On June twenty-seventh of that year, nineteen thirty-seven, Joe Louis knocked out James J. Braddock to become the heavyweight champion of the world. And all the Negroes in Lansing, like Negroes everywhere, went wildly happy with the greatest celebration of race pride our generation had ever known. Every Negro boy old enough to walk wanted to be the next Brown Bomber. My brother Philbert, who had already become a pretty good boxer in school, was no exception. (I was trying to play basketball. I was gangling and tall, but I wasn’t very good at it-too awkward.) In the fall of that year, Philbert entered the amateur bouts that were held in Lansing’s Prudden Auditorium.
He did well, surviving the increasingly tough eliminations. I would go down to the gym and watch him train. It was very exciting. Perhaps without realizing it I became secretly envious; for one thing, I know I could not help seeing some of my younger brother Reginald’s lifelong admiration for me getting siphoned off to Philbert.
People praised Philbert as a natural boxer. I figured that since we belonged to the same family, maybe I would become one, too. So I put myself in the ring. I think I was thirteen when I signed up for my first bout, but my height and rawboned frame let me get away with claiming that I was sixteen, the minimum age-and my weight of about 128 pounds got me classified as a bantamweight.
They matched me with a white boy, a novice like myself, named Bill Peterson. I’ll never forget him. When our turn in the next amateur bouts came up, all of my brothers and sisters were 24 there watching, along with just about everyone else I knew in town. They were there not so much because of me but because of Philbert, who had begun to build up a pretty good following, and they wanted to see how his brother would do.
I walked down the aisle between the people thronging the rows of seats, and climbed in the ring. Bill Peterson and I were introduced, and then the referee called us together and mumbled all of that stuff about fighting fair and breaking clean. Then the bell rang and we came out of our corners. I knew I was scared, but I didn’t know, as Bill Peterson told me later on, that he was scared of me, too. He was so scared I was going to hurt him that he knocked me down fifty times if he did once.
He did such a job on my reputation in the Negro neighborhood that I practically went into hiding. A Negro just can’t be whipped by somebody white and return with his head up to the neighborhood, especially in those days, when sports and, to a lesser extent show business, were the only fields open to Negroes, and when the ring was the only place a Negro could whip a white man and not be lynched. When I did show my face again, the Negroes I knew rode me so badly I knew I had to do something.
But the worst of my humiliations was my younger brother Reginald’s attitude: he simply never mentioned the fight. It was the way he looked at me-and avoided looking at me. So I went back to the gym, and I trained-hard. I beat bags and skipped rope and grunted and sweated all over the place. And finally I signed up to fight Bill Peterson again. This time, the bouts were held in his hometown of Alma, Michigan.
The only thing better about the rematch was that hardly anyone I knew was there to see it; I was particularly grateful for Reginald’s absence. The moment the bell rang, I saw a fist, then the canvas coming up, and ten seconds later the referee was saying “Ten!” over me. It was probably the shortest “fight” in history. I lay there listening to the full count, but I couldn’t move. To tell the truth, I’m not sure I wanted to move.
That white boy was the beginning and the end of my fight career. A lot oftunes in these later years since I became a Muslim, I’ve thought back to that fight and reflected that it was Allah’s work to stop me: I might have wound up punchy.
Not long after this, I came into a classroom with my hat on. I did it deliberately. The teacher, who was white, ordered me to keep the hat on, and to walk around and around the room until he told me to stop. “That way,” he said, “everyone can see you. Meanwhile, we’ll go on with class for those who are here to learn something.”
I was still walking around when he got up from his desk and turned to the blackboard to write something on it. Everyone in the classroom was looking when, at this moment, I passed behind his desk, snatched up a thumbtack and deposited it in his chair. When he turned to sit back down, I was far from the scene of the crime, circling around the rear of the room. Then he hit the tack, and I heard him holler and caught a glimpse of him spraddling up as I disappeared through the door.
With my deportment record, I wasn’t really shocked when the decision came that I had been expelled.
I guess I must have had some vague idea that if I didn’t have to go to school, I’d be allowed to stay on with the Gohannases and wander around town, or maybe get a job if I wanted one for pocket money. But I got rocked on my heels when a state man whom I hadn’t seen before came and got me at the Gohannases’ and took me down to court.
They told me I was going to go to a reform school. I was still thirteen years old.
