October, 2007. Offices of GIANT magazine. I’m sitting across from editor-in-chief Smokey D. Fontaine. We’re going over stories I’ll be covering in the upcoming year. .
“Do you think you could find Malcolm X’s grandson?” he asked. “That would make an interesting story.”
“I can find anybody. You know that. But should we find him?”
Smokey rubbed his hands together and his face lit up.
“Of course we should! This young man is a part of history. Malcolm X never had sons of his own. So this young man is the male heir. And then he was found responsible in the death of Betty Shabazz, his own grandmother, Malcolm’s widow. That story would be crazy!”
Before we continue, let me tell you a little bit about Smokey.
When I was trying to get on at The Source, Smokey was the Music Editor. And he was a celebrity in the world of urban journalism. For starters, his real, given name is Smokey. With the last name Fontaine? You can’t be serious.
Smokey D. Fontaine.
If I named a character in a book Smokey D. Fontaine, you’d roll your eyes.
Anyway. Smokey was the man.
When I started freelancing for the magazine, I wrote a few pieces for Smokey, who intimidated the hell out of me. He was loud. It took me five years to figure out that YELLING AT THE TOP OF HIS LUNGS is actually his normal speaking voice. And he has this way of clapping his hands together—POW!—after he assigns you a story. That thunderclap means: this will be the hottest story ever in the history of the printed word. Right? Right!
A few months after I started freelancing, I had my fateful interview with Selwyn for the staff writer position. When we were done talking, he told me to feel free to introduce myself to the editors, if they were still around the office. I got the feeling that it was an unofficial part of the process: if I could get the other editors to co-sign me, I’d have a better chance of getting the job.
I popped into Smokey’s office.
“Can I close the door?” I asked.
Smokey looked at me, puzzled. But then gestured for me to close the door.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I just had a really good conversation with Selwyn…”
Smokey didn’t look up from his computer monitor.
“Oh yeah? What about…”
“Well,” I said. “What would you think of having me on staff…as a staff writer?”
Smokey looked me dead in the eye.
“What would I think? I think we don’t need a staff writer. And if we did, I’m not sure you’d be the right person for the job. You’re not ready.”
Tears welled up in my eyes immediately. I nodded and tucked my tongue into my cheek to keep them from falling out.
“But if that’s what Selwyn wants,” Smokey said, shrugging his shoulders. “Whatever.”
I did end up getting the job. And my cubicle was directly in front of Smokey’s office. Everyday, when he came in to the office, loudly blaring on his cell phone, I buried my head so he wouldn’t notice me. I kept thinking of what he said: you’re not ready.
I’d show him who wasn’t ready.
I did a slew of short news pieces for the front of the book. I pitched, researched and reported my butt off. Selwyn, a man of very little words, squeezed my shoulder one afternoon after my first issue came out and whispered: good work.
But Smokey would not assign me a feature in the music department. I wrote for News, Culture and Politics. But I was working at the number one music magazine in the country. And the music editor wasn’t feeling me. I’d be lucky to write a singles review.
I’d been there a while. And one day, we all sat around the rickety conference room table and each editor went over what stories would appear in their section and which writers were being assigned to the stories.
Smokey went over his section.
“And of course, Eve is the hottest thing in hip-hop right now,” he said. “Her album is dropping soon. We’re doing a feature on her. I hear Blaze is putting her on the cover. So our story’s gotta be tight…”
Smokey looked up from his paperwork. He turned to the side and jutted his chin in my direction.
“Our new staff writer’s been working hard.”
I peeked over and saw that Smokey had a few of my stories in front of him.
“I think it’s time we assign her a feature. So I’m assigning
the Eve story…”
Selwyn just nodded and scribbled my name. The meeting went on. I just mouthed the word thanks to Smokey and tried to keep my heart from leaping out of my chest.
And so I began writing for Smokey.
He quit his gig at The Source before I could even turn in my story on Eve.
But I’ve been writing for him, wherever he goes, ever since. And I’ve been trying to prove Smokey that I’m ready ever since.
By the time I found myself sitting across from his desk at GIANT, it had been ten years since he told me: you’re not ready.
In so many ways, I still felt like that girl. .
