Shorty would take me to groovy, frantic scenes in different chicks’ and cats’ pads, where with the lights and juke down mellow, everybody blew gage and juiced back and jumped. I met chicks who were fine as May wine, and cats who were hip to all happenings.
That paragraph is deliberate, of course; it’s just to display a bit more of the slang that was used by everyone I respected as “hip” in those days. And in no time at all, I was talking the slang like a lifelong hipster.
Like hundreds of thousands of country-bred Negroes who had come to the Northern black ghetto before me, and have come since, I’d also acquired all the other fashionable ghetto adornments-the zoot suits and conk that I have described, liquor, cigarettes, then reefers-all to erase my embarrassing background. But I still harbored one secret humiliation: I couldn’t dance.
I can’t remember when it was that I actually learned how-that is to say, I can’t recall the specific night or nights. But dancing was the chief action at those “pad parties,” so I’ve no doubt about how and why my initiation into lindy-hopping came about. With alcohol or marijuana lightening my head, andthat wild music wailing away on those portable record players, it didn’t take long to loosen up the dancing instincts in my African heritage. All I remember is that during some party around this time, when nearly everyone but me was up dancing, some girl grabbed me-they often would take the initiative and grab a partner, for no girl at those parties ever would dream that anyone present couldn’t dance-and there I was out on the floor.
I was up in the jostling crowd-and suddenly, unexpectedly, I got the idea. It was as though somebody had clicked on a light. My long-suppressed African instincts broke through, and loose.
Having spent so much time in Mason’s white environment, I had always believed and feared that dancing involved a certain order or pattern of specific steps-as dancing is done by whites. But here among my own less inhibited people, I discovered it was simply letting your feet, hands and body spontaneously act out whatever impulses were stirred by the music.
From then on, hardly a party took place without me turning up-inviting myself, if I had to-and lindyhopping my head off.
I’d always been fast at picking up new things. I made up for lost time now so fast that soon girls were asking me to dance with them. I worked my partners hard; that’s why they liked me so much.
When I was at work, up in the Roseland men’s room, I just couldn’t keep still. My shine rag popped with the rhythm of those great bands rocking the ballroom. White customers on the shine stand, especially, would laugh to see my feet suddenly break loose on their own and cut a few steps. Whites are correct in thinking that black people are natural dancers. Even little kids are-except for those Negroes today who are so “integrated,” as I had been, that their instincts are inhibited. You know those “dancing jibagoo” toys that you windup? Well, I was like a live one-music just wound me up.
By the next dance for the Boston black folk-I remember that Lionel Hampton was coming in to play-I had given my notice to the Roseland’s manager.
When I told Ella why I had quit, she laughed aloud: I told her I couldn’t find time to shine shoes and dance, too. She was glad, because she had never liked the idea of my working at that no-prestige job. When I told Shorty, he said he’d known I’d soon outgrow it anyway.
Shorty could dance all right himself but, for his own reasons, he never cared about going to the big dances. He loved just the music-making end of it. He practiced his saxophone and listened to records. It astonished me that Shorty didn’t care to go and hear the big bands play. He had his alto sax idol, Johnny Hodges, with Duke Ellington’s band, but he said he thought too many young musicians were only carbon-copying the big-band names on the same instrument. Anyway, Shorty was really serious about nothing except his music, and about working for the day when he could start his own little group to gig around Boston.
The morning after I quit Roseland, I was down at the men’s clothing store bright and early. The salesman checked and found that I’d missed only one weekly payment: I had “A-1” credit. I told him I’d just quit my job, but he said that didn’t make any difference; I could miss paying them for a couple of weeks if I had to; he knew I’d get straight.
This time, I studied carefully everything in my size on the racks. And finally I picked out my second zoot. It was a sharkskin gray, with a big, long coat, and pants ballooning out at the knees and then tapering down to cuffs so narrow that I had to take off my shoes to get them on and off. With the salesman urging me on, I got another shirt, and a hat, and new shoes-the kind that were justcoming into hipster style; dark orange colored, with paper-thin soles and knob style toes. It all added up to seventy or eighty dollars.
It was such a red-letter day that I even went and got my first barbershop conk. This time it didn’t hurt so much, just as Shorty had predicted.
