Shabazz, Attallah 1958–
Attallah Shabazz 1958–
Artist, actress, theatrical director, producer, lecturer, activist
Attallah Shabazz is a woman of many talents. An artist, performer, producer, and lecturer, she is also the eldest daughter of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, the powerful civil rights activist who was assassinated in 1965 by three members of the Nation of Islam. Attallah Shabazz plies her trade to clarify her father’s message and to preach her own gospel of human rights and self-esteem. Russell Miller of New York magazine described her as “an inspirational speaker, preaching self-respect, persistence, nurturance.”
Shabazz does not remember Malcolm X as a political militant, but as a loving and devoted father who took pains to instill pride in his children. Both her parents and grandparents gave her a rich cultural education in her “wonderful heritage,” she told Rolling Stone. “One of my coloring books when I was younger was called Color Me Brown, and it had twenty-five little etchings of black American contributors that you could color in. So I knew about [eighteenth-century mathematician and astronomer] Benjamin Banneker, I knew about [acclaimed poet] Phillis Wheatley. I knew about [nineteenth-century dramatic actor] Ira Aldridge and [feminist-agitator] Ida B. Wells. Those were the names that came to my mouth like Mary Poppins might to another’s. So when I went to school and parts of me were omitted from history books, I knew the hole wasn’t in me, it was in the books.”
From an early age, Shabazz was aware of her multinational background and took pride in it. She told the Los Angeles Times: “I grew up cross-cultural. In my house there were many accents. My taste buds were not formed on American food. The family background was African, Caribbean, Arabic, and Native American. My grandfather made sure I knew all about them.… 1 felt the pride.”
Being the daughter of Malcolm X has not been easy, however. Only six years old at the time, Shabazz was there on that fateful day in February of 1965 when her father was killed. A few minutes into his speech before an audience in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, he was brutally murdered by three gun-wielding assassins, and Attallah Shabazz was a witness to the horrible scene. “A day came when I realized he’s dead,” she revealed in Rolling Stone. “I never knew till then how much the void…nauseated me.”
For much of her life, Shabazz has been judged more on her father’s reputation—which seems to have been built upon ill-conceived interpretations of his ideas—than on her own
Artist, actress, theatrical director and producer, lecturer. Actress in Three Penny Opera, Hello Dolly, and Peter Pan, in Pleasantville, NY, in the mid-1970s; appeared in Throw Thunder at This House in 1977; counselor with the Little Sisters Program sponsored by the YWCA and the Westchester County Youth Bureau, 1979; cofounder and codirector of Nucleus (a performing arts company), 1979—; collaborator, with Yolanda King, on plays Step-ping into Tomorrow and Of One Mind; associate producer of the Stellar Awards and the NAACP Image Awards; consultant on Paul Robeson, a staged biography, 1992.
merits. She told Essence magazine that when she enrolled at the United Nations International School at the age of 13, the school officials were a bit worried. They “expected me to show up wearing a beret and being militant simply because of their perceptions of my father. Instead, I walked in wearing my limegreen dress, my opaque stockings, my patent leather shoes, and carrying my little patent leather pocketbook. I was also exceedingly quiet for the whole semester.”
After high school, Shabazz attended Briarcliff College and majored in international law. She was a high achiever, involved in many activities from piano and ballet to martial arts. When she left Briarcliff, which closed before she finished, she held a variety of jobs before finding her niche as a public speaker.
Her first speaking engagement was in Panama in 1979. “I had never spoken before publicly as Malcolm X’s daughter and was really nervous,” she told Essence. “I don’t remember much of what I said, but it must have been OK, because when I sat down a Panamanian official leaned over and whispered approvingly, ‘You’re going to be just like him!’ This jolted me into realizing that people are not going to let me forget who I am.” Still, she doesn’t feel burdened by his legacy. “I am not under a shadow,” she told Los Angeles Times writer Lawrence Christon. “I’m under a light.”
Part of Shabazz’s goal has been to correct the narrow image many people have of her father, and to separate Malcolm the man from Malcolm X the black nationalist. “The image that is always portrayed of Malcolm is of this angry black man.…There’s so much focus on the narrowest part of my father’s life, on the neon sign that was on him, not the man himself,” she told Rolling Stone. “He wasn’t just Malcolm X … he was a daddy.”
