American Experience
Reflections Reflections

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An Adventuresome ChildGrowing Up in LansingHead of the ClassA BraggadocioA MissionaryStreet WitHarlem DemonstrationReaching a Broad AudienceDriving Around HarlemA Synthesis of Roles

Wilfred Little
Growing Up in Lansing

In Lansing at that time everything was circumscribed; you had a place that you're supposed to be and you knew what your place was and that's where you're going to be. And you didn't try to change this unless you had some independent thinking of your own. The school system, the environment was the kind that really directed you in the path that they wanted you to be in and many of the black people in the city of Lansing had submitted to this and were willing to go along with this. And whenever you came along with something else you appeared to be an oddball or you were rocking the boat. And you had black people in the city of Lansing in those days who were considered the leaders and these leaders weren't chosen by the people, they were chosen by the white community. They would tell you who your leader is, "Your leader is Reverend So-and-so" or your leader is whoever they decided was "a good nigger" and wanted you to pattern after -- that's what you were given as your leaders. And these people who were in that position were then given little rewards; they were allowed to have a few things that the rest of them didn't. They got the good jobs, like they got the good janitor job working in the Capitol Building. Or they got the best shoeshine stand, they got the one that was located right and this was considered a plum. So whenever you began to rock the boat, they would give you more of a problem than white people would because they didn't want you rocking this boat; "You might make me lose my good thing here." And that's the way it was back in those days.

Malcolm X: Make It Plain American Experience PBS