A little-noticed, but nonetheless, beautiful tribute to Mickey Leland was offered last August in a school auditorium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Leland, a congressman from Texas, had died the week before while on a hunger-relief mission. And 7,500 miles from the African mountainside against which Leland’s plane had crashed, two young women stood absolutely straight on a stage, receiving applause for Stepping Into Tomorrow, the play they’d just performed for the National Black Theater Festival.
While their faces were vastly different–one soft, the other all angles–each conveyed the look of a tragedy mask. The women bowed. Then the angular one spoke. Her voice matched her looks.
“I did not know the man, but I am deeply affected by the passing of Mickey Leland,” she said. “He was a good man who did good work. And I know his work will live on, but my thoughts are not so much with what Mickey Leland did but with those whose heartstrings were attached to his. Commemorations won’t wash away the pain of his wife and his family. Why is it that we wait for the memorial day to honor our contributors? In the future, let us pay homage to the people who lead while they’re still breathing among us. Let’s never again wait until it’s too late.”
The other woman raised her head and, in a gentle Southern drawl that filled the room, said, “Our fathers gave their lives so each and every one of us could reach for the sky.” She gave a sweet, tired smile of encouragement. Then the two women grasped each other’s hands, hard, and walked off.
And so Attallah Shabazz and Yolanda King, eldest daughters of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., left yet another audience misty-eyed and stunned into several beats of silence.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The rat-a-tat-tat of their deeds and words are as familiar as nursery rhymes. Martin–middle-class Baptist preacher/dreamer. Bus boycotts, lunch-counter sit-ins, Get Out the Vote!, March on Washington, Nobel Peace Prize, a balcony in Memphis. “I have a dream”; black children, white children “walk together as sisters and brothers”; “We must meet hate with love.”
Malcolm–drug dealer/pimp turned Black Muslim leader, street life, doing time, Nation of Islam. Black pride, break with the Nation, Mecca pilgrimage, a stage in Harlem. “No sane black man wants integration” with the “devil white man”; “The time for you and me to allow ourselves to be brutalized nonviolently is passe”; “All Negroes are angry, and I am the angriest of all.”
Could two men be more different? And yet Yolanda and Attallah firmly believe that their fathers–both only 39 when assassins’ bullets ended their missions–were more of one mind than these capsule versions of their lives would suggest.
Spike Lee wasn’t the first to unite the seemingly antithetical views of the two great black leaders. In lectures and in plays Yolanda and Attallah have been melding the two visions for 10 years now, offering a disarmingly cozy perspective on men who were revered and reviled beyond mortal measure during their short lives.
Without discounting the philosophical differences between the two men–or ignoring their critics (most recently Yolanda has had to deal with claims by her father’s friend the Reverend Ralph Abernathy that King kept company with three different women the night before he died)–the two daughters simply insist that their fathers’ importance eclipses these charges and that shocker headlines never give the full story.
Their messages aside, the mere fact that these women love each other dearly is enough to give some people pause. It’s potato/po-tah-to love, of course. Their fathers’ looks weren’t all that was cloned. Yolanda’s the cuddly, agreeable one, with a voice that rings up and down octaves when she is moved.
Warrior-maiden Attallah is more guarded; there’s something fierce about her tears. And in fact, her father’s autobiography says she was named after Attila the Hun, though Attallah says, “That was a mistake [made in revisions of the book after her father died]. In reality, my name in Arabic means ‘gift of God.'” (Shabazz is the Islamic surname her father took after his conversion.)
Yolanda, 33, is single and lives in Atlanta.
Attallah is “bicoastal, and beyond that I’d rather not say. I don’t discuss my marital status or my age–you can call me thirtysomething.”
They were in their early twenties when a mutual friend thought it interesting that both were studying theater in New York at the same time and arranged an introduction. Ebony magazine covered that first staged meeting, which led to others. Soon Yolanda and Attallah, no strangers to the sensation, recognized the prickle of joined destiny whenever they were together.
A few months later, giving a human-rights spin to “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show,” the two decided to collaborate on a theatrical work. The result was Stepping Into Tomorrow, a message play for teens–which sounds far more preachy than it actually is. The show, which focuses on the 10-year reunion of six high-school friends, may deliver wholesome, unambiguous homilies about dropouts and drugs and unwed mothers, but it’s also a lively rap session laced with self-deprecating wit.
Stepping Into Tomorrow led to the formation of Nucleus, a theater company based in New York and Los Angeles whose work addresses many of the issues Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. once raised in their speeches and sermons. Today, a decade later, Yolanda and Attallah are still together. Besides performing whenever possible (Yolanda’s work at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change–which has gone through tumultuous times since the departure of her brother Dexter–cuts into her acting somewhat), the two often lecture as a pair, usually in school settings.
