Event Recap: Muslim Leadership Lab’s 4th Annual Lecture Honoring the Life and Work of Dr. Betty Shabazz & Malcolm X

written by abdul-rehman malik, muslim leadership lab director

What does it mean to celebrate the lives of “everyday” people? In our search to understand the extraordinary personalities that have shaped the ideas, activism and politics, how often do we miss the sustained, creative, and inspirational contribution of those who don’t make it on to posters, those who aren’t turned into memes, or whose faces don’t appear on postage stamps? Can the “everyday” also be extraordinary?

The Muslim Leadership Lab’s  4th Annual Lecture Honoring Dr. Betty Shabazz & Malcolm X El Hajj Malik El Shabazz tried to answer these questions – and more. Delivered by scholar, writer, and activist Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, the lecture was called “Umi’s Archive: The Legacy of Everyday Black Women.” Dr. Su’ad is a field builder. Trained as an anthropologist, Dr. Su’ad’s first book, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States (NYU Press 2016), is a critically acclaimed ethnography on Islam and hip hop that examines how intersecting ideas of Muslimness and Blackness challenge and reproduce the meanings of race in the US. She’s also the founder of Sapelo Square, the leading online resource for research and conversation at the intersections of Blackness and Islam.

Most recently, Dr. Su’ad curated “Umi’s Archive” – a multipart, multimedia research project that digs deep into the life of one woman, Amina Amatul Haqq (1950-2017), Dr. Su’ad’s mother – to explore what it means to be  Black in the world every day. Drawing on one remarkable life, Umi’s Archive launched in 2021 with a six-part online exhibition series exploring themes, from anti-Black racism and Black girlhood to Blacks in the military and religion and spirituality. The exhibition was a “(re)claimed space where we remember and dream,” The project draws on a family archive that includes over a thousand items dating from the late 1920s and spans multiple continents.

In her talk, Dr. Su’ad addressed how everyday ordinary Black women transformed and shaped their communities. She looked at the legacy of scholarship, creativity, confidence and the world-building spirit that was at the heart of their community organizing. In particular, she asked the audience to see their work and lives as a pedagogy for social, political, and spiritual transformation. Dr. Su’ad drew on archival recordings, photographs and testimonies to describe the rich and dynamic ways in which her mother and the community of women around her built community and created change. Dr. Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X, Dr. Su’ad remarked, were also everyday people. Born outside of privilege, marginalized and often ignored, they created a legacy that is now iconic – and presented a radical vision for justice that Malcolm X eventually gave his life for.

The annual lecture, organized by Dwight Hall at Yale’s Muslim Leadership Lab and supported by the Muslim Life Program at the Chaplain’s Office, centers the sacrifice and legacy of these two human rights activists. By remembering Malcolm X and his partner Dr. Betty Shabazz on the anniversary of his assassination, the lecture underscores the danger that faces those who seek radical social change and asserts that there is an urgency to exploring what these radical lives mean to us today.

This lecture was followed by some powerful responses from four Yale students. Zafirat Ndancky ’23, Co-President of the newly formed Yale Black Muslims Association, noted how religious discourses can at times empower and at times marginalize Black experiences. Zahra Yarali ’24, Political Chair at Yale’s Muslim Students Association, wanted to explore the importance of intergenerational relationships in building new leadership for liberation. How, she asked, do we build new worlds for us all? Sarah Elawad MFA ’23, a graphic designer whose work explores image and identity, asked about the risks in creating an exhibition and curating an archive that was so personal. Samaah Jaffer, First-Year Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies and Co-Founder of Shia Coalition for Racial Justice, raised the importance of seeing “everyday” women as creators of knowledge – and solutions. Samaah saw the archive as a living, breathing project that was producing knowledge and forcing us to imagine new futures. The discussion that followed was both reflective and generative.

The Muslim Leadership Lab was started in 2018, a first of its kind program at an Ivy League school, with the goal of giving self-identifying Muslim students and their allies an opportunity to engage with ideas, tools, and practical training that will allow them – as young changemakers and leaders – to more fully engage with other like-minded, diverse emerging leaders to create lasting change for social, political, and economic justice. The Lab is inspired by the vision and work of civil rights pioneer Ella Baker and her call for a leader-ful movement for social justice where each of us is empowered to assume both leadership and service. The Lab also looks to the Prophet Muhammad’s invitation for each of us to be a shepherd and builder of community.

Muslim Leaderhip Lab is about to launch its fourth student cohort with an emphasis on learning from the experiences of frontline changemakers through a series of masterclasses and discussions.

The Dr. Betty Shabazz & Malcolm X Memorial Lecture is one of the key pillars in the Lab’s work and represents a space for deep, relevant, and practical thinking about the ongoing struggle for a merciful, compassionate and just world.

Catch the lecture again soon at Dwight Hall’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.

About the Author

Lydia Burleson

Lydia Burleson served as the Communications and Alumni Engagement Associate for Dwight Hall at Yale, Center for Public Service and Social Justice from June 2021-June 2022. A first-generation low-income student from rural Texas, Lydia graduated from Yale cum laude in 2021 with a degree in English and a nonfiction creative writing concentration. During her college years, Lydia increased awareness of marginalized voices with the public writing she did for The Yale Daily News and the Yale Admissions office. Her Dwight Hall experiences included free college advising with student-led member groups REACH and Matriculate. Dwight Hall empowered Lydia to uplift other disadvantaged students and to increase access to education for people who might not have otherwise received these resources. She is currently completing an English PhD at Stanford University with a Knight-Hennessy Fellowship.