Roger was recently retracing some of his footsteps in Sea Islands where the twin sisters of the Deep South the charming Charleston and seductive Savannah reside. But in between these two great American southern cities lie a little known community with familar links to Africa and UK. Here is an extract about the area from his book.
The Gullah Community – a piece of Africa in America
On the coast of South Carolina with the Atlantic Ocean that brought slaves and settlers from Africa and the West Indies surrounding its shores, is a chain of islands called the Sea Islands. I am driving across one of the bridges that link the three islands of Beaufort, St Helena and Hilton Head islands together. This region also known as the low country is virtually flat and full of creeks, marshes and wetlands.
It is also home to one of the most established black communities in America and to which the phrase African-American is fully appropriate. The Gullah community is originally drawn from a community of freed slaves who were taken from various regions of West Africa and stayed to build their own rural community keeping their language and traditions. One of the reasons the African slaves flourished in these Sea Islands is due to the similarity in climate and vegetation to Africa and much of its appearance and stillness reminds me of the West Indies. Its remoteness to the mainland can be attributed to the fact that the only way of gaining access was by boat, until the mid-20th century and in many respects this has helped to preserve the Gullah traditions. It was here that before cotton, rice was harvested using the skills that had been first gained in Africa. At the Penn Cultural Center which showcases the Gullah culture, I view how this self-contained community has kept their strong links of their heritage via oral traditions passed down by Griots or African story-tellers. Wherever I hear the language spoken or written it reminds me of my own West Indian patois whether from Jamaican, Bajan or my own Guyanese dialect. The slaves mixed the various African mother tongues of Wolof, Vai, Twi, Ewe, Yoruba and Mandinka with English into a language so that they could communicate with each other. After slavery ended with the help of some benevolent whites they survived independently by establishing educational facilities that taught industrial skills as well as academic programmes. Dr King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference members often came here to plan their campaigns during the civil rights campaign as this was one of the few places black and white people could mix together in the south. The Gullah community mark the social transitions in African-American life from slavery to emancipation and from segregation to social change. Today their main battle is with property speculators who greedily view their beautiful lowland environment as waterfront real-estate.
Sixty miles along the Atlantic coast I visit Charleston Harbour and feel surrounded by history as the bonds of my past from Africa, the Caribbean and my present in America and Britain become more transparent. I walk past a replica of one of the cannons that fired the first shots of the civil war as the Confederates captured Fort Sumner here in Charleston Harbour. That declaration of war on the Government would lead to the bloodiest war in America’s history but also ended with the emancipation of the slaves. It was here too that Bristolians first set ashore after they had established their plantations in the Caribbean. They brought their African slaves with them and helped to found the practice of the plantocracy of owners, grand homes, slaves and crops which spread throughout the south. African slaves would have arrived in chains and would have taken their first steps on American soil where I stand. Charleston was one of the busiest American slave-trading ports and the centre of the internal slave-trade market long after Britain had abolished slavery. Slaves were first sold openly on the harbour and then when it was thought the selling of human-beings was harming the genteel image of Charleston, sales were held at an Old Slave Mart. I walk into charming Charleston town-centre, stopping to admire the sweet-grass baskets on sale by members of the Gullah community near the Old Slave Mart which is now a museum. There I understood how the sales of the slaves were viewed as mere commodities. The price of an 1860, 20 year-old male slave (the prime age for sale) for instance, would fetch $1500-$1600 (approximately $38,000 or £25,000 in 2010 prices). The slaves would be asked questions based on their experience such as how many rows of cotton they could pick in a day or whether they had worked in a Master’s house. No consideration was given to the splitting up of families or any ties that had been made. A range of instruments of torture are displayed on the wall to chillingly illustrate how the overseers kept order. The financial institutions in Charleston – as they were across the world – were heavily involved, whilst the state of South Carolina collected taxes on the sale of each slave. The slave-trade contributed greatly to the grand infrastructure of Charleston on which its wealth, fortune and fame was and still is being capitalised, just as it had done in my adopted home of Bristol.
