A Certain Peacefulness : Malcolm X's Oldest Daughter Has Made Her Peace With His Memory, but Not With Reactions to It

Times Staff Writer

How old is she?

"I don't talk about that."

Where does she live?

"I'm bicoastal. That's all I'll say."

Is she married?

"That stuff I keep to myself."

But isn't she wearing a wedding ring?

"One shouldn't assume anything."

With that, Attallah Shabazz smiles. Or, at least, the corners of her mouth turn up ever so slightly, though her eyes still look sad. "Two things I don't talk about are my immediate, domestic, private life and my age," she says matter-of-factly. "I'm exceedingly private."

Then the eldest daughter of slain black activist Malcolm X explains why.

"You have to understand that my life is different than that of a person who is descended from a movie star. You have real things like kidnap attempts, assassination attempts. I mean, I was there. I was present when my father was killed."

It was Feb. 21, 1965, when the man who called himself El-Hajj-Malik-El-Shabazz, born Malcolm Little but known as Malcolm X to the world, was assassinated in New York's Audubon Ballroom. As her mother shouted, "They're shooting my husband," grade-schooler Attallah watched her father collapse and die. Only she expected him to get up again, just like the gunned-down cowboys on "Bonanza" she used to watch with fright until her father reassured her one day that they were only pretending to be dead.

No doubt that experience is one reason she keeps the world at arm's length despite leading her life in the public eye as a producer, actress, playwright and lecturer.

Of the six daughters of Malcolm X, she is the one who knew him as the sensitive and sentimental "Daddy" when he was alive, the one who was most affected by the pain and the paranoia that plagued her family after his murder, and the one who now continually confronts and tries to correct the world's image of him that she says time and ignorance have combined to malign.

Parent's Image Lingers

"Usually, I'm judged by that negative image," states Shabazz, who takes great care to present to the outside world, in her words, the veneer of "a certain peacefulness."

"I can't think of looking at the (Gary) Hart kids and assuming they're all going to be footloose. But people see me and assume that because of my father I'm going to be politically so left that I have a tilt in my walk. Or that I wouldn't like white people, which is not what I was brought up to believe. Or that my hair is braided to make a statement instead of as a convenience. Or that I'm on the quiet side because I'm too serious as opposed to shy."

The reason is that, unlike his contemporary, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., history has not been kind to the memory of Malcolm X. While King is hailed as a hero in most quarters, and his birthday is now a national holiday, Malcolm X has never been so honored.

Yes, the autobiography he wrote with Alex Haley of "Roots" fame is still read on college campuses. And, yes, his espousal of black liberation is still hailed as a precursor to the black pride movement.

But what is most remembered about Malcolm X undoubtedly is the fear he sparked in the early 1960s because of his eloquent tirades against the oppression of blacks in American society.

And what is most forgotten is how, after making a pilgrimage to Mecca just a year before his murder at age 39, Malcolm X broke with Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad's doctrine of black-white separation, adopted the religion of orthodox Islam, and began to speak out about the possibility of racial integration. Today, many historians believe that one of the tragedies of Malcolm X's death was that he did not have time to pursue this goal.

"There are many people in this country, especially older people, who see Malcolm X as not the black shining prince that he was among his people but as a hate monger," explains Susan L. Taylor, editor in chief at Essence magazine.

"Even today, I don't think the majority of white Americans have a full appreciation of what Malcolm X was. Where are the monuments to Malcolm X? Where are the memorials? And Attallah recognizes who she is in history and what her mission is because of this."

"It's easier to digest Dr. King than to digest my father," Shabazz says wistfully. Then her voice drops to a whisper. "The world doesn't know who it killed."

The world knows even less about the children Malcolm X left behind. Always, it seems, Shabazz has lived her life as the "daughter of. . . ." How difficult that has proven to be is evident when she goes on the lecture circuit. Because every time she speaks to a group, "I don't know how I will be received," she acknowledges.

There was the time she was invited to lecture to a church congregation in Brooklyn along with the sons of the King and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "I was the only one who was not the child of a reputable Baptist minister," she recalls. "So I kind of expected not to get as warm or supportive a reception as the other children." When she got up to speak, she felt nauseous from nervousness. But then the minister introduced her and the people started to applaud.

"I was taken aback. Not flattered, but taken aback by their knowledge and appreciation and acceptance of my father. And I was pleased by that, and it relaxed me."

It's the same feeling, she recalls, that she used to get when she was with her father.

He had met Shabazz's mother when she was a hygiene instructor at one of the Muslim schools where Malcolm X was a minister. Theirs was a "storybook romance," the daughter recalls. "The rest of the teachers all had crushes on my father and she was a very shy girl. And when he asked her to marry him, she said yes even before he finished his sentence."

