If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made.
My mother’s dress was sky blue with tiny white polka dots sprinkled like snowflakes. She wore it with her pearls when she went into town. She walked tall, head high, with a beautiful smile and skin bursting with pride so thick people felt her before they saw her, wondering what this white woman was doing with all these Negro children. All seven of us lined up like ducklings behind her. Even when we were home, we orbited her like the planets. We couldn’t get enough of her.
I lay my head on her shoulder as she cradled Wesley in her arms, singing to us in English, French, Creole, Yoruba. Eyes closed, voice like a hummingbird. Mother soon fell asleep. She must have been tired from staying up late the night before, working on an article she was writing for the Negro World newspaper. She was by far the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. It was probably why Papa always brought something home for her after his travels—nutmeg, mint candies, new books.
In the living room, some of my brothers and sisters were hunched over their encyclopedias as news hissed from the radio. Outside, the sky was pinkish peach and orange as the Midwestern sun slowly set on Lansing, Michigan. I could smell Hilda’s cinnamon hot cross buns rising in the oven and Mom’s West Indian stewed chicken simmering on the stove next to a pot of greens seasoned with her own garden spices.
We were all together: Papa, Mom, Wilfred, Hilda, Philbert, me, Reginald, Wesley, Yvonne—even Robert. Though he wasn’t born yet, he was there, and everything was perfect. Warm, cozy, safe. No one could harm us. No one could break us. Papa wouldn’t let them. We were family.
But in a blink, it all changed.
Mom startled awake with a gasp that shot up from her toes.
“Mommy?” Hilda said from the stove, tending to the pot. “Mommy, are you okay?”
Mom placed a trembling palm on the table to balance herself, eyes searching, taking each of us in. Wilfred, the eldest, entered the kitchen, book still in hand, followed by the others.
“Where’s your father?” she whispered.
“I think … he’s in his room,” Wilfred said.
“You think?” she snapped, passing the baby to Hilda. I scrambled out of her way as she rushed into the hall.
“Earl!” she called. “Earl! Where are you?”
There was a frantic desperation in her cries that we hadn’t heard since the night the KKK set our first house on fire in Omaha. I remembered the way we had burst out into the night, her screams urging us to run. Philbert stood behind me, holding my shoulders, Reginald squeezing against my side.
Now we listened to my father’s heavy footsteps slowly walk down the hall before he appeared at the kitchen doorway, dressed in his clay-brown tweed suit, hat in hand.
“Well, good morning, sleepyhead,” Papa said to her with a grin. “You dozed off there real good.”
She took in his tall, stocky frame and smooth black skin but didn’t seem comforted by his presence. “Where are you going?”
Papa chuckled, fixing the brim of his hat. “Going into town to collect rent and money for the chickens.”
Mom bit her bottom lip and shook her head real slowly. “No. Earl. Don’t go.”
“Woman, I am not afraid of those—”
“Earl, don’t!” she snapped. “Just listen to me, now.”
“Louise, don’t start this funny business again. Now you know—”
Mom’s voice became real soft, at the edge of tears. “Earl, if you go, you won’t come back, ever!”
The room fell silent, even the radio lost signal. My heart started to race wildly. What did she mean, Papa wouldn’t come back? Of course, he’d be back. He’d be back in time for supper. Then there would be work to do, meetings to attend, time to spend ministering to people and spreading Mr. Garvey’s teachings. Papa said I could go with him again to the next meeting. It was good for my training, my organizing, my destiny. Papa said I was going to make a great leader someday.
My brothers and sisters huddled together by the table as if to keep warm, trying to make sense of Mom’s words. Mom’s words were always soft yet firm and true. She was never ever wrong. But these words, they frightened us, more than anything. I needed her to be wrong.
Papa touched the top of Mom’s head, cradling her cheek with a smile. Papa, with a body as strong as the finest steel, could be tough on us kids, but he held a sweet spot for Mom. We could see it in his eyes, the way he looked at her, endearing and proud.
