Philosopher or Dog? by Hilton Als

BOMB 41 Fall 1992
Issue 41 041  Fall 1992

I should like so much to begin with an idea, would you mind? This idea—it concerns the definition of one or two words. Some words are defined by the exigencies of time. And generally words defined by their epoch become very stupid words. The words currently defining our epoch are otherness and difference. Appropriate definitions of these words are “beside the point” and “never mind.” Those definitions—they must stick. And why? Because writers of a color who find their expression—so called—in their “otherness” and “difference,” do so in a manner comfortable to the legions who buy their work not to read them, but because these writers confirm the nonideas stupid people assume about “otherness” and “difference”—two words which define privilege in the epoch of some.

If pressed by the thumb of thought, where does the idea of this “otherness” and “difference” come from? It is an acquired habit really. One learns it in infancy, sitting on the knee of someone—perhaps Mom—who may not be unlike oneself in a respect: her appearance. Appearances speak not of themselves but of preceding generations and the haunting of each subsequent one with: Because I appear, not unlike you, we are each other. What folly! The belief that the dimensions of some mother’s mask, say, fitting—becoming—one’s physiognomy is one’s self. What manipulation! To appropriate her mask of a different sex (if you are a boy), a different generation (if you are a child), so experientially different (if you are a person), because experience is an awful thing. Truly, who loves it? In order not to have it—experience—we do a number of things, chief among them speaking to stupid people who can not possibly understand us. How slimily we creep toward them—on our bellies, masks intact, the better to make our way toward the inconvenient places their ignorant experience hides—in their armpit, in their speech, in their sex, the last being, for many, experience in toto.

The cowardly experience of applying that mother’s mask, say, to protect or define oneself. How easily this is done! We apply her mask to get us through a world we do not understand wherein we embrace the experience of people who can not understand us. We accomplish this brand of retarded experience by nursing her words through the tit of her experience. Are we less lonely because of it? In X situation, Mother does exactly as I would have done. Mother says. And I am so much like her, et cetera. What if all this were simply untrue? What if one were to remove oneself from the lap of comfort—the comfort of identification with Mom? It is never done. One fears the isolation of one’s own language so much one upholsters Mom and others like her in the blind fabric of others-like-myself.

These others-like-myself. What does their mask of piety yield? For those who write but do not care to dissect the mask—let alone its expression of piety—it yields a career. This career is celebrated by people who define an epoch with one or two words. Their world comprised of one or two words—in which they support writers of a color who do not challenge their privilege by writing against it. These writers are limited to becoming those one or two words—other and different. What can this mean? It does not mean writing. These writers are killed by their acceptance. This acceptance is a form of control, as it has always been, for generations.

When these writers of a color are embraced—it is wrong. The world is too quick to celebrate their wearing of the mask of piety, behind which they sit, writing nothing. These writers of a color often center on the figure of Mom, say, as a symbol of piety—she of an oppressed race, depressed sex, and the bad men who didn’t love her and how meek and self-sacrificing she was and what shape her mask of piety took and just how big her lap was—which the child, the writer, knew the measure of because of crapping in it. Once Mom is crapped upon, she is never wondered about or cared for again because she’s beside the point; she’s Mom and a symbol of all one would like to get away from in this common world. Which is one reason a career is struggled for in the first place: to get away from all the true and infinitely more horrible stories Mom could tell about how she came to wear the mask of piety in the first place. This mask of piety—it is the one thing standing between her children and death. Yes sir, yes ma’am, she says from behind the mask. And, with eyes lowered, Please sir, do not kill my children. And with breasts exposed, We will not take too much. And in the bile of a tearful farewell: Children, please do not reach toward the world that despises you because it despises me.

Regardless of what mother says, everyone reaches toward this world, everyone, and when it burns the only thing standing between you and this burning death is the idea of others like myself—a wall that protects. Writers of a color write stupidly on this wall of race for the approval of people who, in granting their approval, may decide not to kill you. If these people decide not to kill you, something must be compromised, given up. Generally, what is compromised is one’s voice. That voice—it is all a writer has. People do not ask to claim this voice outright—one way in which they are not stupid. They acquire it slowly: at drinking parties and over the telephone to discuss the drinking party of the night before and at dinner and the walk following dinner, under the glare of gossip dinner chat generates, and in the feigned intimacy of shared experience. That experience—it is found in the armpit and has been described at length before. It is so dreary, the scenario people of a color follow as they live out an experience they believe to be intimate. This experience generally amounts to: Let me wear the mask of my mother, the mask of piety, generosity, and forbearance, for you. The “you” to whom all this is addressed—it is almost never to another person of color. That would be too much. If that mask were understood—one would be forced to speak from behind it and the fake piety, generosity, and forbearance one has used to get what one needs: feigned intimacy, the armpit not of a color.

