Friday, February 16, 2018

Betty Before X

Betty Before X
by Ilyasah Shabazz, with‎ Renée Watson

I was so intrigued by what I'd heard about this book that I was the first person to get on the pre-release waitlist for it from my library. I don't know as much about the life and work of Betty Shabazz as I'd like, but recently I saw Betty & Coretta, the Lifetime dramatization of the friendship between two extraordinary women, Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dr. Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X, in the years after both are widowed by their husbands' assassinations.

In that film, I learned about Betty Shabazz's remarkable life after Malcolm X, where she returned to college and earned her master's in Health Administration and doctorate in Education before taking a position at Medgar Evers College alongside other remarkable black women, teaching young, working class black women. True to her beliefs, she wanted to make sure she had the maximum impact on the lives of black women.

You know I enjoy learning about and celebrating the amazing work being done by women throughout history and around the world. But I'm also infinitely curious about the forces in their lives that led them to that work. So when I saw that her daughter Ilyasah Shabazz had written a book about her life as a girl growing up in Detroit in the 1940s, I knew I needed to read it.

Betty Before X (library) tells the story of young Betty Dean Sanders in the years between her birth in 1934 and the age of 14. It follows her as she moves from living in a loving home in Pinehurst, Georgia, with her Aunt Fannie Mae, to trying to find a place for herself in Detroit with her abusive mother and her new step-father and her step-brothers and half-sisters, to finally being taken in by Lorenzo and Helen Malloy, members of her family's church. All the while, she is a keen observer of the injustices she witnesses, big and small.

One of her first memories is of discovering a lynched couple while returning home from the store with her Aunt Fannie Mae. The description of how young Betty (four or five at the time) was shocked by her Aunt's fear and later comforted by her responses to her questions about it sets the tone for the entire book.

In Detroit, while dealing with the verbal and emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse from her mother, Betty is also dealing with her growing awareness of the discrimination and oppression around her. We see how her future beliefs are shaped by these crises as well as the response from the adults in her life. Mrs. Malloy, the woman who eventually takes her in, was a founding member of the Housewives League of Detroit, a group of Black women who organized efforts to boycott stores that refused to hire black employees, and support black-owned businesses. This early introduction to civil rights work has a profound effect on Betty, and we can clearly see how important a role it was in her adult life.

Betty Before X earns the Self-Rescuing Princess Society seal of approval for its honest look at the life of a young African American girl growing up during the racially strained years of the 1930s and 40s, and how the civil rights leader she became later in life was forged by her experiences. It doesn't pull any punches. Broken into short chapters, each encompassing a particular event or learning experience from Betty's life, it is an excellent choice for middle grade readers. Taken from family memories, Ilyasah Shabazz, with help from Renée Watson (who wrote another SRPS favorite, Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills) gives us a gift as she tells the story of her mother's early life. Betty lived through troubling times, and Ilyasah Shabazz deftly interprets her experiences for the kids of today in language they can relate to while remaining true to the hardship of her story.

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