That Harvard students would flock to hear the spokesman for a bigoted nutcase and a religion of hate, let alone consider themselves “honored” by his presence, was in itself a noteworthy event. Prior to the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, which continued to loom over America like a toxic airborne event for decades to come, no such episode could have taken place in any institution of higher learning, let alone an Ivy League school.
“The minister began speaking,” West begins his account of George X’s visit.
He was an articulate and intelligent man, but when he referred to Malcolm X as a “dog,” I was startled. Though Malcolm had been shot six years earlier, his murder still felt painfully close. The minister’s speech went on, and then, for no apparent reason, he found it necessary to call Malcolm “dog” a second time. I was about to say something, but my friends, seeing I was agitated, restrained me. There were hefty Fruit of Islam guards, the paramilitary wing of the Nation, stationed at all the doors. I swallowed hard and let it pass. But the minister went out of his way to call Malcolm a “dog” for the third time, I couldn’t take it. I jumped up and spoke my mind.
I said, “Who gives you the authority to call someone who loved black people so deeply a ‘dog’? You better explain yourself.”
“Young man,” the minister said, seething with rage, “you best be careful. You’re being highly disrespectful and impudent.”
When West refused to apologize, the spokesman for the Nation of Islam threatened him: “Young brother, you’ll be lucky to get out of this building alive. And if you do manage to slip out, you’ll be gone in five days.”
Fully up to the melodrama, West proclaimed his defiance: “Well, if that’s the only response to my challenge, then I guess you’re just going to have to take me out.’”
A striking aspect of West’s account of the incident is that it makes no mention of the well-known fact that Malcolm X was murdered by Nation of Islam assassins on a death warrant issued by Elijah Muhammad and publicly proclaimed by his lieutenant Louis Farrakhan. Why would it seem “shocking” that a Nation spokesman would refer to Malcolm as a “dog”?
The sins committed by Malcolm that warranted his execution were finally rejecting Elijah Muhammad’s racist bigotry and, worse, revealing that the honorable one was a rapist who had impregnated several adolescents in his otherwise strictly puritanical cult. West was certainly aware of these facts but fails to mention them or to explain why he would have such respect — then and now — for such violent and degenerate criminals and their defenders.
Instead, writing with 40 years’ hindsight, West actually concedes to his Muslim accuser that “[Malcolm] was wrong to have castigated the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in public,” then adds in bluesman jive, “and God knows, following Malcolm’s lead, I had hardly been discreet in castigating George X. But when the Four Tops sang ‘I Can’t Help Myself,’ they might as well have been talking about me.” (When a Harvard professor thinks and writes like this, Houston, we have a problem.)
Rescued from the lecture hall by friends, West immediately went into hiding: “I went underground. I kept moving around from dorm room to dorm room, staying with various friends who had my back. I was afraid to attend class. . . . For as long as I was on the Nation’s most wanted list, I didn’t get a good night’s sleep.”