Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

What's in a Name? (1956

Jan 11, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller



Initially because of delicious food a woman embarked on a drama filled path that rivaled an ancient Greek tragedy. Although it involved unimaginable heartache, she later remarked of her marriage to Malcolm X, “It was hectic, beautiful and unforgettable-the greatest thing in my life.”  

    Betty Dean Saunders was the illegitimate offspring of twenty-one year old Shelman Sandlin who went MIA before her 1934 birth and the teenaged Ollie Mae Sanders. The young mother failed to give her daughter a birth-certificate or anything remotely resembling stability, and when Betty was nine years old she moved in with her foster parents Lorenzo and Helen Malloy in Detroit. Although they provided Betty with a nurturing environment, they never prepared her for the hostile one which existed in her 1940s racially charged city. They adopted the stance of the proverbial three monkeys though hearing, seeing and speaking no evil did not have the desired effect on their foster daughter. Betty later recalled, “Race relations were not discussed and it was hoped that by denying the existence of race problems, the problems would go away. Anyone who openly discussed race relations was quickly viewed as a ‘trouble maker.’”

 The riot which occurred during her childhood when the Sojourner Truth Housing Project was desegregated comprised what she would term the “psychological background for my formative years.” Nevertheless, her sheltered home kept bigotry at bay; her life consisted of attendance at the local Methodist church, movies and social activities. She described her metronome teenage years, “Pick a week out of my life. If you understood that week, you understood my life.” However, it was Betty’s fate to live, (as the Chinese curse states,) in interesting times.

   Post graduation Saunders’ left Detroit to pursue a teaching degree from the black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Lorenzo’s alma mater. In the confines of campus she could avoid prejudice but in Montgomery she was caught in its tsunami. The whites spoke of the “uppity Niggers at the Institute” while fellow students referred to their oppressors as having necks of red. When she complained to the Malloys, their mantra remained, “If you’re just quiet it will go away.” When it did not she relocated to Brooklyn where she changed her career path to nursing. Discrimination proved to be a moveable feast when she discovered African-American nurses were given worse assignments than their Caucasian counterparts. Sanders felt she had merely exchanged Jim Crow laws for a more genteel prejudice.

     Sanders was invited to a Friday night dinner party at the Nation of Islam Temple in Harlem, an evening whose echo would follow her all the days of her life... She later recalled of the cuisine, “The food was delicious. I’d never tasted food like that.” Her friend told her about the charismatic minister who was not present that evening, “Just wait until you hear my Minister talk. He’s very disciplined, he’s good-looking, and all the sisters want him.” As a devout Methodist, Betty had no interest in a meeting; however, as the food was sumptuous she agreed to return.

       While the food is what drew her in it was on that second night Betty met the man who irrevocably altered her destiny. She recalled the first time she saw him: He was tall, he was thin, and the way he was galloping it looked as though he was going someplace much more important than the podium. He got to the podium-and I sat up straight. She began to attend all of Malcolm’s lectures which led her friends and family to question whether her interest lay in the religion or in its minister. Two years later, to the Malloys’ horror, she was a convert to the Nation of Islam. In accordance with the precept of the Temple, just as Malcolm Little had become Malcolm X Betty Dean Saunders became Betty X, a nod to its teachings that blacks had their identities stolen by slave-owners.

Malcolm X and Betty X did not have a conventional courtship as one-on-one fraternizing between the sexes went against the teachings of their Temple. Instead, the couple stepped out with group dates consisting of dozens of others. This countered the staggering amount of babies born out of wedlock in the African-American milieu, something which Betty, who had been one herself, understood.  

      One afternoon Betty received a call from Malcolm in Detroit who said he was getting gas when he popped the question, “Look, do you want to get married?” Although the proposal did not rank high on the romantic scale, she agreed, and their wedding took place a week later on January 14th, 1958, in Lansing, Michigan, the same day she received her license as a nurse. Malcolm approved of her career as it fit the nurturing image of Muslim womanhood. Betty well understood that by marrying the man, she was also agreeing to living with a demanding mistress of sorts, Malcolm’s fanatic dedication to his cause. Her role was further daunting as her husband harbored views of females as “tricky, deceitful, untrustworthy flesh.”

       At the onset their union followed the Nation of Islam’s strictures concerning husband and wife; Malcolm set the rules and Betty obeyed. The dynamics shifted when Malcolm told her what he expected of his wife and Betty countered with what she expected of her husband. Because of his wife, Malcolm changed his perspective on gender, “When you teach a man, you teach a community; when you teach a woman, you raise a nation.” Betty’s sweetness and support helped the angry man find the gentleness that he had lost in Harlem and in prison. Her love broke down his romantic barriers and he called her by pet names such as Brown Sugar, Apple Brown Betty.

Unfortunately, as a minister there were long periods of separation when Malcolm travelled the country on his mission “to awaken the brainwashed black man and to tell the devilish white man the truth about himself.” His philosophy was summed up when he pronounced the only thing he liked integrated was his coffee and his quotation, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.” He was so often on the road Betty always kept a packed suitcase so he could quickly exchange one for another. The enforced separation was made harder for Betty when she was forced to raise her four daughters mainly on her own: Attallah named after Attila the Hun; Qubilah named after Kublai Khan; Ilyasah named after Elijah Muhammad; Gamilah Lumumba named after Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader. Their christenings manifested they were to be future freedom fighters. Atallah would later relate when her parents were together they were “silly and giggly and whimpery. They’d go off on long walks alone, and even 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.”