While the company clearly is in demand–Nucleus performs in about 50 cities a year–it isn’t commercial success that fuels this enterprise but the love the two women bear for one another. “The concept of the two of us together may seem difficult or strange,” says Attallah. “But look at us standing here, both of us clearly the products of our individual households. And yet we still have a reason for union.”
Huh, another trip down Memory Lane.
‘Til I was about eight or nine, I had no awareness he was anybody special. Since all our friends were in the movement, I thought what Daddy did was natural. Everybody went to jail, right? Then, one day some kids at school called my daddy a jailbird, and it upset me. That was the beginning of my awareness. I asked my mother what the kids meant.
Well, there was at that time this amusement park in Atlanta called Fun Town that was advertised on TV. And I was an amusement-park freak. I loved all the scary, dangerous rides, and Daddy was my companion in that. I was dying to go to Fun Town. But black people couldn’t go there. So Mother told me, “Yoki, Daddy’s going to jail so we all can go to Fun Town.” So, far as I was concerned from that point on, Daddy was doing good things!
But I still didn’t know who he was. Then when I was about nine, Daddy took me on a Get Out the Vote! campaign. We never attended any of the major demonstrations–that’s one of my regrets. Daddy was scared someone would try to get to him through us.
Instead, he took me–and this is one of my fondest recollections–on this caravan campaign. We went from county to county–I don’t remember if it was Georgia or Alabama. We’d go into a town and we’d jump out of the car and he’d say some words in the church and we’d jump back in the car and go on to the next town. And I remember people were grabbing him, trying to hug him, trying just to touch him. I thought, “Whooo, he must be special.” It hadn’t dawned on me till then.
You see, for the most part it was a normal upbringing. Sure, there was the Nobel Peace award; sure, there were people coming to our house who I knew were famous. But we grew up in a very modest part of the community. Our last home was in what had been one of the worst ghettos in Atlanta.
Daddy felt it was important to stay close to the people. And Daddy wasn’t an “Important Man” with capital letters–he was our buddy. Daddy was the one who taught me to swim, he was the one who went bicycle riding with us. We would romp. See, Daddy missed so much of our growing up, he wanted playtime when he came home.
Mother had to be the disciplinarian, the one to instill values. One thing, though, that he did take charge of–and I think this is real unusual–he was the one who told me and my brother about the birds and the bees. I must have been about 10, and there was a word that is used to describe the process that I am not going to repeat which was scribbled near our house. And my brother Marty came into the house repeating it. So when Daddy heard him, he said, “Yoki, Marty, let’s go back in the bedroom.”
Mother was there too, but he was the one who told us. And it wasn’t like a scolding. Daddy didn’t adopt a posture of, “Now, children, this is something you don’t do ’til you’re married.” All he wanted us to understand was this was something precious, not to be played with, and that part of its joy was that it could result in the creation of life. He just talked about the beauty of it. And I’m thankful my father was the first person to tell me that.
That was a rare occasion, though. Except for the real early years, he missed just about every activity I was in. I wrote my first play when I was eight. It was about a queen, and I–of course!–was the queen. I corralled my somewhat reluctant younger brothers and sister into performing it with me. Written, directed and starring…none other than Yo-landa King!
I wrote it one Sunday morning when Daddy was preaching. He saw that play, but after that I don’t think he attended anything I did. Ballet, playing an instrument, I was always in some event. And whatever it was, he’d have to be someplace else.
I remember there was one real special time when I was around 10, and I wanted Daddy there so badly, and he wasn’t. Again.
But this time he sent me a telegram. He knew he had to do something special this time. And I’ll never forget what he said in that telegram. He said he hated not being there but how proud he was of me. ‘Just know that I love you,’ he said. And then he talked about my being born and how things had changed so since then–in terms of the social climate. See, I was born two weeks before Rosa Parks wouldn’t go to the back of the bus. And how–this was a long telegram–his work had kept him away from me, but as a result of his work, things were better for all black children.
That now I could pursue any dream I wanted to. It was just so special to me to have him talk to me like that, like a grownup. You see…I’d never gotten a telegram before.
There was never any fear for me growing up. Maybe because my mind wouldn’t accept the painful things then. Like I don’t remember Medgar Evers being killed. I don’t remember Attallah’s father being taken. I don’t remember those little girls being bombed in church [in Birmingham, Alabama]. I don’t even remember when Daddy was stabbed [by a deranged woman in a New York department store]. I should. I know I should. I was old enough all those times. Blocking, though, is my way of survival. I’m not like Attallah. She remembers everything.
