Cool Politics:
Styles of Honour in
Malcolm X and Miles Davis

For John Fraser


George Elliott Clarke

Duke University

Copyright © 1998 by George Elliott Clarke, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. The following article, "Cool Politics: Styles of Honour in Malcolm X and Miles Davis," raises two implicit issues, one theoretical, the other personal. The hidden theoretical question is, how is it possible to discuss African-American masculinities in a postcolonial context? In other words, what congruencies exist between African-American literary theory/cultural studies and postcolonial theory? The secret, personal question is, what motivates my interest in undertaking the attempted rehabilitation of two sorry, African-American misogynists? If these queries are sediments in the essay itself, the same is true, perhaps, of their potential solutions.

  2. Certainly, I see no essential divorce between African-American Studies and postcolonial theory. Indeed, one obvious linkage between the two is that both come into being at the same historical juncture, whether one wants to date this moment as the period of full-blown modernism (1914-1939), or whether one prefers to specify the period of post-World War II decolonization. In either case, African-American socio-political theorists, from W. E. B. Du Bois to bell hooks, have been central to the articulation of theories of political liberation that have proven influential for decolonized intellectuals. Famously, for instance, Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes saw their race pride poetics recapitulated in the works of African négritude writers like Léopold Senghor. Likewise, the revolutionary analyses of African-American leaders like Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El Shabazz) found an audience among Caribbean intellectuals, including exiles in Britain in the 1960s (See Carew). U.S. Black Panther Party rhetoric was translated and made to suit the aspirations of Canadian Québecois radicals (SeeVallières). Of course, African-American intellectuals have also been strongly influenced by their colonial and postcolonial counterparts. Obviously, Mahatma Gandhi's indépendantiste movement in India provided a model for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, while South Africa's Nelson Mandela has been adopted into the African-American pop culture pantheon. Moreover, the writings of the Martiniquan psychiatrist and Algerian liberation theorist Frantz Fanon are primary texts in African-American Studies and postcolonial theory. (Notably, Fanon borrowed some of his concepts from Du Bois.)

  3. But the parallels between African-American Studies and postcolonial theory run deeper than their participation in the same intellectual economy. Indeed, African America evolved via a colonial process. For one thing, Philip Brian Harper urges that while "the situation of black Americans [cannot] be posited unproblematically as a colonial one, its historical sine qua non--the slave trade--can certainly be considered as a manifestation of the colonizing impulse" (253, n.26). Charles P. Henry, in Culture and African American Politics (1990), notes that present-day "Black nationalism, as an ideological response to white exclusion and uneven economic development, place[s] [urban issues] under the rubric of internal colonialism . . ." (106). Summing up others' views on the subject, Henry writes, "Like the conventional colony, the black colony in the United States is characterized by political powerlessness, economic dependence, and social isolation" (103). Malcolm X, in a 1964 speech, offers this analysis: "America is a colonial power. She has colonized 22,000,000 Afro-Americans by depriving us of first-class citizenship, by depriving us of civil rights, actually by depriving us of human rights" (9). In American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (1971), American poet-critic Kenneth Rexroth concedes that "the [black] militants' charge that Black America is an internal colony has been true as far as poetry was concerned" (149). He even sounds a postcolonial note, claiming that "Black poetry has been provincial, like Canadian, until recent years, or Australian still" (149).

  4. Not only do some African-American scholars accept the analysis that Black America constitutes a "colony" within the United States, some also apply postcolonial theory to its cultural production. Hence, African American writer Gayl Jones, in her study of the African-American oral tradition, is sensitive to the political importance of the "Canadian English" (10) in Margaret Laurence's novels:
    In Margaret Laurence's prose . . . we see the need for asserting identity through language. This applies to a nation's need to name its own songs, themes, and character in its own distinct language, and to a person's need to say, this is who I am (or in collective oral traditions, as are most by implication, "this is who we are"). And by discussing [Laurence] we move closer to the motives of the African American writer and many other minority and Third World writers in their usually more manifest anddeliberate use of oral traditions and folklore to achieve and asserta distinctive aesthetic and literary voice. (7)
    Like Jones, many African-American intellectuals explore the similarities between African-American culture and other postcolonial cultures. Indeed, Abdul R. JanMohamed and David Lloyd opine that "Afro-American culture . . . can function as a paradigm of minority cultures" (5).

  5. Being a once colonized entity, African America generates familiar, postcolonial concepts. For instance, Du Bois's articulation, in 1903, of the American Negro's "double-consciousness," this sense of always feeling one's "twoness, --an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder " (3), almost echoes the famous verdict in Lord Durham's Report on the Affairs of British North America (1839) on the government of the British North American colonies: "I found two nations [Francophones and Anglophones] warring in the bosom of a single state [Québec] . . ." (8). But Du Bois's comment also anticipates Canadian scholar Linda Hutcheon's sense that Canadians possess "that doubleness able to see both sides at once" (17). To live black in the United States is, then, to develop a postcolonial consciousness. Given this reality, one can harmonize African-American Studies with postcolonial theory.

