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.’
I have been re-reading this book by Stephen King; it’s part memoir, part writing manual – if there could ever be such a thing. At the end he describes the accident that nearly killed him. A Dodge pick-up truck hit him by the side of the road – he was lucky he survived. I first read the book absolutely yonks ago – certainly before I had the children. Some of it stayed with me – more, in fact, now I read it again, than I realised. Things like, ‘only God gets it right first time’ and the idea that you have to put the first draft in a drawer. Oh yes. You walk away from it…. for like, six weeks minimum…
I had to buy ‘On Writing’ again, to read it again. (I substituted a pronoun there, the master himself would be proud.) I had to buy another copy of the book because the first copy is long since gone.
I am glad I did
I have spent today wading through my own writing treacle. Trying to make something out of not very much. Strangely, I think I have. To misquote another writer, I have applied the seat of my pants to a chair which is all writing is, after all, unless you are Philip Roth – who stands up. Anyway, after more than twelve hours at it, I finally hit something like a groove and now I don’t want to leave it. The marathon culminated with me writing the single most upsetting scene that I have ever tackled. I didn’t know I was going to do it, it just turned up in the narrative. Let me assure you, this happening in non-fiction is very unnerving. But it fits well with King’s idea that storytelling is simply uncovering a fossil – he believes it (the story – more pronoun fixing up there) is already waiting for you in the ground – you just have to brush the dust and dirt away to reveal it.
I don’t especially care for the kind of genre fiction that King turns out and has made his money writing, but I’d bet my last stake that it’s bloody well written, and ‘On Writing’ the man is on the money.