“I told the Englishman that my alma mater was books, a good library. Every time I catch a plane, I have with me a book that I want to read-and that’s a lot of books these days. If I weren’t out here every day battling the white man, I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity-because you can hardly mention anything I’m not curious about.”
Does this quote sound familiar?
You might recognize at least part of the quote as it’s inscribed on the right side of the University of Rhode Island’s Robert L. Carothers’ Library. It was said by Malcolm X, human rights activist of the 1960s. The abridged version, “My alma mater was books, a good library … I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity” was engraved on the library in 1992 by local Rhode Island artist John Benson.
When it was originally chosen, the abridged quote upset the URI student body, as students felt that the quote was taken out of context, said Frank Forleo, assistant director of URI’s Talent Development Program and one of the advisors of the Black Student Leadership Group.
Forleo was on campus in 1992 when he saw minority students’ reactions to the quote’s unveiling. He remembers a perfect storm of tension at URI: a lack of campus diversity, a nonexistent African American studies program and a crumbling multicultural center. To voice their concerns, students in the BSLG organized the Taft Hall Sit-In.
On Nov. 10, 1992, after students got wind of the quote, which they felt was a “mischaracterization of Malcolm X’s words,” over 300 students staged a sit-in at Taft Hall, right in front of the library. They named the reading room the “Malcolm X Reading Room” and presented a list of demands to URI President at the time, Robert Carothers, Forleo said.
Carothers remembers being in New Orleans when the sit-in occurred.
“I started writing down problem definitions on the plane,” he said. He said his main problem wasn’t how do we get the students out of Taft, but how to use the moral energy generated by the students to transform the university.
The students presented 14 demands to Carothers, all centered around increasing diversity on campus.
“I did not want to dismiss them as radicalists, but as activists,” Carothers said. “As I talked and listened to them, the movement changed more on campus. It led to the construction of the new multicultural center in the heart of campus.”
One of the most prominent of the demands asked the University to fix the quote to its fullest extent, and attribute it to Malcolm X.
“It’s beautiful but profoundly incomplete,” Forleo said. “[Minorities] see Malcolm X as symbolic. That’s where the whole thing broke down. To them, he meant black pride in 1992, and to have his words wrenched out of context and put up there, felt like they’d been robbed because of what he really said.”
But even after all the strides the university has made as far as its diversity, the quote still remains unattributed. Carothers defends non-attribution, and said that the words speak for themselves.
“Instead of attribution, we felt that the process of people trying to find where the quote came from would be a learning experience,” he said. People thought Malcolm X was a more violent portrayer of Civil Rights, Carothers added. Because the quote is not attributed, people “can see Malcolm X more fully as the person he was.”
Even the artist agrees with Carothers, and said that the attribution was not necessary, as people would either recognize the quote or go and look it up themselves.
“The power of words in stone is a monumental phenomenon and the addition of dates, attributions and further exploratory data is essentially non-monumental,” Benson said. “The greatest of such inscriptions, historically, have not carried such visual baggage and have benefited, artistically, from this practice. None the less we, the public, are inclined to curiosity and usually find ways to satisfy it.”
That being said, many students on campus do not know the weight those words hold to citizens, particularly African Americans. Out of a survey of over 30 students, only two knew who spoke those words, and none recognized that the quote was incomplete.
Mark Stillson, a sophomore, recognized the quote from doing a school project on Malcolm X. He said that the quote shows the University is open minded to diversity, and that “everything is accepted” here.
Forleo agrees, but still feels we, as a society, have a long way to go before race becomes a non-issue in America.
“The number of students of color at this University has grown, but I am not satisfied with progress. We still have a long way to go as a country and as a culture in the issue of diversity,” he said.