AFTER THE HURRICANE. AMERICA REMEMBERS TEN YEARS ON
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf-Coast region Roger Griffith visits America’s most unique major city New Orleans during the memorials of the anniversary. In this his third extract he brings the story of ten years ago up to the present day.
PART THREE – Re-building Hope, Celebrating Resilience
As the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York has proven, sometimes a building can be more than just bricks and mortar but a beacon of hope. One of the earliest regeneration projects was to rebuild the Superdome and open its doors for the following NFL season. This became a mission for those involved like the Superdome general manager, Doug Thornton who said ‘The Superdome took on a human characteristic. After Katrina it was beaten and battered and was on life support and some thought it would never survive but somehow, someway we came together as one team and for one purpose and brought it back to life.’ On the 25th September 2006, this dream came true as the Superdome re-opened after a $200m refit. U2 performed in front of a packed and emotional audience, before New Orleans favourite sons, the New Orleans Saints took to the field. Many of its team members had been involved in re-building projects and awareness campaigns. To complete the fairy-tale the Saints won their first ever Superbowl in 2009 to become World Champions in what the headline makers dubbed, ‘The Miracle in Miami.’ More importantly the city was briefly united again in celebration and the residents felt the triumph helped gain some respect from a nation that had been lost.
The French Quarter and Downtown New Orleans were also rebuilt in major regeneration projects. Sadly however, other poorer parts of New Orleans fared less favourably.
Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters in US history but that just tells part of the story. The disaster planning and rescue mission along with the failure of levees were all man-made failings. The experts had correctly predicted the devastation but the authorities had ignored their warnings. It could happen again if the levee walls are not rebuilt properly and the arguments continue as to whether the protection is going to be adequate. Most of the Netherlands also sits below sea-level and they have spent billions ensuring their levees are sufficient and built to keep the waters at bay.
As for President Bush, in his memoir Decision Points the former president bizarrely said that when rapper Kanye West criticised him by saying ‘that Bush doesn’t care about black people’ it represented ‘one of the low-points of his presidency’. What should have been a well-planned concerted rescue operation to one of its iconic cities became an American nightmare that left over 1,400 people dead and caused billions of dollars’ worth of destruction to property. For the residents in the poorer neighbourhoods of New Orleans, however there is no price that could compensate the feeling of government neglect as they attempt to rebuild its decimated communities.
During his presidential campaign the then Senator Obama made several promises to help rebuild New Orleans. He also controversially defended the Bush administration from the charge of racism saying ‘the incompetence was color-blind’. This view has its detractors best found in Professor Michael Eric Dyson’s powerful indictment of the disaster entitled ‘Come Hell or High Water- Hurricane Katrina & The Color of Disaster. ’
Regardless of whether race was a direct or an indirect factor in the lack of government response, it is widely acknowledged that poverty was the key factor of those who remained, either through choice or circumstance. Obama did accuse Bush of being removed and indifferent to the problems of inner-city poverty and my visits to the Deep-South and New Orleans in particular give me a stark reminder of the ever-widening gaps of social inequality on both sides of the Atlantic. His speech on Friday was well received here but as my hosts keep reminding me there is much work still to be done.
It is within these poorer communities that I have lived and worked within at home and now become a keen observer of that I return to New Orleans to see for myself what has changed?
Roger Griffith is the Author of My American Odyssey: From the Windrush to the White House available from Silverwood Books and is a Broadcaster and Director at Ujima Radio CIC in Bristol and Managing Director of 2morrow 2day Community Consultants.
1st September 2015
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf-Coast region Roger Griffith visits America’s most unique major city New Orleans, during the memorials of the anniversary. In part two he describes in vivid detail the background to the events of the cataclysitic failure of the authorities that led to 1800 deaths and an estimated $151 billion dollars’ worth of damage during the presidency of George W. Bush.
