Ep 139: Lessons on Living Justly from Malcolm X

Dr. Ilyasah Shabazz, author of The Awakening of Malcolm X, joins us for a talk on race, history, and the power of learning. Teaching our teens to live justly starts with a strong family foundation.

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Full show notes

Unless you and your teen live under a rock, your child has probably been exposed to a lot of discourse about racism this past year. Sparked by the killing of George Floyd, the world erupted in protests and outcries for equality this summer–and the world has never been the same.

With the video of the tragic murder available online amongst plenty of other intense dialogue about race, you might be wondering how you can talk to your kids about it all. You may feel like you don’t know how to approach the topic, or don’t feel like you can do an adequate job covering the vast history of racial inequality and all of its nuances.

If you don’t know where to start, it can be powerful to give your kid some reading material. Books can help teens learn about these issues from an expert, and then the two of you can then have a discussion about it. Need a text that feels right for an adolescent? Our guest today has got you covered. Her name is Ilyasah Shabazz, and she’s the author of The Awakening of Malcolm X: A Novel.

Ilyasah is the daughter of human rights activists Malcom X and Betty Shabazz, and does incredible work as an educator, author, motivational speaker and activist. In this new book, she’s describing the pivotal period of Malcom X’s young life, when he was imprisoned for 6 years and began to see the world differently. In telling Malcom’s story, she hopes to give young people the guidance they need to handle life’s trials and follow their vision for a brighter future.

In our interview, we’re covering some critical moments in Malcolm X’s youth. We’re discussing how educators can shed more light on the contributions of black and indigenous people throughout history, and why we need reform in our criminal justice system.

What Malcom X’s Story Can Teach Us About Adolescence

Ilyasah breaks down her father’s childhood in this episode, to help us understand how he became the revolutionary he was. Malcom was raised by two civil rights activists, who lived through the height of Jim Crow. They instilled in him a respect and love for literature, learning, humanity, and living creatures, Ilyasah says. Despite his father’s murder and his mother being institutionalized, Malcolm’s leadership skills were always clear. He was voted class president in the seventh grade even after losing his family, his home, and everything he once knew.

After being arrested for grand larceny in 1946, Malcom served six years in jail. He stayed at the brutal and unforgiving Concord Reformatory with many other disadvantaged black and brown folks. He later transferred to the experimental Norfolk prison colony, where he was on a debate team. While a part of the colony, he went toe to toe in debates with students from MIT and Harvard, which shaped his intellectual capacity. He had access to an extensive library of books, which he read profusely, learning about everything under the sun.

These books taught Malcom incredible lessons about the history of black civilization. He learned that black people had an incredibly rich past, with important contributions to astronomy, architecture, literature and more. He began to realize that the way black citizens had been taught to see themselves was all wrong. And so, instead of staying at this prison that was much kinder to him, he went back to the Concord Reformatory to teach the brown and black folks that they came from a robust tradition of intelligence and invention.

In the episode, Ilyasah and I talk about how important it was for Malcom to educate himself and others, and how you can educate your own children and the people around you. In fact, we talk about education quite a bit–like how our schooling system has some serious flaws in how it depicts people of color throughout history.

Inclusive Education

Ilyasah believes that education is the most effective tool for eradicating injustice! In the same way that Malcom brought knowledge to the inmates, Ilyasah and I discuss the importance of changing the narrative of our education system to truly teach young folks the history of black and indigenous people.

In the episode, Ilyasah explains how black stories are omitted from our history classes. Textbooks rarely paint people of color as being iconoclasts, thinkers, scholars. In reality, there have been many brilliant black individuals throughout history who changed the world. We also rarely discuss the contributions of ancient black civilizations in the classroom. It’s simply expected that students will learn about the Roman empire and ancient Greece, but the vast wisdom and invention that came from the African people is almost never mentioned.

Ilyasah goes on to talk about how learning about the hard parts of being a black person in United States History can help students understand the need for reparations in the black community. And these difficulties are far from over. One of the biggest ways people of color are marginalized in the United States is within the criminal justice system.

Why We Need to Talk About the U.S. Prison System

Three million black and brown people are in prison today, just like Malcom once was. Not only that, but 80 billion tax dollars are spent on average every year on correctional facilities–money that could be spent on creating programs for young people to keep them out of these correctional facilities, says Ilyasah.

The issue is only growing, which is why we need to pay attention. Ilyasah recalls when she was younger and there were tons of tax-funded after school programs and even an after school TV show that existed to keep inner city kids safe and out of trouble. Now, she says these have been cut and the money redirected towards prisons.

When Malcom educated other prisoners at the correctional facility during his youth, he was seeing them as more than just inmates. He understood that they were all unique, individual people. That’s what Ilyasah says we must do if we want to transform our prison system: see the humanity of incarcerated individuals.

Although TV and movies might make prisoners out to be scary thugs, in reality they are scared people, placed into conditions which are nearly impossible to survive. Not to mention that people of color are disproportionately targeted, meaning most of these folks have been victims of racist justice system.

If we take the time to educate ourselves and live with compassion, we can help fight against the prejudices of the world. As Ilayash says we can’t wait for the world to change; we must change it ourselves.

In the Episode...

Ilayash’s powerful vision for a better world makes for an incredibly engaging and educational episode this week. In addition to the topics mentioned above, we discuss:
  • How to talk about race--no matter who you are
  • What teens can learn from Malcom’s persistence
  • Why the summer of 2020 was so powerful for civil rights
  • What we say when it comes to educating our kids about prejudice
Although we’ve made progress towards equality, there’s still so much work to do. Thanks so much for listening. Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Dr. ilyasah❌Shabazz
Dr. ilyasah❌Shabazz
Award-Winning Author & Film Producer • Professor & Educator • Public Speaker #GrowingUpX #BettyBeforeX #TheBoyWhoGrewUpToBecomeMalcolmX #TheAwakeningOfMalcolmX
Ep 139: Lessons on Living Justly from Malcolm X
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