Given the latest white supremacist domestic terrorist massacre here in the U.S. along with a Republican Party that is wallowing in the toxic “great replacement theory” that encouraged it, it’s important to acknowledge that white supremacy is foundational to this nation. We must also be aware that many voices have been raised against it over the decades. One of the most powerful was that of the man we know as Malcolm X, or later as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. He was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, to an immigrant mom from Grenada, Louise (née Norton) and Earl Little, from Georgia.
Surprised to see Malcolm X in this series? I think it’s important to discuss how his Caribbean heritage influenced the proud and powerful Black American man he would become.
Caribbean Matters is a weekly series from Daily Kos. If you are unfamiliar with the region, check out Caribbean Matters: Getting to know the countries of the Caribbean.
There are virulently xenophobic Black American groups like ADOS (American Descendants of Slavery) and FBA (Foundational Black Americans) currently spewing anti-immigrant, anti-African, and anti-Caribbean vitriol—fronting for the white supremacist cheerleaders and funders behind them—and spreading disinformation. Members of ADOS and FBA constantly attempt to gatekeep “Blackness” here in the United States. In the face of their nonsense, it is doubly important to point out that Minister Malcolm was a figure who illustrated the intersections and connections between Black folks of the diaspora rather than promoting division.
Recently, historians have been delving more into Malcolm’s early life and the contributions his mother and father made within the Marcus Garvey movement. While the Black history that we learn in school (if we learn it at all) tends to focus on the Harlem Renaissance and figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, equal weight is rarely given to the Jamaican-born Garvey.
In 2017, the Institute of the Black World 21st Century produced a feature-length documentary (IBW21) on Garvey, which ends with a discussion of the heavy influence that Garveyism and the Universal Negro Improvement Association had on Malcolm X.
I agree with late historian and Malcolm X scholar Manning Marable, who states in the film (at 02:01:33) that “it is not too exaggerated to say that without Garvey and Garveyism, there would have been no Malcolm X.”
IBW21 offers these notes with the film on its website. Those in ADOS and the like who insist on sowing division might pay attention to Garvey’s own words.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr., ONH (August 17, 1887 – June 10, 1940), was a Jamaican political leader, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator who was a proponent of the Pan-Africanism movement, to which end he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL). He also founded the Black Star Line, a shipping and passenger line which promoted the return of the African diaspora to their ancestral lands.
Prior to the 20th century, leaders such as Prince Hall, Martin Delany, Edward Wilmot Blyden, and Henry Highland Garnet advocated the involvement of the African diaspora in African affairs. Garvey was unique in advancing a Pan-African philosophy to inspire a global mass movement and economic empowerment focusing on Africa known as Garveyism. Promoted by the UNIA as a movement of African Redemption, Garveyism would eventually inspire others, ranging from the Nation of Islam to the Rastafari movement (some sects of which proclaim Garvey as a prophet).
Garveyism intended persons of African ancestry in the diaspora to “redeem” the nations of Africa and for the European colonial powers to leave the continent. His essential ideas about Africa were stated in an editorial in the Negro World entitled “African Fundamentalism”, where he wrote: “Our union must know no clime, boundary, or nationality… to let us hold together under all climes and in every country…”
Interest in Malcolm’s Garveyite parents, and particularly his Grenadian mother, Louise, has picked up in recent years.
The New York Times featured her recently in their “Overlooked” series, which is “a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.”
Jolie Solomon wrote the belated obit, filling in a portrait of Malcolm’s parents, who were in the shadows for far too long.
The Littles set to work founding a Garvey chapter, as they would in cities in Wisconsin and Michigan over the next decade. Earl recruited at home and on the road. Louise was chapter secretary and a reporter for Garvey’s newspaper, The Negro World. According to “The Life of Louise Norton” (2021), by Jessica Russell (with contributions by Little family members), the family sheltered Garvey when he was in flight from federal agents on charges of mail fraud, and Louise wrote material for a national campaign urging President Calvin Coolidge to grant Garvey clemency.
Wherever they settled their growing family, the Littles were a provocation. Not only did they spread Garvey’s bold rhetoric, but their own literacy and economic autonomy were also an affront. When one of their homes in a white area burned down, Earl, a skilled carpenter, quickly rebuilt it. Louise worked as a seamstress and sold her own designs. Most of the family’s livelihood came from farming and hunting — on land they owned, a rarity in sharecropping America. Their family car was another anomaly — as was Louise’s driving it. They were continually threatened by white neighbors and officials, and many Black residents were afraid to be seen with them.
As the Little children began to attend school, Louise took on a new role: a prescient form of the activist parent. She worked to counter what the children were taught, correcting the routine slander about Black people to inoculate her children against self-hatred. If she heard of a particularly egregious remark or lesson, she would march into the school and demand respect. She took the children to various churches and temples to sample religious ideas and had them sing the alphabet in French, read aloud from The Negro World and another newspaper, The West Indian, and look up every new word in the family dictionary. By the seventh grade, Malcolm had top grades and was class president.
