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

January 08, 1989|NIKKI FINKE | 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.

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