When Brown University senior Malcolm Burnley signed up for a nonfiction writing course last fall, he could not have guessed it would lead him to discover an audio version of a forgotten Malcolm X speech in the university archives. Many research hours and high profile interviews later, Burnley reflects on what the experience has meant for him and how it changed his attitude toward research-based nonfiction writing.
Q: How did you choose the research topic that led you to your discovery?
A: The assignment was to write a historical narrative, [and] we had to start in the John Hay Archives at Brown. I was flipping through an issue of The Brown Daily Herald from the 1960s, and I saw a photo of Malcolm X. I was really surprised because in 1960 Martin Luther King had come to campus, and he gave another talk later in the ’60s. There were lots of commemorations about when Martin Luther King was there. But I never heard that Malcolm X had come. But, at the end of one of those short Brown Daily Herald articles, there were some quotes to the effect that he was provoked to come to campus based on an essay written by a student named Katharine Pierce. My background was mainly in contemporary journalism, not historical journalism, so my first instinct was to get in touch with Katharine Pierce. She gave me all the details and told me there was an audio recording.
Q: What were you thinking when you realized what you had found?
A: What initially piqued my interest in the story was the context. Brown in 1960 had an informal quota where they would only admit five or fewer black students into each class, and it was still a really conservative campus, it was still heavily Christian in its practices. The things at the time that [Malcolm X] was preaching against were very representative of Brown. So I thought it was really interesting that he had come, and that the university had allowed him to speak.
Then when Katharine Pierce mentioned that she had sent an audio recording of it to the Hay, that was an incredibly exciting discovery. It was in a reel-to-reel tape, and they got it digitized and sent it back. I was the first person to listen to this speech in over fifty years. And as far as I know, it’s the earliest audio recording of any of his college speeches. It was incredible to be a part of such a famous and important figure’s chronology, and to introduce a new piece of information into the public record.
Q: How did your article turn out?
A: Really, it’s the narrative of the back story of how Malcolm X got here. It’s really been expanding. Richard Holbrooke, who went on to be a big deal in the US State Department, was the editor in chief of the Brown Daily Herald at the time. Holbrooke approached Katharine Pierce, who was a Pembroke student, about an essay she had written about Malcolm X and the black Muslims. This was in 1961, and very little was written about them at the time. On February 15, 1961, the Nation of Islam participated in a picket protesting outside the UN. It got a lot of national headlines, so Holbrooke, being an editor of the campus paper, wanted to publish something about them. He approached Katharine Pierce and published her essay a few weeks later, and it was really critical of the Nation of Islam and the black Muslims. It eventually found its way into the hands of Malcolm X’s people, and he read it and decided that he wanted to come to speak at Brown. The university administration refused to let Malcolm X speak, so [Holbrooke] had to do some diplomacy, if you will, to get them to come here.
Before any of this publicity, which I totally didn’t expect, I had spent about four months writing this story. So far, I’ve written about fifty pages. It’s a long-form piece of historical nonfiction. I’m actually now working on pitching it to publishers. I’d like to publish it either as a long-form magazine piece or as a book.
Q: What was it like being on the receiving end of so much media attention?
A: It’s been really surreal. I knew it was an interesting story, but I had no real end-goal in sight. As someone who’s aspiring to be a nonfiction writer, it feels really rewarding that the hard work paid off.
Q: Has the experience changed the way you think about nonfiction writing and research?
A: It has kind of just reaffirmed and reinforced my confidence in the process of researching a story. I spend so much time in the Hay researching these old documents by myself, often questioning—you know, I didn’t have an end-goal in sight, so I didn’t really know where all the work was going. But this kind of reaffirmed that for me—that putting in the time and using primary sources really does produce good work that people will recognize. Also, that you can’t find everything on the internet these days.
Q: Where will you go from here?
A: I’d like to pursue journalism whole-heartedly. I’m applying to a bunch of magazines, and I’m hoping that I’ll get into magazine journalism in some way next year.