“Louise, don’t fret, okay? I’ll be back before supper. Nothing will ever take me away from our family. Nothing will ever take me away from you.”
“Papa?” Wilfred started. He wasn’t a man yet and he wouldn’t dare question Papa’s decisions, but the way Mom clutched herself, he at least had to try. “Uh, can I come with you?”
“No, son. I’ll be back before you know it. You check on them chickens?”
“Good,” he mumbled. “Finish your studies and watch after your mother, you hear?”
Papa nodded at the rest of us, put on his round spectacles, and headed down the hall. The front door creaked and slammed shut behind him. Mom stood there, staring at the door as if she hoped he’d change his mind. The door didn’t open. A darkness fell over the house within seconds.
“Mommy?” Hilda asked gently. “Is it … is it one of your premonitions?”
Mom glanced down at me, her forehead creased with worry. She slid a hand down my cheek and said, “Malcolm. Malcolm? It’s time for you to wake up, sweetheart.”
Wake up? But I wasn’t asleep.
“Huh, Mom? What are you talking about?”
“Malcolm, it’s time.”
Her voice sounded distant, far away, like an echo underwater. My arms and legs went numb. Felt like I was falling.
“Malcolm. Malcolm! It’s time. Wake up!” she shrieked, her scream like a stuck piano key thumping through my head. I closed my eyes and pressed my ears into my skull.
“Wake up, Malcolm! Wake up! Wake up! Malcolm, wake up!”
“Wake up, nigger! Move your ass! Now!”
The wooden baton clacking against the bars of my prison cell rang like harsh chimes.
My eyes pop open wide at the wrinkled white face screaming inches from mine.
“Lazy nigger! Move it!”
The guard backs out the cell as a commotion stirs in the hall. I set a palm down on the rough sheets, staring up at the ceiling to ground myself. Every time I open my eyes, I remember where I am. I’m in hell and there’s nowhere to run.
“Line up, convicts! Now! Eyes forward. Stand straight!”
I splash some cold brown water on my face and slip on my blue uniform.
Out of my cell, I fall into position as the guards take count. My legs are wobbly, eyes still adjusting, heart pounding like a mallet against my rib cage.
I was there. I was home. With my family. I could almost smell the wild honeysuckles outside our window.
I remember the day my mother predicted my father’s death. I remember how he didn’t come home in time for supper like he promised, and we went to bed empty, deprived of his presence. I remember drifting off to sleep next to Reginald and awaking to screams. Mom’s screams. There’s no scream more gutting than your mother’s. It’s the first sound we hear at birth, delivering us into this world.
Time to wake up, Malcolm.
“Cellblock Double A, sound off!”
One by one, each prisoner yells out his number. Who we were before ceased to exist the moment we entered this place. I’m no longer Malcolm Little nor Detroit Red. I’m 22843. They had us memorize it. They stripped us of our names, preventing us from being men, reducing us down to a bunch of numbers.
“Rough night?” a voice whispers behind me.
I look quick to my right, at my cell neighbor, Norm.
“You were talking in your sleep again—full-blown conversation. You be killing those dreams, youngin.”
A dream. Yes, that’s what it was. But how could a dream like that feel so real? The cold on the back of my neck is real, so are the lungs that can’t seem to suck in enough air. I tighten my fists to keep cool around the guards.
“My old boss man, he used to say, ‘Don’t drink that stuff past midnight or you’ll end up having some wild dreams about—’”
“Hey! You wanna go to the hole, convict?” a guard snaps.
Norm straightens his back, staring straight ahead. In the wet cold, I see his breath billowing around his dark skin.
Time to wake up, Malcolm.
I don’t consider myself a superstitious man in no kind of way, but my mother’s dreams were vivid snapshots that could foretell the future, sweeping any doubting words right out your mouth. Did she dream I’d get locked up in this hellhole?