Perhaps Mom knows all of this. What Mom knows: people look up on this mask with affection, especially as it stutters: Yes sir, yes ma’am. This humiliation—it is so familiar and colored, one kills oneself in it, especially in the world of intimacy wherein we speak to people who cannot understand us, hoping they are not colored beneath all that ignorance.

Does Mom protect and nurture her child in the hope that the child remains “open” to experience? Or to a career? Or to fill her lap? In the end, no one can say, but I would like to so much anyway: What Mom wants is for her child’s life not to be loveless and to have some fortitude and be capable of calling a thing stupid if it is so, not behind a mask, oh no, and without fear of death.

But I digress.

Past the ostensible subject, Mrs. Louise Little.

In writing Mrs. Louise Little, I digress even further. For in writing her name do you not see what I become? My intention? I become a writer of a color complicit with another—Malcolm X—who will compromise any understanding of her for a career. This career—it is a handful of dust in the end. One may fixate on it as if it were not. Presumably, this career safeguards one from having to regard one’s face and the mask behind it, which reveals, truly, what is in the mind and the quality of what is in the mind. When this mask cracks—underneath it, that is writing. How little it is done! Is The Autobiography of Malcolm X on Mrs. Little writing? “My mother, who was born in the British West Indies, looked like a white woman. Her father was white. She had straight black hair and her accent did not sound like a Negro’s” (Autobiography, 2). What beauty in the sentence “she had straight black hair and her accent did not sound like a Negro’s!” Enough beauty to undoubtedly provoke nonthought: no complexity whatsoever, just Mom as the symbol of her son’s career-to-be: reverence of people not of a color.

Could any critical analysis of Mrs. Little substantiated by biographical fact bear up to “My mother … looked like a white woman”? No, it could not. Unless one’s sense of competition as a writer of a color in relation to another—Malcolm X—were very keen on representing Mrs. Little as something other than a nearly colorless vision. Since practically any audience will make me a writer of a color solely and, as such, I am meant to suffer, I will gladly undertake the gargantuan task of remaking Mrs. Little. But how? And according to whose specifications? Shall I begin with the hatred and self-hatred Malcolm projected on to his mother’s face— “My mother … looked like a white woman … I looked like my mother”—while remembering my own (at times) hatred toward Mother? How shall I “capture” Mrs. Little? As an abhorrent phantom eventually driven mad by her ghostly, non-colored half? What if one were to write of her not as a mother at all, but as Louise, adrift in Grenada, in the then British West Indies—a part of this common world my own mother knew well enough to escape. To write of Louise’s crepe de chine dress—her only one—limping as she eventually made her way to America—are these facts? Did she see her future in the stars—the murder of her husband by men not of color; the murder of her son by men perhaps of a color; her not-gradual slide into madness following her husband’s death and the removal of her children to one foster home or another? Why could she not save them? Didn’t she know obeah? She was so alone. Was her life more horrible than Malcolm’s? And if so, why did she not make the world pay for it, like Malcolm? Was she lonelier than Malcolm, living in this common world? She was not lonelier than Malcolm, living in this common world. Malcolm lived less for other people than he did for power. His mother had no choice but to live for other people, being first a woman and then a mother. She was not alone long enough to know herself, emigrating, as she did, from Grenada to Canada, where she met Earl Little, “an itinerant minister,” whom she married and settled with, finally, in Lansing, Michigan, in western America. No one knew just how young she was before she went to Canada. No one knew just how young she was before she met Earl Little. In Canada, what did Earl Little preach as an “itinerant” minister? Was Louise Little charmed by his speech? Was it as mad as Malcolm’s? Was Earl Little charmed by Louise Little’s crepe de chine dress—her only one—as he limped through the provinces, preaching what? No one knew what Louise Little’s presence would mean to the United States, its future. Her emigrating to the States—it is never explained let alone described in the Autobiography. She exists in the Autobiography to give birth to Malcolm, go mad, and look nearly colorless. What did Louise feel, growing up in Grenada? What did Louise feel in America? She came from Grenada, in the West Indies, and its green limes, sub-bitter people, the blue sea and sense, garnered from her family, that the yellowness of her skin raised her above having to don the mask of piety. Being yellow in the West Indies—what does it mean? It is a kind of elevated status based on folly. This folly began in the minds of those who contributed to the creation of this yellow skin. It began: Those smart-mouthed coloreds who want to come into this house where they will learn to hate darkness and the dark ones who remain in the sun, please come in. The stupid people—no, the Masters—who offered this up: They created another race within the colored race when they invited those dark ones in: the Yellows. The meaning of the Yellows to people in the West Indies is this: Their external self calls up hatred, self-hatred, and contempt in the dark; pity and scorn in the non-dark.

