Malcolm X – Visionary, Activist, Family Man

by Curtis Harris

May 17, 2002

Mention the name Malcolm X in mixed company and you're still liable to arouse passionate feelings - both positive and negative. But as we approach what would have been his 77th birthday on Sunday, it's interesting to note that more people than ever are finally ready to study the heart and soul of the man himself.

In a time when blacks suffered daily terror and humiliation, few matched Malcolm X's ability to express the raw feelings of rage many possessed, but only dared whisper within the safe confines of the barber shop and hair salon. His words resonated deeply.

On one level, Malcolm X's message of independence, self-defense and pride in Africa's rich heritage found great appeal. But an equal number of whites and blacks were also struck with palpable fear whenever he opened his mouth. With the wit of a Richard Pryor, Malcolm X may have skillfully used the media to promote his ideas, but television and newspaper accounts portrayed him as a hate-filled demagogue. And despite numerous books, a blockbuster film and the passage of more than 35 years since his assassination in Harlem, a distorted picture of his life continued to prevail. That is, until now.

Ilyasah Shabazz, only 2 years old when her father was slain right before her eyes at the Audubon Ballroom, has just written a book, "Growing Up X," that provides new insight into the life of the family Malcolm X was brutally snatched away from. Shabazz's book is part of an effort begun decades ago by her mother to place his life into a deeper, more personal, context. In 1969, Betty Shabazz, who was killed in a fire set by her grandson four years ago, offered reflections on Malcolm in an essay simply titled, "Malcolm X as a Husband and a Father," which may have surprised both supporters and critics alike.

"Sometimes [Malcolm] would take us to the beach and while he wrote his speeches, the baby and I would either sit on the sand or play in the water. He used to read poetry to us too, and was very good at it. He was also very complimentary in an off-handed kind of way. If I were to cook something especially good, he used to say, 'I can cook, you know, Betty. If necessary, I'll cook in a minute.' But he never cooked the entire time we were married," Shabazz wrote.

When Shabazz shared those thoughts, however, the world may not have been ready for such sentimental stories about Malcolm's domestic life. To critics, he was the menacing bogeyman who embodied all things violent. Even some of his supporters believed that the image of Malcolm as a doting husband and father softened his reputation in the era of "Black Power." But they, too, were missing the point. Malcolm X was a fierce advocate for family values and believed that the family itself was the strongest foundation in human society.

In a 1963 speech made at the University of California, Malcolm X addressed the troubling state of families in the black community. Sadly, it takes on even more relevance today. "Our young girls, our daughters, our baby sisters become unwed mothers before they are hardly out of their teens. Our community has thousands of unmarried mothers [who] have no hope of ever getting a husband. And our community has tens of thousands of little babies who have no father to act as their provider or protector," he said.

Malcolm X knew the importance of family because it played such a central role in his own life. Next to his own autobiography, nowhere is this fact more apparent than in the book "Seventh Child," which is now in paperback. The author of the book is Rodnell Collins, whose mother, Ella, was Malcolm X's half-sister. Through the years, historians have failed to pick up on the deep impact Malcolm himself said that Ella Collins, a fiercely independent and strong-willed woman, had on his life. After their father's brutal murder and his mother's nervous breakdown, Ella Collins moved Malcolm to Boston to live with her. As a trusted ally throughout his years in the Nation of Islam, she also funded his life-changing journeys to the Middle East and Africa.

I was so moved by Collins' deeply personal account of his life with Malcolm X that I traveled to Boston and interviewed him. Collins, his wife, Annie, and their two children live in the same two-family house on Dale Street that Malcolm also called home for many years.

We often place historic figures on such a pedestal that it becomes difficult for anyone to ever relate to them, but Collins shared many stories that day about his "Uncle Malcolm" that revealed him to be, well, human.

Those indelible images of an impeccably suave Malcolm X, who stood on the global stage as he inspired, shocked and dazzled a throng of admirers, reporters, and quite a few detractors, will stay with us forever. But I also hope that they are placed right alongside those other images of a husband who hid money away in special places for his wife during extended trips abroad and who loved to play with his daughters every chance he could get.

Curtis Harris is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn.

Copyright 2002, Newsday, Inc.

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