I looked like Li’l Abner. Mason, Michigan, was written all over me. My kinky, reddish hair was cut hick style, and I didn’t even use grease in it. My green suit’s coat sleeves stopped above my wrists, the pants legs showed three inches of socks. Just a shade lighter green than the suit was my narrow-collared, three-quarter length Lansing department store topcoat. My appearance was too much for even Ella. But she told me later she had seen countrified members of the Little family come up from Georgia in even worse shape than I was.
Ella had fixed up a nice little upstairs room for me. And she was truly a Georgia Negro woman when she got into the kitchen with her pots and pans. She was the kind of cook who would heap up your plate with such as ham hock, greens, black-eyed peas, fried fish, cabbage, sweet potatoes, grits and gravy, and cornbread. And the more you put away the better she felt. I worked out at Ella’s kitchen table like there was no tomorrow.
Ella still seemed to be as big, black, outspoken and impressive a woman as she had been in Mason and Lansing. Only about two weeks before I arrived, she had split up with her second husband-the soldier, Frank, whom I had met there the previous summer; but she was taking it right in stride. I could see, though I didn’t say, how any average man would find it almost impossible to live for very long with a woman whose every instinct was to run everything and everybody she had anything to do with-including me. About my second day there in Roxbury, Ella told me that she didn’t want me to start hunting for a job right away, like most newcomer Negroes did. She said that she had told all those she’dbrought North to take their time, to walk around, to travel the buses and the subway, and get the feel of Boston, before they tied themselves down working somewhere, because they would never again have the time to really see and get to know anything about the city they were living in. Ella said she’d help me find a job when it was time for me to go to work.
So I went gawking around the neighborhood-the Waumbeck and Humboldt Avenue Hill section of Roxbury, which is something like Harlem’s Sugar Hill, where I’d later live. I saw those Roxbury Negroes acting and living differently from any black people I’d ever dreamed of in my life. This was the snooty-black neighborhood; they called themselves the “Four Hundred,” and looked down their noses at the Negroes of the black ghetto, or so-called “town” section where Mary, my other half-sister, lived.
What I thought I was seeing there in Roxbury were high-class, educated, important Negroes, living well, working in big jobs and positions. Their quiet homes sat back in their mowed yards. These Negroes walked along the sidewalks looking haughty and dignified, on their way to work, to shop, to visit, to church. I know now, of course, that what I was really seeing was only a big-city version of those “successful” Negro bootblacks and janitors back in Lansing. The only difference was that the ones in Boston had been brainwashed even more thoroughly. They prided themselves on being incomparably more “cultured,” “cultivated,” “dignified,” and better off than their black brethren down in the ghetto, which was no further away than you could throw a rock. Under the pitiful misapprehension that it would make them “better,” these Hill Negroes were breaking their backs trying to imitate white people.
Any black family that had been around Boston long enough to own the home they lived in was considered among the Hill elite. It didn’t make any difference that they had to rent out rooms to make ends meet. Then the native-born New Englanders among them looked down upon recently migrated Southernhome-owners who lived next door, like Ella. And a big percentage of the Hill dwellers were in Ella’s category-Southern strivers and scramblers, and West Indian Negroes, whom both the New Englanders and the Southerners called “Black Jews.”
Usually it was the Southerners and the West Indians who not only managed to own the places where they lived, but also at least one other house which they rented as income property. The snooty New Englanders usually owned less than they.
In those days on the Hill, any who could claim “professional” status-teachers, preachers, practical nurses-also considered themselves superior. Foreign diplomats could have modeled their conduct on the way the Negro postmen, Pullman porters, and dining car waiters of Roxbury acted, striding around as if they were wearing top hats and cutaways.
I’d guess that eight out often of the Hill Negroes of Roxbury, despite the impressive-sounding job titles they affected, actually worked as menials and servants. “He’s in banking,” or “He’s in securities.” It sounded as though they were discussing a Rockefeller or a Mellon-and not some gray-headed; dignity-posturing bank janitor, or bond-house messenger. “I’m with an old family” was the euphemism used to dignify the professions of white folks’ cooks and maids who talked so affectedly among their own kind in Roxbury that you couldn’t even understand them. I don’t know how many forty-and fifty-year-old errand boys went down the Hill dressed like ambassadors in black suits and white collars, to downtown jobs “in government,” “in fir nance,” or “in law.” It has never ceased to amaze me how so many Negroes, then and now, could stand the indignity of that kind of self-delusion.
