X-PLOSION

disciples of Malcolm X spar over cache of precious last writings

By sigcino moyo

Log onto malcolm x's official Web site and click on "Business Opportunities" and you just might get clearance to mass-produce those X boomerangs you've been dreaming of.On the streets, others hawk copyright-infringing audio, video and texts of X speeches and interviews like they're dealing in contraband. It's anyone's guess how much of this merchandise is officially licensed.

Even an original manuscript of X's autobiography, edited in Malcolm's hand, was sold at the estate auction of Alex Haley, the famed Roots author, back in 92. Haley helped produce the autobiography.

Has Malcolm been commercially hijacked, his legacy reduced to dollar signs and hyperbole? The recent controversy over a collection of, among other things, his personal Koran and writings from his life-transforming pilgrimages to Africa and the Middle East offers some hope. These materials were believed destroyed when X's house was firebombed shortly before his death in 65.

They emerged from the ashes under some peculiar circumstances, were saved from the auction block last month and may still end up in a collection somewhere. Everywhere you turn, it seems, well-heeled black individuals and white institutions are poised over X's corporeal remains.

How did an auction house in San Fran end up with the poignant find?

It begins in May 99, when a woman calling herself Malikah Brown (who turns out to be Malikah Shabazz, one of the six daughters of Malcolm X and the late Betty Shabazz) rents herself a locker at Public Storage in Casselberry, Florida.

July rolls around and she's racked up a tab on locker #1614. Into September and the marker's still unchecked, so the powers that be try to recoup that rental loss by floating the contents of Brown's locker at their own auction. A dude named James Calhoun is Jimmy-on-the-spot, relieving the facility of this massive burden of X-abilia, reportedly for a measly $600. Being a thinking man, he consigns it to San Fran auction house Butterfields & Butterfields for an undisclosed sum.

This cache, whose estimated value has been set at half a mil U.S., includes not only X's Koran, but photos, personal correspondence to his wife, manuscripts, outlines of early-60s speeches and his membership card in the Organization of Afro-American Unity, the group he formed after a celebrated split from the Nation of Islam.

The goods were scheduled to go on sale March 20, but on March 12 Butterfields announced the axing of the X stuff from the scheduled bidding frenzy. It wasn't the public jeers that put the fears into these auctioneers. Legal action threatened by the Shabazz family is what turned the trick.

Media contact Levi Morgan says the auction house "withdrew from sale the Malcolm X material" after what he terms "irregularities" were discovered in their original sale.

Apparently, Public Storage may have jumped the gun. They were required by law to give Brown 15 days' notice and the chance to pay the amount owing the company before the contents of her locker were put up for sale. They only gave 12.

There's also some legal question whether Brown owns title to her daddy's material in the first place. She wasn't even born -- Betty Shabazz was pregnant at the time with Brown and her twin sister -- when her father was gunned down during a speech at Harlem's Audubon Ballroom.

Public Storage filed its own claim to prevent Butterfields' sale of the X material. The company did not respond to NOW's requests for comment, but word is the company wants to recoup more than the $600 they got for the goods in the first place.

Murky waters indeed. The old adage "Once bitten twice shy" clearly has no bearing over at Butterfields.

Another of Malcolm's possessions -- the address book he had tucked in his pocket when he was assassinated -- found its way into the auction house's possession -- only to slip through their butter fingers -- back in 99.

Butterfields' position then was that the item came with "a letter of provenance from the original owner." It turns out, however, that a sticky-fingered clerk had pilfered it from an evidence safe at the Manhattan State Supreme Court in 1991. The item now rests in the control of the X estate.

The legal manoeuvring and resulting buzz, culturally, academically and mediawise, has caused most of the players in this latest drama to clam up.

NOW's repeated requests for an interview with New York-based lawyer Joseph Fleming, who represents the Shabazz family, were denied.

Other figures, including the X daughter who took the material with her when she moved to Florida, have disappeared.

Still, grassroots and highbrow entities south of the border all have their own twist on what should be done with the newest kitty. Hopefully, discussions between the parties in this latest X-plosion will prevent any further sell-off of X's legacy.

Dr. Abdul Alkalimat, director of Africana studies at the University of Toledo and force behind brothermalcolm.net, breaks it down this way.

"What we got here is a contradiction between the rights and what properly should be under the rubric of the family versus what properly should be under the rubric of public interest.

"It looks like the documents that really have to do with the personal, internal life of the family -- particularly with people who are still alive -- will likely be withheld from public view."

Alkalimat, who has led the charge "to stop the selling of Malcolm X" from his cyber soapbox, says, "At some point there has to be a sucking sound that pulls everything together. What are we dealing with here: making money, making careers or making history?"

Poet and playwright Thulani Davis, librettist for an X opera and author of Malcolm X, The Great Photographs, doesn't see the most recent X-cavation as another example of the commodification of the black liberationist.

The current debate, she says, is "not about intellectual property rights at all. It's like watching American royals. To me, if social activists and writers get to be icons, that's a good thing."

Davis continues, "I think there are contemporary reasons why young people who never saw him in person respond to Malcolm X the myth. What's in his autobiography is completely contemporary... in many ways more commonly understood now in the black communities than it probably was then.

"I doubt you'd be wearing an X cap if he were still alive."

the end


original publication: NOW | VOL. 21 _No._32

      
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