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Chapter 10 Satan

Shorty didn't know what the word "concurrently" meant.

  Somehow, Lansing-to-Boston bus fare had been scraped up by Shorty's old mother. "Son, read meBook of Revelations and pray to God!" she had kept telling Shorty, visiting him, and once me, whilewe awaited our sentencing. Shorty had read the Bible's Revelation pages; he had actually gotten downon his knees, praying like some Negro Baptist deacon.

  Then we were looking up at the judge in Middlesex County Court. (Our, I think, fourteen counts ofcrime were committed in that county. ) Shorty's mother was sitting, sobbing with her head bowing upand down to her Jesus, over near Ella and Reginald. Shorty was the first of us called to stand up.

  "Count one, eight to ten years "Count two, eight to ten years"Count three. . ."And, finally, "The sentences to run concurrently."Shorty, sweating so hard that his black face looked as though it had been greased, and notunderstanding the word "concurrently," had counted in his head to probably over a hundred years; hecried out, he began slumping. The bailiffs had to catch and support him.

  In eight to ten seconds, Shorty had turned as atheist as I had been to start with.

  I got ten years.

  The girls got one to five years, in the Women's Reformatory at Framingham, Massachusetts.

  This was in February, 1946. I wasn't quite twenty-one. I had not even started shaving.

  They took Shorty and me, handcuffed together, to the Charlestown State Prison.

  I can't remember any of my prison numbers. That seems surprising, even after the dozen years since Ihave been out of prison. Because your number in prison became part of you. You never heard yourname, only your number. On all of your clothing, every item, was your number, stenciled. It grewstenciled on your brain.

  Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long timebefore he votes to have other men kept behind bars-caged. I am not saying there shouldn't be prisons,but there shouldn't be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will getcompletely over the memory of the bars.

  After he gets out, his mind tries to erase the experience, but he can't. I've talked with numerous formerconvicts. It has been very interesting to me to find that all of our minds had blotted away many detailsof years in prison. But in every case, he will tell you that he can't forget those bars.

  As a "fish" (prison slang for a new inmate) at Charlestown, I was physically miserable and as evil-tempered as a snake, being suddenly without drugs. The cells didn't have running water. The prisonhad been built in 1805-in Napoleon's day-and was even styled after the Bastille. In the dirty, crampedcell, I could lie on my cot and touch both walls. The toilet was a covered pail; I don't care how strongyou are, you can't stand having to smell a whole cell row of defecation.

  The prison psychologist interviewed me and he got called every filthy name I could think of, and theprison chaplain got called worse. My first letter, I remember, was from my religious brother Philbert in Detroit, telling me his "holiness" church was going to pray for me. I scrawled him a reply I'mashamed to think of today.

  Ella was my first visitor. I remember seeing her catch herself, then try to smile at me, now in the fadeddungarees stenciled with my number. Neither of us could find much to say, until I wished she hadn'tcome at all. The guards with guns watched about fifty convicts and visitors. I have heard scores ofnew prisoners swearing back in their cells that when free their first act would be to waylay thosevisiting-room guards. Hatred often focused on them.

  I first got high in Charlestown on nutmeg. My cellmate was among at least a hundred nutmeg menwho, for money or cigarettes, bought from kitchen-worker inmates penny matchboxes full of stolennutmeg. I grabbed a box as though it were a pound of heavy drugs. Stirred into a glass of cold water, apenny matchbox full of nutmeg had the kick of three or four reefers.

  With some money sent by Ella, I was finally able to buy stuff for better highs from guards in theprison. I got reefers, Nembutal, and benzedrine. Smuggling to prisoners was the guards' sideline;every prison's inmates know that's how guards make most of their living.

  I served a total of seven years in prison. Now, when I try to separate that first year-plus that I spent atCharlestown, it runs all together in a memory of nutmeg and the other semi-drugs, of cursing guards,throwing things out of my cell, balking in the lines, dropping my tray in the dining hall, refusing toanswer my number-claiming I forgot it-and things like that.