Soon I ranged out of Roxbury and began to explore Boston proper. Historic buildings everywhere I turned, and plaques and markers and statues for famousevents and men. One statue in the Boston Commons astonished me: a Negro named Crispus Attucks, who had been the first man to fall in the Boston Massacre. I had never known anything like that.
I roamed everywhere. In one direction, I walked as far as Boston University. Another day, I took my first subway ride. When most of the people got off, I followed. It was Cambridge, and I circled all around in the Harvard University campus. Somewhere, I had already heard of Harvard-though I didn’t know much more about it. Nobody that day could have told me I would give an address before the Harvard Law School Forum some twenty years later.
I also did a lot of exploring downtown. Why a city would have two big railroad stations-North Station and South Station-I couldn’t understand. At both of the stations, I stood around and watched people arrive and leave. And I did the same thing at the bus station where Ella had met me. My wanderings even led me down along the piers and docks where I read plaques telling about the old sailing ships that used to put into port there.
In a letter to Wilfred, Hilda, Philbert, and Reginald back in Lansing, I told them about all this, and about the winding, narrow, cobblestoned streets, and the houses that jammed up against each other. Downtown Boston, I wrote them, had the biggest stores I’d ever seen, and white people’s restaurants and hotels. I made up my mind that I was going to see every movie that came to the fine, air-conditioned theaters.
On Massachusetts Avenue, next door to one of them, the Loew’s State Theater, was the huge, exciting Roseland State Ballroom. Big posters out in front advertised the nationally famous bands, white and Negro, that had played there. “COMING NEXT WEEK,” when I went by that first time, was Glenn Miller. I remember thinking how nearly the whole evening’s music at Mason High School dances had been Glenn Miller’s records. What wouldn’t that crowdhave given, I wondered, to be standing where Glenn Miller’s band was actually going to play? I didn’t know how familiar with Roseland I was going to become.
Ella began to grow concerned, because even when I had finally had enough sight-seeing, I didn’t stick around very much on the Hill. She kept dropping hints that I ought to mingle with the “nice
young people my age” who were to be seen in the Townsend Drugstore two blocks from her
house, and a couple of other places. But even before I came to Boston, I had always felt and
acted toward anyone my age as if they were in the “kid” class, like my younger brother Reginald.
They had always looked up to me as if I were considerably older. On weekends back in Lansing
where I’d go to get away from the white people in Mason, I’d hung around in the Negro part of
town with Wilfred’s and Philbert’s set. Though all of them were several years older than me, I was
bigger, and I actually looked older than most of them.
I didn’t want to disappoint or upset Ella, but despite her advice, I began going down into the town
ghetto section. That world of grocery stores, walk-up flats, cheap restaurants, poolrooms, bars,
storefront churches, and pawnshops seemed to hold a natural lure for me.
Not only was this part of Roxbury much more exciting, but I felt more relaxed among Negroes
who were being their natural selves and not putting on airs. Even though I did live on the Hill, my
instincts were never-and still aren’t-to feel myself better than any other Negro.
I spent the first month in town with my mouth hanging open. The sharp-dressed young “cats” who
hung on the comers and in the poolrooms, bars and restaurants, and who obviously didn’t work
anywhere, completely entranced me. I couldn’t get over marveling at how their hair was straight
and shiny like white men’s hair; Ella told me this was called a “conk.” I had nevertasted a sip of
liquor, never even smoked a cigarette, and here I saw little black children, ten and twelve years
old, shooting craps, playing cards, fighting, getting grown-ups to put a penny or a nickel on their
number for them, things like that. And these children threw around swear words I’d never heard
before, even, and slang expressions that were just as new to me, such as “stud” and “cat” and
“chick” and “cool” and “hip.” Every night as I lay in bed I turned these new words over in my mind.
