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.
Lots of responses could 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 quite unexpectedly. I had known my schoolmates for years, and 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 fast 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 found ourselves passing in the halls, we would raise a black power fist in solidarity, recognizing our common struggle.
Who would have thought that 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, in turn, helped me bear out many of the lessons in the book in my own life.
Like many people, after reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, I launched into a militant phase, but I didn’t know 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 largely white world with school friends, and then there was the Roshaunda who existed in a largely 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 could 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 sit idly by 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 endlessly frustrating, which delighted me.
I suppose one day I laughed just a little too much, and that’s actually how I found out he was a Klan member. He told me, proudly and ominously, of his membership in the organization. That, too, made me chuckle. I couldn’t believe 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.
Another challenge I faced head on was a discriminatory school policy. I suppose the policy could be construed as something other than discriminatory, but the application of the policy certainly couldn’t be considered anything approaching equitable. The school enacted a policy banning students from wearing anything on their heads. The intent was to deter gang affiliation by prohibiting people from wearing caps, bandanas, and even hair bows. The rule, it seemed, only applied to the sprinkling of black students at the school.
In an act of civil disobedience, I wore a yellow bandana tied around the base of my ponytail one day. During a school 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 began to yank 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 even know 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 of 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.