Unmuted: Ilyasah Shabazz on teaching Black history in schools and the legacy of her father Malcolm X

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Ilyasah Shabazz opens up about her new book 'The Awakening of Malcom X'.

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

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% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. In comparison, white people account for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners.

“Since 1970, the prison population has increased 700%, and so that says that we need to do better for our young people,” said 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 twenties. And also wanting to take a close examination at the inmates’ humanity.”

Ultimately, Shabazz hopes that sharing her fathers 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 Transcript

ILYASAH SHABAZZ: I was so committed to make sure that my father's story was told more accurately, especially for our children. I think that we need a better education curriculum, so that we understand that Black history is also American history.


BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: Welcome to "Unmuted." I'm Brittany Jones-Cooper, and today I'm joined by Ilyasah Shabazz, the educator, activist and author is here today to talk about the continued fight for equality and her new book about her father, "The Awakening of Malcolm X." Welcome to "Unmuted."

ILYASAH SHABAZZ: Thank you, thank you, Brittany, good to be here with you.

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: You wrote this book for young adults, and you start the story in prison. Why was that important for you to do?

ILYASAH SHABAZZ: Since 1970, the prison population has increased 700%. And so that says that we need to do better for our young people. And in this book, I thought it was important first to show that my father, yes, went to jail at a very young age. His father is lynched by a mob of the KKK. His mother is institutionalized. And his family is torn apart.

But yet, he still is the president of his class, very smart. Malcolm ends up going to prison ultimately. And instead of running from himself, running from the fact that he lost his family, 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 thought were really important to show in who the real Malcolm is.

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: Your father was assassinated when you were just two years old. How does writing these books and doing that research help you just to connect deeper to him?

ILYASAH SHABAZZ: Well, it really does. You know, I do feel close to my parents. I have to give it to my mother though, because you know, she was just in her 20s, her home had been firebombed when she and her husband lay asleep in their bedroom. All of us as a family, to witness our father's assassination you know, was just a lot.

And for a very long time, my mother had safeguarded her husband's legacy. And it wasn't so that he could be illuminated, it was more for the benefit of the younger generation. And so when she passed away, I just set out to do that.

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: The book is called "The Awakening of Malcolm X," and I think as a nation, we've had our own awakening when it comes to how we have conversations about white supremacy and race. As an educator, what do you see as some priority issues for you when it comes to this fight for social justice?

ILYASAH SHABAZZ: Well, education is my tool. And 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. And if the terrorism of slavery, subsequent massacres in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Rosewood, Florida, for example, is taught in high school US history classes to be as American as the Boston Tea Party, then we understand that our education is based on historical truth. And that more citizens can understand the necessity for reparation. Human compassion and all of those other great things.

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: And those are some of the lessons in this book, so I hope that people go and check it out, because I do love that it's catered to a young adult audience and it makes it super accessible. Thank you for joining us, Ilyasah.

ILYASAH SHABAZZ: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure.