Friday, September 10, 2021

Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, Farah Jasmine Griffin, and black fathers as muses

As some of you may know, I wrote a book about bad men and creativity, where I noted how rebellious, outspoken, militant, and even troubling men sometimes serve as important muses for writers and other creators. I probably could have written a full-length book about the works inspired by black fathers -- a subject or set of subjects that have been motivating forces within and leading to many important works. 

I was recently thinking about three figures: Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, and Farah Jasmine Griffin. 

In different ways, they were deeply influenced by their fathers, more specifically their thinking about their fathers, and what's especially noteworthy is that they were quite young when they lost these men in their lives. Ellison lost his father when he was three years ago. Malcolm lost his father when he was six. Griffin was nine when she lost her father. 

Those losses were devastating. 

But, those children and then adults always kept their fathers in mind. Read Arnold Rampersad's biography of Ellison, Les Payne and Tamara Payne's biography of Malcolm, and Griffin's memoir Read Until You Understand, and you'll witness folks who are working with and off of their father's memories for decades.  

Ellison's father loved literature and various authors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, hence he named his son Ralph Waldo Ellison. In commentary on that biography of Ellison, Hilton Als wrote that "Rampersad points out that the loss of Ellison’s father remained a wound in his consciousness for the rest of his life." Fathers and grandfathers pop up in notable ways in Ellison's creative works, and he reflects on his father in essays. 

Earl Little, Malcolm's father, died in 1931. Family members, including one of Malcolm's older brothers who was there to hear the report and see the body, accepted that their father Earl Little died as a result of a tragic accident. But Malcolm, hearing rumors to the contrary, refused to accept the incident as an accident. It was his opinion, expressed throughout his life, that his father was killed by the Klan. 

For years, I believed Malcolm's account, but after the evidence presented by Payne and Payne in their biography that drew on reports from the family, I am inclined to believe their finding that it was indeed a terrible accident that led to Earl Little's death. I do understand though why Malcolm (as well as many others and me) needed to believe that the father of this great black nationalist leader was killed by white domestic terrorists.  

But even if people cannot agree on that fact, we can consider that the loss of a father so early caused Malcolm all kinds of pain and may have led him to seek out father figures, finding one most notably in Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm had a deep, deep connection to Muhammad and for many years considered himself a most devoted follower of the leader. In fact, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was initially going to be a book-length tribute to Muhammad. During the processes of interviews with Alex Haley, however, Malcolm separated from Muhammad's Nation of Islam, and the autobiography took a different turn. 

I've written about Griffin's book and noted the influence of his life on who she was as a childhood reader. Today, she is an accomplished scholar of American and African American literature, jazz, and cultural history. She points out in her memoir the motivating force of her father's early lessons, annotations in books, and book collection, which she studied even more fervently when he died. 

For Ellison, Malcolm, and Griffin, these men Lewis Ellison, Earl Little, and Emerson Griffin, respectively, were crucial muses. 

I could add another one to this mix. Years ago, I read Lewis Porter's biography of John Coltrane. In 1939 Trane, who was 12, lost his father. Porter draws a link between what Coltrane lost and his early engagements with music: 

It was just at this time [when Coltrane's father died] that he began to take up music, playing first the alto horn, then the clarinet, and from the beginning he is said to have practiced continuously, obsessively, as if practicing would bring his father back, or maybe help him to forget his father--as if, by succeeding in music, he could restore stability and control to his life. Perhaps, in a sense, music became his father substitute" (17).   

Listen, I certainly don't want to over-romanticize things. I'm not suggesting that losing a central black man in your life at an early age is an advantage. It's not. It's definitely not. There are countless examples, way too many instances of black children losing their fathers and then the child continuing to lose and fall into deep despair. And poverty.  

The point here is to consider that in some prominent cases we have records of writers, other creators, or their biographers highlighting how black father loss and black father yearning affected consequential thinking and pathways taken by various African Americans. And, the outcomes remind us just how important the presence of these loving, creative, and guiding forces were for their children and families. 

In these cases too, we have opportunities to consider what the loss meant, and with Griffin in particular, we get to hear how a black father's presence and then absence shaped and influenced her approached to education over time. Researchers have made it possible for us to consider what the loss of black fathers meant for Ellison and Malcolm. 

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