Shabazz has chosen the arts as her mode of communication. “Actually, the arts chose me, from the age of 3 or 4,” she explained in the Los Angeles Times. “I’m a good sculptor. Whether it’s writing, theater or film, they’re a way for me to use my passion.” She became involved in theater at an early age, too, playing her first role in her second-grade school play. As a teenager in the mid-1970s, she appeared in Three Penny Opera, Hello Dolly, and Peter Pan, in Pleasantville, New York, and in Throw Thunder at This House in 1977. Two years later, she met Yolanda King, daughter of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and they were featured in an article for Ebony magazine.
A strong bond grew between Shabazz and King. “We eventually started talking about assassinations and how it affected us,” Shabazz told People magazine, adding that it was therapeutic “to actually talk to somebody who went through that like you did.” They cemented their friendship a few months after meeting when they were asked to judge the Miss Universe contest in Panama. Shabazz and King spent every spare minute—for four days—sitting in their hotel rooms talking.
Aside from their shared history as the daughters of two of the most prominent activists of their era, Shabazz and King shared an interest in the performing arts. (King was studying acting at New York University when they met in 1979.) After being asked to speak at high schools in Connecticut, they agreed that they should dramatize their message rather than lecture to the students. “There was much that we wanted to say,” Shabazz told Rolling Stone. “Our problem…wasn’t what we had to say, but how we were going to say it.…What was going to make what we said stick?” They asked some friends—a pianist, a singer, and two ministers—to help them put together a show that would convey their ideas. The theater group Nucleus was formed, and the group’s collaborative effort resulted in Stepping into Tomorrow, a musical about growing up.
“I see my mission with Nucleus as patting young people on the back the way my parents did with me. Letting them know that whatever anyone else tells them, they’re ok. That nobody’s born a sinner,” Shabazz explained in Rolling Stone. Since its debut, Stepping into Tomorrow has been performed hundreds of times. Nucleus has taken the one-act musical to churches and community centers all over the country for more than a decade. In December of 1990, the group celebrated the tenth anniversary of the play with a gala performance at the Crossroads Arts Academy in Los Angeles.
Several years after collaborating on Stepping into Tomorrow, Shabazz and King created Of One Mind, a stage production that examines their fathers’ ideologies and charts the course history might have taken if they had not been assassinated. Malcolm X was known for his militant black separatist convictions, while Martin Luther King, Jr., espoused a philosophy of nonviolent resistance in the quest for human equality. “Regardless of any differences in their philosophies, their yearnings were the same,” Shabazz noted in Rolling Stone. ‘They were inspired by the very same dream—respect that was long overdue.…For me it’s like the shape of the letter Y. Two supposedly opposing paths meet and become one. When our fathers died, they were approaching that path. Yolanda and I closed the gap and became the stem. This is not to overlook the very real differences in their approaches. But I believe you can hold onto all that you are and still walk down the same path.”
In addition to her work with Nucleus, Shabazz contributes to theatrical productions on both coasts, commuting between Los Angeles and New York. Her credits include associate production work on the 1992 Stellar Awards and the NAACP Image Awards, as well as on a staged biography of singer-activist Paul Robeson, which debuted at the Westwood Theater in Los Angeles. She also keeps up an active public speaking life, but she told Rolling Stone: “I’m a private person. I don’t need a lot of hands [on me].”
Attallah Shabazz is much like her father. African American writer Alex Haley, her godfather and coauthor of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, once said, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times: “She looks like her father, acts like her father, even grins like him.…Even the enigmatic, elusive quality is Malcolm.” Today, she carries on his work, and although she has chosen a different medium to express herself, she remains “under his light.”
Christian Century, October 28, 1992.
Ebony, May 1979.
Essence, January 1982, pp. 78, 102, 107-08.
Jet, December 3, 1990; December 24, 1990.
Los Angeles Times, January 8, 1989, sec. VI, p. 1; March 1, 1992, sec. CAL, pp. 5, 84.
New York, November 23, 1992, p. 30.
People, September 5, 1983, pp. 99-101.
Rolling Stone, November 30, 1989, pp. 76-84, 120-24.
USA Today, November 16, 1992, sec. A. p. 15.
Also see entry on King, Yolanda, in this volume of Contemporary Black Biography.
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