Malcolm X's daughter before opera premiere: He had to 'react to injustice'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Malcolm X may have been a fierce civil rights advocate who wanted to empower the Black community, but at home he wrote poetry, loved nature and even had a butterfly collection, said his daughter Ilyasah Shabazz.

Speaking to roughly 100 people as as part of a special panel Thursday at the Detroit Opera House's Chrysler Black Box Theatre before Detroit Opera premieres an opera about X, Shabazz said Michigan — and Detroit in particular — held special meaning to her father, whose nickname was Detroit Red because of his red hair and the time he spent in the city.

Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, center, listens to a eulogy in 2015 her father, marking the 50th anniversary of his murder.

"Michigan meant so much to him," said Shabazz, one of X's six daughters who was just a toddler when he was gunned down in New York. X loved Harlem but his wife, Betty, was from Detroit, so that's where they married, his daughter said.

Shabazz, wearing a striking red pantsuit, was joined by Tamara Payne, who co-authored a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography about X, and moderator Rochelle Riley, Detroit's director of arts and culture. The panel explored Malcolm X's evolution from young child in Lansing to criminal, activist and top leader in the Nation of Islam before his assassination in 1965.

More:Detroit Opera's 'X' explores life of civil rights leader Malcolm X

Shabazz said her mother didn't raise her with the idea of Malcolm X "the icon." In fact, when she went away to college, she remembers being chased by students across campus because she was X's daughter. They expected her to be a certain way, she said.

"I had to ask my older sister 'Who am I supposed to be?'" said Shabazz, who has written two books for young adults about her father and also is an educator. "They wanted fire. They wanted revolution. He had to react to injustice because he was so loving."

The panel was held just days before Detroit Opera raises the curtain on "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X." Composed by Anthony Davis with libretto by Thulani Davis, the opera kicks of Saturday with additional performances May 19 and May 22.

Shabazz and Payne both described the former Malcolm Little, who spent a significant part of his childhood in Lansing after his family fled Omaha, Nebraska, because of the Ku Klux Klan, as a loving child whose parents invested in him and wanted him to be independent-minded. His father, Earl, was a preacher who dared to buy land in a predominantly white area in Omaha and his mother was a "loving, educated woman who instilled certain values," Shabazz said. 

But after his father died — he died in a streetcar accident, though his family believes he was murdered — and his mother was taken to a state mental hospital, "we see a different Malcolm," said Shabazz.

Payne's father, journalist Les Payne, spent nearly three decades working on a biography, "The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X," which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2021. Drawn to the Nation of Islam as he looked for a sense of community after being in prison on a robbery conviction, Malcolm X wanted to push the organization forward, causing conflict with leader Elijah Muhammad, said Payne.

Malcolm X addresses a rally in Harlem in New York City on June 29, 1963.

Malcolm X "had a purpose. He had a strategy. He was making waves," said Payne. "And that's why he's not here."

Payne said X didn't preach violence against White people.

"He preached self-defense, how you defend yourself against terror," she said.

After the panel, soprano Alaina Brown performed a solo for the crowd. She portrays Betty Shabazz.

Yuval Sharon, Detroit Opera's artistic director, said the story of Malcolm X is about "inspiration and aspiration" and he can't imagine a better one to tell. He said almost from the beginning of his tenure two years ago, meeting with the opera's leadership, it was clear they needed to stage a new production of "X." It originally premiered in 1986.

"It's been unjustly neglected," said Sharon. "It's a musical masterpiece. ... For me, it was all about telling the story of Malcolm X where his footsteps are still fresh."

Even after the opera's run ends in Detroit, with one performance on what would've been Malcolm X's 97th birthday on May 19, it will continue on with stops in Omaha, New York, Chicago and Seattle.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com