It was shocking to me that in town, especially after dark, you’d occasionally see a white girl and a
Negro man strolling arm in arm along the sidewalk, and mixed couples drinking in the neon-
lighted bars-not slipping off to some dark corner, as in Lansing. I wrote Wilfred and Philbert about
I wanted to find a job myself, to surprise Ella. One afternoon, something told me to go inside a
poolroom whose window I was looking through. I had looked through that window many times. I
wasn’t yearning to play pool; in fact, I had never held a cue stick. But I was drawn by the sight of
the cool-looking “cats” standing around inside, bending over the big, green, felt-topped tables,
making bets and shooting the bright-colored balls into the holes. As I stared through the window
this particular afternoon, something made me decide to venture inside and talk to a dark, stubby,
conk-headed fellow who racked up balls for the pool-players, whom I’d heard called “Shorty.” One
day he had come outside and seen me standing there and said “Hi, Red,” so that made me figure
he was friendly.
As inconspicuously as I could, I slipped inside the door and around the side of the poolroom,
avoiding people, and on to the back, where Shorty was filling an aluminum can with the powder
that pool players dust on their hands. He looked up at me. Later on, Shorty would enjoy teasing
me about how with that first glance he knew my whole story. “Man, that cat still smelled country!”
he’d say, laughing. “Cat’s legs was so long and his pants so short his knees showed-an’ his head
looked like a briar patch!”
But that afternoon Shorty didn’t let it show in his face how “country” I appeared when I told him I’d
appreciate it if he’d tell me how could somebody go about getting a job like his.
“If you mean racking up balls,” said Shorty, “I don’t know of no pool joints around here needing
anybody. You mean you just want any slave you can find?” A “slave” meant work, a job.
He asked what kind of work I had done. I told him that I’d washed restaurant dishes in Mason,
Michigan. He nearly dropped the powder can. “My homeboy! Man, gimme some skin! I’m from
I never told Shorty-and he never suspected-that he was about ten years older than I. He took us to be about the same age. At first I would have been embarrassed to tell him, later I just never bothered. Shorty had dropped out of first-year high school in Lansing, lived awhile with an uncle and aunt in Detroit, and had spent the last six years living with his cousin in Roxbury. But when I mentioned the names of Lansing people and places, he remembered many, and pretty soon we sounded as if we had been raised in the same block. I could sense Shorty’s genuine gladness, and I don’t have to say how lucky I felt to find a friend as hip as he obviously was.
“Man, this is a swinging town if you dig it,” Shorty said. “You’re my homeboy-I’m going to school you to the happenings.” I stood there and grinned like a fool. “You got to go anywhere now? Well, stick around until I get off.”
One thing I liked immediately about Shorty was his frankness. When I told him where I lived, he said what I already knew-that nobody in town could stand the Hill Negroes. But he thought a sister who gave me a “pad,” not charging me rent, not even running me out to find “some slave,” couldn’t be all bad. Shorty’s slave in the poolroom, he said, was just to keep ends together while he learned his horn. A couple of years before, he’d hit the numbers and bought a saxophone. “Got it right in there in the closet now, for my lesson tonight.” Shorty was taking lessons “with some other studs,” and he intended one day to organize his own small band. “There’s a lot of bread to be made gigging right around here in Roxbury,” Shorty explained to me. “I don’t dig joining some big band, one-nighting all over just to say I played with Count or Duke or somebody.” I thought that was smart. I wished I had studied a horn; but I never had been exposed to one.
All afternoon, between trips up front to rack balls, Shorty talked to me out of the corner of his mouth: which hustlers-standing around, or playing at this or that table-sold “reefers,” or had just come out of prison, or were “second-story men.” Shorty told me that he played at least a dollar a day on the numbers. He said as soon as he hit a number, he would use the winnings to organize his band.
I was ashamed to have to admit that I had never played the numbers. “Well, you ain’t never had nothing to play with,” he said, excusing me, “but you start when you get a slave, and if you hit, you got a stake for something.”
