This month marks the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X being murdered by members of the Nation of Islam during a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York. Memories of her dad are faint for Ilyasah Shabazz, who was two-and-a-half at the time. However, she remembers Malcolm as “a big, tall, beautiful person with these big teeth. And I remember my doll that he’d given me, and I remember my rocking chair. I remember his voice.”
The controversial leader, who preached the message of black self-determination, has been misrepresented and misunderstood, Shabazz said. So she decided to set the record straight in her book, X: A Novel, co-written by Kekla Magoon. According to the website (www.ilyasahshabazz.com), the book is a historical fiction novel that “follows the formative years of the man whose words and actions shook the world.” The book chronicles Malcolm’s life from childhood to his imprisonment for theft at age twenty, when he found the faith that would lead him to forge a new path and command a voice that still resonates today.
X: A Novel was motivated by Shabazz’s desire to reveal who her father really was. He was an outspoken revolutionary, no doubt, whose passion for justice and stance against racism made both whites and blacks uncomfortable. But despite Malcolm’s rejection of social policies in the 6os, and his admonishment of black people to be more disciplined, self-reliant, and ready to defend themselves, he never supported violence. Shabazz wants to bring this point home and to ensure her father’s legacy lives on.
She told Newsweek, “It was when I was watching the second Obama inauguration that I started to really worry that my father was being written out of history.” Shabazz set out to reinvigorate her father’s legacy. She incorporated a moment of silence as part of the memorial experience at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center,(former home of the Audubon Ballroom in New York where Malcolm X was murdered on Feb. 21, 1965). She is also supporting a campaign to turn her father’s birthday into a U.S. national holiday.
The history of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King has been presented as a sort of rivalry, which has not done justice to the legacies of either man. Dr. Martin Luther King touted the message of racial integration, but that did not mean Malcolm was for segregation. In a speech, Malcolm said:
“The white man has brainwashed the so-called Negro, and they (blacks) think they… don’t have anything unless they’re living in the white man’s neighborhood or have a seat in the white man’s school.”
While his piercing truth was not easily accepted by the races during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, Malcolm’s use of strong language was designed to wake people up—especially black people—to their own sense of value and worth. He just wanted African Americans to understand that living among whites did not make them superior or to those who didn’t.
But while King took a more passive approach, Shabazz says there is room for both men. “Why can’t these people just have a backbone and invite Malcolm? I mean, what is the big deal? Put a bust up of Malcolm X. Let’s tell the truth about Malcolm X,” she said.
The media has often vilified Malcolm X while elevating Dr. Martin Luther King, as a peace maker. But what is not widely known or publicized is Malcolm’s own efforts toward racial harmony.
Malcolm’s spiritual transformation after he left the Nation of Islam in 1964 is a part of his legacy has been seriously downplayed. While visiting the Middle East and West Africa, Malcolm embraced Sunni Islam and returned a changed man. He noted after observing how people greeted each other, “Throngs of people, obviously Muslims from everywhere, bound for the pilgrimage were hugging and embracing. They were of all complexions, the whole atmosphere was of warmth and friendliness. The feeling hit me that there really wasn’t any color problem here. The effect was as though I had just stepped out of a prison.”
Malcolm began to embrace people of all races as his brothers and sisters, working together against injustice as a common brotherhood. A spiritual work in progress, Malcolm evolved his stance on topics such as equality for women and interracial marriage.
In the 50 years that have passed since Malcolm X was assassinated, African Americans have made tremendous progress and, at the same time recent history shows disturbing trends in the reverse. Police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are among the most prominent.
Ilyasah knows her father would have a lot to say about the protests against these abuses, but she is also concerned about there being an effective strategy and action plan to bring about real change. She wants his message to resonate with new generations who must continue in the struggle for justice.
Perhaps the spirit of Malcolm X will inspire Ilyasah with words of wisdom.
To this day, Ilyasah says she still talks to her father. “You can’t be that potent and then be gone.”