On Wednesday, May 19, several of my colleagues and I went to Ferncliff Cemetery in upstate New York to visit the grave of Malcolm X. It would have been Malcolm’s 96th birthday.
The idea for the visit was birthed after we read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in February. It was part our school’s book/podcast club. Having learned so much about him and discussing his impact, we decided that paying homage to him on his birthday would be a fitting thing to do. Seven of us carpooled and made the 35-minute trip.
While there, we spent some time standing around his grave, reflecting. We shared our learnings, our feelings, our shortcomings. We imagined a world where Malcolm was still alive, still evolving, still advancing his antiracist beliefs. We gave thanks for his truth-telling and revolutionary spirit in the face extreme violence, enraged white supremacy, and death. Living to the meager age of 39, we acknowledged that his life was far too short. We affirmed his gifts to not only to Black Americans, but all Americans. Just like Malcolm, we vowed to keep learning and to be critical of ourselves and the world around us.
While there was a sprinkling of people around us, it felt like we were alone. We had Malcolm all to ourselves. While we talked, he listened. He also told us a few stories and wished us well on our journey. It was powerful. The moment transcended our school, our students, and our professional bonds. I’ve been at my school for five years and it was one of the proudest moments I’ve had as a member of our community.
Admittedly, I didn’t know a lot about Malcolm before we read his autobiography. Reading it was informative on many levels. After we finished it, I wanted more of Malcolm so I picked up Black Minded: The Political Philosophy of Malcolm X by Michael E. Sawyer. I learned of Sawyer and his work after watching him discuss Malcolm at The Schomburg Center’s The Mother Tongue: The Philosophy of Malcolm X event in February. Black Minded was a dense and challenging read, but really helpful in getting closer to Malcolm and the nucleus of his thinking. I finished it this week, coinciding with our trip to Ferncliff. It left me with a lot more to share and feel than I would have otherwise. The Dead are Arising is on my summer reading list.
Despite living and working so close to his gravesite for many years, most of us didn’t know Malcolm was buried right underneath our noses. How did we not know he was here? Some of us drive past him every day and had no idea. Several people also spoke of the simplicity of his gravesite, expecting something with more grandeur given his stature. When I think of how society blacklisted Malcolm during his life and ostracized him after his death (it took over 30 years for him to get a postage stamp after his death, my gosh), the modesty and obscurity of his gravesite surprised me at first, but not after I gave it a second thought. The stark difference between his grave and that of Martin Luther King, Jr. tells the story.
As we were getting ready to leave, more people began to arrive and a larger community formed. We opened up our circle, they opened up theirs, and suddenly we were speaking with perfect strangers. We were from all walks of life, all there to honor a man who moved us. We shared our connections to Malcolm and filled our hearts with a shared respect for the moment. We’ll probably never see those people again, but our transient companionship couldn’t be denied. They gave us water. We took a picture together. After about 15 minutes, we headed towards our cars. I felt whole.
Though our team departed his grave the same in number, we were far bigger than when we arrived. Thanks, Malcolm.