The man the world came to know as Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska, ninety years ago today.
I want to mark that occasion.
Some three years ago I began the process of talking to Malcolm’s only surviving sibling, Hilda Little, and from that sprang what is essentially a book. Like Malcolm, like the Little family he was born into, the project is not conventional, it does not fit it in. It is not a book about Malcolm, but it is a book about his family. It is not quite a biography, but it is about his mother Louise, and the heartache and suffering that was inflicted on her by a system that was not just indifferent, but actively and openly hostile.
Malcolm’s legacy, his mother Louise Little’s legacy, that of the entire family should be one that inspires us to change those systems for the better, for good. I hope that Malcolm, his parents and his brothers and not least his sisters, would approve.
Happy Birthday Malcolm. I am sharing this in hope, with respect, and in good faith with all.
By the mid-1920s, the Little family’s time in Omaha was coming to an end. In a period covering about five years, having established a UNIA presence in the city, Earl and Louise Little had achieved what they had set out to do. The Omaha UNIA division’s regular meeting was held at Liberty Hall on a Sunday, as with all UNIA divisions. On Sundays in New York’s Liberty Hall the UNIA leader, Marcus Garvey, presided over a grand affair – seated on a throne-like armchair on a dais, flanked by men in faux military uniforms. Although the Omaha Liberty Hall on Lake Street was an undoubtedly a more humble setting, the order of proceedings followed a set pattern very much rooted in a Christian, although non-denominational, tradition. The meeting always opened with the same missionary hymn , its opening lines in part speaking to the depth and breadth of Marcus Garvey’s geographical ambitions for the organisation.
From Greenland’s icy mountains,
From India’s coral strand,
Where Afric’s sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand,
From many an ancient river,
From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
Their land from error’s chain.
After the hymn singing, the division members were led in prayer, often by the president, so in Omaha the job would have fallen to Earl Little. It was not church, but to the casual observer it must have looked awfully like a religious congregation. In place of minister’s sermon, someone would read out the latest thoughts of their leader, Marcus Garvey, from the front page of that week’s Negro World. Following that there would be an address, from either the president, visiting UNIA officials, or local clergy. As a member, and the Omaha Division Secretary, Louise Little must have spent many an hour on a Sunday at the Liberty Hall with her small children Wilfred, Hilda, Philbert and now the baby, Malcolm, at her knee. They were probably too young to remember much of the proceedings, but on some level the values of Garveyism were embedding themselves: cultivating an ethos of success in the black community through self-sufficiency and commerce; fostering an American dream of equality. As Garvey himself said ‘Let Us Give off Success and It Will Come. As Man Thinks So Is He.’
The man notoriously known as Malcolm X was assassinated 50 years ago yesterday. The anniversary weighed heavily on my mind; wanting to say something, not knowing exactly what to say.
For the last 3 years I have been piecing together the story of his mother Louise, and alongside hers his father Earl, and that of his brothers and sisters. I have been lucky enough to be in contact with some of Malcolm’s relatives, to hear first hand stories of the Little family. For this fact alone I have been blessed. But yesterday I was silent. I’ve been trying to work out why.
I think it is perhaps because Malcolm’s legacy is not secure. Malcolm himself was always very clear in what he said, what he believed in. And he was wise enough to know that he did not know everything, and he was humble enough to revise his opinions when new knowledge or evidence came his way. Malcolm is always reported as some kind of firebrand ideologue, but he was more sensitive to the nuance of ideas and people than that. Like his mother Louise, Malcolm was on a journey. Like her, his path was cut brutally short by the actions of third parties. Without the passage of time to let his work settle into the narrative of a full life course, we are left missing some key context.
There is still more to know about Malcolm, his life and his death. Until we get to the bottom of it all, until the truth of it is really told, Malcolm’s legacy will remain fragmented; his words will continue to be taken out of context, and the breadth and depth of his intended work, frankly, misunderstood. On the 50th anniversary of his death, we owe him, his family, ourselves even, a good deal more than that.