With lineup complete, they send us out single file, barking orders and threats as we march on cue like marionettes. In the mess hall, I make eye contact with one of the cooks, Jimmy. We can communicate without words.
“How’s it going, homeboy?” He winks.
“Can’t complain but I do.” I nod, leaning in. “Just another day in paradise.”
He chuckles. “Keep on dreaming, homeboy. You’ll be there soon enough.”
He nods and sneaks a matchbook next to my bowl of hard oatmeal. Good ole Jimmy, always dishing out encouragement with a side of nutmeg. I slip the nutmeg into my cup of water, and take it back like a shot. It’s not reefer but it’s enough to take the edge off that dream. I can still hear Mom’s voice in my head. I don’t want her voice with me in here. I don’t want the reminder that I’ve failed the only people who truly love me. I don’t want to wake up. I don’t want to be here—
“Hey, Little,” Walter from the shop says. “You see this? There’s gonna be a fight in a few weeks.”
He slides a newspaper my way. A fight would do me solid right about now. Could set up some bets with a few of the cats I’ve made good with in here. I scan the headline, noticing the date underneath. May 19.
Today is my birthday. I’m twenty-one years old.
I fold up the paper as if it never touched my hand.
* * *
Charlestown State Prison is about seven miles from Roxbury. Seven miles from the second place I called “home.” That’s what drives me to madness. So close yet too far to comprehend. I wonder if Fat Frankie is still hustling folks with his card tricks and who might be singing at Roseland tonight and what Ella has cooking on the stove. Stuff that no longer matters as long as I’m locked up in this hellhole.
Here in Charlestown, every day is the same day:
6:00 a.m. Alarm
6:30 a.m. Shower/handle your personal business
7:00 a.m. 30 minutes for breakfast
8:00 a.m. Slave/Work detail
11:00 a.m. 30 minutes for lunch
12:00 p.m. Slave/Work detail
3:00 p.m. Quitting time
4:00 p.m. The yard
5:00 p.m. 30 minutes for supper
6:00 p.m. Remain in cellblock housing area
8:00 p.m. Return to cell
10:00 p.m. Lights-out
Seems real simple, but the seconds pass like hours, days like months. This place is an old barracks dump designed by someone who has no regard for human life. So old it should be condemned. Wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. I’ve been locked up for the past three months. Could probably tell you the time down to the second even without a watch.
But … a watch is how I ended up here in the first place. A watch I stole and took to the pawnshop for repairs instead of selling it to the highest bidder. When I went to pick it up, that’s when the cops got me.
I’m six foot four, size fourteen shoe. My iron cage is no wider than the length of my stretched-out arms, palms up. I call it a cage because that’s exactly what it is. A place where they put stray animals, as if to tame them into submission. But they can’t tame me, they can never tame me. Something’s churning fast inside my chest, making it hard to sit still. I pace up and down, around and around. Each turn makes me question all the other turns I could’ve made in my life. How did I get here?
* * *
4KD-589. 4KD-590. 4KD-591. 4KD-592.
My work detail is in the license-plate shop. I’m stationed at the conveyor belt, painting freshly pressed Massachusetts license plates dark hunter green. When my mind is not in a fog, I can still memorize numbers like West Indian Archie showed me. He was the biggest player in the Harlem numbers game. Taught me everything there was to know about the hustle … until he tried to kill me for it.
By now, I know the license-plate numbers of at least a thousand cars out on the road … driving.
“Hey now, young brother, steady on those strokes!”
That’s Bembry. Works on the conveyor line, too. He’s one of the older prisoners. There’s a bunch of them down here, from all different walks of life, cracking jokes about everything under the sun as if this place is a country club. Not me, though, I keep to myself. There’s nothing funny about being in here.
“You know, I wouldn’t mind doing this type of work on the outside,” Bembry says. He’s a tall, fair-skinned man with a heap of freckles scattered on his face. “Making a good living.”
