Ilyasah Shabazz inspires high school students to know their power and work together for change

February 12, 2024
By: Rebecca Cross

In a speech to more than 120 visiting high school students, Dr. Ilyasah Shabazz, award-winning author and the university’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Fellow, asked her teenage audience to raise their hands if they thought we have reached a point where the rights of every person of color are acknowledged and respected. Not a single hand went up.

Shabazz had just read a passage from the diary of Charlotte Forten, the first African American to graduate from Salem State University (then Salem Normal School), in which she wrote, “Let us take courage never ceasing to work, hoping and believing that, if not for us, for another generation there is a better and brighter day in store, when prejudice and slavery shall vanish before the glory and light of liberty and truth, when the rights of every colored man shall everywhere be acknowledged and respected and he shall be treated as a man and a brother.”

Forten wrote those words in 1856. Nearly 170 years later, the audience’s response showed that Forten’s hopes have yet to be realized.

Then Shabazz asked, “Have things gotten better?” and there were murmurs of agreement from the crowd.

“Yes,” Shabazz agreed. “But they have to get more better, right?”

Shabazz’s talk was part of ALANA Preview Day, February 7, a day that offers high school students the opportunity to preview university life, with, among other activities, a campus tour and conversations with faculty and BIPOC/ALANA students. More than 120 juniors from Worcester high schools attended the day-long event.

This event was combined with Worcester State’s 10th year celebrating the National African American Read-In. This movement, established by the National Council of Teachers of English, centers the contributions of African American authors to literature and encourages communities to read together. As part of the celebration, a copy of Shabazz’s most recent book, The Awakening of Malcolm X, was given to every high school student in attendance.

Shabazz’s speech focused on self-love and creating change. One of the keys to change, according to Shabazz, is for young people of color to recognize and believe in their own power.

Part of that is knowing where they come from. “I’d like to give praise,” she said, “to our ancestors, the refined and industrious Indigenous men and women of African ancestry, Black Indigenous People of Color, those who have not been honored in history, those whose stories have not been properly documented. We give praise to the countless men, women, and children who built thriving civilizations and yet endured physical and psychological traumas, who endured the largest forced migration of the people in the history of humankind and are from where we all trace our ancestry.”

She urged the young people in the audience to “take that power that you possess and apply it to yourself. Think of who you admire. Is it Beyonce? Is it Taylor Swift? Is it Michelle Obama? Who is it? Whoever it is, just imagine what they were doing when they were your age. They were working hard toward their goals.”

It is important, Shabazz said, to have hope and to believe in the possibility of change. “When we believe this, then it means we’re willing to do the necessary work,” she said.

Shabazz spoke about the legacy of her parents, Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz, and how it had helped her realize her own power. She and three of her sisters were present when their father was assassinated. Their pregnant mother threw her own body over the girls to shield them not only from bullets but from seeing what had happened to their father.

Betty Shabazz continued to shield her six daughters in what Ilyasah Shabazz called a “bubble of love,” making sure their father’s presence remained in their home and teaching them the truth of their father’s philosophy—something that has often been distorted.

Betty also taught her daughters about the significant contributions that women, Muslims, and the African Diaspora have made to the world, which allowed Ilyasah to love herself. That self-love, Ilyasah said, has made it easier to love others.

Shabazz encouraged her audience to develop that self-love in themselves and to look past the false narratives that keep people divided. She pointed out how her father, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. are often presented as opposites, and many people believe they can support only one or the other. “We do not have to choose sides,” Shabazz said. “We can choose to fight each other or fight for each other. We must be united in our shared humanity.”

All photos by Nancy Sheehan

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