Ilyasah Shabazz '79 visits the Hilltop

On Tuesday, March 2, Ilyasah Shabazz, Hackley Class of 1979 and daughter of civil rights activists Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz, spoke to Upper and Middle School students about her work.
On Tuesday, March 2, Ilyasah Shabazz, Hackley Class of 1979 and daughter of civil rights activists Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz, spoke to Upper and Middle School students about her work. Ms. Shabazz produces the Wake-Up Tour, a youth empowerment program, and she is the corporation president and trustee of the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial, Educational, and Cultural Center, Inc., located at the historic Audubon Theatre in Washington Heights, the site of her father’s assassination in 1965. Ms. Shabazz has worked tirelessly to support and empower youth in her community, Mount Vernon, NY, as well as for the Malaria No More Foundation, dedicated to providing mosquito netting to children in Mali, West Africa.

Her fathered died when she was barely three years old, yet her mother kept the force of his beliefs and personality vividly alive for her children. Dr. Betty Shabazz carried forward the legacy of Malcolm X as a civil rights activist and educator, and at her death, it seemed natural for daughter Ilyasah to carry on the work. She is now an author, educator, and public speaker, and she has dedicated herself to carrying on her father’s legacy of human rights activism. Quoting from her biography, Ms. Shabazz “is committed to developing educational programs that foster self-empowerment; expanding the role of government to teach individual responsibility for improving society; and capitalizing on the arts & entertainment to encourage the understanding of history, culture, and self- expression.”

Ms. Shabazz began her talk to Upper School students with insight into the history of Haiti, which underscored her central point: only when we understand the humanity around us – the history, identity and challenges of others – can we save humanity. When we understand the rich history of Haiti, and its history of oppression by powerful nations, we understand why so much of the world felt such a compelling call to support Haiti after the earthquake.

She encouraged Hackley students to embrace the need to give back – to take this education we have been given and use it to give service to the world. As her mother said, “Just as one must drink water, one must give back.”

Ms. Shabazz reports that her father was “raised by two functional parents in a dysfunctional society,” she says, two parents who were committed to equality and who worked to “equip their children to advocate for social justice.” She encouraged Hackley students to consider how they too could become advocates for social justice and change. “Education is the one thing that no one can take away from you,” she observed. In educating the world about African history and African Diaspora, for example, Malcolm X let people know that slaves were people taken from civilizations, with order and structure, before they were dispersed in bondage around the world. She underscored the disservice done to the world when knowledge of Africa is limited to the images of people dying of HIV or malaria, without recognition of the cultures that thrived there. “If you don’t know the history of humanity,” she said, “you will not be able to know what is right, nor be the leaders of tomorrow.”

She reflected on the lines her Hackley English teacher Mr. Naething insisted that she and her classmates memorize, which she can recite to this day: “To be or not to be, that is the question: /Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing, end them?” She charged the students, “You are the sons and daughters of antiquity’s promise,” whose time it was to take their place in service and make us proud, “to be or not to be.”

After speaking to both the Middle School and Upper School, Ms. Shabazz toured campus with senior Adjoa B. and juniors Marquis W. and Devon B. She spent some time in our Lower School, where she appreciated the various captivating student projects on display in the hallways. She talked with first graders learning about their interest in Civil Rights and Malcolm X., and witnessed their skill with computers. She told the children she treasured the time she shared with them, and promised to see them again soon.

Finally, she joined a group of Upper School students and faculty for lunch in the Lindsay Room, where she reflected on her experience at Hackley School, which she repeatedly termed “an amazing school.” Students were curious to know, what was it like to be Malcolm X’s daughter? For Ilyasah, it was just who she was, and no one at Hackley made a big deal out of it. But she recalled a time when a friend made a racist remark about African Americans, and then turned to Ilyasah and said, “But you’re not like that.” She talked about being told “You’re not Black Black,” as if her race came bundled with a set of expected behaviors and characteristics that she did not portray. She commented that the ignorance that leads to statements like this is part of what her emphasis on understanding humanity seeks to overcome. Her visit and comments on her own experience led students and members of the faculty to reflect on their own experience of racial identity at Hackley, a conversation important to Hackley’s mission -- our commitment to “learn from our community’s varying perspectives and backgrounds.”

We are glad to welcome Ilyasah Shabazz back to the Hilltop, and are grateful for her time, friendship and perspectives.
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