I didn’t know why we couldn’t go to the March on Washington, that there were concerns for our safety. I didn’t know why I had to just watch it on TV. Not that I really even watched. Are you kidding? It was hours before Daddy came on. I couldn’t have sat still that long! All I knew was kids in school the next day were going crazy, saying, “Your daddy talked about you in his speech!” [In “I have a dream,” King said he prayed that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character.”]
So when Mother got back, first thing I said to her was, “What is this content of character stuff?” The only thing I remember that ever worried me was one Sunday night. We had these extended family dinners on Sundays, and afterwards the adults would sit around talking, telling jokes. I loved listening, especially to Daddy, who was the funniest of all. He was a very witty man. People don’t know that.
Well, he was in rare form that night, one joke after another, and at some point during all this Daddy said, “You know, I probably won’t live to be forty.” And then he laughed. I thought to myself, “Now that’s not funny.” That was about a year before he was taken.
Unfortunately, though I’ve managed to block out so much other stuff, when it comes to Daddy’s being taken, I remember everything. In blow-by-blow detail.
I was 12. Mother and I were going shopping, and I was looking forward to that. I went to her room for something, and the television was going, and a special bulletin came on–you know when they interrupt the regular program? And before they even said who that bulletin was for, I knew.
I said, “I don’t wanna hear it! I don’t wanna hear it!” and I ran to my room and I kept saying, “Please don’t let my daddy die, please don’t let my daddy die, please don’t let my daddy die.” And I’d just seen him on TV. Only a little while before–it was the end of a speech he’d just done in Memphis. And I remember looking at him and thinking, “His eyes.” I was staring at his eyes, because he didn’t look like he was there. His eyes were someplace else.
I thought about that, about my daddy’s eyes, then I went back to Mother’s room, and she told me Daddy had been hurt, he’d been shot, and she was going to Memphis to be with him. I helped Mother pack, and she left. Later, I was on the phone with a friend of the family, and it came across on her radio. That’s how I heard.
At that point I left this particular reality. I became an observer. So when all the people–famous people, many of them–came to our house in the days that followed, I was calm. I watched. Because I did not accept it, no, I did not accept it. When Richard Nixon came and found me in my bedroom, he said to me, “You must be strong,” and all I could think was, “Is he for real?”
My being an observer went on for years. I went on extended vacation from letting things affect me. This vacation allowed me to give speeches, do interviews, talk about Daddy, watch tapes of him, listen to records. People would say, “How did it feel to hear your father?” and I’d say, “Ummmm, did you notice how when he spoke, he sang his sermons?” I mean, I got technical! I had to–I mean, they played one of his sermons at his funeral. I heard my daddy’s voice right before they laid him in the ground. I had to distance myself. So later on I could look at tapes and tell people, “Now, take a look at his mouth, look how he used it. Look at how fluid his face was.”
What I never said was, Daddy was my buddy. “He was my first friend. And he just, you know, was … gone.” I was 30 years old before I really started to mourn him. It was the first observation of the national holiday, and in the middle of all the fanfare–which was wonderful, it was incredible, unbelievable, such a tremendous affirmation of all my father and so many others had worked for–I realized something.
That wonderful as all this fanfare was, happy as I was for such an affirmation, I realized I was going to have to do this every year for the rest of my life. And, if given a choice, I would just as soon take Daddy to dinner. I never felt anger, though. Never. Even when I was able to mourn him. I just felt hurt. Real hurt.
Given my belief that there is a divine purpose for my father’s life on this planet, given the way I was raised, it’s real hard to get angry. I get that from my daddy.
Who’re you gonna be angry at anyway? James Earl Ray? It wasn’t Ray who killed my father; it was a collaboration of forces. Ray perhaps pulled the trigger, but anybody could have done that. My father was a threat to too many centers of power. That’s what killed him. And I do believe there was a purpose to my father’s death, as well as his life.
Every now and then I’m reminded of that by things that seem to be coincidence but that I believe are part of a plan. Like it’s no accident that Ronald Reagan, a man who really disliked my father–and who my father really disliked–had to sign the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday bill. For that one day, Ronnie had to humble himself and graciously accept the power of my father’s vision. It was the most amazing thing. When we all went into the Oval Office that day, we stood in silence for about 45 seconds. Forty-five seconds and no one knew what to say.
Finally Mother said, “Well, it’s a great day!” And Ronnie did not respond! The president of the United States of America did not nod his head or say a thing. He just had this frozen half smile on his face. Finally he left the room, and he delivered his speech, and during that speech I believed he loved Martin Luther King Jr. I was three feet away. I stared at the president, I watched his eyes–and when he was through, I believed he’d do anything for Martin Luther King Jr. I mean, this Ronnie is a serious communicator.
