Finding Malcolm X's Grandson
Aliya S. King
His grandmother Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, was killed in a fire he started in 1997 when he was 12 years old. He has been shuttled in and out of correctional institutions until his release from Attica Correctional Facility in January 2008. Now Malcolm Shabazz, 23, is on a mission: to clear his name, stay out of jail and rise from the ashes of his past. During the course of a long-standing exclusive correspondence with journalist, Aliya S. King and interviews after his return home, Malcolm spoke candidly and introspectively about a checkered childhood, an unstable family life and the burden of being the first male heir to an iconic man whose life and legacy have transformed millions of lives. Following are excerpts from hours of conversation...
People often describe me as troubled. I'm not going to say that I'm not. But I'm not crazy. I have troubles. A lot of us do. But you need to understand where I'm coming from and why I am the way I am. Considering what I've been through, it's a miracle that I've been able to hold it together. I'm just trying to find my way.
[I've read newspaper stories about me that] say, "Experts testify that boy is psychotic." The way they describe me is wrong--bi-polar, depression, pyro, whatever. I know I'm not at all. Some of the things I've been through--the average person would have cracked.
I was born in Paris, France. My mother, Qubilah Muhammad, is the third of Malcolm X's six daughters. She was four years old when my grandfather was killed right in front of her at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
I've never met my biological father. I know that he was a French-speaking Algerian who looked like a white man with green eyes and straight hair. [My mother] didn't give me his last name. She named me Malcolm Lateef Shabazz.
I am Malcolm X's first grandchild. His first grandson. And his first male heir. I've read and been told that he always wanted a boy. He had six daughters, including twins that were born after he passed away. No boys in the Shabazz family until me.
When I was much younger I thought Malcolm X was actually my father. And when I asked about him, my mom would show me pictures of her dad and tell me that he was my father. I didn't find out the truth until years later.
I can't talk to my mom about him. Nothing in-depth. She acts like she doesn't know about him. It wasn't until I was about 9 or 10 that I began to discover what it meant to have this man as my grandfather. And it wasn't until I ended up in prison that I truly discovered the impact that my grandfather had. Ironically, I ended up discovering Malcolm X the way so many Black men do--in jail.
[Growing up], I was always happiest around my aunt Ilyasah. She always smelled good. I loved staying at her house because she'd always have a tidy home. I loved being with her. One day we were on [an] elevator and I was about to throw up. She cupped her hands up to my mouth like she was going to catch it. When we got off the elevator, I threw up everywhere, all over the floor, all over her hands, but she kept her hands there. That gesture showed how much she felt about me. It made an impression on me. I said back then that if I ever had a daughter, I would name her after Ilyasah.
As for my grandmother [Betty Shabazz], I never saw her relax. She was speaking at colleges and going overseas. On vacation, she would take me to a hotel to swim and she would sit there with books and paper. I never saw anyone work that hard. That's why I couldn't live [with her] full time. All of my aunts also worked a lot so I had to shuttle around. That was tough with school. My grades ended up being really poor even though the work was not hard. I wasn't challenged and the teachers couldn't make the connection because I was all over the place.
All my life, I had always been shuttled back and forth, living with this person or that person, never knowing where I was going to lay my head or wake up. I got so sick of it. I just always wanted to be back with my mom"¦
I started driving when I was 9. I would watch my aunt and memorize [each step]. One day, early in the morning I took her keys. I had difficulty starting [the car] at first, but I drove to school, parked and went in like it was nothing. After that, my mother put me in a mental institution. She was really angry. But I didn't belong there. I wasn't crazy. I had done something wrong and needed discipline. But not [being sent] to a hospital"¦
At the hospital they start asking me all these questions. Stuff like, do you hear voices? I was into Marvel comic books at the time. There were two characters I liked, Mister Sinister [from the X-Men] and the Human Torch. So I was like, "Yeah, here's my friend that told me to do it." I just picked them out randomly and drew pictures of them. But I had no idea that would follow me that way it did. I was just making it all up.
In my experiences, [doctors] always want to find something wrong with you. That's how they get paid. When I was in jail, they said I was depressed and anti-social. I mean, I was in jail and in solitary confinement"¦they gotta say something [is wrong with you].
I remember when I was 11-years-old I had a fight with this 16-year-old kid. I was going in so hard, my body went numb. I couldn't even pick up my arms anymore! I won that fight and afterwards when I would come out of my house, people were different. They said, "Don't mess with him, he's crazy." But I wasn't crazy. I was just scared. I had to adapt to survive. My grandmother didn't know the extent of what I was going through. I told her, but I don't think she believed it.
In the middle of the night on June 1, 1997, authorities responded to a fire at Betty Shabazz's residence in Yonkers, New York. According to reports, Malcolm X's widow sustained burns over 80% of her body. Her grandson was held under suspicion of starting the blaze. After several operations in the hospital, Betty Shabazz died on June 23.
On July 10, Malcolm, then 12, pleaded guilty to the juvenile equivalent of manslaughter and arson. According to The New York Times, testimony in Family Court characterized Malcolm as "a profoundly disturbed youngster with a history of setting fires and psychotic episodes." While it was thought Malcolm had no conscious intention of hurting his grandmother, his invention of the imaginary friend "Sinister Torch" was used against him. He was sentenced to 18 months in a juvenile facility for troubled adolescents. He remained in state custody for almost four years.
In April 2001, he was sent home with an electronic monitoring device, but soon ended up back in detention due to curfew violations. In January 2002, he was arrested in Middletown, New York on robbery and burglary charges. That September, he was sentenced to 3 years in prison. He received parole in May 2006. Most recently, he was sent to Attica for violating parole.
I didn't mean for my grandmother to get hurt. I wasn't thinking anything like that would happen. I thought she would go to the fire escape but she walked through the fire to get to me. I didn't think she would walk through a fire for me. People say to me, "Oh you are the one who burned down your grandmother's house?" But it didn't really happen like that. I've always told the same story. I was coerced to say something else, because I was told it would be better for me. I was told I would go to jail forever. If I changed my story now? That would be major. It would be mind-boggling....