Saturday, September 13, 2008

Marvin X: A Critical Look at the Father

of Muslim American Literature

Edited by Nefertiti El Muhajir


By Dr. Mohja Kahf

Marvin X: First Muslim American Poet

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
yo world

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!

Mohja Kahf / Associate Professor / Dept. of English & Middle East & Islamic Studies, University of Arkansas-Fayetteville

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