That night, I timed myself to hit Roseland as the thick of the crowd was coming in. In the thronging lobby, I saw some of the real Roxbury hipsters eyeing my zoot, and some fine women were giving me that look. I sauntered up to the men’s room for a short drink from the pint in my inside coat-pocket. My replacement was there-a scared, narrow-faced, hungry-looking little brown-skinned fellow just in town from Kansas City. And when he recognized me, he couldn’t keep down his admiration and wonder. I told nun to “keep cool,” that he’d soon catch on to the happenings. Everything felt right when I went into the ballroom.
Hamp’s band was working, and that big, waxed floor was packed with people lindy-hopping like crazy. I grabbed some girl I’d never seen, and the next thing I knew we were out there Undying away and grinning at each other. It couldn’t have been finer.
I’d been Undying previously only in cramped little apartment living rooms, and now I had room to maneuver. Once I really got myself warmed and loosened up, I was snatching partners from among the hundreds of unattached, free-lancing girls along the sidelines-almost every one of them could really dance-and I just about went wild! Hamp’s band wailing. I was whirling girls so fast their skirts were snapping. Black girls, brownskins, high yellows, even a couple of the white girls there. Boosting them over my hips, my shoulders, into the air. Though I wasn’t quite sixteen then, I was tall and rawboned and looked like twenty-one; I was also pretty strong for my age. Circling, tap-dancing, I was underneath them when they landed-doing the “flapping eagle,” “the kangaroo” and the “split.”
After that, I never missed a Roseland lindy-hop as long as I stayed in Boston.
* * *
The greatest lindy-dancing partner I had, everything considered, was a girl named Laura. I met her at my next job. When I quit shoeshining, Ella was so happy that she went around asking about a job for me-one she would approve. Just two blocks from her house, the Townsend Drug Store was about to replace its soda fountain clerk, a fellow who was leaving to go off to college.
When Ella told me, I didn’t like it. She knew I couldn’t stand those Hill characters. But speaking my mind right then would have made Ella mad. I didn’t want that to happen, so I put on the white jacket and started serving up sodas, sundaes, splits, shakes and all the rest of that fountain stuff to those fancy-acting Negroes.
Every evening when I got off at eight and came home, Ella would keep saying, “1 hope you’ll meet some of these nice young people your age here in Roxbury.” But those penny-ante squares who came in there putting on their millionaires’ airs, the young ones and the old ones both, only annoyed me. People like the sleep-in maid for Beacon Hill white folks who used to come in with her “ooh, my deah” manners and order corn plasters in the Jew’s drugstore for black folks. Or the hospital cafeteria-line serving woman sitting there on her day off with a cat fur around her neck, telling the proprietor she was a “dietitian”-both of them knowing she was lying. Even the young ones, my age, whom Ella was always talking about. The soda fountain was one of their hangouts. They soon had me ready to quit, with their accents so phonied upthat if you just heard them and didn’t see them, you wouldn’t even know they were Negroes. I couldn’t wait for eight o’clock to get home to eat out of those soul-food pots of Ella’s, then get dressed in my zoot and head for some of my friends’ places in town, to lindy-hop and get high, or something, for relief from those Hill clowns.
Before long, I didn’t see how I was going to be able to stick it out there eight hours a day; and I nearly didn’t. I remember one night, I nearly quit because I had hit the numbers for ten cents-the first time I had ever hit-on one of the sideline bets that I’d made in the drugstore. (Yes, there were several runners on the Hill; even dignified Negroes played the numbers.) I won sixty dollars, and Shorty and I had a ball with it. I wished I had hit for the daily dollar that I played with my town man, paying him by the week. I would surely have quit the drugstore. I could have bought a car.
Anyway, Laura lived in a house that was catercorner across the street from the drugstore. After a while, as soon as I saw her coming in, I’d start making up a banana split. She was a real bug for them, and she came in late every afternoon-after school. I imagine I’d been shoving that ice cream dish under her nose for five or six weeks before somehow it began to sink in that she wasn’t like the rest. She was certainly the only Hill girl that came in there and acted in any way friendly and natural.