  6. Two recent articles should help to clarify my personal motives in attempting to recuperate, for progressive political use, Malcolm X and Miles Davis and--along with them--the apparatus of chivalry. In "Hollow triumph," a review of works reconsidering The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, British critic John Gray observes that "Marx's expectations of socialism have been disappointed everywhere; but his glimpses of how capitalism hollows out bourgeois societies are proving prophetic" (4). Triumphalist capitalism has even castrated conservativism:
    Conservative parties seek to promote free markets, while at the same time defending "traditional values." It is hard to think of a more quixotic enterprise. Free markets are the most potent solvent of tradition at work in the world today. (4)
    Yet, if traditional socialism and conservatism cannot restrain neoliberalism, then what is left? (No pun intended.) One possible answer is spelled out in John Fraser's America and the Patterns of Chivalry (1982), where he argues for the continued salience of codes of honour in political action: "The various chivalric-martial syntheses . . . make effective, high-energy combat easier, whether on behalf of so-called traditional or so-called radical principles" (231). I feel that X and Davis illustrate, despite their flaws, the possibility for the revitalization of non-sexist and life-enhancing chivalric-martial concepts such as virtue, gallantry, and honour, all of which can be used to "fight the powers that be." But my other major reason for wishing to reactivate these concepts is that they continue to motivate many black males, including intellectuals. See, here, African-American writer Gerald Early's recent reflections on Muhammad Ali and his importance to Early's youth:
    . . . I saved my paper route money and simply bought a bat, the best bat I could find, a genuine Louisville Slugger, the first one I ever owned. . . . I carefully carved, scratched, really, into the bat the word "Ali". . . . I just slung it on my shoulder like the great weapon it was, my knight's sword. And I felt like some magnificent knight, some great protector of honor and virtue, whenever I walked on the field with it. I called the bat "the Great Ali." (14)

  7. Early's chivalric characterization of himself--and Ali--is an act replicated a million times over among African-American males, and with particular reference to X and Davis. I need to explore the progressive element of this cultural imperative because these men are my heroes. I confess I am drawn to them as a leftist, African-Canadian intellectual of African-American and West Indian heritage. Moreover, like them, I live with the postcolonial irony that, for all my conscious critique of European--especially Anglo-Saxon--culture, I have inherited, for better or worse, the Anglo-Saxon slavemasters's love of codes of honour.

  8. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, known popularly as Malcolm X (his Nation of Islam-issued name), and Sir Miles Dewey Davis III (whose honorific derives from his induction in 1988 into The Knights of Malta[1]) share intriguingly similar biographical details. Born in the mid-western United States, in 1925 and 1926 respectively, these iconic incarnations of African-American masculinity came to maturity during the era of Euro-American-authored apartheid in the United States, yet attained cross-over and international prominence in their proper fields of theological-cum-political theorizing and jazz trumpet virtuosity and music theory innovation. They also authored celebrated, as-told-to autobiographies. In collaboration with Alex Haley, X narrated The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Davis drafted, with the assistance of Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography (1989). Though X was assassinated in 1965 and Davis died of a pneumonia-triggered stroke in 1991, they persist as phantasmal cultural presences through their books (including Davis's The Art of Miles Davis,[2] a portfolio of his paintings) and their recordings (X's speeches and Davis's music). The Ballantine Books paperback edition of X's Autobiography achieved, in November 1992, its 33rd printing since 1973, while Davis's post-mortem popularity as a jazz artist seems poised to eclipse that of John Coltrane (1926-1967), the race pride emblem par excellence of the 1960s. [3] X and Davis dominate the popular cultures of their separate demesnes. Transfigured into demi-deities, they are omnipresent in mass media, in film (Spike Lee's X [1992]), opera (Anthony and Thulani Davis's X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X [1986]), documentaries, books, recordings, and clothing and associated tchotchkes. Even as X and Davis are reified into protean, Warhol-like pop idols, their representations also dramatize and reproduce a patriarchal black masculinity, an anarchic machismo. Worse, this rugged phallocentrism, which bell hooks blames for "much black-on-black violence," among other ills (Black 111), is furthered, perhaps, by the seductiveness of these figures for urban, African-American, male youth, from whose ranks they came and to whose concerns and styles they paid scrupulous fealty. [4] In fact, the steady appeal of these figures likely owes something to their efforts, during their careers, to address this alienated constituency. [5] Positioning themselves as archetypal black men, they became exemplary champions of the black male-delineated worlds of black religion and black music, spheres in which the masterful and the triumphant exude confidence, poise, purpose, style--in short, 'cool.' Their investments in codes of honour, in 'coolness,' offer a context for their cultural success, but also, arguably, useable notions for the construction of a re-energized and progressive African-American socio-political movement. [6] Paradoxically, too, their styles of honour yield means for subverting their sexism, while yet permitting their inscription into avant-garde politics and aesthetics. [7]

  9. The issuance of salvific versions of X and Davis is hampered, however, by their patriarchal proclivities, their forthright pimping, and their verbal and physical assaults on women. Patricia Hill Collins, a perceptive reader of X's views on gender, declares that he classified women into "two opposing categories"--as "Eves--deceptive temptresses who challenged male authority" (74) or as "Madonnas--archetypal wives and mothers who sacrifice everything for their husbands and children" (76). [8] Too, X's Autobiography abounds in such stereotypes. Remembering his days as a zoot-suited dandy, X worries that he seduced Laura, an incipient lover, into a sensual and self-destructive life in Roxbury. If he had had the perceptiveness of a former Harlem friend, "Sammy The Pimp," though, he "might have spotted in Laura then some of the subsurface potential [for prostitution, drug addiction, and lesbianism], destined to become real, that would have shocked her grandma" (Autobiography 64). He espouses, here, an unreconstructed, street-level Calvinism. Later, X suggests that, because he chose the white Sophia, a "fine" blonde over Laura (Autobiography 66), she suffered a vertiginous dégringolade:
    Laura never again came to the drugstore as long as I continued to work there. The next time I saw her, she was a wreck of a woman, notorious around black Roxbury, in and out of jail. . . . Defying her grandmother, she had started going out late and drinking liquor. This led to dope, and that to selling herself to men. Learning to hate the men who bought her, she also became a Lesbian. One of the shames I have carried for years is that I blame myself for all of this. (Autobiography 68)
    If Laura signifies the decline of a black woman, especially in the absence of the 'correct,' heterosexual bonding, other black women appear bestialized. X tells of dancing with Mamie Bevels, "a big, rough, strong gal, [who] lindied like a bucking horse" (Autobiography 64). Recalling his Detroit Red, pimp-hustler lifestyle, X sketches a New York City dominatrix as "a big, coal-black girl, strong as an ox, with muscles like a dockworker's" who would grease "her big Amazon body all over to look shinier and blacker" (Autobiography 119), using terms that foresee those of writer Eldridge Cleaver, a chief, late-1960s proponent of black patriarchal chic. [9] X also treated Sophia parasitically, confessing that "even when I had hundreds of dollars in my pocket, when [Sophia] came to Harlem I would take everything she had short of her train fare back to Boston" (Autobiography 135). He justifies this behaviour by blaming the victim: "It seems that some women love to be exploited" (Autobiography 135). X would also "slap [Sophia] around," for "every once in a while a woman seems to need, in fact wants this" (Autobiography 135, his italics). [10] Joining the Nation of Islam did not alter X's gendered vision. As Harlem-based Minister Malcolm X, he was notorious for his anti-woman oratory, the catalyst for which he cited as "personal reasons": "I'd had too much experience that women were only tricky, deceitful, untrustworthy flesh" (Autobiography 226). For most of the Autobiography, X is a figure whose inchoate, revolutionary, political consciousness is bounded and circumscribed by retrograde notions regarding half of the African-American community.

