The Fire This Time

THE POLICE FOUND MALCOLM SHAbazz, 12, in the early hours of Sunday, June 1, disoriented and reeking of gasoline. He was a few blocks away from the Yonkers, N.Y., apartment where he had recently moved to live with his grandmother. His mother, Qubilah Shabazz, 36, was back in San Antonio, Texas, separated from the son whose years have been as nomadic and unstable as her own; his grandmother Betty Shabazz, 61, was fighting for her life, burned over 80 percent of her body. And Malcolm, the grandson of Malcolm X, was walking between generations of his haunted family, walking away from the fire that has burned through the family for longer than the boy could know. Last week he was taken into custody in connection with the blaze and underwent psychiatric evaluation. He has not been charged.

Thirty-two years after the assassination of Malcolm X, young Malcolm has come to represent the turbulence that continues to beset the family. He never knew his father and has been shuttled from home to home, and-like his grandfather-removed from his mother on charges of neglect (which were later dropped). When he came to live with Betty, it was to find stability. In San Antonio he had once called the police on his mother. In Yonkers, says a family source, "he loved his grandmother but didn't want to be separated from his mother. New York was so big and impersonal for him-he knew he wouldn't be able to make friends easily." Larry Diaz, who had dinner with Betty and Malcolm three nights before the fire, described him as upbeat, but also restless. "He wanted to create a situation that his grandmother disapproved of so that he would be sent back to Texas," Diaz told NEWSWEEK.

Percy Sutton, the family's longtime friend and lawyer, once described Malcolm X's family as "our Kennedys," a clan marked both by greatness and by tragedy. In their seven-year marriage, Malcolm and Betty had six daughters. Four witnessed their father's murder; Betty was pregnant with the other two at the time. "Qubilah was the most sensitive," says a close family source. "She took it all so hard from day one." Things only got more difficult. The Nation of Islam had condemned the family after Malcolm's bitter break with Elijah Muhammad, the head of the faith, and Betty blamed Louis Farrakhan for her husband's murder. White neighbors condemned them for Malcolm's anti-white rhetoric. The girls, especially Qubilah, struggled. "They were considered children of the Devil," says Reneta Jobson, a high-school classmate of Qubilah's. "That followed them through their lives." Even now, the sisters seem to wrestle with the legacy. Only Attalah, the eldest, has carried on her father's activism. Qubilah, named for the Mongol emperor Qubilah Khan, has struggled the most. A quiet girl who made little impression on her classmates, she has worked poverty-wage jobs and moved from one makeshift home to another, sometimes taking Malcolm, sometimes leaving him with relatives. (Even the family never met young Malcolm's father.) In January 1995 she was indicted for plotting to kill Farrakhan to avenge her father's death. She agreed to counseling and substance-abuse treatment; last month the indictment was dismissed.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X described what he called his first vivid memory. He was 4 years old, snatched from sleep and into a confusion of gunshots and a house on fire. Forty-six years later to the day, his daughter Qubilah, 4, awoke to another burning house. Last weekend, as neighbors and strangers held vigil outside the hospital, Betty Shabazz remained in stable but critical condition-burned by familial love, by a family legacy that turned fiery adversity into greatness and now into more adversity.

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