He pointed out some gamblers and some pimps. Some of them had white whores, he whispered. “I ain’t going to lie-I dig them two-dollar white chicks,” Shorty said. “There’s a lot of that action around here, nights: you’ll see it.” I said I already had seen some. “You ever had one?” he asked.
My embarrassment at my inexperience showed. “Hell, man,” he said, “don’t be ashamed. I had a few before I left Lansing-them Polack chicks that used to come over the bridge. Here, they’re mostly Italians and Irish. But it don’t matter whatkind, they’re something else! Ain’t no different nowhere-there’s nothing they love better than a black stud.”
Through the afternoon, Shorty introduced me to players and loungers. “My homeboy,” he’d say, “he’s looking for a slave if you hear anything.” They all said they’d look out.
At seven o’clock, when the night ball-racker came on, Shorty told me he had to hurry to his saxophone lesson. But before he left, he held out to me the six or seven dollars he had collected that day in nickel and dime tips. “You got enough bread, home-boy?”
I was okay, I told him-I had two dollars. But Shorty made me take three more. “Little fattening for your pocket,” he said. Before we went out, he opened his saxophone case and showed me the horn. It was gleaming brass against the green velvet, an alto sax. He said, “Keep cool, homeboy, and come back tomorrow. Some of the cats will turn you up a slave.”
* * * When I got home, Ella said there had been a telephone call from somebody named Shorty. He had left a message that over at the Roseland State Ballroom, the shoeshine boy was quitting that night, and Shorty had told him to hold the job for me.
“Malcolm, you haven’t had any experience shining shoes,” Ella said. Her expression and tone of voice told me she wasn’t happy about my taking that job. I didn’t particularly care, because I was already speechless thinking about being somewhere close to the greatest bands in the world. I didn’t even wait to eat any dinner. The ballroom was all lighted when I got there. A man at the front door was letting in members of Benny Goodman’s band. I told him I wanted to see the shoeshine boy, Freddie.
“You’re going to be the new one?” he asked. I said I thought I was, and he laughed, “Well, maybe you’ll hit the numbers and get a Cadillac, too.” He told me that I’d find Freddie upstairs in the men’s room on the second floor.
But downstairs before I went up, I stepped over and snatched a glimpse inside the ballroom. I just couldn’t believe the size of that waxed floor! At the far end, under the soft, rose-colored lights, was the bandstand with the Benny Goodman musicians moving around, laughing and talking, arranging their horns and stands.
A wiry, brown-skinned, conked fellow upstairs in the men’s room greeted me. “You Shorty’s homeboy?” I said I was, and he said he was Freddie. “Good old boy,” he said. “He called me, he just heard I hit the big number, and he figured right I’d be quitting.” I told Freddie what the man at the front door had said about a Cadillac. He laughed and said, “Bums them white cats up when you get yourself something. Yeah, I told them I was going to get me one-just to bug them.”
Freddie then said for me to pay close attention, that he was going to be busy and for me to watch but not get in the way, and he’d try to get me ready to take over at the next dance, a couple of nights later.
As Freddie busied himself setting up the shoeshine stand, he told me, “Get here early . . . your shoeshine rags and brushes by this footstand . . . your polish bottles, paste wax, suede brushes over here . . . everything in place, you get rushed, you never need to waste motion. . . .” While you shined shoes, I learned, you also kept watch on customers inside, leaving the urinals. You darted over and offered a small white hand towel. “A lot of cats who ain’t planning to wash their hands, sometimes you can run up with a towel and shame them. Your towels are really your best hustle in here. Cost you a penny apiece to launder-you always get at least a nickel tip.”
The shoeshine customers, and any from the inside rest room who took a towel, you whiskbroomed a couple of licks. “A nickel or a dime tip, just give ’em that,” Freddie said. “But for two bits, Uncle Tom a little-white cats especially like that. I’ve had them to come back two, three times a dance.”
From down below, the sound of the music had begun floating up. I guess I stood transfixed. “You never seen a big dance?” asked Freddie. “Run on awhile, and watch.”
