February 21 was the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. He lived and died fighting oppression. This is Yasiin Bey’s (Mos Def) amazing tribute to Malcolm X and everything he stood for:
Bey’s song describes the experience of poverty, of living on the margins of society. Malcolm X grew up in such poverty. That’s something that shapes a life and how a person relates to others. Poverty is an experience Malcolm X shared with the prophet Muhammad—God’s peace and blessings be on him—who was poor and orphaned as a child. Like the prophet Muhammad, poverty enabled Malcolm X to have compassion for his community, the vast majority of which toiled in the urban centers.
This was at a time when one of the most prestigious careers available to a Black man was that of a doorman. The oppression of the African American community was such that people struggled to support their families by legal means and felt compelled to turn to the underground economy just to eke out a living. Malcolm dropped out of school after the 8th grade because he wanted to be a lawyer and his white teacher told him that was impossible because of his race.
Circumstances have evolved, but our nation is by no means liberated from poverty or from the constraints of life chances that compel people toward the underground economy. In the city I love, it's often easier to deal drugs than it is to get a job.
When I listen to Yasiin Bey’s tribute to Malcolm X, I think of the kids my mom works with in that city, a poor urban area only a matter of miles from where I lived a relatively privileged childhood. Bey writes, “This shit weird. We be home and still be scared. It’s grief here. It’s peace here. It’s easy and hard to be here.” I think of my mom’s students, falling fast asleep at their desks because their lives at home are so tumultuous, they can’t rest there.
Her students come to school shivering, wearing t-shirts in the dead of winter. They’re starved for attention. Their parents can’t read to them. They don’t have access to doctors when they’re sick. A little boy came to school with an inflamed ear, pus leaking from it.
These are the children Malcolm X fought for, and my mom fights for them today. She teaches them how to read and how to learn, and her students are thriving. Her work is exhausting. It’s emotionally draining. But the song alludes to the reality of young people dying violently, the way Malcolm anticipated his life would end. My mom’s work is disrupting assumptions about what her students will grow up to do—when they grow up; not if.
As I honor the legacy of Malcolm X, I want to honor my mother, who carries it forward. For me, she is the embodiment of mercy and compassion.
The song says, “We’re seeking for forgiveness and safety for our children.” God forgive us for the little good we do. Help us to honor Malcolm X by working against the oppression of poverty and apathy. Ameen.