NEW YORK — In her mind, Ilyasah Shabazz's father is a montage of blurry, black and white photographs and grainy newsreel. She did not know the man that some called a savior and some called a devil. She did not know the sound of his voice, the feel of his hair, the look of his hands. To find him for herself, she has to navigate through other people's memories. She must try to locate her family's truth in the shifting albums of history.
Now Shabazz, who was 2 when her father, Malcolm X, was assassinated more than 37 years ago, is offering her stories to the world in an intimate look inside her family. Her memoir, "Growing Up X" (One World Books), picks up the family's story where history books and political analyses of the Muslim leader who preached black empowerment leave off. It is an up-close portrait of the house full of girls to whom the larger-than-life activist came home each night: the family that basked in his light when he lived, the family that struggled, often alone, when he was gone. In many ways, their struggle continues today.
Shabazz, 39, said she wrote the book partly hoping it would inspire others who are struggling with life challenges. But she also called it "therapeutic" to revisit the events of her life--and, in particular, to try to make her peace with the expectations that she has faced for as long as she can remember.
"The expectation is the burden--the burden! Here you have great parents, and now you're expected to be better than, or to be them!" she said. "It's awful, it is awful. It just tears you up inside."
She has finally learned, she said, that she "cannot save the world. Just let it go, let it go."
The book's cover photograph depicts an image at once commonplace and incongruous--Shabazz as a toddler held affectionately in the arms of the man the FBI, the CIA and, eventually, the Nation of Islam reviled. She wears a baby bonnet; he sports his trademark goatee and horn-rimmed glasses.
"Growing Up X" tells of a childhood that was simultaneously average--she and her five sisters attended private schools in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., and square-danced at summer camp in Vermont--and unique--at age 9, she began challenging teachers on the facts of black history and, as a college student, she absorbed her classmates' harsh judgments because she was not a political activist.
As hinted at in the family's public scuffle in recent weeks over the threatened auction of Malcolm X's personal papers, Shabazz's story reflects the ongoing, personal reverberations of one man's political journey and his violent death. It is a story of perseverance in the wake of bitter loss.
The book, which relies on the accounts of family friends to fill in details Shabazz was too young to remember, reflects the burdens, confusions and joys that often befall the children of famous people. But Shabazz's story has an added dimension in that, unlike the child of a film star or sports champion, she must negotiate the volatile terrain of racial politics.
For much of his political career, Malcolm X, who later took the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, vilified American culture and values and promoted the separation of blacks and whites because, he said, whites were incapable of living equally with blacks. In the last years of his life, however, having made a religious pilgrimage abroad and observing people of all colors living harmoniously, his attitudes shifted. He increasingly stressed black empowerment and the common bonds of all races.
"I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being--neither white, black, brown, or red," Malcolm X told an interviewer a month before he was killed, according to "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," which he wrote with Alex Haley.
A few weeks ago, Shabazz unveiled her book at a reception here in Harlem. Despite the swank environment complete with jazz band and hovering waiters, the scene had the echoes of grim history: Shabazz has lived as long as her father did--he was 39 when he died--and the book event was held at the Audubon Ballroom, where he spoke his last words.
"Malcolm was killed right about ... here," said Manning Marable, a historian at Columbia University, gesturing in the direction of the jazz band. "There was a stage here. He was standing, speaking. They came in from over there," he said, indicating the room's only entrance 65 feet away. The men scuffled and yelled to distract from the gunmen who shot him 14 times. (Two Nation of Islam members served prison time for the murder.)
Shabazz, a tall woman with mahogany skin, her father's square jaw and a fashion model's presence (she once was one), stood before a massive mural depicting her father's life and, in her deep, smoky voice, told the crowd of about 300, "Coming to the Audubon, there was so much beautiful energy here. I felt so much peace."