Joking aside, though, my faith tells me this is no accident. That a man like this would be the vehicle for honoring my father. This can’t be coincidence. Nothing that matters is. Like Daddy’s last hours.
Do you know he was having a pillow fight? Yes, he was. With his brother, Andy Young, Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy. They were having a pillow fight. In the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis. Like a bunch of six-year-old boys. Yes, they were. Then Daddy brushed off the feathers, he put on his suit and tie, and–well, ah, he moved into eternity.
It’s no accident he was having a ball. And I’m thankful for it. Like I’m thankful that Attallah and I came together. We had to. It was our destiny. Whether we liked it or not And thank God we liked it!
It wasn’t, “Lights, camera, action” in my household. My father wasn’t a ham who needed a drumroll, an entourage. One was often there, but that wasn’t his doing, it wasn’t what he needed. Instead, he’d drive up to the house, we’d squeal, “Daddy’s home!” and he’d peek in the refrigerator before my mother put dinner on the table.
It was wholesome, it was quaint. As grand a nationalist as Malcolm X was, he was an even grander parent. He was big fun.
As a youngster, you’re not aware of the world and its politics. I couldn’t possibly understand his role or function–just as many youngsters don’t know what their fathers do at work. That said, I was aware that he was a focus. Clearly I was not at an age when I would read about him in the Times, but I did see my father on TV. I was there when my father did lectures. And while I understood that he was a commanding sort of man–he was six-foot-five, hard not to command attention–he was a gentle giant.
So while his words may have seemed direct, almost curt, his manner was humble and polite. He addressed everyone as sir or ma’am, even when they didn’t share his views, even when they completely misunderstood and twisted what his views were.
The image that is always portrayed of Malcolm is of this angry black man. Well, when you asked any black American at that time, “What do you feel about those four little girls who were bombed in Birmingham?” you were liable to get a low brow. Especially from a parent. And understand this: I never heard my father blaspheme or bad-mouth white people. Never.
My first-grade teacher was uncomfortable with who my father was, which is perhaps understandable given the times. Then one day my father came to pick me up. And whatever was expected, the man who arrived was Mr. Shabazz, like a member of the PTA, a regular daddy in a Lacoste shirt coming to get his little girl. I don’t know if the teacher was expecting him in a beret or what, but once he was there, everyone behaved nicely.
On that day, someone learned to see my father without the neon sign. This was a white teacher who later became a friend. It was a regular public school in Queens, predominantly white. I didn’t notice things like that then. Kids don’t. Color wasn’t a biggie in my life. There was no drumroll heralding me as I, a black girl, went to a white school.
Not that my parents candy coated what was ugly. They didn’t teach me about racism–that would come soon enough. What they did teach me was about my wonderful heritage. One of my coloring books when I was younger was called Color Me Brown, and it had 25 little etchings of black American contributors that you could color in. So I knew about Benjamin Banneker, I knew about Phillis Wheatley. I knew about Ira Aldridge and Ida B. Wells.
Those were the names that came to my mouth like Mary Poppins might to another’s. So when I went to school and parts of me were omitted from history books, I knew the hole wasn’t in me, it was in the books. My parents didn’t hide things from me. I watched the news when that church was bombed in Alabama. I watched, over and over, the Kennedy funeral. I didn’t think, “Oh, that white man is dead.”
Despite what some people might think, that wasn’t even an issue in our house. [Newspaper headlines at the time reported Malcolm X’s stark reaction to the assassination–”Chickens come home to roost”–often without explaining that he meant the country’s climate of hate had killed the president.] I just felt sad, I felt the pain of his children. I watched Caroline and John John standing there. And soon enough, I’d be going through that experience myself.
It was around that time that we left the Nation of Islam [the group founded by Elijah Muhammad, some of whose members were later held responsible for Malcolm’s assassination]. All I understood was life was changing, and there were places we couldn’t go or be. People who once were around weren’t. I didn’t question this. I felt no fear. I was a child. We just consolidated our family–which was always very strong, very tightly knit–and turned further inward.
My parents had a storybook romance. I couldn’t be so enamored of my mother today if I hadn’t watched my father adore her first. I know that while he was alive she felt gorgeous. She didn’t even wait for him to finish proposing before she said yes. They were silly and giggly and whimpery. They’d go off on long walks alone, and when he was traveling, he’d leave her treasure maps with love letters at the end. I know now how extraordinary their love affair was.
At the time, I thought it was mushy; they embarrassed me. I mean, yecch, this is cor-ny! So much of what’s portrayed about my father is so one-sided. Like that so-called famous picture of my father with the gun. [Malcolm was photographed peering out a window in his house in Elmhurst, New York, holding a loaded rifle.] That was so incidental to my life. People think I grew up with a rifle by the front door!