PART TWO – Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans
When on the 29th August 2005 Mayor Ray Nagin announced, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen: this is not a test; there is a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Please evacuate,’ most of the city’s residents had already left, however a large number remained. The residents were used to these pronouncements as year after year warnings came and went. New Orleans had escaped the worst of Mother Nature’s power, apart from the last devastating Hurricane, Betsy in 1965.
The famed Bourbon Street parties were halted and in the nearby city and business district, deals had long since concluded. Everyone stayed indoors as the winds and rain grew stronger. Thousands had heeded the official warnings and sought refuge at one of the city’s symbols, the Louisiana Superdome. The Superdome is a giant indoor arena that seated over 70,000 for American Football games and the home of the chief source of local pride, the then struggling, New Orleans Saints.
Katrina had already caused death and destruction as she weaved her way savagely towards New Orleans. From media reports, the residents had an idea of what was coming but nothing could prepare them for the sheer terror a hurricane brings. Katrina’s storm-rains and winds battered their city tearing strips off the Superdome roof, which allowed the rain to pour in. To those inside it was the noise from hell as the general manager at the time described it as ‘like a rolling monster trying to break in’.
- After the storm
Katrina moved on inland causing heavy rains as far away as Canada and New York. The mass of storm-water it had gathered had nowhere else to go but into the shallow bowl of New Orleans. This created a storm surge that poured into some of New Orleans poorest neighbourhoods, including St Bernard’s Parish, Treme and particularly The Lower Ninth and Ninth Wards which had its homes and community swept away. The failure of the concrete levees left New Orleans 80% underwater. Downtown New Orleans (as the Americans call their city-centres) was more suitable for boats than cars with water reaching as high as fifteen feet. Those that could, clambered onto their roofs for shelter or literally swam for their lives. Makeshift floating vessels of open fridges and containers were used by residents to rescue children, the elderly and the infirm.
After the storm came the sun, and the brutal heat and humidity of a Deep-South summer was restored by Mother Nature. The rolling news media operations of the world converged on New Orleans and beamed back pictures of the destruction and flooding. As the hours passed it became clear that the media appeared to have far better organisation, information and resources than the American government.
- Inside the Superdome
It was meant to shelter 15,000 people from the storm with enough food and water to last for a few days. However, up to 25,000 people made their way to the Superdome as Katrina had battered the city, also stripping the Superdome of its roof. What was meant to be a sanctuary became the equivalent of hell on earth for the locals. The power supply failed and inside the occupants were suffocating in the stifling heat, without bathing facilities and with diminishing food and water supplies. Toilets were overflowing with human waste, so people relieved themselves wherever they could. The media carried false reports of shootings, violence and even rapes adding to the sense of hysteria inside and out of the Superdome. They waited for five days in those hellish conditions until the National Guard rescued them. There were a total of six deaths including a suicide but there was fresh hope with a baby born inside the Superdome.
Exaggerated media reports of looting and lawlessness had made the authorities nervous, and troops sent to rescue the stranded were given orders to protect property rather than life, adding to the aggrieved sense of lack of priorities. Governor Kathleen Blanco appeared on TV and said ‘These troops know how to shoot and kill and are more than willing do so if necessary and I expect they will.’
Some people managed to clamber to higher ground and waited on the roads for rescue from the authorities unaware that the buses that should have been mobilised to rescue them were within the disaster zone and underwater. Some walked miles to neighbouring richer areas but were met by armed guards who forced them to return. On the streets it was the survival of the fittest, with water and supplies thrown off the back of army trucks and people left to fight for scarce resources. So as well as having occupying forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; and just as during the 1960s civil rights battles there were armed troops on the southern streets of America.
Some local residents claim that there was a conspiracy by the authorities to save the more affluent areas by strategically blowing up the levees in order sacrifice the poorer areas. The same claim was made by the local residents after Category 4, Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965, which also left New Orleans underwater.
