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Tender and Fierce Blessings: Malcolm, Coltrane and My Mentor Nat Hentoff

Christine Passarella By

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Malcolm is placed in foster care. He succeeds in school even with the pain and rises a young leader in a predominately white school. In his youth, he thinks about becoming a lawyer but is harshly told by a teacher that someone of his race should not think about that professional option. With his parents gone, and his family home life broken up, his heart is filled with the loss and pain. I am stating this as I imagine how painful it must be for this young genius to wrap his mind and heart around a country that disrespected and terrorized his people. Over time he finds himself in trouble with the law when he moves to a big city. Malcolm finds his punishment and is incarcerated. In prison, he discovers and follows the Black Muslim movement with a deep belief in God. Malcolm emerges as a majestic leader, and over time continues to die in order to learn how to live. That is the goal isn't it Nat? For all of us, we try to dig in and digest what life puts in our path and transforms even while experiences include pain and suffering. How many of us can say we could rise as high as the great Malcolm X? He rises and continues his rebirth as the lessons become clearer and his quest becomes one of brotherhood and sisterhood globally as he embraces the orthodox Muslim religion. Malcolm continued his calling until he took his last breath on earth bringing people of all colors together but never forgetting the deep love he had for his people. Question for you Nat...Why is Malcolm's entire story not told in schools? You knew he was an American hero, but it is only in recent years people of all colors are seeing clearer who this man was. His transformative life is to be celebrated as we celebrate our John Coltrane.

It is always beautiful to remember or learn about the Black Arts Movement of the '60s and '70s which was a renaissance. The Black Arts Movement referenced a John Coltrane and Malcolm X Express, with gifted black artists resurrecting the work and brilliance of these two legends after their early deaths. Nat, why is it taking our country so long to include Trane and Malcolm in our children's history books with the depth and respect they deserve? In the radio documentary Tell Me How Long Trane Has Been Gone, created by Steve Rowland the musicians, writers, and intellectuals express John Coltrane's music as fire music and connections are made to Malcolm's spirit and artistic spoken word. John Coltrane was a spiritual and cultural force through his music. In both of these giants, there is search and struggle which brought about transcendence. Coltrane did see Malcolm speak in Harlem and stated that he was very impressed with him. Writer and civil rights activist Amiri Baraka recognized a connection between black art and political protest. In Manning Marable's book Malcolm X, Baraka described Coltrane as "the Malcolm in the New Super Bop Fire."

In the Rowland radio documentary, Dr. Cornel West states in reference to John Coltrane, "He was able to lay bare the inner troubles and struggles of his own soul in light of this dialectal interplay of these different musical traditions. That is why I think in the end he is so much more than just an artist. He is really a spiritual figure and a cultural figure, in part because of the depths of his honesty and sincerity, laying bare his soul mediated with his artistry, so it was never just a matter of his technical virtuosity. It was always a matter of linking that technical virtuosity to the spiritual wrestling going on." And Nat you state in the radio documentary, that you saw him forlorn at some point, ..."And then not too long afterward there was Trane with his band, with Elvin Jones standing like some kind of spiritual force. It was just one of those stunning experiences. I could not move, I just could not move. So, he didn't just think abstractly about the changes that could happen to somebody if that person found his way, his spiritual way, he knew it existentially as you can know it."

I am forever grateful that you mentored me along with my other mentor the vital prophetic intellectual Dr. Cornel West. I must say it was wonderful introducing you to Cornel at the showing of the film documentary which explored your Coltranian journey. I thoroughly enjoyed viewing, The Pleasure of Being Out of Step. That providential evening in Manhattan watching you and Dr. West come together in discussion will live in my heart, mind, and soul forever. You certainly held one another in high esteem, and the golden vibrations of John Coltrane surrounded us all. By the way, the 25th anniversary of Dr. West's classic book Race Matters was recently released with a powerful new introduction. It is a must-read for the new generation, and reread for the rest of us as we ponder our progress and lack thereof. I continue to read and reread your important books as well.

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