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I was there that day. We all were, all except baby Gamilah who, in the last-minute rush to go hear Daddy speak, got left behind with friends because her little snowsuit was too damp to wear out into the cold. But the rest of us were there, sitting stage right on a curved and cushioned bench: Mommy, Attallah, Qubilah, myself. Even the twins, Malikah and Malaak, were present to bear witness, carried not in Mommy’s arms but inside her womb, deep beneath her heart.
It was February 21, 1965. My father, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz—Malcolm X—telephoned my mother at the Wallace home that morning with a surprising request. He wanted Mommy to bring us girls and come to the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem to hear him speak. My mother was elated; just the day before he had warned her not to come, saying it was too dangerous.
We were staying with the Wallace family because eight days before our house in Elmhurst, Queens, had been firebombed. It was early Sunday morning and cold outside. Mommy and Daddy were asleep in their bedroom, Attallah, Qubilah, and I were in our room, and Gamilah was in the nursery when a blast awakened us all. Barking orders and grabbing terrified children, my father got us all up and out the back door into the yard. It took the fire department an hour to extinguish the flames. Mommy telephoned the Wallaces, saying, “The house is on fire.” The Wallaces put their twelve-year-old daughter Gail—our baby-sitter and play “big sister”—in the car and drove to our house. Gail told me she remembers walking into the house and being almost overwhelmed by the smell of smoke.
“Everyone was in the kitchen,” Gail said, “and to get to the kitchen you had to walk through the foyer, the living room, a long hallway, and your room, the room you girls slept in. That room was a mess, burned and wet and scattered, because that’s where the bomb had been thrown. I saw all these people standing in the kitchen. I remember crawling through men and women, Muslim men, to get to your mother. She was sitting at the kitchen table talking and when she saw me she said, ‘Oh, dear heart, they’re trying to burn me out of my house.’ She was happy to see me because she knew once I was there I would take over the girls enough so she could get the situation under control. She had a little grin on her face but it wasn’t one of pleasure.”
The Wallace family—Antoinette, her husband Thomas, who is Ruby Dee’s brother and was known then as Thomas 57X, and their four children—took us in that night. My father made sure we were settled at the Wallace home, then checked into the Theresa Hotel. He knew he was a walking target and he didn’t want anyone else to get hit. He told Mommy he wanted to take the trouble away from us.
Four days later, the Nation of Islam went to court to evict us from our home.
In the aftermath of the fire, my father never stopped working. Friends like Ossie Davis begged him to flee. His brother Wilfred advised him to “hush and forget this whole thing” and go to Africa until things cooled down. There were any number of African nations whose leaders would have been happy to offer him refuge, but Daddy refused to even discuss the idea. He was not about to run. He took what security precautions he could, but through it all he kept working, flying to Detroit to speak at an event in honor of Charles Howard, a renowned journalist who covered the African liberation movement for Muhammad Speaks and other black newspapers, then turning around and flying back home to New York for another flurry of speaking engagements and interviews. In between all this activity, he worked hard to find new housing for all of us.
He knew the end was coming soon.
Percy Sutton tells a story of sitting in the backseat of a car with Daddy and two armed guards around this time. Mr. Sutton asked my father if it bothered him being surrounded by people with guns.
My father said to him, “Have I told you the story of Omar the slave? Omar said to his master, ‘Give me your fastest horse, I’m going to escape the Face of Death.’ It being a slave belief that if you rode by day and got through the day with the swiftness of the horse, you were safe by night. There were seven paths down which Omar could go. He started down the center path, pulled the horse back. Started to the left, and pulled back again. Only a short distance down the third path stood the Face of Death. Death said to Omar, ‘For three days I’ve waited at this spot for you to come. Why has it taken you so long?’ ” And then Minister Malcolm said, “So you see, counselor, you can twist, you can turn, but there’s destiny.”