But first I was going to the detention home. It was in Mason, Michigan, about twelve miles from Lansing. The detention home was where all the “bad” boysand girls from Ingham County were held, on their way to reform school-waiting for their hearings.
The white state man was a Mr. Maynard Allen. He was nicer to me than most of the state Welfare people had been. He even had consoling words for the Gohannases and Mrs. Adcock and Big Boy; all of them were crying. But I wasn’t. With the few clothes I owned stuffed into a box, we rode in his car to Mason. He talked as he drove along, saying that my school marks showed that if I would just straighten up, I could make something of myself. He said that reform school had the wrong reputation; he talked about what the word “reform” meant-to change and become better. He said the school was really a place where boys like me could have time to see their mistakes and start a new life and become somebody everyone would be proud of. And he told me that the lady in charge of the detention home, a Mrs. Swerlin, and her husband were very good people.
They were good people. Mrs. Swerlin was bigger than her husband, I remember, a big, buxom, robust, laughing woman, and Mr. Swerlin was thin, with black hair, and a black mustache and a red face, quiet and polite, even to me.
They liked me right away, too. Mrs. Swerlin showed me to my room, my own room-the first in my life. It was in one of those huge dormitory-tike buildings where kids in detention were kept in those days-and still are in most places. I discovered next, with surprise, that I was allowed to eat with the Swerlins. It was the first time I’d eaten with white people-at least with grown white people-since the Seventh Day Adventist country meetings. It wasn’t my own exclusive privilege, of course. Except for the very troublesome boys and girls at the detention home, who were kept locked up-those who had run away and been caught and brought back, or something like that-all of us ate with the Swerlins sitting at the head of the long tables.
They had a white cook-helper, I recall-Lucille Lathrop. (It amazes me how these names come back, from a time I haven’t thought about for more than twenty years.) Lucille treated me well, too. Her husband’s name was Duane Lathrop. He worked somewhere else, but he stayed there at the detention home on the weekends with Lucille.
I noticed again how white people smelled different from us, and how their food tasted different, not seasoned like Negro cooking. I began to sweep and mop and dust around in the Swerlins’ house, as I had done with Big Boy at the Gohannases’.
They all liked my attitude, and it was out of their liking for me that I soon became accepted by them-as a mascot, I know now. They would talk about anything and everything with me standing right there hearing them, the same way people would talk freely in front of a pet canary. They would even talk about me, or about “niggers,” as though I wasn’t there, as if I wouldn’t understand what the word meant. A hundred times a day, they used the word “nigger.” I suppose that in their own minds, they meant no harm; in fact they probably meant well. It was the same with the cook, Lucille, and her husband, Duane. I remember one day when Mr. Swerlin, as nice as he was, came in from Lansing, where he had been through the Negro section, and said to Mrs. Swerlin right in front of me, “I just can’t see how those niggers can be so happy and be so poor.” He talked about how they lived in shacks, but had those big, shining cars out front.
And Mrs. Swerlin said, me standing right there, “Niggers are just that way. . . .” That scene always stayed with me.
It was the same with the other white people, most of them local politicians, when they would come visiting the Swerlins. One of their favorite parlor topics was “niggers.” One of them was the judge who was in charge of me in Lansing. He was a close friend of the Swerlins. He would ask about me when he came, and they would call me in, and he would look me up and down, his expression approving, like he was examining a fine colt, or a pedigreed pup. I knew they must have told him how I acted and how I worked.
What I am trying to say is that it just never dawned upon them that I could understand, that I wasn’t a pet, but a human being. They didn’t give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position. But it has historically been the case with white people, in their regard for black people, that even though we might be _with_ them, we weren’t considered of them. Even though they appeared to have opened the door, it was still closed. Thus they never did really see _me_.
This is the sort of kindly condescension which I try to clarify today, to these integration-hungry Negroes, about their “liberal” white friends, these so-called “good white people”-most of them anyway. I don’t care how nice one is to you; the thing you must always remember is that almost never does he really see you as he sees himself, as he sees his own kind. He may stand with you through thin, but not thick; when the chips are down, you’ll find that as fixed in him as his bone structure is his sometimes subconscious conviction that he’s better than anybody black.