  10. Davis's Miles: The Autobiography articulates damningly the speaker's own violence-prone exploitation of women. While a heroin addict in the early 1950s, for instance, Davis "met a nice young girl": "But I was fucking her over like I was fucking over all the women I knew at that time. If they didn't have no money I didn't want to see them. . . . " (172). After marrying dancer Frances Taylor in 1958, Davis recalls that he became abusive: "Every time I hit her, I felt bad because a lot of it really wasn't her fault but had to do with me being temperamental and jealous" (228). During his self-described Silent Period, between 1975 and 1980, when he was neither performing nor recording, Davis "just took a lot of cocaine . . . and fucked all the women I could get into my house" (335). "I had so many different women during this period," he confesses, "that I lost track of most of them and don't even remember their names" (336). These women were anonymous, interchangeable commodities, "there one night and gone the next day" (336). Valorizing "Brazilian, Ethiopian, and Japanese women," Davis devalues African-American women:
    Most of them are in competition with you, no matter what you do for them. . . . Most white women tend to treat a man better than a black woman does, because most white women don't have those [psychological] hangups that black women have. I know this is going to make a lot of black women mad but that's just the way I see it.
    See, a lot of black women see themselves as teachers or mothers when it comes to a man. They've got to be in control. (401) [11]
    Davis's vision of African-American women differs little from that of Cleaver's Accused. White women fare better. Recalling his affaire de coeur with French chanteuse Juliette Gréco, Davis eyes her as a fetishized object: Gréco "was just so fine ... long black hair, beautiful face, small, stylish" (126), "probably the first woman that I loved as an equal human being" (127). But when, as an addict, he met Gréco in New York City in 1954, Davis went "into my black pimp role," asks her for money, and, as he was leaving, yelled, "'Aw, bitch, shut up; I told you I would call you later!'" (185-186). Though Davis claims, "I didn't hate women; I loved them, probably too much" (336), his attitudes echo X's phallocentric reasoning.

  11. Expressions of, as Michele Wallace terms it, "black macho," [12] pervade the script of late-1960s writers like Cleaver and pervert the rhetoric of Black Aesthetic, Black Power, and Black Panther Party leaders and disciples. As Houston A. Baker urges, "a lot of people committed all kinds of transgressions and just plain old nonsense under the sign 'black men'" during this period (133), and these influences, violations and stances persist, festering in the constricted psychic spaces left to young, urban, African-American males. [13] Nor has jazz been immune from phrasing claustral ideas, for, from its inception in the streets of New Orleans, it has displayed, posits critic Richard Williams, "a strong component of competitive machismo. . . " (37). Certainly, an imperious, black machismo polices contemporary popular culture. "Public figures such as Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Chuck D., Spike Lee, and a host of other black males," notes hooks, "blindly exploit the commodification of blackness and the concomitant exotification of phallocentric black masculinity" (Black 102). Paul Gilroy believes that "An amplified and exaggerated masculinity has become the boastful centrepiece of a culture of compensation [i.e. Rap music] that self-consciously salves the misery of the disempowered and subordinated" (85). The en vogue glamour of X and Davis as role models is signaled in part by their flagrantly recuperable machoism, sexism, and misogyny. Their 'value' depends, in part, on their status as good currency in the counterfeit-ridden marketplace of black phallocentrism.

  12. But there is, perhaps, another reason for the apparent popularity of their works, namely, the codes of honour, or of ideal behaviour, they enshrine. If visions of justice determine masculine ideals, the exalted elements of the discourses of and around X and Davis are, for young black male audiences, likely those which codify masculinity in a manner that might assist survival. That manner, or style, is represented by the sign 'cool.'

  13. 'Cool', though an amorphous quality--more mystique than material--is a pervasive element in urban black male culture. As sociologists Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson evince in Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America (1992), African-American men employ "cool" as "a tool for hammering masculinity out of the bronze of their daily lives" (2). It is a "strategic style" that "allows the black male to tip society's imbalanced scales in his favor" (2). Importantly, too, "coolness means poise under pressure and the ability to maintain detachment, even during tense encounters" (2). To further define the indefinable, Majors and Billson produce a pantheon of cool: "Black athletes, with their stylish dunking of the basketball, spontaneous dancing in the end zone, and high-fives handshakes, are cool. The twenty-two-year-old pimp, with his Cadillac and "stable of lace" (prostitutes), is cool. Celebrities such as Miles Davis, Eddie Murphy, and the late Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. are cool" (4). (Though X is absent here, Imani Perry believes that his style suited "the cool aesthetic in [African-American] folklore [which] respects composure and asserts the importance of personal control over a situation" [179].) Crucially, in Majors and Billson, coolness involves a willingness to engage in violence (33), to risk death (34), to suppress emotion (in interactions with friends, family members, lovers, spouses, and children), to value spontaneity, expressiveness, and stylishness (71), and to prize verbal dexterity (99). These qualities of cool render it an essential survival mechanism in a society in which "except for people over age eighty-five, black males are dying at a higher rate than any other group at any age" (19). Given this vicious context, any moral code that signals meaning, community, and purposefulness, that is to say, that combats anomie, is potentially irresistible. Coolness is one such code.

