Louise Little

The recent unexpected death of Malikah Shabazz once again provides an aperture on her distinguished family, especially her paternal grandmother Louise Little (née Langdon). When your husband is Earl Little, a tireless Garveyite whose death remains a mystery, and your son is Malcolm X, they consume much of the attention, pushing her further into the shadows. But she had her own ray of importance in the Garvey movement and an impressive lineage that began in Grenada.

She was born Louise Langdon on Nov. 4, 1894. During an interview with Keisha Blain of Black Perspectives, Prof. Erik McDuffie detailed some of Louise’s early years: “The progenitors of the Langdon family, Jupiter Langdon and Mary Jane Langdon,” recounted McDuffie, who has traveled extensively to gather primary sources including Grenada, “both came from West Africa, apparently from modern-day Nigeria. They were so-called ‘liberated Africans’ who arrived in Grenada probably in the mid-19th 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.”

The first mention of Louise in Malcolm’s autobiography notes that she was 28 when he was born and that “she looked like a white woman.” Her father was white, Malcolm continued, and she had straight black hair, but her accent “didn’t sound like a Negro’s.” Other than indicating he got his “mariny” complexion from her, that was the extent of his mother’s early years in his book. McDuffie deftly expands on Louise’s formative development, writing that she spoke multiple languages—English, French and Patois. “She taught her children the French alphabet,” he added, “and she insisted that her children read newspapers such as the Negro World, the official periodical of the UNIA, and newspapers from Grenada.”

Before she began having one child after another—eight in total, seven by Earl—she was as active in the Garvey movement as her husband, perhaps even more so given her linguistic and literary capabilities. At one time, she was reported to be the secretary of the branch in Omaha where her husband was the leader. She was introduced to Garveyism by her uncle Edgerton Langdon and became a member in good standing, even editing the publication and helping in the distribution. The couple married in Montreal, where they had met during a political meeting, moved to Philadelphia, and then onto Omaha in 1921, where Malcolm was born four years later.

With a brood and then the death of her husband in 1931, Louise was saddled with a tremendous burden, to say nothing of an incipient mental depression. Malcolm wrote that his mother seemed to always be working, cooking, washing, ironing, cleaning, and fussing over the children. Soon, he related, things began to go downhill, despite the welfare checks. “The physical downhill wasn’t as quick as the psychological,” he said. “My mother was, above everything else, a proud woman, and it took its toll on her that she was accepting charity. And her feelings were communicated to us.”

Malcolm said he recalled people referring to his mother as “crazy.” It was a term he heard in reference to her not eating pork. They didn’t seem to understand that the family had never eaten pork because they were Seventh Day Adventist, and that would certainly make it easy for Malcolm to accept that dietary restriction once he became a member of the Nation of Islam.

“Eventually my mother suffered a complete breakdown,” Malcolm wrote, “and the court orders were finally signed. They took her to the State Mental Hospital in Kalamazoo.” She would remain in this hospital for 26 years until 1963 when they got her out and she began living with her son, Philbert. There came a time when she failed to recognize her children, and Malcolm saw her for the last time in 1952. He confessed in his autobiography that he had never said that much about his mother, though he dearly loved her and blamed the state for destroying her and her family.

If for no more than being the mother of Malcolm X her legacy is enshrined, but several of her other children led successful lives, especially her youngest son, Robert, who was the deputy director of the Office of Youth Services in the Michigan Department of Social Services. He died on Nov. 23, 1999, ten years after his mother’s death on June 22, 1989 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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