Mother's Dedication

Over the next eight years, Betty Shabazz made "great sacrifices" both for her husband and her four children (a pair of twins were born just after Malcolm X was killed.) And though she raised her family alone because of Malcolm X's extended absences, Betty Shabazz saw to it that Attallah's memories of her childhood are most of all memories of her father.

"Because my mother did such a wonderful job of maintaining the thread, it just seemed like Daddy was always there," the daughter says. "She would always have a map on the wall and take all my sisters and me to it and say, 'Where's Daddy now?' and point to the place."

Though Malcolm X might have been feared in other quarters, "he was actually a mush, a real pushover, when it came to his girls," his daughter recalls. "You were never a bad girl. You could make many mistakes. You know when you've done something wrong as a kid? You get a knot in your stomach? I didn't have that. I felt like I could tell him anything.

"And if you came in with mud on your face, you didn't feel like you were dirty. He'd say, 'Well, let's go wash it off and start again.' "

His relationship with his eldest daughter--whose name means "gift of God"--was special by all accounts, even down to their uncanny resemblance. "She is so much like him," marvels Alex Haley, who is Shabazz's godfather. "I call her Little Red sometimes because her father was Big Red. And they even have the same ear-to-ear grin, though I have seen it on her much more often than I ever saw it on him."

When he didn't smile, he was no doubt worrying about his family. Always, Haley recalls, "there was danger because of her father's activities. All the family grew up in the shadow of that. But Attallah was the eldest and knew it better than the others."

Like the day the family's house in Queens, N.Y., was bombed by Malcolm X's enemies a week before his murder. "They meant to kill us all," Shabazz recalls. "One of the Molotov cocktails didn't go off, which allowed us to exit through the back door. They tried to say my father did it himself. At the time, people actually believed things like that about him."

Shabazz wants to make it clear that while her father may have been hated by the world at large, he never introduced that emotion into their household. "I never had a hate or dislike for whites. That information never came into my house regardless of what he seemed to represent to the public," she says. "In my house we had a well-balanced view of people because my parents edited a lot of the negative stuff."

Teacher's Hostility

Still, her father's fear-provoking image affected her as far back as the first grade. "I didn't realize that pressure was being put on me by one teacher not just because I was a black girl, but because I was Malcolm's daughter. I just thought the teacher had a problem. Then my father came to school a couple of times, and the teacher finally got to see that he was just a regular human being who was in a polo shirt and picking up his kid."

Haley describes Shabazz as "a citizen of the world" because of her upbringing at home and her education at the United Nations International School alongside children of diplomats. "She loves her fellow human beings, and that's very central to her," he maintains.

That, no doubt, explains why she and her mother have publicly distanced themselves from Louis Farrakhan, the Black Muslim minister widely criticized for his anti-white, anti-Semitic and overall inflammatory views, who has repeatedly claimed the mantle of Malcolm X's power by telling audiences he used to be known as "Malcolm's little brother."

Betty Shabazz, who after her husband's death earned a doctorate in education administration and now works for City College of New York, has denounced Farrakhan as an "opportunist." Mention the name to the daughter, and real anger bubbles to the surface. In fact, the only time she was ever treated badly on the lecture circuit was when she didn't "claim union" with Farrakhan in front of his followers "and they didn't understand why not."

No Uncle Farrakhan

"People believe that he's like a surrogate uncle of some kind to me, but he was not part of my domestic life at all, although I knew him," she says. "But people automatically align him with Malcolm, which just adds to the misconceptions."

On the other hand, she maintains that her father was closer to King than most people believe. Not only did the two men respect one another, Shabazz relates, but also "their beliefs weren't that far apart. It was their approaches that were different."

As they neared the ends of their lives, she notes, "their approaches started to mesh. For instance, the public doesn't know that my father had gone down to the South in support of King. And they even talked about doing some things together, which would have been wonderful. And it was probably that conversation that frightened their enemies."

After her father's death, Shabazz and her family were taken in by various family friends and became even more cautious about publicity. At 17, she attended Briarcliff College in Westchester, N.Y., intending to major in international law. But when the college was sold in 1977, she dropped out during her sophomore year because she could no longer afford the tuition.

Working Education

To "earn her keep," she says, she was a customer service representative for Con Edison ("I was too much of a humanitarian to work there," she recalls) and even a cleaning woman ("When you're scrubbing, you have a certain understanding for those who have to do it or else.")

But what she really enjoyed was working with kids, first as director for the outreach department of the Little Sisters/Big Sisters program at a YWCA in Westchester, then for Lincoln Center Institute, where she helped high school students with their film projects.