  14. If coolness is an antidote to (or a palliative of) crisis, X and Davis are eminently marketable conveyors of this 'medicine.' Their 'packaging,' then, communicates charismatic aspects of cool, such as resourcefulness, quick thinking, skill, courage, fierceness, seeming insouciance, and fashion smarts. In his Autobiography, for instance, X remembers purchasing a zoot suit, in his Boston dandy phase, and taking three "sepia-toned, while-you-wait pictures of myself, posed the way 'hipsters' wearing their zoots would 'cool it'--hat dangled, knees drawn close together, feet wide apart, both index fingers jabbed toward the floor. Of course, "the long coat and swinging chain and the Punjab pants were much more dramatic if you stood that way" (Autobiography 52). Following this "'hip code,'" X learns to repress his emotions (Autobiography 52). As Detroit Red, X alters his style again: "all of my suits were conservative. A banker might have worn my shoes" (Autobiography 136). X also exhibits cool in his preparedness to die for a matter of principle. Caught in a "classic hustler-code impasse" with West Indian Archie, X contemplates resolving their affaire d'honneur by way of a shoot-out, given the importance of "face" and "honor" in "our sidewalk jungle world" (Autobiography 127). Later, as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, X courts martyrdom, acknowledging that "societies often have killed the people who have helped to change those societies" (Autobiography 381-382). His 'cool' oratorical and performative skills were also showcased in his deft handling of hostile media. Murray Kempton insists that X's "special genius was for preserving his message intact in the prison of the sound bite" and "the coldness of his voice to summon . . . ferocity" (43). With his telegenic looks and his scorched-earth discourse, he was a McLuhanesque personification of televisual vivacity: "Malcolm was like JFK or Elvis. He was made for the TV age, the information age and the hip-hop age" (Tate, "Can" 184). [14] In sum, X embodied a catalogue of cool values: "rebellion, intellect, style, grace, strength, the power of personal transformation and disarming honesty" (Imani Perry 185).

  15. For his part, Davis is cool incarnate. The originator of so-called cool jazz, his The Complete Birth of the Cool (1949) recording is a classic. [15] According to Williams, Davis established his artistic "superiority" via the "development of a style, both personal and musical, so cool as to render its owner beyond competition--untouchable, unknowable, invulnerable" (37). His Autobiography anatomizes cool. Like X, Davis is fearless: "I ain't never been the scaredy type, never was" (18). He knows "what I want, always have known what I wanted. . . " (19, his italic). He fashions himself in desirable guise: "Me and a couple of my friends--who were also into clothes--started comparing notes on what was hip and what wasn't" (32). He represses his emotions: "I was just cold to mostly everyone" (186). He insists on his own values: "I'm black and I don't compromise, and white people--especially white men--don't like this in a black person, especially a black man" (383). Like X, Davis carried himself with an impressive, antinomian suavity. Krin Gabbard underscores the essential maleness and independence that Davis's playing and personality communicated:
    Many phallic elements persisted in Davis's playing, including spikes into the upper register, fast runs throughout the range of the instrument, and an often exaggerated feel for climaxes. He was also conspicuous in refusing to develop an ingratiating performance persona, often turning his back on audiences, ignoring their applause, and leaving the stage when other musicians were soloing. (110-111)
    In addition, his public postures comprised "carefully crafted performances" (Major and Billson 4)--the essence of cool.

  16. Though their emblematic coolness underlies the inviting stances of X and Davis, their commodification on this basis does not erase the truth that "coolness may be a survival strategy that has cost the black male--and society--an enormous price" (Major and Billson xi). As hooks observes, "asserting their ability to be 'tough,' to be 'cool,' black men take grave risks with their lives and the lives of others" (Black 111). Too, the cool images of X and Davis that circulate within African-American popular culture are mere reifications--all beaucoup style and denatured substance. Both figures have suffered ironic iconizations into a kind of cool that reproduces them as true 'souls on ice,' as cultural heroes whose politics and social relevance are frozen in two-dimensional friezes or freeze-frames. [16] To maintain the accessibility, the currency, of these figures for progressive causes, however, one must recontextualize and reconfigure their "cool poses." One must relocate the seductive, sirenic appeal that X and Davis have for young black men, within a new values matrix. Ironically, though, these ideas refer to a powerful, older system of mores, codes of honour, that exists, almost subterraneanly, in Western--and African-American--pop and 'high' culture.

  17. I refer here to chivalric codes that, far from vanishing after the successful revolt of the Thirteen Colonies against imperial rule and the establishment of the American republic, seem to have become vital constituents of latent notions of nobility. In his convincing, polymathic study, America and the Patterns of Chivalry (1982), John Fraser shows that, despite the American Revolution, "certain chivalric patterns were not only recreated in America but created more fully and purely at times than they had been in Europe" (49). His thesis illuminates the insight that no idea ever perishes completely; history is a poetry that we speak and write against our wills, resurrecting aèd terms and philosophies in the guise of the new. Hence, chivalric codes survive, even if literal knights, lords, ladies, and serfs are as dead as the aristocratic forebears of Hardy's Tess. Indeed, X and Davis have been framed consciously in such terms. Introducing X's Autobiography, M. S. Handler asserts that X "had the physical bearing and the inner self-confidence of a born aristocrat" (ix). As recorded by Haley, actor Ossie Davis's eulogy for X constructs the martyred leader as a "bold young captain," "our own black shining Prince!--who didn't hesitate to die, because he loved us so" (454). John Edgard Wideman even stages a Zapata-esque, Hollywood image of X: "Silhouetted against the sky the stallion rears up on its hind legs, then gallops off, bearing its invisible rider to the sanctity of the mountains, free, strong, always there when we need him, when we're ready to seek him out. El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz" (116). Nikki Giovanni, in an essay rewriting Lee's film bio of X, drafts a scene in which "Malcolm, like a knight of old, pledges his life and honor to Elijah Muhammad" (212, my italics). Likewise, Tate implies a chivalric idealization of Davis when he decides that Davis enacted "vulnerability with attitude" ("Preface" 246). Too, Davis's demise signals, for Tate, "the end of a certain heroic master narrative of Black male artistry" ("Preface" 244). Herman Gray views Davis (and other jazz artists) as depicting "an assertive heterosexual masculinity" (176). The representations of X and Davis as neo-chevaliers, defenders of truth, black manhood, and the African-American Way, though superficially medieval, romantic, and essentialist, answer to deeply felt psychological and cultural needs and cultural patterns within African-American (and American) history.

