05/10/2013 03:50 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

Malcolm Shabazz: Tragedy, Hate and the Burden of a Legacy

When you do a piece of investigative journalism, the rules say to never make it personal. But the truth is, stories as an editor you choose to prioritize, stories you choose to put one of your top journalists on, stories you care about and dream about long before you were ever able to make them happen, are always personal.

Going back as far as 2001, I fantasized about what a conversation with Malcolm Shabazz, the only male heir of his grandfather, Malcolm X, would be like. I tried to imagine who the brother might be, a teenager then, living and struggling with the reality of being the tortured progeny of one of the greatest American leaders of our time. What would he look like? What would he sound like? What would he care about?

So when journalist Aliya S. King told me she had "found him" locked up in upstate New York, and that she would write to him and see if we could get an interview, it was one of those rare moments as an editor when you get nervous not because of what you won't get, but because of what you actually could get.

"Through The Fire," Malcolm's first-person narrative as told to Aliya S. King not only became one of my proudest cover stories of GIANT magazine, and the launch exclusive for my African-American focused news site,, it became a living document of a real life. It was the opportunity for a man to reflect on a personal history shaped first by a parent who witnessed the assasination of their own parent at age 4, and then tragic acts of his own that led to the death of a grandmother.

People often describe me as troubled. I'm not going to say that I'm not. But I'm not crazy...

On the anniversary of his grandfather's death, I brought Malcolm Shabazz together with renowned photographer Antonin Kratochvil to pay tribute to the Civil Rights hero through a photo story that would emulate the most iconic pictures of El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. The feeling in the room that cold afternoon was eerie. To watch Malcolm put on his grandfather's shirt and tie, his ring, hat, and, of course, to stage the holding of a rifle in the window--the same image his grandfather staged 40 years earlier--was completely surreal.

Both Malcolms are gone now. His intent when we wrote his story was to begin to live up to the legacy of his grandfather. Now controversies over his death on a Tijuana rooftop may be destined to become as disputed as his grandfather's was, and likely as conflicted. Let us hope the judgments about the younger Malcolm will be informed by the strongest legacy his grandfather really did leave the world, namely, to always seek the truth.

The tragic death of Betty Shabazz may have been the fault of Malcolm Shabazz, but he should not be vilified for it. The chorus of those for whom social media has given a voice to, who want to anonymously blame Malcolm for not living up to his grandfather's legacy, or worse, still damn him for the tragedy in that Yonkers home, need to listen to his story. He was 12-years-old. It was an accident. His childhood to that point had been defined by an unknown father and a mother--a troubled figure in her own right--who reportedly struggled with alcohol and mental illness.

All my life I had been shuttled back and forth...never knowing where I was going to lay my head or wake up.

There was also the constant threat of numerous FBI investigations that continued to plague the family long after his grandfather's death (scurrilous attention Malcolm claimed he continued to receive from federal authorities even up to his last days). And, ultimately, the loss of his grandmother, one of the few family members who had shown him committed love, gave Malcolm a suffering that had never left him.

I didn't think she would walk through a fire for me...

So rest in peace Malcolm Shabazz. Perhaps the struggles that consumed your life may be as symbolic, in their own way, of those of the man whose life you, too, had to discover through the pages of an iconic autobiography. I'm just glad I got to see you smile.