Biography: Marvin X
poet; playwright; educator; activist
Born Marvin Ellis Jackmon on May 29, 1944, in Fowler, California; married; five children
Education: Oakland City College (now Merritt College), AA, 1964; San Francisco State College (now University), BA, 1974, MA, 1975.
Soul Book, Encore, Black World, Black Scholar, and other magazines and newspapers, contributor, 1965-; Black Dialogue, fiction editor, 1965-; Journal of Black Poetry, contributing editor,1965-; Black Arts/West Theatre, San Francisco, co-founder (with Bullins), 1966; Black House, San Francisco, co-founder (with Bullins and Eldridge Cleaver), 1967; Al Kitab Sudan Publishing Company, San Francisco, founder, 1967; California State University at Fresno, black studies teacher, 1967; Black Theatre, associate editor, 1968; Muhammad Speaks, foreign editor, 1970; Your Black Educational Theatre, Inc., San Francisco, founder and director, 1971; University of California, Berkeley, lecturer, 1972; Mills College, lecturer, 1973.
Formerly known as El Muhajir, Marvin X was a key poet and playwright of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) in the 1960s and early 1970s. He wrote for many of the leading black journals of the time, including Black Scholar, Black Theater Magazine, and Muhammad Speaks. He founded Black House with Ed Bullins (1935--) and Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998), which served for a short time as the headquarters of the Black Panther Party, the militant black nationalist group, and a community theatrical center in Oakland County, California. Always a controversial and confrontational figure, Marvin X was banned from teaching at state universities in the 1960s by the then state governor, Ronald Reagan (1911--). When asked in 2003 what had happened to the Black Arts Movement, Marvin X told Lee Hubbard: "I am still working on it...telling it like it is."
Marvin X was born Marvin Ellis Jackmon on May 29, 1944, in Fowler, California, an agricultural area near Fresno. His parents were Owendell and Marian Jackmon; his mother ran her own real estate business. Details about when and why he changed his name are scarce, but he has been known as Nazzam al Fitnah Muhajir, El Muhajir, and is now known simply as Marvin X. Marvin X attended Oakland City College (Merritt College) where he received his AA degree in 1964. He received his BA in English from San Francisco State College (San Francisco State University) in 1974 and his MA in 1975.
While at college Marvin X was involved with various theater projects and co-founded the Black Arts/West Theater with Bullins and others. Their aim was to provide a place where black writers and performers could work on drama projects, but they also had a political motive, to use theater and writing to campaign for the liberation of blacks from white oppression. Marvin X told Lee Hubbard: "The Black Arts Movement was part of the liberation movement of Black people in America. The Black Arts Movement was its artistic arm...[brothers] got a revolutionary consciousness through Black art, drama, poetry, music, paintings, artwork, and magazines."
By the late 1960s Marvin X was a central figure in the Black Arts Movement in San Francisco and had become part of the Nation of Islam, changing his name to El Muhajir and following Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975). Like the heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali (1942--), Marvin X refused his induction to fight in Vietnam. But unlike Ali, Marvin X, along with several other members of the Nation of Islam in California, decided to evade arrest. In 1967 he escaped to Canada but was later arrested in Belize. He chastised the court for punishing him for refusing to be inducted into an army for the purpose of securing "White Power" throughout the world before he was sentenced to five months' imprisonment. His statement was published in the journal The Black Scholar in 1971.
Despite his reputation as an activist, Marvin X was also an intellectual, and a celebrated writer. He was most concerned with the problem of using language created by whites in order to argue for freedom from white power. Many of his plays and poems reflect this struggle to express himself as a black intellectual in a white-dominated society. His play Flowers for the Trashman (1965), for example, is the story of Joe Simmons, a jailed college student whose bitter attack on his white cellmate became a national rallying call for many in the Nation of Islam and other black nationalists. Marvin X's own poetry is heavy with Muslim ideology and propaganda, but it is supported by a sensitive poetic ear. Perhaps his greatest achievement as a poet is to merge Islamic cadences and sensibilities with scholarly American English and the language of the black ghetto.
Like his close friend Eldridge Cleaver, in the late 1980s and 1990s Marvin X went through a period of addiction to crack cocaine. His play One Day in the Life (2000) takes a tragicomic approach to the issue of addiction and recovery, dealing with his own experiences with drug addiction and the experiences of Black Panthers, Cleaver, and Huey Newton (1942-1989). The play has been presented in community theaters around the United States as both a stage play and a video presentation. After emerging from addiction Marvin X founded Recovery Theatre and began organizing events for recovering addicts and those who work with them. His autobiography, Somethin' Proper (1998) includes reminiscences of his life fighting for black civil rights as well as an analysis of drug culture. Drug addiction and "reactionary" rap poetry are two areas of black culture that he has argued have "contributed to the desecration of black people."
In the late 1990s Marvin X became an influential figure in the campaign to have reparations paid for the treatment of blacks under slavery. He organized meetings, readings, and performances to promote black culture and civil rights. He has worked as a university teacher since the early 1970s, as well as giving readings and guest lectures in universities and theaters throughout the United States. Marvin X has also received several awards, including a Columbia University writing grant in 1969 and a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1972.
Columbia University, writing grant, 1969; National Endowment for the Arts, grant, 1972; Your Black Educational Theatre, training grant, 1971-72.
Somethin' Proper: The Life and Times of a North American African Poet, Blackbird Press, 1998.
In the Crazy House Called America, Blackbird Press, 2002.
Flowers for the Trashman (one-act), first produced in San Francisco at San Francisco State College, 1965.
Come Next Summer, first produced in San Francisco at Black Arts/West Theatre, 1966.
The Trial, first produced in New York City at Afro-American Studio for Acting and Speech, 1970.
Take Care of Business, (musical version of Flowers for the Trashman) first produced in Fresno, California, at Your Black Educational Theatre, 1971.
Resurrection of the Dead, first produced in San Francisco at Your Black Educational Theatre, 1972.
Woman-Man's Best Friend, (musical dance drama based on author's book of same title), first produced in Oakland, California, at Mills College, 1973.
In the Name of Love, first produced in Oakland at Laney College Theatre, 1981.
One Day in the Life, 2000.
Sergeant Santa, 2002.
Poetry, Proverbs, and Lyrics
Sudan Rajuli Samia (poems), Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1967.
Black Dialectic (proverbs), Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1967.
As Marvin X, Fly to Allah: Poems, Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1969.
As Marvin X, The Son of Man, Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1969.
As Marvin X, Black Man Listen: Poems and Proverbs, Broadside Press, 1969.
Black Bird (parable), Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1972.
Woman-Man's Best Friend, Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1973.
Selected Poems, Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1979.
(as Marvin X) Confession of a Wife Beater and Other Poems, Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1981. Liberation Poems for North American Africans, Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1982.
Love and War: Poems, Black Bird Press, 1995.
In the Land of My Daughters, 2002.
One Day in the Life (videodrama and soundtrack), 2002.
The Kings and Queens of Black Consciousness (video documentary), 2002.
Love and War (poetry reading published on CD), 2001.
African American Review, Spring, 2001.
"Chicken Bones: A Journal," www.nathanielturner.com/marvinxtable.htm (April 13, 2004).
"El Muhajir," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (April 16, 2004).
"Marvin X," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (April 16, 2004).
"Marvin X Calls for General Strike on Reparations," www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=4714 (April 13, 2004).
— Chris Routledge