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While in prison as a young man, Malcolm Little became so focused on reading and writing that he began copying every page of a dictionary by hand.
“Let me tell you something: From then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge,” he later wrote in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” “No university would ask any student to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and understand.”
Malcolm Little, who would later become civil rights leader Malcolm X, was without question proud of his reading and writing skills.
Now his daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, is carrying on the literary tradition. Her latest book, “X: A Novel,” was selected by the Michigan Humanities Council as the 2017 Great Michigan Read. The book, co-written by noted young adult author Kekla Magoon, tells the story of a young Malcolm as he deals with the death of his father and the institutionalization of his mother.
The Michigan Humanities Council will distribute more than 6,000 copies of a special edition of the book to schools, libraries and nonprofit groups that sponsor reading programs. The council also will create a special reader’s guide for the book, and a team of experts on the life of Malcolm X will be available for groups who want to delve into his life in more depth.
“I was excited, humbled and honored by the selection,” said Shabazz, who spoke to City Pulse by phone.
The 348-page novel is written primarily for young adults, but it is able to transcend that age group. The book is a complex look at the man who rose to international prominence in the civil rights movement. “X: A Novel” was named a Michigan Notable Book award in 2016 and was on the list of books considered for a National Book Award. Shabazz and Magoon also received the Author Honor award in the 2016 Coretta Scott King Book Awards.
A major portion of the book is set in Lansing and Mason, where Malcolm Little spent his formative years, from 1928 to 1941, until he moved to Boston to live with an older sister. He would return to Lansing several times to visit family and friends and to marry Betty Sanders (Shabazz) in 1958. In 1963, he gave one of his most important speeches on the campus of Michigan State University.
“Both of my parents spent a significant time of their young life in Michigan,” said Shabazz, who grew up in Detroit.
Shabazz will visit Lansing and Detroit later this year, October 12 through October 14, to reconnect with her father’s hometown. Unfortunately, none of the homes occupied by the Little family still stand. Their first home on Lansing’s northwest side was burned down, likely by the Black Legion, a white supremacist group. Another home on Charles Street was demolished, as was a home on Lansing’s south side, where a historical marker has been erected recognizing Malcolm X. In 2011, Main Street was renamed Malcolm X Street, and Lansing charter school Shabazz Academy is named for the civil rights leader. (Malcolm X also used the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz toward the end of his life.)
Ilyasah Shabazz said she was inspired to write the book to show her father’s compassion and humanity and to accurately tell the story of his childhood.
“He was not the person that was often portrayed,” Shabazz said. “His humanity is so apparent in his writings.”
Shabazz hopes that the statewide reading and discussion of the book will help inspire today’s youth, as well as their parents and guardians.
“So many young people are being killed, or they’re looking for identity and purpose in life,” she said. “The book may serve as inspiration and strength for young people who are in pain and looking for adult guidance.”
Previous selections for the Great Michigan Read include Ernest Hemingway’s “The Nick Adams Stories,” “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel and National Book Award winner “Arc of Justice” by Kevin Boyle.
The biennial program is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and Meijer, along with a number of smaller organizations and individuals. The book is selected by a committee of librarians and humanities scholars based on recommendations from seven regional groups. (Full disclosure: The author of this article served on the selection committee.)
Starting today, groups may register on the Michigan Humanities Council website, michiganhumanities.org, to become partners and eligible to receive books and other support materials.
One of Malcolm X’s friends, the late Muhammad Ali, wrote a blurb for “X: A Novel.”
“Malcolm inspired me with his eloquence, his wisdom and his thirst for truth and righteousness,” Ali wrote. “This powerful, page-turning story tells us how he discovered those qualities within himself.”