People not of a color who “loved” the Autobiography in the main, are not different from the non-colored people Louise Little was born to. Since we know so little about these people, we have to assume what Bruce Perry says about one pivotal person is true: Louise “had never seen her Scottish father.” Had Louise Little’s father read his grandson’s book, I am certain he would have loved it. I am certain of this because for someone neither Earl nor Malcolm knew, Mrs. Little’s Scottish father commanded so much attention. The success of a thing is best measured by the attention men pay it. The non-colored ghost that is Louise Little’s father hovers happily in the Autobiography. That is because he commands the attention of the living ghosts who read this book and love it, not knowing why. They love it because of Grandfather. He is what Malcolm’s non-colored readers identify with—a power. He is what Earl and Malcolm identified with—a power. Earl and Malcolm speak of no one else with such passion. Earl Little is reported to have said to his parents, on the occasion of Malcolm’s birth: “It’s a boy, … But he’s white, just like mama!” Malcolm is reported to have said to his collaborator, Alex Haley: “Of this white father of hers I know nothing except her shame about it” (Autobiography, 2). What is Louise reported to have said about her own father? I do not know. And of Louise’s “shame?” Did she ever describe it as that? And to a child? Malcolm said: “I remember hearing her say she was glad that she had never seen him. It was, of course, because of him that I … was the lightest child in our family” (Autobiography, 2). Was Louise Little glad not to have seen her father for reasons other than his skin not of a color? Was she glad not to have seen him so as to imagine him as dead as her unfortunate mother who died “giving birth to the last of her three illegitimate children?” Was Louise Little glad not to have seen him because she was frightened by Malcolm’s more than physical resemblance to her father’s side of the family? Did Malcolm want to be non-colored, too? He had so much ambition—was it genetic? And his need for love on his own terms. From whom did he learn that he need not ask for it? Grandfather? Grandfather did not wear the mask of piety. In order not to wear it, one must believe in oneself to the exclusion of other people. Malcolm believed in the reality of his experience to the exclusion of all other reality except one: Grandfather, who was a ghost.

Earl and Malcolm attached themselves to Louise’s male, non-colored half. Louise did not have to meet her father. Earl and Malcolm lived him by competing with his ghost at every turn. Is that why Earl loved Louise? Because she looked like the memory of someone he might have loved before her? Had Earl known non-colored people he thought beautiful at one time or another? As a preacher who “[roamed] about spreading the word of Marcus Garvey” (Autobiography, 3) in Omaha or one place and another, did Earl spot someone with Louise Little’s father’s red hair, blue eyes, and long before knowing Louise, think that person beautiful? Was that person with red hair and blue eyes kind to Earl Little? Did they feed him a cool drink of water with their own hands by the side of some road time has forgotten? When he met Louise, did he find her to be the living embodiment of a memory, which is to say, was Louise Little that cool drink of water in that non-colored hand which did not lie to Earl Little? Admittedly this cool water slipping through a non-colored hand past Earl Little’s lips and onto the side of a side road—it would have been a remarkable thing to see outdoors in Omaha, Nebraska, in the late 1920s. It would not have been a remarkable thing to have happened secretly, in America, ever. Did Earl really want Louise’s father? Malcolm holds Louise Little’s father responsible for his mangled consciousness: “ … I was among the millions of Negroes who were insane enough to feel that it was some kind of status symbol to be light-complexioned. But … later, I learned to hate every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me” (Autobiography, 2). I am sure Malcolm did not mean that literally. First of all, how do we know Louise Little’s mother was raped? How do we know that Louise Little’s mother—who is not mentioned in the Autobiography at all—did not love Louise’s father? In my mind’s eye I see Louise Little’s parents meeting on the side of a road in Grenada. Mrs. Little’s mother—she is on foot Mrs. Little’s father—he is not. What he is: red in the red sun and on a horse. There is the sound of crickets. There is the sound of a mongoose’s stuttering run. In pausing to look at one another, they do not pause to consider the eventual outcome of their meeting: Louise Little, Louise Little in America, Louise Little in America with Malcolm.