But I was no more than vaguely aware of anything like that in my detention-home years. I did my little chores around the house, and everything was fine. And each weekend, they didn’t mind my catching a ride over to Lansing for the afternoon or evening. If I wasn’t old enough, I sure was big enough by then, and nobody ever questioned my hanging out, even at night, in the streets of the Negro section.
I was growing up to be even bigger than Wilfred and Philbert, who had begunto meet girls at the school dances, and other places, and introduced me to a few. But the ones who seemed to like me, I didn’t go for-and vice versa. I couldn’t dance a lick, anyway, and I couldn’t see squandering my few dimes on girls. So mostly I pleasured myself these Saturday nights by gawking around the Negro bars and restaurants. The jukeboxes were wailing Erskine Hawkins’ “Tuxedo Junction,” Slim and Slam’s “Flatfoot Floogie,” things like that. Sometimes, big bands from New York, out touring the one-night stands in the sticks, would play for big dances in Lansing. Everybody with legs would come out to see any performer who bore the magic name “New York.” Which is how I first heard Lucky Thompson and Milt Jackson, both of whom I later got to know well in Harlem.
Many youngsters from the detention home, when their dates came up, went off to the reform school. But when mine came up-two or three times-it was always ignored. I saw new youngsters arrive and leave. I was glad and grateful. I knew it was Mrs. Swerlin’s doing. I didn’t want to leave.
She finally told me one day that I was going to be entered in Mason Junior High School. It was the only school in town. No ward of the detention home had ever gone to school there, at least while still a ward. So I entered their seventh grade. The only other Negroes there were some of the Lyons children, younger than I was, in the lower grades. The Lyonses and I, as it happened, were the town’s only Negroes. They were, as Negroes, very much respected. Mr. Lyons was a smart, hardworking man, and Mrs. Lyons was a very good woman. She and my mother, I had heard my mother say, were two of the four West Indians in that whole section of Michigan.
Some of the white kids at school, I found, were even friendlier than some of those in Lansing had been. Though some, including the teachers, called me “nigger,” it was easy to see that they didn’t mean any more harm by it than the Swerlins. As the “nigger” of my class, I was in tact extremely popular-I supposepartly because I was kind of a novelty. I was in demand, I had top priority. But I also benefited from the special prestige of having the seal of approval from that Very Important Woman about the town of Mason, Mrs. Swerlin. Nobody in Mason would have dreamed of getting on the wrong side of her. It became hard for me to get through a school day without someone after me to join this or head up that-the debating society, the Junior High basketball team, or some other extracurricular activity. I never turned them down.
And I hadn’t been in the school long when Mrs. Swerlin, knowing I could use spending money of my own, got me a job after school washing the dishes in a local restaurant. My boss there was the father of a white classmate whom I spent a lot of time with. His family lived over the restaurant. It was fine working there. Every Friday night when I got paid, I’d feel at least ten feet tall. I forget how much I made, but it seemed like a lot. It was the first time I’d ever had any money to speak of, all my own, in my whole life. As soon as I could afford it, I bought a green suit and some shoes, and at school I’d buy treats for the others in my class-at least as much as any of them did for me.
English and history were the subjects I liked most. My English teacher, I recall-a Mr. Ostrowskiwas always giving advice about how to become something in life. The one thing I didn’t like about history class was that the teacher, Mr. Williams, was a great one for “nigger” jokes. One day during my first week at school, I walked into the room and he started singing to the class, as a joke, “‘Way down yonder in the cotton field, some folks say that a nigger won’t steal.” Very funny. I liked history, but I never thereafter had much liking for Mr. Williams. Later, I remember, we came to the textbook section on Negro history. It was exactly one paragraph long. Mr. Williams laughed through it practically in a single breath, reading aloud how the Negroes had been slaves and then were freed, and how they were usually lazy and dumb and shiftless. He added, I remember, an anthropological footnote on his own, telling us between laughs how Negroes’ feet were “so big that when they walk, theydon’t leave tracks, they leave a hole in the ground.”
I’m sorry to say that the subject I most disliked was mathematics. I have thought about it. I think the reason was that mathematics leaves no room for argument. If you made a mistake, that was all there was to it.
