Remembering Dr. Betty Shabazz & My Mother’s Message About Her Sons
Something powerful just happened as I was listening to Gregory Porter’s absolutely beautiful song, Be Good, last night. I can’t quite retrace the mental pathway that got me here, but somehow as I listened I began reflecting on an exchange I had with my mother via voice mail quite a few years ago. Given the substance of the exchange, I remember vividly that it was right around the time of Dr. Betty Shabazz’s passing.
As I thought about it more, I kept wondering what year that was. Naturally, I went straight to the internet, and what I learned just blew me away. It was 1997, almost 15 years ago to this very day when all of this happened. This isn’t the first time I’ve had one of these recollections, only to find out it was an anniversary of sorts of the event or occasion I was thinking about. This one, like the others, is really special…
Tomorrow will mark the fifteenth anniversary of Dr. Betty Shabazz’s transition from this physical life. It was a Monday, June 23, 1997, to be exact. Many of us remember Dr. Shabazz as the wife of Malcolm X. For those who knew her, or at least were familiar with her professional career as a nurse, as an esteemed educator and administrator at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, as well as her involvement and civic engagement as a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., we know she was quite a remarkable woman in her own right. I didn’t know her personally, although I did have the occasion to meet her once, and have a brief conversation with her. It wasn’t a long conversation, but long enough to feel her genuine, gentle, generous and compassionate spirit. I was with one of my best friends at a retreat that had been organized for a lot of the “veterans” of the civil rights movement.
I was very nervous when I met her, because of the tremendous amount of respect and admiration I had (and it continues to grow) for her late husband, Malcolm X. You could feel his spirit in her presence, which complimented the grace, integrity and dignity that was Dr. Shabazz. I remember that time vividly. I was still in graduate school at Howard University studying developmental psychology, and also worked as an independent living counselor at a program for older adolescents transitioning to “independence” from the foster care and juvenile justice systems in Maryland.
When I first learned of the tragic incident that left Dr. Shabazz with severe burns, I remember being overcome with this really painful feeling in the pit of my stomach. I continued to hear the periodic updates about her condition during the following several weeks. When news ultimately spread about Dr. Shabazz’s passing, I remember feeling extremely sad, and crying for quite a while. I was trying to understand how something like that could have happened. I wondered how the daughters were doing and how the grandson was doing.
The next day, as a small gesture to honor Dr. Shabazz’s memory, and as a way to prompt others to do the same, I recorded the following outgoing message on my home phone answering system…
For those of you who may not have heard, Dr. Betty Shabazz, the wife of our great leader Malcolm X, just passed away. In recognition of her life and passing, I ask that you to take a moment and pray for the family during this difficult time. I also ask that you take a moment and reflect on the following question about life: ‘What is it that gives your life meaning… and if you haven’t thought about it, then how do you know your life is worth living?’
I was deeply moved by the remarkable life Dr. Betty Shabazz lived, her example of courage, honor and dignity, and the wonderful person that she was. It was also a period of time when I was hyper-critical of the seemingly apolitical, apathetic and ‘get mine at any cost’ attitude of so many Black students and young professionals, seemingly disinterested in and disconnected from the continuing struggle for justice for African people here and abroad. As you might imagine, I got all sorts of reactions to the outgoing message – from my friends, from my boss at the time (an older white woman), and from others after they heard the greeting. Some people made fun of the message, while others acknowledged that it really made them pause and reflect.
It was my mother’s reply, however, that brought me to tears. I’m actually tearing up now, as I type these words, thinking about mom and her beautiful ways of being and saying things, of pushing and correcting when necessary and also complimenting and celebrating when deserved. After the beep on the answering service, my mother, without a pause, said…
Hi. This is your mom. Just calling to check on you. And my answer to the question you just asked is — ‘You. From the first time I saw you both, you and your brother have always given my life meaning. You are both what I live for every day. You know we love you so much and we’re really proud of you! Take care, son. And keep up your great work! Talk to you soon.
I remember my body kind of going numb when I heard the message. I started to tear up and replayed the message over and over. It took me a little while before I pulled it back together. I couldn’t do anything for a while after hearing the message. As my brother, Khari, and I were growing up, mom and dad weren’t the kind of parents that always said ‘I Love You’. They were not the kind of hovering parents we see so much of today, constantly worried about our self-esteem and whether our feelings were ok. We always knew we were loved, and there was never any question about it given the way they raised us and cared for us. But ours was like so many other families, they mostly let the demonstration of love speak for itself, it didn’t always have to be said in words. It was definitely said from time to time, but it wasn’t all about saying the words.
The point is that they were always about being and doing and providing and modeling and demonstrating, and not as much about saying and repeating and insisting and convincing. I didn’t think twice about it when I was younger, and I appreciate it’s significance even more now that I’m older and have two wonderful children of my own. Children see and feel our spirit, and they model the cumulative effect of what they see. And indeed they recognize the contradictions – even if they don’t say it – when what we say is inconsistent with what they see and feel from us.
Please join me, on this day and during this time of year, in celebrating the example and enduring spirit of determination embodied in both my mother, also a proud and active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., whose presence I value more and more every moment of every day, and Dr. Betty Shabazz, whose example of courage and honor and dignity and honesty and intellect and leadership remains with us, indeed through her own words and works, as well as through those whose lives she touched.
It is in our elders, and in our ancestors, that we can continue to find our exemplars.
Indeed, we stand on solid ground!
A Brief Clip of Dr. Betty Shabazz, In Her Own Words…
On One’s Life Purpose, Ethos and Medgar Evers College
For further reading about the remarkable life of Dr. Betty Shabazz…