  I preferred the solitary that this behavior brought me. I would pace for hours like a caged leopard,viciously cursing aloud to myself. And my favorite targets were the Bible and God. But there was alegal limit to how much time one could be kept in solitary. Eventually, the men in the cellblock had aname for me: "Satan." Because of my antireligious attitude.

  The first man I met in prison who made any positive impression on me whatever was a fellow inmate,"Bimbi." I met him in 1947, at Charlestown. He was a light, kind of red-complexioned Negro, as I was;about my height, and he had freckles. Bimbi, an old-time burglar, had been in many prisons. In thelicense plate shop where our gang worked, he operated the machine that stamped out the numbers. Iwas along the conveyor belt where the numbers were painted.

  Bimbi was the first Negro convict I'd known who didn't respond to "What'cha know, Daddy?" Often,after we had done our day's license plate quota, we would sit around, perhaps fifteen of us, and listento Bimbi. Normally, white prisoners wouldn't think of listening to Negro prisoners' opinions onanything, but guards, even, would wander over close to hear Bimbi on any subject.

  He would have a cluster of people riveted, often on odd subjects you never would think of. He wouldprove to us, dipping into the science of human behavior, that the only difference between us andoutside people was that we had been caught. He liked to talk about historical events and figures.

  When he talked about the history of Concord, where I was to be transferred later, you would have thought he was hired by the Chamber of Commerce, and I wasn't the first inmate who had neverheard of Thoreau until Bimbi expounded upon him. Bimbi was known as the library's best customer.

  What fascinated me with him most of all was that he was the first man I had ever seen command totalrespect. . . with his words.

  Bimbi seldom said much to me; he was gruff to individuals, but I sensed he liked me. What made meseek his friendship was when I heard him discuss religion. I considered myself beyond atheism-I wasSatan. But Bimbi put the atheist philosophy in a framework, so to speak. That ended my viciouscursing attacks. My approach sounded so weak alongside his, and he never used a foul word.

  Out of the blue one day, Bimbi told me flatly, as was his way, that I had some brains, if I'd use them. Ihad wanted his friendship, not that kind of advice. I might have cursed another convict, but nobodycursed Bimbi. He told me I should take advantage of the prison correspondence courses and thelibrary.

  When I had finished the eighth grade back in Mason, Michigan, that was the last time I'd thought ofstudying anything that didn't have some hustle purpose. And the streets had erased everything I'dever learned in school; I didn't know a verb from a house. My sister Hilda had written a suggestionthat, if possible in prison, I should study English and penmanship; she had barely been able to read acouple of picture postcards I had sent her when I was selling reefers on the road.

  So, feeling I had time on my hands, I did begin a correspondence course in English. When themimeographed listings of available books passed from cell to cell, I would put my number next totitles that appealed to me which weren't already taken.

  Through the correspondence exercises and lessons, some of the mechanics of grammar graduallybegan to come back to me.

  After about a year, I guess, I could write a decent and legible letter. About then, too, influenced byhaving heard Bimbi often explain word derivations, I quietly started another correspondence course-in Latin.

  Under Bimbi's tutelage, too, I had gotten myself some little cellblock swindles going. For packs ofcigarettes, I beat just about anyone at dominoes. I always had several cartons of cigarettes in my cell;they were, in prison, nearly as valuable a medium of exchange as money. I booked cigarette andmoney bets on fights and ball games. I'll never forget the prison sensation created that day in April,1947, when Jackie Robinson was brought up to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson had,then, his most fanatic fan in me. When he played, my ear was glued to the radio, and no game endedwithout my refiguring his average up through his last turn at bat.

   One day in 1948, after I had been transferred to Concord Prison, my brother Philbert, who was forever joining something, wrote me this time that he had discovered the "natural religion for the black man."He belonged now, he said, to something called "the Nation of Islam." He said I should "pray to Allahfor deliverance." I wrote Philbert a letter which, although in improved English, was worse than myearlier reply to his news that I was being prayed for by his "holiness" church.