I give him 1000% every time he assigns me a story. He pushes for more secondaries. I find them. He wants more quotes. I get them.
Certain editors just have that effect on their go-to writers.
And so it was. He sent me out into the world to find young Malcolm Shabazz.
And I found him. Serving time in Attica.
I plugged his information into a database for prisoners in the state of New York. And there he was.
For the next six months, I got to know Malcolm Shabazz, grandson of Malcolm X. We wrote letters back and forth. I visited him upstate.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to let you interview me,” he said, the first day I met him.
“Why?” I asked.
“You sent me some of your stories…”
“And that Redman joint? In The Source?”
“What about it?”
“It was wack.”
We both laughed out loud in the waiting room at Attica, prison guards throwing a stern look.
We talked for hours during that first visit. I was nervous. Smokey would want the perfect story with lots of quotes. Malcolm talked a lot—no problem there. But there were no writing utensils or paper allowed in the prison. So half of my brain was listening. And the other half was trying desperately to record.
I left the prison, got in my rental car and wrote everything I could remember for a solid hour.
We continued to exchange letters. He was set to be released on January 23, 2008. And the first thing I thought was I need to be here when he gets out.
I knew that would be important to the story. Young kid, getting released from Attica, starting a new life. I had to be there and see it myself…
I decided to ask him on my next visit.
“So you’re getting out soon,” I asked. I kept my eyes on the snacks I bought from the vending machine for both of us.
“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t want to ask my aunts or my girl to pick me up…”
I felt a lump form in my throat. I could see Smokey clapping his hands together—POW!—that’s great color for the story. Not just watching Malcolm released from prison. But actually picking him up from prison!
But was that crossing a line? Where did being a good journalist morph into being a good…friend.
“Do you want me to pick you up?”
“Would you do that?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I would do that.”
Part of me was excited about adding this element to my story. But another part of me felt like this was an exploitation of a young man with a troubled past.
Throughout our many conversations, Malcolm did not spare any details on his life. I felt myself holding back tears on things he would tell me in a very even-tempered, matter-of-fact voice. He’s the kind of young man that you just want to protect and shield from the world.
And over time, I realized…I didn’t want to write a story about him. He needed to be left alone. He needed some time away from the glare of the media to get his life together. The last thing he needed was me writing a story about him.
Which became a bit of a problem.
Since Smokey was paying me good money to write a story about him.
I told Smokey to book another trip to Buffalo for me.
“Why?” he asked. “You need to visit him again to get this story?!”
“I need to pick him up,” I said. “And drive him to Albany, where he’s going to live.”
I could hear Smokey smack his hands together through the phone.
“THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT ALIYA! YOU THE SHIT! YOU PICKING HIM UP? FROM PRISON?! THAT’S HOOOOOOOOOT!”
I was worthy. I made Smokey proud. Yay.
“We gotta send a photographer,” Smokey said.
We’d always planned to have a photographer shoot Malcolm when he was released from prison. But now that I was part of the story, instead of just reporting the story, I wasn’t feeling the idea of bringing a photographer with me.
“We can’t do that. I would need Malcolm to know ahead of time,” I told Smokey. “And if I write him a letter now, it might not get to him in time.”
“I have to send a photographer. This is history.”
“Aliya, I have to.”
“Think about it.”
“We always said we would send a photographer!”
“That was different. That was before I was the one picking him up!”
“Send Malcolm a letter,” Smokey said. “If it doesn’t reach him and he doesn’t want the photographer there, tell him to leave without taking a single picture.”
“You’ll pay for a photographer to come out there for nothing?”
“Please. Aliya, this is history. He’ll appreciate it too.”
“I will write to him and ask him if it’s okay. If he doesn’t respond….”
“Send the photographer away.”
I wrote the letter and sent it to Malcolm.
Smokey hired Antonin Kratchovil, an award-winning photographer, to meet me at the prison on the morning of January 23, 2008.
“I didn’t hear back from him,” I told Antonin, the night before Malcolm’s release. “If he says no tomorrow, you have to leave.”
“That is fine,” he said, in a heavy accent that sounded Eastern European.
The next morning, I left my hotel at 6AM to pick up Malcolm, with Antonin following behind me.
