Many people grow up considering their parents their biggest role models and inspirations, and Ilyasah Shabazz is no different – except that her father was the civil rights leader Malcolm X, who was assassinated when she was two years old.
Shabazz is now an author, a professor and an activist. She appeared on Thursday, March 31 at an event called “Daughter of X” sponsored by Webster University’s Multicultural Center and International Student Association (MCISA). Webster junior and MCISA member Hafsa Mansor moderated the event.
Shabazz sold and signed copies of her new book X: A Novel, a fictionalized retelling of her father’s adolescence. She has written two other books: Growing Up X, a memoir, and Malcolm Little, a children’s’ book. Along with journalist Herb Boyd, Shabazz also edited and published a collection of her father’s diary entries, although its publication was challenged in court by other members of her family who felt she did have the right to release private information.
In addition to Malcolm X’s legacy, the Shabazz family has dealt with other struggles. Her sister, Qubilah Shabazz, was arrested for allegedly plotting to murder activist Louis Farrakhan, who she blamed for their father’s assassination. The charges were dropped, but their mother, Betty Shabazz, took in Qubilah’s 12-year-old son, Malcolm Shabazz. He later set fire to their apartment, resulting in Betty Shabazz’s death.
Shabazz did not speak about these events at the MCISA event, but has discussed them publicly before.
“I love him like he was my own child,” she said in an interview with the New York Times in 1997. ”My feelings for him haven’t changed. I knew he was a little troubled. He wanted to live with his mother and father and have a white picket fence, and he didn’t understand why he couldn’t have that.”
Malcolm Shabazz died in 2013 after several more run-ins with the law.
Despite her complicated family history, Shabazz said she had a happy childhood being raised by Betty Shabazz, who was a single mother to six daughters.
“I feel so blessed to have had the person who he chose as his wife to be my role model, the person to give me guidance as a young woman of the diaspora, a young woman who is also Muslim,” Shabazz said.
Shabazz said she thinks a major part of combating racism today involves raising children without prejudice and teaching them to accept both others and themselves.
“I think it’s important to recognize yourself as a member of the human family,” Shabazz said. “I feel fortunate that the way I was raised was that we’re all brothers and sisters under the fatherhood of God and the family of God, and very fortunate that because society doesn’t say that systematically, my mother made sure that we grew up understanding who we are as people of the African diaspora.”
Mansor said MCISA director Colette Cummings asked her to moderate the event. She read all of Shabazz’s books, and did her research on her father, before meeting her for the first time at a small reception for students who had helped plan the event.
“I did a lot of research on her life to make sure the questions I asked weren’t questions that a lot of other people had asked,” Mansor said.
Cummings said that MCISA likes to give students who work with the organization opportunities to participate in their event.
“This is a job, but it’s also a leadership opportunity,” Cummings said.
According to Cummings, Mansor was chosen in part because she, like Shabazz, is a practicing Muslim.
“Trying to give a student an opportunity to practice leadership skills, trying to reflect the culture of our guest, all of those factors went into it,” Cummings said.
Malcolm X, who sometimes advocated for violent resistance as one tactic in the fight against racism, is often contrasted with Martin Luther King. Jr., who championed non-violent resistance. Shabazz said that the mixed image her father has shows up in pop culture even today. She appreciated Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance, which paid tribute to the Black Panther Party he belonged to.
“She recognized the fact that, you know, people are shooting her people,” Shabazz said. “People are surprised that this young woman is African-American and she’s proud of who she is.”
On the other hand, she once feuded with Nicki Minaj when the rapper used an image of Malcolm X holding an automatic weapon on the cover a 2014 single, which also featured a racial slur in the title. She felt that the imagery misrepresented her father.
“His home had been firebombed, and no one came to protect him,” she said. “He had a rifle, and he said ‘I have a rifle, and if anyone comes and tries to kill my family, I will protect us’”.
The bombs were thrown into the nursery of our home where my father’s babies slept. And so when you take image of him saying ‘I will protect my family by any means necessary’ and you pretend that this man was violent – he wasn’t the one with the fire extinguishers and the dogs and the church bombings.”
Shabazz said her father was always deeply compassionate, and that she also believes compassion is essential to activism.
“My greatest accomplishment is the ability to love. My mother loved me so much, and she gave me so much,” Shabazz said. “Because of that, it’s easy for me to do the work that I do, because I love unconditionally, very completely.”