by Daniel Wirtheim
I first spoke with Jibreel Khazan last year, about a week before his appearance at North Carolina A&T University’s campus where he spoke at the anniversary of the Woolworths sit-ins. I was still at student at UNCG at the time, working at the school newspaper. I thought an interview with one of the A&T Four would make a great feature.
You’ve seen photographs of Khazan, I’m sure. He is one of the four. You can see him in the iconic photographs at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum or as a statue on the A&T campus.
A week before the ceremony I dialed the number a contact had given me as Khazan’s. I wanted a writer to speak with him in person. But I also wanted to pick his brain for a moment. After all, I had never held a conversation with someone who was also a statue and I expected his speech to be laden with quotable material. But instead of telling me how he would enjoy meeting and sharing his incredible story he immediately began talking about a squirrel he had seen earlier that morning.
It was a gray squirrel, he said. Of the average variety but bearing a pair of transfixing eyes that reminded him of the spiritual wholeness of the animal kingdom.
“Is this a typical morning for you?” I asked. But Khazan only continued. He seemed to forget I was there as his speech branched further from the topic of a potential meeting and into history and spiritualism. He spoke about rock and roll, Islam. He discussed a photograph of a woman in a rice patty field in Vietnam, and although he had never seen her in real life, he was certain she also had the eyes of the squirrel.
Occasionally he would pepper in references to the sit-in movement. It all spiraled into a dizzying array of madness or profound spirituality — I could not tell. But I listened as best as I could and searched for more blank pages in my notebook.
It carried on like this for about two hours, me hardly saying a word and Khazan digressing into mysticism, until he finally had to end the conversation. He told me to contact him the next week. But Khazan called me the next day anyway.
There was a legitimate reason for his call at first. He was telling me that Mohammed, his liaison and driver, would be the best way to contact him. And then something I said got him started on the history of Islam again, which bled into the history of Christianity and nature of the Western world.
I tried to interject, to really get down to business. Because I had a primary source on the phone, I felt that it was my duty to better understand the thought processes of Khazan the protester. But I only found Khazan the storyteller who does not answer journalist’s questions in a simple way.
There’s a YouTube video of Khazan speaking outside the civil rights museum on its opening day in 2010. He’s wearing a flowing, white robe, waving a feather in one hand and speaking on so many subjects at once that it’s almost impossible to follow. At one point a reporter tries to interject.
She has to speak over Khazan. “Just let me ask one question,” she interjects. “Did you have any idea that what happened that day would have such a huge impact? I mean what you did that day sparked sit-ins across the country and inspired so many people. Did you have any idea that what you did that day would have such an impact on this country?”
Khazan begins with the straightforward answer she was looking for, enough for a quick quote before digressing again into the subject of Allah and God and the prophet Muhammad. I empathize with the reporter in this video. She wants to be told that what happened that day was inspired by a deep-rooted passion for social change. But Khazan will not give it to her easily.
As he rattled on, I began to feel foolish. I think I was a bit unfair to expect him to offer some great insight into what it was like at the lunch counter. He is, after all, a man who had no idea that his act of protest would be recognized as one of the highest expressions of the Civil Rights Movement. He was the scared one sitting at that lunch counter, he said. And he also told me that he empathized with the store manager.
Khazan did have those quotable nuggets. Like when he told me he has faith in the future of the country and that it’s up to the youth to make social change. Because before children learn about race, they play together, they understand one another and they’ll listen to each other’s stories.
We continued to trade phone conversations even after the article was published. I believe that sometimes he just wanted a person to listen to him. And I listened. Those stories reminded me that life is circuital and that it’s strange to be anything at all. And that if you look into mirror and into your own eyes, behind your eyes and into the deepest part of your soul, there are stories burning to get out.
You’ll find stories that, not unlike the squirrel’s, bind us and remind us that it’s all connected.
Former TCB intern Daniel Wirtheim works in the UNCG University Relations Department.