Wish I Could Tell You the Truth
Essays by Marvin X
Reviewed by Rudolph Lewis
I been listening to Wish I, a CD of an interview of Marvin X on KPOO-Radio in San Francisco. Though I been checking out Marvin for a season I never been with him in the flesh and never heard his voice except on the page, and in cyber-communications. And from reports by Kalamu ya Salaam. The Wish I CD affirmed how I imagined him and how I tried to characterize him in my review of his book of poetry, Land of My Daughters.
Funny, outrageous, challenging Marvin X is on the same tier as Amiri Baraka and Kalamu ya Salaam in putting on an entertaining program. For in "Why I Love Lesbians," Marvin says, "In their hatred is drama / I love drama." Marvin's first love is theater, he is poet and shaman, skilled in manipulating the passions like the preacher in the pulpit, or the Harlem soapbox orator, or the barbershop orators found throughout the black community. In his Wish I Could Tell You the Truth--Essays, Marvin X has created a book that mirrors the orature in bull sessions, ubiquitous in black speech and poetry, in the barbershop.
That is, Malcolm X ain't got nothing on Marvin X. Still Marvin has been ignored and silenced like Malcolm would be ignored and silenced if he had lived on into the Now. Marvin's one of the most extraordinary, exciting black intellectuals living today--writing, publishing, performing with Sun Ra musicians, reciting, filming, he's ever engaging, challenging the respectable and the comfortable. He like Malcolm dares to say things, fearlessly, in the open (in earshot of the white man) that so many Negroes feel and think and speak on the corner, in the barbershops and urban streets of black America.
Discourse by exaggeration and humor has its place in serious intellectual enquiry. Everybody don't have to wear the nerdy mask and inky cloak and speak in the autocratic tones of academia. Marvin's dramatic style and political approach could not be tolerated at the University since Ronald Reagan forced him out of the California university system, which signaled the castration of black studies at white universities.
In short, Wish I Could Tell You the Truth is one of the most daring, innovative, entertaining group of "essays" I ever had yet to read. In a true sense this book is a literary replication of the barbershop experience. The street rap. Yet much more sophisticated, informed, daring, philosophical. And it is sheer arrogance and snootiness that he has been ignored or overlooked by PBS, CNN, and FOX. And by black literary societies and colleges. Because his thinking is dangerous, and his simple courage is infectious. And anybody who's heard him know that Chris Rock and Amiri Baraka ain't got nothing on Marvin, once he gets to improvising. Marvin is a truth teller, and just as funky as James Brown.
Wish I Could Tell You the Truth is, too, an intellectual and philosophical autobiography. Boswell has nothing on this journalistic foray, that sweeps the planet in its thinking. Marvin is a storyteller. Like Abby Lincoln, Marvin's voice matches the story he tells. He ain't no Cornel West. With Marvin you cannot separate the story from the voice, one reinforces the other. Though everyday speech is in Marvin's writing, his writing is artistic writing and different from his oral performances. Marvin is no linear thinker and so you have to take him in in the all in all, between the covers, you got to read him fully to appreciate truly what he has achieved as an artist and as a man.
The tone of Wish I Could Tell You the Truth is established in a forty-page autobiographical note beginning with his birth during an age of war, the impact of broken family life, youthful love, exposés, going on to his academic career, antiwar activism, criminal on the run, hustler, civic reformer, and revolutionary. This autobiographical section is primarily episodic and expressionistic rather than linear and analytical. It is Marvin's expertise as storyteller that carries us forward for his views are often surprising and shocking. Marvin don't pull no punches when lives are involved.
"Negroes see me and they get on a skateboard," Marvin observes. "I don't have no money, I ain't got no bank account, I ain't got no job, and I ain't had no job in twenty five years, you understand, I don't have no power but the word, and Negroes run from me, scare to death, they scared, Mama . . . but they ain't scared of doing whatever the white man tells him. Going to Iraq, dying like flies . . . won't die for a purpose. . . . dying on the streets of America. . . . for no purpose, at all . . . they learn all this from the white man, really. Because that's how they think. Bush think there ain't no consequence to his actions. . . Bush always needs another cowboy . . . but he don't understand . . . the Indians are coming . . . THE INDIANS ARE COMING . . . they coming for you . . . the Ancestor Spirits of the Black Man and Woman are coming for you, Mr. White Man, unless you clean up. . . . you understand."
Now this kind of speech scares Black Academia in the company of their white colleagues. And the white professional does not want to endure his female colleagues squeamish in their chairs because of Marvin's voice. But Marvin is a radical advocate of free speech, "Don't sell me no sheetrock, for my pipe. . . . Give me some love, give me some truth. It does not matter whether you black or white . . . the weapon of today is consciousness, not color . . . we been trained to be warriors . . . God was training us for war . . . but they [we] don't have the right word, the right directions . . . turning them into constitutional slaves."
Well this kind of nationalist speech would make a Martin Kilson squirm. There's no place in the academy and black studies programs for nationalists like a Marvin X or an Amiri Baraka or a Kalamu ya Salaam. Three of the most extraordinary men (writers, artists) of our time alienated, separated, barred from the Academy, and the "accepted" (the "pragmatic activists") embarrassed by their presence and speech.
In his response to Reverend Eugene Rivers' "Beyond the Nationalism of Fools: Toward An Agenda for Black Intellectuals" (Boston Review), Kilson argued we don't need "a new-mode Black nationalist discourse issue . . . . For me, all variants of Black nationalist modalities have spent-their-load, as it were, whether here in US, in the Caribbean, or in the many African states where it is fully bankrupt." So Marvin has nothing a Kilson can respect, unworthy of his intellectual attention or recommendation.
