Marvin X, America's Rumi, Plato (Negro), Hafiz, Saadi
Marvin X, one of the movers and shakers of the 1960s Black Arts Movement, is also considered the father of Muslim American literature, according to Dr. Mohja Khaf, novelist and professor of English and Islamic literature at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. In her essay Teaching Diaspora Literature: Muslim American literature as an emerging field, she said, "Marvin X is
If there is such a thing as Muslim American literature (MAL) and she argues there is, "It begins with the Muslims of the Black Arts Movement (1965–75). The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of its iconic texts; it includes American Sufi writing, secular ethnic novels, writing by immigrant and second-generation Muslims, and religious American Muslim literature.
Sonia Sanchez, whose A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974) is the work of
her Muslim period. Amiri Baraka, whose A Black Mass (2002) renders the Nation of Islam’s Yacoub genesis theology into drama. As with Sanchez, the author was Muslim only briefly but the influence of the Islamic period stretches over a significant part of his overall production.
as Marvin X."
Suheir Hammad, Palestinian New Yorker, diva of Def Poetry Jam (on Broadway and HBO),
whose tribute to June Jordan in her first book of poetry, Born Palestinian, Born Black
(1996), establishes her line of descent from the BAM, at least as one (major) influence on
Of Marvin X, Mohja had this to say in her review of his 1995 collection Love and War:
Have spent the last few days (when not mourning with friends and family the passing of my family friend and mentor in Muslim feminism and Islamic work, Sharifa AlKhateeb, (may she dwell in Rahma), immersed in the work of Marvin X and amazed at his brilliance. This poet has been prolific since his first book of poems, Fly to Allah, (1969), right up to his most recent Love and War Poems (1995) and Land of My Daughters, 2005, not to mention his plays, which were produced (without royalties) in Black community theatres from the 1960s to the present, and essay collections such as In the Crazy House Called America, 2002, and Wish I Could Tell You The Truth, 2005.
Marvin X was a prime shaper of the Black Arts Movement (1964-1970s) which is, among other things, the birthplace of modern Muslim American literature, and it begins with him. Well, Malik Shabazz and him. But while the Autobiography of Malcolm X is a touchstone of Muslim American culture, Marvin X and other Muslims in BAM were the emergence of a cultural expression of Black Power and Muslim thought inspired by Malcolm, who was, of course, ignited by the teachings and writings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. And that, taken all together, is what I see as the starting point of Muslim American literature. Then there are others, immigrant Muslims and white American Muslims and so forth, that follow.
There are also antecedents, such as the letters of Africans enslaved in America. Maybe there is writing by Muslims in the Spanish and Portuguese era or earlier, but that requires archival research of a sort I am not going to be able to do. My interest is contemporary literature, and by literature I am more interested in poetry and fiction than memoir and non-fiction, although that is a flexible thing.
I argue that it is time to call Muslim American literature a field, even though many of these writings can be and have been classified in other ways—studied under African American literature or to take the writings of immigrant Muslims, studied under South Asian ethnic literature or Arab American literature.
With respect to Marvin X, I wonder why I am just now hearing about him—I read Malcolm when I was 12, I read Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez and others from the BAM in college and graduate school—why is attention not given to his work in the same places I encountered these other authors? Declaring Muslim American literature as a field of study is valuable because recontextualizing it will add another layer of attention to his incredibly rich body of work.
He deserves to be WAY better known than he is among Muslim Americans and generally, in the world of writing and the world at large. By we who are younger Muslim American poets, in particular, Marvin should be honored as our elder, one who is still kickin, still true to the word!
Love and War Poems is wrenching and powerful, combining a powerful critique of America ("America downsizes like a cripple whore/won't retire/too greedy to sleep/too fat to rest") but also a critique of deadbeat dads and drug addicts (not sparing himself) and men who hate. "For the Men" is so Quranic poem it gave me chills with verses such as:
| for the men who honor wives |
and the men who abuse them
for the men who win
and the men who sin
for the men who love God
and the men who hate
for the men who are brothers
and the men who are beasts
"O Men, listen to the wise," the poet pleads:
| there is no escape |
for the men of this world
or the men of the next
He is sexist as all get out, in the way that is common for men of his generation and his radicalism, but he is refreshingly aware of that and working on it. It's just that the work isn't done and if that offends you to see a man in process and still using the 'b' word, look out. Speaking of the easily offended, he warns in his introduction that "life is often profane and obscene, such as the present condition of African American people." If you want pure and holy, he says, read the Quran and the Bible, because Marvin is talking about "the low down dirty truth." For all that, the poetry of Marvin X is like prayer, beauty-full of reverence and honor for Truth. "It is. it is. it is."
A poem to his daughter Muhammida is a sweet mix of parental love and pride and fatherly freak-out at her sexuality and independence, ending humbly with:
| peace Mu |
it's on you
Other people don't get off so easy, including a certain "black joint chief of staff ass nigguh (kill 200,000 Muslims in Iraq)" in the sharply aimed poem "Free Me from My Freedom." (Mmm hmm, the 'n' word is all over the place in Marvin too.) Nature poem, wedding poem, depression poem, wake-up call poems, it's all here. Haiti, Rwanda, the Million Man March, Betsy Ross's maid, OJ, Rabin, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and other topics make it into this prophetically voiced collection of dissent poetry, so Islamic and so African American in its language and its themes, a book that will stand in its beauty long after the people mentioned in it pass. READ MARVIN X for RAMADAN!
According to Bob Holman of New York's Bowery Poetry Club, Marvin X is the USA’s Rumi, and his nation is not “where our fathers died” but where our daughters live. The death of patriarchal war culture is his everyday reality.