This was the period he was being stalked. The house was a probable target. Of course, he was going to protect his family. He heard something in the hedge, and he reacted accordingly. The children were gathered to a safe place–and it wasn’t like “Everyone duck!” My parents just calmly called each of us, “Honey, come on over here.” Then Daddy looked out the window. And that’s all it was!
I have seen in the last year kids with that picture on their sweat shirts, and they’ll put their own messages on it–you know, an eye-for-an-eye kind of thing. That’s not the way I grew up.
Reporters, real reporters, sometimes ask me, “Do you advocate your father’s philosophies of violence? Do you believe, as he did, that whites were created by a black mad scientist?” And I’ll think, “Ahhhhh. Where do I begin?” By the time I’m done, they realize these weren’t smart questions. The mad-scientist stuff–that wasn’t my father. That was Elijah’s philosophy. There’s so much focus on the narrowest part of my father’s life, on the neon sign that was on him, not the man himself. They focus on 60 degrees, whereas the man was a full 360. He wasn’t just Malcolm X, Black Nationalist, he was a daddy.
The night of the Molotov cocktail [on Valentine’s Day, 1965, the Shabazz home was bombed], I almost didn’t realize how dangerous it was–my father was that calm, that together a parent. My eyes were burning, I was coughing, but before you knew it, he had us all out of there, and we were safe at a friend’s house. My mother’s like that too. Together.
The day of the assassination was a week after the Molotov cocktail. She knew just what to do. We’re all in the Audubon ballroom [in Harlem]. My father’s onstage. I’m on the opposite side of the table from her. She has four children to care for, plus being pregnant with the twins. Bullets are shot. Pandemonium. She’s telling me, “Get down!” reaching her arms out to hold us all down on the ground. Simultaneously she’s yelling, “That’s my husband they’re killing!” And a kid wants to look and see. Her husband means it’s my father. So I keep looking.
I see the men. I see it. They start to beat one of the perpetrators. People are up on the stage, saying, “Is he breathing?” My mother leaves us to go up onstage–we’re safe now, and the stage is where she needs to be. My sisters and I are taken into the greenroom. The right people have us. Nobody’s thinking clearly, we’re numb. Then she comes into the greenroom, looking very warm and maternal, and she says to me, “You’re Mommy’s big girl now.” Suddenly I feel too old to be sitting on that lady’s lap.
We moved from our old house to Westchester. We weren’t in hiding or on the run, like some articles have tried to make out. Our old house had been bombed. We needed a new place to live, that’s all. We were cautious, of course. Like the name of the town we lived in shouldn’t be printed, because my mother still lives there. That’s an elementary precaution. But it’s not like I had fears that I might be kidnapped. I wasn’t Patty Hearst–they certainly weren’t going to get any money from a woman raising six children on her own!
I did, of course, feel fearful whenever I saw people from the Nation. I’d bump into them–they’re easily recognizable from their attire–and there was great…discomfort. After all, they’d taken my father from me.
Whenever I’d see one of them, they wouldn’t be nice, and I’d feel more protective of my mother and my sisters than ever. Then, on April 4th, 1968, I came home from school, and my house was paralyzed. The TV was on, and every time a bulletin interrupted, I watched my mother focus on it with such a passion. It was like it was happening again for her. She knew what Mrs. King was going through.
I watched my mother very carefully that day, I never let my eyes off her, because I was and am in love with her.
I’ve never discussed his autobiography with her. If I feel pain reading his words, I don’t need to take her through that. I was a teenager when I first read it. Sixteen. My mother felt uncomfortable about us reading it, so for many years I’d just glance at the pictures, and that was it.
Then I began to realize the people in this book weren’t characters in The Swiss Family Robinson. This was my family. I read it twice. Each time I failed to finish it. I just can’t.
One thing that was made clear to me from reading it was how short a time he was on the streets–between the ages of 14 and 19. People always say, “Malcolm X, who was a Pimp with a capital P, a drug addict, and a blah blah blah.” Well, that period of his life just wasn’t that long. And in a way his time on the street was about being an adolescent, embarking on a search for who you are. You don’t just suddenly high-tail it and decide to be a numbers runner or a pimp.
There’s plenty of being the youngest, standing in the back, trying to be hip leading up to that. Wanting to belong and know how to do that Lindy Hop. It was the same for me during those years. Even though I wasn’t doing drugs, even though I wasn’t incarcerated, I was searching as well. Everyone does. And many of us make mistakes.
I once lectured at Wesleyan, and during the car ride from the train station, they told me there was a resurgence of CIA recruitment on campus. And I got scared for those kids. I know how glamorous that spying work must seem to youngsters. I also know how families can be destroyed by the CIA or the FBI.