Meanwhile we stayed with the Wallaces and waited for Daddy. The NYPD sat outside the Wallace home and followed us everywhere. They even followed the Wallace children to school, until Gail Wallace and her brothers gave them the slip by sneaking out the back window. They said they were there to help but no one believed it. What they were really doing was shadowing my father, casing him and his movements, preparing for February 21.
On February 20 Daddy came by the Wallace house to check on us. As he was leaving, Brother Thomas asked what he could do to help. Our exhausted-looking father shook his head. “It’s something unseen all around me,” he told Brother Thomas. Then he climbed into his car and drove away.
“A funny feeling came over me hearing that,” Mrs. Wallace told me years later. “I felt like I was seeing this man for the last time.”
So when Daddy called that morning of February 21 and asked us to come hear him speak, Mommy was happy. She loved Daddy and missed him and wanted to be present for support. She hurried about, dressing herself and us, then Brother Thomas drove us into Manhattan and up to Harlem to the Audubon. We arrived just after noon.
After we left the telephone rang and Mrs. Wallace answered it. It was Wallace Muhammad, son of Elijah Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad was the spiritual leader of the Nation of Islam, the man my father had once credited with saving his life and the man whose followers my father now suspected wanted to take it. Wallace Muhammad was agitated. He said he’d been trying to reach my father for days. He wanted to warn him, to tell him they were going to kill him soon. He did not say who “they” were.
Brother Thomas dropped us off at the front door and went to find a parking space. I cannot begin to imagine my mother’s feelings as she ushered us into that ballroom to hear her husband speak. My mother loved my father deeply, and she admired his commitment to changing the lives of black people in America and throughout the world. But she also knew the toll that work had taken on him. She knew how draining was the constant traveling, how wearing were the harassment by the FBI and the intimidation by the members of the Nation of Islam. She knew how deeply pained he was by the attack on the house where his wife and daughters lay asleep. She knew how tired he was, and she knew that as much as she wanted to make it all better, she couldn’t. No one could.
I imagine my mother walked into that ballroom full of joy, pride, anxiety, love, and not a little fear.
And she walked out shattered in a way that could never, ever be repaired.
I write all this as though I remember, which I do not, Allah be praised. I was two years old, going on three, and though I surely felt confusion and fear at the time, I have no memory of any of it. From these experiences I carry only a dislike of endings, a lingering uneasiness with good-byes. My oldest sister, Attallah, was six years old when my father was assassinated; Qubilah was four. How much, exactly, they remember is something we never discussed while growing up. Somehow Mommy kept us so busy and fulfilled we never talked about it, or maybe it was just too hard. It wasn’t until recently, just a few years ago, that I finally asked Qubilah if she remembered that day. I was in graduate school working on a paper and she was visiting me. We began discussing the condition of African people throughout the world, and from there the conversation turned to Daddy and his work.
Yes, she said. She remembered him and she remembered that day in all its confusion and terror. She remembered noise and screaming and confusion and Daddy not coming home.
I didn’t push her on her memories. Really, what more was there to say?
It was a fairly mild February afternoon. Outside the Audubon, children played on the street while Christian men and women strolled home from Sunday church services. My mother took us girls and went inside the auditorium, which was quickly filling up. More than four hundred people, many of them non-Muslim, had come to hear Malcolm X speak. He had promised earlier to present the charter of his newly formed Organization of Afro-American Unity on that day, but the drafting committee had fallen behind, the charter was unfinished, and he was upset. My father did not like to break his word.
We sat right up front in a reserved booth near the stage where we could see our father clearly and be sure he saw us. We settled in; my mother took off our snowsuits. My father was backstage, preparing to speak. The ballroom grew full. Time passed. The program was late getting started because they were waiting for two invited guests, the Reverend Dr. Milton Galamison, a civil rights activist, and Ralph Cooper, a popular disk jockey. After awhile my father’s assistant, Benjamin X, took the stage. He spoke for about twenty minutes. He talked about a ship crossing the ocean, about the storms and trade winds and doldrums and other delays that might keep even a well-captained ship from reaching its destina-tion on time, alluding to the delayed charter. Then he introduced Daddy.