Ep 139: Lessons on Living Justly From Malcolm X

Episode Summary

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.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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!

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: The book is The Awakening of Malcolm X, and it goes through this really pivotal period of Malcolm X’s life from being sent to prison for six years and going to a couple of different prisons and really changing who he was, and starting studying and debating. And I learned a ton reading this book, but can you talk a little bit about, why is this the thing that you wanted to spend, obviously, a lot of time and effort creating?

Ilyasah: Sure. First, I wanted to make sure that my father’s young story was accurate and also understanding that there are many young people who find themselves at the crossroads, at some kind of crossroad in their lives. For my father as a young man with both of his parents living during the height of Jim Crow, his father was a Reverend, he was also a president of an organization that commanded millions of followers during this time, it was the Marcus Garvey Movement, Universal Negro Improvement Association, and his mother was the recording secretary. And so he had two young parents who were activists, who were smart forward thinking young people, as I said, during Jim Crow. And it’s usually these kinds of parents that instill specific values in their children. And what they instilled in Malcolm is this respect and love for literature, for learning, for humanity, living creatures, all of these great things.

Ilyasah: And so I wanted to be able to show Malcolm’s family when it was intact, that it was his foundation that saved him later on when he found himself as an adolescent at the crossroads. He was always a learned young man. It just so happened that once his father was unfortunately lynched, he purchased land that was then reserved for Whites only, he was lynched, several years later, his mother was put in an institution and their land was taken and their family was torn apart. And so even in spite of all of this, Malcolm found himself class president right in the seventh grade, and his favorite teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he got older and he said a lawyer. And now he didn’t say, “I want to be a football player or a musician or police officer.” Nothing wrong with those kinds of careers. He said a lawyer because that’s what he saw in his dad.

Ilyasah: And so when his favorite teacher said, “Well, that’s not a realistic goal for a Negro,” but he used a different word, that was crushing. And I’m sure just as it is crushing for many young people, it’s saying that your life doesn’t matter. And so I think that there are many young people that find themselves in that space, and for Malcolm to be able to still navigate with all of his pain, really running from his himself, running from his identity of who society says he should be as a young Black man.

Andy: I felt like this theme came back over and over again throughout the book where he’s constantly thinking back to lessons that he learned from his father and a lot of dark moments in his life. There’s a way of thinking about the world that he was able to tap into that was transcendent past this situation that he was in, and I think that you really capture that well in the book. And I wonder, what do you think that was, or what was so strong that he got from his dad?

Ilyasah: Gosh, well, I think that a lot of young men, it’s how they revere their dads is usually who they become. If you’re angry with your dads, they often find themselves angry with themselves. If they idolize their dads, they usually are pretty content with who they are. I don’t know, I think that there’s always this correlation between a young man or even a young woman, whatever that relationship is with their parents is usually what they echo in their lives. For instance, I think that if you grew up with love, if you grew up and you saw what love looks like, then you know how to love. But if you grow up and you’ve never experienced love, then how are you going to love others? Another thing that I was really excited about while working on this book was discovering my father’s love for books. And my aunt had told me that one of the ways that she convinced Malcolm to go from this horrific prison in Charlestown to where he went, which was an experimental prison, The Colony, was this library with superior books.

Ilyasah: He had this love for learning and was always reading books. But while he was at The Colony, which was an experimental prison, which was more like a college campus dormitory. They had the debate team. Malcolm became a star debater. They debated Ivy League schools. They debated Harvard University, MIT, Boston University, and that a lot of these young people, these students, they looked up to Malcolm. And there was one in particular that I learned from a biographer in Japan who was working on my father’s biography during the same time, you even though I knew my father was a very empathetic person and I knew that he was very insightful, reflective, all those kinds of things, what really grabbed me was when he had the opportunity to stay at The Colony, he opted to go back to this horrific place because now he had read all these books and he discovered so much about history that he wanted to go back and tell all of those Black and Brown people who he left in Charlestown, “Hey, you have an identity. Here’s history. We were scholars. We were architects. We were astronomers.”

Ilyasah: And I was really touched by that, that he opted to really sacrifice this comfortable cushion environment and go back just so that he could let the marginalized inmates understand that they were something.

Andy: It’s like all the other inmates are like, “You made it, you got out of there, why would you want to go back there?” And he feels like he has to, like it’s a calling. It’s really powerful.

Ilyasah: Yes. And also, I had a statistic that I used to keep around them. I’m also a college professor. I work at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and one of the statistics that were awfully troubling was to understand that in 2012, I think it is, that 80 billion taxpayer dollars were spent on correction facilities and in inner city communities, a lot of afterschool programs were cut. And to think that we have many young people who go in debt with college tuition with the loans and so forth, and to think that we’re spending 80 billion taxpayer dollars on correction facilities instead of on programs, that was a big pill to swallow. As well as there being about three million today people in prison, and I’m only referring to the people of color, that’s just a big pill to swallow.

Ilyasah: And so it was an opportunity to focus on the humanity of these inmates, or I should say, when we either see movies or when we even think in terms of inmates, we think that they’re these tough guys. They’re women, they’re guys, but they’re human. And certainly they’re scared because they’re thrown into these environments that aren’t conducive for human survival.

