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'Education is my tool': Activist Ilyasah Shabazz on teaching Black history in schools and the legacy of her father Malcolm X

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For Ilyasah Shabazz, so much of her work is tied to her history.

Her father was assassinated when she was just 2 years old, and in February she released her fifth book, The Awakening of Malcolm X, about her dad’s early days as Malcolm Little.

“I was so committed to make sure that my father's story was told more accurately, especially for our children,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

The young adult book starts with Malcolm Little in jail, serving a six-and-a-half-year sentence for robbery. Tales of his early childhood traumas are shared during flashback scenes, as he contemplates life’s biggest questions.

“His father is lynched by a mob of the KKK. His mother is institutionalized and his family is torn apart,” says Shabazz. “He’s wondering, ‘Who am I as a Black person, because society is saying that I'm nothing.’ He is able to confront these personal issues.”

“These were some qualities that I felt were really important to show [about] who the real Malcolm is,” Shabazz adds.

Setting the story behind bars was important for Shabazz because of the alarming incarceration rates in America. According to Pew Research in 2017, Black people represented 12 percent of the U.S. adult population — but 33 percent of the sentenced prison population. In comparison, white people account for 64 percent of adults and 30 percent of prisoners.

“Since 1970, the prison population has increased 700 percent, and so that says that we need to do better for our young people,” says Shabazz. “I thought it was important first to show that my father, yes, went to jail at a very young age in his teens — he was released in his 20s. And also wanting to take a close examination at the inmates’ humanity.”

Ilyasah Shabazz and her father Malcom X in 1964 (Photo: Getty)
Ilyasah Shabazz and her father Malcom X in 1964 (Photo: Getty Images)

For Shabazz, the best tool to address some of this country’s systematic issues is through education. Many schools around the country teach pieces of American history, but there is an inconsistency with how slavery, white supremacy, and the Civil War are taught, she notes.

In 2020, several states like Texas and Kentucky announced plans to expand Black history instruction, although not all states are looking to adjust their curriculum. Republican lawmakers in Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri andSouth Dakota are aiming to cut funding to schools, using lesson plans from the 1619 Project, which examines the impact of slavery in the United States.

“I think that we need a better education curriculum so that we understand that Black history is also American history. And if the terrorism of slavery and the subsequent massacres in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Rosewood, Florida are taught in high school U.S. history classes to be as American as the Boston Tea Party, then we understand that our education is based on historical truth,” she says.

Schools may be debating how to teach Black history, but conversations around white supremacy are already happening in homes around the country. Books like How to Be an Anti-Racist and White Fragility became best sellers in 2020, and Instagram is flooded with infographics and memes exposing white supremacy. Like Malcolm X, our country seems be undergoing its own awakening.

Ilyasah Shabazz at the 54th death anniversary of Malcolm X. (Photo: Getty)
Ilyasah Shabazz at a ceremony marking the 54th anniversary of Malcolm X's death. (Photo: Getty Images)

“I think that young people are discovering, you know, there's so much information they had no idea of, which means that our education curriculum is failing them,” says Shabazz.

Ultimately, Shabazz hopes that sharing her father’s story — his obstacles, strategies and leadership— will help to guide the intergenerational and multi-racial movement happening right now.

“I think it's extremely important that our young people are understanding that they have to have the capacity to understand these challenges, not from a Black and white perspective, but the capacity from a right and wrong perspective.”

Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove

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