we went through the last door.


and there it was. a corpse. i balked about ten feet away. the naked body was laid out on a big table that had a ridge around it and pans on carts next to it. the chest was cut completely open with the left and right rib cage folded back. a pan with internal organs was next to the torso. and worse yet, the top of the head was gone. i mean completely sawed off. the brains was in another pan.


i don’t remember it stinking or nothing. my daddy said, you can watch me or you can sit over there. over there was only like five or so feet away. i sat way over there. pulled a book out and buried my head in the book while my daddy started messing with that body. it would have been ok except they were making a lot of strange noises. my daddy was sewing the body back together with a big old needle and thread as thick as twine. when he started putting that man’s head back together and sewing the scalp back over the skull, it made this sucking kind of sound.


i had, of course, been to funerals before and seen bodies laid out at church, but this was my first really memorable experience with death. at that moment, i was de-romanticized about any thing i thought about dead bodies. i realized that for my daddy, death just brought another job he had to do. in fact it was a good job because it paid him overtime.


so this is what happens to you when you die. this is what an autopsy is all about.


between that time and my next memorable death experience i graduated from high school. in fact it was february of 1965, the year after i graduated. and, no, kennedy’s assassination was not a memorable death experience for me. by the end of high school i had been active in the civil rights movement: sitting in at woolworth’s and schwegmann’s lunch counters, picketing on canal street, knocking on doors and doing voter registration work in the black community. kennedy had never been a hero of mine. so here i was up in northfield, minnesota, a small town whose claim to fame was that’s where jesse james did his last bank robbery. the local folk had laid a trap for mr. james and they almost caught him. the james gang was badly hurt in the resulting shoot out and disbanded after that attempt. anyway, i was at carleton college. i hated it there and would leave in less than two months, but i also learned a lot there.


i was working at the college radio station doing a jazz show. my show came on on sunday nights from 8pm to 10pm, if i remember correctly. part of my job at the station was to get there by 7:30pm and literally rip the news off the teletype. it used to come in automatically and there was this big roll of paper that fed into a box. all the news, weather, sports and whatever. and you had to gather up that long roll of paper and cut it up, or rip it, to separate the items you wanted from the ones you didn’t.


there were only 13 black students at carleton, and 8 of us were freshman, so you know how lonely we were. that particular night, linda, a girl from little rock, was visiting my show. as i remember we were the only two black students from the deep south. and when i started ripping the news, i got the first and all subsequent reports: malcolm x had been shot. dead. linda was crying and my eyes were kind of blurry too.


at first it was just a line or two, and then later more and more info streamed over on the loudly clattering machine. i’m ripping the news of malcolm’s death for some college  kid to read. i don’t know how much, if any of that news item was read that night on carleton’s radio show, but i was strangely very, very affected by malcolm’s death. i say strangely, because i was not a muslim. i was not a follower of malcolm in the sense of being part of any organization, but i was, like many, many people my age, an ardent admirer.


why? what was it about malcolm? over the years i have had time to think about it and rather than focus on him, i realize now the focus was on myself and parallels that i scarcely recognized back then, if i saw any of them at all. for one, we both rejected the civil rights movement.


i remember sitting on the steps of mt.zion methodist church before our weekly n-double a-c-p youth council meeting. we had been the main force picketing and leading the boycott on canal street. after close to a year of demonstrating, the merchants decided they wanted to negotiate. we said, sure. they said, stop picketing and we can talk. we said, let’s make an agreement and we will stop. the merchants balked. in response to the impasse the adult branch of the naacp, then led by the future first black mayor of new orleans, ernest “dutch” morial, instructed the youth council to stop picketing so negotiations could proceed.


we were adamant. we’d stop when the merchants met our demands. not before. the national office sent down wally moon, one of the main officials to instruct us, stop picketing or we will put you out of the naacp. they didn’t have to tell me twice. i decided to leave.


for close to two years, the youth council had been my life, consuming all my free time and a lot of my thoughts even when i was in school. i was a few years younger than the leading members, who were mainly college students but they were my gang, whom i hung out with, admired, wanted to be like.


i sat there on those church steps and finally decided: i couldn’t do it. anyone who has ever, for whatever reasons, abandoned a love can appreciate the pain of this voluntary separation. that was my first divorce.


malcolm had divorced himself from the muslims. also, malcolm was advocating internationalism and self-determination. i agreed with both. plus, malcolm had been a preacher--well, officially he had been a muslim minister, but anyone familiar with his oratory knew that malcolm was not just a master minister, he was a full blooded, get down preacher who spoke so eloquently both birds and angels hushed their singing while he was delivering the word. amen.


i had been groomed to hold forth in the pulpit, i knew a thing or two about public speaking, and i knew that malcolm was about the best we had, martin luther king notwithstanding. king had dreams but malcolm had the fire.


to paraphrase malcolm’s eloquent post mortem, the march on washington had been a picnic. the white man told those negroes when they could march, where they could march, how long they could march and when to leave town, and you know what, they came when the white man said you can come and they said what the white man wanted said and they left when the white man said go! malcolm. malcolm. el hajj malik shabazz, malcolm x.


knowing about the organizers’ attempt to censor the march on washington speech of john lewis, the chairman of the student nonviolent organizing committee, whom walter reuther (of the afl-cio) and others considered too militant was proof to me that malcolm had been right. the sell-out house negroes and their white liberal supporters were emasculating our leadership. i was a young man; speaking truth to power was a sine qua non of my definition of manhood, and in that regard no nationally recognized black leader was more man than malcolm.


plus as an insider, i knew all the stories, tales and gossip about our black leaders--king as a philanderer; this one on the take; the other one married to a white woman; on and on. but  when it came to malcolm there was nothing, and malcolm was so hard on middle class negro leadership, i knew that if anyone had anything on malcolm we all would have been made aware. malcolm was a model of leadership in a category unto himself. and now he was gone.


days afterwards, i tried to find out as much as i could. and when i saw one of the death scenes: malcolm carted out on a gurney, his head back and to the side, his mouth sort of open, i thought about that body my father had sewn up and wondered would malcolm be cut up like that. my subsequent thoughts were about the men who shot malcolm, how they could do it. death comes in many forms, but for us in the movement, the hardest to confront is the seeming endless cases of black-on-black killings. 


death makes you think. at first you just recoil in shock, but sooner or later, the philosophical aspects confront and confound. malcolm’s murder in particular initiated many hours of trying to figure out what, if anything, i could do to address, and ultimately stop, black on black murder. i was too young to know how old that particular problem was. fratricide has never been a racial issue, has never been anything but a human issue, and mainly a human male issue.


nevertheless, when your leader and hero dies at the hands of our own, you never forget. i don’t recall what music i played the night malcolm died. despite any nostalgia for my youth and the glory days of seemingly boundless energy and optimism (which two qualities are, after all, the hallmarks of youth regardless of the specifics of any particular time period), despite the fog of memory and the hunger for the good old days (isn’t it oxymoronic that we call the days of our youth “the good old days”?), despite any and all of that, all i remember about that sunday night is malcolm was assassinated. our movement was in crisis. i was in crisis. those were difficult days.


—kalamu ya salaam