  18. In their autobiographies, for one thing, X and Davis--as protagonists-- participate in what Fraser deems "the family of chivalric heroes" whose members, "in whole or in part, have entered into everyone's consciousness," and allude to such hardy, pop culture archetypes as "knightly Westerners," crusading reporters, hardboiled detectives, martial arts samurai, incorruptible lawmen, and dashing military types, all of whom epitomize "native American gallantry and grace" (12). Fraser emphasizes that these chivalric figures--"knightly errants and cavaliers, and cowboys, and men about town, and all the other heroes were lively, and graceful, and free spirited" (16). Moreover, they had admirably "strong and healthy bodies and were masters of enviable physical skills" (Fraser 16). Vigorous, charming, urbane, and adventurous, X and Davis were stellar signifiers of the chivalric attributes of heroism and manliness. Their histories seem to validate that irrepressible, Yankee cliché--the "lonely hero triumphant in a hostile world," as Louis Heren conceives it (qtd. in French 123).

  19. A chivalric reading necessitates that these cavalier figures, X and Davis, obey "rules of honor" binding them "to persist in a chosen course even when it [is] doomed to fail" (Fraser 42). Thus, X exhibits fatalism from the outset of his Autobiography: "It has always been my belief that I . . . will die by violence. I have done all that I can to be prepared" (2). Chivalry is also evoked in the commitment of oneself to a course of action by swearing one's word, for "the desire to comport oneself with maximum honor can subject a man to excessive strains, particularly given the elusiveness at times of the idea of honor and the related problem of determining what the honorable course of action really is" (Fraser 69-70). This existential crisis besets X when he confronts the scarring truths that Elijah Muhammad is an adulterer and, worse, that members of the Nation of Islam, to which he had devoted himself for twelve years, are plotting his assassination. X reveals the extent of his disillusionment in his comment that, with his exit/ouster from the Nation of Islam and the resultant threats against his life, "I felt as though something in nature had failed, like the sun, or the stars" (Autobiography 304, his italics). He decides to live each day "as if I am already dead" (Autobiography 381). Here X fashions himself as a cool, isolated hero. Less fatalistically, Davis, too, embraced isolation--once during his work on the soundtrack of Louis Malle's film, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958), when he "discovered the true characteristics--tragic, solitary, impenitent--of his artistic make-up" (Williams 73), and, later, more severely, when he entered his Silent Period.

  20. Even the outlaw activities of X and Davis possess chivalric elements. Fraser notes that "the criminal [or outlaw] was almost certain to come from a chivalric-martial group" (178) whose members "were not only governed by coherent codes of their own but were sometimes governed by better ones than technically law-abiding citizens" (187). For instance, X "became a Bad Nigga," Imani Perry alleges, "due to his adherence to an alternate social code rather than his absolute non-adherence to a social contract" (175). Such an alternate code informs X's abortive showdown with West Indian Archie (Autobiography 126-130), but also Davis's account of the agonistic bebop milieu in New York City, circa 1944: "Minton's [a jazz club] kicked a lot of motherfuckers' asses, did them in, and they just disappeared--not to be heard from again. But it also taught a whole lot of musicians, made them what they eventually became" (54). In both instances, alternate standards of excellence arise from "power-charged individuals or groups meeting in certain essential respects as equals and acting according to jointly agreed-upon rules" (Fraser 186). (In specific reference to Davis, Gilroy's thesis that within black expressive culture "it is musicians who are presented as living symbols of the value of self-activity" [79] is pertinent.) X achieves oratorical distinction by jousting with police, reporters, scholars, and religious and political foes, while Davis earns respect by duelling with jazz musicians and critics. Both men construct attractive cerebral, physical, and sexual personas.

  21. X and Davis participate in chivalric styles that resonate throughout Western civilization--and African-American culture. According to Robert Stone, historian Fox Butterfield advances the thesis that "the black population of the antebellum South, while violently subject to the Scotch-Irish slave owners, nevertheless absorbed and internalized their values, particularly on the subject of manliness and 'honor'" (21). African-American writer Eddy L. Harris, chronicling his solo motorcycle ride across the American South in his South of Haunted Dreams (1993), bears witness to this spirit by celebrating the chivalric behaviour of the Confederate troops:
    Of all the men who emerged heroic from battlefields in the Civil War to capture my imagination, only one wore a Yankee uniform. All the rest were Confederates. . . . They were Jeb Stuart and Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.

