When Austin Clarke Met Malcolm X

When Austin Clarke Met Malcolm X

Posted on February 25 by Kyle in Interview, News
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In 1963, a young Austin Clarke, hoping to make his first mark as a journalist, travelled from Toronto to Harlem with two goals: first, to live among the people and capture an honest picture of what life was like for Harlem’s black community during a pivotal period in history (which resulted in the CBC Radio documentary Project 64: Harlem in Revolt), and, second, interviewing renowned author James Baldwin. Upon being informed that Baldwin was in Greece and therefore not available to be interviewed, a friend made a suggestion.

 

Excerpts from ’Membering, a memoir by Austin Clarke, to be published by Dundurn, August 2015)

 

“Why don’t ya interview Brother Malcolm, brother?”

 

The suggestion rang in my head, and it did not receive the boastfulness with which I answered Harry J. Boyle’s question, months earlier, about my confidence to do the best interview the CBC would ever have of [James] Baldwin. I was terrified by the suggestion. And even although I had read as much as I could, about Malcolm X, who was already challenging Martin Luther King, Jr. for paramountcy among the black masses — as some magazine labelled these inhabitants of the urban black ghettoes — and although I read about him in Ebony, in Life, in Newsweek, in the New York Times Sunday magazine, even in Malcolm X’s own magazine, Muhammad Speaks, which I later found out he edited, I still did not feel I was up to this confrontation.

 

But Clarke stepped up to the challenge and doggedly pursued an interview with Malcolm X, making use of the few contacts he had made in Harlem. Finally, he was introduced to painter Jimmy Yeargans, who, through his personal network, caused Clarke to receive an important phone call.

 

The two Yeargans sons were getting dressed to visit Basin Street, to hear Jimmy Witherspoon. I had never had too much love and appreciation for the Blues. But I was keen to accompany them. As we were deciding on the time, the telephone rang.

 

“It’s for you,” the older son said. He was smoking. Taking puffs, closing his eyes, coughing a little, taking deep breaths, and when he opened his eyes, they were red. He talked as if he was catching for breath. “It’s for you.”

I took the telephone. I did not know anyone living in New York. I was not expecting a call from home.

“Are you Mr. Clarke?”

“Yes.”

“Hear you’re looking for Mr. Malcolm.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

I became nationalistic. I became Canadian. I thought I would use the pronoun, “we.”

“We at the CBC, in Canada, want to portray Mr. Malcolm X, impartially; and we will publish everything Mr. Malcolm X says in the interview …”

“We’ll call you tomorrow morning. Nine o’clock,” says the voice of the man on the telephone.

It was a deep voice. It was a sure voice. It was an intelligent voice.

 

Austin Clarke’s historic interview with Malcolm X was secured with the resulting phone call at nine o’clock the following morning. He was promised a strict ten minutes of interview time, but on October 13, 1963, Malcolm X came to the CBC studio in Manhattan and spoke to Clarke for an astounding sixty-three minutes, which you can listen to via YouTube. For the full story and much more, read ’Membering, to be published in August 2015 by Dundurn.

 

Listen to Austin Clarke's interview with Malcolm X.