Basketball was a big thing in my life, though. I was on the team; we traveled to neighboring towns such as Howell and Charlotte, and wherever I showed my face, the audiences in the gymnasiums “niggered” and “cooned” me to death. Or called me “Rastus.” It didn’t bother my teammates or my coach at all, and to tell the truth, it bothered me only vaguely. Mine was the same psychology that makes Negroes even today, though it bothers them down inside, keep letting the white man tell them how much “progress” they are making. They’ve heard it so much they’ve almost gotten brainwashed into believing it-or at least accepting it.
After the basketball games, there would usually be a school dance. Whenever our team walked into another school’s gym for the dance, with me among them, I could feel the freeze. It would start to ease as they saw that I didn’t try to mix, but stuck close to someone on our team, or kept to myself. I think I developed ways to do it without making it obvious. Even at our own school, I could sense it almost as a physical barrier, that despite all the beaming and smiling, the mascot wasn’t supposed to dance with any of the white girls.
It was some kind of psychic message-not just from them, but also from within myself. I am proud to be able to say that much for myself, at least. I would just stand around and smile and talk and drink punch and eat sandwiches, and then I would make some excuse and get away early.
They were typical small-town school dances. Sometimes a little white band from Lansing would be brought in to play. But most often, the music was a phonograph set up on a table, with the volume turned up high, and the records scratchy, blaring things like Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”-his band was riding high then-or the Ink Spots, who were also very popular, singing “If I Didn’t Care.”
I used to spend a lot of time thinking about a peculiar thing. Many of these Mason white boys, like the ones at the Lansing school-especially if they knew me well, and if we hung out a lot together-would get me off in a corner somewhere and push me to proposition certain white girls, sometimes their own sisters. They would tell me that they’d already had the girls themselves-including their sisters-or that they were trying to and couldn’t. Later on, I came to understand what was going on: If they could get the girls into the position of having broken the terrible taboo by slipping off with me somewhere, they would have that hammer over the girls’ heads, to make them give in to them.
It seemed that the white boys felt that I, being a Negro, just naturally knew more about “romance,” or sex, than they did-that I instinctively knew more about what to do and say with their own girls. I never did tell anybody that I really went for some of the white girls, and some of them went for me, too. They let me know in many ways. But anytime we found ourselves in any close conversations or potentially intimate situations, always there would come up between us some kind of a wall. The girls I really wanted to have were a couple of Negro girls whom Wilfred or Philbert had introduced me to in Lansing. But with these girls, somehow, I lacked the nerve.
From what I heard and saw on the Saturday nights I spent hanging around in the Negro district I knew that race-mixing went on in Lansing. But strangely enough, this didn’t have any kind of effect on me. Every Negro in Lansing, I guess, knew how white men would drive along certain streets in the black neighborhoods and pick up Negro streetwalkers who patrolled the area. And, on the other hand, there was a bridge that separated the Negro and Polishneighborhoods, where white women would drive or walk across and pick up Negro men, who would hang around in certain places close to the bridge, waiting for them. Lansing’s white women, even in those days, were famous for chasing Negro men. I didn’t yet appreciate how most whites accord to the Negro this reputation for prodigious sexual prowess. There in Lansing, I never heard of any trouble about this mixing, from either side. I imagine that everyone simply took it for granted, as I did.
Anyway, from my experience as a little boy at the Lansing school, I had become fairly adept at avoiding the white-girl issue-at least for a couple of years yet.
Then, in the second semester of the seventh grade, I was elected class president. It surprised me even more than other people. But I can see now why the class might have done it. My grades were among the highest in the school. I was unique in my class, like a pink poodle. And I was proud; I’m not going to say I wasn’t. In fact, by then, I didn’t really have much feeling about being a Negro, because I was trying so hard, in every way I could, to be white. Which is why I am spending much of my life today telling the American black man that he’s wasting his time straining to “integrate.” I know from personal experience. I tried hard enough.
“Malcolm, we’re just so _proud_ of you!” Mrs. Swerlin exclaimed when she heard about my election. It was all over the restaurant where I worked. Even the state man, Maynard Allen, who still dropped by to see me once in a while, had a word of praise. He said he never saw anybody prove better exactly what “reform” meant. I really liked him-except for one thing: he now and then would drop something that hinted my mother had let us down somehow.
Fairly often, I would go and visit the Lyonses, and they acted as happy as though I was one of their children. And it was the same warm feeling when I went into Lansing to visit my brothers and sisters, and the Gohannases. I remember one thing that marred this time for me: the movie “Gone with the Wind.” When it played in Mason, I was the only Negro in the theater, and when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug.