She also began performing in small dinner theaters, where she played roles in "Hello Dolly" and "The Threepenny Opera" among others. She would arrange for the kids she worked with to see the productions and get a taste of what life had to offer because they were mostly "fourth generation of a circumstance that was not moving. And I found there was a real need for me to see what I could offer them because I had been fortunate in my life in that I knew that there were options in the world. These kids didn't know that."

But she wanted to do still more. She and her good friend Yolanda King, the late Dr. King's eldest daughter, had talked about doing a series of lectures together. "And then someone said, 'Why don't you put something together for high school students that will entertain them?' At the time, the play 'For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf' had met with great success, and we didn't want to be just two colored girls writing something. So we decided to bring in a couple of other friends and talk about the issues."

A Group of Daughters

A week later, the group decided to form an acting company they call Nucleus because "it was a center for positive energy," Shabazz explains.

They had no formal theatrical training. Other members included a minister, a singer, a mother and a teacher, as well as the so-called "Daughters of the Black Revolution"--Shabazz, Yolanda King and their good friends Sherri Poitier, daughter of actor Sidney Poitier, and Gina Belafonte, daughter of singer Harry Belafonte.

"We were all people who are concerned from here," relates Shabazz, pointing to her heart.

Since its 1980 debut, Nucleus has performed three plays in about 50 cities nationwide. While its adult program, performed most recently in December at the Los Angeles Theater Center, is probably best known, an edited version targeted to teen-agers has played in the Los Angeles, Compton, Inglewood and Hollywood school systems, among others.

The most popular play, described as a comedy-musical-drama called "Stepping Into Tomorrow," is about a 10-year high school reunion. In it, Shabazz plays the overachiever, "the girl voted most likely to succeed," she says. "But at what?"

Semi-Autobiographical

The part contains plenty of parallels to her real life, most particularly her worries about living up to the expectations of the people around her, but the character also flirts with killing herself "and I have never considered suicide," Shabazz states flatly.

"Though I have questioned living, if you understand the difference."

She is candid about describing the difficulty she has had over the years of coming to grips with her father's death. "I had a real delayed reaction to his absence," she explains.

"I mean, I knew consciously he was gone. I had done my crying and felt the pain of his absence. But the real cruncher didn't come until 11 years ago when I realized I was a woman needing the presence of her father."

Suddenly, one night, nothing worked anymore. Not the yellowed photographs, not the old film clips, not even the family jokes could bring him back to her. "I started to realize what he must have felt knowing not just that he was losing his life but that he wasn't going to get to love his wife and his family forever. And the kind of torture that was."

Pain Lingers

Even today, the ache for her father is always there. "You would rather just have him right there beside you for his birthday," she explains. "And, instead of being out on the lecture circuit commemorating his memory, I would rather just be able to take him out to dinner."

But next month she stoically goes before audiences yet again, since February is Black History Month--when she is most in demand as a speaker. It is also the anniversary of Malcolm X's death. "I don't attend anything on the date of his death. I can't handle it," Shabazz says.

But she deals with it the way she deals with everything. "I just turn the pain into something else. Something wonderful. Because if you don't, you might have to be committed."

Like her father before her, she has sacrificed for her dreams. Now, as always in her life, money and security remain elusive. She has not chosen a well-paying profession, by any means. And her work requires her to maintain a small apartment in Los Angeles (her post office box is in Beverly Hills, however) and another in Manhattan's Harlem, plus the added expense of commuting between them.

"I'm not living on a whole lot," she admits. "And I very seldom know two months down the road what I'll be doing."

Casting a Wide Net

Her ambitions at present are moderate, or so they seem. She wants her acting company to develop enough of a reputation nationally "so we can book in advance" and return to perform in Los Angeles later this year. She hopes something will come of the three film projects she has in development with independent Hollywood producers.

Recently, she started a nonprofit company called Prism to, in her words, "focus on intra-cultural and cross-cultural understanding internationally." She intends to go back to college in 1990 and ultimately get a law degree.

But those who know her well insist that Shabazz hasn't begun to tap all her considerable abilities. "She's got so much to do yet. I think she's still exploring," Haley says. "But whatever her goal is, I am confident that she'll reach it."

In the end, there can only be speculation about how much of Shabazz's future will be tied to her past. "There have always been some adjustments to be made to other people's interpretations of who I should be," she says, speaking slowly and deliberately. "But I would not call my father's legacy for me a burden. I would not."

She has been asked repeatedly to write a book about her father, and she will one day. But not now. As for her father's own autobiography, she has read it--twice. "It's like holding him near me," she says.

But she has never been able to finish it. "It's because of the last part. I know the ending," she explains, subdued. "You know when you're reading a good book and you don't want to get to the end because then it feels like something is over?

"I think psychologically I've always gotten to just before the end."

Meantime, there are so many questions, so few answers. One last--would her father be proud of her?

"I think so," she says softly. "I feel his presence. And I feel him smiling."

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