FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya and this is News and Notes. Malcolm Shabazz was just 12 years old when he lit a fire that put him on the wrong side of history. His grandmother was Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X. She died when the young Malcolm Shabazz burnt her home down in 1997. Malcolm Shabazz is now 23 years old. He's been out of prison for a little over a year and he's decided to tell his side of the story, how his rough childhood spent in and out of mental institutions put him in the mindset to start that fire. Writer Aliya King has been in close contact with Shabazz since he was in jail. She's stitched their conversations into a three-part series for the new Urban News website, newsone.com. The first installment goes live on the site today and Aliya joins me now with News One editor-in-chief Smokey Fontaine. Aliya, Smokey.
Ms. ALIYA KING (Writer, Urban News): Hi, how are you?
Mr. SMOKEY FONTAINE (Editor-in-Chief, News One): How are you?
CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. So Aliya, how did you first get involved with Malcolm Shabazz?
Ms. KING: The story was actually born out of a conversation I had with Smokey. I've been writing for him through - for over ten years through different publications and we were talking about doing some long form research pieces and one thing that both intrigued us was the story of Malcolm Shabazz. And we had no idea where he could possibly be at that time when we were having this conversation. We didn't know if he was living in Harlem where he had some roots or if he was in prison or what had become of him. So what begun with that conversation in Smokey's office and then me sitting in front of my computer trying to figure out where this young man was.
CHIDEYA: Aliya, once you found him, there was no guarantee that he will be willing to talk but obviously he did. Why do you think he chose to?
Ms. KING: That's a really good question and I have to tell you that right now I'm still not sure and I still wonder about that every time I talk to him. I put his name in a prison inmate locator just on a whim for New York State and it came up. Actually several Malcolm Shabazzs came up. Which I thought was interesting, but only one that matched the right birth date. I wrote him a letter asking him if I could meet him and he wrote me back and said no, you can't. I want to know who you are, I want to know what you've written and I want to know why you want to talk to me before I agree to that. So that started about a two or three month process of me sending him stories that I've written, some he liked, some he didn't like. And at point, he finally decided, I'd like you to come up to Attica, which is where he was imprisoned, and visit me.
CHIDEYA: What did you found out about how his childhood was spent?
Ms. KING: Even before I went to Attica, the research that I found was very troubling. I knew that his mother had suffered from a lot of different illnesses including substance abuse and possibly some mental problems. I knew he had been shuttled back and forth through Malcolm X's six daughters and with his grandmother whom he was very close to. So I knew there had not been a lot of stability there. So I knew that his life has not been an easy one.
CHIDEYA: Smokey, since you came up with the idea of pursuing this story, I want to also mention another case. Earlier this year we had a man on the program named Khalil Islam. He went to prison for more than two decades for murdering Malcolm X and he maintains his innocence. In reading your piece about Malcolm Shabazz's story, I can't help but get this sense tragedy that seems to follow the family. Why is this family and their story including Malcolm's story important to us still?
Mr. FONTAINE: Well, I think clearly it starts with the legacy of Malcolm's grandfather, Malcolm X. And you know, in my mind, he still stands as one of the most, if not the most important kind of African-American leader this country or even that the world has ever seen and, you know, I was just so fascinated by, you know, what he left behind. He had six daughters, so of course he had no sons and, you know, even when I was much younger and heard about the tragedy around the death of Betty Shabazz, I was fascinated about what this boy was going through. You know, we think about the children of either celebrities or the children of politicians, but it seems that he was such in a peculiar situation because he was the only, you know, he was the only boy and a grandson. His name was Malcolm and then when he was ten years old, this awful thing kind of happen to him and I was always struck by so much of the - what I felt was the prevailing kind of negative energy towards him that it's seen almost immediately through the, kind of media coverage of the fire, that this boy was blamed for being out of control and psychotic.
