Contemplating the (im)mortality of an icon

Harlem existed for me as an assortment of sound bites on vinyl records, and grainy black and white footage on VHS tapes. Harlem replayed for me, over and over again, at the touch of a button. I loved Harlem before I ever stepped an inch out of the monochrome, TV-monitor reality of my documentaries and recordings, and onto the concrete pavements of the bright, pulsating city of today.

My first attempts to reconcile the Harlem of my instant replay memories, with the Harlem that existed as a solid, sensory experience, included a photographic investigation of the life and memory of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, Malcolm X.

Malcolm X embodied, for me, as Ossie Davis so eloquently put it, “Black Manhood”. An autodidact with a fierce sense of integrity, Malcolm was unwavering with his demands for justice and as he grew in stature and prominence, the world bore witness to the evolution of his ideology and the dawn of an icon.

The epitome of courage, commitment and selflessness, Malcolm towered as eternally youthful, brilliant and beautiful, in my mind. My search would be for a hero un-withered by the passage of time. I ran along the boulevard renamed for him, and shot the mosque that he founded – a towering, boxy, green-and-yellow structure that still bears his name. I found corners that he stood upon, the chain pharmacy that stood in place of his favourite café, and chatted with the Nation of Islam recruits of today who hawked DVD’s of Malcolm’s speeches. I made my way to Queens to shoot the last home that he shared with his family. As I traced Malcolm’s footsteps I came closer to the site of his murder in Washington Heights. Eventually I entered the Audubon Ballroom. I found a plain room, lined on either side with non-intrusive monitors – once again, a life in black-and-white, on instant replay. Atop a slightly raised platform, stood an unmoving, life-sized, bronze Malcolm.

I could not address Malcolm’s life, without delving into his death. I began to search for references outside of the restrictions of the US Civil Rights Movement to cope with my uncertainty in the face of (im)mortality. Malcolm’s role as a leader and an activist grazed the most tender regions of my awareness as I beheld, from a geographical distance, my own parents as activists and leaders themselves, who had spent most of their lives, pressing for changes in their own society. After the catalyst is removed, is there enough momentum for the change to continue? Does anyone remember its origin? Can a lifetime of work be easily undone, dissipated in a generation or two? Or can an individual truly carve an indelible mark into human consciousness and effect a significant and lasting change in the course of the world?

Pablo Neruda wrote to his wife and his people about death, mourning and remembering as he contemplated his own mortality. His words became the mantra for my meditation.

I followed the bitter end of Malcolm’s life, from the site of his assassination at the Audubon, to the funeral home that prepared his body for burial and the church where his public funeral service was held. I left the former meeting hall, now a sterile unremarkable room but for the conspicuous mural depicting Malcolm’s life. I did not feel any spiritual connection, or experience any jolts of awareness. I did not find scratched floors or a bullet-riddled wall or an old chair or podium. Instead I encountered a group of cheerful women getting ready for a day’s work. I shot the metal face downstairs, and the facades of the church and funeral home closer to Central Harlem, unsure of what else to do.

I took the Metro-North to Ferncliff Cemetery and found the gravesite of Malcolm X and his beloved Betty, in a section of the cemetery where the ground was upturned, presumably for replanting the lawn. An African liberation flag fluttered just above the gravestone, supported by a mound of red-brown dirt. Little mementoes had been left at his grave – a letter, indecipherable from its weathering, a tiny ring inscribed with the word “INSPIRATION”, the links of a chain…

The beast that devours its own offspring, regurgitating statues, stamps and street signs in place of its living, breathing child, allowed me to glimpse its bloody fangs before retreating into impeccable camouflage.

I resurrected Malcolm in a series of clenched fists that I photographed throughout Central Harlem. Women and men, and excited children participated in my project even as they queried my need for a tangible display of homage to Malcolm.

I closed the project with Malcolm’s own script, blown up to poster size, reading “ “As salaam alaikum (Peace be unto you).

Love,

Malcolm X”

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