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“Ancestors” was a word that resonated from speaker to speaker Friday evening at the 98th Annual Birthday Celebration for Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El Shabazz) Day at the Shabazz Center. It was a tribute to Malcolm in words and music that evolved into something much more than honoring him. Dr. Betty Shabazz, his wife, was cited on numerous occasions, along with other long-gone and recent ancestors.

Dr. Ilyasah Shabazz established a tone of reverence with her opening remarks, after the Afrikan Healing Circle and remarks delivered by Rev. Dr. Mother Khoshhali, and she continued the Circle call to the ancestors. As expected, Malcolm was the main ancestor summoned again and again, his name and memory musically evoked in song by soprano Brittany Logan—her voice as resplendent as her gown—of the Metropolitan Opera, accompanied by pianist Katelan Terrell. The song was Anthony Davis’s “Golden Day” from the X opera composed with his cousin Thulani Davis. 

Dr. Regina Jackson, chair of the board of trustees, issued the Call to Action, and it was duly answered by Gwen Carr, the mother of the slain Eric Garner. She recounted how our ancestors gave their lives for us to have the vote today, and when she announced that the State Assembly had passed the Eric Garner anti-Chokehold Act, she received a standing ovation. 

The Trust for Public Land (TPL) may not be a well-known entity, but Dr. Jocelyn Imani, the first national Black history and culture director at the helm of TPL, demonstrated that it will get wider recognition as she recounted how “our ancestors endured unthinkable horrors” in the quest for self-determination.

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JoAnna Leflore-Ejike, executive director of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation in Omaha, Nebraska, said she makes it clear to all who ask whether there were African Americans in her state that “Malcolm X was born in Omaha.” She piggy-backed on Imani’s aim to preserve trusted land, noting that Omaha was among the sites earmarked for such recognition. She was the first of several honorees to receive a Vanguard Award.  

When the Repair American Collective was called to the stage, it was as a quintet that included a tiny tot, who was animated while Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, chair of the Boston-based organization, and colleagues Saskia Vann James, Jaylyn Conway, and Harrison Clark provided a semi-PowerPoint presentation to highlight the role they play in the reparations movement.

Dreisen Heath represented another region of the West—Tulsa, Oklahoma. She has been a driving force in the realm of reparative justice, and reminded the overflow audience of the significance of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, particularly the survivors and rebuilding of the Greenwood district that was destroyed. 

As master of ceremonies, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill spearheaded the third call for action, so to speak. Like a seasoned auctioneer, he asked if anyone in the crowd was ready to donate $25,000. It didn’t take long for Spike Lee to take care of that request, and Hill himself followed up with $10,000.

“It’s time to put down the fake crowns,” Arnstar recited, and then rapped that Malcolm had “found a sound that existed before I was born.” He was followed by Drew Drake, who exuded words with a similar pace and insight, saying that “the ancestors are watching.”  

Trumpeter Keyon Harrold and his guitarist and bassist provided a musical interlude, with the leader putting his horn aside and singing about “finding your peace.”

Before Frederick Joseph offered his appreciation for being saluted as a Vanguard award recipient, he asked for a moment of silence in memory of Jordan Neely, among our more recent ancestors. Joseph, straight out of Yonkers, has penned two bestsellers: The Black Friend and Patriarchy Blues: Reflections on Manhood. “I owe my life to Dr. Betty Shabazz,” he said.

In her remarks at the podium, Nikole Hannah-Jones, perhaps best known nowadays for her anthology 1619, quoted Malcolm X and his comment that “we didn’t land on Plymouth Rock—Plymouth Rock landed on us.” She mentioned the influence the late historian and journalist Lerone Bennett had on her career and closed by promising that right to her last breath, “they will not bury our history.”

It was wonderful to see and hear Carol Jenkins, communicator and media commentator.  She too praised Betty Shabazz, saying that “she was a real true leader…and there will be no peace without freedom,” she concluded. 

Filmmaker Spike Lee presented the keynote address, and he took time to honor the recent deaths of Harry Belafonte and Jim Brown. “They were freedom fighters,” he added. Most of his time was devoted to the backstory of making the bio-pic of Malcolm’s life; the money hassles with Warner Brothers; and how a number of wealthy African Americans, including Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Peggy Cooper-Cafritz, Tracy Chapman, Janet Jackson, Prince, and Magic Johnson, came to the rescue. He drew laughter when he recounted what he did when Cosby said he would mail the check: “I went to his place and knocked on the door.” There was extended praise for Denzel Washington’s performance as Malcolm, even though “he didn’t get the award.” 

Before he could leave the stage, Lee was presented with a Vanguard award, as was Hill.

Imam Muhammad Jaaber and the Afrikan Healing Circle brought the educational evening to a close, their drums matching the marching footsteps descending the stairs as participants chatted to each other about communing with their ancestors.

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