  When a letter from Reginald arrived, I never dreamed of associating the two letters, although I knewthat Reginald had been spending a lot of time with Wilfred, Hilda, and Philbert in Detroit. Reginald'sletter was newsy, and also it contained this instruction: "Malcolm, don't eat any more pork, and don'tsmoke any more cigarettes. I'll show you how to get out of prison."My automatic response was to think he had come upon some way I could work a hype on the penalauthorities. I went to sleep-and woke up-trying to figure what kind of a hype it could be. Somethingpsychological, such as my act with the New York draft board? Could I, after going without pork andsmoking no cigarettes for a while, claim some physical trouble that could bring about my release?

  "Get out of prison." The words hung in the air around me, I wanted out so badly.

  I wanted, in the worst way, to consult with Bimbi about it. But something big, instinct said, you spilledto nobody.

  Quitting cigarettes wasn't going to be too difficult. I had been conditioned by days in solitary withoutcigarettes. Whatever this chance was, I wasn't going to fluff it. After I read that letter, I finished thepack I then had open. I haven't smoked another cigarette to this day, since 1948.

  It was about three or four days later when pork was served for the noon meal.

  I wasn't even thinking about pork when I took my seat at the long table. Sit-grab-gobble-stand-file out;that was the Emily Post in prison eating. When the meat platter was passed to me, I didn't even knowwhat the meat was; usually, you couldn't tell, anyway-but it was suddenly as though _don't eat anymore pork_ flashed on a screen before me.

  I hesitated, with the platter in mid-air; then I passed it along to the inmate waiting next to me. Hebegan serving himself; abruptly, he stopped. I remember him turning, looking surprised at me.

  I said to him, "I don't eat pork."The platter then kept on down the table.

  It was the funniest thing, the reaction, and the way that it spread. In prison, where so little breaks themonotonous routine, the smallest thing causes a commotion of talk. It was being mentioned all overthe cell block by night that Satan didn't eat pork.

  It made me very proud, in some odd way. One of the universal images of the Negro, in prison and out, was that he couldn't do without pork. It made me feel good to see that my not eating it hadespecially startled the white convicts.

  Later I would learn, when I had read and studied Islam a good deal, that, unconsciously, my first pre-Islamic submission had been manifested. I had experienced, for the first time, the Muslim teaching, "Ifyou will take one step toward Allah-Allah will take two steps toward you."My brothers and sisters in Detroit and Chicago had all become converted to what they were beingtaught was the "natural religion for the black man" of which Philbert had written to me. They allprayed for me to become converted while I was in prison. But after Philbert reported my vicious reply,they discussed what was the best thing to do. They had decided that Reginald, the latest convert, theone to whom I felt closest, would best know how to approach me, since he knew me so well in thestreet life.

  Independently of all this, my sister Ella had been steadily working to get me transferred to theNorfolk, Massachusetts, Prison Colony, which was an experimental rehabilitation jail. In other prisons,convicts often said that if you had the right money, or connections, you could get transferred to thisColony whose penal policies sounded almost too good to be true. Somehow, Ella's efforts in my behalfwere successful in late 1948, and I was transferred to Norfolk.

  The Colony was, comparatively, a heaven, in many respects. It had flushing toilets; there were no bars,only walls-and within the walls, you had far more freedom. There was plenty of fresh air to breathe; itwas not in a city.

  There were twenty-four "house" units, fifty men living in each unit, if memory serves me correctly.

  This would mean that the Colony had a total of around 1200 inmates. Each "house" had three floorsand, greatest blessing of all, each inmate had his own room.

  About fifteen per cent of the inmates were Negroes, distributed about five to nine Negroes in eachhouse.