X’s poems vibrate, whip, love in the most meta- and physical ways imaginable and un-. He’s got the humor of Pietri, the politics of Baraka, and the spiritual Muslim grounding that is totally new in English –- the ecstasy of Hafiz, the wisdom of Saadi. It’s not unusual for him to have a sequence of shortish lines followed by a culminating line that stretches a quarter page –- it is the dance of the dervishes, the rhythms of a Qasida.
“I am the black bird in love
I fly with love
I swoop into the ocean and pluck fish
in the name of love
oceans flow with love
let the ocean wash me with love
even the cold ocean is love
the morning swim is love
the ocean chills me with love
from the deep come fish full of love” (from the opening poem, “In the Name of Love”)
“How to Love A Thinking Woman”:
“Be revolutionary, radical, bodacious
Stay beyond the common
Have some class about yaself
Say things she’s never heard before
Ihdina sirata al mustaquim
(guide us on the straight path)
Make her laugh til she comes in her panties
serious jokes to get her mind off the world.”
There are anthems (“When I’ll Wave the Flag/Cuando Voy a Flamear la Bandera”), rants (“JESUS AND LIQUOR STORES”), love poems (“Thursday”) and poems totally uncategorizable (“Dreamtime”). Read this one cover to cover when you’ve got the time to “Marry a Tree.”
X's latest works include The Wisdom of Plato Negro, Parables/fables, Black Bird Press, 2010, Pull Yo Pants Up fada Black Prez and Yoself, Black Bird Press, 2010. His Academy of Da Corner Reader's Theatre recently performed The Wisdom of Plato Negro at the San Francisco Theatre Festival. His play (with Ed Bullins) Salaam, Huey Newton, Salaam, was produced in New York at the New Federal Theatre, 2008. One Day in the Life, a docudrama of addiction and recovery, is the longest running African American drama in Northern California, running from 1997 through 2002.
White America Discovers Marvin X--Fifty Years Later
Marvin X and his Academy of Da Corner rocked the San Francisco Theatre Festival today. Not only did the largely white audience enjoy his very first play Flowers for the Trashman, 1965, produced by the drama department at San Francisco State University, but they enjoyed as well his current production of The Wisdom of Plato Negro, Parables/fables.
Additionally, the audience was blessed with the productions of his two top drama students, Ayodele Nzingha, Lower Bottom Playaz, and Geoffrey Grier, San Francisco Recovery Theatre. Both playwrights, actors and directors evolved from the mentoring of Marvin X.
Ayodele as actress, director and producer was consummate in her rendition of Opal Palmer Adisa's Bathroom Graffiti Queen. Since an actor can only excel when given a proper script, we must acknowledge the fine writing of Opal Palmer Adisa. But the actor takes the script to the next level of excellence and Ayo surpassed the script with her acting ability.
Her Lower Bottom Playaz performed in grand manner Marvin X's first play Flowers for the Tashman. The playwright was totally pleased with the young men who delivered the drama in the classical form it deserved after a half century in the Black Arts Movement.
Ayo's Mama at Twilight remains a touching story of denial and faith in the family drama about HIV/AIDS. The Lower Bottom Playaz of West Oakland, childhood home of Marvin X, have had time to become well skilled in the presentation of their repertory. All the actors must be congratulated. Someone mentioned they were especially happy to see the young men's performance in Flowers for the Trashman.
Geoffrey Grier's plays, Jet, The Spot, and Night at the Blackhawk, are equally honorable and worthy of praise. We especially enjoyed his production of Amiri Baraka's Dutchman. The audience enjoyed it as well. Even though we may have wanted a younger actor to perform the role of Clay, the person who did it was so skillful we excused his age.
It was amazing to see that Flowers for the Trashman and the Dutchman are indeed classics that have withstood the test of time. Fifty years later they are still relevant and powerful dramas of black consciousness in America. Lula said to Clay that it's all about your manhood. And so it is.
The day ended with the Wisdom of Plato Negro, Parables/fables by Marvin X. The mostly white audience sat in anticipation as members of Academy of the Corner Reader's Theatre gathered on stage. Marvin X opened with singer/guitarist Rashidah Sabreen's original song A Real Love, joined by Marvin's poem What is Love. The audience sensed they were in for something different.
Paradise Jah Love came with Parable of the Penguin, then Parable of Oakland's Day of Absence, recounting the day the Oscar Grant verdict was announced. It was a communal ritual read also by Talibah, who joined with her drum. It the background was the music of Elliott Bey's synthesizer. Rashidah added dance numbers. The group held up poster pictures of Oscar Grant.
Mechelle LaChaux performed Parable of the Cell Phone. The audience went stone wild. Mechelle is an actress and singer, so her linguistic flexibility is unmatched. Marvin X's language will put Tyler Perry in pre-school. Critic Wanda Sabir said his language will "knock the socks off old ladies." Well, there were several senior women in the audience who didn't miss a linguistic beat.
We think the hottest piece was Parable of the Woman in the Box, performed by choreographer/dancer Raynetta Rayzetta, accompanied by Rashidah. Raynetta is X's favorite choreographer/dancer. She had the audience inside the box with her, as someone said.
X ended with his poem You Don't Know Me, accompanied by a Rashidah Sebreen original song.
White America has discovered Marvin X! Yes, fifty years later!
The USA's Rumi...the politics of Baraka, the ecstasy of Hafiz, the wisdom of Saadi....
--Bob Holman, Bowery Poetry Club, New York City
If you want to learn about motiviation and inspiration, don't spend all that money going to workshops and seminars, just go stand at 14th and Broadway, downtown Oakland, and watch Marvin X at work. He's Plato teaching on the streets of Oakland.
Marvin X is available for readings/lectures on a variety of topics. firstname.lastname@example.org.