Does history believe in itself as it happens? Malcolm wrote, “I feel definitely that just as my father favored me for being lighter … my mother gave me more hell for the same reason. She was very light herself … I am sure that she treated me this way partly because of how she came to be light.” Which was? “Her father” (Autobiography, 7–8). The judgmental air emanating from the above! The judgmental air that comes with knowing nothing! If Malcolm were in the least her mother’s son, he would know that in the West Indies a father is an immaterial thing—a scrap of man born as torment. Louise Little knew that. Perhaps Louise Little’s lack of interest in her father was cultural. Malcolm knew nothing of his mother’s culture. Instead, Malcolm preferred to indulge in the fantasy of Grandfather, his “rape.” That is all Malcolm cared to know of his mother’s past or all that was useful to him about his mother’s past. It is clear Malcolm indulged in this potential fantasy of Grandfather as rapist because it endowed Grandfather with the power Malcolm needed to emulate in order to learn how to take and take in this common world.

Mrs. Little was “smarter” than Mr. Little. How much did Malcolm hate knowing that? He hated the fact of his mother’s smartness because he admired it. He admired his mother’s mind in the way he admired most things—with loathing and fear, if he couldn’t control it. What Mrs. Little is in the Autobiography: representative of Malcolm’s fear that because he and Mom shared a face, he and Mom shared “different” intelligence. Was Louise Little’s smartness the precursor of her madness?

Malcolm felt envy for Mrs. Little’s “smartness.” Was his expression of this envy only for himself or for his father, too? “My mother and father … seemed to be nearly always at odds. Sometimes my father would beat her. It might have had something to do with the fact that my mother had a pretty good education” (Autobiography, 4). Malcolm said, “An educated woman, I suppose, can’t resist the temptation to correct an uneducated man. Every now and then when she [my mother] put those smooth words on him [my father], he would grab her” (Autobiography, 4). Is this not mad? Being smart—it made Mrs. Little feel so different. It made my mother silent so as not to feel different. Did Mrs. Little ask, by speaking, to be punished? Is that how she lost her mind, really? The famous photograph of Malcolm standing at a window in his house with a gun in his hand—I believe he is on the lookout for his mother. What did he see, looking out that window? Did he see his mother’s quite appropriate anger? Based on the fact that in the Autobiography he refers to her as Louise and in Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, Bruce Perry refers to her as Louisa? What was her name? Her date of birth? What parish was she born in Grenada? When Malcolm looked out that window, did he see his mother holding a diary? What was written in it? Mrs. Little (as I call her) did not write: He did not know my name. He could not bear my presence. What did Mrs. Little write? I had a son named Malcolm? Mrs. Little did not write anything. I am writing her anger for her and therefore myself since I hate the non-writing I have done about my own mother. The fact is, my non-writing couldn’t contain my mother’s presence. The fact is, Malcolm knew his non-writing couldn’t support Mrs. Little. My mother’s presence showed my non-writing up. I am writing the idea of Mrs. Little with, I hope, some authenticity, in the hope that every fake word, idea, gesture, lie, I ever told about my mother and others like her will vanish.

Therein lies the paradox of trying to create an autobiography Mrs. Little can inhabit. Since I am not capable of writing about my mother, how can I honor Mrs. Little? I did not know her. How did I not know my mother? What I know: Malcolm’s interest in his mother is evident in his avoidance. In one of his typically Johnsonian sentences, Malcolm writes of the effect his father’s death had on her, but only as it affected him: “We began to go quickly downhill. The physical downhill wasn’t as quick as the psychological. My mother was, above everything else, a proud woman, and it took its toll on her that she was accepting charity. And her feelings were communicated to us” (Autobiography, 12). I cannot break Mrs. Little’s heart by not at least trying to imagine what the emotional truth of the following might have meant to her. “ … I remember waking up to the sound of my Mother’s screaming again … My father’s skull, on one side, was crushed in, I was told later … Negroes in Lansing [the town they lived in then] have always whispered that he was attacked, and then laid across some tracks for a streetcar to run over him. His body was almost cut in half” (Autobiography, 10).