We drove through a blizzard and made it to Attica at 8 AM.
I went into the waiting area. It was empty. Visitors are not allowed until 9AM. But Malcolm told me to be there at 8 on the dot. Prisoners being released left an hour before visiting hours began. A guard looked up at me.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m picking up someone being released today.”
“Come back at 8:30.”
“I was told to be here at 8.”
The guard didn’t look up from his coffee.
“I’m telling you to come back at 8:30.”
I went back to my car. Told Antonin what happened and that we would just have to wait.
I couldn’t help but wonder if something had gone wrong in the past two weeks since I saw Malcolm last. He could have been in a fight. Or anything could have happened that would make them extend his stay.
At 8:25, I went back inside. The guard looked up at the clock on the wall.
“You can have a seat over there,” he said, pointing to the benches to the right of the room. There was no one there but me.
About five minutes later, I saw some movement in the vestibule behind the first gate, the first place I usually went en route to the visiting room. But this time, I wasn’t going in.
The black iron gate slid open. And Malcolm Shabazz came out.
He was wearing a green wool kufi with orange embroidery, dark blue jeans, black work boots and a heavy coat. He was carrying an open Fed-Ex box stuffed with papers and a green mesh bag full of papers and books.
He looked my way and acknowledged me. He didn’t smile, per se. But he had a look of cautious relief on his face. He wasn’t out yet. And we both knew it. He walked up to the guard at the front door of the prison and stopped.
“What’s your number?” the guard said.
“02 r 4617,” Malcolm said in a sharp, loud voice.
“Date of birth,” the guard asked, without making eye contact.
“October 8, 1984,” Malcolm said.
The guard didn’t look up from his computer.
“You’re free to go,” he said.
I stepped up to Malcolm and took one of his bags out of his hands.
“I don’t know.”
We walked towards the front doors of the prison.
“Malcolm, did you get my letter? About the photographer?”
Malcolm’s eyes went wide.
“No. What photographers?”
“Shit,” I said. “Giant sent a photographer. He’s outside.”
Malcolm stopped short just as we were about to push open the door.
“No way. No pictures. Not with me looking like this!”
“Looking like what? You look fine…”
Malcolm used his one free hand to gesture to his clothes.
“I didn’t get any clothes to wear out of here…my hair’s not braided…
“You want to capture this moment Malcolm. You’re never coming back here again. Ever.”
“Is it okay? You can say no. I’ll send him away right now”
Malcolm looked at me and then at the front door.”
“Yeah. It’s okay.”
I pushed open the door and walked down the steps. Malcolm took a deep breath and followed me out.
Antonin saw Malcolm and immediately started shooting. And then he stopped.
“Ah-LEE-yah,” he said, pointing at me. “Move away…”
I realized that I had been standing so close to Malcolm that Antonin could barely see him. Subconsciously, I was actually hiding him. Like Antonin was paparazzi instead of a photographer hired to do a job for a story I was writing.
I stepped away. Malcolm looked at me warily.
“It’s okay. Just a few more,” I urged.
I felt like shit. Like I violated something. He didn’t want to get his picture taken, I could tell. And he was just being released from a maximum-security prison. So I can only imagine what was going on his mind.
“Antonin,” I said, “You have thirty seconds. Then we have to get in the car.”
It was 25 degrees, extremely windy and snow was coming down all around us in large flakes.
“Yes, yes. 30 seconds.”
Antonin got up inches away from Malcolm’s face with his camera. He snapped. Then he let the hand holding the camera drop down briefly and whispered something to Malcolm. I don’t know what he said but he seemed to put Malcolm at ease somehow. Malcolm nodded and lifted his chin up.
He gave Antonin an ice-grill as he continued to shoot him, with the entrance to the prison behind him. The words Attica Correctional Facility framed the back of his head.
“Ten seconds Antonin…” I said.
“Who is that?” Malcolm said, pointing to a man standing behind me.
“That’s Antonin’s assistant,” I said.
“Antonin, we’re leaving.” I said.
Malcolm walked to the rental car. I unlocked the back seat so he could throw his stuff back there. Before he could get in the car, Antonin was at the car, snapping away.
