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One On 1: Ilyasah Shabazz, Carrying On The Legacy Of Her Father, Malcolm X

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This week, in his One on 1 report, Budd sits down with a woman whose family has had a long history with New York: Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X.

Most of us are at least partially shaped by the events of our youth. Consider the case of Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz.

She’s the Director of Public Affairs and Special Events in Mount Vernon, but she spends much of her time now as a public speaker, often in connection with her 2002 book “Growing Up X.”



On a recent day she spoke to students at the U.N. International School in Queens.

"I think for a lot of children, especially of color, there’s nothing that really reinforces pride in their heritage. My thing is always to try to empower people,” says Shabazz.

Shabazz uses her speeches to talk about history — African American history — and her own.

A father who was assassinated when she was two, and then lionized and analyzed by people who didn't even know him.



A mother who raised six daughters alone, and then died as a result of burns suffered in a fire set by her grandson, Shabazz’s nephew.



For Ilyasah Shabazz, the present is all wrapped up in the past, a past filled with expectations.

"I don't think I ever wanted to be someone else, I just decided that if they asked if I was Malcolm X's daughter I would say, Îno,’” says Shabazz. “And it wasn't because I was ashamed of my father, it was because I really didn't want the extra eyes on me.”

The old Audubon Ballroom on upper Broadway, where her father was killed, was dedicated in 1997 and work still continues on what will be the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Research and Education Center.

But does it ever feel eerie to be in the place where her father died?

"Never. It's really someplace very beautiful for me to be, especially because it was the last place of significance that I was with my mother,” says Shabazz. “And then knowing that my father was killed here, in that space over there and that we could turn a place that represented tragedy into a place of triumph and really that was all due to my mother."

At the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, we looked at some old rare photos.



Shabazz was two when her father was killed. She says her mother never spoke with her about that day. Not once. She first asked her older sister Quibilah about it, some 20 years later.

"She was very adamant about, yes, she remembered, and yes, you know, the pain, the chaos, the noise, and we really didn't discuss much more of it because it was clear that those memories were painful to her,” says Shabazz.

So it was already a life scarred by tragedy. And then it happened again in 1997 when a house fire ended up taking her mother's life.



Shabazz says she saw her mother lying in the hospital, her body ravaged, in the days before her death.

“If I didn't go to therapy and just talk about my feelings after seeing my mother the way that I did, then you know, there's no telling how strong I could be, or I would be today,” says Shabazz.

Shabazz’s nephew Malcolm Shabazz maintained that he never intended to hurt his grandmother. He eventually served four years for setting the fire, and has been in and out of prisons for other violations since.



Shabazz says she helps him with some money and advice.

"I love Malcolm as much as I love my mother,” she says. “He's probably the next important person in my life."

So what was it like growing up as the daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz? In some ways, Ilyasah Shabazz had the same concerns as any other young person.

After her father's murder, her mother went back to school and earned her doctorate.

In her book "Growing Up X,” Ilyasah describes a happy home in Mount Vernon as one of six sisters.



She attended private schools and summer camp, often in predominantly white environments.

"My mother really wanted to make sure that we had a quality education and it just so happened that other parents who wanted the same for their children and who could afford to do so, weren't primarily of African descent,” says Shabazz.

When she arrived at the State University of New York at New Paltz, her mother put her in an all girls dorm, much to the dismay of some students from the dorm named after an earlier civil rights leader.

"There were — I guess you could call them revolutionaries — who came and they got me out of this little dorm and packed my things and moved me into Dubois, and I almost, I became their fallen hero,” says Shabazz.

“I really wasn't the things that they expected,” she continues. “And the expectations seemed to be enormous, and I felt that I didn't measure up to them, probably like a lot of young people."

Shabazz eventually earned a Master’s Degree in education at Fordham.



She worked as a teacher, at the William Morries agency, in the music business and even did some acting, appearing in Spike Lee's film "Malcolm X."

"It was weird, because here was this wonderful Denzel Washington, and he came over, and he's supposed to be my father and I'm thinking, you're beautiful Denzel, but you're not my father,” says Shabazz.

There are moments in Ilyasah Shabazz's life that are hard for most of us to fathom — that she can come upon on the street, in a building, on television at almost any time, anywhere.

"It's beautiful for me because they're not here, and so to be able to see them, and to hear their voice and see them move, is just something, it's a beautiful feeling for me," says Shabazz.

Shabazz is 44.

She says she'd love to be married and to be a mother. But the power of her father's legacy even has an effect on that aspect of her life — finding a husband.

"Having higher expectations he would be similar to my father or that he would be as loyal to me as my father was to his wife,” says Shabazz. “I pray that it still happens, and I think that it might. I might be in geriatrics having a baby.”

The past always seems to be present for Ilyasah Shabazz.



Last year she made a pilgrimage to Mecca, or haj, much like her father did in 1964.



But you also sense a "laughter through the tears" approach to life, a resistance to wallowing in all of the tragedy she's known.

"I still miss my father. I still miss my mother. There's still times I get emotional,” says Shabazz. “But what good is it, what good would I be to anyone if I'm just an emotional wreck?”



— Budd Mishkin

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