Every Saturday, just about, I would go into Lansing. I was going on fourteen, now. Wilfred and Hilda still lived out by themselves at the old family home. Hilda kept the house very clean. It was easier than my mother’s plight, with eight of us always underfoot or running around. Wilfred worked wherever he could, and he still read every book he could get his hands on. Philbert was getting a reputation as one of the better amateur fighters in this part of the state; everyone really expected that he was going to become a professional.
Reginald and I, after my fighting fiasco, had finally gotten back on good terms. It made me feel great to visit him and Wesley over at Mrs. Williams’. I’d offhandedly give them each a couple of dollars to just stick in their pockets, to have something to spend. And little Yvonne and Robert were doing okay, too, over at the home of the West Indian lady, Mrs. McGuire. I’d give them about a quarter apiece; it made me feel good to see how they were coming along.
None of us talked much about our mother. And we never mentioned our father. I guess none of us knew what to say. We didn’t want anybody else to mention our mother either, I think. From time to time, though, we would all go over to Kalamazoo to visit her. Most often we older ones went singly, for it was something you didn’t want to have to experience with anyone else present, even your brother or sister.
During this period, the visit to my mother that I most remember was toward the end of that seventh-grade year, when our father’s grown daughter by his first marriage, Ella, came from Boston to visit us. Wilfred and Hilda had exchanged some letters with Ella, and I, at Hilda’s suggestion, had written to her from theSwerlins’. We were all excited and happy when her letter told us that she was coming to Lansing.
I think the major impact of Ella’s arrival, at least upon me, was that she was the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life. She was plainly proud of her very dark skin. This was unheard of among Negroes in those days, especially in Lansing.
I hadn’t been sure just what day she would come. And then one afternoon I got home from school and there she was. She hugged me, stood me away, looked me up and down. A commanding woman, maybe even bigger than Mrs. Swerlin. Ella wasn’t just black, but like our father, she was jet black. The way she sat, moved, talked, did everything, bespoke somebody who did and got exactly what she wanted. This was the woman my father had boasted of so often for having brought so many of their family out of Georgia to Boston. She owned some property, he would say, and she was “in society.” She had come North with nothing, and she had worked and saved and had invested in property that she built up in value, and then she started sending money to Georgia for another sister, brother, cousin, niece or nephew to come north to Boston. All that I had heard was reflected in Ella’s appearance and bearing. I had never been so impressed with anybody. She was in her second marriage; her first husband had been a doctor.
Ella asked all kinds of questions about how I was doing; she had already heard from Wilfred and Hilda about my election as class president. She asked especially about my grades, and I ran and got my report cards. I was then one of the three highest in the class. Ella praised me. I asked her about her brother, Earl, and her sister, Mary. She had the exciting news that Earl was a singer with a band in Boston. He was singing under the name of Jimmy Carleton. Mary was also doing well.
Ella told me about other relatives from that branch of the family. A number of them I’d never heard of; she had helped them up from Georgia. They, in their turn, had helped up others. “We Littles have to stick together,” Ella said. It thrilled me to hear her say that, and even more, the way she said it. I had become a mascot; our branch of the family was split to pieces; I had just about forgotten about being a Little in any family sense. She said that different members of the family were working in good jobs, and some even had small businesses going. Most of them were homeowners.
When Ella suggested that all of us Littles in Lansing accompany her on a visit to our mother, we all were grateful. We all felt that if anyone could do anything that could help our mother, that might help her get well and come back, it would be Ella. Anyway, all of us, for the first time together, went with Ella to Kalamazoo.
Our mother was smiling when they brought her out. She was extremely surprised when she saw Ella. They made a striking contrast, the thin near-white woman and the big black one hugging each other. I don’t remember much about the rest of the visit, except that there was a lot of talking, and Ella had everything in hand, and we left with all of us feeling better than we ever had about the circumstances. I know that for the first time, I felt as though I had visited with someone who had some kind of physical illness that had just lingered on.
A few days later, after visiting the homes where each of us were staying, Ella left Lansing and returned to Boston. But before leaving, she told me to write to her regularly. And she had suggested that I might like to spend my summer holiday visiting her in Boston. I jumped at that chance.