It was even in mentioned in a press around that time that it was really - he was treated very poorly as a juvenile, and as he grew up, and I knew he was in and out of jail, in and out of juvenile institutions, in and out group homes. I just almost - I had - I was fixated in my mind just what he would look like. What would the 20-something-year-old, you know, grandson of Malcolm X look like, and my initial question about mine was, does he look like his grandfather?
And that's the question, you know, Aliyah and I kind of threw around to each other, and I think, you know, the legacy is so kind of - almost frightening, because now he is 23-years old and the first - you know, his life so far is almost mirrored his grandfather's life to the point, you know, where they came from disadvantagd and troubled homes and spent a lot of their formative of years incarcerated, and the similarities to what that means, you know, 40 years later, to have such a similar experience with something that, you know, we're evolving or Aliya's evolving in her relationship with Malcolm over time.
CHIDEYA: Well, you know - you can see Malcolm Shabazz on the cover of GIANT Magazine. The full article will be published on your site newsone.com. Getting back to you Aliya, who is this man today, what of kind vibe did he give you when you walked into meet him, is he forgiving of himself, or does he still blame himself?
Ms. KING: I asked him that question directly, not when he was in prison, but afterward we met several times, and at point blank I asked him, have you made your peace with what happened to your grandmother? And he said with very clear eyes, and a very strong demeanor, he said, "Yes, I have forgiven myself, it was an accident, I did not mean to hurt my grandmother, and I know that for a fact."
And he doesn't always speak in those kind of absolutes, but I remember that standing out to me, that this young who is a very young, was very clear on that. That he definitely has forgiven himself, although other people have not.
CHIDEYA: When you say other people have not, it does include his family?
Ms. KING: Yes. Unfortunately, I do think that there are some members of his family, who have not been able to make their peace with what happened. I mean, Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X had six daughters, and they are Malcolm's aunts, and it has to be - it's a tragedy on top of a tragedy, not only, you know, putting yourself in the aunts position for men and not only did you lose your mother, but it's your nephew who is responsible for this tragedy. So, I can imagine that it's very difficult, and I do think there are some of his aunts who haven't yet forgiven him.
CHIDEYA: Smokey, as you continue this new venture, do you plan on doing more stories like this, that pull out hidden or unexpected members of the black community.
Mr. FONTAINE: Absolutely, I mean, I think, it's over due for us to have an opportunity, and some of your work has really spoken to this, that there is so many stories that - are African-American stories, but are American stories, and so many figures and identities that I think, you know, are constantly evolving into - you know, to find someone that can really teach us a lot about who we are as a culture, and who we are as an American society, and in so many angles - I mean, there is of the angle of being incarcerated
African-American man, and how that kind of penal system has served him or not. You kbnow, the angle of what it means to come from a home that is, you know, very troubled, and was - you know, become a victim of kind of, you know, all the things that Aliya mentioned.
Alcoholism, and different abuse, and mental illness. But also, how we treat our own, yuuo know, I mean, we- the idea to have Malcolm, the grandson celebrate his father's legacy by dressing up like him, was one that I knew would stir up a lot of emotion, and Aliya called me on the day of the photo shoot in tears essentially, when she saw the young Malcolm put on the blazer and the skinny tie and a fedora, and suddenly it felt like the spirit of his grandfather was in that room.
And when we got the photographs back just even in my magazine office, even some of my younger staff were immediatly struck by that image, and some of them started kind of yelling at the computer screen, like, Oh, we shouldn't do that, and, you know, that's - he is kind of disgracing his grandfather's image and in conversation with - to that, it seemed that there is so much, you know, negative energy toward this boy and he was only a boy.
And I feel thats kind of unfair, and what he has said in our article was that if you understood who I am, and my story, I think you'd feel about me in a different way.
CHIDEYA: Well, Smokey, Aliya, thanks much.
Ms. KING: Thank you.
Mr. FONTAINE: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Aliya King is a contributing writer for the online magazine NewsOne.com. Smokey Fontaine is News One's editor-in-chief, and a first installment of Aliya's three-part series on Malcolm Shabazz post on the site today. Aliya and Smokey both joined me from our NPR Studios in New Yor