    Forget for a moment the cause for which they fought. They were romantic figures to me. They were outmanned and outgunned and still they managed to avoid defeat during four long years of war. At times they seemed on the edge of victory. They were bold and flamboyant, they were brave and they were lucky. They were passionate about a cause, albeit an unworthy cause, and they had a valor about them that the inept Northern soldiers seemed to lack. (153)

    Michael Eric Dyson provides a more orthodox African-American conception of chivalry, observing that, during slavery, "heroes were seen as figures who resisted racial dominance through slave insurrections, plantation rebellions, work slowdowns, or running away" (147). One such figure, escaped slave Frederick Bailey, derived his new, now-famous surname, "Douglass," from the Scottish chieftain-hero of Sir Walter Scott's medievally-situated, metrical romance, The Lady of the Lake (1810). [17] Not surprisingly, then, given his chivalric predilections, Douglass, in his slave narrative, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, accents his fistic triumph over Covey, a slavebreaker, for it teaches him that "a man without force is without the essential dignity of humanity" (142-143). In addition, his only published short story, significantly titled "The Heroic Slave" (1853), is the fictionalized account of the historical 1841 mutiny aboard the slave ship Creole. Countenancing the use of violence to eliminate oppression, the story elaborates a theme that was sounded, according to Ronald T. Takaki, throughout Douglass's texts: "In order to protect himself and redeem his humanity and in order to bring an end to a world of might and slavery and usher in a world of softness and freedom, [one] was compelled to act masculinely, to use violence against his male oppressors" (32-33). Gilroy finds that, for Douglass, "the slave actively prefers the possibility of death to the continuing condition of inhumanity on which plantation slavery depends" (63). Yet, this salve of violence--the currency of liberty--"involved not only the possible destruction of white kinfolk and friends trapped in a masculin[ist] system . . . ," Takaki relates, "but also the abandonment of the virtues of gentleness and love Douglass admired in women . . . and needed to be human" (33, his italics). Takaki highlights a suggestive paradox in Douglass's endorsement of violence: If black masculinity must be redeemed by massacreing the white patriarchs who ordain slavery, must civilizing 'feminine'--or simply human--values of tenderness and softness perish in that sanguine catastrophe?

  22. This dichotomy between a desirable pastoral and pacific femininity and an agonistic and militaristic masculinity is re-enacted in the stances of some black males vis-à-vis women. It is difficult, indeed, to square the potentially ennobling (and enabling), martial appeal of X and Davis with the repugnant misogyny they also amply demonstrate. Yet, the attempt must be made if they are to be rehabilitated, at least in part, as quasi-progressive figures meriting emulation. Certainly, one must avoid, as Tricia Rose avers, the popular "hypervalorization of the hard, invincible, young black male who has no chinks in his armor, who is always ready for battle, grandly refusing most forms of emotional vulnerability," whose "intense imperviousness has grave liabilities..." (155). Even so, there is a progressive side of cool--or chivalric--codes, particularly its communication of a charismatic style of honour, and this mode or fashion of being is worthy of notice and recuperation.

  23. Significantly, chivalric/cool codes can be utilized to hammer, chisel, and saw away at the Bastilles of the status quo. Fraser witnesses that chivalric codes empowered such groups as the International Workers of the World "to act with full commitment, sometimes at great personal cost, without any nagging feeling of being inferior to their adversaries morally or intellectually" (149). U.S. Civil Rights Movement participants also made effective use of such codes, mobilizing a democratic mass of men, women, and children to act against oppression with dignity, courage, and an attractive degree of style, including the dusting off of folk ballads, union songs, and spirituals and their rewriting--even electrification (thus altering the domain of popular song)--into tools of contemporary protest. Arguably, then, there is no reason why codes of honour cannot be wielded against rapacious capitalism, sexism, frivolous violence, and racism. Davis suggests as much when he insists, "we've just got to let them [white people] know that we know what they are doing and that we're not going to lighten up until they stop" (408, his italics). X argues that one "has the right to do whatever is necessary to get his freedom that other human beings have done to get their freedom" (Malcolm 113). Both men's positions bespeak investments in the chivalric--and cool--codes of dignified self-assertion and self-defence.

  24. Though chivalric codes can serve "to intensify aspirations and make for heroic action"--behaviour that can spark violence, "they also [help]," Fraser affirms, "to control violence and render it less wanton, brutal, and destructive" (67). This assertion suggests a resolution of the issues raised by Douglass's contradictory attitudes towards male-enacted violence. If violence is justified, especially as a means of opposing oppression, its use must yet be disciplined. As Elizabeth Gurley Flynn finds, assessing the 1913 Patterson strike, "I contend that there was no use for violence. . . . that only where violence is necessary should violence be used. This is not a moral or legal objection but a utilitarian one. I don't say that violence should not be used, but where there is no call for it, there is no reason why we should resort to it" (217). This point calls eerily to mind X's own formula demanding African-American liberation "by any means necessary" and providing moral grounds for appropriate self-defence. In reference to his art, Davis declares, "great musicians are like great fighters who know self-defense" (400). Militancy and assertiveness are efficacious instruments to be wielded in every arena of African-American struggle, including art.

  25. But adherence to cool/chivalric codes can also produce tenderness. Most accounts of X take pains to adumbrate his humour, his concern for his family, and his selflessness. As for Davis, his softer side was evinced in performance: "In spite of Davis's desire to create an almost exaggerated masculine identity, as early as the 1940s he was using his trumpet to reveal emotional depth and introspection, even vulnerability. When Davis made a 'mistake'--when his tone faltered or he seemed to miss a note--the cause was soulfulness and sensitivity rather than some shortcoming of technical prowess" (Gabbard 111). In their utilization and expression of cool/chivalric codes, Davis and X reconfigure the black male body as a site of both strength and gentleness, force and grace, power and tenderness, as a site where resistance to white supremacist ideologies can be made flesh, and not necessarily through violence.