Mrs. Little was in her early thirties when her husband was murdered for “political” reasons. Earl Little was a Garveyite. Marcus Garvey was a native of Jamaica. Mrs. Little was a native of Grenada. I do not know what Mrs. Little’s political beliefs were. Were they the same as Earl Little’s? Earl Little’s being a Garveyite—was this the result of Mrs. Little’s political influence? Her being West Indian? This is just one more thing Malcolm did not speak of: Mrs. Little’s politics.

Mrs. Little lost her mind for political reasons, in a sense. When Mrs. Little lost her mind, she was not quite ready not to believe in love, the bed empty of her mortal enemy (according to Malcolm), whom she loved (according to Malcolm) and with whom she lived first in Canada and then Omaha and then Michigan. I am sure Mrs. Little was not quite ready for a space in her mind to be filled with unconquerable grief and madness. I am sure Mrs. Little did not want to see her children parceled off to one foster home or another. A young woman in her early thirties, her husband dead, with no means of support for herself and with eight children. What did Malcolm make of that? What do I make of that? I cannot bear to imagine unravelling my mother, her hair, her retribution. There is my mother—what to make of her? What to make of Mrs. Little? What to make of these questions? Will they always be at the fore of my consciousness? Is Mom all one will ever have to say who one is or care what one will become? It is difficult to forgive Mom for having to shoulder this responsibility alone as precious few pay attention to her language. It is difficult to forgive the world for not being a place conducive to this complexity. It is not difficult to produce non-writing that rejects Mom as too great a reality.

American people of a color who “loved” the Autobiography. The Autobiography plays out the violence of their feelings toward the colored immigrant. Once Malcolm has identified his mother as an immigrant in his book, it is impossible not to see her at a remove. That is the true nature of difference: something stupidly defined so as to be controlled. When American people of a color look at this photograph of Malcolm, gun in hand, and cheer, it is because they believe he is looking for his mother, too. People like Mrs. Little only make Americans feel difference among themselves. Mrs. Little’s appearance is not a comfort; her story is not a comfort; her place of birth is not a comfort. She is a woman of color, but different. Malcolm represented an intolerance of this difference, and for a very long time. Malcolm says his mother was different at every turn: “She would go into Lansing and find different jobs—in housework, or sewing—for white people. They didn’t realize, usually, that she was a Negro … Once when one of us … had to go for something to where she was working, and the people saw us, and realized she was actually a Negro, she was fired on the spot, and she came home crying, this time not hiding it” (Autobiography, 12). And “Louise Little, my mother, who was born in Grenada, in the British West Indies, looked like a white woman.”

In the countries they emigrate from, West Indians of a color are in the majority. They project the arrogance and despair that comes with this sense of being central but small onto everything and everyone else in the world. Everyone else in the world counters this arrogance by defining it as that—especially American people of color. They do so because they are Americans first and prefer to exclude the complexity inherent in imagining what despair means to someone else and how that despair may shape arrogance. Arrogance is a theatrical device, and self-protective. The West Indians I grew up with employed this arrogance to mask their feeling less than most things and seeing their less feeling everywhere. This feeling does not exclude one’s relationship to people of a color.

For example: Many West Indians I know regard most American people not of a color as ghosts. A ghost weighs on one’s consciousness at times but is not a constant. West Indians are generally not ambivalent about the relationship one must establish with these ghosts: West Indians believe in ghosts. One takes from these ghosts what one must: warnings given in dreams and one’s waking life, so as to live as profitably in the real world as possible. For American people of a color, these ghosts are made real through their renting of other people’s blood—the blood, specifically, of American people of a color. This blood it feeds their “double consciousness,” as Du Bois termed it. This double-consciousness is not so much the “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body,” Du Bois wrote of but, rather, hatred of people not of a color and their reverence of this hatred.

My grandmother, a native of Barbados, was a Royalist. She did not grow up in a “free” Barbados but in a Barbados not so different from the Grenada Louise Little emigrated from. Both islands were in the same commonwealth—British—which meant both islands were the province of Royals who sold their subjects the sense that wearing the mask of piety was identity.