The cameras continued to portray desperate pleas for help and depicting stranded residents on roofs, dehydrated under the fierce sun ironically surrounded by water. Hotels had, had their glass-front windows blown out by Katrina and fires raged unchecked. The city river was now a vile slurry mixture of petrol, sewage and the floating dead as well as all the wild creatures of the bayous and wetlands such as snakes and alligators pouring into their new city habitat. In the city there was no electricity or fresh water and limited tele-communications. People roamed the streets, traumatised, many without medication as they waited for FEMA to organise their rescue.
The area around the Superdome and Convention Centre was on higher ground and a natural sanctuary for rescued people to congregate but became and dumping ground for the sick. Tens of thousands of people were left without food, water, shelter or medicine. For several days they pleaded for help, sleeping out in the open at night. Some of the elderly died in their sleep in the streets, but there was no-one to collect the mounting toll of dead bodies piling up on the pavements.
- President Bush and the Federal Response
The city of New Orleans passed responsibility for the rescue operation to the state of Louisiana, who thought the government should be in charge through FEMA. 60,000 troops were used to patrol the streets from looters instead of giving priority to aid the stricken.
In times of crisis a nation looks to its leader, but President Bush continued his holiday on his Texas ranch and denied having adequate information to tackle the crisis. Meanwhile his citizens were waiting for assistance and could helplessly watch and wait as two days after Katrina had left, President Bush flew over their heads in Air Force One.
Bush compounded the incompetence by saying of FEMA chief Michael Brown, live on television ‘You’re doing a hell of a job Brownie!’ Brown was a roommate of Bush’s at college and had no qualifications to deal with the emergency operation that followed a natural disaster. The failure of levees was one of the major components in the catastrophe. As one expert said, ‘To blame the levee failure for Katrina would be to blame the traffic if the bridge collapsed.’ The design and construction of the protection from flooding were the responsibility of the American Army Corps of Engineers. The levee failure was put down to poor design, lack of funding and mismanagement.
America continued to watch this dystopian nightmare unfold, live on their television screens. Four days after Katrina, there was still no federal helicopters, boats, armies, planes or transportation organised to help the thousands of people needing help.
- The Rescue Mission finally begins
When the masses of people emerged from the Superdome and the Convention Centre, they were met with a scene that had turned their city turned into a hellish version of Venice. Many of their streets and roads had been turned into filthy canals and rivers. Already unwashed for days, with blisters and sores on their bodies they saw their city in ruins. Glass and litter were strewn everywhere, buildings were destroyed the debris scattered high and wide. Bodies littered the city and highways adding to the stench in the 100c+ heat. Some were covered in sheets to mask their dignity, but others lay rotting, or floated in the water growing bloated and at the mercy of animals, rats and wild dogs.
Eventually, under the leadership of black Louisianan General Russell Honore, dubbed ‘The Ragin Cajun’ the military began to organise the relief mission. General Honore ordered the soldiers to holster their guns and help the traumatised.
It took days to transport the thousands out of the city. They were herded onto buses and planes across America and were not told where they were heading. In Spike Lee’s excellent HBO documentary, ‘When the Levees Broke’ renowned African-American social commentator and activist Professor Eric Michael Dyson said it was reminiscent of slaves being sold on the auction block, with families being separated, children being sent away.
1531 words 29th August 2015
Roger Griffith is the Author of My American Odyssey: From the Windrush to the White House available from Silverwood Books and is a Broadcaster and Director at Ujima Radio CIC in Bristol and Managing Director of 2morrow 2day Community Consultants.
AFTER THE HURRICANE. AMERICA REMEMBERS TEN YEARS ON
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf-Coast region Roger Griffith visits America’s most unique major city New Orleans during the memorials of the anniversary. He begins by going back to the events of August 2005.
