Back to School with el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz – PART 1

By Dr Beck

A first-person political science study

What we should remember Malcolm X for was not just his fiery agitation. We should primarily remember him for what he accomplished for human rights, in Africa and the United States.

I knew I had forgotten lessons of what I had learned in the Chicagoland of my youth after college. I spent a good amount of time in Chicago after graduating from Northwestern in 1972 trying to figure things out. (Later, after learning that grad school in STEM was almost free, I went back to school in 1982 at UIC.). I worked at Zenith Radio’s Plant #1 on Austin Avenue. The same plant my cousin, Bonnie, worked in during World War II, I learned much later. That was in the day when a factory job went with the territory in Chicago. Starting pay? $2.50/hour on the dock unloading trucks and rail cars by hand. I later made $2.75/hour as the foreman offered me ‘group leader’ status as I seemed to get along with the two Sicilian immigrant guys I worked with and he wanted only one person to talk to about which rail car to unload. I learned so mush from those two! “Biano. Biano. Chaise endyamo.” know I am destroying the Siciliano there, but even Google Translate offers no native Siciliano language. “Take it easy. Take it easy. We can do it tomorrow.” they would say when I wanted to start a new unloading process. It seemed to be not only a Sicilian saying, but a philosophical way of life for Vito. It had kept him alive during WWII, as a draftee in Mussolini’s “Army of Conquest” he joked, in then-Yugoslavia. During our preemptive break times, he would regale me with stories of fighting Tito’s Red Army. To which it seemed, he had more sympathy than might be expected. During one campaign, he said, his Commander told them they were going for R&R in the village just over the hill. Vito, like others, rushed forward…until they saw the “Red Flag of Liberation” flying from the church steeple. Then they stopped. Another trick of “Il Duce” to get draftees to fight.

Finally, to his relief, Vito and his unit were captured defending an Italian withdrawal. He was never a coward, but always seems to take the “wise choice”. When he was captured, he received the first real food and medical attention he had had in weeks, he said. The Red Army of Tito understood their ‘fellow workers’ in the Italian Army better than Italian officers did, who mainly derived from the aristocratic landed classes. In any case, this is one Sicilian worker’s story.

I played basketball in an industrial league at the West Austin “Y”. I was the only white guy on our team for a while, because I was tall. Roby was our captain. He had lived on the West Side of Chicago his whole life. He played Whist at lunch. He eventually taught me how to play. Then we became friends and he invited me to try out for his team. Occasionally, Roby would help me in understanding ‘country boys’ as he called them, fresh up from the Deep South, who were assigned to work with me. Their way of talking at that time, was unique. Most times, Roby could decipher it. Sometimes he could not, and have the lad write it down, for both of us, “best he could.”

I always wonder what has been lost of language in America. So many different nations and people. A little bit of America dies every time we dip into that melting pot and come out with the same slang; same “fusion food”, or “comfort food” and the same calls for one official language. There in lies the central fault with the theory of “white skin privilege,” that came out of the Weather Underground, the upper middle class mainly white organization of the late 1960’s. That “white people” have to give up their ‘privilege,’ as a racial group, forgetting class or their distinct cultures. Malcolm X finally learned that powerful lesson when he became “el-Hajj”.

I made many errors in figuring out folks I worked with at Zenith. I am sorry for that. Some, like the Polish-American maintenance worker who showed me how to signify-on the-sly, for example, with the horizontal wave stands out.

In all of this, I have learned and then lost invaluable lessons, which perhaps surprising were remembered in going back to school with Malcolm X; his life of learning.

What we should remember Malcolm X for was not just his fiery agitation. We should primarily remember him for what he accomplished for human rights, in Africa and the United States.