American Literature: Marvin X
Marvin X (b. 1944), poet, playwright, essayist, director, and lecturer. Marvin Ellis Jackmon was born on 29 May 1944 in Fowler, California. He attended high school in Fresno and received a BA and MA in English from San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University). The mid-1960s were formative years for Jackmon. He became involved in theater, founded his own press, published several plays and volumes of poetry, and became increasingly alienated because of racism and the Vietnam War. Under the influence of Elijah Muhammad, he became a Black Muslim and has published since then under the names El Muhajir and Marvin X. He has also used the name Nazzam al Fitnah Muhajir.
Marvin X and Ed Bullins founded the Black Arts/West Theatre in San Francisco in 1966, and several of his plays were staged during that period in San Francisco, Oakland, New York, and by local companies across the United States. His one-act play Flowers for the Trashman was staged in San Francisco in 1965 and was included in the anthology Black Fire (1968); a musical version, Take Care of Business, was produced in 1971. The play presents the confrontation between two cellmates in a jail—one a young African American college student, the other a middle-aged white man. Another one-act play, The Black Bird, a Black Muslim allegory in which a young man offers lessons in life awareness to two small girls, appeared in 1969 and was included in New Plays from the Black Theatre that year. Several other plays, including The Trial, Resurrection of the Dead, and In the Name of Love, have been successfully staged, and Marvin X has remained an important advocate of African American theater.
In 1967, Marvin X was convicted, during the Vietnam War, for refusing induction and fled to Canada; eventually he was arrested in Honduras, was returned to the United States, and was sentenced to five months in prison. In his statement on being sentenced—later reprinted in Black Scholar (1971) and also in Clyde Taylor's anthology, Vietnam and Black America (1973)—he argues that
Any judge, any jury, is guilty of insanity that would have the nerve to judge and convict and imprison a black man because he did not appear in a courtroom on a charge of refusing to commit crimes against humanity, crimes against his own brothers and sisters, the peace-loving people of Vietnam.
Marvin X founded El Kitab Sudan publishing house in 1967; several of his books of poetry and proverbs have been published there. Much of Marvin X's poetry is militant in its anger at American racism and injustice. For example, in “Did You Vote Nigger?” he uses rough dialect and directs his irony at African Americans who believe in the government but are actually its pawns. Many of the proverbs in The Son of Man (1969) express alienation from white America. However, many of Marvin X's proverbs and poems express more concern with what African Americans can do positively for themselves, without being paralyzed by hatred. He insists that the answer is to concentrate on establishing a racial identity and to “understand that art is celebration of Allah.” The poems in Fly to Allah, Black Man Listen (1969), and other volumes from his El Kitab Sudan press are characterized by their intensity and their message of racial unity under a religious banner.
Marvin X has remained active as a lecturer, teacher, theatrical producer, editor, and exponent of Islam. His work in advocating racial cohesion and religious dedication as an antidote to the legacy of racism he saw around him in the 1960s and 1970s made him an important voice of his generation.
Lorenzo Thomas, “Marvin X,” in DLB, vol. 38, Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, eds. Thadious Davis and Trudier Harris, 1985, pp. 177–184.
Bernard L. Peterson, Jr., “Marvin X,” in Contemporary Black American Playwrights and Their Plays, 1988, pp. 332–333. “El Muhajir,” in CA, vol. 26, eds. Hal May and James G. Lesniak, 1989, pp. 132–133
Michael E. Greene