There were a few couples already dancing under the rose-colored lights. But even more exciting to me was the crowd thronging in. The most glamorous-looking white women I’d ever seen-young ones, old ones, white cats buying tickets at the window, sticking big wads of green bills back into their pockets, checking the women’s coats, and taking their arms and squiring them inside.
Freddie had some early customers when I got back upstairs. Between the shoeshine stand and thrusting towels to them just as they approached the washbasin, Freddie seemed to be doing four things at once. “Here, you can take over the whiskbroom,” he said, “just two or three licks-but let ’em feel it.”
When things slowed a little, he said, “You ain’t seen nothing tonight. You wait until you see a spooks’ dance! Man, our people carry _on_!” Whenever he had a moment, he kept schooling me. “Shoelaces, this drawer here. You just startingout, I’m going to make these to you as a present. Buy them for a nickel a pair, tell cats they need laces if they do, and charge two bits.”
Every Benny Goodman record I’d ever heard in my life, it seemed, was filtering faintly into where we were. During another customer lull, Freddie let me slip back outside again to listen. Peggy Lee was at the mike singing. Beautiful! She had just joined the band and she was from North Dakota and had been singing with a group in Chicago when Mrs. Benny Goodman discovered her, we had heard some customers say. She finished the song and the crowd burst into applause. She was a big hit.
“It knocked me out, too, when I first broke in here,” Freddie said, grinning, when I went back in there. “But, look, you ever shined any shoes?” He laughed when I said I hadn’t, excepting my own. “Well, let’s get to work. I never had neither.” Freddie got on the stand and went to work on his own shoes. Brush, liquid polish, brush, paste wax, shine rag, lacquer sole dressing . . . step by step, Freddie showed me what to do.
“But you got to get a whole lot faster. You can’t waste time!” Freddie showed me how fast on my own shoes. Then, because business was tapering off, he had time to give me a demonstration of how to make the shine rag pop like a firecracker. “Dig the action?” he asked. He did it in slow motion. I got down and tried it on his shoes. I had the principle of it. “Just got to do it faster,” Freddie said. “It’s a jive noise, that’s all. Cats tip better, they figure you’re knocking yourself out!”
By the end of the dance, Freddie had let me shine the shoes of three or four stray drunks he talked into having shines, and I had practiced picking up my speed on Freddie’s shoes until they looked like mirrors. After we had helped the janitors to clean up the ballroom after the dance, throwing out all the paper and cigarette butts and empty liquor bottles, Freddie was nice enough to driveme all the way home to Ella’s on the Hill in the secondhand maroon Buick he said he was going to trade in on his Cadillac. He talked to me all the way. “I guess it’s all right if I tell you, pick up a couple of dozen packs of rubbers, two-bits apiece. You notice some of those cats that came up to me around the end of the dance? Well, when some have new chicks going right, they’ll come asking you for rubbers. Charge a dollar, generally you’ll get an extra tip.”
He looked across at me. “Some hustles you’re too new for. Cats will ask you for liquor, some will want reefers. But you don’t need to have nothing except rubbers-until you can dig who’s a cop.”
“You can make ten, twelve dollars a dance for yourself if you work everything right,” Freddie said, before I got out of me car in front of Ella’s. “The main thing you got to remember is that everything in the world is a hustle. So long, Red.”
The next time I ran into Freddie I was downtown one night a few weeks later. He was parked in his pearl-gray Cadillac, sharp as a tack, “cooling it.”
“Man, you sure schooled me!” I said, and he laughed; he knew what I meant. It hadn’t taken me long on the job to find out that Freddie had done less shoeshining and towel-hustling than selling liquor and reefers, and putting white “Johns” in touch with Negro whores. I also learned that white girls always flocked to the Negro dances-some of them whores whose pimps brought them to mix business and pleasure, others who came with their black boy friends, and some who came in alone, for a little freelance lusting among a plentiful availability of enthusiastic Negro men.
At the white dances, of course, nothing black was allowed, and that’s where the black whores’ pimps soon showed a new shoeshine boy what he could pick up on the side by slipping a phone number or address to the white Johns whocame around the end of the dance looking for “black chicks.”