  Norfolk Prison Colony represented the most enlightened form of prison that I have ever heard of. Inplace of the atmosphere of malicious gossip, perversion, grafting, hateful guards, there was morerelative "culture," as "culture" is interpreted in prisons. A high percentage of the Norfolk PrisonColony inmates went in for "intellectual" things, group discussions, debates, and such. Instructors forthe educational rehabilitation programs came from Harvard, Boston University, and other educationalinstitutions in the area. The visiting rules, far more lenient than other prisons', permitted visitorsalmost every day, and allowed them to stay two hours. You had your choice of sitting alongside yourvisitor, or facing each other.

  Norfolk Prison Colony's library was one of its outstanding features. A millionaire named Parkhursthad willed his library there; he had probably been interested in the rehabilitation program. Historyand religions were his special interests. Thousands of his books were on the shelves, and in the back were boxes and crates full, for which there wasn't space on the shelves. At Norfolk, we could actuallygo into the library, with permission-walk up and down the shelves, pick books. There were hundredsof old volumes, some of them probably quite rare. I read aimlessly, until I learned to read selectively,with a purpose.

  I hadn't heard from Reginald in a good while after I got to Norfolk Prison Colony. But I had come inthere not smoking cigarettes, or eating pork when it was served. That caused a bit of eyebrow-raising.

  Then a letter from Reginald telling me when he was coming to see me. By the time he came, I wasreally keyed up to hear the hype he was going to explain.

  Reginald knew how my street-hustler mind operated. That's why his approach was so effective.

  He had always dressed well, and now, when he came to visit, was carefully groomed. I was achingwith wanting the "no pork and cigarettes" riddle answered. But he talked about the family, what washappening in Detroit, Harlem the last time he was there. I have never pushed anyone to tell meanything before he is ready. The offhand way Reginald talked and acted made me know thatsomething big was coming.

  He said, finally, as though it had just happened to come into his mind, "Malcolm, if a man knew everyimaginable thing that there is to know, who would he be?"Back in Harlem, he had often liked to get at something through this kind of indirection. It had oftenirritated me, because my way had always been direct. I looked at him. "Well, he would have to besome kind of a god-"Reginald said, "There's a _man_ who knows everything."I asked, "Who is that?""God is a man," Reginald said. "His real name is Allah."_Allah_. That word came back to me from Philbert's letter; it was my first hint of any connection. ButReginald went on. He said that God had 360 degrees of knowledge. He said that 360 degreesrepresented "the sum total of knowledge."To say I was confused is an understatement. I don't have to remind you of the background againstwhich I sat hearing my brother Reginald talk like this. I just listened, knowing he was taking his timein putting me onto something. And if somebody is trying to put you onto something, you need tolisten.

  "The devil has only thirty-three degrees of knowledge-known as Masonry," Reginald said. I can sospecifically remember the exact phrases since, later, I was going to teach them so many times to others.

  "The devil uses his Masonry to rule other people." He told me that this God had come to America, and that he had made himself known to a man namedElijah-"a black man, just like us." This God had let Elijah know, Reginald said, that the devil's "timewas up."I didn't know what to think. I just listened.

  "The devil is also a man," Reginald said.

  "What do you mean?"With a slight movement of his head, Reginald indicated some white inmates and their visitors talking,as we were, across the room.

  "Them," he said. "The white man is the devil."He told me that all whites knew they were devils-"especially Masons."I never will forget: my mind was involuntarily flashing across the entire spectrum of white people Ihad ever known; and for some reason it stopped upon Hymie, the Jew, who had been so good to me.

  Reginald, a couple of times, had gone out with me to that Long Island bootlegging operation to buyand bottle up the bootleg liquor for Hymie.

  I said, "Without any exception?""Without any exception.""What about Hymie?""What is it if I let you make five hundred dollars to let me make ten thousand?"After Reginald left, I thought. I thought. Thought.

  I couldn't make of it head, or tail, or middle.

  The white people I had known marched before my mind's eye. From the start of my life. The statewhite people always in our house after the other whites I didn't know had killed my father. . . thewhite pe............

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