The poem, For Malcom X, is obviously rooted in history being based on Malcom X. As a little bit of “back story”, for those who haven’t heard of Malcom X he is considered a pivotal figure in the fight for racial equality in America. Born an African-American, Muslim he sometimes took a militant stand in his efforts to gain equality. Many hail him as a hero and a man to be revered. Although some question whether his methods were justified and cite those such as Martin Luther King who helped bring about equality without using violent methods. The truth is that both men were massively influential in the changes that were made in the US.
For Malcom X is far from complimentary although it seems to recognise the profound effect that the man had, it certainly does not look at him from a kind perspective. I found this pretty surprising though it could be that Walker disapproved of Malcom X’s methods.
Form and Tone
The poem is written in free verse and separated into two stanzas. The first is eight lines long the second is six lines long. There is no discernible rhyming pattern. The line lengths are very different and the metre is uneven. The poem is very dark and morbid and talks of Malcom X’s death. You could well class the poem as an elegy. Although the title suggests it is in memory of Malcom X it paints him in the way most scholars perceive him as an ambiguous figure who did some good and some harm.
For Malcom X Analysis
The poem, which can be read in full here, starts in a very bleak fashion. It addresses “violated ones” this is a powerful adjective and straight away offers a stark contrast as the narrator describes them as having gentle hearts. It stands to reason that in this line Walker is probably addressing the black community. Once again in the second line we see the comparisons which act almost as oxymorons. She refers to these people, who may well be the followers and supporters of Malcom X as Violent dreamers. These early comparison are really notable and create an astonishing effect. Are they being used as a device to put across the double edged sword that is the violent protests that Malcom X and his supporters grew famous for?
The next line uses a really interesting concept as Walker uses the alliterative phrase “cool capers” A caper is sometimes used to describe a crime, but isn’t a word that is associated with “hardcore crime” IE violent crimes that hurt individuals. Referring to any crime as cool though creates another jarring comparison. I think these comparisons are used to create grey areas and cast aspersions on what people hold to be true.
The descriptions that Walker then continues to use are not complimentary at all, from her physical description, describing these people as having “pits for eyes” to her description of the type of people that she is addressing. It becomes apparent though that she is not purely addressing black people, although she is in part, she is also addressing “hating white devils” presumably this means racist white folk. She refers to these people as “Thumbing your noses at your burning red suns” the image of “thumbing ones nose” is the suggestion here that they are keeping secrets? I think this could be interpreted this way. But what of the “burning red suns” is this a euphemism for a burning cross?
Perhaps the most startling line of all is the last lion of the stanza when Malcom X is described as their “dying swan” This is interesting for several different reasons. Not least of all the fact that Malcom X is described as being “theirs [your]” does this mean that in the poets eyes that Malcom X belonged to these people? The Black bourgeoisie etc. There are also two other interesting points here. Swans are generally (though not always) white. Malcom X most certainly wasn’t white! The very notion could be considered pretty offensive and finally a dying swan is a term often used to describe somebody who is “making a meal of it” You can’t really make a meal of your own death! So is the poet lessening his plight? I wouldn’t have thought that would be the case considering her work on equality. Maybe this is her way of belittling his methods and his “ends justify the means” tactics. This probably wouldn’t have sat entirely right with Walker who was a scholar and therefore possibly quite liberally mined (a lot of people working in education are).
From the very first sentence here we see Walker appearing to almost mock Malcom X, when you read the first two words “snow white” this almost stands in defiance of the man’s movement towards black empowerment. It also mentions his religion although uses an older spelling of Muslim that is less commonly used today. The second line once again pours ambiguity on what we thought we knew. It would appear up until this point that Walker was very much against Malcom X but in this next line she describes his words as beautiful but concurrently compares them to sand paper. This is to put across the idea that his words grated. But is this necessarily a negative? Walker used positives and negatives in abundance throughout the poem, but words grating on the correct people might not be an entirely negative thing.
The next two lines are particularly graphic and harrowing as Walker describes “our” blood flowing from his wounds. What is unclear is who the “our” that she refers to. Can we take it to mean innocent black people? That would be my best guess. In the final line Walker prophetically predicts somebody rising up to fill the void left by Malcom X. When she uses the phrase “holy place” I think that this could be considered sarcastic. She really doesn’t seem to have much positive to say about the guy. The two suggestions for “people” that could take his place are a crying child or a mumbling old man. Neither one of these would on the face of it look like a positive role model. Does she choose these two “contenders” to the throne deliberately to emphasise the point of how futile the actions of Malcom X were?
About Margaret Walker
Margaret Walker is an American Poet originating from Birmingham, Alabama. This must have made her early life quite difficult as a young black girl living in an area that is notoriously racist, or at least historically has been. At a fairly young age Walker and her family moved to New Orleans. Walker was highly educated and ended up receiving a doctorate. She became part of the African-American literary movement in Chicago. Although a much celebrated poet Walker has a modest body of work. She spent a great deal of her profession working as a professor at what is now Jackson University. This is a facility that was traditionally used predominantly by the black community. Walker died of breast cancer in 1998 at the age of 83. Her work towards equality was recognised when the centre in which she used to work was redubbed as the Margaret Walker Centre.