An extraordinary woman: mother of Malcolm X and his 7 siblings

Author: Jessica M Russell

Why did Jessica Russell write the book with Hilda Little and Steven Jones Sr.

There’s a short answer. There’s a long answer. There’s also an unbelievable answer.

I think it’s best to start with the short answer. The others can follow in due course if people are interested in them. Sometimes, I think the long and the unbelievable answers would work better as talks, or podcasts or something. So, if you’re interested, I’m available.

Back to the beginning.

I wrote the book with Hilda because she asked me to write the book and tell the truth about her mother’s life.

No-one could quite believe it, let alone me.

As Steve Jones Sr. said to me in one email before I’d got started with the project fully, no-one knew why his very private aunt had decided to talk to me ‘an unknown woman from the UK’ about her mother’s story.

My own guess is that Hilda Little had some sense that I was simply curious about her mother’s life. For much of her adult life, people had been more interested in talking to her about her brother Malcolm X. I wanted to talk to her about her mother Louise and I didn’t believe the prevailing narrative about what had happened to her. That narrative was well established over many years. Louise had become mentally unwell and was therefore taken to a state hospital.

Hilda told a very different story. Her belief was that her mother had been taken to the hospital unnecessarily and without anyone’s knowledge or agreement as part of a long-standing campaign to dismantle the family by the local County officials. Whilst Hilda agreed her mother had been not herself after the birth of her youngest baby, Robert, she did not recognise the characterisation of Louise’s descent into insanity as had been painted by others immediately prior to her hospitalization.

Hilda’s version of events was also referenced in her younger brother Malcolm’s own book, ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ where Malcolm wrote with Alex Haley:

I truly believe that if ever a state social agency destroyed a family, it destroyed ours. We wanted and tried to stay together. Our home didn’t have to be destroyed. But the Welfare, the courts, and their doctor gave us the one-two-three punch. And ours was not the only case of this kind.

Hilda wanted ‘The Life of Louise Norton Little’ written to expand on that destruction of Louise and her family and let the world know what an incredible woman her mother was.

I wanted to know more about Louise and unpick the narrative of her alleged sudden insanity.

Through the internet and Hilda’s nephew, Steve Jones Sr., we came together united around a cause, despite our very obvious differences.

I wrote the book with Hilda and Steve because it couldn’t have been done without either of them. I wrote the book because Hilda asked me to and I would never have presumed to do so on my own. In fact, no-one could have really because Hilda had all the primary evidence at her home in Michigan. I wrote the book because I wanted to read that book about Louise’s life.

As the mother of two Black young women, I still feel it was an odd situation for me to write this book. On the other hand, Hilda asked me to. As some kind gentleman in America has said in his book review of ‘The Life of Louise Norton Little’ on YouTube, it was a labor of love. I think he has it right.

That’s what it was.

That’s what it is.

Now, just imagine the long answer!

Why was the book titled ‘The Life of Louise Norton Little’?

This is a great question that came up in a conversation about the book last year with Dr Shelby Pumphrey Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville who is doing some amazing work on race, gender and mental health.

The question posed was one I’d been prepared for. The title had been given so much thought and been through several changes already.

Let me explain.

When drafting the book, its working title had been ‘A Hill of Feathers’.

This phrase was taken from a quote by Malcolm X in his own Autobiography.

Malcolm described his last visit to see his mother in Kalamazoo State Hospital in 1952. He felt Louise had not known who he was. He said, ‘She didn’t recognize me at all.’

He continued, ‘I can’t describe how I felt. The woman who had brought me into the world, and nursed me, and advised me, and chastised me, and loved me, didn’t know me. It was as if I was trying to walk up the side of a hill of feathers.’

The image of Malcolm trying to walk up a hill of feathers, sinking into them, getting nowhere was one that stuck with me. In the early days of writing the first draft, I discussed the title of the book with Hilda Little, Louise’s eldest daughter, Malcolm’s eldest sister.

To be clear, without Hilda there would have been no Hill of Feathers or The Life of Louise Norton Little or anything. Along with her younger sister Yvonne, Hilda was the keeper of her mother’s flame for many years. When all her siblings had passed on, only Hilda remained. Hilda held the key to her memories of her mother and she was the only person who had access to the new primary research material for the book. Without Hilda’s agreement, nothing would have ever got off the ground.

