Malcolm and the Monk

by Matt Sherman

Gang Life
Raleigh, North Carolina, 1992. Groups of high school kids in my town were being called gangs by the local news. Groups of black teens congregating at the state fair all wearing a matching item of clothing—organized crime, or a mob of some sort. Flashing lights, bright fuzzy stuffed animals, the smell of funnel cake, and loud music pumping from the Himalaya ride. Hordes of teens gathered with one visible thing in common. We were all wearing the now iconic “X” baseball cap. Simple baseball cap with a large X on the front. Organized around a show of pride and promotion of Spike Lee’s upcoming Malcolm X film due out November of that year. In hip-hop at the time, being conscious and political was cool. The “X” hat symbolized a unity against the screech-level injustice my generation felt earlier that same year as we watched the acquittal of L.A. police officers who were filmed savagely beating Rodney King. Followed by the uprisings and burning down of L.A. that ensued as a reaction.

The Film
The screen debut of Malcolm X was my intro to his full character. Prior to that, I only had posters with an image of him perched in the window with a gun. Adorned with the quote, “By any means necessary,” etched in my mind. I had been exposed to the sharply dressed, bowtie wearing, upright posture of Nation of Islam (N.O.I.) brothers and sisters selling delicious bean pies and Final Call newspapers on the corners in the South side of town. That was it. Eventually I’d read the book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley and get a deeper transmission of the complexity of this man’s journey. His Harlem nights and Detroit days. For the squeamish or easily offended, one might have stopped reading at the “Blue-Eyed Devil” period of his path. Missing the whole man. But to continue reading and to take the totality of his life brings together a journey of a brilliant and complex, constantly changing human.

Harlem, 2024. Been here many times as a kid. It’s changed a lot, and also still has its soul. Living here solidly for a year now, I see the same but different Nation of Islam brothers on the corner that I’d seen growing up down South. Very kind, greeting me with a “Good morning, Brother.” I wonder if they would be so kind if I was with a blue-eyed, white, Jewish woman? Would they look my way if they knew I practiced Buddhism and myriad other spiritual paths? Would I still be invited in if they knew? Proud to have this greeting from them, affirming my blackness, I carry on, knowing I’m accepted in that room, although I may hide the other parts of my life.

Tibetan Buddhist Monk
Recently I began learning Tibetan Buddhist practices. My instructor came to Harlem from Korea to lead me and others in a retreat. To my surprise, my teacher had a very special appreciation for Harlem, and even more specifically, Malcom X. He was clear that it was very important for him to visit the cemetery where Malcolm X, buried el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, rests in peace. He wanted to honor him. For my teacher, Malcolm X represented the willingness to explore the unknown and actively affect change–with the power and sometimes wrathful compassion that Tibetan Buddhism stirs. Being one of the few local black people my teacher knows, I had a little shame that I didn’t know Malcolm X was buried nearby along with his wife Betty, James Baldwin, and many other great men and women. I’d never even considered going to visit the cemetery or trace Malcolm’s Lindy Hopping, Harlem footsteps. Never even thought to visit the Harlem, Nation of Islam landmark, Mosque #7, where he flourished and began his teachings. Following the desire of this unlikely Korean Tibetan Buddhist Monk and Malcolm X lover, all my expectations and prejudices were challenged.

The Grave
We drove thirty minutes north of Harlem to Ferncliff Cemetery one sunny Sunday morning. The cemetery, spacious and green. The grave was an understated, flat, gravestone almost hidden by grass. A single artificial flower in a vase. My group arrived and descended onto the site with fresh flowers, colorful silks, and smoke billowing from an incense burner. We performed a Tibetan Buddhist ritual to honor Malcolm X. It felt like the completion of a cycle for my teacher. He had come a long way for this. But little did I know, this was just the beginning.

Mosque #7
Our monk wanted to visit the mosque. Umm. No chance, I think. Still convinced that once they see me with my Korean teacher and white skinned, Jewish friends they would surely turn a cold shoulder. This was the notorious N.O.I! We can’t go there.

One of the friends joining us on this occasion was a local Harlem native, Blood gang member who has renounced violence, but not his Blood organization status. He now uses his position to turn the poison of his past into medicine by tirelessly performing nonviolent gang interventions. He brings along his eighteen-year-old son for this unforgettable day. Turns out, our friend’s father was a current member of Mosque #7 and has been for many years. We make our way toward the mosque. First stop, the bookstand on the corner where our local neighborhood native’s father is selling his books. Philosophies on food and living in black skin. We are met with the complete opposite of the cold shoulder. He physically embraces us, takes photos with us, blows away every prejudice I had of how it would be. It’s a moment where I can see the humanity in all of it. Turn left. I’ve been in the heart of Harlem a year walking past this 127th and Lenox landmark location and knew not what lay behind the walls.

We enter the Mosque. Still not convinced, my doubt prepares me to abort the mission. Here we would definitely be turned away or given the evil eye. Let’s just turn around now and avoid the rejection. With wide adventurous eyes, no hesitation, no sense of self or expectation, my teacher and my friends move confidently into the mosque. Uniformed F.O.I. (Fruit of Islam) security greet us with sparkling pearly white smiles.

Women to the right. Men to the left.

After a thorough search, we enter into their holy space. Proud and open, they show us every corner and welcome us in. We pray. Our monk offers blessings and we sit. Everything feels still and connected. Like the unseen forces are happy that they can be acknowledged without our ideas of who they are. Just respected and felt without the fear, doctrine, or dogma.

I’ve played judge and been judged. Made many assumptions. Thought I could accurately predict what people would want. What they will accept. Been labeled as a gang. Profiled for my skin. But this day. This moment. Every line and limitation I’d looked for has blended and blurred. Every idea of what is supposed to be has been erased. We are the ocean, as the Tibetan Monk would say. A variety of waves, a part of the same source underneath. So much is possible when we take the limitations off of our desires and read every book beyond the cover.

Matt Sherman is an Unconditional Freedom volunteer and class facilitator. With a background in arts, communications, and event management, he loves teaching, writing, and creating experiences that focus on connecting people to opportunities for discovering purpose, value, and flourishing.

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