* * *
Most of Roseland’s dances were for whites only, and they had white bands only. But the only white band ever to play there at a Negro dance, to my recollection, was Charlie Barnet’s. The fact is that very few white bands could have satisfied the Negro dancers. But I know that Charlie Barnet’s “Cherokee” and his “Redskin Rhumba” drove those Negroes wild. They’d jam-pack that ballroom, the black girls in way-out silk and satin dresses and shoes, their hair done in all kinds of styles, the men sharp in their zoot suits and crazy conks, and everybody grinning and greased and gassed.
Some of the bandsmen would come up to the men’s room at about eight o’clock and get shoeshines before they went to work. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Cootie Williams, Jimmie Lunceford were just a few of those who sat in my chair. I would really make my shine rag sound like someone had set off Chinese firecrackers. Duke’s great alto saxman, Johnny Hodges-he was Shorty’s idol-still owes me for a shoe-shine I gave him. He was in the chair one night, having a friendly argument with the drummer, Sonny Greer, who was standing there, when I tapped the bottom of his shoes to signal that I was finished. Hodges stepped down, reaching his hand in his pocket to pay me, but then snatched his hand out to gesture, and just forgot me, and walked away. I wouldn’t have dared to bother the man who could do what he did with “Daydream” by asking him for fifteen cents. I remember that I struck up a little shoeshine-stand conversation with Count Basie’s great blues singer, Jimmie Rushing. (He’s the one famous for “Sent For You Yesterday, Here You Come Today” and things like that.) Rushing’s feet, I remember, were big and funny-shaped-not long like most big feet, but they were round and roly-poly like Rushing. Anyhow, he even introduced me tosome of the other Basie cats, like Lester Young, Harry Edison, Buddy Tate, Don Byas, Dickie Wells, and Buck Clayton. They’d walk in the rest room later, by themselves. “Hi, Red.” They’d be up there in my chair, and my shine rag was popping to the beat of all of their records, spinning in my head. Musicians never have had, anywhere, a greater shoeshine-boy fan than I was. I would write to Wilfred and Hilda and Philbert and Reginald back in Lansing, trying to describe it.
* * *
I never got any decent tips until the middle of the Negro dances, which is when the dancers started feeling good and getting generous. After the white dances, when I helped to clean out the ballroom, we would throw out perhaps a dozen empty liquor bottles. But after the Negro dances, we would have to throw out cartons full of empty fifth bottles-not rotgut, either, but die best brands, and especially Scotch.
During lulls up there in the men’s room, sometimes I’d get in five minutes of watching the dancing. The white people danced as though somebody had trained them-left, one, two; right, three, four-the same steps and patterns over and over, as though somebody had wound them up. But those Negroes-nobody in the world could have choreographed the way they did whatever they felt-just grabbing partners, even the white chicks who came to the Negro dances. And my black brethren today may hate me for saying it, but a lot of black girls nearly got run over by some of those Negro males scrambling to get at those white women; you would have thought God had lowered some of his angels. Tunes have sure changed; if it happened today, those same black girls would go after those Negro men-and the white women, too.
Anyway, some couples were so abandoned-flinging high and wide, improvising steps and movements-that you couldn’t believe it. I could feel the beat in my bones, even though I had never danced.
“_Showtime!_” people would start hollering about the last hour of the dance. Then a couple of dozen really wild couples would stay on the floor, the girls changing to low white sneakers. The band now would really be blasting, and all the other dancers would form a clapping, shouting circle to watch that wild competition as it began, covering only a quarter or so of the ballroom floor. The band, the spectators and the dancers would be malting the Roseland Ballroom feel like a big, rocking ship. The spotlight would be turning, pink, yellow, green, and blue, picking up the couples lindy-hopping as if they had gone mad. _”Wail, man, wail!”_ people would be shouting at the band; and it would be wailing, until first one and then another couple just ran out of strength and stumbled off toward the crowd, exhausted and soaked with sweat. Sometimes I would be down mere standing inside the door jumping up and down in my gray jacket with the whiskbroom in the pocket, and the manager would have to come and shout at me that I had customers upstairs.