Part One – A Storm is Brewing
New Orleans because of its hedonistic appeal, foodie and musical elements has always held a special attraction for me even before Hurricane Katrina struck. I first came to New Orleans for Mardi Gras in 2007 having watched Katrina’s fury wreak havoc on my TV screen in August 2005, and then in Spike Lee’s excellent documentary-film When the Levees Broke, which I saw at the Watershed. The effect on the people of New Orleans had a profound effect on me and I will include in my next book Volume Two book ‘My American Odyssey’ which I have begun whilst here in the US. The story of Hurricane Katrina, for me, holds a mirror on some of the faultlines of modern day America including poverty, that are much different from the glitz and glamour many associate the country with.
Emerging along Interstate-10 (I-10), I view the famed Mercedes Superdome which dominates the New Orleans skyline. During my first Mardi Gras experience I never forgot the stories of heroism, loss of loved ones, ruined homes, belongings and broken promises that were told to me during my stay, eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina had devastated their city. More than any other American city, New Orleans is a city about the ‘other America’ or as the great creator of urban TV chronicles such as The Wire and Treme, David Simon describes it ‘the America that got left behind.’
Even before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans’ mixture of urban decay, racial segregation, corrupt politicians, violent crime and economic disparities between rich and poor were largely ignored. When Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005 it literally blew open a new window of shame in America’s darker chapters of history. Nothing in modern day history demonstrates America’s inequality, in one of America’s poorest states and in a city that was predominately black. Hurricane Katrina would illustrate that the amount of green dollars you held, could mean the difference between life and death.
For the residents of New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina’s devastating visit in the summer of 2005 that left 1800 dead in the region and destroyed thousands of lives, will never be forgotten.
Before the Storm
Living in such a hilly city in Bristol I am amazed how saucer-flat the city is. New Orleans sits below sea-level and is protected from the waters that border the city by huge concrete barriers called levees. Imagine you are one of the many poor in a city of approximately 500,000 where 60% of that population is black. Every day you watch many of your unemployed fellow citizens passing the tell-tale signs of urban decay such as the cardboard cities of the homeless, on daily basis. Imagine living in the bottom of a gigantic shallow bowl surrounded by water and all that protects you from the water are those levees. Imagine due to your poor health or low income that you are incapable of leaving the city and you have to wait in a hospital or nursing home totally dependent on the authorities for survival. Imagine you have no physical means of leaving the city, or – as was told to me – decide to stay to protect your home or look after your loved ones. Imagine one of America’s most violent hurricanes that battered Louisiana and the other five Gulf US states. Next, imagine the huge floating debris of the storm such as oil-tankers and industrial barges tossed about like toys and used by Mother Nature as gigantic battering rams to smash huge holes in the levees that you are dependent upon your life for. Finally imagine masses of water pouring through the holes like a giant concrete colander and into that shallow bowl that you call home, until it gradually fills up leaving you trapped. Then, and only then can you begin to imagine what happened when Hurricane Katrina thundered in from the Atlantic Seas to tear apart your home and demolish your life.
Each year the World Metrological Organisation has a list of names to christen the world’s hurricanes, alternating between male and female name until it became Katrina’s turn. Katrina began life in the Caribbean off the coast of the Bahamas on 23rd August 2005, before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. She gave the authorities fair warning of her intention, scything a wave of devastation 400 miles wide causing havoc in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama before reaching Louisiana. The Metrological Society has five categories of hurricane, with Category 5 being maximum strength. The experts predicted Katrina would reach Category 5 with winds of over 150 mph. The three bodies of water that surround New Orleans; The Gulf of Mexico, The Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain were whipped into frenzy by the winds and these waters began to flood into the city.
