53 pages 1 hour read

Ilyasah Shabazz, Renée Watson

Betty Before X

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Betty Before X is a 2018 middle-grade novel by Ilyasah Shabazz. It tells the story of the preteen years of Betty Sanders, who would later be known as Betty Shabazz and Betty X. Although the story is told as a fictionalized rendering of Betty’s childhood as well as her activist awakening, it is inspired by real events in her life. The story explores themes of The Nature of Love, Racial Discrimination and Resilience, Personal Growth and Identity, and more.

This guide refers to the Kindle edition.

Content Warning: This guide discusses anti-Black racism. It depicts scenes of racial discrimination and racist violence.

Plot Summary

The story unfolds in four parts, covering the years 1934-1940. In the Prologue, Betty reveals that at age one, after discovering a suspicious bruise on Betty’s neck, her grandmother Matilda takes Betty away from her biological mother, Ollie Mae. Betty goes to live with her aunt, Fannie Mae, who is a loving and devoted caregiver. While walking with Fannie Mae in Georgia, Betty sees the bodies of two lynched people hanging from a magnolia tree. In 1945, just after Betty turns seven, Fannie Mae dies unexpectedly. Betty then goes to Detroit to live with her mother.

She is surprised to find that Ollie Mae has three other daughters: Shirley, Juanita, and Jimmie. Ollie Mae is married to a man named Arthur Burke. Arthur’s sons, Henry and Arthur, also live with them. Betty doesn’t feel like she belongs, since Ollie Mae treats the other siblings more affectionately. They even call Ollie Mae Momma, while Betty calls her by her name.

Betty enjoys spending time with her siblings, her friends Suesetta and Phyllis, and she attends church with her family on Sunday. Church is where she sees Mrs. Malloy, a kind woman who always gives candy to the children. Mrs. Malloy always asks Betty if she knows she is beautiful. This is critical for Betty, who is conflicted about her image, particularly when confronted by advertisements for skin bleachers in popular fashion magazines. Mrs. Malloy is aware of tension between Ollie Mae and Betty, and she tries to act as a buffer between them whenever she sees an opportunity.

Betty begins learning to sew in Mrs. Collins’s home economics class and enjoys the empowering feeling of creating something from nothing, constrained only by the limits of her imagination and skill. She also enjoys practicing on the Singer sewing machine that Ollie Mae gives her for Christmas.

After a misunderstanding about doing the dishes, Ollie Mae whips Betty with a switch. Betty leaves home and moves in with the Malloys. Ollie Mae doesn’t protest. Mrs. Malloy dotes on Betty, and her husband gives her a job at his shoe repair store. Mrs. Malloy has a perfect birthday party for Betty, which Betty appreciates, even though she misses her siblings. Ollie Mae and her sisters call on the phone and sing happy birthday to her. Ollie Mae is obviously uncomfortable with the conversation, but she sincerely wishes Betty a happy birthday.

While she is at the Malloy house, Betty gets a more detailed view of the Housewives’ League, its goals, its structure, and its methods. The League was founded in Detroit and sought to advance the social and economic interests of Black people. During a Christmas shopping trip, Betty experiences racism from various department store workers, and also from a woman who cuts in front of her in line. Afterwards, she decides to join the Housewives’ League junior chapter, and Suesetta wants to join as well. But her participation in the League temporarily ends her friendship with Phyllis, who dislikes the Housewives’ League—perhaps because of her mother’s influence.

Betty and Suesetta learn to canvas, pass out flyers, and recruit new members. She and Suesetta speak at an event honoring Mrs. Peck’s service to the cause. During her talk, Betty says that she admires how Mrs. Peck is always able to continue with joy, despite her loss. She also says she knows what it feels like to cope with an unimaginable loss.

Their success intoxicates Betty, who looks forward to the upcoming, in-person boycott of Jerry’s market. Much of the Housewives Leagues’ efforts in the story focus on convincing people to boycott stores that will not hire Black employees and pay them equally. At the first boycott of Jerry’s Market, Betty is surprised that not everyone wants to hear their message. In fact, the manager screams at them with a hatred she has never seen. This frustrates her, because Betty can’t understand why change is happening so slowly, if at all.

Betty talks with Suesetta’s cousin, Kay. Kay is adopted and was raised on a farm. She tells Betty to view their work as similar to the drudgery of planting crops. Sometimes, a drought could wipe out their work and a season of food could be lost. However, they still had to keep planting, or there was no hope for success. This analogy resonates with Betty, who recommits to the League and also decides to make a gift for Ollie Mae’s birthday. She sews her a skirt and blouse. Ollie Mae originally refuses them, but Betty leaves them on Ollie Mae’s porch and tells herself that she is simply watering the crops.

On Sunday, after Suesetta’s Uncle Clyde recovers from tuberculosis, the people in the congregation express their gratitude. Mrs. Malloy also tells the story of Mrs. Olsen, a woman who knocked on her door that week. Mrs. Olsen and her husband are white. They have opened a bakery and have promised to hire Black employees, to treat and pay them equally, and to support the Housewives’ League however they can. Finally, Ollie Mae stands and gives thanks. Betty sees that she is wearing the blouse and skirt she made for her, and they fit perfectly.

In Part 4, a fifteen-year-old named Leon Mosley is shot in the back and killed by police. The grief weighs heavily on Betty and the community, but they continue to work and to express their thanks to God. The singers Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan come and sing at an NAACP event where Betty and Suesetta are volunteering as greeters. After they finish, Betty looks at the crowd and they remind her of the roots of trees that will never break. She knows the community is strong enough to overcome the challenges they face together.

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