It can take close to a day to get from Manhattan to the Clinton Correctional Center in upstate Dannemora, New York. I vividly remember the long journey nearly a decade later, riding in a small prop plane, boarding a bus, hopping a ferry and then renting a car – all in order to have a face-to-face interview with Malcolm Shabazz, the grandson of Malcolm X.
We’d become pen pals through his attorney months before, and he’d regularly send me long, hand-written letters that sometimes included cherished photos of the grandfather he’d never met but clearly idolized in every way. I’d decided to visit him so I could return his precious family photos and discuss what he thought the future might hold for him once he was released from prison.
In prison, he said, other convicts left him alone because he was Malcolm X’s grandson. At the time that I met with him, young Malcolm had spent about half of his life behind bars for a slew of petty crimes but most notably, for the one action he’d never be able to escape: setting the fire that killed his grandmother, Betty Shabazz.
As we sat there in the visiting room that day for hours, the then 19-year-old with a slight build and mild manner spoke candidly about his beloved grandmother and the worst night of his life. He explained that Betty was indeed his best friend and that one of the pictures he’d sent to me of his grandfather was the one she’d given him because it had a funny back story. Malcolm X had a prominent gap in his teeth, and when he could finally afford to get them capped he couldn’t stop looking at himself in the mirror, and Betty had snapped a picture of him doing just that. Young Malcolm loved that story and his grandmother Betty loved telling him it to him when he was a child. There was nothing young Malcolm loved more than hearing about his grandfather and no one was better equipped at telling stories about Malcolm X than Betty.
He wanted me to understand that he wasn’t the troubled and disturbed kid described in all the newspaper accounts. When he set that fire in the back of his grandmother’s apartment in 1997 he thought his best friend would run outside to safety since her room was near the front. His 12-year-old mind never considered that a grandmother would run towards the back of the home to save her grandchild. He wanted me to understand that he’d set the fire so he could be sent back to live with his mother again, not to harm his grandmother.
I relived much of our conversation yesterday morning when news emerged of young Malcolm’s violent death on the streets of Mexico City at the tender age of 28 – a year or so younger than his grandfather had been when he first met Betty, 11 years younger than his grandfather had been when he was assassinated. Shabazz was in Mexico to meet with a labor activist and lend his name to the cause, no doubt attempting to follow in the footsteps of his namesake. It remains unclear if there was a dispute over an unpaid bar bill or just a general disagreement with another person. What is clear is that young Malcolm died, alone.
Even when he was behind bars, young Malcolm had plans for a future he never doubted he’d have. Plans for college, world travel and of making amends to those family members who hadn’t been able to forgive him for the fire he set as a boy, that took the life of the family’s matriarch.
By all accounts, he was well on his way. Enrolled at John Jay College, Malcolm frequently traveled the world to speak at universities and elsewhere about his grandfather and the responsibilities of a new generation – his generation – to give back and promote change. His website indicates he was preparing to write a book about his life and experiences, and friends and family say he was embracing his role as a father.
But their hopes for a bright future may have been wishful thinking. The Shabazz family suffered greatly after the death of Malcolm X in 1965. Unlike the family of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm’s family received little financial aid after his death from the community at large and struggled greatly with those who misinterpreted his legacy.
All six of his daughters were present when he was violently shot dead on a New York stage before a speech and the impact of that day would haunt the family for generations. Young Malcolm’s mother Qubliah would later be implicated in a plot to murder the Minister Louis Farrakhan, whom she considered responsible for her father’s death.
Wounds that deep rarely heal completely, if ever, and the lasting damage would have a traumatic affect on the first male heir of the revered icon. Carrying the name Malcolm was an honor he wore proudly, but also a heavy load for a young man to carry, and from birth. Maybe it was too much to believe there would be a happy ending.
The Shabazz family released a statement Friday, saying that young Malcolm was now resting in the arms of his grandparents. I had to smile thinking of him being reunited with his best friend again and finally having the opportunity to meet for the first time the man who’d been the center of his entire world.