FOUND Malcolm’s Providence talk.
I was born just two years before Spike Lee's 1992 biopic about Malcolm X and starting in kindergarten, I have faced the question in an almost endless loop: are you named after him?
The answer is "no." But I realized, early on, that I'd forever be associated with the black nationalist leader, sharing a name and complexion with one of the most charismatic figures of the 20th century.
I never could have guessed, though, that I would connect with Malcolm X as intimately as I did a few months ago, when I uncovered a moment in his life that had been forgotten almost entirely — a speech he delivered at Brown University on May 11, 1961.
In the past few days, my discovery has landed on NPR's "Weekend Edition" and on the front page of the Providence Journal.
I'm a Brown student and in October, in a creative non-fiction writing course, the professor asked the class to write historical narratives using the school's John Hay archives. I was perusing leather-bound compilations of yellowed Brown Daily Heralds from a half-century ago when I came across a black-and-white photograph of Malcolm X in mid-utterance at Sayles Auditorium.
I was immediately struck by how little was written about the event. And the very fact that he'd spoken at Brown — a heavily Christian, almost all-white institution with historic ties to the slave trade — was remarkable given his reputation and rhetoric at the time.
Two more items jumped out at me. First, the editor-in-chief of the Herald was a junior history major named Richard Holbrooke, who'd later achieve fame as the super-diplomat who helped end the Balkan wars in the '90s. The article said Malcolm X's speech was sponsored by the BDH; I assumed Holbrooke had a hand in the matter.
I was also intrigued by mention of a student, Katharine Pierce, who had provoked Malcolm X's appearance by publishing an article critical of the Nation of Islam in the paper. I tracked down Pierce, who now lives in Nyack, New York, in a home overlooking the Hudson River. She explained how Holbrooke arrived at her dormitory on February 15, 1961, a day when the Nation of Islam had made national headlines by demonstrating outside the UN General Assembly. Holbrooke, keen on national issues — particularly the civil rights movement — convinced Pierce, who had researched the Nation for a religious studies course, to write the piece.
"It was a topic that seemed very alive to me, that was happening right now," she remembered, "this practical, living application of Islam." Her article, "The Amazing Story of The Black Muslims," argued that the Nation of Islam was illegitimate in its approach and not truly Islamic. Integration, she intoned, was the proper path for the nation.
Pierce shared a trove of documents collecting dust in her attic, including a reel-to-reel recording of Malcolm X's speech. I digitized it and found the talk, pristine in quality, provided a window into Malcolm X's evolving ideology.
Few audio recordings, if any, exist of his public speeches prior to 1963, and this one is particularly compelling — offering a glimpse of the anti-colonial, internationalist agenda that would characterize his later talks.