While men from the Nation may have pulled the triggers, I can guess the role the CIA played in orchestrating my father’s death. And I know what the FBI did to Yolanda’s family. I changed my whole speech to address my concern with the issue of privacy and government interference. Scarecrowing Mrs. King is no way to make a living.
You have to make people aware of the heartstrings attached to so-called issues. When I talk about my father, I do my best to make Malcolm human. I don’t want these kids to keep him on the pedestal, I don’t want them to feel his goals are unattainable. I’ll remind them that at their age he was doing time.
Afterwards, these young people come up to me all giggly, saying, “Oooohhh, I read the book.” They practically have crushes on my father from reading his autobiography! I like that the fact that they can coo means they’ve a fuller sense of who Malcolm was.
I was around their age, in fact, when I finally came to realize what I had lost. My mother was such a master at consoling–she’d talk about his favorite meals, she’d tell funny stories about him, she’d show us pictures–that it took years before I realized she was bridging the gap between his absence and my fully appreciating it.
But once I’d left school, I was working on my own, living away from this wonderful woman, this mother, this father as well, this…mommy. And as you grow older, you realize how young 39 is. I don’t remember if it was his birthday or his memorial day, but a day came when I realized he’s dead. I never knew ’til then how much the void…nauseated me.
Then after a while, you get to thinking, “How dare they. How dare they take my father from me.”
So in meeting Yolanda, she wasn’t so much a stranger, because we have each other’s history. We both know what it is to catch your breath when a bulletin interrupts on TV. We know what it is to sit through tributes.
For Yolanda and I, April 4th, 1968, is February 21st, 1965. As we are different, we are the same.
Yolanda: There’s a picture in my mother’s home–one, I might add, of many. I tease her about it. Welcome to the Coretta Scott King archives. On your right you will find the only known picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, on the occasion of their only meeting.
Attallah: And they are cheesing.
Yolanda: Wrap-around-your-ear grins. Daddy had been testifying on the Hill, and they bumped into each other. It was accidental.
Attallah: It couldn’t have been posed. You can see their handshake, and their knuckles were near white they were gripping so hard.
Yolanda: It’s real pure. So, whatever apprehensions I may have had about meeting Attallah the first time, I had at least seen that picture. I’d seen them smiling. I knew in my heart everything would be just fine.
Attallah: One would have thought we’d have known each other before. In addition to our shared history, we were both in New York, we were both interested in theater. Many people assumed we were like sisters. So that first meeting was awkward. A wonderful awkward, but awkward nevertheless.
There was so much anticipation surrounding us, so many people we knew were rooting for our union. And meanwhile, I’m thinking, “I cannot breathe.” But we were raised well, we were polite. Then, as the photographer was loading film, we found out our birthdays are a day apart. That we’re both Scorpios. We started laughing about that–to have that in common as well.
The photographer got the idea we should put our heads together with wide-toothed grins. But we still didn’t know each other! So we made it more … ladylike.
Yolanda: We said goodbye, let’s keep in touch, and thought that was the end of it. Then a few months later, we were asked to judge the Miss Universe contest in Panama. And while everyone else went to clubs, Attallah and I sat in our hotel rooms and talked. For four days.
Obviously we talked about the assassinations and where we were at that point in our lives. Attallah may be younger than I am, but she’s wiser than her years. And there’s very few people you can have that sort of talk with. We’re not daughters of famous athletes, we’re not daughters of movie stars. It’s a different kind of celebrity status. I mean, it’s a small club–eldest daughters of assassinated human-rights leaders. Soon after that we were asked to speak together at a bunch of high schools. And we said, “Talk to teenagers? Right.”
Attallah: There was much that we wanted to say. I see my mission with Nucleus as patting young people on the back the way my parents did with me. Letting them know that whatever anyone else tells them, they’re okay. That nobody’s born a sinner. But our problem then wasn’t what we had to say but how we were going to say it. Being “daughters of” may bring the kids there, but what was going to make what we said stick?
Yolanda: So we asked some friends with performance skills–a pianist, a singer, two ministers, who are the biggest hams of all–to help us put together a show that would dramatize the things we’d like to say. We wanted it to be funny, not heavy and moralizing. And that was how Stepping Into Tomorrow began.
We each wrote our own parts. We thought this was a one-time deal. Then other high-school invitations came.
Attallah: Within two years, we were averaging 50 cities a year. There are now about 100 members who I can call on at any time to do the parts.
Yolanda: Figuring out which parts were ours was pretty easy. Only two female characters don’t sing or dance–the laid-back girl who has the teenage pregnancy and Michelle, the overachiever who attempts suicide when she leaves school. Well, we knew Attallah would never get pregnant! Just in terms of her discipline. I mean, she is precise. Something starts at 2:30, Attallah is there at 2:29. I’m there at three. Maybe.
