Award-winning author and educator Ilyasah Shabazz closed out MTSU’s full calendar of Black History Month events Monday, Feb. 27, with her wide-ranging keynote address, discussing her parents’ legacy, the power of unity and the importance of education as “the key to understanding.”
Shabazz, daughter of the late Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz as well as a producer and activist, shared the story of her father telling his favorite teacher at age 13 that he wanted to be a lawyer. His teacher told him that it wasn’t a realistic goal for an “n-word.”
“When young people are at a crossroads, they need educators who are willing to guide them,” Shabazz told an attentive audience in MTSU’s Student Union ballroom. “When we tell students what they can’t do, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Shabazz said her mother showed her that education is the most powerful tool to combat systemic racism.
“I believe education … is the key to being woke to injustice,” Shabazz said. “It is the key to understanding our roles in this life as human beings…. Textbooks must teach every child that Black history is American history and that American history also includes Latin American history, Native American history and Asian American history.
“There is no ‘American history’ unless each and every voice is heard on the pages of those textbooks.”
The Malcolm X narrative
Shabazz, who kicked off her talk to laughter and applause when she observed that “Murfreesboro” “… is a great name. I see the word freedom in there,” continued with a discussion about the community’s responsibility to mentor young people and usher them into a culture of excellence.
“There’s a saying in DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion): ‘If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu,’” she said. “Here at MTSU, it’s apparent you seek to create a table for everyone to join.”
Carolyn Cox, president of the Rutherford County Alumni Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, introduced her sorority sister to the audience and outlined Shabazz’s impressive list of accomplishments: author of five novels, producer and project advisor of multiple media projects, leader of her own business and different historical centers preserving her parents’ legacy, adjunct professor and curriculum advisor and developer at educational institutions, and an activist dedicated to empowering and supporting young people and at-risk communities.
Shabazz said her motivation for her multitude of projects stems from her drive to continue her mother’s work of preserving and protecting the truth about Malcolm X’s life and legacy. Ilyasah Shabazz was 2 years old when her father was assassinated in front of her, her three sisters and their pregnant mother and a Manhattan audience of nearly 400 people Feb. 21, 1965. He was 39.
“I remember his great sense of humor, his beautiful smile,” she said. “I remember his love of jazz, literature, poetry. I remember how he was a student of history, nature and the arts. I knew him to be a wise man with impeccable integrity who was led by his service to God.
“My mother … safeguarded his legacy for such a long time (because) she knew that how the media portrayed him was not who her husband was.”
Betty Shabazz died in 1997. Ilyasah Shabazz continues her work as chair of The Malcolm X & Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center in New York City and through her historical novels about her father.
“When we allow others control of our narrative, what we hear is that you can go to prison illiterate and miraculously walk out as Malcolm X, an icon,” Shabazz said. “And yet this kind of narrative diminishes the importance of family. It diminishes the importance of one’s foundation, of his or her morals, values, mentors. It invalidates the village needed to raise a child.
“It diminishes the importance of critical thinkers, the human family and the role of responsibility…. (The truth is) that Malcolm X worked hard to become his best self, and that is exactly what he became.”
Shabazz’s latest project is adapting her most recent book, “X: A Novel,” into the TV series “The Awakening of Malcolm X” with Sony Pictures Television’s TriStar. It outlines how her father grew up to become the figure the public now knows.
“I’m very excited because they (producers) don’t want it to be the ‘bang, bang, shoot ’em up’ story. They want the truth.”
‘Fight for each other’
Shabazz spoke on the relationship of her father and Martin Luther King Jr., noting that the two thought of themselves as brothers despite being portrayed as polar opposites — and even enemies.
“People often whisper to me, ‘I was on the side of your father,’” Shabazz said. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to tell you we do not have to choose sides.”
Shabazz outlined the two men’s similarities and their shared goal of challenging an unjust world, saying “So what?” to their philosophical differences. She said the King Center inspired the Shabazz Center and that she remains friends with the King family to this day, even planning to attend the birthday party of the Kings’ surviving daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, next month.
“You and I can choose to either fight each other or fight for each other,” Shabazz said. “When we fight for each other, our possibilities are limitless. We are the majority in this place called life. It’s the minority who strives to keep us divided, the majority who seeks peace, love and joy for ourselves and our fellow beings.
“Dr. King’s words still ring true. ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ But we also need Malcolm’s addendum: The arc of the moral universe won’t bend on its own. It requires our individual and our collective effort…. As the majority of good people, we must support one another and push to find our way forward together to address the wounds of corruption and oppression in our communities.”
‘This is it’
Danielle Rochelle, director of the university’s Office of Intercultural and Diversity Affairs who coordinated the 2023 Black History Month activities, also spoke at the livestreamed event about the importance of taking the lessons from the month forward.
“I want you to walk away with a newfound sense of unity, empathy, kindness for your classmates, your coworkers, your peers, your neighbors,” Rochelle told the audience. “I think we’ve been able to offer a great deal of education and information this month, and just carrying that on beyond the month of February is so important.”
Intercultural and Diversity Affairs and MTSU’s Distinguished Lecture Fund sponsored Shabazz’s appearance.
Shabazz ended her remarks with a call to action, prompting a standing ovation from the crowd before meeting and taking photos with them and signing their copies of her books.
“Young people, as my teen idol Michael Jackson said, ‘This is it,’” she said. “This is your moment as students and educators. It is your responsibility to stand up for those who cannot stand for themselves. It is our responsibility to find our voices and to make our voices heard together by any means necessary…. Thank you, I love you and may God continue to bless you.”
— Stephanie Wagner (Stephanie.Wagner@mtsu.edu)
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