My grandmother refused to accept that description of herself by believing she was not of any color. She was as wrong in this as she was in her belief the world would ignore the fact she was a woman. To forget herself and what she perceived as the hideousness of her reality; she ignored her children who were women, and their children, who were dark. Not unlike Louise Little, my grandmother was Yellow. In my mind’s eye I can see my grandmother now. She is wearing her crepe de chine dress—her only one—and sits, as she often did, with her legs spread, smelling not of limes but of something equally bitter. Because I am not Yellow, my grandmother encouraged me not to play in the sun. Often she said I had the look of someone who was covered in germs. My color—it was an illness to her. Was Malcolm’s color an illness to his mother? “I feel definitely that just as my father favored me for being lighter … my mother gave me more hell for the same reason.” My grandmother emulated so many Royalist tendencies. She had so little to rule, though. There were no mountains, colonies, or large groups of smartmouthed coloreds to whom she could say shut up. There was just my little self who hated her for this so much I wrote this hatred down so as not to forget it. Like Malcolm. My version of an Autobiography would be just as mad as his, but more so, since it is difficult for me to speak this madness. Like my mother. Like Louise Little.

Most people from the island I know best—Barbados—believed in the attainment of property as a citadel against the influx of the ghosts and the memory of not being better than anyone—not the Yellows, not anyone except most Americans of color who did not have anything because most things were so painfully real to them, they were unreal. Like love among themselves, the cracking of the mask of piety.

Did Louise Little beg Mr. Little to work harder than was possible to attain property that might protect her children against the ghost who eventually murdered him because of his Garveyist preachings? Could Earl Little not attain this dream of protection? Theirs was a mixed marriage, in every sense. There was such a difference in their cultures. There is no photograph of that difference. There is just Malcolm’s memory of this difference which he hated—a hatred that became his career. Did Mr. Little wear a mask of piety familiar to Mrs. Little, given her ghostly non-colored half? Did she pull rank with her yellow skin, which Malcolm hated as much as he hated his own? Mrs. Little is one long sentence that is a question.

For not writing any of that outright but sneaking in bits about his hatred of Mom just the same; for transferring his hatred of Mom’s light skin onto a race of people he deemed mad because their skin was lighter than Mom’s and, therefore, madder still, Malcolm was rewarded. He was rewarded by very stupid people who labelled his ideologically twisted tongue “marvelous.”

Stupid Americans define their epoch and defend their privilege through one or two words. These words generally connote the sublime in order to bear the truth of what is being said. Americans distrust knowledge if it is presented as empirical—a fear of the “European.” Since the root function of language is to control the world through describing it and most Americans are embarrassed by their will to do so, language is made palpable by being nice. Americans defend this niceness by declaring it makes language more social. Language, no matter how stupid, always leaves someone out. That is because an idea belongs first to an individual and not a public.

The word “marvelous” was a word popular in the 1930s through the early 1970s, not least because of Diana Vreeland and Delmore Schwartz, and not least because Diana Vreeland and Delmore Schwartz were connected to two powerful industries that propagated the idea of the marvelous and “genius”—the fashion industry and the university. For Schwartz, the author who delineated manners in a book—say, Proust—was marvelous. Or one should marvel at the author’s ability to represent manners, separate from the issue of class, as a way of describing a moral code either in decline or ascendence. For Vreeland the thought was the same but as it was expressed on the body: its look. Since Malcolm was lauded in Vogue for telling people not of a color that their faces and bodies were ugly, and since Malcolm was a treasured speaker at universities where he said he and others like himself would one day blow privilege out from between their student ears, he was taken by the marvelous—just as those people in fashion and at universities were taken by Malcolm’s not tolerating their difference. They applauded and supported this in him because it reinforced their privilege.

As Malcolm became more famous, Mrs. Little was diminished by the loving glare of his publicity. That publicity—did it love him more than any mother could? In the Autobiography, he describes this love of publicity in great detail and with more fervor than he ever describes Mrs. Little: “LifeLookNewsweek, and Time reported us [the Nation of Islam]. Some newspaper chains began to run not one story but a series of three, four, or five ‘exposures’ of the Nation of Islam. The Reader’s Digest, with its worldwide circulation of 24 million copies in 13 languages carried an article titled ‘Mr. Muhammad Speaks,’ … and that led off another major monthly magazine’s coverage of us.” (Autobiography, 244)