Malcolm stood rigid, his arm on the car door handle, one leg inside the car, staring at Antonin’s lens.
“Antonin,” I said. “No. No more.”
Finally, Antonin took his camera down and went back to his car.
Malcolm got inside, closed the door and looked up at the prison.
“How do you feel right now?” I asked him.
“I don’t have any words to describe it.”
“What do you want to do right now?”
“I need to get something to eat.”
“Somewhere near here? Or do you want to get on the road first?”
Malcolm looked up at the prison, put his hands together and rubbed them.
“Somewhere on the road.”
I turned on my recorder and interviewed Malcolm for the entire five-hour ride from Buffalo to Albany.
When I dropped him off at his new home in Albany, I had everything I needed to write my story: quotes, color, everything.
So that was it. No need to talk to Malcolm anymore, right?
We stayed in touch. Talked about pop culture, current events. We have daughters who are two weeks apart. We updated each other via text message and email on their progress.
I started interviewing other people in Malcolm’s life for my story, while Smokey thought of the images he wanted to use for the story. His idea was have Malcolm re-create some of his grandfather’s iconic portraits.
“That’s hot,” Malcolm said, when I told him the idea for the photo shoot. “Let’s do it.”
So on February 21 of last year, which just happened to be the 44th anniversary of Malcolm X’s death, I’m in a hotel room with Malcolm, Antonin, stylist Aixa Weeks and videographer Mike Jones.
The images were controversial. But from an artistic standpoint, they were very powerful.
Now it was time for me to give this young man’s story some context. I got to work.
And before I could hand in a first draft, the entire story fell apart.
Smokey was transitioning from print to online. Malcolm would be his last cover at GIANT.
I wouldn’t have enough time to complete the story.
“Don’t worry,” Smokey said. “We’ll put an introduction in the print magazine along with the photos. And then we’ll run the entire story online.”
Smokey had me record video of myself before going into Attica. I kept a blog from the first time I wrote him until the day I picked him up. I scanned all the letters we exchanged.
It was supposed to be a multimedia masterpiece—a chance for the world to know that Malcolm Shabazz was more than just what they’d read about a 12 year old who set a fire in his grandmother’s home.
But none of that happened: the story was never properly written. Time ran out. Instead, we cobbled an as-told-to story out of the many hours of interview I’d done with young Malcolm. The story became a very provocative photo gallery with almost no context.
Malcolm’s Aunt Ilyassah, who had graciously allowed me to interview her, wrote me a stern email. Where’s the story? And why did you have Malcolm posing with a rifle? I don’t get that at all.
My response was wack and mealy-mouthed. What could I say?
For months, I kept thinking, if I write a good, solid story, then it will all be worth it. If I write a good story and get Malcolm’s words out there, I will not have exploited him. I will have helped him. If I get a good story out there, it will have been worth it.
The good story was never published. And I wish I’d never been involved at all.
Smokey called me yesterday. The anniversary of Malcolm X’s birthday is today. Smokey’s all ready to roll out the photos and the behind the scenes footage I narrated.
“Can you add something else?” Smokey asked. “To freshen up the content.”
Freshen up the content?
Smokey didn’t get it.
I get random emails from people who call me a savage for interviewing Malcolm at all. He doesn’t need to be in the media. If you really cared about him, you’d protect him from journalists like you.
And it’s not over. Malcolm recently asked me to help him write a book proposal. He wants to share his story. And what he has to say is devastating, unflinchingly honest and wholly necessary. I’m honored that he wants me to help him tell his complete story. But I still want nothing to do with last year’s media debacle.
“No Smokey,” I said. “I’m not freshening up anything.”
“I respect that,” he said. “I’m still re-posting last year’s content tomorrow….Is that okay?”
“Yeah. That’s fine.”
“And you do have the opportunity to say whatever you want to say about where you stand one year later.”
“All I have to say is that I wish I’d never taken the assignment.”
For the first time in eleven years, Smokey’s voice was soft.
“I’m conflicted about every part of that story,” I said. “And I’m not sure if I did right by Malcolm at all.”
“You could write that,” Smokey said. His voice was still soft.
I’m conflicted about every part of that story. And I’m not sure if I did right by Malcolm at all.