Malcolm’s Garden: Sowing Black Legacies to Grow Black Futures

By Ibrahim Abdul-Matin

Next Tuesday, marks the 95th birthday of Malcolm X/El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, a man whose life story has shifted hearts, perspectives and movements around the world. Many are introduced to him through his autobiography and my absolute favorite part of the Autobiography of Malcolm X was when he talked  about his garden growing up. Gardens feed us. They bring us joy. They give us roots and a place from which to grow. So let’s run with that and plant a garden.

On May 19th, Sapelo Square is curating an online commemoration of Malcolm X under the theme “Black Legacies. Black Futures,” which is fitting in so many ways. The work that Malcolm X put into establishing the brick and mortar of the Black Muslim community is legendary. Now, as the world convulses from multiple shocks, Sapelo will use culture, thought, action and storytelling to mark their five-year mark. It is a sober moment, sure, but there is a taste of excitement. This is the raised garden bed that we will plant in. 

One critical aspect of a garden is the soil. If the soil is fertile, then it will germinate new life or new ideas. The soil of Tuesday’s event is the people. The event will feature some pretty impressive folks: the poet Tariq Touré, activist-scholars Margari Hill and Zaheer Ali, Jihad Abdulmumit of the Jericho movement and Maimouna Youssef and Tammy McCann, who represent the artist roster of the Inner City Action Network, Sapelo’s partner on this event. These guests have a depth and breath in their works that exemplify Malcolm’s commitments to social justice, human rights and Black liberation. They symbolize the kind of rich soil in which Black faith, Black thought, Black art, and Black action grows.

Now let’s sow some seeds. The dynamic duo of Aisha Shillingford and Terry Marshall run a lab called Intelligent Mischief that focuses on the need for a “…Black Cultural Renaissance that offers a counter-hegemonic strategy that allows us to imagine and taste a new political economy that centers and empowers Black, Indigenous, and Immigrant communities of color in the United States and their diasporas.” And in response to the commodification of everyone and everything they offer, “We must contend for dream space. We must usher in a cultural renaissance, that will in turn accelerate the economic and political renaissance that we are so desperately in need of.” These seeds tap point to the cultural and psychological work of Sapelo Square’s invocation of the “Black Futures” frame. 

Another seed is about power building. The Black Futures Lab conducted the largest survey of Black people conducted in the United States and are explicitly using what they learn to change policy and build power. They have determined that we, Black folks, are in the midst of a 100-year journey — a transition — where our fortunes are reversed and we win. This aligns with the work of Sapelo Square whose mission is to be a visionary force for Black Muslims. In the time of this pandemic, they plan to supplement their role as storyteller and guide with content and events that promote community building.

Leadership is like water in our garden. If brother Malcolm taught us anything it is about leadership. Our leaders must be people who are disciplined and focused. They should be no-nonsense. They should be folks that don’t make excuses or pass the blame over to others. They should be able to “do the hard thing” — the things that no one else wants to do — and do so from a place of love. In many ways, the hardworking women and men who are building Sapelo Square are demonstrating that kind of leadership by helping us weave together the threads of Black Legacies, Black Futures, the Black Muslim cultural renaissance and the power building —the Gardens —we will need to be successful now and 100 years into the future. 

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin has over 20 years of experience in community organizing, government and consulting. He is the author of Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet and is the co-founder of Green Squash Consulting a management consulting firm based in New York that works with people, organizations, companies, coalitions and governments committed to equity and justice. Ibrahim recently joined Sapelo Square’s inaugural board of directors. 

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