  26. Perhaps the most important chivalric/cool code enacted by X and Davis is integrity-that is, the ability to act with firm commitment to just principles as well as the flexibility to adjust them when necessary. X's career affirms this precept: "My whole life had been a chronology of--changes" (Autobiography 339, his italics). When he returned from Mecca in 1964, preaching a rapprochement with white Muslims and progressive/radical whites, he acknowledged that this stark shift in his beliefs would disturb many of his followers, but he defended himself as "a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experiences and knowledge unfold it" (Malcolm 60). Likewise, Davis acknowledges that "if anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change" (394). Both men are able, in good cool style, "to mainstream or evolve other forms of consciousness" (Majors & Billson 42). X depicts this improvisational quality with an analogy that Davis could laud: "The white musician can jam if he's got some sheet music in front of him. He can jam on something he's heard jammed before. But that black musician, he picks up his horn and starts blowing some sounds that he never thought of before" (By 63). Robert Walser emphasises Davis's propensity for just such performative danger:
    Despite his dislike of failure, Davis constantly and consistently put himself at risk in his trumpet playing, by using a loose, flexible embouchure that helped him to produce a great variety of tone colors and articulations, by striving for dramatic gestures rather than consistent demonstration of mastery, and by experimenting with unconventional techniques. Ideally, he would always play on the edge and never miss; in practice, he played closer to the edge than anyone else and simply accepted the inevitable missteps, never retreating to a safer, more consistent performing style. (176)
    Just as the black jazz musician can create radically new sounds, so can black people devise new political and social theories. [18] There may be a productive alliance between cool/chivalric codes and a jazz aesthetic promoting adaptability, syntheses, and innovation.

  27. Another engaging chivalric/cool element in X and Davis is their interest in the culturopoesis of young black males and black folk in general. In his Autobiography, X lauds the lindy dancers and their audiences at Roxbury's Roseland as "connoisseurs of styles" (66). As well, he is literate in "the ghetto's language" (Autobiography 310). Whether "he was standing tall beside a streetlamp chatting with winos, or whether he was firing his radio and television broadsides to unseen millions of people..," writes Haley, "[X] had charisma and he had power" (Autobiography 403, his italics). X revelled in the attention of the African-American masses, Haley witnesses, "and they loved him" (402). Imani Perry notes "the charm [X] exuded during speeches, a combination of good looks, intellect, street sensibilities and passion," and their "significant impact on today's youth" (181). Davis, too, reaches out to young African-American men, attempting to incorporate in his music the styles of popular black singers and musicians to ensure that a new generation would continue to find their voices and concerns noised in jazz:
    Black kids were listening to Sly Stone, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and all them other great black groups at Motown. After playing a lot of these white rock halls I was starting to wonder why I shouldn't be trying to get to young black kids with my music. They were into funk, music they could dance to. It took me a while to really get into the concept all the way, but with this new band I started to think about it. (320)
    One result of this rethinking was On the Corner (1972), an album which inaugurated the jazz-fusion movement, [19] and which represented Davis's bid for popularity with a younger audience. "'I don't care who buys the records,'" Davis confided to Melody Maker, "'as long as they get to the black people so I will be remembered when I die'" (qtd. in Milkowski 5). Williams also hypes Davis's "re-engagement with black street styles, either musical (funk-based) or sartorial . . ." (11). Both men invested themselves in communicating with--and learning from--their key audience, a leadership technique in dire need of resurrection.

  28. Critical study of the lives of X, Davis, and other (especially folk) black heroes and heroines can recover styles of honour, grounded in the African-American chivalric (or cool) tradition, which can serve to remobilize folks, especially men, to work cooperatively, to suffer when need be, to apply moral, intellectual, spiritual, and physical force against oppression, to realize that some behaviour is dishonourable or self-destructive or both, to pursue 'truth', to act with integrity, to oppose sexism, to recoup progressive and honourable notions of heroism, self-sacrifice, and nobility. [20] The commitments of X and Davis to many of these ideals of honour explains their continued vigour in African-American culture. They symbolize notions that, even now, can be used to uplift African-American males and to re-energize resistive and progressive political movements. [21] Hence, one can glean progressive, modern notions of chivalry, or cool, from the texts of X and Davis (as well as those of other black pop culture idols) and traditionally heroic narratives (slave autobiographies, Civil Rights Movement freedom songs, spirituals, certain blues, soul, and hip-hop/rap lyrics), thus mining all black cultural productivity to liberate every potentially inspirational discourse therein. [22]


  1. The full title of the order is The Knights of the Grand Cross in and for the Sovereign Military Hospitaler Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. See Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography (388). Back

  2. Miles Davis and Scott Gutterman, The Art of Miles Davis (1991). Back

  3. More tributes to Davis than to Coltrane are likely to be produced in the future as black neo-nationalists and 'Generation X' artists find in Davis the symbol that the 'Baby Boom' generation's nationalists and artists found in Coltrane. Jazz critic Richard Williams praises Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Coltrane, for their several achievements, "but," he continues on to opine hagiographically, "Miles Davis was somehow more than this" (10). "Like Ali and Picasso, he was much larger than his chosen medium" (10). Back

  4. Adolph Reed Jr. argues that X "appealed to the urban male sensibility that associated failure to fight back with cowardliness" (230) and that he remains popular with contemporary youth "in part because he was attractive to young people when he was alive" (208). Williams locates the attractiveness of Davis in his image as "the elegant outsider," as "the symbol of jazz as the hipster's music" (10). Significantly, too, both men represent the city, "the locale of cool," the site "where black popular styles are born" (Jeffries 159). Back

  5. The favour has been returned, for male, African-American youth have perpetuated the popularity of both men. Black youth, Theresa Perry states, are those "who canonized The Autobiography of Malcolm X as the quintessential post-colonial text and the contemporary urban slave narrative" (1). African-American youth have also canonized Davis's On the Corner. "Universally dismissed by critics and colleagues alike when it was released in 1972," says jazz critic Bill Milkowski, it has been embraced by, circa 1992, "a generation of angry, alienated musical renegades who took to those proto-punk-funk grooves like yuppies to happy jazz" (3). Back

  6. Such a movement should respond to the critique suggested by my friend, Jacqueline Barclay, that, in the 1960s, "the Left chose justice, the Right chose morality," as their respective motivations. Any new progressive movement must reject this false division. Back

