While celebrities and fashion designers were getting ready for New York Fashion Week, a Muslim community at New York University (NYU) was getting ready for a trip to Brother Malcolm X’s grave-site, being that it is his 50th assassination anniversary this week. The Illuminated Cities Project was invited to go on this journey with the Islamic Center at NYU, who were hosting the trip and around fifty community members joined the journey. On the bus ride to and from the cemetery, we listened to Imam Khalid Latif and Ustadh Usama Canon, who was a special guest visiting from the West coast, talk about visiting grave-sites and how Islam views death. Here are some aspects of the discussion that struck us:
- On death – Ustadh Usama Canon talked about an expression that says, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” But, he said, what we forget to understand is that he who dies with the most toys still dies. This is how we need to begin our understanding of death.
- On attachment: we were told about the story of the Ustadh’s attachment to his cup. He shared that he had thought he was above such an attachment, until his wife was gifting a cup he loved to a guest in their home who had admired it. He said it made him reflect on how we all have our attachments that keep us from facing the inevitability of death.
- On selflessness and how to face death: Ustadh Usama Canon told us the story of Hussain and the Battle of Karbala. And, that when Hussain, who is viewed as a martyr, looked out at the battlefield, he had tears in his eyes. Lady Zeinab said to him, “You are not one to cry out of fear.” Hussein said, “I am not crying out of fear. I am crying for those out there who are preparing to kill me and forsake heaven for a hell that they are creating for themselves.” Even in a moment when he was facing death, Hussein put his concern for others before his own life.
- On asking the right questions: Brother Malcolm asked difficult questions, but they were the right questions that demanded to be asked. We were given the analogy that if you don’t ask the right questions, it is like being a camel who is about to die of thirst in a desert, but is carrying water on its back.
- On leadership: One of the questions that was asked by a community member was about how to best to serve our local communities such as those who are either currently or formerly incarcerated, while being cognizant of the stigmas we carry about those we are serving. The response included “You can’t lead where you don’t go. You can’t teach what you don’t know,” and that Br. Malcolm made himself accessible to the communities he served. He was aware that at the core he was one of them, no more, no less, because even the best of us are capable of the worst acts. In recognizing where he came from and still continue to carry himself with dignity, Br. Malcolm was able to develop himself, and it was this sense of awareness and humility that inspired those around him to also become better.
On the arrival of the graveyard, we noticed that there were no fancy gravestones or tombs. Even when we saw Malcolm X’s gravestone, there was a basic plate for him and his wife. Given that he was such a big deal, we had thought that there would be something of a shrine for him. But, the grave was just a plate.
Raldenys: I have seen the grave-sites of other public figures that have shaken America up somehow. Frederick Douglass’s grave-site was big and sectioned off with rope, making it obvious that he was important. Susan B. Anthony, located in the same cemetery, was like any other gravestone. Malcolm X’s was just a plate. Reflecting back on my previous gravesite visits, I then understood what the community on the bus was referring to when they shared their thoughts. Many of them were talking about how humble it all was. Then, I made the connection, how different all these three graves were and how that person wants to be remembered. Br. Malcolm’s grave was small. I took that as him wanting to put other people ahead of him and him wanting to take attention away from himself and focus it on others. Not saying that Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony did not want to do that, but Malcolm’s grave displays this sense of humility more actively so you don’t feel as intimidated.
Riyaz: I realized then that there was more to this guy then just being a Civil Rights icon. People referred to the Autobiography of Malcolm X several times, where he talks about his life before Islam was introduced to him. People said that he gave everything to fight for what he believed. I agree with this because he was assassinated for pushing his cause. This really made me reflect and ask the question, “If I was passionate about something, would I do anything for the cause?” Not many people in this world can do this. I respect him for that and I was glad to have the opportunity to be apart of a service for him.
Riyaz Ali and Raldenys Tolentino are 2014-15 Illuminated fellows who are part of ICP’s pilot year-long community-based participatory action research project. Through this project, they are working on understanding the relationship between issues of housing, homelessness, and substance abuse in District 17 in the S. Bronx and creating an action plan in response to their research in collaboration with community members.