Other than a few street signs and a historical marker, this is little evidence of the nearly 15 years Malcolm X spent in Lansing. But a new community art project is hoping to offer a new perspective on the controversial civil rights leader and former Lansing resident.
Last week, REACH Studio Art Center and Lansing Community College unveiled a life-size, freestanding mosaic mural of Malcolm X. The project is a collaboration between REACH Studio Art Center’s Teen Open Studio and Lansing Community College sociology students. The Teen Open Studio is dedicated to creating community art pieces with a social message. The LCC students visited the teen artists four times over a two-month period to lead discussions on race relations and civil rights.
“Service learning helps students apply what they learn in the classroom to real life,” said LCC sociology and anthropology professor Aliza Robison. “In this case, we talked to Lansing area high schoolers about Malcolm X and gave them a better idea of who he was, what the social movement was about and how social inequality relates to them.”
“Our goal is to create space for dialogue that is often difficult,” added Franchesca Cifuentes, coordinator of LCC’s Center for Engaged Inclusion, which helped coordinate the project. “I was so proud to see how our students dove into it.”
The mural is comprised of small ceramic tiles designed by the 10 teen artists and 15 LCC students. Each tile contains a message or a symbol that ties into Malcolm X’s life, including handcuffs to represent his time in prison and a pair of two right feet to represent limited social mobility. Other tiles, like one that reads “black lives matter,” connect Malcolm X’s message to contemporary social issues.
The mural will remain in the atrium of the LCC Library, in the college’s Technology and Learning Center Building, through February, which is Black History Month. After that, the piece will move to a permanent home at Lansing’s El-Hajj Malik El- Shabazz Public School Academy, located at 1028 Barnes Avenue, just off of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The school, named after Malcolm X, uses the Arabic name that he adopted later in life.
Malcolm X’s time in Lansing was marked by racial violence and tragedy. Born in Omaha as Malcolm Little in 1925, Malcolm X came to Lansing with his family in 1928. In 1929, the family’s northwest Lansing home burned in a suspected arson, likely by the Ku Klux Klan or a similar group. In 1931, Malcolm X’s father, Earl Little, was killed by a streetcar. His death was ruled an accident, but rumors suggested he was killed by the Black Legion, another white supremacist group. In 1939, Malcolm X’s mother had a nervous breakdown and was committed to the Kalamazoo State Hospital. Malcolm X and his siblings were split up, and he was placed in a foster home in Mason, where he attended high school. From there, he bounced between Boston, New York and Lansing, including stints in Lansing working at Shaw Jewelers and working as a busboy at either the Mayfair Bar or Coral Gables.
Malcolm X’s turbulent time in Lansing set him up for a life in crime and drugs, which is where most history books pick up his story. Malcolm X was arrested in Boston for burglary and sent to prison, where he converted to Islam and eventually emerged as a fiery civil rights activist.
Until his assassination in 1965, Malcolm X returned to the Lansing area several times to visit family and friends. He married his wife, Betty Shabazz, nee Sanders, in Lansing in 1958, and he spoke at Michigan State University in 1963.
Several of the teens involved in the project said that school civil rights lessons mostly focus on Martin Luther King Jr. and his message of peace, barely mentioning Malcolm X. The complex leader’s black nationalist views and militant stances make Malcolm X a delicate subject for teachers.
One of the teen artists, 16-year-old Everett High School student Jasper Baldwin, said Malcolm X’s flaws made him relatable, as opposed to King, who is often treated with saint-like reverence.
“He was just like any of us,” Baldwin said. “But he managed to change the world.”
The project looked at the entire life of Malcolm X, including his childhood in Lansing, attempting to give context to the leader’s controversial views.
“He was always portrayed as a violent activist, but he really wasn’t,” said LCC student Muhamed Musa. “He encouraged people to defend themselves, not to be the aggressor.”
The project includes one element that represents the change in Malcolm X’s life. His glasses, the students explained, feature one regular lens and one mirrored lens, representing two periods of his life. The mirrored lens also allows viewers to symbolically see themselves in Malcolm X.
The mosaic also features a smiling Malcolm X, a purposeful contrast to the militant image often seen in news clippings and history books. This was not lost on Deborah Jones, a niece of Malcolm X who traveled from Grand Rapids for the unveiling.
“When I saw this piece, it was truly emotional,” she said. “I always remember uncle Malcolm smiling. It’s heartwarming that these students learned so much about him and about each other. This is truly amazing.”
Teen Open Studio participant Kinzer Kofoed, a 16-year old student at Okemos’ Nexus Academy, was inspired by the way Malcolm X turned his life around.
“It started as a sad story of an oppressed young man,” said Kinzer Kofoed. “It was a great learning experience, seeing how he changed throughout his life.”