She always had some book with her, and poring over it, she would make a thirty-minute job of that daily dish of banana split. I began to notice the books she read, They were pretty heavy school stuff-Latin, algebra, things like that. Watching her made me reflect that I hadn’t read even a newspaper since leaving Mason.
_Laura_. I heard her name called by a few of the others who came in when she was there. But I could see they didn’t know her too well; they said “hello”-thatwas about the extent of it. She kept to herself, and she never said more than “Thank you”‘ to me. Nice voice. Soft. Quiet. Never another word. But no airs like the others, no black Bostonese. She was just herself.
I liked that. Before too long, I struck up a conversation. Just what subject I got off on I don’t remember, but she readily opened up and began talking, and she was very friendly. I found out that she was a high school junior, an honor student. Her parents had split up when she was a baby, and she had been raised by her grandmother, an old lady on a pension, who was very strict and old-fashioned and religious, Laura had just one close friend, a girl who lived over in Cambridge, whom she had gone to school with. They talked on the telephone every day. Her grandmother scarcely ever let her go to the movies, let alone on dates.
But Laura really liked school. She said she wanted to go on to college. She was keen for algebra, and she planned to major in science. Laura never would have dreamed that she was a year older than I was. I gauged that indirectly. She looked up to me as though she felt I had a world of experience more than she did-which really was the truth. But sometimes, when she had gone, I felt let down, thinking how I had turned away from the books I used to like when I was back in Michigan.
I got to the point where I looked forward to her coming in every day after school. I stopped letting her pay, and gave her extra ice cream. And she wasn’t hiding the fact that she liked me.
It wasn’t long before she had stopped reading her books when she came in, and would just sit and eat and talk with me. And soon she began trying to get me to talk about myself. I was immediately sorry when I dropped that I had once thought about becoming a lawyer. She didn’t want to let me rest about that. “Malcolm, there’s no reason you can’t pick up right where you are and become alawyer.” She had the idea that my sister Ella would help me as much as she could. And if Ella had ever thought that she could help any member of the Little family put up any kind of professional shingle-as a teacher, a foot-doctor, anything-why, you would have had to tie her down to keep her from taking in washing.
I never mentioned Laura to Shorty. I just knew she never would have understood him, or that crowd. And they wouldn’t have understood her. She had never been touched, I’m certain she hadn’t, or even had a drink, and she wouldn’t even have known what a reefer was.
It was a great surprise to me when one afternoon Laura happened to let drop that she “just loved” lindy-hopping. I asked her how had she been able to go out dancing. She said she’d been introduced to lindy-hopping at a party given by the parents of some Negro friend just accepted by Harvard.
It was just about time to start closing down the soda fountain, and I said that Count Basie was playing the Roseland that weekend, and would she like to go?
Laura’s eyes got wide. I thought I’d have to catch her, she was so excited. She said she’d never been there, she’d heard so much about it, she’d imagined what it was like, she’d just give anything-but her grandma would have a fit.
So I said maybe some other time.
But the afternoon before the dance, Laura came in full of excitement. She whispered that she’d never lied to her grandma before, but she had told her she had to attend some school function that evening. If I’d get her home early, she’d meet me-if I’d still take her.
I told her we’d have to go by for me to change clothes at the house. She hesitated, but said okay. Before we left, I telephoned Ella to say I’d be bringing a girl by on the way to the dance. Though I’d never before done anything like it, Ella covered up her surprise.
I laughed to myself a long time afterward about how Ella’s mouth flew open when we showed up at the front door-me and a well-bred Hill girl. Laura, when I introduced her, was warm and sincere. And Ella, you would have thought she was closing in on her third husband.
While they sat and talked downstairs, I dressed upstairs in my room. I remember changing my mind about the wild sharkskin gray zoot I had planned to wear, and deciding instead to put on the first one I’d gotten, the blue zoot. I knew I should wear the most conservative thing I had.
They were like old friends when I came back down. Ella had even made tea. Ella’s hawk-eye just about raked my zoot right off my back. But I’m sure she was grateful that I’d at least put on the blue one. Knowing Ella, I knew that she had already extracted Laura’s entire life story-and all but had the wedding bells around my neck. I grinned all the way to the Roseland in the taxi, because I had showed Ella I could hang out with Hill girls if I wanted to.