The first liquor I drank, my first cigarettes, even my first reefers, I can’t specifically remember. But I know they were all mixed together with my first shooting craps, playing cards, and betting my dollar a day on the numbers, as I started hanging out at night with Shorty and his friends. Shorty’s jokes about how country I had been made us all laugh. I still was country, I know now, but it all felt so great because I was accepted. All of us would be in somebody’s place, usually one of the girls’, and we’d be turning on, the reefers making everybody’s head light, or the whisky aglow in our middles. Everybody understood that my head had to stay lanky awhile longer, to grow long enough for Shorty to conk it for me. One of these nights, I remarked that I had saved about half enough to get a zoot.
“_Save?_” Shorty couldn’t believe it. “Homeboy, you never heard of credit?”He told me he’d call a neighborhood clothing store the first thing in the morning, and that I should be there early.
A salesman, a young Jew, met me when I came in. “You’re Shorty’s friend?” I said I was; it amazed me-all of Shorty’s contacts. The salesman wrote my name on a form, and the Rose-land as where I worked, and Ella’s address as where I lived. Shorty’s name was put down as recommending me. The salesman said, “Shorty’s one of our best customers.”
I was measured, and the young salesman picked off a rack a zoot suit that was just wild: sky-blue pants thirty inches in the knee and angle-narrowed down to twelve inches at the bottom, and a long coat that pinched my waist and flared out below my knees.
As a gift, the salesman said, the store would give me a narrow leather belt with my initial “L” on it. Then he said I ought to also buy a hat, and I did-blue, with a feather in the four-inch brim. Then the store gave me another present: a long, thick-linked, gold-plated chain that swung down lower than my coat hem. I was sold forever on credit.
When I modeled the zoot for Ella, she took a long look and said, “Well, I guess it had to happen.” I took three of those twenty-five-cent sepia-toned, while-you-wait pictures of myself, posed the way “hipsters” wearing their zoots would “cool it”-hat dangled, knees drawn close together, feet wide apart, both index fingers jabbed toward the floor. The long coat and swinging chain and the Punjab pants were much more dramatic if you stood that way. One picture, I autographed and airmailed to my brothers and sisters in Lansing, to let them see how well I was doing. I gave another one to Ella, and the third to Shorty, who was really moved: I could tell by the way he said, “Thanks, homeboy.” It was part of our “hip” code not to show that kind of affection.
Shorty soon decided that my hair was finally long enough to be conked. He had promised to school me in how to beat the barbershops’ three-and four-dollar price by making up congolene, and then conking ourselves.
I took the little list of ingredients he had printed out for me, and went to a grocery store, where I got a can of Red Devil lye, two eggs, and two medium-sized white potatoes. Then at a drugstore near the poolroom, I asked for a large jar of Vaseline, a large bar of soap, a large-toothed comb and a fine-toothed comb, one of those rubber hoses with a metal spray-head, a rubber apron and a pair of gloves.
“Going to lay on that first conk?” the drugstore man asked me. I proudly told him, grinning, “Right!”
Shorty paid six dollars a week for a room in his cousin’s shabby apartment. His cousin wasn’t at home. “It’s like the pad’s mine, he spends so much time with his woman,” Shorty said. “Now, you watch me-”
He peeled the potatoes and thin-sliced them into a quart-sized Mason fruit jar, then started stirring them with a wooden spoon as he gradually poured in a little over half the can of lye. “Never use a metal spoon; the lye will turn it black,” he told me.
A jelly-like, starchy-looking glop resulted from the lye and potatoes, and Shorty broke in the two eggs, stirring real fast-his own conk and dark face bent down close. The congolene turned pale-yellowish. “Feel the jar,” Shorty said. I cupped my hand against the outside, and snatched it away. “Damn right, it’s hot, that’s the lye,” he said. “So you know it’s going to burn when I comb it in-it burns _bad_. But the longer you can stand it, the straighter the hair.”
