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Art By All Means: Revisiting the Legacy of Malcolm X


There is a point in life when you feel the ground shift under your feet—it can be as slow as shifting dunes in Namibia or as quick as an earthquake caused by tectonic plate shifting in Haiti. It doesn’t happen in the same way or at the same time for anyone, but it does change the way you look at the world. For Malcolm (Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, a.k.a. Malcolm X, a.k.a. Malcolm Little), this ground-shifting moment happened when he traveled to Mecca for Hajj and then traveled through the continent of Africa. As an educator, I might not be able to have a field trip as grandiose as a trip to countries in Africa, but I take every unit is a possibility to shift the earth, to change perspective and to let new knowledge shed light on students’ current understanding of the world.

Recently, my 8th grade International Studies II Majors completed a month-long unit about the continent of Africa, its many countries, landforms, cultures and languages with a direct connection to the city in which they live—Omaha, Nebraska through the life story of Malcolm X, who was born here. Students listened to some of his speeches, some of his interviews and examined his quotes. Next, we met with international students from University of Nebraska at Omaha, UNO. These are our year-long partners for multiple service-learning opportunities. Middle school International Studies Majors were partnered with internationals from Germany, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, China, Oman, Japan and Mexico. Students paired by finding the person with the same Malcolm X quote. They discussed what it meant to them, how they understood it and how it would translate into German, Arabic, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.

Then, they painted. Each person got a 6”x 6” canvas square. They wrote their Malcolm X quote on the square in whatever language or script they chose. After that, their job was to decorate the square by painting. While they got to know each other and painted, the only rule was to use red, black, green and gold paint. Conversations abounded. Cross-cultural communications flowed. The room was alive with art and discussion! We said “See you soon” to our partners while the paint dried on our 48 squares.

We completed our unit by jigsaw-ing the By Any Means Necessary, a biography of Malcolm X by Walter Dean Myers. Each student read 2 chapters and had to read for mastery of the content of those two chapters of Malcolm’s life. They took notes, summarized and then turned their knowledge into a bio-poem of Malcolm X. The assignment was to create a 200-word bio-poem about Malcolm but only covering the 2 chapters they read.

Next assignment was to memorize their poem because they were going to perform it on stage, in front of a mic, at the Malcolm X Birthsite and Memorial Foundation Community Center during a day of service. The audience consisted of the President of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, Sharif Liwaru, our international student partners from UNO, professors, curriculum advisors and community members. The bio-poem, strung together in chronological order of 26 students covering various parts of Malcolm’s life gave voice to all of who Malcolm was—a boy, a man, a follower, a leader, a thief, a Muslim, a speaker, a voice, a brother, a husband, a pilgrim, a revolutionary, a man of change. Each of my student’s voices, their words, their change began to occur on the stage. The audience was in awe, as was I, and I think they were in awe of themselves. It was, after all, the first time for all of them to be on stage as spoken-word artists.

Mr. Liwaru gave all the students a tour of the building and the property as well as the story of how hard Rowena Moore and others had to work to get the space to earn the historical marker for Nebraska. Students soaked in the historical information at the birthsite and then it was time to serve the center. Middle school International Studies Majors were partnered with international UNO students to weed, to vacuum, to clean, to inventory, to organize, to stuff mailers and to complete our first installation art piece for the center.

During the service time, students were able to reflect on the life of Malcolm, his travels, his accomplishments and then connect to internationals while giving their hands and energies to a community center. When students took time to reflect on their service day, they realized they had served Malcolm’s memory with their poem, served the center with hands-on help and with their installation of art. They wrote: “Serving made me feel like I was part of something bigger than myself.”—Isaac.

“I don’t actually like art, but painting with red, black and green, the colors of the Pan-African flag and how they related to Malcolm X made painting more enjoyable.”—Megan. “My favorite part of the day was talking with the international students, learning what they know about Malcolm and Mecca.”—Julian. “The most surprising part of the day was learning about how big the property is and it was humbling to know that we were standing where Malcolm was born.”—WahPaw. “It was scary getting on stage with my poem, but afterwards, I realized how great it was.”—Angel.

The bio-poem on the microphone was 30 minutes of ground-shifting voices that touched the sky and the art we installed was a mosaic of Africa, of voices, of Malcolm, celebrating how travel can change us and change the way we look at our home.


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