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Book of the week: 'Growing up X'

By
SHIRLEY SAAD

SAN DIEGO, Feb. 4 (UPI) -- Ilyasah Shabazz has written an honest and compelling account of her childhood after the assassination of her father, the civil rights activist Malcolm X. Her story is less a memoir than a paean to her parents, the father she lost at the age of two, and her mother, Dr. Betty Shabbazz. The latter seems to have been the central -- and controlling -- presence in Ilyasah's life.

It is refreshing to read of the profound love, respect and admiration of this young woman for her mother, at a time when it is fashionable to hate and despise one's parents.

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Ilyasah, or Yasah, as her family calls her, does not really remember her father. She was almost three when he died, not quite old enough to have formed any real memories.

"I have a memory in which I used to come downstairs in our house and open the venetian blinds to look for my father. When I heard him coming, I'd go running for the door, and he'd open it and swing me up, up, up, high into the air for a big hug, then catch me under his arm like a big sack of potatoes and together we'd take the oatmeal cookies Mommy used to make and go watch the evening news."

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But are these her own memories or are they based on what other people have told her? "Do people really remember as toddlers? Or do they at the age of 16 or 25 or 30, simply want to?"

Her mother kept Malcolm X alive for his daughters -- not so much as the activist, but as father, husband and man. It was much later, when Yasah finally read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" co-written with Alex Haley, that she understood the impact her father had on American society.

"Growing up X" was written with the help of Kim McLarin.)

She was made acutely aware that people expected her to be "Malcolm X's" daughter, whatever that was: radical activist, Muslim fanatic; whatever guided their understanding or, as Yasah would say, their misunderstanding, of his philosophy.

Yasah grew up, like her sisters, privileged, in the sense that she lived in a nice home in a good neighborhood and went to private schools. Her mother protected her daughters, as much as possible, from the ugliness of life. Having lost their father in such a horrendous manner, she decided they had suffered enough and sought to make their lives as comfortable and agreeable as possible.

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Yasah learned to value education, spurred by her mother's example. "For far too many of our young people, excelling academically is considered the opposite of being authentically black."

Not so for Yasah and her sisters.

Betty Shabbaz went back to school after her husband's assassination, and earned first her master's degree and then her doctorate, all while working, contributing to her community and raising six daughters. She taught them to be modest, ambitious, honest and hard working.

She also taught them to be themselves and not give in to peer pressure or the expectations or dictates of others.

"Because deep inside I knew the color of my lipstick or the style of my hair had no bearing on my legitimacy as a proud African American woman."

Yasah describes her middle-class life which included bake sales, ski trips, and parties with other African-American children for whom "education and ambition haven't been made uncool." She straightened her hair and wore lipstick, went to summer camps and wore shorts. But throughout it all, she was a devout Muslim and a proud African-American, ever conscious of her father's legacy.

She points out that her father never advocated violence for violence's sake, but believed that African Americans had the right to defend themselves when necessary. When he left the Nation of Islam and converted to orthodox Islam, the whole family became Sunni Muslims.

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"The basic creed of Islam is brief. There is no God but Allah, who is compassionate and just, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah. Islam means surrender or submission. Muslims are those who have submitted themselves to the will of God in the name of peace and accept and proclaim the oneness of God."

The way Americans practice their religion is, of course, influenced by their culture and may seem very different to Muslims in other countries. For instance, the traditional day of prayer in the Middle East is Friday, but Yasah tells how they prayed on Sundays, and spent the day in Quranic instruction and learning to read and write Arabic.

Her mother did not require the girls to wear the traditional "hijab", which is usually a long coat and scarf, but did insist on modest clothing. Shorts were for summer camp only.

Unfortunately, her sheltered life could not prevent Yasah from being raped at the age of 14, nor could it protect her from the great tragedy of losing her mother. In 1997, Betty Shabbazz died at the hands of her 12 year-old grandson, Malcolm, who set fire to her house, and Yasah tells the story in compassionate terms. One might have liked more details about Malcolm's mother, Qubilah, and why Malcolm's father was not in the picture, but this is not their story. It is Yasah's, and she tells it in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner.

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She tells of her rare, but hurtful, encounters with racial prejudice; her love affairs; her search for direction which led first to medical school, then, after her car accident, to a brief acting career, and finally to her job as Director of Public Affairs and Special Events for the city of Mount Vernon, New York, where she grew up.

She explains the role religion played in all their lives, and how it, and her mother's love, sustained her through hard times.

She is honest about her feelings concerning her father's death and the role the Nation of Islam, Elijah Mohammad, and possibly the U.S. government, or at least one of its agencies, played in that death. She is honest about her feelings for the movie Spike Lee made of her father's life, accurate but not able, according to Yasah, of capturing the depth of her father's life and work. She is honest about her feelings for Louis Farrakhan's disavowal of her father.

But her negative comments are few and far between. She gives thanks, and credit, to all the family and friends who rallied round on that fateful day in 1965, and who continued to give support and help throughout the years.

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The daughters of Malcolm X had to grow up without a father, but their lives were filled with love and laughter, largely thanks to Betty Shabbazz, their mother. Asked how she found the strength to go on, Betty replied, "You know, sweetheart, life goes on. You can sit back and cry, but in the meantime life goes on. Society has so many ills and someone has to fix them. We each have a purpose and a mission in life, and our mission is not to sit back and feel sorry for ourselves."

Yasah learned her lesson well. She realized that she didn't have to be Malcolm or Betty. She just had to be herself.

"I came to understand that as long as I was a good person, as long as I lived by the values instilled in me by my parents and incorporated God's will into my life, I was just fine." Amen to that.


("Growing up X" by Ilyasah Shabazz, Ballantine Books, 235 pages, $13.95)

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