Renée Watson, center, and Ilyasah Shabazz, right, discuss their book “Betty Before X.” (Grace Kendall)

Imagine trying to write about your mother when she was a kid. Where would you start? What details would you include?

To write “Betty Before X,” Ilyasah Shabazz had to think hard about those questions.

Her mother, Betty Shabazz, was an important civil rights leader. When her husband, Malcolm X, was assassinated in 1965, Betty Shabazz continued his work in social justice until her death in 1997.

She also raised Ilyasah Shabazz and her five sisters in a busy, loving home near New York City.

But Shabazz didn’t want to write about Betty the historic figure or the mom; she wanted to explore and expand upon her mother’s childhood. What was Betty like as a girl in Detroit, Michigan, in the 1940s? And what was Detroit like for Betty and other African American children?

In a 1969 photo, Shabazz sits on the lap of her mother, who was an important civil rights leader. (Courtesy Ilyasah Shabazz)

For answers, Shabazz turned to her mother’s family and old friends.

And she learned a lot. According to Shabazz’s aunt Jimmie (Betty’s younger sister), Betty was compassionate and loving. But she also sometimes sneaked out of church to buy penny candy.

That fact fuels an important scene in the novel Shabazz wrote with children’s author Renée Watson.

Writing together

“Renée was phenomenal to work with,” said Shabazz by phone from her home not far from where she grew up.

The two talked by phone, wrote and revised as they emailed pages back and forth.

They wanted to be true to the details and atmosphere of the 1940s. In the novel, Betty and her friends chat happily about the popular magazines Ebony and Negro Digest. But they also talk angrily about the rudeness and prejudice they encountered from a sales clerk and other white people during a shopping trip. This anger and growing awareness of racism drive Betty’s early activism. She becomes involved with the Housewives’ League, a group of strong black women who support black-owned businesses.

Creating positive change

In addition to their desire to bring young Betty to life on the page, Shabazz and Watson share another trait: their desire to create positive change.


As a kid, Shabazz enjoyed dance and violin lessons, horseback riding and the TV show “Soul Train.” As she grew older, she began developing educational programs for young people in group homes and prisons.

Today, she travels and speaks to young people across the country about building better understanding between cultures. And she continues to share the life and work of her parents with them. A few years ago she co-wrote “X: A Novel,” with Kekla Magoon, about her father as a teenager.

Watson’s childhood in Portland, ­Oregon, was filled with music and poetry. She and her four older siblings loved to sing Jackson 5 songs for their parents. Watson also liked to recite poems she had written and favorites by Langston Hughes, including “My People” and “I, Too.”

Watson went on to become a writer and a teacher. Her novel “Piecing Me Together” last week won the Coretta Scott King Award for its appreciation of African American culture. She believes the arts can help people to talk about social issues and promote change.

Last year, in a fitting tribute to a beloved poet, Watson founded an organization to preserve the home of Langston Hughes in Harlem, a part of New York City.

Giving back

Shabazz and Watson encourage youngsters to become involved in their communities, too.

“Speaking up and writing are forms of activism,” Watson said in a phone interview.

Young people might protest what is wrong and unjust but also describe what is beautiful about their lives, she added.

“My mother always told us: Just as one must drink water, one must give back,” Shabazz said.

In other words, she explained, helping the community should feel as vital as taking in the water that sustains life.