Attallah: The play does have certain parallels to my own life. I was an overachiever. Good student, track star. Involved in every activity — ballet, piano, martial arts, which was my particular love. Not that I had a suicide attempt, but I did have that downer about my father’s death. Like Michelle, I understand what it is to feel wasted and yet keep your pain to yourself. I’m a private person. I don’t need a lot of hands on myself.
Yolanda’s different, she’s easy. She’ll tell you her age, her marital status. You can be silly and giggly with her, call her Yoki. We’ve talked about what went into making us so different. What does it mean that one child witnesses her father’s death and the next child hears it over the phone? Does that govern how we approach our lives? My God, what does it mean? I know this. It makes things very clear when you get to see. There are no ifs, ands or buts for me. There are no ellipses in my life. Yolanda: It was divine order that I was not there. Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, I could not have seen and…survived. I mean, I have neuroses, as we all do, but if I had been there, I would be tucked away somewhere. The Lord spared me that. My grandmother was killed too, you know. [In 1974, Alberta King was shot while playing the organ at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Atlanta.] I missed that by ten minutes. Other members of my family did see it but not me. And that’s because I didn’t need to see it.
I don’t know if seeing/not seeing is what makes Attallah so direct and me talk for hours on the answering machine when it’s voice activated. Because I will. All I know is, in so many ways, Attallah and I are like day and night. But we agree to overlook things. We’ve had words about our differences, but we’ve never had a fight. We don’t ever want to say anything that will be unforgivable. Yet we’re very honest with each other. Like Attallah did not care for my doing Death of a Prophet, and she made that very clear to me. (In 1982, a movie was made about Malcolm X; Yolanda played a character based on his wife, the educator Dr. Betty Shabazz.) Attallah: My mother did not agree with the script. So it should never be stated that Yolanda portrayed Dr. Shabazz.
Yolanda: It wasn’t like a biography. It was fictionalized impressions of the last few days of Malcolm’s life. Morgan Freeman played Malcolm.
Attallah: The Prophet. Let’s keep this clear. He’s just called the Prophet in the script.
Yolanda: But she’s called Betty.
Attallah: Even though it’s fictionalized.
Yolanda: That is odd.
Attallah: My mother did not appreciate it.
Yolanda: Well, I went ahead and did it And I didn’t feel it did Malcolm a disservice.
Attallah: I understand artistic license, and most of the time I’ll take a back seat because I know it’s well intentioned. But when license creates something that’s misleading, it makes me ill.
Yolanda: This was early on in our knowing each other. I think that was the first time we talked about the kind of representations that are out there. We started letting each other know. I’d call her and say, “Attallah, do you know so and so is doing an opera about your father?” and she’d say, “Opera?” And she’ll do the same for me.
Attallah: Our friendship is maintained out of respect, an understanding that whatever our fathers’ destinies were symbolically affects our destinies together. Our friendship is simultaneous to running a business. We’re not geographically situated so we can do the “Let’s have pizza” routine. That’s not me, anyway. I’m reclusive by nature. But we’re there for each other.
When January 15th comes around and everyone else is figuring out what to do with their day off, I’m calling Yolanda’s machine and singing, “Happy Birthday” to her daddy.
Yolanda: There’s a bond between us stronger than anything I’ve ever known. There’s a love between us, and it’s real. Because it’s been tested and it has survived. As many people worked to keep our fathers apart–the media, their leadership and their followers–so, to a lesser extent, have people tried to do the same with us. We’ll be on the road, lecturing, and people will verbally attack Attallah or me. They’ll talk about our fathers’ differences.
We’ve had to face heavy criticism for being together, and it could have served to estrange us. It could have perpetuated the estrangement that was imposed upon our fathers. And still we remain friends.
Attallah: Regardless of any differences in our fathers’ philosophies, their yearnings were the same. They were inspired by the very same dream–respect that was long overdue.
Yolanda: When people talk about Malcolm, they’ll often speak of his criticism of the civil-rights movement–which at that time was symbolized, at least in part, by my father. And Malcolm did level some very harsh criticism. But that was prior to his beginning to evolve.
Unfortunately, that’s where most people stop. With the early years of Malcolm’s public life. They refuse to acknowledge that toward the end he wasn’t focusing on color so much. He’d begun to say it wasn’t the blacks and the whites, it was the haves and the have-nots.
Attallah: My father is often misinterpreted. But I will never put myself in a position of defending him. I just say to these audiences, “He is who he is, and if you have any problems with that, I’ll direct you to the source so you can get a fuller vision of the man. The fullness of Malcolm is documented. Read your history, then we can work together to eliminate the chip on your shoulder.”
