It was the middle of my school-day—maybe third or fourth period—and I had just gotten settled in class when a messenger appeared in the doorway. She called my name, said I’d better get my things; I was wanted in the main office.
Haphazardly, I stuffed books into my bookbag while trying to match my guide’s purposeful pace through the halls. I’d never been called out of class before. What could the principal want with me? I wondered, knowing I hadn’t done anything wrong.
“Your father’s here,” the lady offered, reading my mind. “He said there’s a family emergency.”
Once inside my father’s rusted brown van with a shag carpet the color of red dirt in the back, Muhammad and Abi burst out laughing. My brother grabbed his sides. My father wheezed a little.
“Ha ha, got you,” Muhammad said between guffaws. Nothing was wrong after all.
“I just needed a good excuse for taking you all out of school early,” Abi explained.
“That’s not funny,” I said, trying but failing to repress a smile. “Then, where are we going?”
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“Ah, I can’t tell you that,” Abi said. “It’s a surprise. But don’t worry, it’s a good one.”
With the way I felt about him then, I couldn’t have been less interested in my father’s surprise. More than a year had passed since he and my mother divorced but I still wasn’t over it.
Every time he picked Muhammad and me up from school and brought us home, I was reminded that when my parents split, Abi kicked us out of our home, all of us?—?my mother, my siblings, and me?—?while he stayed in our four-bedroom, two-bathroom house by himself.
In fact, we’d moved twice since then and our apartment at the time was too small, had mice, and wasn’t even in the district where Muhammad and I went to school. I would’ve preferred not to go anywhere with Abi that day, or any day. But he was my father; I didn’t have a choice.
I stared out the window, searching for clues to reveal where we were going as we drove out of one Long Island town and into another. There were only a handful of places we visited near there?—?the flea market, Western Beef, the African American Museum, a black bookstore, White Castle, and the movie theater. When we made a right onto North Franklin Street, I was pretty sure we were going to the movies.
The Hempstead theater was small, run-down, and practically unknown to people who didn’t live nearby. Just beyond a corridor of wood and metal scaffolding along the sidewalk, I could make out a small line at the ticket window. I’d never seen a line there before. When we got to the front, Abi spoke like a king commanding subjects with his resounding depth:
“One adult and two children for Malcolm X.”
So that was why we were there. It was the opening day of Spike Lee’s biopic on the influential black Muslim leader that everyone on the news and in the streets had spent all summer and fall of 1992 talking about.
We had to be first.
“What you’ll see in this film is more important that any lessons you would have learned in school today,” Abi said, leading us inside.
At first, staring up at the screen watching Lee and Denzel Washington sway down a street in zoot suits was n
t quite what I expected from a movie about the transformative minister the country had largely tried to erase from memory, but it was entertaining. The whole theater crackled with laughter when Detroit Red jumped out of his chair feeling the sting of lye as he got his hair conked. We laughed harder when none of the faucets worked and Red eventually had to dunk his head in toilet water to relieve the burning.
Just before the intermission, I sat rapt watching a militant cadre of brothers from the Nation of Islam soundlessly stand guard amid a screaming mob. The protestors rallied outside the hospital where a black man lay after being badly beaten by police. Officers were on edge thinking they’d soon have to quell a riot. But when Minister Malcolm dispersed the unruly crowd with a simple flick of his leather-gloved hand, my father beamed. He leaned over, his black leather jacket crunching under the weight of his movements, and told me, “That’s just how it was,” as if he’d actually been there.
By the time Malcolm X found Sunni Islam, I was lost in the film. His transformation from street criminal, to dogged purveyor of black pride, to man ensconced in self-discovery through his recognition of the humanity within Islam was confusing and yet, made total sense. This man was tortured by his past, his rough upbringing, and by his everyday existence as a black man in a country that didn’t respect black men. He needed Islam. It saved him.
In submission, Malcolm knelt inside a beautiful chandeliered and red-carpeted mosque during his pilgrimage to Mecca. He prayed in Arabic. From my lumpy seat, I mumbled the words along with him.
“Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim,” we opened the prayer.
Except at mealtimes, I hadn’t prayed with anyone since moving out of Abi’s house. The shape of my family had bent, folded, and severed under the pressure of his absence. By the time I’d entered eighth grade that year, only Muhammad, my mother, and I were left living together. My sister, Aliya, who was entering her senior year when we moved, had hardly been home and when she was, spent all her time talking to friends on the phone. We’d barely spoken. My older brother, Isa, straight-A student, didn’t want to change schools and eventually, out of convenience, just moved back into Abi’s house.
The following year, Aliya went away to college leaving me, who’d shared a room with her my whole life, all by myself. My family had split up just as I’d feared.
When we were together, Abi had always been the one to facilitate our prayers, gathering us in the living room to sit on sheet-covered couch cushions in our pajamas every night before bed. At five years old, I remember my whole family plopped in various cross-legged positions around me when I closed my eyes and before my face, held my hands parted and slightly cupped as though trying to catch falling raindrops.
Bismillah ar-rahman, ar-rahim.
My ears perked when our voices rose in unison, uttering a series of foreign words, some more challenging to pronounce than others.
It was like singing a song, this prayer of ours. Abi led with his strong baritone; my mother, Ummi, accompanied with her harmonic alto; Aliya, Isa, Muhammad, and I followed?—?poorly trained sopranos. Most of the tune was monotone but in the places where the notes rose an octave or dipped to a depth I had to work to reach, the payoff was an audible beauty.
Maaliki yaumid deen. Iyyaaka na’abudu wa iyyaaka nasta’een.
Ihdinas siraatal mustaqeem.
I had no idea what the words meant. I never heard them spoken anywhere outside our own home. I only knew they were what we were supposed to say when praying to Allah. And I liked the sound of them, the way they rolled around in my mouth differently than the words I’d been saying all day, then floated from my lips up to God’s ear.
Siraatal ladheena an ‘amta ‘alaihim. Ghairil maghduubi’ alaihim wala daaleen.
Instead of raindrops, I imagined Allah dropped His blessings into my cupped hands during the prayer. When it ended, I brought the edges of my palms together?—?careful not to let any gaps form between my fingers through which His grace could slip. Then I covered my nose, mouth, and eyes with my two hands. Washing the blessing outwards over my forehead, cheeks, and chin, I was cleansed. I opened my eyes to see my family still drawn close.
Watching that movie with Abi gave me back something I hadn’t realized I’d lost. It filled me with warmth, though I hadn’t noticed I’d been shivering.
It struck me then that maybe by taking Muhammad and me to see how Malcolm Little became Malcolm X and Malcolm X became El Hajj Malik El Shabbazz, Abi was trying to show us how and why he became who he was. Why he couldn’t always be Mr. Nice Guy. Why he demanded so much from us and from blacks as a whole. Maybe why he’d been attracted to Islam in the first place and become Muslim as a teenager.
I realized that perhaps Abi didn’t want us to only watch the film, but to see in it some of ourselves as well, some of our heritage. In Malcolm X the movie and, more importantly, the man, I had discovered a link to who I was as a Muslim. This was worth leaving school for. I don’t know if Abi meant to, but that day he’d finally given me a reason to stop being mad at him: He revealed that he cared enough about me to teach me about myself.
Editor’s note. Sufiya Abdur-Rahman is a writer and teacher in Prince George’s County, Md. This essay is an excerpt from her in-progress memoir, Heir to the Crescent Moon. Follow her on twitter @MrsAbolitionist. A version of this story first appeared in Ummah Wide. The views expressed here are her own.