Before Betty Shabazz became an activist, educator, mother and wife to Malcolm X, she was Betty Dean, a young and ambitious girl growing up in Detroit.
For the first seven years of her life, Betty lived in Georgia, where she was raised by her aunt, Fannie Mae. “BETTY BEFORE X” follows a young Betty as she moves to Detroit to live with her mom and her mom’s new family. Although the novel is a fictionalized account of her childhood, ILLYASAH SHABAZZ, daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, and award-winning author RENEE WATSON based the story on real people, events and facts.
Betty loves her family and is an attentive older sister to her three half-sisters, but she struggles with feeling like an outsider in her own home. While her sisters play, her mother often expects her to clean and keep house.
Her activism begins because of her associations with certain friends and neighbors, particularly Helen Malloy, who steps in as a mother figure when Betty’s actual mother fully rejects her. However, events such as the lynching of a black couple in the South, the shooting of a black teen in Detroit and discriminatory hiring practices in her community fuel her work as a young activist.
Betty Before X highlights the different forms activism can take, as well as the polarizing effects it can have within an oppressed community. While the Housewives’ League encourages its members to only shop at stores that employ black workers, characters such as the mother of Betty’s friend Phyllis are angry about boycotts that exclude low-income families not able to shop at more expensive stores.
Like the story itself, Betty’s character is nuanced and realistic; she experiences anger, acceptance and happiness in equal measure when faced with friendship troubles, family problems or racism. Betty joins the Housewives’ League as a volunteer, handing out flyers and welcoming guests at luncheons; as she becomes more knowledgeable in the work, she takes on more responsibility, though she remains nervous when approaching strangers, particularly adult ones who view Betty and her organization as troublemakers.
She is also a pre-teen girl, with all of the joys and sorrows that come with that stage in life. She loves listening to records by popular acts such as Sarah Vaughn and Billy Eckstine, spending her allowance at the candy counter and talking about beauty products and boys with her best friends.
Overall, Shabazz and Watson’s story is both authentic and inspirational, and the story is compelling enough to classify as a page-turner. Don’t pass on the end papers. The author’s note, timeline and afterword provide important and interesting information that links the young Betty in the story with the important woman she became.