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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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Betty before X is historical fiction but is based on the young life of Dr. Betty Shabazz, an American civil rights icon and wife of Malcolm X. The novel relates the racial discrimination that existed in Detroit in the 1930s and ’40s and the nonviolent work of the Housewives’ League (HWL) to effect change. Mrs. Malloy, Betty’s adopted mother, was active in the league and led Betty toward a life of activism.
In this interview, Ilyasah Shabazz talks about her mother and the collaboration with Renée Watson to write a novel that relates her mother’s life up until eighth grade.
Betty, Kay, and Suesetta are victims of racial prejudice when they Christmas shop at a department store in Detroit. Why are Kay and Suesetta so willing to let the incident go? Are incidents like this what led Betty to years of activism?
SHABAZZ: During the 1940s, there was a blatant disregard of African Americans. In this instance with Kay and Suesetta, it was a way of life—all they knew. Their parents did not want their children to disobey the law. Their focus was to retreat to their safe and segregated community, where they were loved and respected. Injustice never settled well with Betty, because she was encouraged to ask questions and challenge unfairness and inequality.
SCALES: How does Mrs. Malloy know that Betty needs rescuing?
SHABAZZ: I imagine Mrs. Malloy sensed a bit of activism in Betty, ripe for the causes and virtues Mrs. Malloy represented.
SCALES: Why is Ollie Mae so willing to give Betty to the Malloys?SHABAZZ: Betty exuded confidence and poise well beyond her years. She was bubbly, compassionate, and hardworking—much like Mrs. Malloy. Ollie Mae, on the other hand, was the opposite. She was very conservative and thought children should be seen and not heard.
Perhaps Ollie Mae believed she could not answer the countless questions nor facilitate the academic and social pursuits that were dormant in young Betty. And giving her to Mrs. Malloy, who was unable to bear children, would enable Betty and Helen Malloy to have more loving and purpose-driven lives. Betty remained supportive of both mothers, Ollie Mae and Mrs. Malloy, until the very end of their lives.
Mr. and Mrs. Malloy attended Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Is that why Betty chose this college? Were the Malloys supportive when Betty transferred?
SHABAZZ: Once Betty joined the Malloy family, it was a given that she would attend her parents’ alma mater at Tuskegee. However, when Betty experienced blatant racism, she decided that Tuskegee, Alabama, was not a place for her. She consulted with her guidance counselor and enrolled in an affiliate program in the North, where she believed equality for African Americans existed. The Malloys did not support Betty’s transfer.
Why doesn’t Ollie Mae want her children to know about the race riots in Detroit?
SHABAZZ: In her youth, Ollie Mae had witnessed the lynching and inhumane treatment of family and friends in the South. The law didn’t protect African Americans. Many of the elders were psychologically traumatized by the conditions under which they were forced to live. They feared that speaking up would cause more deaths by mobs of white supremacists, bullies, and bigots. Perhaps she was simply scared.
How does the mission of the Housewives’ League (HWL) compare to the mission of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement? If Betty was alive, do you think she would be active in BLM?
SHABAZZ: The meat-packing industry in the 1930s was a multibillion-dollar industry. Before the HWL, African Americans could purchase meats from the warehouses but could not gain employment in the industry. The HWL basically said, “If our money is good enough for you to take, then our husbands are good enough to employ.” After the HWL’s members took action, the meat-packing industry employed nearly 75,000 African American men and women.
BLM basically says, “We demand an end to the wars against black people.” They believe that education is the key to injustice. For example, if African American history was included in American-history curriculum throughout the school year, there would be no need to have one month to learn about it. If people were properly educated about the significant contributions of African Americans, and the African diaspora, to world history, blacks would be better respected. The mission of HWL and BLM by comparison is quite similar because the terrorizing groups of the 1930s and 2016 served to violate the human rights of African Americans. These organizations came into existence to eliminate racism against blacks. My mother would have likely applauded and consulted with the young movement, BLM.
SCALES: Betty is described as being “an advocate for human rights, women’s rights, and racial tolerance.” You seem to care about these issues. What about your sisters? Do they possess Betty’s passion for tolerance?SHABAZZ: Yes, my entire family is passionate about every human having an opportunity to exercise his or her inalienable human rights. My mother taught us that all human beings are brothers and sisters under the family of God. The beauty is in the diversity.