Laura’s eyes were so big. She said almost none of her acquaintances knew her grandmother, who never went anywhere but to church, so there wasn’t much danger of it getting back to her. The only person she had told was her girl friend, who had shared her excitement.
Then, suddenly, we were in the Roseland’s jostling lobby. And I was getting waves and smiles and greetings. They shouted “My man!” and “Hey, Red!” and I answered “Daddy-o.”
She and I never before had danced together, but that certainly was no problem. Any two people who can lindy at all can lindy together. We just started out there on the floor among a lot of other couples.
It was maybe halfway in the number before I became aware of how she danced.
* * *
If you’ve ever lindy-hopped, you’ll know what I’m talking about. With most girls, you kind of work opposite them, circling, side-stepping, leading. Whichever arm you lead with is half-bent out there, your hands are giving that little pull, that little push, touching her waist, her shoulders, her arms. She’s in, out, turning, whirling, wherever you guide her. With poor partners, you feel their weight. They’re slow and heavy. But with really good partners, all you need is just the push-pull suggestion. They guide nearly effortlessly, even off the floor and into the air, and your little solo maneuver is done on the floor before they land, when they join you, whirling, right in step.
I’d danced with plenty of good partners. But what I became suddenly aware of with Laura was that I’d never before felt so little weight! I’d nearly just _think_ a maneuver, and she’d respond.
Anyway, as she danced up, down, under my arm, flinging out, while I felt her out and examined her style, I glimpsed her footwork. I can close my eyes right now and see it, like some blurring ballet-beautiful! And her lightness, like a shadow! My perfect partner, if somebody had asked me, would have been one who handled as lightly as Laura and who would have had the strength to last through a long, tough showtime. But I knew that Laura wouldn’t begin to be that strong.
In Harlem, years later, a friend of mine called “Sammy The Pimp” taught mesomething I wish I had known then to look for in Laura’s face. It was what Sammy declared was his infallible clue for determining the “unconscious, true personality” of women. Considering all the women he had picked out of crowds and turned into prostitutes, Sammy qualified as an expert. Anyway, he swore that if a woman, any woman, gets really carried away while dancing, what she truly is-at least potentially-will surface and show on her face.
I’m not suggesting that a lady-of-easy-virtue look danced to the surface in Laura-although life did deal her cruel blows, starting with her meeting me. All I am saying is that it may be that if I had been equipped with Sammy’s ability, I might have spotted in Laura then some of the subsurface potential, destined to become real, that would have shocked her grandma.
A third of the way or so through the evening the main vocalizing and instrumental stylings would come-and then showtime, when only the greatest lindy-hoppers would stay on the floor, to try and eliminate each other. All the other dancers would form a big “U” with the band at the open end.
The girls who intended to compete would slip over to the sidelines and change from high heels into low white sneakers. In competition, they never could survive in heels. And always among them were four or five unattached girls who would run around trying to hook up with some guy they knew could really lindy.
Now Count Basie turned on the showtime blast, and the other dancers moved off the floor, shifting for good watching positions, and began their hollering for their favorites. “All right now, Red!” they shouted to me, “Go get ’em, Red.” And then a free-lancing lindy-girl I’d danced with before, Mamie Bevels, a waitress and a wild dancer, ran up to me, with Laura standing right there. I wasn’t sure what to do. But Laura started backing away toward the crowd, still looking at me. The Count’s band was wailing. I grabbed Mamie and we started to work. She was a big, rough, strong gal, and she lindied like a bucking horse. I remember the very night that she became known as one of the showtime favorites there at the Roseland. A band was screaming when she kicked off her shoes and got barefooted, and shouted, and shook herself as if she were in some African jungle frenzy, and then she let loose with some dancing, shouting with every step, until the guy that was out there with her nearly had to fight to control her. The crowd loved any way-out lindying style that made a colorful show like that. It was how Mamie had become known.
Anyway, I started driving her like a horse, the way she liked. When we came off the floor after the first number, we both were wringing wet with sweat, and people were shouting and pounding our backs.
