Legacy of Malcom and Betty


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Category: Profiles Date: 10 Jul 97

What 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?


Betty 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.


Qubilah 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 lecture.


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.


And 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.


Anyway, 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.”


Little did she know that an offspring of one of the daughters she shielded that day would, 32 years later, bring about her own death.


After 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 slippage.


The 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”.


Meanwhile 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.


One 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.


The 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.


That’s 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.


Betty 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.


The 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?


The 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.


Decoded, 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 Malcolm.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur