Exhuming the Martyred Memory of Malcolm and Mother Betty: Cultivating a Uniquely American Muslim Ethos by Visiting a Largely Forgotten Burial Site (Part 1)

By Muhammad Adeyinka Mendes

In Part 1 of today’s post, Imam Muhammad Mendes reflects on the historical legacies of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz, how their legacies have impacted him personally, and how he first became aware of the annual visitation (ziyarah) to the site of their burial.

For me, Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik Omowale El-Shabazz, is not just another current in the river of the struggle for mass human liberation, or a name I invoke when teaching American history, during Black History Month, or at a Kwanzaa ceremony.  Yes, Malcolm was and is an iconic figure from the golden age of America’s civil rights struggle, but my connection with him is a bit more intimate. 

It began when I was around 10 years old and living in Lagos, Nigeria.  One lazy afternoon, I went hunting for treasure in my parents’ library, one of my favorite pastimes. Their books just always seemed more intriguing than mine.  That day I discovered a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I thought it long but interesting, so I lied down on the floor, and read it.  I was never the same after that initiation.  The Autobiography planted a seed in my mind and heart that would not germinate until six years later when we returned to the United States.  From that moment on the spirit and legacy of Malcolm became a guiding force in my life. Against my younger brother’s and my wishes (there were infinitely better ways my fifteen year old mind thought I could use my Saturday mornings), my beloved mother enrolled us in one of the very first Rites of Passage programs in the United States, the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church Boys Rites of Passage Program.  The challenges of raising African-American boys into honorable, productive, and compassionate men in the late 80s compelled our church community to launch this program in 1990.  The program directors, “Oba” Bilton and Olu Chapman, were avid students of Malcolm’s legacy and imparted their appreciation for him and many other great men and women to us along with all of the necessary life skills and experiences needed for our spiritual and material well-being as men in the modern world.  Malcolm was and still remains among our quintessential models of Manhood.

The seed that had lied dormant in me since reading the Autobiography began to receive the warmth, water, and environment needed to grow.  I not only adopted many of Malcolm’s habits, from his voracious appetite for books, to his style of dress, diet, and activism, to entering into Islam in April of 1993 after a life changing journey to Jerusalem at the age of seventeen— Not because Malcolm entered into Islam but because in Jerusalem I had a “taste” of what Malcolm “tasted” during his famous pilgrimage to Mecca in April 1964.

As an American Muslim, the memory of Malcolm and his partner on the path of human freedom, Dr. Betty Shabazz, is a complicated matter.  There are those Muslims who are wholly ignorant of the their legacy and our indebtedness to them for much of what we benefit from today politically and culturally, then there are those who only honor the post-Hajj “Rainbow Malcolm”, others who focus on his Black Nationalist and separatist period in the Nation, and still others who do not even see his relevance to the most pressing issues we face today considering him as nothing more than a bridge for Americans to discover what they refer to as “True Islam” that ultimately must be imported from one’s most beloved historically Islamic land.  But for a few of us, Malcolm still remains our living mentor, big brother, leader, and a spiritual guide. After all, God states in the Gracious Qur’an regarding martyrs like him and Dr. Shabazz, “Do not suppose that those killed in the Path of  God are dead. Indeed not! They are alive, in the very presence of their Divine Nurturer well provided for.” malcolm-x-and-betty-shabazz-300x172

For this last group, these spiritual children of Malcolm and Betty, the spiritual, philosophical, and institutional legacy of this iconic couple is necessary for preserving an authentic and indigenous expression of Islam in North America.  An expression of timeless Islamic belief, practice, and spirituality that is not imported or controlled from overseas but that is firmly rooted in the fertile soil of the ethos and sociopolitical realities of Native, African, European, and Hispanic Americans that Malcolm knew so well and critiqued with mastery.  One such child, Abdul-Khaliq Rony Bordeaux, Imam of Masjid al-Qadir in Spring Valley, New York, contacted me in the winter of 2009 to invite me to what can best be described as an annual American pilgrimage, that I knew absolutely nothing about, attended by thousands of people from different racial, religious, sociopolitical, and philosophical backgrounds, but all united in their love for Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz, along with their incredible surviving family and inspiring legacy. This Grand Visitation commemorates the birthday of Malcolm on May 19, beginning with a visit by hundreds of people to the Ferncliff Cemetery where his and Mother Betty’s bodies rest and with many more converging in Harlem for a celebration of their legacy with their daughters and longtime friends at the Shabazz Center, formerly known as the Audubon Ballroom, through lectures, spoken word poetry, music, film, and of course birthday cake.  These two events are the climax of a month of activities around New York in the month of May celebrating their life and great sacrifice for truth, justice, and human dignity. 

In Part 2, Imam Mendes will elaborate further on the history of the annual visitation (ziyarah) to the graves of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz, and its broader historical, cultural, and religious significance. 

1238886_10152270877296645_2048408440_nMuhammad Adeyinka Mendes serves as Founding Director of SacredService for Human Liberation and the AHAD (African-American Healing and Development) Institute, as well as a community Imam and instructor of Arabic and the Islamic Theological, Jurisprudential, and Metaphysical Sciences at various mosques and schools in the Metro Atlanta area.

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  • Imam Mendes is my teacher. May Allah reward him, guide him and shower mercy onto his many students. For me, the immigrant versus native classification of American Muslims is outdated. A better description is first generation versus second generation. The older Muslims often identify with Elijah Muhammad or the Islam they were taught in the village they grew up before they came to America. As an old convert, I watch my kids and the kids from various cultures and their challenges are huge, but they often share the same challenges regardless of background. They are desperately trying to fit in and meet the huge demands we place on them as parents. The 20-yeard-old black American Muslim young man is not enraptured by Elijah and the young Indo/Pak kids are not desperately trying to follow what the Uncles did back home. We older Muslims, we have to forget the old lines and guide the young to a unique hybrid American Islam that simply is not a color conscious as we were 50 years ago. The kids have a political dimension and it up to us to make sure they don’t end up acting like the kids of the 60s. May Allah guide us and show us the right way.

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