Amy's Reviews > Betty Before X

Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz
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really liked it


Betty Dean, age eleven, moves up north to Detroit in the early 1940s to live with her mother after her Aunt Fannie Mae dies. Betty’s mother, whom she calls Ollie Mae, had Betty as a teenager and their relationship is distant. Betty isn’t quite old enough to understand why her mother tells her that she is ungrateful, ornery, and like her daddy, bad to the core.

Fellow churchgoers Mr. and Mrs. Malloy take Betty in. Mrs. Malloy is a leader in the Housewives League, and organization that boycotts businesses that don’t hire black employees or treat customers fairly. The goal is to, as Betty and Mrs. Malloy say, “Hurt them in their pocket.”


I liked the time and place of this story, in part because it sets (at least in my somewhat naive American history mind) the beginnings of the civil rights movement and the forms of nonviolent protest to a different time and place. Not to say that the Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott story isn’t important, but rather to acknowledge that others did this work, too. At one point in the story, Betty thanks Mrs. Peck, founder of the Housewives League for her leadership as “an example to all of us girls, and even the boys.” Fannie Peck is the godmother of current day movements like #grabyourwallet.

I also appreciate the brief conversations and complications of what I learned in school about race relations. For example, I always assumed that integration was universally desired by black Americans, and it wasn’t until I read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns that I realized that wasn’t true. Mr. Malloy questions the outcomes of school integration in a conversation Betty overhears: “I’m not sure what desgegrated schools are going to do for the Negro man. Let’s think about this -- what will happen to Negro teachers? What will happen to our children who will be sitting next to white children for the first time with no one preparing them? Why isn’t anyone talking about white children integrating into Negro schools? It’s imposing the nothing that we are inferior, and by having our children travel across town, it’s imposing the nation that white schools are superior.”

Period details also make this piece stand out: references to Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstein, Paul Robeson, the Rose-Meta House of Beauty, Nadinola Bleaching Cream.

Issues with comprehension

The title. Most of my students don’t know who Malcolm X is, and I think some of them will take the title literally. (As in, they might expect the letter X to play a role in the story.) Yes, it’s explained in the inside cover, but will my students look there? I am not sure. I might need to contextualize author Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X, and Betty Shabazz in my book talk.

Recommended for

A lovely coming of age story that blends some family and friendship themes with a social protest backdrop. There are some heavy topics woven in here (lynchings, police violence, and riots) but those topics are protected through the lens of cautious adults and somewhat naive children.

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Reading Progress

November 20, 2017 – Shelved
November 20, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
Started Reading
January 7, 2018 – Finished Reading

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