The first time I met Betty Shabazz I was, frankly, in open-mouthed
awe of her. I sort of buzzed around her, hovered in her orbit, but
didn’t say a word. She had been married to Malcolm X, I told myself.
And after his assassination, she raised six daughters by herself. She
earned a Ph.D. as an adult, and was running a major department at
Medgar Evers College. The woman must be awesome, I told myself. So I
watched and I wondered when and how I could approach her and share my
As things happen, she and I ended up at the same side of the
swimming pool, our lounge chairs separated by one of those rickety
tables that tries to support an umbrella. I introduced myself and
awkwardly gushed out my admiration for her, so brimming over with
hyperbole that I realized I was being foolish.
Still, I continued on for several minutes, until a deep chuckle emerged from someplace near her gut.
“Child,” she told me with a husky laugh, “you had better get over all that.”
That’s the thing about Betty Shabazz that the obituaries missed –
that humor, that approachability, that self-imposed notion that she was
not larger than life, but simply life itself.
Since June 1, when the news that she was badly burned hit the media,
I’ve thought much about Dr. Shabazz, her approachability and about the
way she was able to put everyone at ease – all the while carrying the
Malcolm X torch, all the while protecting his legacy.
Betty loved life, which is perhaps why she clung so tenaciously to
it, living for three weeks after doctors said she would not make it
because of the severity of her burns. Her love for life was reflected
in her determination to live it well and wisely, – and to communicate
that desire to others. As counselor and dean at Medgar Evers College,
“Dr. Betty’s” love for life equipped her to teach and talk about
overcoming adversity. After all, who can say they “can’t” overcome when
they are speaking to an icon of a woman who has cleared every hurdle
that adversity placed in her way.
Betty Shabazz didn’t want to be a role model, but she could not help
but be one. Her life is an example of triumph over tragedy, an
affirmation of the way that African American women have “a habit of
survival,” of “making a way out of no way.” As the widow of Malcolm X,
Betty Shabazz had to rebuild her life, and redefine herself as a single
mother. She triumphed in the process of her redefinition. As professor,
educational administrator, talk show host, and leader, she became a
role model for every woman who has had to reinvent her life in the face
With her death comes a set of lessons, as well. Her New York City
memorial service at Riverside Church brimmed over with mourners – some
well-known and some not. Although he has not been considered a friend
to African American people, New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani brought
heartfelt condolences and was booed in the process. Atallah Shabazz
shrugged off her grief for a moment and fiercely admonished the crowd
to give respect to someone who came to pay respect to her mother. I
could hear both Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X in her dignified
fierceness, and was reminded, again, that there is a time and place for
The most powerful lessons came from those who chose to address the
delicate subject of the future of Malcolm Shabazz, Betty’s young
grandson who stands accused of setting the fire that caused her death.
Haki Madhibuti and Maya Angelou did not shy away from the subject but
implored the crowd to treat this young Black man as we would any
younger brother, to surround him with the same love with which we
seemed to surround Betty Shabazz’s memory.
“God created him, but we made him,” Maya Angelou said poignantly, tearfully.
Weeks, months, years after Dr. Shabazz’s passing, we can pay tribute
to her by doing the work she did so well – counseling, educating, and
guiding our youth.
A few days after Betty Shabazz died, the Supreme Court ruled that
people do not have the right to assisted suicide. While I have always
supported people’s right to choose death over life, Betty’s death
reminded me of the value of life. The way she lived and the way she
died reminded me of something that Black scholar – W.E.B. DuBois –
wrote in the twilight of his days, when he looked back over nearly 100
full years of challenge and controversy.
From Ghana, where he died, DuBois exhorted, “One thing alone I
charge you. As you live, believe in life. Always human beings will live
and progress to a greater, broader, and fuller life. The only possible
death is to lose belief in this truth, simply because the great end
comes slowly and because time is long.”
Dr. Betty Shabazz may well have written such words. She lived by
those powerful life-affirming principles. Those who knew and admired
her have many ways of remembering her. I choose to remember her as
life-loving, approachable, Malcolm’s widow – but so much more than
that, as mother, teacher, sister and leader.
Betty Shabazz was a sister who loved life so much that she clung to it, even in the midst of tragedy.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
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