That’s the first thing I remember my friend saying to me. I suppose that’s a good way to gauge the interests and mindset of a perfect stranger, because that stranger’s response will say a lot.
Many responses would have been reasonable, particularly confusion, considering the audience (me) was not Muslim and did not speak Arabic. Fortunately, recognition colored my response.
So what I said was, “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam!”
We both laughed and thus began the friendship of two black girls in an all-white high school.
This friend appeared in my life unexpectedly. The major event of having a new student show up during junior year, and a new student who hit the trifecta of being black, female, and in a class with me blew my high school mind. We became friends, and for the year we went to high school together, we shared many such greetings.
We almost always greeted each other with those phrases. And sometimes if we passed in the halls, we would raise a black power fist in solidarity, recognizing our common struggle.
Who would have thought two black girls sojourning in a predominantly white high school would find each other thanks to the Autobiography of Malcolm X?
I loved that she had read this powerful book, and I loved that she assumed I had as well. Even though the magnificent film of the same title starring Denzel Washington would come out soon, it was because of the book we knew to exchange those greetings.
I credit the Autobiography of Malcolm X with several things in my life, and the most important one is that it helped me make a friend, and this friend helped me bear out many of the lessons in the book in my life.
Like many people, after reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, I launched into a militant phase, but I didn’t understand how to express the conflicts and emotions I had internalized, because I had also internalized WEB DuBois’ notion of double consciousness. My friend helped me reconcile the various facets of my personality.
I led a double life in high school. Both lives authentically represented aspects of me, but neither allowed me to express all of my complexities. There was school Roshaunda, on the one hand, and church Roshaunda on the other. In more descriptive terms, there was the Roshaunda who existed in a white world with school friends, and then there was the Roshaunda who existed in a black world with church friends.
School Roshaunda almost never expressed what it was to be young, gifted, and black. Church Roshaunda almost never expressed what it was to be a band nerd. My new friend helped me realize I should reconcile both worlds.
And that led to some interesting situations, namely getting into repeated arguments with the KKK member who sat behind me in history class and being sent to the principal’s office for assaulting a teacher.
Fueled by Malcolm X’s words, I couldn’t remain silent while the boy behind in me in history class made repeated disparaging remarks about black people. My inability to sit silently while he maligned an entire race of people usually manifested in my besting him with both logic and advanced vocabulary. He found this frustrating, to my delight.
One day I laughed a little too much and discovered he was a Klan member. He told me, proudly and ominously, of his membership in the organization. That, too, made me chuckle. It surprised me people were still joining the Klan, and I said as much. Pre-Malcolm X Roshaunda never would have engaged that boy, but post-Malcolm X + new friend Roshaunda didn’t back down from the challenge.
I later tackled the challenge of a discriminatory school policy. The school banned students from wearing anything on their heads, intending to deter gang affiliation by prohibiting people from wearing caps, bandanas, and even hair bows. The rule only seemed to apply to the school’s sprinkling of black students.
In civil disobedience, I wore a yellow bandana tied around the base of my ponytail one day. During an assembly, I felt a hand tug on my bandana. Thinking it was one of my friends, I reached back and grabbed the hand. A disembodied voice told me to let go. I quipped I would not release the hand until the hand released my hair. The voice commanded me to release it. I didn’t comply. The hand yanked me up while the voice insisted I needed to go to the principal’s office immediately. I turned to find a teacher I didn’t recognize trying to rip out my bandana, citing the policy prohibiting headwear.
I told her I would gladly go see the principal if she would accompany me, so I could explain to him how she singled me out while bypassing all the white girls wearing enormous bows in their hair. She seemed flummoxed as we marched down the hallways together. I successfully made my case with the principal and returned to my classes with my bandana still adorning my coiffure.
I didn’t fight every battle, but I learned I could voice what concerned me, even if I had relegated those concerns to opposing aspects of my personality. Reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X taught me kujichagulia and availed me to a friendship that showed me it was just fine to express it.
Had I not read that particular book at that precise moment in history, I would have missed out on a friendship, and I wouldn’t have developed the confidence to combat injustice. Reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X changed my life, but I didn’t expect it would when I selected it from my mother’s bookshelf.
Read widely. You never know what texts might affect you, but if you rarely venture outside of your usual genres and authors, you’ll never find out. You discover additional aspects of yourself when you read beyond your comfort zone, and you learn how different people use language, harness culture, and create society. You’ll find connections between disparate concepts, because you’ve exposed yourself to a breadth of ideas.
Read narrowly. Diving into a series, an author, a time period, or a genre develops depth and richness. You will feel the thrill of never exhaust your ability to learn about a subject while you gain mastery in it.
Read suggestions from other people. Ask people what they’re reading. They will regale you with their latest literary finds, and you’ll amass a list of pre-vetted books to enjoy.
Read what you need. The day I selected the Autobiography of Malcolm X from the other books nestled beside it, I had seen it on the bookshelf for years. I enjoyed unlimited access to the books in our house and had scanned Autobiography’s black and red spine numerous times. I don’t know why I picked it up that day, other than it was what I needed to read. My mother once told me children only ask questions when they are ready to hear the answers. Her wisdom seemed cryptic when she said it, but after having kids, I understand. I think books can come to us in the same way. Autobiography had been available to me, but I didn’t choose it until I was ready.
No matter how you choose reading material, give yourself the chance to experience everything it offers.
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I am doing a 31-day series on reading and journaling as self care for educators. Each day of the series has bonus journal prompts. Click to join the LELA House family of educators committed to nourishing their reading, writing, and creative souls. You’ll receive a link to the journal prompts and gain early alerts for upcoming LELA House ideas, courses, and products. You only need to subscribe once. I will add a new worksheet each day to the access link.
Roshaunda D. Cade, Ph.D. is an educator, writer, and creator. She offers life coaching and writing coaching to educators, as well as other opportunities for educators to practice self care through reading and writing. Check out her LELA House website to learn more about her services. Roshaunda lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband and teenage children and enjoys reading, writing, dancing, and pushing her creative boundaries. Subscribe to receive a word of encouragement each weekday.