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Five questions for Ilyasah Shabazz with Renée Watson

Ilyasah Shabazz. Photo courtesy of Candlewick Press.

Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz presented a fictionalized account of her father’s young-adulthood in 2015’s X: A Novel (Candlewick, 14 years and up; written with Kekla Magoon). Her new book, Betty Before X (Farrar, 11–14 years), written with 2018 CSK Author Award winner Renée Watson, and with a younger audience in mind, explores the life of Shabazz’s mother, Betty, from ages eleven to fourteen, in 1940s Detroit.

1. In telling the story of such a full and complex life, how did you decide when to begin and end the narrative? (1945–1948)

RW: Showing the formative years is a way to teach young people that oftentimes legends, activists, and celebrities whom we admire came from humble beginnings — had moments of doubt and hardships to overcome.

So much was changing for Betty both personally and in the world, all of which made for good material to build a plot and emotional arc around.

Renée Watson. Photo courtesy of the NAACP.

IS: The challenges those people confronted in their youth ultimately defined who they’d become as adults. It’s not the falling down that will define you, but what you determine to do in order to stand back up.

2. Ilyasah, did you learn anything new about your mother that you didn’t know before you wrote the book?

IS: I was very close to my mother. I didn’t think there was much I didn’t know about her and vice versa. I did learn from Aunt Suesetta that my mother played the drums in high school and that she regularly performed in the marching band. I was fascinated by that. I knew my mother was compassionate, very intelligent, very hardworking, and that she was a social butterfly. I also knew she liked music and dancing. However, while writing this book I thought more about what she must’ve experienced as a result of racism and sexism in the 1940s. While she didn’t openly talk about her feelings surrounding her biological mother, Ollie Mae, giving her away to Helen Malloy, her mother who raised her, it was evident in my mother’s adulthood that she was affected by it. She continued her relationship with both mothers. She founded YMED (the Young Mothers Educational Development program) and the Mount Vernon Neighborhood Day Care Center so that if an unwed teen found herself pregnant, her education wouldn’t be interrupted like it was for Ollie Mae. My mother believed that education was a necessity for everyone.

3. What was the collaboration like between the two of you?

RW: Working with Ilyasah to tell the story of her mother was an honor. This is the first novel I’ve co-authored and I very much enjoyed having someone to brainstorm with. Our process started off with a lot of interviewing and research. For the first few months, I didn’t do any writing. I just soaked in everything I could learn about Betty, Detroit, and The Housewives League. Once the writing began, I’d send two to three chapters at a time to Ilyasah and she’d add in paragraphs, make notes. We both had a commitment to making sure Betty’s story wasn’t portrayed as heartache only, so we included scenes of Betty having fun with her friends, listening to music, and enjoying her childhood even if the backdrop was a city experiencing racism and turmoil.

IS: It was a wonderful experience working with Renée. I am extremely grateful, and could not have asked for a better novelist than her!

4. Why did now feel like the right time to tell this story for this audience?

RW: This country has had a long, hard fight in its quest for justice and equity regarding race and gender. Activism is frequently taught within the framework of marching and protesting, and we wanted to broaden that view to show young people the many ways they can use their voices to do something good in the world. We hope they make connections from the past to the present.

We also know that these early years of adolescence can be a time when young people are questioning everything: Am I good enough? Is my family “normal”? Why don’t I look like the people in the magazines? How can I fit in with my friends? Where do I belong? Betty is asking all of these questions. She is trying to make sense of the contradictions around her, trying to figure out what she truly believes. We wanted the story to not only be about the historical happenings of her life, but the emotional journey as well.

IS: And by telling young Betty’s story, we have the opportunity to educate our readers about history, legacy, compassion, activism, and one’s individual power. We wanted readers to both stumble and walk tall with Betty and discover their similarities; that as human beings, we are more alike than not.

5. What were some similarities and differences between working on this book and on X: A Novel?

IS: One similarity is the unfortunate social climate of hatred and terror against African Americans and people of color — and people of different sexual orientations and different religions. If our society was cultivated by the free labor of the enslavement of African people, then their African American descendants earned the right to be respected as human beings. However, Malcolm and Betty’s youths came during the height of the Jim Crow era, and they were challenged with harsh racism and terrorized by bigotry in their daily lives. They were forced to live within a socioeconomic system governed much like apartheid, which included inequitable housing, education, employment, healthcare, and many other opportunities denied because of their “race.” And the laws of our society supported the notion that “Black” life was inferior.

While both of my parents were compassionate and were activists as children, the difference between them was that Malcolm’s father was lynched. His mother was taken away. His brothers and sisters were divided. Often when young people are in pain and think they have no one to talk to, they take a path of self-destruction. Betty was very fortunate to have adults to guide her through those challenging times of high school and college. That said, both were very fortunate to find love in themselves and then in each other. Both Betty and Malcolm discovered purpose in their union and in their legacy as advocates of equal rights for all human beings.

From the February 2018 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

About Elissa Gershowitz and Martha V. Parravano

Elissa Gershowitz is senior editor of The Horn Book Magazine and online content editor for The Horn Book, Inc. Martha V. Parravano is executive editor of The Horn Book Magazine.

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