Yolanda: And with my father, everyone wants to stop with 1963 and “I have a dream.” They don’t deal with my father’s last years, when he leveled very harsh but accurate criticisms of our country. He talked about how violent we are, how materialistic, how we must stop counting profits before people. Right before he died, he was talking to poor whites in Appalachia, he was talking about mass civil disobedience of the have-nots. Nonviolent, of course. That’s what killed him.
People can’t deal with that. They want Martin Luther King Jr. to be about blacks and whites holding hands into the sunset. Well, after we join hands, what are we supposed to do? Our fathers needed each other, and I think they understood that. Even if no one else did. The fact that there were the two of them meant this country had to make a choice. We got Martin, we got Malcolm. Which way we gonna go? Whoaaa, we’ll go with Martin, that’s the easier way. But this country wouldn’t have had to deal with Martin if it weren’t for Malcolm.
Attallah: It’s no secret that Yolanda’s father is easier to digest than mine.
Yolanda: There are audiences that are Malcolm audiences, and there are audiences that don’t feel so comfortable with Malcolm, but they’re Baptist churchgoers, and they just love Martin Luther King Jr. We always can tell. And for us to be able to get through that…well, I think this all would have been more difficult if we’d been men. If we’d been Martin Luther King Iii and Malcolm X Jr. Or El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz II–however they do that in Arabic.
I mean, I know what a burden my brother carries. While he relates to other people very well, there’s so much focus on him. There can’t be a “co-” in his life. For us, well, we don’t have male egos; we’re free of that. I don’t think men have that capacity for the greater good as often as women do. Again, I believe it’s no accident that Martin and Malcolm’s first-borns were daughters.
Attallah: I can’t agree with that. Because when I think of Marty and Dexter, they’re real cool. They’re comfortable with the fact that I’m a strong, definite woman. They understand the greater good. Our families have always encouraged our bond. Everyone was excited. There was never the distance between our families that the media tried to project.
Yolanda: When I told my mother about meeting Attallah, she thought it was just great. Mother already knew Dr. Shabazz from being on different boards together. Then Mother shared something with me. She told me Malcolm came to Selma to visit my father.
He’d hoped to see Daddy, but the authorities wouldn’t let him in jail. See, Daddy was in jail. Then when Mother was on the pulpit–all rallies were in church, of course–Malcolm spoke to her there. This was shortly before he was taken. Later my father said to my mother, “My God, he was on the verge of something really important. If only he’d had more time. Just a little more time.” Not those exact words, but that was the sense. And the two of them sent a telegram of condolence to Dr. Shabazz.
Attallah: Almost no one ever acknowledges that there was communication between our fathers. To this day, they are portrayed as opposite sides of a coin, when there is, in fact, evidence that they themselves sensed the potential for union.
Yolanda: Attallah and I talk a lot about the books and plays and films that are made about them. Fictitious meetings between our fathers. And how it’s always wrong. I saw this one play in which my father was this wimp who carried a Bible everywhere he went, including to someone’s house for dinner. That’s not the kind of minister Daddy was! All these ridiculous clichés.
And if it’s about Malcolm, you know you’re gonna see one strident, angry black man. Well, I know if they’d had dinner together, the first 45 minutes–at least–they’d have laughed. That’s all. They’d have laughed. I know it.
Attallah: Playwrights always make Martin so passive and Malcolm so aggressive that those men wouldn’t have lasted a minute in the same room. Never mind an hour and a half onstage, plus time for intermission.
In fact, our daddies were just a couple of fellas. Yolanda and I would like to put them in a room and take off those jackets and ties. Bring in half a gallon of vanilla ice cream–that was my father’s favorite. Bring in some ribs–Yolanda’s father loved ribs. Then Malcolm would say, “Hey, Mart, I can’t eat those ribs!”–because it’s pork, you know. And maybe Martin can’t eat the ice cream because he’s on a diet. I mean, okay, guys, okay. Lighten it up.
Yolanda: We’re working on a play about them. It’s part of why we’re together. We’ve got to tell the real story, what these men were really like. There’s been lots of stories before. But once we do ours, there won’t be any after. People are always telling us, “Your fathers are smiling on you.” And I believe they are.
I believe they’re watching us work together, and they have two of the biggest grins you ever did see.
Attallah: For me it’s like the shape of the letter Y. Two supposedly opposing paths meet and become one. When our fathers died, they were approaching that fork.
Yolanda and I closed the gap and became the stem. This is not to overlook the very real differences in their approaches. But I believe you can hold onto all that you are and still walk down the same path. Martin and Malcolm met only once–a chance encounter on Capitol Hill in 1963.