* * *
That summer of 1940, in Lansing, I caught the Greyhound bus for Boston with my cardboard suitcase, and wearing my green suit. If someone had hung a sign, “HICK,” around my neck, I couldn’t have looked much more obvious. They didn’t have the turnpikes then; the bus stopped at what seemed every comer and cowpatch. From my seat in-you guessed it-the back of the bus, I gawked out of the window at white man’s America rolling past for what seemed a month, but must have been only a day and a half.
When we finally arrived, Ella met me at the terminal and took me home. The house was on Waumbeck Street in the Sugar Hill section of Roxbury, the Harlem of Boston. I met Ella’s second husband, Frank, who was now a soldier; and her brother Earl, the singer who called himself Jimmy Carleton; and Mary, who was very different from her older sister. It’s funny how I seemed to think of Mary as Ella’s sister, instead of her being, just as Ella is, my own half-sister. It’s probably because Ella and I always were much closer as basic types; we’re dominant people, and Mary has always been mild and quiet, almost shy.
Ella was busily involved in dozens of things. She belonged to I don’t know how many different clubs; she was a leading light of local so-called “black society.” I saw and met a hundred black people there whose big-city talk and ways left my mouth hanging open.
I couldn’t have feigned indifference if I had tried to. People talked casually about Chicago, Detroit, New York. I didn’t know the world contained as many Negroes as I saw thronging downtown Roxbury at night, especially on Saturdays. Neon lights, nightclubs, poolhalls, bars, the cars they drove! Restaurants made the streets smell-rich, greasy, down-home black cooking! Jukeboxes blared Erskine Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Cootie Williams, dozens of others. If somebody had told me then that some day I’d know them all personally, I’d have found it hard to believe. The biggest bands, like these, played at theRoseland State Ballroom, on Boston’s Massachusetts Avenue-one night for Negroes, the next night for whites.
I saw for the first time occasional black-white couples strolling around arm in arm. And on Sundays, when Ella, Mary, or somebody took me to church, I saw churches for black people such as I had never seen. They were many times finer than the white church I had attended back in Mason, Michigan. There, the white people just sat and worshiped with words; but the Boston Negroes, like all other Negroes I had ever seen at church, threw their souls and bodies wholly into worship.
Two or three times, I wrote letters to Wilfred intended for everybody back in Lansing. I said I’d try to describe it when I got back.
But I found I couldn’t.
My restlessness with Mason-and for the first time in my life a restlessness with being around white people-began as soon as I got back home and entered eighth grade.
I continued to think constantly about all that I had seen in Boston, and about the way I had felt there. I know now that it was the sense of being a real part of a mass of my own kind, for the first
The white people-classmates, the Swerlins, the people at the restaurant where I worked-noticed
the change. They said, “You’re acting so strange. You don’t seem like yourself, Malcolm. What’s
I kept close to the top of the class, though. The topmost scholastic standing, I remember, kept
shifting between me, a girl named Audrey Slaugh, and a boy named Jimmy Cotton.
It went on that way, as I became increasingly restless and disturbed through the first semester.
And then one day, just about when those of us who had passed were about to move up to 8-A,
from which we would enter high school the next year, something happened which was to become
the first major turning point of my life.
Somehow, I happened to be alone in the classroom with Mr. Ostrowski, my English teacher. He
was a tall, rather reddish white man and he had a thick mustache. I had gotten some of my best
marks under him, and he had always made me feel that he liked me. He was, as I have
mentioned, a natural-born “advisor,” about what you ought to read, to do, or think-about any and
everything. We used to make unkind jokes about him: why was he teaching in Mason instead of
somewhere else, getting for himself some of the “success in life” that he kept telling us how to
I know that he probably meant well in what he happened to advise me that day. I doubt that he
meant any harm. It was just in his nature as an American white man. I was one of his top
students, one of the school’s top students-but all he could see for me was the kind of future “in
your place” that almost all white people see for black people.
He told me, “Malcolm, you ought to be thinking about a career. Have you been giving it thought?”
The truth is, I hadn’t. I never have figured out why I told him, “Well, yes, sir, I’ve been thinking I’d
like to be a lawyer.” Lansing certainly had no Negro lawyers-or doctors either-in those days, to
hold up an image I might have aspired to. All I really knew for certain was that a lawyer didn’t
wash dishes, as I was doing.