Hilda liked the title A Hill of Feathers, so for 10 years, the book was called that.

The original cover

As A Hill of Feathers, the book was shortlisted for the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize in 2012.

It was accepted by an American agent under that title. When Hilda Little died, that was the title. In my head, that’s probably still what it’s called.

In 2019, the book hadn’t found a publisher, and the agency representing the book closed its doors. A Hill of Feathers was out of contract.

Then along came 2020. First the global pandemic. Then George Floyd was murdered. The whole world changed. This book had something to say about the treatment of Black women and children and families in America. I felt an urgent responsibility to get it out to the world.

I connected with the family of co-author Steve Jones Sr. and asked, ‘Can we publish independently?’ They agreed. Not only that, they provided the incredible picture of Louise that features on the front of the book.

The picture is from Louise’s original Grenadian passport when she left for Canada in 1917.

I had never seen it before. When I saw it, I cried. It felt like I was finally meeting the person I had spent all those years researching, thinking and writing about.

In that moment, A Hill of Feathers, the wonderful title that had got the book as far as it had, no longer made sense. The new book cover would rightly feature Louise, something I had never dreamed of.

But the passport itself carried the name of ‘Louise Norton’.

This presented a dilemma. Initially, without this newly discovered photograph, the revised title for the book would have been The Life of Louise Little, no Norton mentioned.

If we had done that, with the passport photo and the name Louise Norton now in play, it would have presented a questions about this different name. Louise Norton? Who was this beautiful young Black woman who travelled from Grenada to Canada in 1917 to start a new life in search of her dreams?

Personally, I had never particularly thought of Louise as a Norton. To me, she had always been from the Langdon family and then a Little. I was also highly reluctant to write a book about Louise and her family that would even appear to centre her white paternal line. But here was new primary evidence, on an official document, that matched the name on the ship’s passenger list. Further proof that in 1917, Louise travelled as Louise Norton.

And Louise had married Earl Little as Louise Norton, in Montreal in 1919.

There are grounds to consider that for Louise to successfully navigate colonial bureaucratic procedures set up by white governments it was necessary to travel and marry under the name of a white father. In which case, titling the book The Life of Louise Norton Little would simply replicate the colonial patriarchal structures she lived under, even if it provided consistency for the main image of the book which was her passport photo and the ‘Signature of Bearer’ revealed in the book itself as Louise Norton.

All this was considered. But Louise’s medical records at Kalamazoo State Hospital reveal something else. In amongst the dry typed records in capital letters that tell us little of her real self, there are a few pages of what appear to be typed up transcripts of her interviews with doctors, early in her admission, before they quickly lost interest in her.

In one interview dated February 7th 1939, the last page of the transcript states,

‘Patient leaves the room and then a while later comes back in and says, “You asked me who I am and I said Lan(g)don, but my father’s name is Norton and my name is Norton. If there is any inheritance, that is my father’s and by Lan(g)don it is my mother.” Patient leaves the room.’

(Author’s note: I’ve added the (g) because it does not appear in the records but it is generally accepted that the family name of Louise’s mother was Langdon not Landon.)

Louise says, ‘my name is Norton’ twenty-two years after leaving Grenada with a passport of the same name. Even if giving that surname had been a bureaucratic hoop she’d jumped through in 1917 to travel, the fact she says this in the hospital to the doctors indicates the problematic white father, Norton, still signified something of meaning to her. She calls it her inheritance.

To be honest, I am still in approximately three minds about what the title *should* have been. Whether it should have been The Life of Louise Little, The Life of Louise Langdon Norton Little or something else. I still can’t be sure what was the best thing to do.

I do think if Hilda Little and Steve Jones Sr. had been alive to advise, we would have had a wonderful discussion about it. I would have brought all the things I have mentioned above. They would have brought their firsthand knowledge of Louise. We would have also chewed on the thought that the family name of Langdon was likely also a slave name, given by a white master in the 1800s, perhaps Robert Lang who had ‘owned’ La Digue in Grenada where Louise grew up.

In the end, the decision was made with Steve Jones Sr. sisters, Louise’s grand-daughters who knew her, Hilda Little and Steve better than most.

In the end, in the choice of title, I hope we have let the long-lost voice of Louise speak for herself.