A Family Affair

Memory, that dubiously reliable prompter, persuades me that when first I sighted the child Qubilah Shabazz, she was a baby on television and her father was cradling her against his chest with a right arm as soft as his tongue was hard. It was early in the Sixties and Mr. Malcolm’s family had come to greet his return from abroad home to Babylon. The journalists were having at him to comment on an unverified report of the kidnapping of white settlers in the Congo. Mr. Malcolm was replying to the general effect that he knew of nothing that had happened to these people and that, if anything untoward had, he was confident that they must have asked for it. Each of his words froze to ice on the spot; and all the while this enchanting infant sat and smiled in the comfort, the warmth, and the peace of his restored embrace.

While I could not suspect him of using Qubilah as a prop, I would fairly have excused him if he had. Malcolm X’s special genius was for preserving his message intact in the prison of the sound bite. He was one of those complicated men in whom nature has mixed the tender with the fierce; and he was conscripted to conveying the whole of that mystery within thirty seconds. And there on the screen before strangers, he and his daughter had brought it off with the warmth of her face to express his tender side and the coldness of his voice to summon the ferocity that duty commands for an ambassador from another and alienated shore.

Mrs. Malcolm did not bring her daughters along when she came to criminal court to testify in the 1966 trial of the three men who had been indicted for his murder. She made a most majestic presence but no very useful witness, because she had been too occupied with settling her children into their portion of the Audubon Ballroom’s balcony to notice the approaching horror upon its stage. On her dismissal, she commenced an erectly regal progress toward the door and then paused beside the defense table as though she needed to collect herself.

A court officer offered his help and she declined it and simply said, almost as if to apologize, “They killed my husband.” Defense counsel protested and the late Justice Charles Marks replied that he hadn’t heard anything. He would have to have been as deaf as the bench upon which he sat not to have heard words whose echoes were still resounding from the walls of the court-room like the aftercrash of the Hammer of God. I am too unfamiliar with queens to know whether they die proudly, but I am convinced on the evidence of this, the only one ever accessible to my observation, that they can destroy totally and never abate the stateliness of their bearing when they do.

The defendants were found guilty, and thanks to Justice Marks’s temporary disability, the …

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