The burdens of a public life, of living as a symbol of some vast and unquenched yearning, are well-known, but few among us understand with the terrible insight of the Shabazz family what it means to die that way. Malcolm Shabazz, activist, blogger, and grandson of Malcolm X, died Thursday in Mexico City at the age of twenty-eight. His is the seventh untimely death in an index of lamentation that spans four generations. For many years now it has been quietly known and seldom spoken that both Martin and Malcolm’s heirs occupy a space on the far end of some bell curve of suffering. The specifics—King’s brother drowning little more than a year after his assassination, his mother gunned down in the sanctuary where he and his father pastored, Betty Shabazz’s death after a fire in her home—seem both too crucial to forget and too cruel to recognize with any frequency.
Qubilah Shabazz, Malcolm Shabazz’s mother, was just four years old the day she saw her father gunned down as he stepped to the podium in the Audubon Ballroom. Years later, when she was arrested for allegedly plotting to have Louis Farrakhan killed for the role she reportedly believed he played in her father’s death, we remembered that a public element of our history was, to the wife and six daughters who survived Malcolm, the scar tissue of personal loss. Shabazz’s great-grandfather Earl Little, Malcolm’s father, was murdered, by White men, possibly members of the Ku Klux Klan, and his body nearly cut in half after he was laid across railroad tracks.
Set against that rageful backdrop in which he lived and worked, Malcolm’s knowledge of his impending death—spoken of in his autobiography, and with sage resignation to those whom he trusted—seemed like something out of Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold.” But the family history, the sprawling epic of travesty and travail, seems more like a grim recasting of the vanquished bloodlines in “100 Years of Solitude.”
That Malcolm Shabazz was known at all to the public is intimately tied to yet more tragedy. When he was twelve, he set the fire that resulted in the death of his grandmother, Malcolm’s widow, Dr. Betty Shabazz. He ricocheted through an adolescence dotted with infractions and arrests, a troubled young man both freighted and propelled by the legacy of his slain namesake.
The passage of time made the troubles of Malcolm X’s own youth appear as stations on some racial cross: the impoverished youth who became the heartless hustler, the jailhouse autodidact who birthed the ascetic rage prophet who was to become the martyred humanist. He saw something metaphorical in those phases of his life, in that knotted feeling of injustice and spoiled aspiration—his tale was as much demography as biography. But viewed from the distant sidelines, Malcolm Shabazz’s short life inspired a different kind of sentiment, reflected an entirely different yearning.