I’ve been reading some of Martin Luther King’s words this afternoon. Their universal truth and beauty surely stand the test of time. We have progressed a long way since the 1960s and the famous ‘I Have A Dream‘ speech, but there is still a long way to go.
I cannot think of either Dr King or, indeed, his firebrand contemporary Malcolm X without my heart aching a little.
Where are our leaders of equal courage now? If I could, I’d rewrite this UB40 song to reflect that frustration.
It’s been annoying me that Louise Little’s (Malcolm X’s mother) life is so sparsely documented.
But what can I expect, she was a woman, a black woman, and a woman locked away for insanity for over twenty years, when the limited evidence would point to some kind of post-natal psychosis that these days may have been treated and resolved far, far more quickly.
Her political activism is recorded as a supplement to that of her husband’s – Earl Little. Her resistance to the Klu Klux Klan a matter of a few words only. Earl was killed in 1931 and Louise brought up her children for nearly eight years until in 1938 she gave birth to an eighth child and was subsequently committed to a mental institution. She was about my age: 41. It is noted in some places that, before she was committed, Malcolm had already been removed from her care by the authorities, aged 13, on account of his stealing. He was placed with a white couple known to his mother who fostered him.
So Louise Little, born in Grenada to a black mother and a white father (the result of a possibly consensual relationship, but very possibly not), the second wife of Earl Little, mother to eight children the fourth being Malcolm X is reduced to a sentence or two in the Kingdom of Google.
This is how she was summarised after her husband’s death in one online document:
“Unable to cope with the financial and emotional demands of single parenthood, she was placed in a mental institution, and the children were sent to separate foster homes.”
Seven children, for seven years, plus an eighth child and no damn money and she was ‘unable to cope’? How diminished do you want her footnote in history to be?
To be continued… Any flesh on the bones welcomed. So far, these are the discrepancies I can find. Her father was Scottish, or English. She was committed for 24 years or for 26. Her husband was murdered or not. Her will was broken by the State, or she just plain lost the plot.
This is the record of her life:-
Louise Helen Norton, b. La Digue, St. Andrew, Grenada 1897, d. 1991.
What Louise might have said or thought, when her son Malcom was shot dead in 1965, twenty-six years before her own death, does not seem to merit any mention.
I caught an excerpt from a compelling new book on the radio this morning. Manning Marable’s ‘Malcolm X – A Life of Reinvention’ can be listened to again here. My ears pricked up when the announcer said that the author had died shortly after it was completed. Well, it must have taken some writing then I thought, but the truth is he died of sarcoidosis in April this year.
The book is an attempt to rewrite the legend of Malcolm X and I understand it has attracted some criticism on that account, being described as an ‘abomination’ and containing ‘serious errors’. And this is where it becomes fascinating. Marable, a Professor at Columbia University, is writing what he believes to be true about his subject. This may not tally with his subject’s truth in his autobiography, or that of all the subsequent biographers, but the veracity, or otherwise, is not what especially interests me. It is what Marable believed happened and the differences between his view and that of others that is engaging in itself.
In the first episode for example, Marable writes about Malcolm X’s mother, Louise Little. The mother of 7 children with Earl Little, Malcom’s father (Malcom was the fourth child), Louise’s story was terrible to hear as Marable writes it.
After Earl is killed, officially in a streetcar accident although rumour persisted that it was at the hands of racists, Louise survives with her 7 children in penury. She becomes pregnant and, after giving birth to her eighth child, loses her mind and is committed to a mental institution for 24 years.
Marable paints a pitiful scene: before Christmas she is found barefoot in the street, wandering, clutching her illegitimate baby to her breast…
And, with a little further research the different truths tumble out. Malcolm was ashamed of his mother’s mental illness and rarely visited her, Malcom and his siblings strived to finally gain her freedom after 24 years, Louise treated Malcolm differently because his skin was paler than his siblings (Louise’s father was a white man who raped her mother), Malcolm felt his mother had betrayed his dead father by becoming pregnant by another man. There’s plenty of room for reinvention there alright.
I wonder what Louise Little’s book would have said about it.