Speaking to the Associated Press, the daughters of the late Malcolm X have expressed disappointment in their father’s biography, written by recently deceased Columbia University professor, Manning Marable. Ilyasah and Malaak Shabazz are concerned about allegations in the book that their parents’ marriage was strained and that both of their parents may have been unfaithful.
Ilyasah says that the marriage of Malcolm and Betty "was definitely faithful and devoted because my father was a man of impeccable integrity, and I think that most people, if they’re not clear on anything, they’re clear that he was moral and ethical and had impeccable character.”
The book, entitled “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” utilizes interviews, letters, government documents and more to detail the life of Malcolm X in an unbiased way. Professor Marable makes it clear that he has no interest in portraying Malcolm as a “saint,” and that he wished to show that Malcolm had the “normal contradictions and blemishes that all human beings have.”
In the book, Marable alleges that Malcolm’s autobiography, which sold over a million copies, was not entirely accurate. Namely, Marable writes that Malcolm X exaggerated the depth of the criminal activity which defined much of his youth. He also says that Malcolm’s marriage to the late Betty Shabazz was not as loving and close as some have imagined.
Originally named Betty Sanders, Malcolm’s wife married her husband in 1958. Marable claims that the discontent in their marriage came from the fact that Malcolm wanted a traditional Muslim wife, but Betty wasn’t always on the same page. Additionally, there were problems with emotional and physical intimacy, in large part due to the fact that Malcolm traveled so much and had his life threatened on a regular basis.
As evidence of his assertions, Marable includes a letter from Malcolm X to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. In the letter, Malcolm mentions that he and his wife were “sexually incompatible,” and that she’d threatened to “seek satisfaction elsewhere.”
The book goes on to discuss an alleged affair that Betty had with a friend of Malcolm’s, Charles Kenyatta, and also discusses the possibility that Malcolm was not always faithful as well.
As I sit in New York City, my plan for tomorrow is to visit the Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz Center on Saturday so that I might be able to spiritually connect to the man who has always been my absolute greatest hero. Other than the father who raised me (not my biological one), I consider Malcolm X to be the most impactful and significant American to have ever lived.
With that said, I lay out the following thoughts:
First, the fact that a person is your greatest hero does not mean they cannot be critiqued. I’ve always felt that it was a terrible mistake for Malcolm to put so much faith in another man, namely the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (it’s incredibly risky to give sexual details of your marriage to any man with an active libido). It’s perfectly acceptable to take guidance from a mentor, but giving any other human being unquestioned and unconditional allegiance leaves you vulnerable to unspeakably painful disappointments. Malcolm learned this when he unearthed the hypocrisy of Elijah Muhammad which led Malcolm to leave the Nation of Islam in 1964.
Secondly, I’ve always believed it to be a mistake for Malcolm to allow his wife and children to be the target of violence coming from those who wanted him to die. It is fully understood that during that era, nearly everyone was under pressure to get married. But the truth is that a soldier on the battlefield has to be careful about who he puts into harm’s way. Some might consider it to be selfish and myopic on the part of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to risk the lives of their families (perhaps against their will) and to leave their kids without a father. Their sacrifices are certainly appreciated, but one can easily understand why their wives may have been agitated by their predicament.
Finally, the response by Malcolm’s daughters to Marable’s book is natural, given that every little girl in America wants to believe that her daddy can do no wrong. Millions of men struggle to hide their sexuality from their little girls, because we’ve defined most forms of sexual desire to be bad, dirty and evil. But the truth is that most married men cheat (over 60 percent) at some point in their marriages, and this would be especially true when referring to famous, powerful men who are on the road on a regular basis. Additionally, women with husbands who are never at home are also more likely to seek companionship outside the marriage. This certainly does not condone extramarital affairs, but the reactions of Malcolm’s daughters are no different from the preacher’s kids who refuse to believe their daddy is “getting busy” with some of the women in the congregation, even when there’s an abundance of proof to the contrary.
Marable’s evidence of Betty’s extramarital affair is quite credible, especially since it is consistent with Malcolm’s letter to Elijah Muhammad. I’d also be surprised if Malcolm was 100% faithful to his wife, given his own frustrations with the marriage. But whatever indiscretions there were in this marriage, it doesn’t take away from the beauty of Malcolm and Betty’s love or the depth of this family’s historic contribution to humanity. The two issues should be considered separately, for Malcolm was still a man of great discipline and integrity.
Malcolm X remains my greatest hero, no matter what historians have to say. But by believing that our heroes are perfect, we only end up disappointing ourselves later on down the road. Rather than putting Malcolm and Martin on pedestals that the rest of us can never reach, it is better to accept them as being human.