Author explores early life of her famous mom, Betty Shabazz

Imagine trying to write about your mother when she was a kid. Where would you start? What details would you include?

To write “Betty Before X,” Ilyasah Shabazz had to think hard about those questions.

Her mother, Betty Shabazz, was an important civil rights leader. When her husband, Malcolm X, was assassinated in 1965, Betty Shabazz continued his work in social justice until her death in 1997.

She also raised Ilyasah Shabazz and her five sisters in a busy, loving home near New York City.

But Shabazz didn’t want to write about Betty the historical figure or the mom; she wanted to explore and expand upon her mother’s childhood. What was Betty like as a girl in Detroit, Michigan, in the 1940s? And what was Detroit like for Betty and other African American children?

For answers, Shabazz turned to her mother’s family and old friends.


In a 1969 photo, Shabazz sits on the lap of her mother, who was an important civil rights leader. (Courtesy Ilyasah Shabazz)

And she learned a lot. According to Shabazz’s aunt Jimmie (Betty’s younger sister), Betty was compassionate and loving. But she also sometimes sneaked out of the church to buy penny candy.

That fact fuels an important scene in the novel Shabazz wrote with children’s author Renée Watson.

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