“Can’t see it making no real money, tho,” says Leefoy, a burly, brown-skinned man with a bald head. Everyone calls him Big Lee. He lays the big sheets of tin down to be pressed with numbers. He’s always hollering about Jesus, and today I hope he keeps his comments to himself. Especially when Mom’s words are still floating in my head.
Wake up, Malcolm.
“This is still good work at the end of the day,” Bembry says. “Come in here, do what needs to be done, break for lunch, finish for the day, go home to the wife and kids.”
There’s a sadness in his voice. Not sure if he has a wife and kids, or maybe he’s just thinking of a life he wishes he could have. This place will do that to you.
“Probably get myself a nice house. No apartment, a house! Pay for it with my own money, with a big kitchen for the wife, you know, since she likes to cook and all. Maybe one of them nice, clean Ford cars for one of these plates and—Hey, hey now! Watch out with that, young brother.” Bembry glares at me over the presser. “You’ll get paint over everything, then we’ll all be scrubbing this machine down!”
All the men chuckle.
“Car, house, and family? Sounds like you trying to live that American dream, Bembry!” Big Lee says.
American dream. Papa used to talk about that. How, whenever they came up with that talk, it wasn’t meant for us Negroes. In this cage or on the outside, it’s all a nightmare at the end of the day. This world doesn’t give a damn about our dreams.
Bembry shrugs. “Or just a dream. We all need to have them. Life ain’t worth living without it and—Hold on now, young brother. You gotta be careful with her. You know, it’s not always about getting it done, but getting it right.”
Bembry’s voice is calming, like the cup of tea Mom used to fix when we had colds. No one even minds his chastising.
“Well, God willing,” Big Lee says, “you’ll be blessed with that house one day.”
Bembry and I catch eyes.
God willing. That’s another phrase that wasn’t meant for Negroes. Did God will this for us? I look around the room, at all these different faces. Hundreds of weary Negroes living behind these bars, pressing plates for cars we’ll never drive or pay we’ll never get. What type of God would let this happen?
“Indeed you will, my brother,” a Muslim guy says. That’s Walter, or Kabir Muhammad, but everyone still calls him Walter. He operates the roller that turns the raised letters white after the plates dry.
“The Honorable Elijah Muhammad says, ‘What we long for, will finally appear.’”
But I didn’t want to talk about the Lord, Jesus, or any of those deities. Who cares what they say or will? They mean nothing to me.
I clutch a plate in my hand, ready to snap it in two.
“You all right there, young brother?” Bembry says to me, eyeing my white knuckles.
I don’t answer. Afraid to say one word while the fire sizzling inside me is ready to boil over.
* * *
After dinner, I sit on my creaking wiry mattress, wondering how many other Negroes slept right here in this space. Hundreds? Thousands?
But the worst part is the smell. One hundred and forty years of cumulative funk.
A mixed batch of sweaty bodies, vomit, and hundreds of shit buckets baked into the granite walls, our clothes, our skin. We eat with the stench. We brush our teeth with the stench. We clean our bodies with the stench.
How can Walter and Big Lee talk of salvation when they are surrounded by hell?
Still, the strength in their voices, their plans for the future remind me of Mom. The way she used to speak of our past, our history.
* * *
Outside the screen door, royal-blue butterflies fluttered and danced as wind whispered through the cracks in our home.
She gently turned my chin in her direction. Her face could look so pale at times, like the cream you put in your coffee. Pearls shined like white marbles around her neck, her long hair tucked into a neat bun. But her smile—the way her teeth sparkled—always reminded me of sunny days, no matter the cold digging holes into my bones.
“Now, what did I just say?”
The sweet smell of simmering greens filled my nose. At the table in our kitchen, I was surrounded by Wilfred, Hilda, Philbert, Wesley, and Yvonne. Vegetables hung out of a boiling pot of stew, and a Negro World newspaper was in Mom’s hands as she tapped her foot.