In 2022, further efforts to honor Louise have emerged.
The Feb. 19, 2017 edition of Black Perspectives, the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society included an interview with Erik S. McDuffie focused on Louise Little. McDuffie is an associate professor in the African American Studies department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
It all started in Grenada where she was born. For me, it is critical for scholars of the African diaspora to conduct primary research outside of the U.S. and preferably in the locations they are studying. Certainly I understand the time and financial cost, but scholars of the African diaspora should not only write about black subjects globally, but also travel the globe.
Getting back to Grenada, it was just extraordinary and so exciting to have the opportunity to actually set foot on the island, to see the island. It was crucial for me to walk on some of the same roads and paths where Louise Langdon, as she was known on the island, had walked and lived. The progenitors of the Langdon family, Jupiter Langdon and Mary Jane Langdon, both came from West Africa, apparently from modern-day Nigeria. They were so-called “liberated Africans” who arrived in Grenada probably in the mid-nineteenth century. Jupiter Langdon became a successful carpenter and landholder. Mary Jane Langdon was a devout wife and mother, raised her children, and worked as a domestic. Descendants of Mary Jane and Jupiter Langdon still own the land where Jupiter Langdon is buried. I had the privilege to visit this grave. It was incredibly moving. It’s on the side of a hill outside the town of La Digue on the eastern side of the island. The grave faces the Atlantic Ocean which is so telling that both Jupiter and Mary Jane came from Africa and represents the roots and routes of this family.
I also visited Omaha, Nebraska where Malcolm X was born on May 19, 1925. Being in Omaha, to see the land and hills, to see where Louise and her husband Earl Little raised their family—to see this journey was incredibly powerful. And this past December, I had the opportunity to travel to Montreal, Canada, where Louise made her first stop in North America. She left Grenada in 1917, she arrived in Montreal, and then lived there for about two years. In Montreal, she was first introduced to Garveyism through her uncle, Edgerton Langdon, the son of Mary Jane and Jupiter Langdon. In Montreal, she joined the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded by Marcus Garvey and Amy Ashwood Garvey, and later met Earl Little, who was from Georgia. They married in Montreal, moved down to Philadelphia, and then to Omaha in 1921. And, lastly, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with some of her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She has a very large and extended family in Michigan and elsewhere. I have had the opportunity to meet with various members of the Little family who live in Grand Rapids. I came to know a gentleman by the name of Steven Jones who was the grandson of Louise Little. He possessed an encyclopedic memory of the family. Unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago. I also have gotten to know Deborah Jones, Steven Jones’ sister, who is also brilliant and is one of the bearers of the family history.
The International Malcolm X by Lynn Burnett offers more details on the racism faced by Malcolm’s parents.
While Louise was pregnant with Malcolm in the winter of 1925, the Ku Klux Klan visited their house to ask for her husband. Luckily, he was away, travelling on speaking engagements as his son would later do. The Klan shattered the windows of their house and left. As Malcolm later wrote, “they rode off, their torches flaring, as suddenly as they had come.” The family moved to Indiana, but the Ku Klux Klan soon forced them to move on. Moving to Michigan, their house was bombed. The fire department never arrived, and detectives refused to investigate the case. Malcolm was five years old.
Far from crushing their spirits, the terror they faced inspired Louise and Earl Little to work even harder for Black liberation. By the time of the bombing, Malcolm’s father had begun taking his son to United Negro Improvement Association meetings. These meetings made a great impression on the young Malcolm, who later wrote that ‘The meeting always closed with my father saying several times and the people chanting after him, ‘Up, you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will!’”
Marcus Garvey’s visions of Black freedom governed the household. The children learned how to care for themselves so that they would not learn to rely on the unreliable White world, and would grow up to able to contribute to Black independence. Malcolm’s older brother Wilfred recalled that “Our mother used to take us out into the woods and show us different herbs and tell us what they could cure.” Each child was given a plot of garden to care for and learned to grow their own food. The household was filled with a variety of Black American and Caribbean newspapers, and the children were regularly tutored about current events and the history of Africa and the African diaspora.
In 1931, 6-year-old Malcolm’s father died, likely at the hands of the Black Legion, a midwestern hate group spun off from the Klan; it was ruled a suicide and not long after, Louise, left to raise eight children alone, was railroaded into a mental institution. Young Malcolm’s life soon took a turn for the worse, and at 21 he went to prison. After jail and immersion into the Nation of Islam, and later in the Organization of Afro-American Unity that he founded in 1964, it was clear that his familial roots in Garveyism still were a key part of his thinking.
This undated clip of Malcolm talking about Garvey illustrates just that.
Moving to the Caribbean, Malcolm holds a place of high esteem in the in the eyes of the region’s artists and activists. Superstar Jamaican reggae singer Dennis Brown had a huge hit song, "Malcolm X," in 1977, originally written and voiced by Earl Sixteen.
The celebration of Malcolm X’s birthday will continue in the comments, where you’ll also find the weekly Caribbean Matters Twitter News Roundup.