The marriage “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,” said Ilyasah Shabazz.
Ilyasah and Malaak Shabazz spoke to The Associated Press about Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Author Manning Marable, a highly respected scholar who worked for more than 20 years on the book, died of complications of pneumonia just before publication. Malcolm X’s daughters did not speak to Marable for the book which draws upon thousands of interviews, government documents and private papers.
The book has been in the top 10 on Amazon.com’s best-seller list and the print run has been increased from 46,000 to 70,000, according to Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA).
Viking spokeswoman Carolyn Coleburn said the publisher had no comment about the daughters’ criticisms.
While both sisters acknowledged they had not read the book, they questioned reports about the contents. Marable had intended Malcolm X as a tribute to the slain activist’s life and influence but he also wanted to avoid portraying him as “a saint, without the normal contradictions and blemishes that all human beings have,” as the historian wrote in the introduction.
Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. His wife, Betty Shabazz, died in 1997 after one of her grandchildren set fire to her apartment.
The book alleges that parts of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a classic released after Malcolm X’s death that sold more than one million copies, were inaccurate. For instance, Marable questions details of Malcolm X’s early life as a criminal, writing that Malcolm likely exaggerated his wrongdoings. Questions about the autobiography’s accuracy have been raised for decades and Marable addresses questions about the book’s co-writer, Alex Haley, who, many believe, left out or softened Malcolm’s more radical political views in the last couple of years of his life.
He also looks into Malcolm X’s more controversial words and actions, including a meeting with members of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1960s. At the time, he was a high-ranking member of the Nation of Islam and had discussed with the Klan the possibility of the nation purchasing land for blacks to live on. Malcolm X would later express regret, although Marable still called the meeting “despicable.”
Marable subtitled the book A Life of Reinvention, in part because Malcolm X acknowledged mistakes and transformed and transcended himself, from street hustler and convict to black separatist of fierce anti-white opinions to political and social activist seeking to work with all races, worldwide. His marriage, however, was widely seen as steady, close and supportive, especially as dramatized by Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett in Spike Lee’s movie Malcolm X. Shabazz herself would remember her years with Malcolm as “hectic, beautiful and unforgettable — the greatest thing in my life.”
Malcolm X married the former Betty Sanders, a nurse and fellow member of the Nation of Islam, in 1958. They had six children. According to the book, the marriage was often tense, in part because of Malcolm’s wish to have a traditional, subservient Muslim wife and because he was away so often and his life was often threatened. There were problems of emotional and physical intimacy. Marable includes a letter from Malcolm to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad that offers a blunt account of their home life, with Malcolm reporting that his wife believed they were “incompatible sexually.” Malcolm also tells Muhammad that Betty had threatened to “seek satisfaction elsewhere.”
Marable writes that Betty became involved in 1964 with Charles Kenyatta, a close associate of Malcolm’s. Malcolm, too, may have had affairs, although the evidence is uncertain. He knew of the relationship between his wife and Kenyatta, according to the book, and “the news of infidelity seems to have loosened Malcolm’s own marital bonds.”
Malaak Shabazz said there “may have been a little bit of stress, like any marriage,” but that “there was really no time for shenanigans. She raised the children at home; he worked on a global level.”