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Malcolm X's daughter Ilyasah Shabazz on Black Lives Matter and her father's legacy

As Audible releases Shabazz's memoir, along with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the activist discusses the importance of structural change.

Ilyasah Shabazz
Author Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, speaks about the importance of equality ahead of the Audible release of her memoir, Growing Up X.
Getty Images

As the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum earlier this year following the killings of Black Americans including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, many people found themselves looking for answers and a way to better understand the social, economic and political systems that have led to this moment. 

Some have turned to books and documentaries on systemic racism to learn more about these inequalities. One title that's remained shockingly relevant is The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which chronicles the human rights activist's life, as told to author Alex Haley. On Thursday, the autobiography, along with a memoir by Malcolm's daughter Ilyasah Shabazz called Growing Up X, will be released on Audible. This marks the first time Growing Up X will be available in audio, and the first time The Autobiography of Malcolm X, narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne, will be released in unabridged audio since it was published in 1965.

Leading up to the release of the two audiobooks, I spoke with Shabazz about her father's legacy, the lessons she carries with her and the importance of her memoir and The Autobiography of Malcolm X being released at a pivotal time for championing human rights and equality. 

Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: What does it mean for Growing Up X to now be available as an audiobook, 18 years after its publication?
Shabazz: I'm really thrilled to have another platform to share my personal journey. [The book] was forged by the memory of my father and mother and the meaning of their work, and the values they found important in instilling in their six daughters. 

My mother kept her husband alive in our household. We knew him as Daddy. We knew him as Malcolm. It was important to my mother that we grew up with a healthy sense of ourselves and that we understood that my father didn't leave us, but that he was still with us. Just being able to revisit that and look at who Malcolm -- much younger than I am -- was and who my mother was, and looking at their humanity and the values that they instilled to make sure their daughters would also grow up with a healthy sense of self, their identity intact and their willingness to contribute back to society. My mother used to say, "Ilyasah, just as one must drink water, one must give back."

This is also the first time The Autobiography of Malcolm X is being released in unabridged audio since it was published in 1965. What does it mean to you to see this story of your father's life become available in this way, especially in the current social and political climate?
Laurence Fishburne did such a magnificent performance. I felt like my father was here. Laurence just captures every emotion, every thought ... My family and I are really pleased he's performing my father's story, and that the autobiography remains a definitive statement within an ever-evolving civil rights and human rights movement.

Given how young you were when your father was assassinated, did Alex Haley's book play a role in helping you feel connected with your father and understand who he was?
Yes. The first time I read the autobiography in an adult perspective and completely was when I went to college, and I took a course on the life and times of Malcolm X. My professor, George Roberts, helped me to understand the icon Malcolm. My mother didn't focus on the icon because that meant you had to introduce injustice, and we were too young for that. She witnessed her husband being gunned down, and I would imagine it had to have been challenging for her.

I learned about the icon Malcolm X and the sacrifices he made, and it makes me much closer to him. I keep him and my mother quite close. My commitment to young people, to children, to middle school students, to college students, to the disenfranchised and underserved -- all the books that I've written focus on just that. It's keeping Malcolm and Betty alive and making sure their work is as accurate as possible. Before my mother passed away, she safeguarded her husband's legacy. Today we see Malcolm had the compassion and all that was necessary to address social justice issues.

What parts of the autobiography cut deepest for you?
I really appreciated how [Malcolm's] compassion spoke loudly. There were just so many virtues he had as a young man during a time when he wasn't recognized as a full-fledged human, and yet he was able to still do the work and be so committed to end injustice and to embrace humanity. 

One of the things that really resonates is that today, when the most marginal communities are able to flourish and live outside the threat of police violence and have safe and adequate housing, education, health care -- all the things afforded to human beings -- then we know everyone's needs are being met. Like my father often explained, Black power isn't exclusionary. It's rooted in the understanding that freedom is total, and that no one should be left out, because no one is free until all of us are free. 

It seems that many, when they saw the horrific killing of George Floyd during a time of a pandemic when we're questioning our mortality and the failures of our government, were outraged -- and these are smart, forward-thinking adults -- that someone's life would be taken that way. They began to understand what the movement for Black lives is really all about and the need for total systems change. 

Now more than ever is the time to commit to the work of radical institution building. There are so many dynamic organizations: the Movement for Black Lives, Dream Defenders, the King Center, the Shabazz Center (a memorial for Malcolm X and wife Betty Shabazz, which holds events and exhibitions honoring their work and legacy). We have heeded the call for structural change, innovative institution-building and spirit-driven activism ... It is definitely a moment ripe for regenerative growth and possibility.  

What are your thoughts on the parallels between the injustices documented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the racial inequity that continues to exist today? 
We have to control the narrative. We have to make that change. My father said, "If you put a knife in my back nine inches, and you only pull it out six inches, the knife is still in my back." We have to pull the knife completely out and then address the wound the blow made.

What was good about Malcolm is that he was a realist. He said: These are the issues. Let's sit down, and let's address them so that we can have this whole oneness of God and oneness of man. Because again, no one is free until all of us are free.

What is the relevance of this moment to claim back moments of Black American history that have been erased or overlooked? 
I remember as a little girl -- and I talk about this in Growing Up X -- when I first discovered that there was a family close to our family that was going to Africa to live, I was alarmed because I was watching Tarzan at home. I was about 6 or 7 years old, and that was around the time my mother began to include me in the lessons that my oldest sisters were getting, and I learned about the significant contributions that not only women made to the world, but also that Islam made to the world and that the continent Africa and the diaspora made to the world.  

It's important now that we address the educational curriculum and we make sure that our books are inclusive of all the people who exist in the world, and all the people who exist here in America. 

Are you optimistic there are brighter days ahead?
Ultimately, while we must always wrestle with the grief and despair of this time, we have to also hold onto the joy that comes from generative possibilities. Black folks are more than equipped to continue building dynamic, forward-thinking and radical spaces that are rooted in our collective flourishing.