Us against them. The them to whom Malcolm refers—that was Mrs. Little. She exists not at all during this period. Malcolm visited her from “time to time” in the state mental hospital at Kalamazoo, where she was committed—by whom?—for 26 years. She existed there, Malcolm says, in “a pitiful state” as her son became more and more famous. What was her bed like in that institution? What did Malcolm speak of to this woman? Did other inmates call her Madame X or Mrs. Little? When he saw her face did he see his own? Did she slap him? “She didn’t recognize me at all … Her mind, when I tried to talk, was somewhere else … She said, staring, ‘All the people have gone’” (Autobiography, 21). Gone where? Malcolm did not ask. Did he attempt to convert her? Was it too late? Had she become a Jehovah’s Witness? She could not speak. Did anyone place a sheet of paper before her? A pencil? She did not write the book we need. This book—it is already forgotten. Mrs. Little survived her son—insane, by all accounts, but she survived him. Did she read his book? Did she find herself missing? Did she consider writing her own? Presumably, writers of a color have one story—the mask of piety, Mom and what have you. Did Mrs. Little believe her son’s book could not be surpassed? Did she ever possess the confidence to believe she could smash that piety by writing it down? She was a mother, and therefore responsible for the life of her children, one of whom did write her life down but for himself, not her, and in scraps, and incorrectly.

The Autobiography has everything very stupid people embrace—the mother driven mad by her husband’s murder, the dust of patriarchy, religious conversion into the sublime—and yet it has nothing. The Autobiography—how can it be rewritten? This question—it must not be mistaken as a deconstructionist ploy, oh no. We mean to create an autobiography rich in emotional fibre, with love of God and children and Mrs. Little and so forth.

As a model, the Autobiography can be used. Mrs. Little’s autobiography has some potential for success if we use her son’s book as a model. Think of Manchild in the Promised Land. That is the Autobiography of the Streets, but without the religious conversion. If The Autobiography of Malcolm X were written by Mrs. Little, it is certain it would not be the same book. Louise Little would not be capable of writing nothing. She was a mother. Consider Louise Little’s story inside the model of the Autobiography, the book we need. In her son’s book, the beginning is written this way:

Chapter One: Nightmare

When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them she was alone with her three small children and that my father was away … . (Autobiography, 1).

If Louise were to speak this, how would it be written? Must one remember one’s own mother to reconstruct Louise Little’s Chapter One: Nightmare, point by point? Would Louise Little write: Can you see me from a description? Was I fat? When I opened the door to those men, did it appear to them that I ate empty food? In a fat body—did I appear self-sufficient to some, a mountain of solace to my husband and children as they took and took? Did I require nothing? Will I go mad requiring nothing still?

To construct Mrs. Little point by point—would an “honest” approach be to transplant my mother’s emotional history in her story? Speaking for herself—that is what I mean Mrs. Little to do. Speaking for myself—that is what I mean to do, too. What will this make of me? A boy who speaks (badly) for women—the too-familiar story? There is Mrs. Little in the British West Indies. There she is in the hot sun. There she is before she became a mother for her children. There she is as a young girl with broad feet curled in grey or yellow sand. There she is in America with feet curled in bad shoes too small for her broad feet. There she is dead, lying upon the verbal catafalques created by her son Malcolm and me. There are Mrs. Little’s sons, of which I am one, with their experience, wearing masks of piety as they sit in their mother’s death, resembling every inch of her face, speaking loudly, hating everything, writing nothing.

Hilton Als is a staff writer for The Village Voice. His work also appears in The Nation and The New Yorker. This essay is excerpted from his forthcoming book, Three Books of the Negress (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Hilton Als by Coco Fusco
 Hilton Als 1
From our Spring Issue: Melissa Febos by Sarah Neilson
Photo of the author Melissa Febos

In her latest book, Girlhood, the essayist examines her own coming of age and finding the words to forge a new self.

Pessimism Is More Inclusive: Porochista Khakpour Interviewed by Myriam Gurba
Brown Album Burnt Orange

The writer on her new book Brown Album, personal essays, camp as armor, the hyperreal, and designing her own Barbie.

Self and Community: Billy Gerard Frank Interviewed by Katy Diamond Hamer
Billy Gerard Frank1

Exploring Grenada’s past and present.

Originally published in

BOMB 41, Fall 1992

Featuring interviews with Richard Tuttle, Television, Anna Deveare Smith, Jessica Stockholder, YoYo, Donna Tartt, Gregg Araki, Ron Vawter, Lillian Lee, Fabian Marcaccio, and Robbie McCauley.

Read the issue
Issue 41 041  Fall 1992