He made me sit down, and he tied the string of the new rubber apron tightlyaround my neck, and combed up my bush of hair. Then, from the big Vaseline jar, he took a handful and massaged it hard all through my hair and into the scalp. He also thickly Vaselined my neck, ears and forehead. “When I get to washing out your head, be sure to tell me anywhere you feel any little stinging,” Shorty warned me, washing his hands, then pulling on the rubber gloves, and tying on his own rubber apron. “You always got to remember that any congolene left in bums a sore into your head.”
The congolene just felt warm when Shorty started combing it in. But then my head caught fire.
I gritted my teeth and tried to pull the sides of the kitchen table together. The comb felt as if it was raking my skin off.
My eyes watered, my nose was running. I couldn’t stand it any longer; I bolted to the washbasin. I was cursing Shorty with every name I could think of when he got the spray going and started soap-lathering my head.
He lathered and spray-rinsed, lathered and spray-rinsed, maybe ten or twelve times, each time gradually closing the hot-water faucet, until the rinse was cold, and that helped some.
“You feel any stinging spots?”
“No,” I managed to say. My knees were trembling.
“Sit back down, then. I think we got it all out okay.”
The flame came back as Shorty, with a thick towel, started drying my head, rubbing hard. “_Easy, man, easy!_” I kept shouting.
“The first time’s always worst. You get used to it better before long. You took it real good, homeboy. You got a good conk.”
When Shorty let me stand up and see in the minor, my hair hung down in limp, damp strings. My scalp still flamed, but not as badly; I could bear it. He draped the towel around my shoulders, over my rubber apron, and began again Vaselining my hair. I could feel him combing, straight back, first the big comb, then the fine-tooth one.
Then, he was using a razor, very delicately, on the back of my neck. Then, finally, shaping the sideburns.
My first view in the mirror blotted out the hurting. I’d seen some pretty conks, but when it’s the first time, on your own head, the transformation, after the lifetime of kinks, is staggering.
The mirror reflected Shorty behind me. We both were grinning and sweating. And on top of my head was this thick, smooth sheen of shining red hair-real red-as straight as any white man’s.
How ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there simply lost in admiration of my hair now looking “white,” reflected in the mirror in Shorty’s room. I vowed that I’d never again be without a conk, and I never was for many years.
This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are “inferior”-and white people”superior”-that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look “pretty” by white standards.
Look around today, in every small town and big city, from two-bit catfish and soda-pop joints into the “integrated” lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, and you’ll see conks on black men. And you’ll see black women wearing these green and pink and purple and red and platinum-blonde wigs. They’re all more ridiculous than a slapstick comedy. It makes you wonder if the Negro has completely lost his sense of identity, lost touch with himself.
You’ll see the conk worn by many, many so-called “upper-class” Negroes, and, as much as I hate to say it about them, on all too many Negro entertainers. One of the reasons that I’ve especially admired some of them, like Lionel Hampton and Sidney Poiter, among others, is that they have kept their natural hair and fought to the top. I admire any Negro man who has never had himself conked, or who has had the sense to get rid of it-as I finally did.
I don’t know which kind of self-defacing conk is the greater shame-the one you’ll see on the heads of the black so-called “middle class” and “upper class,” who ought to know better, or the one you’ll see on the heads of the poorest, most downtrodden, ignorant black men. I mean the legal-minimum-wage ghetto-dwelling kind of Negro, as I was when I got my first one. It’s generally among these poor fools that you’ll see a black kerchief over the man’s head, like Aunt Jemima; he’s trying to make his conk last longer, between trips to the barbershop. Only for special occasions is this kerchief-protected conk exposed-to show off how “sharp” and “hip” its owner is. The ironic thing is that I have never heard any woman, white or black, express any admiration for a conk. Of course, any white woman with a black man isn’t thinking about his hair. But I don’t see how on earth a black woman with any race pride could walk down the street with any black man wearing a conk-the emblem of his shame that he is black. To my own shame, when I say all of this I’m talking first of all about myself-because you can’t show me any Negro who ever conked more faithfully than I did. I’m speaking from personal experience when I say of any black man who conks today, or any white-wigged black woman, that if they gave the brains in their heads just half as much attention as they do their hair, they would be a thousand times better off.
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/