I remember leaving early with Laura, to get her home in time. She was very quiet. And she didn’t have much to say for the next week or so when she came into the drugstore. Even then, I had learned enough about women to know not to pressure them when they’re thinking something out; they’ll tell you when they’re ready.
Every time I saw Ella, even brushing my teeth in the morning, she turned on the third degree. When was I seeing Laura again? Was I going to bring her by again? “What a nice girl she is!” Ella had picked her out for me.
But in that kind of way, I thought hardly anything about the girl. When it came to personal matters, my mind was strictly on getting “sharp” in my zoot as soon as I left work, and racing downtown to hang out with Shorty and the other guys-and with the girls they knew-a million miles away from the stuck-up Hill.
I wasn’t even thinking about Laura when she came up to me in the drugstore and asked me to take her to the next Negro dance at the Roseland. Duke Ellington was going to play, and she was beside herself with excitement. I had no way to know what was going to happen.
She asked me to pick her up at her house this time. I didn’t want any contact with the old grandma she had described, but I went. Grandma answered the door-an old-fashioned, wrinkled black woman, with fuzzy gray hair. She just opened the door enough for me to get in, not even saying as much as “Come in, dog.” I’ve faced armed detectives and gangsters less hostile than she was.
I remember the musty living room, full of those old Christ pictures, prayers woven into tapestries, statuettes of the crucifixion, other religious objects on the mantel, shelves, table tops, walls, everywhere.
Since the old lady wasn’t speaking to me, I didn’t speak to her, either. I completely sympathize with her now, of course.
What could she have thought of me in my zoot and conk and orange shoes? She’d have done us all a favor if she had run screaming for the police. If something looking as I did then ever came knocking at my door today, asking to see one of my four daughters, I know I would explode.
When Laura rushed into the room, jerking on her coat, I could see that she was upset and angry and embarrassed. And in the taxi, she started crying. She had hated herself for lying before; she had decided to tell the truth about where she was going, and there had been a screaming battle with grandma. Laura had told the old lady that she was going to start going out when and where she wanted to, or she would quit school and get a job and move out on her own-and her grandma had pitched a fit. Laura just walked out.
When we got to the Roseland, we danced the early part of the evening with each other and with different partners. And finally the Duke kicked off showtime.
I knew, and Laura knew, that she couldn’t match the veteran showtime girls, but she told me that she wanted to compete. And the next thing I knew, she was among those girls over on the sidelines changing into sneakers. I shook my head when a couple of the free-lancing girls ran up to me.
As always, the crowd clapped and shouted in time with the blasting band. “Go, Red, go!” Partly it was my reputation, and partly Laura’s ballet style of dancing that helped to turn the spotlight-and the crowd’s attention-to us. They never had seen the feather-lightness that she gave to Undying, a completely fresh style-and they were connoisseurs of styles. I turned up the steam, Laura’s feet were flying; I had her in the air, down, sideways, around; backwards, up again, down, whirling . . .
The spotlight was working mostly just us. I caught glimpses of the four or five other couples, the girls jungle-strong, animal-like, bucking and charging. But little Laura inspired me to drive to new heights. Her hair was all over her face, it was running sweat, and I couldn’t believe her strength. The crowd was shouting and stomping. A new favorite was being discovered; there was a wall of noise around us. I felt her weakening, she was lindying like a fighter out on her feet, and we stumbled off to the sidelines. The band was still blasting. I had to half-carry her; she was gasping for air. Some of the men in the band applauded.
And even Duke Ellington half raised up from his piano stool and bowed.
If a showtime crowd liked your performance, when you came off you were mobbed, mauled, grasped, and pummeled like the team that’s just taken theseries. One bunch of the crowd swarmed Laura; they had her clear up off her feet. And I was being pounded on the back. . . when I caught this fine blonde’s eyes. . . . This one I’d never seen among the white girls who came to the Roseland black dances. She was eyeing me levelly.
Now at that time, in Roxbury, in any black ghetto in America, to have a white woman who wasn’t a known, common whore was-for the average black man, at least-a status symbol of the first order. And this one, standing there, eyeing me, was almost too fine to believe. Shoulder-length hair, well built, and her clothes had cost somebody plenty.