    The turning point  of their lives occurred after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy when Malcolm X declared of the cataclysmic event, “The chickens have come home to roost.” The radical remark meant as the history of  America had been riddled with violence it was  fitting its  president likewise had met a violent end. The Nation of Islam had issued a directive that  its ministers not speak about the killing and thus was further angered at the extremity of Malcolm’s denunciation.  Louis Farrakhan, one of the Nation’s top leaders, disciplined him through demotion. Malcolm’s response was his refusal to be muzzled and in 1964 founded his rival Movement: the Muslim Mosque. The Nation who owned their home evicted them and cut off his salary which left the family destitute.  Seeking enlightenment Malcolm embarked on his Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca,) where he returned with a new philosophy and a new name: the couple became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and Betty Shabazz, renouncing the ‘X’ which tied them to the Temple from which they had become self-excommunicated. While her husband was in the Middle East seeking wisdom, Betty, alone with four children and pregnant with twins, was the recipient of constant threats from their former Ministry. One anonymous phone call: “Just give Malcolm this message. Just tell him that he’s as good as dead.”  Upon his return the Shabazz home was fire-bombed on Valentine’s ay.

      Malcolm did not often invite his wife to hear him speak, preferring to keep his private and public life separate, but on February 21, 1965, his family came to the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan to hear him lecture to an audience of 400. Almost as soon as he reached the microphone, he was shot in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun quickly followed by a front row firing squad which riddled his body with an additional sixteen bullets. Betty pushed her four daughters to the floor where she shielded the hysterical children with her pregnant body, screaming, “They’re killing my husband!” When the shooting stopped, she rushed to Malcolm and performed CPR. Police officers and his followers escorted him to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

      The distraught widow found the strength to endure with her own pilgrimage to Mecca and the remembrance of the words of Malcolm, “Don’t look back and don’t cry. Remember, Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt.” Seven months later Betty gave birth to twins Malikah and Malaak. Despite her circumstances, dire under any perspective, (homeless after the firebomb, mother of six young daughters, penniless, and widowed through assassination,) she refused to don the mantle of self-pity. What helped bring her strength was the friendship and support of two other women made widows of the Civil Rights Movement: Coretta Scott King and Myerlie Evers-Williams. Betty had always viewed her life as not existing pre-Malcolm and now she had to live it post the man who had been the pillar of her world. She determined to prevail. He would have expected no less anyway.

     Financially the family was supported by Alex Haley, the co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, who donated royalties to help them out. Further assistance came from Juanita Porter, (wife of Sydney Poitier) and Betty was able to purchase a home in Mount Vernon New York, from Congress member Bella Abzug. In 1975 she became Dr. Shabazz when she earned her degree in education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst which brought on raucous cheers from her six daughters. Tragically misfortune was to dog her footsteps once more.

      Betty had always pointed the finger of blame for her husband’s assassination at Louis Farrakhan and her hatred was absorbed by Quibilah, her troubled second daughter. She was charged with negotiating with hitman Michael Fitzpatrick, (a former schoolmate who was working as an FBI informant,)  to murder Farrakhan. Following Quibilah’s arraignment, Betty furiously defended her daughter-and denied that she had raised any of her children to seek revenge.  The charges were eventually dropped but she had to agree to undergo treatment for alcoholism and psychiatric care. Her son Malcolm, conceived by a  father she met while she  studying at the Sorbonne, went to live with his grandmother. The angst-ridden adolescent set fire to Betty’s apartment where she suffered burns over 80 percent of her body. His troubled life ended with his murder in 2013 in Tijuana, Mexico. Thus he continued the legacy of family violence. Betty managed to cling to life for three weeks supported by pints of blood donated by hundreds of volunteers.

     In tribute to Betty’s passing the U. S. flag flew at half-mast and more than 2,000 mourners attended the memorial service amongst who were Coretta Scott King, Myerlie Evers-Williams, Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani. The public viewing was at the Unity Funeral Home in Harlem, the same site where Malcolm X’s viewing had taken place thirty years earlier. The funeral service was held at the Islamic Cultural center in New York City. Inside the mosque the mourners shed their shoes and knelt beside the coffin while chanting the Islamic prayer for the dead. When the mosque emptied, Betty’s daughters stood side by side, feet bare and heads covered with shawls in Islamic fashion. Betty was interred in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, Plot No. 50, her coffin resting on top of her husband’s. They share a single headstone whereupon is engraved: Hajj-Malik Malcolm X 1929-1969 El Shabazz Betty 1936-1997.

      Juliet on her Veronica balcony had asked ‘What’s in a name?’ and realized it was of no relevance what one was called. However, that was not the case with Betty whose evolving names serve as her encapsulated biography: Betty Dean Saunders, foster child, Sister Betty X, member of the Nation of Islam, Betty Shabazz, Sunni Muslim, and Dr. Shabazz, post doctorate. What began with delicious food led to a life of unimaginable peaks and valleys, one  never regretted as it entailed a treasure map with love letters at the end.