Mustafa's Musings: Malcolm X + Storm King = Me Writing Again
In early Spring I moved back to my mom's house in the suburbs of NJ for a variety of reasons (ok fine, it's because I got broken up with, but that's an oversimplification of things). I spent hours aimlessly walking circles inside mom's house as I put off applying to more jobs; after five months of fruitless efforts, I was convinced that these companies were colluding to play a cruel joke on me. On some of these jaunts, I would end up in my sister's room.
She lives in Los Angeles now, and other than a relative visiting, the room is empty most days. On her desk is a pile of books, and at the top is "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
I had seen this book floating around my house for years and never picked it up. It's a thick-looking book, and I was intimidated by it. (Never judge a book by its spine?)
Another month went by and eventually after ending up in my sister's room hundreds of more times, I figured, "Alright, let's see what this man has to say."
It turned out to be the best book I had ever read on many different wavelengths. I'll share in more detail another day why I think Malcolm X's autobiography should be required reading in high schools, but right now I want to focus on the last chapter of his book.
He details how assured he is of his oncoming assassination in the next few months, weeks, or possibly days. Nevertheless, he's focused on finishing this book.
I have given to this book so much of whatever time I have because I feel and I hope, that if I honestly and fully tell my life's account, read objectively it might prove to be a testimony of some social value.
I think that an objective reader may see how in society to which I was exposed as a black youth here in America, for me to wind up in a prison was really just inevitable. It happens to so many thousands of black youth.
Tragically Malcolm X was correct. Shortly after his contribution to the book was finished, but about eight months before its publication, he was assassinated.
I found it remarkable how Malcolm X was willing to selflessly invest his energy into something he had hoped might give people a new perspective. He wasn't doing this for fame, or glory. He was doing it for the betterment of society.
This simple autobiography became one of the most influential works of American literature. A book read by millions, and to be read by many millions more.
Writing is something I've always found joy in at different parts of my life, but for the last decade, I've been struggling to find the motivation to put my work out there.
During my sophomore year of college (that would be 2007 for those keeping track at home), I joined The Daily Californian, U.C. Berkeley's student newspaper. I wrote primarily about sports, covering different teams including men's water polo and track & field. I took a lot of pride in writing thorough recaps and athlete profiles, but the truth is, no one really cared.
There's too much going on at a school like Berkeley for someone to react to a piece about a couple of freshman water polo players from Serbia. I wanted more.
In 1996, in response to a controversial editorial, The Daily Cal created the first college sex column. "Sex on Tuesday," ran every, yup, Tuesday, and was generally the most-read piece of the week. Every semester a new columnist would take the helm and share their thoughts about all things regarding sex, love, and relationships.
At least in the time I was there, however, the column faded in its prominence in the context of the larger campus culture. The columnists were almost exclusively female, and from my perspective, they played it safe. It was more, "Hey let's talk about sex positivity," which is great and all, but the target audience is more so, "I want a lewd story about you having sex."
Seeking something more than another semester covering a college sport, I applied and became the sex columnist my senior year. I sought to give the people what they wanted, and in return get what I wanted: a real reaction.
By 11 am of my first column running (fair warning, the writing is somewhat racy), one of my freshman dormmates hits me to tell me that his professor is fuming in front of the class about my column. He was reading the Daily Cal on the elliptical at the gym and was pissed that his workout was ruined by the Daily Cal running something as salacious as what I had written.
As the fall semester continued, people increasingly reacted to my columns and discussed my writing opening. The sex column, which at times was a staid affair, had all of the sudden been commandeered by a straight male who was far too influenced at the time by Tucker Max. After I re-upped for the spring semester, it got to the point wherein a school of 25,000+ students, I became a minor campus celebrity.
The reactions to my writing were all over the place. Some people told me how terrible I was, while others told me I was their favorite writer (speaks more to whatever else they were reading as compared to my writing abilities). From the girl who dumped her beer on me, to the one who offered to sleep with me in exchange for writing about her (no, I didn't write about her, but I—), to when a student group barricaded the Daily Cal's office with newspapers in protest of a particularly spicy column, it all gave me a sustained rush of dopamine.
Then suddenly college came to an end and I had to exit this bubble that I had mastered. I became a freelance writer for Patch.com (hyper-local news) and different men's lifestyle blogs that paid me $15-$20 a pop.
Without the dopamine hits, the work quickly became deflating. I went from writing for thousands to—if I was fortunate—25-50 people, and a couple of bots trying to sling weight loss products.
I decided to give up writing for a career in branding/marketing primarily because I didn't see any value in writing if I couldn't make thousands laugh, cry, or get angry. (Secondary reason: I was tired of hitting my mom up for rent money). I've had an interesting journey over these last years including being a short-lived professional namer, to working for a San Francisco startup literally in a garage, to building a personal and working relationship with the founder of Wu-Tang Clan that had a transformational impact on my life.
Throughout the last ten years, I did write here and there but never put anything out except a couple of LinkedIn articles. I figured, what's the point of writing if thousands aren't going to read and react?
Fast forward to early August and I'm at Storm King Art Center with one of my closest friends, Jeremy. Storm King is by far my favorite museum/sculpture garden/any place that showcases art, that I've visited. This was my third trip there, and each time I had gone there prior, I had always left feeling profoundly inspired (LSD during the second trip may or may not have played a part in that).
As was the case over the last few weeks, the words of Malcolm X were rumbling in my head. At some point in our journey across the grounds, something just clicked in my head.
If Malcolm X is willing to sacrifice the last few months of his life to put forth a body of work that he had hoped could change the perspectives of others, why am I afraid of doing so? I don't have to worry about getting killed.
My writing shouldn't be about the selfish enjoyment I get out of it—it should be about putting something out into the world that may create a positive reaction. If I just change a single person's mind in relation to something I'm passionate about, isn't that enough?
I don't need the high of thousands of people reading and reacting to my work to feel creatively fulfilled. Sure it'd be nice, but that shouldn't be holding me back from writing about things I care about.
So without further adieu, I give you the birth of "From Mustafa's Desk." I'll be using this platform to share my thoughts on culture at large.
Some of the topics I'll visit more frequently are sustainability (I hate single-use plastic) and race in America. And yes, as I know what the people really want, there will be plenty of stories recounting my experience in the entertainment industry and crossing paths with the people who influence global culture.
I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you, and hey, maybe if I'm fortunate, get you to see an issue in a different light.
'Til we meet next, much love.
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This piece was edited by Matt Goodgal.
For those who read the sex column, I found out a week later that she was rolling on ecstasy at the time. It all makes sense now, cause I was like, man I definitely ain't that good.