Explain how you and Renée Watson worked together. Was the structure of the novel a joint decision? How long did the process take? How often did you meet to review the text?
SHABAZZ: Renée and I developed a pretty good strategy while writing this book. First, we would have long discussions and interviews, and then she would write, and send it to me. I would be so inspired to write and rewrite, edit, etc., and vice versa. It was truly exciting to see the story develop. The internet also enabled us to work on the manuscript even while on different coasts with perhaps two or three face-to-face and FaceTime meetings
Why did you decide to write the book in first person?
SHABAZZ: We wanted the young reader to have an opportunity to walk alongside Betty as she discovers more about herself, her trepidations, her affirmations, her joy, and the experience of discovering her power to change the world in which she lives. She learned that what really matters is not that she fell but what she discovered in herself every time she attempted to brush herself off and stand.
SCALES: Do you consider the book biography or historical fiction?SHABAZZ: The book is semibiographical; however, it is identified as historical fiction. We were creative with conversations and especially with Betty’s personal reflections and questions posed to God. Plus, it’s an opportunity to draw on the similarities of our parents’ youth with the youth of today’s generation.
SCALES: What do you want young readers to take from Betty’s life?SHABAZZ: It is my hope that young readers will be inspired by Betty’s life. That they understand the importance of self-love; identify values that are important to them; select friends who have similar value systems; know their roles as a human being; and cultivate a desire to right the wrongs in our society.
What are you working on now? Are there plans to write a book about Betty after X?
SHABAZZ: Presently, I am working on a sequel to X, and then afterward, Renée and I are planning a sequel to Betty before X that begins when Betty goes to high school.
Betty before X. With Renée Watson. 2018. Farrar, $16.99 (9780374306106). Gr. 5–8.
Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X. Illustrated by A. G. Ford. 2014. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (9781442412163). Gr. 1–4.
X. With Kekla Magoon. 2015. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763669676). Gr. 9–12.
Further Reading: Social Justice
The following titles depict young people standing up for civil rights and social change. They would pair excellently in the classroom with Betty before X.
Life under the Jim Crow Laws. By Charles George. 1999. Lucent, $27.45 (9781560064992). Gr. 7–10.
In this volume of the Way People Live series, black-and-white archival photos complement the simple text that documents the injustice that African Americans faced under the Jim Crow Laws. There is a short history of slavery, and the civil rights movement is briefly covered in the last chapter.
March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine. By Melba Pattillo Beals. 2018. HMH, $16.99 (9781328882127). Gr. 5–7.
From a very young age, Beals was frustrated and confused by the Jim Crow laws, which didn’t allow her to go to movie theaters, public pools, or sit down at a lunch counter. She couldn’t touch items in a department store, drink from water fountains, or use public restrooms marked for “whites only.” She also lived in fear of the KKK. Her family, however, provided her with books, and she studied hard in school, which is why she was chosen as one of the nine black students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.
Miles to Go for Freedom. By Linda Barrett Osborne. 2012. Abrams, $25.99 (9781419700200). Gr. 6–10.
This companion book to Traveling the Freedom Road (2009) is divided into three sections: the chilling life under the Jim Crow laws in the South; the Great Migration and the cold reception that African Americans experienced in the North; and Brown v. Board of Education and its role in the civil rights movement. Personal stories, period photographs, and magazine illustrations document this important time in America’s history.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. By Christopher Paul Curtis. 1995. Delacorte, $16.94 (9780385321754). Gr. 5–8.
In this Newbery Honor Book, the Watsons drive from their home in Michigan to deliver the oldest son, Byron, to his grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama, in hopes that she can teach him to behave and stop bullying his brother. As they enter the Deep South, the children come face-to-face with the Jim Crow laws, and in Birmingham, they witness the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, an event that changes their lives.
Pat Scales, the author of Books under Fire: A Hit List of Banned and Challenged Children’s Books (2014), recently received the honor of the “Pat Scales Special Collections Room” opening at the University of Montevallo’s Carmichael Library.
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