“Um, I don’t know,” I admitted.
Mom sighed and folded her paper.
“You have to listen, Malcolm. You will not learn anything if you don’t listen. Your life will be meaningless if you don’t learn.” She stopped to give us all a hard look. “Do you hear me, children?”
“Yes, ma’am,” we said in unison.
She didn’t look satisfied.
“What are the principles that define us?”
“Self-love. Self-reliance. Unity,” Wilfred said.
“See, Malcolm,” Philbert teased, punching me in the shoulder. “Pay attention and stop being a stupid nigger.”
“You watch your mouth, young man!” Mom snapped, slamming the paper on the table and rattling the dishes. “We don’t use that word around here, not in this house. You hear me?”
“But … aren’t we niggers, Mom?” Philbert said. “That’s what white folks call us.”
Mom’s eyes grew hard as she stared through him. “Who defines this word nigger?”
“The white bigot,” we said in unison.
“And for what purpose?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
Wilfred turned to me and said, “White bigots made up names to keep ‘Blacks’ feeling bad about ourselves. To keep us thinking that we’re worthless. Blaming it on the color of our skin.”
“You are Black, like your papa,” Mom said, shaking her head. “Proud, smart, and Black. Beautifully Black, Scholarly Black, Lovingly Black. You hear me? You are a child of God, strong and protected by the universe. Now, Malcolm, answer my question—where do you come from?”
“Um, from Omaha, Nebraska, and Lansing, Michigan.”
My sisters and brothers snickered at me. Mom slowly shook her head.
“No, Malcolm. Where are your roots from, your heritage, my love?”
“Oh,” I said. “My heritage is from Africa. The kingdom of Benin, which once encompassed all the land of West Africa before the Europeans colonized it. We were known for the riches and craftsmanship of precious metals—like gold—iron, brass, and even wood and ivory. We are also known for our wisdom, intellect, and democracy.”
“Correct. You have rich African blood in your veins. Don’t you, young man?” Mom’s voice calmed. “The blood of kings and queens, inventors, farmers, and scholars. My grandparents and your great-grandparents are Yoruba from what is presently Nigeria. They sailed to the Caribbean island of Grenada as emigrants. Your great-grandparents’ daughter is my mother. My father was a Scottish man who … was wicked to my mum. Hilda, tell me about your father’s great-grandfather.”
“Papa said his name is Hajja and he was from Mali, where the Dogon tribe is from,” she said proudly. “The Dogon tribe dates back thousands of years and they are also known for their knowledge of astronomy and their superior intellect. Papa said that’s why we’re so smart.”
Mom smiled and talked more about the different countries in Africa and why it’s important to know your roots. She said that the Dogon were some of the smartest people in all humanity. Europeans were intrigued by the Dogon people because of their knowledge of the companion Sirius B star, which orbits Sirius A.
“So you see, we came from somewhere. We have an identity, a culture, a history, long before the European colonizers invaded the continent, and long before Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the Americas. Long before slavery existed. Do you understand me, children? Black people were compassionate and built thriving civilizations.”
She passed me one of my favorite books to look at. It had pictures of far-off places. Pictures of pyramids, people, lions, zebras, and turquoise oceans. Even pictures of Mansa Musa, the wealthiest man in the whole wide world, who lived in Mali and looked so much like Papa. Except he wore a turban, and Papa wore a top hat.
“Maybe I’ll go there sometime,” I said. “To Africa.”
My brothers and sisters laughed.
“How are you going to do that, silly?” Yvonne giggled.
Mom’s lips turned into a curved smile. A proud smile. “I hope you do. I hope we all do, one day.”
Hilda tended to the pot of dandelion stew on the stove. The stew was never filling but my mouth watered for it nonetheless. Mom said it had all the nutrients we needed.