Andy: It strikes me that reading books and reading about the history of other people and even philosophy, he was reading a really, really broad, and even the dictionary you point out, he’s even going through the dictionary word by word and writing all the words down and just soaking up all of this information. And it strikes me that this book that you’ve written now is an opportunity for kids today to do the same thing and to learn from your father and what he went through.

Ilyasah: That’s right. He was a voracious reader and he even wrote in his autobiography that he could spend his entire day just reading. Growing up, we had his books and I would study, and I just remember looking at all of these books and just if I knew, of course, then what I know today, I probably would have read them all. But I just looked at them like, oh my gosh, he was smart.

Andy: Right.

Ilyasah: And almost feeling that, obviously, he was so much smarter than I was, but one of the things that I also loved was speaking to the biographer in Japan, Patrick Parr, he shared that when Malcolm was reading the dictionary, he wasn’t reading the dictionary because he didn’t know how to read or write, he was reading the dictionary because he wanted to know the etymology. He wanted to know the root words so that he could be his best self by any means necessary. So, again, it’s understanding the morality of this man, his value system, his commitment, that he was not the person that had been portrayed, but that he was simply insisting that America live up to her promise of liberty and justice for all.

Andy: How do you think we can apply the concepts that are happening to your father to the current events and what’s happening today? Obviously, as you were finishing this book, there’s the George Floyd situation is occurring now. Here it is coming out in this really, really charged environment in our country. What do you think we can take forward and apply to today?

Ilyasah: It’s really amazing how life happens. It seems that for those who had heard about racism, those who had heard about these unlawful killings, people not being accountable for these kinds of killings, people in spite of a pandemic and not knowing what that meant except that we were losing our loved ones from this thing, that we put on our masks and we went out and protested. We marched, we demonstrated, we protested in mass numbers, and this was organized by young people over the internet. And when we looked at the people, they weren’t necessarily just Black. It was every person of the rainbow. In 50 states in this country and 18 countries abroad proclaiming Black Lives Matter. And this again is something that I really encourage my students to see the world not tainted by a black and white perspective, but to see it from the perspective and have the capacity to see it from the perspective of right and wrong.

Ilyasah: And so I think that now this is a moment that’s right for regenerative growth and possibility, and central to the discourse is community led institutions The Shahbaz Center, where I’m a co-chair person, the Malcolm X and Betty Shahbaz Center in New York, the King Center, like all of these different places, the Dream Defenders. There’s so many organizations, there’s so many different institutions that reflect our collective visions for what freedom really looks like and what accountability, democracy, and self-determination are. And one of the reasons I even began teaching is that education is one of the most powerful tools to combat the injustice of systemic racism. I feel so fortunate that my mother made sure that we had this particular curriculum, because I think what happens is the omission of Black, Indigenous, Brown, Asian, Latin history is not incidental.

Ilyasah: It distances people from their heritage, from their lineage, and really from their own sense of self. And I think that this false, unfortunate, White washed curriculum enforces the myth that there have never been scholars, thinkers, innovators, caregivers, iconoclast artists and revolutionaries across these identities. And if we consider, for example, that Africa is the cradle of the most advanced civilization in mankind, then we have to consider the ancient kingdoms, these ancient African kingdoms that were full of immense progress, scholarship, and knowledge, astronomists, architects, all of these things, scholars. And if we learned about them in the same way we learned about ancient Greece and Rome in our world history courses, for example, we would better appreciate the present complexity of Black civilization and these teachings of bias and inherit racism and discrimination. Because I think what we’re doing when we teach our children racism and discrimination, we’re teaching them hate. We want to ensure that we are teaching love. We want moral values instilled in young people.

Andy: And so how do we do that?

Ilyasah: Well, I think that we need to critique and dismantle and even reform unjust separate sets of rules unto which America operates, that’s what we saw in this killing, that bring about more egalitarian policy and be accountable to truly educate Americans as a start. My father said that it would be this generation of young people who would recognize that those in power have misused power and demand change and that they would be willing to roll up their sleeves and do the necessary work. And what we discovered while writing this book over the summer is that Malcolm X was quoted in social media, if I can remember now, I think it was 53,700 times per hour per day. And this is the clearest evidence that young people are looking for leaders who spoke truth. And they discovered that in Malcolm. And what we know is that truth is timeless. And so they were looking for those leaders who could help them employ the strategies and tactics to address the challenges that lay ahead of them, because, of course, they’re willing to do the necessary work.

About Ilyasah Shabazz

Ilyasah Shabazz is the author/co-author of five books: Growing Up X, The Awakening of Malcolm X, Betty Before X, X, and the children’s book Malcolm Little. She works to promote higher education for at-risk youth; interfaith dialogue to build bridges between cultures for young leaders of the world; and participates in international humanitarian delegations. She served as a member of the U.S. Delegation that accompanied President Bill Clinton to South Africa to commemorate the election of President Nelson Mandela and the Education & Economic Development initiatives.

As a member of the U.S. Interfaith Leadership Delegation to Mali, West Africa with Malaria No More, Shabazz received a personal letter of acknowledgement for preserving her “father’s proud legacy by working to secure equality in our time and for generations to come,” from President Barack Obama.

Ilyasah is an inspirational role model and advocate for “youth” and “women and girl” empowerment. Her lifework is devoted to helping others find inner strength and purpose. While she is frequently asked to speak about the Legacy of Malcolm X, she shares that it is her mother, Dr. Betty Shabazz’s wisdom, courage and compassion that guide her.

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