It’s shameful to admit, but I had just about forgotten Laura when she got loose from the mob and rushed up, big-eyed-and stopped. I guess she saw what there was to see in that girl’s face-and mine-as we moved out to dance.
I’m going to call her Sophia.
She didn’t dance well, at least not by Negro standards. But who cared? I could feel the staring eyes of other couples around us. We talked. I told her she was a good dancer, and asked her where she’d learned. I was trying to find out why she was there. Most white women came to the black dances for reasons I knew, but you seldom saw her kind around there.
She had vague answers for everything. But in the space of that dance, we agreed that I would get Laura home early and rush back in a taxicab. And then she asked if I’d like to go for a drive later. I felt very lucky.
Laura was home and I was back at the Roseland in an hour flat. Sophia was waiting outside.
About five blocks down, she had a low convertible. She knew where she wasgoing. Beyond Boston, she pulled off into a side road, and then off that into a deserted lane. And turned off everything but the radio.
* * *
For the next several months, Sophia would pick me up downtown, and I’d take her to dances, and to the bars around Roxbury. We drove all over. Sometimes it would be nearly daylight when she let me out in front of Ella’s.
I paraded her. The Negro men loved her. And she just seemed to love all Negroes. Two or three nights a week, we would go out together. Sophia admitted that she also had dates with white fellows, “just for the looks of things,” she said. She swore that a white man couldn’t interest her.
I wondered for a long time, but I never did find out why she approached me so boldly that very first night. I always thought it was because of some earlier experience with another Negro, but I never asked, and she never said. Never ask a woman about other men. Either she’ll tell you a lie, and you still won’t know, or if she tells you the truth, you might not have wanted to hear it in the first place.
Anyway, she seemed entranced with me. I began to see less of Shorty. When I did see him and the gang, he would gibe, “Man, I had to comb the burrs out of my homeboy’s head, and now he’s got a Beacon Hill chick.” But truly, because it was known that Shorty had “schooled” me, my having Sophia gave Shorty status. When I introduced her to him, she hugged him like a sister, and it just about finished Shorty off. His best had been white prostitutes and a few of those poor specimens that worked around in the mills and had “discovered” Negroes.
It was when I began to be seen around town with Sophia that I really began tomature into some real status in black downtown Roxbury. Up to then I had been just another among all of the conked and zooted youngsters. But now, with the best-looking white woman who ever walked in those bars and clubs, and with her giving me the money I spent, too, even the big, important black hustlers and “smart boys”-the club managers, name gamblers, numbers bankers, and others-were clapping me on the back, setting us up to drinks at special tables, and calling me “Red.” Of course I knew their reason like I knew my own name: they wanted to steal my fine white woman away from me.
In the ghetto, as in suburbia, it’s the same status struggle to stand out in some envied way from the rest. At sixteen, I didn’t have the money to buy a Cadillac, but she had her own fine “rubber,” as we called a car hi those days. And I had her, which was even better.
Laura never again came to the drugstore as long as I continued to work there. The next time I saw her, she was a wreck of a woman, notorious around black Roxbury, in and out of jail. She had finished high school, but by then she was already going the wrong way. Defying her grandmother, she had started going out late and drinking liquor. This led to dope, and that to selling herself to men. Learning to hate the men who bought her, she also became a Lesbian. One of the shames I have carried for years is that I blame myself for all of this. To have treated her as I did for a white woman made the blow doubly heavy. The only excuse I can offer is that like so many of my black brothers today, I was just deaf, dumb, and blind.
In any case, it wasn’t long after I met Sophia that Ella found out about it, and watching from the windows one early morning, saw me getting out of Sophia’s car. Not surprisingly, Ella began treating me like a viper.
About then, Shorty’s cousin finally moved in with the woman he was so crazy about, and Sophia financed me to take over half of the apartment withShorty-and I quit the drugstore and soon found anew job.
I became a busboy at the Parker House in Boston. I wore a starched white jacket out in the dining room, where the waiters would put the customers’ dirty plates and silver on big aluminum trays which I would take back to the kitchen’s dishwashers.
A few weeks later, one Sunday morning, I ran in to work expecting to get fired, I was so late. But the whole kitchen crew was too excited and upset to notice: Japanese planes had just bombed a place called Pearl Harbor.
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/