Ilyasah Shabazz shares insights and connects with students at book club

January 17, 2024
By: Rebecca Cross

Ilyasah Shabazz was only three years old when her father, Malcolm X, was assassinated. It wasn’t until she started college, she says, that she fully realized her father’s lasting impact when she was being chased by classmates who wanted to meet the daughter of the civil rights leader. All these people she met, she says, had expectations of her based on misconceptions about her father.

Shabazz, Worcester State’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion fellow, shared her story at the end of the fall semester with students, faculty and staff at an in-person reading and Q&A, the final session of a three-part book club about Shabazz’s book The Awakening of Malcolm X.

Many people, she says, had the wrong idea about Malcolm X, believing him to be an angry man. “My parents,” she said, “were both people of love. They believed in equality. They believed in peace. They believed in freedom for everyone.”

She started to wonder how she was going to fill her father’s shoes. “I remember calling my older sister,” Shabazz said, “and asking her, ‘What does this mean? Who am I supposed to be?” And she told me I didn’t have to pass a test to be Malcolm X’s daughter; whoever I am is good enough.”

It’s a lesson she has passed down to her students. “As long as I was fine with myself at my core, I didn’t have to be what people expected.”

Shabazz also spoke about the strength of her mother, who wasn’t even 30 when Malcolm X was killed and who had four young children and twins on the way. “My mother never accepted ‘No I can’t’ as an answer for herself,” she said. “She was able to take this man-made trauma and not let it victimize her.”

Activism was always a part of Malcolm X’s life. His parents were followers of Marcus Garvey, who established the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League to aid Black Americans who experienced lasting generational trauma from 400 years of enslavement.

His father was lynched when he was six years old, and his mother was institutionalized against her will. Shabazz read a passage from her book addressing this trauma. “We see Malcolm as an adolescent, running from himself, running from his identity as a Black man, where society says that your life doesn’t matter, that you don’t matter,” she said. “Sometimes when we see young people at a crossroads in their lives, they need the adults around them to guide them and nurture them back.”

Maureen Stokes, assistant vice president for communications and marketing, who led a Q&A session with Shabazz, referenced a moment in the book when Malcolm’s mother is planting seeds, and questions why she is planting them when she doesn’t know what they will grow to be. She then posed the question, “What seeds do you think were planted in Malcolm by his friends and family, and how were they nurtured?”

“I think we should let one of the students answer,” Shabazz said.

One of the students in attendance spoke up: “He had the ability to have his own voice and speak about how he feels because he was given a stable home and had that emotion behind him, telling him that how he feels is valid.”

Shabazz praised the student’s confidence in raising her hand. “It’s so important to be able to have the confidence to raise your hand when you have a question, to be able to express yourself when you have opinions,” she said. “Those are the kinds of values that were instilled in Malcolm, that encouraged his humanity, and that made him compassionate about others—so much that he sacrificed his life challenging injustice.”

Another student asked Shabazz the significance of her sometimes referring to her father as “Malcolm,” “Malcolm X,” and “my father.”

“That’s a great question,” Shabazz said. “You should probably be a psychologist.”

“That’s my major,” the student said.

The reason, Shabazz said, is that, “It helps me better understand the individual,” as she writes about him as a child, an adolescent, and an adult younger than she is. “Very good observation!” she added.

She added that she wrote the book—and others about Malcolm X—because she wanted to clear up the misconceptions about her father and to make sure that young people could benefit from his work.

Another student asked, “Do you have some lesson that your father taught you through his activism that I can take into my work that will help better me and the people I advocate for?”

Shabazz answered that within Malcolm X’s organization, whenever mobilization was needed, one person was responsible for contacting two people. It was a way of maintaining a strong sense of community and care within the organization and of being ready to take action at a moment’s notice. “We have to be strategic,” she said, and have a clear idea in mind of what we want to accomplish.

“People are now finding a great interest in Malcolm, and there’s a reason for that,” Shabazz said, adding that young people have recognized Malcolm X’s integrity, and they are looking at the strategies he employed to address injustice as they address injustice today.

Photos by Nancy Sheehan

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