Mr. Ostrowski looked surprised, I remember, and leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands
behind his head. He kind of half-smiled and said, “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be
realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be
realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer-that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think
about something you _can_ be. You’re good with your hands-making things. Everybody admires
your carpentry shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person-you’d
get all kinds of work.”
The more I thought afterwards about what he said, the more uneasy it made me. It just kept
treading around in my mind.
What made it really begin to disturb me was Mr. Ostrowski’s advice to others in my class-all of
them white. Most of them had told him they were planning to become farmers. But those who
wanted to strike out on their own, to try something new, he had encouraged. Some, mostly girls,
wanted to be teachers. A few wanted other professions, such as one boy who wanted to become
a county agent; another, a veterinarian; and one girl wanted to be a nurse. They all reported that
Mr. Ostrowski had encouraged what they had wanted. Yet nearly none of them had earned marks
equal to mine.
It was a surprising thing that I had never thought of it that way before, but I realized that whatever
I wasn’t, I _was_ smarter than nearly all of those white kids. But apparently I was still not
intelligent enough, in their eyes, to become whatever _I_ wanted to be.
It was then that I began to change-inside.
I drew away from white people. I came to class, and I answered when called upon. It became a
physical strain simply to sit in Mr. Ostrowski’s class.
Where “nigger” had slipped off my back before, wherever I heard it now, I stopped and looked at
whoever said it. And they looked surprised that I did.
I quit hearing so much “nigger” and “What’s wrong?”-which was the way I wanted it. Nobody,
including the teachers, could decide what had come over me. I knew I was being discussed.
In a few more weeks, it was that way, too, at the restaurant where I worked washing dishes, and at the Swerlins’.
One day soon after, Mrs. Swerlin called me into the living room, and there was the state man,
Maynard Allen. I knew from their faces that something was about to happen. She told me that
none of them could understand why-after I had done so well in school, and on my job, and living
with them, and after everyone in Mason had come to like me-I had lately begun to make them all
feel that I wasn’t happy there anymore.
She said she felt there was no need for me to stay at the o detention home any longer, and that
arrangements had been made for me to go and live with the Lyons family, who liked me so much.
She stood up and put out her hand. “I guess I’ve asked you a hundred times, Malcolm-do you
want to tell me what’s wrong?”
I shook her hand, and said, “Nothing, Mrs. Swerlin.” Then I went and got my things, and came
back down. At the living-room door I saw her wiping her eyes. I felt very bad. I thanked her and
went out in front to Mr. Allen, who took me over to the Lyons’.
Mr. and Mrs. Lyons, and their children, during the two months I lived with them-while finishing
eighth grade-also tried to get me to tell them what was wrong. But somehow I couldn’t tell them,
I went every Saturday to see my brothers and sisters in Lansing, and almost every other day I
wrote to Ella in Boston. Not saying why, I told Ella that I wanted to come there and live.
I don’t know how she did it, but she arranged for official custody of me to be transferred from
Michigan to Massachusetts, and the very week I finished the eighth grade, I again boarded the
Greyhound bus for Boston.
I’ve thought about that time a lot since then. No physical move in my life has been more pivotal or profound in its repercussions.
If I had stayed on in Michigan, I would probably have married one of those Negro girls I knew and liked in Lansing. I might have become one of those state capitol building shoeshine boys, or a
Lansing Country Club waiter, or gotten one of the other menial jobs which, in those days, among Lansing Negroes, would have been considered “successful”-or even become a carpenter.
Whatever I have done since then, I have driven myself to become a success at it. I’ve often thought that if Mr. Ostrowski had encouraged me to become a lawyer, I would today probably be
among some city’s professional black bourgeoisie, sipping cocktails and palming myself off as a
community spokesman for and leader of the suffering black masses, while my primary concern
would be to grab a few more crumbs from the groaning board of the two-faced whites with whom
they’re begging to “integrate.”
All praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did. If I hadn’t, I’d probably still be a brainwashed black Christian.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://al-rasid.com/shared_uploads/The.Autobiography.of.MalcolmX.pdf
Photo from: ModernBenjamin (2016). The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Book Review. Retrieved from https://modernbenjamin.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/the-autobiography-of-malcolm-x-book-review/