Wilfred remembers . . .
Carew, Jan. Ghosts in Our Blood: With Malcolm X in Africa, England, and the Caribbean.
In his quiet avuncular fashion, Wilfred began telling an entirely different story of his mother's life from the one that the biographers of Malcolm X had so far penned. "The story of her life was an epic one," he declared proudly. "The epic began in Grenada, continued in Canada, and ended here in the States. In all three countries there are parts of her life waiting to be resurrected.
"She was a small-boned and slender woman, five feet eight inches tall, and she carried herself well. Because she always held herself erect, she looked taller, but beside my six-foot-four father she looked short. She was also fair-skinned and had a full head of hair. Her feet, though, were narrow, and she had a time finding shoes. Yes, she carried herself well, and the springs didn't go out of her legs until she was past eighty--and talking about feet, I remember Malcolm's feet and the way he used to walk. With his tall self, he had what I called a tiger-boy walk. He sure had his own special way of walking. You could tell from a distance that it was Malcolm. But my mother didn't simply disappear into a world of madness after my father's death, so let me try and fill in some of the missing pieces for you.
"When my father died on September 28, 1931, we were living in an unfinished house. My father was a master builder, he could do everything--the foundation work, the plumbing, the roofing, the plastering--and he could put all the finishing touches to a house so that it looked real nice. He literally built our home with his own two hands. He had to build it one section at a time. Because of his Garveyite beliefs, nobody would give him a regular job. The whites said that he was uppity, and there were a lot of frightened Negroes who grumbled that he and my mother were rocking the boat. But he was a resourceful man and she was a resourceful woman. He'd leave home early and walk the roads, going from farm to farm and offering to do whatever repairs the farm building needed--and he could point out to the farmers where repairs were needed, so those white farmers would allow him to do that kind of odd-job work for them. He was good at it, and they had a respect for his skill as a worker.
"But let me back up a bit. We plowed and planted crops on our own land and raised most of our own food, so before we left home in the mornings, my father would take us outside and show us what he wanted us to do, like getting the weeds up from between the rows. So before he went on his rounds, each one of us had a job to do, and my mother would see to it that we did it before he came back home in the evening. And if they both had to go out, the oldest child--that's me--would be in charge. Malcolm was always the most rebellious of us. As he got older and became more independent, he'd find some excuse to go back to the house for something, and we wouldn't see him again. He'd go and get with his friends in the city. When my father returned home in the evening, depending on the season, he'd plow and plant and weed and harvest. Then, bit by bit, he'd make additions to the house. Physically, he was one of the strongest men I ever knew. My mother, too, worked all day and well into the night; she made dresses and crocheted gloves for mostly white women. If my father had continued to live, no telling what we would have turned out to be, because we were a very tight family. We worked together, and our parents always had us working toward some useful goal.
"But my father's death had a devastating effect on our tight family unit. We were living in Lansing at the time, and I'll always remember the night he was almost cut in half on the streetcar line. He had come home after a long day's work and was just about to settle down for the night when he announced that he was going back into town to get something he had forgotten. 'Don't go, Earlie,' my mother pleaded with him, 'I have a strange feeling that something bad could happen to you out there tonight.' She had a way of foretelling events, and I don't remember her ever being wrong. But my father had made up his mind. He put on his jacket and left saying that he'd be back soon. She ran after him, calling out, 'Don't go, Earlie! Come back, Earlie!' I can't remember ever seeing her like that before. Anyway, I stayed with her as usual while she did her chores, and a couple of hours later we heard a noise as if someone opened the front door, entered, and walked upstairs. 'Did you hear your father come in and go ups tairs?' my mother asked. 'Yes, I heard as if someone come in,' I said, but when she went upstairs and checked, he wasn't there. It wasn't too long after that that a state trooper came to the door and told my mother that she should come to the hospital right away because my father had been seriously injured in an accident.
"So, all of a sudden, my mother was on her own with all those children and no help from anywhere. Other Black people who lived in the city looked upon us as being odd because we were always going against the stream and our parents were always challenging things that they didn't think were right. My father was always out there trying to encourage our people to get together and do something to improve their lives, but they felt that he and my mother were rocking the boat and that she, in particular, didn't think the way they did. She didn't like the idea of charity, but all of a sudden she had no husband, and there was no way with all those children but to accept charity. The house was unfinished, the insurance company was saying that my father's death was a suicide, and the ones who controlled the welfare system were giving her a hard time, putting undue pressures on her. They wanted her to sell the house, but she refused. A few of my mother's West Indian friends did try to help out, but the odds against he r were increasing. She was a very good seamstress. She made all of our clothes, and then, like I said before, she sewed for mostly white customers. There were very few Black ones.
"I remember that when we lived in Milwaukee, we had a little store and a storefront, with an apartment next door. She used the store to sell her merchandise. Back in those days, the boys wore a jacket and knickers to match, and the girls wore dresses with bloomers that came below the dresses. She was brave, and she was a fighter. She worked harder at her dressmaking after she was widowed. Young as I was then, I could see that she was tired and trying to take on too much. I went to school in the daytime and worked in a general store in the evening to make extra money and help pay the bills and things, and my mother would say, 'I don't know what I would do if it wasn't for Wilfred. He doesn't act like a child anymore. He just takes on responsibility like a man.'
"But what happened was this: there was a phony probate judge who was more or less in charge, and he put a lot of pressure on my mother. He wanted to buy the property and leaned on her to sell. He'd tell her that she couldn't stay on welfare and own that property, which was untrue. He arranged it so that her monthly check as a widow would come through him, and every time she went to collect it he would put more pressure on her to sell the property. When she realized what he was doing, she started sending me to collect the check. But this judge's secretary, and I can't remember his name or hers, would keep telling me that he wasn't in, just say that I told you to wait.' So I went back and waited and other people kept going into his office, so after a while he came out and handed me the check. Now, he and other officials began increasing the pressure on her and saying that she needed to go into an institution. I took her to a psychiatrist myself. He was white, and I can't remember his name either, I asked him to examine my mother and tell me what was going on. He made an appointment to see her on a Saturday, and I took her to him, and he spent some time with her, and the next day he came and said, 'She needs proper rest and nutrition. If there's someone who could take over her responsibilities for a while so that she could get the proper nutrition and not be responsible for anyone, she'd be all right in a little while.' But there wasn't anyone."
"Every day when we came home from school, my mother would sit us down and have us read aloud passages from Marryshow's paper The West Indian. Marryshow was her countryman and somebody she boasted about all the time. He and Garvey were her two idols. Marryshow, a Black Grenadian, could write the English language with more polish and, at the same time, tell you more about the world situation than all those white reporters writing in the Detroit papers put together. Anyway, when we were doing out homework, there was always a dictionary on the table, and when we mispronounced a word my mother made us look it up and learn both to spell and to pronounce it correctly. By reading that Marryshow paper day after day, we developed reading and writing skills superior to those of our white classmates. By reading Garvey's paper and Marryshow's paper, we got an education in international affairs and learned what Black people were doing for their own betterment all over the world."
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