  7. In stating this intention, I am not unaware that, as Michael Friedly judges, "political groups from all across the spectrum have been able to seize portions of Malcolm X's beliefs and claim them as their own . . . " (213). Indeed, Michael Eric Dyson has "identified at least four Malcolms who emerge in the intellectual investigations of his life and career: Malcolm as hero and saint, Malcolm as a public moralist, Malcolm as victim and vehicle of psychohistorical forces, and Malcolm as revolutionary figure judged by his career trajectory from nationalist to alleged socialist" (24). His name has become an exponent--X to the tenth power--of multiplying agendas. In reading X--and Davis--in the pragmatic terms I propose, I also demand a critical interrogation of their contradictions, lacunae, and outright nastiness. Back

  8. My critique of X's representation of women is indebted to Collins's invaluable essay, "Learning to Think for Ourselves: Malcolm X's Black Nationalism Reconsidered" (59-85). Back

  9. X's imagery shadows the stock "'strong self-reliant Amazon'" black woman who "'secretly hates black men'" and "'love[s] white men'" (151, 148), limned by The Accused, a character in Cleaver's "The Allegory of the Black Eunuchs," in his Soul on Ice (1968). Back

  10. Though one should like to dismiss these observations as the pinched thought of the pre-freelance, public intellectual X, one must note that they are given in the present-tense, suggesting that X held these antediluvian views at least as late as early 1963, when his collaboration with Haley commenced. Back

  11. According to The Accused in Cleaver's "The Allegory of the Black Eunuchs," "'there is a war going on between the black man and the black woman, which makes her the silent ally, indirectly but effectively, of the white man'" (151). Back

  12. See her classic exposé of black male chauvinism, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979). Back

  13. To verify this assertion, insert any taxonomy of rap videos and recordings here, and virtually any selection of recent, urban-oriented African-American films, including John Singleton's Boyz in the Hood (1991) and, of course, Lee's X (1992), with its gangsta Kitsch, racial epiphanies, and ludic, Othello-esque replication of sad, race-gender stereotypes. Back

  14. X was one of the last political orators of the say-what-you-mean, mean-what-you-say school, prior to the onset of what Canadian writer B.W. Powe pronounces the "Age of Angelism," an era in which "issues dissolve; attention is on a politician's pose; orgasmic drives determine victories; media attention turns into cinema; reportage into gossip and opinion; people into stereotypes; debate and analysis into received opinion and spectacle" (108). In our Common Era, politics seem to evaporate in the glare of television lights, leaving only ephemeral slogans and fake poses. Back

  15. Jazz critic Pete Welding underscores the revolutionary nature of the twelve tracks recorded by the Miles Davis Nonet in 1949 and partially released by Capitol that same year (a full release did not occur until 1957):
    There can be little doubt that the [group], through the example of its disciplined, lucid, quietly audacious music, introduced to jazz a refreshing new musical sensibility which helped set it on a new course of development. The implications of the approach signaled in its recordings have carried jazz through several decades of sustained growth and creative discovery, influenced countless groups, musicians and arrangers, and altered the very fabric of the music itself (6). Back

  16. X and Davis are even more valuable as heroes in an age when black males are social metaphors for crime and, in accordance with that favourite, historical stereotype, sexual deviance. X and Davis transcend such reductive limits. Back

  17. See Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom (343). Back

  18. See Frank Kofsky, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (1970), 65-66. Kofsky also reports, intriguingly, that he attended a 1963 rally in Los Angeles at which X's appearance "was preceded by 45 minutes of jazz from the organ trio of Groove Holmes." In his opening remarks, X then made "explicit reference to the music . . , saying that he had been in the back of the auditorium patting his foot while Holmes was on stage" (256). Back

  19. Milkowski writes that "On the Corner offended and angered more people than any other album in Miles Davis' lengthy discography" (3). In his Autobiography, Davis admits that "old-time jazz people" rejected the album, but it had not been "made for them" anyway: "The music was meant to be heard by young black people . . ." (328). Its avant-garde nature also reflects the band's "settl[ing] down into a deep African thing, a deep African-American groove, with a lot of emphasis on drums and rhythm, and not on individual solos" (329). Finally, the last track on the recording, "Mr. Freedom X," might allude to Malcolm X. Back

  20. Such values need generate no sexism. Philosopher Mark Kingwell posits that "[male] self-control, the ability to withstand pain, and athletic prowess are things to be proud of; they have no necessary connection to oppressing women" (136-137, his italics). Back

  21. Progressive use of these two men has begun. Sue Coe's X (1986), her collection of neo-expressionist paintings envisioning a fascistic USA, reads X, somewhat ahistorically, as anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-sexist. Cornel West imagines a powerful X whose flexible, improvisational politics render him a model "jazz freedom fighter," one who stresses "the interplay of individuality and unity" (57), a description which can apply equally to Davis. Imani Perry asks, "should we not support Malcolm, the folk Malcolm, the legendary Malcolm, to ease our pain and foster our activism?" (185) Twenty years after the release of Davis's On the Corner, Milkowski sees, "a whole new generation of punk-funksters hungry for these subversive sounds" (7). Back

  22. Incidentally, it is time to extend rap/hip hop music such a consideration. In defence of this music, Marvin J. Gladney argues that it has remained true to "many of the convictions and aesthetic criteria that evolved out of the Black Arts Movement of the '60s, including calls for social relevance, originality, and a focused dedication to produce art that challenges American mainstream artistic expression" (291). This new, youth- and urban-oriented music has brought "much needed dialogue to issues affecting America's Black community in a manner that no popular art form has . . ." (291). Rap groups which attempt to raise social consciousness as well as noise levels include De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Public Enemy. Back

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----. Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements. Ed. George Breitman. 1965. London: Secker & Warburg Ltd., 1966.

----. Two Speeches by Malcolm X. New York: Merit Publishers, n. d.

X, Malcolm, with the assistance of Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 1965. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

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