Outside, the royal-blue butterflies danced among the sunflowers. I wanted to run outside, barefoot on the thick green grass, and chase after them. Add them to my collection next to our library. Then, run farther and farther. Run straight to Africa, Asia, South and Central America, and then Europe. I wanted to see the world before returning back home to America, to Michigan, to Lansing.
The front door slammed. Reginald, all wobbly legs, skin and bones, rushed into the kitchen, a knit sack hanging over his shoulder.
“Sorry I’m late!”
“I’ve been wondering what happened to you, dear,” Mom said, crossing her arms. “What do you have there?”
Reginald dumped the bag on the counter, the contents falling like bricks.
Hilda took a loaf and banged it against the counter.
“You mean rocks.”
“It’ll go nice with the stew,” Mom corrected her. “Come now, let’s eat.”
Mom removed her shoes, massaging the balls of her feet while Yvonne sawed through the bread and Hilda ladled stew into our bowls.
Mom rinsed her hands before joining us as we bowed our heads in unison for prayer.
I dipped a piece of bread into the stew to soften it, and everyone else did the same.
“While you all are eating supper,” Mom said, laying her spoon on the table, “I’ll read one of these old letters from Papa.”
The table stilled, the mention of Papa casting some type of spell on us. Mom pretended not to notice as she unfolded the letter, reading it aloud:
My Dearest Wife,
I trust that all is well and prosperous at home. It is good to hear the children are doing well and learning about truth and justice for Black people of the world. It is important that they see themselves outside of the four-square-mile radius in which they live. They must see themselves as global citizens, not as minorities, and have a healthy and positive sense of who they are and of those around them.
Papa wrote about his travels to different towns where he preached about the injustices of the world. He ministered to Black folk, encouraging them to be self-sufficient and to not rely on the government, which historically had not been a friend to them. Papa was the chapter president of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, an organization that commanded millions of followers worldwide. And folks looked up to Papa. I looked up to him most of all. Mom was right—listening to Papa’s letter brought us some comfort, reminded us to be proud of all the great work Papa had done.
“Mom,” Wesley asked in a small voice. “Why did Papa die?”
The question whipped like an ice storm around the room, freezing us solid with our spoons raised in midair.
Mom took a steady breath.
“Papa didn’t die. Papa was killed,” she said, her eyes hardening. “He was killed for his kindness. He was killed for trying to invoke change in our people, to wake them up. He was killed by ignorant men. You see, Black people all around the world endured hundreds of years of chattel slavery—they were hunted, stolen, tortured, separated from families, forbidden to read and write. There were no laws to protect us from these criminal acts, you see. And your father, he served a mighty God. He challenged us to stand up and to restore our own humanity. You must never forget that. You hear me?”
Reginald looked across the table at me, his eyes softening.
Wesley eyed the floor. “Will they … kill everyone like that?”
My veins felt heavy, weighing me down into the seat. I wanted to reach across the table, zip Wesley’s mouth shut.
Mom softly cupped the side of Wesley’s cheek, and her words came out like a soothing song.
“No, baby. They won’t kill everyone. But they will try to kill the ones who they fear will bring unity to the masses. The ones who will challenge the unlawful crimes against humanity.”
“Why does God let this happen to us?” Reginald asked.
But Mom looked directly at me. “To make us strong. To remind us of the fire within. Your papa, he was like a match, ready to set the world on fire with his light, when some just wanted to stay in the dark. He said you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. No middle ground, one or the other. So are you going to be a light or are you going to dim your light?”
“But,” I said, “why did Papa have to be the one to die?”
Mom smiled at me. “Sometimes change requires the biggest sacrifice, my love. Your father, he lives on forever. He lives in each one of you. You can call on him whenever you need him. He is always with you.”
* * *
By lights-out, they finally come around to empty our dump pails. I gag as the cart squeaks by, wondering how Shorty’s faring, wondering if he’s as lonely as me.
Wherever he is.
Copyright © 2021 by Ilyasah Shabazz