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February 06, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, February 06, 2004

More than a widow More than a widow (February 06, 2004)

Palo Alto native Russell Rickford returns home to pen biography of Betty Shabazz

by Rick Eymer

When Russell Rickford set out to write a biography of Betty Shabazz, he planned for everything, from gathering all the necessary research materials to setting up his writing schedule around his job with a Philadelphia public-relations firm.

The Gunn High School graduate came home from work every day, glanced over at the two big boxes full of extensive notes and interviews he compiled during his cross-country travels, and decided he needed a nap.

Rickford couldn't seem to reconcile his employment and writing schedules and began falling behind.

"At one point my parents said "If you want to come home, it's fine with us,'" Rickford said. "One day I told myself I have to do it. It was pretty spontaneous. I gave my two weeks notice, packed everything up and drove to Palo Alto."

Rickford set up residence in a room in his parents' garage, where the distractions were minimal, and began writing up to nine hours a day, seven days a week, until he completed what turned out to be a 608-page book, "Betty Shabazz: A Remarkable Story of Survival and Faith before and after Malcolm X" (Sourcebooks).

He was able to complete the book because of the support he received from his parents. His father, John, is a linguist at Stanford University and his mother, Angela, is a professor in the elementary education department at San Jose State. Both are published authors (Russell and John co-authored the book, "Spoken Soul," about African-American English, in 2000) in their own right and were well aware of what Rickford was facing.

Rickford, who currently resides in Harlem and is pursuing his Ph.D in history at Columbia University, will return home for a Feb. 13 book reading at the Stanford University Bookstore. He will sign copies of his book and discuss the life of Shabazz, who was married to Malcolm X for seven years.

"I had to find a way to write full-time and not pay rent," he said. "And I got to eat my mother's cooking. I also moved onto campus. My father let me squat in one of his offices."

Rickford, who is 28 years old, feels comfortable in academia. After all, he grew up in a household dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and with dedicated teachers as parents.

"My love for literature and language came from them," Rickford said. "At one time they were both English teachers. We grew up tripping over the encyclopedia. If we (his brother, Luke, is a sophomore at Harvard) had a question, they made us go look it up."

He went on to attend Howard University, where he earned a degree in history, and later worked as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But the seeds of Rickford's convictions were sown while at Gunn, where he helped build solidarity among the small population of Blacks and Latinos on campus.

"We were able to build a vibrant community," Rickford said. "We enjoyed a strong presence on campus that wasn't necessarily there before. We bridged a lot of different divisions and were able to collectively deal with issues."

While still at Gunn, Rickford nurtured his passion for black history and the struggle for social justice and freedom. He developed a keen interest in Malcolm X, particularly his image of masculinity and his sharp criticism of white racism.

"I've always been an admirer, and considered myself a student, of Malcolm X," Rickford said. "After Dr. Shabazz died in 1997 (tragically at home in a fire set by her grandson), the publisher was looking for someone to do her life. My agent brought the idea to me.

"Like much of the public, I didn't know anything of Dr. Shabazz, other than she was the widow of Malcolm X," he continued. "I was seeing her as an appendage of Malcolm but realized that was a mistake. As I started to research, I began to recognize the value of Dr. Shabazz's struggle as profoundly a woman's struggle. It was one of the incredible stories of triumph and tragedy, and certainly was a unique story."

Through his research, Rickford discovered that Dr. Shabazz, who earned her doctorate while raising six children, was more than just a widow.

"I saw her as a proxy and denied her own personality," he said of his initial impression of Shabazz. "I learned she was very different from Malcolm. She had a different agenda. She never forgot the experience of betrayal, the experience of harassment from both intelligence agents and elements in the black community.

"She became a flag bearer and there was a fascinating story of struggle in the aftermath of the civil-rights movement," Rickford said. "She became a powerful icon for women in particular because she waged these battles with a certain grace and elegance. She's certainly an example for women throughout the world."

Rickford appreciates how the civil-rights movement set the foundation for social justice, but he sees more work ahead for the current generation.

"While we have to value the past, my generation needs to craft a new language and create new strategies for an ever-changing and more sophisticated system of suppression and oppression," he said. "This is a critical moment, not just for people of color but for poor people, working people, gay and lesbian, because we're dealing with a global order becoming more sophisticated."

Who: Russell Rickford, author of "Betty Shabazz: A Remarkable Story of Survival and Faith before and after Malcolm X"

Where: Stanford University Bookstore at White Plaza

When: Friday, Feb. 13 at noon

Cost: Admission is free.

Info: Please call (650) 725-6136

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