As we wait our turn at the register, a white woman steps in front of us. At first I think maybe she is passing through to get to the other side of this crowded store, but she sets her items down on the cash register counter. I look up at Kay, who is looking furious but not saying anything.
I want her to say something. I want to say something. I want to say, Excuse me, ma’am, but we’re standing here. Don’t you see us?
—Betty Before X, by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renée Watson
Back in 2015, Ilyasah Shabazz—the third daughter of Malcolm X—teamed up with Kekla Magoon to write an outstanding fictionalized biography of her father’s teen and young adult years. Now she’s teamed up with Renée Watson to do the same thing for her mother’s childhood years in 1940s Detroit—long before her parents met, and long before Betty Dean Sanders became Dr. Betty Shabazz.
The books are entirely different on the surface—most obviously, X was written for the young adult audience, while Betty Before X is a middle grade book—but at their core, they’re both about young Black people starting to recognize the connections between their own personal day-to-day challenges and the fact that racism is built into the larger cultural and political framework of the United States. In other words, both books are about the ways in which the macro affects the micro—and Betty Before X, especially, is also about the realization that the micro can, with time and effort and persistence, affect the macro.
My three favorite elements (not counting the gorgeous cover):
The complexity of the female relationships. Where to even start? I love that Betty Before X—a book about a woman who is best-known by most people as The Wife of Malcolm X—focuses so closely on the relationships that she had with girls and women. Her love for the aunt who took her in as a baby; her push-pull relationship with her biological mother; her friendships with her peers; her adoration of Helen Malloy, who adopted her when she was eleven.
All of these relationships are well-drawn and meaty and nuanced—it’s especially lovely to see how Helen Malloy’s activism affects Betty’s understanding of the world, how she moves through it, and her desire to change and improve it—but it’s her difficult relationship with her biological mother, Ollie Mae, that really shines. Betty doesn’t always understand the psychology behind Ollie Mae’s actions, but the book does. It’s a rarity for a story that deals with child abuse to depict the abuser with empathy and understanding—and to do that without tipping over the edge into giving her a pass for her behavior—but Shabazz and Watson achieve that here, and they do it masterfully.
Betty’s rapidly-growing interest in social justice. We are with Betty as she identifies the colorism in a magazine advertisement for skin-bleaching cream; as she knocks on doors to promote the work of the Detroit Housewives’ League; as she grapples with the police shooting death of 15-year-old Leon Mosley, and we are with her as she begins to see the connections between them. We’re with her as she eavesdrops on adult conversations in an attempt to make sense of the world; we’re with her as a friendship fractures due to differences of opinion about her activism; we’re with her as she realizes that “even though this is the North and it’s not supposed to be like the South, it still has its hate, its prejudice, its inequality.”
The highlighting of Betty’s interest in the domestic arts & sciences: Full disclosure: My love of this element is very much A Personal Thing, because I do love when feminist texts—and make no mistake, this is an inherently feminist text—tie in references to and a clear love and appreciation for the domestic arts and sciences. There is so much baking in this book, so much sewing, and obviously let’s not forget that the lion’s share of the political action depicted is done by the Detroit Housewives’ League—so often, we see women and girls in roles and professions related to the domestic sphere depicted as lesser-than, as somehow inferior to women who are pushing to enter more traditionally male spaces. Not so here:
Phyllis raises her hand. “Why do we have to learn how to sew?”
Mrs. Collins smiles and picks up a thin piece of fabric from her desk and holds it up. “Why? To be able to design something with your mind and your hands is a powerful skill to have. It’s your own creation. Who wouldn’t want to know how to do that?”
Phyllis sits back in her seat, looking perplexed by Mrs. Collins. But I lean forward.
Those are my three FAVORITE elements—mind you, there are many, many more. Highly recommended—and if you still haven’t read X, do yourself a favor and pick up both books.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.