In America in times of a disaster, there is a complex chain of command between the branches of local state and federal government. This inhibited the disaster plan causing communication break-down, red-tape and incompetence to shackle much needed scarce resources. After receiving briefings from the weather experts, President Bush placed in command one of his oil friends, Michael Brown, as head of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). The charismatic Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin would have to request help from the Louisiana Governor, Kathleen Blanco, who in turn would request help from President Bush and FEMA. Of those who were ill and left behind, many suffered from schizophrenia, or had a mental illness. Many others did not have access to gain information from the Internet, television or radio. Many Americans, wondered why the residents didn’t leave after Mayor Nagin’s announcement. However over 100,000 people did not own cars, or did not have the means to leave. In addition the mandatory warning came just 24 hours before the heavy rains fell. Those who did leave, blocked and clogged the roads and were trapped bumper to bumper in scenes reminiscent of a Hollywood disaster movie. From the very outset it was clear that the local authorities, the government and New Orleans residents themselves were totally unprepared for the chaos Hurricane Katrina was going to bring.
1,015 words – 26.8.15 RG
Roger Griffith is the Author of My American Odyssey: From the Windrush to the White House available from Silverwood Books and is a Broadcaster and Director at Ujima Radio CIC in Bristol.
Today is going to be a sad, poignant day across America and my condolences go to the grieving families. The church is important to many in America generally and particularly within the African-American communities providing links of sustenance as well as prayer, a sense of community, support and comfort. It has given us diverse leaders from Dr Martin Luther King to Malcolm X; many musicians including Beyoncé and Aretha Franklin got their first starts there. Sportspeople, politicians and business leaders have all found spiritual links or their first connections. Later today you will see pictures of unity, tears and many speeches as America and indeed the world says a prayer for the nine dead churchgoers slain by 21 year old gunman Dylann Roof at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, America, a city where I have visited and write of in my book.
The fact that these innocents were savagely gunned down in cold blood during bible study in a year of civil rights significance in which we have been commemorating and celebrating in Bristol disturb me. Coming after several Police killings of unarmed black men in America, it shows that far from being post-racial or outdated the fight for equality and social justice whether through race, income, gender, age, religion, sexuality or disability continues to be not only relevant but a key tenet of any functioning society .
Until we have respect for others even when we don’t agree, an end to discrimination and the senseless violence that continues to be a tool of fear for too many across the globe it proves we not only have a long way to go but we must work even harder together to tackle
Author Roger Griffith gives his rationale behind choosing his double-film bill which was screened to a packed audience at the Watershed on 17th May 2015 http://www.watershed.co.uk/whatson/6564/nothing-but-a-man-short These films compliments his book My American Odyssey From the Windrush to the White House http://rogergriffith.co.uk
Roger is one of the team of Come The Revolution curators http://www.watershed.co.uk/filmhub/come-the-revolution supported by Bristol Watershed and Bristol Festival of Ideas.
The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement
This Oscar Academy nominated documentary short film features the 85-year-old James Armstrong, an African American barber in Birmingham, Alabama, as he witnesses the fruition of an unimaginable dream. This was the election of the first African-American president of the United States of America. Armstrong was not only a flag-bearer on the famed Selma to Montgomery march of 1965 he was also a World War II veteran. His voter registration campaigns first helped African-Americans gain the vote who later helped an African-American enter the White House
Chosen by me as this summarises the second half of my journey from segregation to the White House and spent some time in the Birmingham barbershops which also doubled up as masonic temple halls where Dr Martin Luther King spoke at. I have attended commemorative rallies in Selma dubbed Sunday Bloody Sunday and I was there to see Barack Obama enter the White House on 20th January 2009
Nothing But a Man – Michael Roemer (1964) 95 mins. Drama, USA
Heart-rending brutal portrayal of Black masculinity in one man’s fight for existence and self-respect. Reputedly Malcolm X’s favourite film and beneath the harsh layers of this black and white masterpiece it’s easy to identify why.
