Malcolm X's grandson didn't get to see the celebrations in Harlem last week honoring his late grandfather's 80th birthday. Not the debut of the exhibit "Malcolm X: A Search for Truth" at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Not the dedication of the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center at the Audubon Ballroom, where his grandfather was gunned down 40 years ago. The 20-year-old has missed many a family event. But in this year of nostalgic reflection, which Malcolm X's family has dubbed "the Rebirth of the Legacy," Malcolm Shabazz is ready to make amends. "I've had a lot of time to sit in my cell and just think," says Shabazz, who is set to be released this summer from Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York. "I know I let a lot of people down. I know people expected more."
Shabazz has spent a third of his life behind bars, first for setting a fire that led to the death of his grandmother, and then for attempted robbery. But the African-American community is ready to forgive and embrace the prodigal son, a young man so haunted by family tragedy and the glare of inherited fame. High-profile friends and admirers of Shabazz's grandparents--including rap mogul Russell Simmons, former New York mayor David Dinkins and actor Denzel Washington--say they plan to support and keep tabs on the heir to one of the most significant figures in African-American history. Washington, who has portrayed the late civil-rights leader on stage and screen, says the reason is simple: Malcolm X's grandson is much too important to be forgotten. "I think we all just want to see him have a good life and get on track," the actor says. "There's a lot of pain that's been suffered by that family, and it's just time to see some healing and better times."
This isn't the first time the community has rallied behind Shabazz. He was greeted with open arms when he was released from a juvenile institution in 2001, after serving four years for setting fire to Betty Shabazz's house. (He says he set the fire because he was angry about being separated from his troubled mother, and had never intended to hurt his grandmother.) Simmons donated closetfuls of Phat Farm clothing for him to wear to job interviews. Dinkins and famed lawyer Percy Sutton, who represented Malcolm X in the late '50s and '60s, provided legal help. But the young man joined the Bloods, where he says he sold drugs. Within months he was back in jail--this time in an adult prison--convicted for trying to steal $100 from a stranger.
Sitting calmly at a table in the visitors' room at Clinton Correctional, the lean and somewhat frail-looking Shabazz tries to explain the turmoil. "When I was out before, I still hadn't dealt with who I was and what that meant to me and everybody else," says the young man, whom psychologists at the juvenile-detention center called "brilliant but disturbed." "It seemed like nothing mattered to people except the fact that I was Malcolm X's grandson. Either that, or the fire."
Shabazz says he wants to become an activist for the rights of young African-American men in prison, as well as the black underclass. "I think he's always felt a great deal of pressure to do what our father wasn't able to do because he wasn't alive," says Ilyasah Shabazz, one of his five aunts (two of whom haven't spoken with him since the fire, which pains him deeply). The family is focused on getting Malcolm enrolled in a local college where he can study political science after he gets out. And his godmother, Ruth Clark, has a job waiting for him at her temp agency in New York. The future holds promise for Malcolm Shabazz, but it is a future already tinged with regret. "A lot of times I lie in bed thinking about how different things would be for me if my grandmother were still here," he says thoughtfully. "She loved me so much, and I loved her. I just want to do something with my life to prove that to all the people I think I let down. And to thank them." It is an effort that would have made his grandparents proud.