makes a boy of 12 set fire to his vibrant 63-year-old grandmother in an
inferno which would burn 80 percent of her body, consume her home and five
operations later, kill her? Especially when that boy is named Malcolm
after his grandfather, the legendary black American civil rights leader in
America, Malcolm X?
Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, lived her last days in the intensive care
unit, in a critical condition, breathing through a hole in her throat at
the Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx. Malcolm X, aka El-Hajj-Malik El-Shabazz,
was assassinated with a fatal barrage of .38 and .45 calibre bullets on
February 21, 1965. Three members of the Nation of Islam were charged with
Malcolm X’s murder. Two were convicted.
was only four when she witnessed her father being gunned down in the
Audubon ballroom in Harlem. But she was old enough to understand that her
mother Betty (pregnant with twins) was reluctant to take her and her three
sisters (Attalah, six, Ilyasah, three, and one-year-old Gamilah) to Harlem
to hear their father speak because his life had been threatened by white
supremacists and his former colleagues in the Nation of Islam. And she
must have heard her father Malcolm X persuade her mother to attend the
Guardian Weekly reminds us, “A year earlier, Louis Farrakhan, the
current leader of the Nation of Islam and the man who headed the Million
Man March two years ago, had issued a virtual death warrant in the
organisation’s newspaper. ‘The die is set and Malcolm shall not
escape: Such a man is worthy of death,’ he had written.” Farrakhan and
others felt betrayed by Malcolm’s rejection of racial separatism for an
all inclusive approach to civil rights.
some in Trinidad remember Farrakhan who reportedly flew here recently in a
private plane and a battery of peons from cooks to bodyguards and then
passed a hat around to collect some more money at his lecture. Extremists
obviously have their rewards on earth rather than in heaven.
back to February 1965. As the barrage of bullets hit her husband, Betty
Shabazz instinctively protected her children. The Guardian Weekly quotes
her recollections, “I threw my children underneath the bench and covered
them with my body. I saw Malcolm falling and tried to get to him but
somebody was holding me back. He was dead when I finally got to him.”
did she know that an offspring of one of the daughters she shielded that
day would, 32 years later, bring about her own death.
Malcolm X’s death, the 31-year-old Betty Shabazz became a single mother
of six young children in a peculiar position. Her husband Malcolm had for
years called white people “devils”. When John F Kennedy was killed he
crowed “the chickens were coming home to roost”, but 18 months before
his death he changed. His charismatic fight for civil rights for blacks in
America broadened to embrace civil rights for all. Malcolm X must have
seen that oppression is common to all of humanity in some measure - that
the weak, the poor, the powerless, and the bullied come in all colours. His
widow, Betty, was left to bear the consequences of this shift. Malcolm X
had now alienated many black separatists in America and the antipathy he
had created with the whites was still alive. Despite lack of public
support, this single mother raised six children, went back to school,
earned a doctorate in education and worked for 20 years as a college
administrator. And what a job she did! Two daughters became public
speakers on civil rights like their father. One went into public
relations, another became a playwright and one a singer. But there was
second oldest, Qubilah, rebelled. The vacuum left by her father was never
filled. She is reported to have said, “I was always angry that he left
me behind.” At 11 she abandoned Islam for Quakerism. In her late teens
she dropped out of university. A brief studying stint in Paris led to
pregnancy by an Algerian who disappeared. Qubilah called her son Malcolm
after her father. After Malcolm’s birth she dropped in and out of
courses, jobs and love affairs, turning to the bottle and the psychiatrist
for support. She loved little Malcolm but could not take care of him. At
the age of nine he was put in an emergency shelter while welfare workers
investigated allegations of sexual abuse. Later they would investigate
complaints of neglect. He was sent to a special unit for children with
emotional instability. It is reported that young Malcolm was “yearning
for a father figure... at the age of five he used to call all the men he
came into contact with, school bus drivers and male teachers, “dad”.
inside young Malcolm’s grown mother Qubilah, a four-year-old child who
had watched her father die, raged and mourned over his death. In 1995
Qubilah was charged with hiring a hitman to kill Farrakhan to avenge her
father’s death. Farrakhan got her off
(eager for a reconciliation with the Shabazz’s) while she
underwent drug and psychiatric counselling. She was repeatedly
hospitalised. The prosecution insisted the deal included Dr Betty Shabazz
being awarded custody of her grandson. But it was too late.
day while staying with his mother, Malcolm attacked Qubilah. He told the
police he did it because his mother had been drinking. He spent a week in
a psychiatric ward. Then he went to live with his grandmother Betty who
said he would “do her proud”. Instead he set fire to her.
facts are absorbing, horrifyingly so. As are the deaths of great public
figures or those connected with the great. So we rewind that reel of
Marilyn Monroe’s famous scene where a fan blows her dress up to her
hips, speculate, while reading about Erica, over the way her father Dr
Eric Williams died, wonder, as we look at Priscilla’s photo, if Elvis is
alive. The media knows of our awe and cranks it up. The tragic death of
Betty Shabazz, I am sad to report, did help sell newspapers.
because we believe in legacies. That famous people are somehow not made of
the same stuff that we are. That blood passes on not only genes and
chromosomes but magic, talent, a world view. What shocks us about Betty
Shabazz is that we are proved wrong.
Shabazz had to teach her children about their father’s convictions. They
did not inherit it. Twelve-year-old Malcolm did not inherit his
grandfather’s humanity. It was not taught to him, either by example or
instruction. But there are always stories within stories of great and
famous men and women. Stories so common that no editor in his right mind
would dream of publishing day after day.
manner of their deaths was different. There is something un-heroic in
being killed by your grandson. But both Malcolm X and his wife Betty left
caveats for us to examine: Betty’s death showed us that children need
two parents to get a start in life, that even the most admirable and
toughest of women can’t do it alone, that a careless mother and an
absent father can make a child murder his own flesh and blood. How can we
be so perennially naive to gape in astonishment at young murderers, look
upon them as if they are strange aberrations, monsters of the deep and not
part of us at all?
Guardian Weekly comments that Malcolm X’s death is “a metaphor for the
development of the racial struggles of African-Americans.” It is more
than that - much more. It is a metaphor for the struggles of all of
humanity because that’s what Malcolm X believed in and that’s why they
killed him. And if he were alive today Malcolm X may have asked some
questions. How can we look at the widening gap between the rich and the
poor and call it democracy? How can we be mean spirited and exploit our
workers, from maids to factory workers to white collar workers, and say
it’s business? How can we dismiss or be contemptuous of people because
of their race or their shade of brown and call it a community or culture?
How can we exercise power without responsibility and call it management?
When will we learn that suffering and injustice are universal; that it
takes not politicians, presidents, academics, technocrats, and business
magnates to change the world but every mother and father? That it is part
of our responsibility as human beings to do our bit so that when we die
our lives don’t just disappear like so many scraps of paper? Change is
all we leave behind.
this is what Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz are telling us as America and the
world re-examine their legacy, tarnished now by their 12-year-old grandson