Chosen by me because the subject matter does not show the brutal physical scars of racism such as murders or lynchings. Instead Jewish director Michael Roemer who himself escaped the Nazi’s, tells the systematic struggle of the daily battle against racism money, dignity and pride to defy badly drawn stereotypes – angry black man, uppity n*gg*r. It includes a great Motown soundtrack with tracks from a 12 year old ‘Little’ Stevie Wonder’s debut single Fingertips, Mary Wells and Martha and the Vandellas. The film also explores issues of class, poverty, manhood and being a father and son in one man’s battle against the world….and himself.
REMEMBERING MALCOLM X
Malcolm X throughout his life was a controversial figure, pimp and preacher, illiterate and icon. Fifty years on from his assassination in New York, his legacy lives on. Roger Griffith of Ujima Radio explores his life and gives some clues as to why he remains a cultural symbol for many today.
Malcolm Little as he was born was the fourth of eight children in the American Mid-West in Omaha, Nebraska. From the first page of his seminal and living legacy ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ Malcolm was dealing with the spectre of racism as the Ku Klux Klan confronted his mother who was pregnant with him at the time. The target of the KKK’s visit was his father and Baptist-minister, Earl Little. They were threatening his father for his outspoken calls to his congregation which included self-reliance inspired by Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. They forced the family to move on several occasions and after burning down the family home, it is widely believed that white-supremacists murdered his father. His West Indian born mother Helen suffered a nervous breakdown and her children including Malcolm were taken into care. From care he drifted into a life of crime and was jailed, aged 20. It is this backstory of family break-up, crime, drugs and alcohol leading to prison that have special resonance for many over-represented black men, or indeed care leavers that are currently institutionalised and in jail in Britain and America today.
However, how Malcolm Little transformed himself into Malcolm X to become one of the most powerful figures of the 20th century is a story of self-determination, education and finding your own voice, even if it that leads to your own death.
As we see today, Malcolm X too found sustenance in a radical brand of Islam known as the Nation of Islam (NOI), an organisation that preaches black-separatism. Within the harsh realities of the American prisons, the NOI find success in rehabilitating offenders away from a life of crime where many other methods fail. Malcolm replaced his surname ‘Little’ with ‘X’ as he felt his birth name was given by former white slave masters. This was also practised by fellow NOI members and his great friend Muhammad Ali, who changed his name from Cassius Clay. During his seven years in prison he became a voracious reader, learned English grammar and taught himself history. He started discussions and debates and began honing his extraordinary oratory skills which still inspire many of all backgrounds today. At first in line with NOI philosophy, he preached a separatist philosophy between black and white people. In his latter years, however just before his death he made a pilgrimage to Mecca to avow his faith as a Muslim and made friends with blue-eyed white brothers who he had previously called ‘white devils’.
So what of Malcolm today? ‘The Autobiography of Malcom X,’ ghost written by Roots author Alex Haley provides a great template of inspiration. Heart-breakingly brutal in his description of family life, searingly honest about his criminality and uncompromising on his beliefs about the establishment, yet in the book Malcolm displays the ability not to be dogmatic and changes his uncomfortable beliefs. Neither politician or pop-star, sportsmen or sociologist, it is hard to imagine someone like Malcolm X captivating cultural conversation today as he did then. His lasting message is a call for unity and understanding either by faith or race, and that call to action still remains something we are struggling to deliver fifty years on.
Throughout this seminal year in Bristol on race, there will be a number of events planned at the Malcolm X centre, Watershed, Festival of Ideas and Bristol Old Vic with programmes on Ujima Radio. Different voices will say different things about Malcolm X and what social activism and engagement means for them.
Do Join Us! Beginning for the Malcolm X Film Festival Sunday 12th April, 2-30-8.30 at Malcolm X Centre, S Pauls Bristol BS2 8YH.
Roger Griffith is the author of My American Odyssey: From the Windrush to the White House, and a Director at Ujima Radio 98FM. He broadcasts every Monday 4-6pm on the Old Skool Cruising Show on www.ujimaradio.com