Marvin and Baraka have "spent their load"!!! Is that the real deal? Or just the Academic Black Ball. But this kind of autocracy within black political discourse and acts and educational arenas should have been dispensed with yesterday. Here's a matter in need of serious consideration. If the Du Bois Chair at Harvard is going to be the Chair for Black Humanities and the political, social, and cultural arbiter of Black Life and Culture, shouldn't we black folks have something to say who sits in the Chair?
Baraka had more books, more scholarship than Skip Gates, more organizational skills, he was more representative of the sentiments of black youth and Du Bois, an activist scholar, par excellence. But we didn't have a hand in it, we folk, because white money is more persuasive, than dedication and sacrifice, and even community shaming. If we were truly a nation we could by vote choose our representatives and leaders. We wouldn't have to wait for good white people to choose them. Let's vote for our Idol.
So Marvin writes: "The activist scholars were long ago removed from academia as a threat to Western scholarship and community liberation. Safe, qualified negroes were brought in who would control the natives and have them chasing rocks in Egypt rather than stopping gunshots in the hood by providing alternative consciousness. . . . Black studies was not about degrees, but the liberation of a people . . . . the community would be better served giving consciousness to dry bones in the hood."
But Strong Men keep on pushing, despite isolation, alienation, and banishment. There ain't no stopping Strong Men, says Sterling Brown. And Marvin is a nationalist with a global consciousness. But our primary "mission is self and community development, not esoteric journeys to the Motherland to discover much to his dismay and utter disappointment that he is not an African but a pitiful American mutation, a mongrel, in short, a white man in black face, a disconnected descendant, even worse than ET because he can't call home even when he gets there."
But it is "even more important that he makes peace with the trees and swamps and bayous of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, then perhaps the ancestors in Africa will accept him and assuage his mind . . . better . . . connect with the ghetto blacks he . . . earnestly desires to escape." We are schizophrenic (you know, Du Bois' "double consciousness"). Negroes "got ten different personalities . . . negroes know how to act. . . Tom was a killer, he had murder in his heart." So for the dope gangs, we need to "make peace with them, teach them to make peace with themselves." But we also have too many black celebrities, like Crouch, Cosby, and West, "cultural police for the black bourgeoise," destructively "Beyond the Ignorance Zone."
So, you see, Marvin is refreshing. He's a Liberator. He has freed up contemporary black public speech, primarily controlled by the hip hop industry, Hollywood, the communication industry, and educational factories like Harvard and black public schools. He's like no Muslim you have heard speak. And this is odd for the usual impulse is to think of Muslims as limiting speech and especially the speech of women. For he knows the "light don't come on if you don't turn the switch. . . . Flip the switch on, dummy . . . you got to put on the armor of God and you can walk through the valley of shadow and death. . . . I had the armor of God on me when I was out there, when I was out there in the projects, on crack."
War, religion, and cultural ethics are the steak of Marvin's extended discussion. Wish I Could Tell You the Truth is thus cultural criticism at its best. "In the Name of Love," Marvin explains, "Love ain't love if it cuts too deep." For many Marvin probably cuts "too deep." It's a book that would frighten a Tavis Smiley or a Jesse Jackson or a Skip Gates. Though he says he's a Muslim, on reading Marvin you can only guess he is a Muslim. He don't pray five times a day and he don't ascribe to some of the cultural practices of some Muslims and thus he has made a call for a "Radical Spirituality."
The slave religion cultivated by black mega-preachers and Saudi-supported Islam are better understood as a "religion box." Marvin continues, "But we know the people have been hoodwinked and bamboozled, therefore it is the mission of the truly spiritually conscious to step to the front of the line and represent, not hide in the closet and let the masquerade continue." Marvin is wary of religious institutions that exist for the priests primarily. "We have been told to seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all things, yea, even political and economic things will be added unto ye."
Marvin is against imperialist wars, e.g. Iraq and Haiti. He was a Vietnam-era anti-war activist on the run, from Canada to Central America. And he takes position on Israel that no black academic would dare take, no black elected official would allow pass through his lips. "Israel is the number one problem in the Middle East. Israel is no less a fascist, nazi, apartheid state backed with the money and armaments of America. Israel is the only threat to peace in the Middle East."
Whether Israel is the "only threat" my political sympathies do not extend so far. What's troubling is Israel is beyond criticism, if you want to win public office in America. And our 800 public black officials and academicians know how their bread is buttered. And as it used to be with our black mayors, there is no full criticism, but rather a mumbling, hypocritical silence. Nationalism is okay for the Jew, but not the American Negro, for they ain't got no guns and capital, and certainly, thank God, they ain't nuclear.
So in the spirit of Marvin I'm gonna call on and thank God, Allah, Jesus, Jah, Jehovah, Buddha, Karl Marx, and Lenin, and call on the Ancestors to bless you with a copy of Wish I Could Tell You the Truth. Don't run from Marvin, give him an ear. The brother got truths you need to hear, that will clean us up. Liberate the captive. Build a new black world, real free zones. And he's got some lies, too, but it's all good. Contrary to Kilson's view, life is still in black nationalism. For Marvin Black is White and White is Black. He ain't fearing being fired, he says what he wants to say. . . . Praise God in the name of Love.
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I Wish, a 2CD reading/interview with Marvin X is available from Black Bird Press, 11132 Nelson Bar Road, Cherokee CA 95965, 19.95.