Home to Harlem
It was with a distinct air of celebration that the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and its director, Howard Dodson, formally accepted custody January 7 of two huge crates of documents and artifacts belonging to Malcolm X. Permission for the transfer came from Ilyasah Shabazz and Malaak Shabazzthe administrators of the estate of Malcolm's widow, Betty Shabazz, and two of the couple's six daughters. The body of work in the collection will surely allow for a revision of the prevalent mainstream notion that the African American leader's legacy is more as an orator and organizer than as a writer and analyst. Dodson spoke of the many revisions of speeches (which have been printed largely from recordings), saying, "Malcolm was a very meticulous thinker, but he was constantly rethinking and revising. That's what shows up in the collection, his constant search for clarity."
The trove of correspondence, speeches, wire-bound notebooks of his 1964 travels to Mecca and various destinations in Africa and Europe, along with his personally annotated Koran, photographs, and film, are apt to be invaluable to scholars and biographers, particularly with regard to the last years of his life. The documents open the possibility not only for new biographies, but perhaps for the publication of authoritative versions of his speeches, some material written for the Nation of Islam, and possibly his journals.
Dodson said that after an 18-month period of preservation work, the collection will be made available to scholars and the public, with a major exhibition to be held possibly in May 2004. The renewable arrangement calls for the Schomburg to act as custodian of the materials for 75 years; the estate retains ownership in the collection and its intellectual property rights. Eldest daughter Attallah Shabazz and Malaak Shabazz said the family and library officials will go through the materials and decide on restrictions on what they called "personal" items before allowing public access. The materials include those offered for sale by Butterfields Auctioneers last March, after a cache of the documents made a mysterious sojourn to a storage locker in Florida.
The announcement marks the establishment of the most substantial Malcolm X archive since his death and the subsequent scattering of many materials pertinent to his career. Interested researchers, including several biographers, and libraries have been tracking and locating documents for years, and though the Shabazzes didn't want to get into a discussion of other materials being sought, it was clear that neither the family nor the library are done building the archive. Dodson said there is "another body" of materials still in Florida, but did not elaborate.
While both women spoke of their willingness to share Malcolm's legacy, their remarks stressed the enormity of the personal loss of two parents who died young. "We didn't get to heal," said Attallah. Though she complained of their being portrayed in the press "as a family of tragedy, as a saga of woe," the uprooting caused by the sudden death of Betty Shabazz in 1997 seems to have played a role in the story of these Malcolm X documents. She said the materials were "in our house in Mount Vernon" before landing in a self-storage unit in Casselberry, Florida, in May 1999.
Malikah Shabazz, 37, one of the twins (with Malaak) born months after Malcolm's death, and the woman whose Florida locker contained the materials for a time, called this reporter on a number of occasions last year in the months after a Voice article ("What Becomes a Legend Most?," April 3-9, 2002) on the effort to reclaim the Malcolm X archive from the auction house. She said she had been living in the Mount Vernon family home when her mother was caught in the fire at the Yonkers apartment of Ilyasah Shabazz. "I lived there for 10 years," she said. Malikah said she was pregnant and "on bed rest" when her mother died. She talked at length about how devastating her mother's death was for everyone. Her own daughter, she said, is "now four years old. . . . She was born seven months after my mother died. . . . After my daughter was born, I packed up my stuff and left." Wanting to escape the turmoil brought on by Betty Shabazz's death, she said, "I walked away." She denied moving the materials that turned up in news stories, although she did rent a storage unit in Florida.
"I went down to Florida, I stayed six months," she said. "I left Florida with the intention of not returning, except to get my things. If they were so valuable, I would not have left them." Malikah Shabazz said she got a phone call in December 1999 from the storage facility. "A manager who is no longer there called and said my lock had been taken off, and they did an inventory and would auction the stuff if I didn't send the money," she recalled. She sent the requested $50, she said. When she did leave Florida, as reported in the Voice, she picked up some boxes from an unspecified storage unit before traveling north.
"The papers were not among my belongings," she said. "How they ended up on an auction block is a guess."
With distress, she described Betty Shabazz as the anchor for all the Shabazz women, someone with whom she spoke daily, and without whom she felt at sea. She described a hard life, residing in various places, working and sometimes doing public speaking, but struggling with numerous difficulties to take care of herself and her child. "I have to struggle," Malikah Shabazz said, "but I'm OK with that."
The picture painted of the innumerable decisions and responsibilities faced by the daughters at that time was grim. By all accounts, including Ilyasah Shabazz's memoir, Growing Up X, Betty Shabazz was accustomed to making all the decisions. This explains, in part, the disarray her death brought to individual lives, the estate, and projects in which she was a pivotal figure, such as the Audubon Ballroom, renovated by the city but basically sitting idle since her death. (Dodson said the family and library were interested in programming at the Audubon.)
Asked about the history of the material, Attallah Shabazz recalled last week, "Our house was bombed in 1965; then we had things in storage; then they moved to our house in Mount Vernon; then we tried to clear out and go through things in the whole estate when we lost our mother. What is yours just doesn't become property of an estate. . . . Boxes just moved and relocated. Someone got their hands on it without the consensus or knowledge of the whole family." There was a obvious effort to get past blame.
When pressed further on this question, she resisted. "We need to keep things . . . whole, unitedspirit has been broken," said Attallah Shabazz. "We are orphans, despite legacies. We are people who should not be without a parent, and if you got to know my mother at all, my mother was an everyday, all-around parent with unsolicited advice, at your housewe were not prepared for that. It's not a heart attack; this wasn't an illness; there was no preparation. Everyone was in it. We didn't heal. Everyone was in it."
And so, together, they have taken the first step.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.