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For as long as I can remember, I’ve always acted as a big sister of sorts. When I was in elementary school, I was the big sister, the mother hen. When I was in high school, I started my career as a lifelong mentor — probably because I was emulating what I saw in my mother, Dr. Betty Shabazz.
She was truly a remarkable woman. She gave to me, my five sisters and my friends so much unconditional love. She was smart and she was trustworthy: You could ask any question you had, whether because of self-doubt or wanting to understand something better, she always took the time to give constructive feedback and encouragement.
I don’t say this because she’s my mother: I didn’t even realize that all adults didn’t possess these qualities until I left home for college. And it really wasn’t until she passed away that I took a step back to see her not from a perspective of a daughter but as an observer, to best characterize this woman, Betty.
I realized I was quite fortunate to have had her both as my mother and a role model. I began to realize the comfort and support she provided even to her husband, Malcolm X.
And it is primarily because of her that I do the work that I do today. It has always been easy for me to give, to genuinely love and care without any expectation (other than the intention to be helpful to others) because she taught me very early the importance of self-love, compassion care and community.
As a child I was so in love with my mother. I thought she was the smartest, most beautiful and even fashionable woman I had ever seen. She was everything to me, and when I’d tell her, “Oh, Mommy you are the most important person to me in the whole wide world.” She’d basically say, “Ilyasah, you are the most important person to yourself, dear heart; focus on yourself.”
I was like, Well, gee whiz; I didn’t understand. However, I realized later that she was saying that, before you love anyone else, you should first learn to love yourself. That way, you’re not dependent on someone else’s love or material possessions to define you, your love or your worth. She taught me and my friends that we had to define the things that are important to us and have a value system to determine the friends you choose and, later on in life, your mate.
To impose a false sense of inferiority or a false sense of superiority does an injustice to our society as a whole.
I learned if you’re going to be a friend and of service to others, you want to be able to give your best and to give your best from a healthy, compassionate and substantive manner — and to find similar qualities in your friends.
As my life took more shape and form, writing became less of a hobby, and eventually I wrote a coming-of-age memoir. I was then able to write a children’s book, a middle school book, a young adult book — all of which were intended to allow readers an opportunity to see themselves in a book that says, “I am love. I am worthy of respect. I am worthy of a quality education.”
And now I’m a professor. When I look at the educational curriculum for public schools, I’m grateful that my mother made sure that I learned about the significant contribution of women to world history, about the significant contributions of people of the African diaspora to world history and the significant contributions of Muslims to world history. It provided me with a healthy identity and a pretty solid foundation.
To impose a false sense of inferiority or a false sense of superiority does an injustice to our society as a whole. I believe every child deserves an opportunity to know that they’re worthy, and that they can properly be prepared to participate in mainstream economy.
As told to THINK editor Megan Carpentier, edited and condensed for clarity.
Ilyasah Al Shabazz, the third daughter of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz, is an educator, activist, motivational speaker and the author of “Growing Up X” (Random House 2002), “Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X” (Simon & Schuster 2014) and “X, A Novel” (Candlewick Press 2015). “The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X” premieres on the Smithsonian Channel on February 26, 2018.