Sophia, the white girlfriend of Malcolm X

Paul Bitakaramire Mar 2, 2021 at 02:12pm

March 02, 2021 at 02:12 pm | History

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Paul Bitakaramire

March 02, 2021 at 02:12 pm | History

The first great love of Malcolm X’s life was a white woman, whom Malcolm named ‘Sophia’ in his Autobiography but whose real name was Beatrice Caragulian Bazarian. Photo Courtesy of Paul Bitakaramire

Long before he met and married his Black Muslim wife, Betty Shabazz, the first great love of Malcolm X’s life was a white woman, a tango-dancing blonde, whom Malcolm named ‘Sophia’ in his Autobiography but whose real name was Beatrice Caragulian Bazarian also known as ‘Bea’ or perhaps even ‘Betty.’ The photo above depicts Bazarian as she appeared in the 1940 Watertown High School yearbook when she would have been around seventeen years of age.

Malcolm’s possible need to veil the fact that Bazarian might have shared the name ‘Betty’ with his later spouse may partially explain his choice of the ‘Sophia’ pseudonym. For what better way to throw wannabe Freuds off his psychic scent and forestall any idle speculation that he might have been unconsciously seeking to rekindle the ‘Bea Years’ through Betty X Sanders or was otherwise seeking a ‘black Muslim version’ of his blue-eyed former belle.

As a high-profile global figure at the time of the writing of his legendary Autobiography, it’s likely that Malcolm was also keen to spare his white former girlfriend (who passed away on 18th June 2012 after a long illness) any unwanted publicity had he revealed her true identity to the scandal-hungry news media.

A clinical search of the web yields some interesting details about this ‘First Betty’. Her 2012 obituary page features a guestbook section where dozens of the late Mrs Bazarian’s relatives have left loving tributes containing hitherto unknown tidbits about this enigmatic lady.

One entry notes her “fashionable style” and describes her as “well dressed and cool looking for a mom”. Another confirms Malcolm’s description of her hair color by reference to her as one of “three blonde bomb shells [sic]” blessed “with hearts of gold”. Yet another mourner reminisces of their “fond memories of Aunt Bea and Uncle Marty” and recalls Bea as “always laughing and…looking so beautiful”.

“Auntie Bea and Uncle Marty were the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire of the Bazarian clan!” gushes another guest and it would appear that Bea’s ballroom exploits with Malcolm may have inspired her pursuit of a career as a professional tango dancer with her late husband, Mehran Martin Bazarian, to whom she was married for 55 years and who passed away in 1999. Bea is fondly remembered by another relative for “wearing a [bumble] bee pin” in honor of her name while a childhood friend recalls “the first time I met her…we were at Rainbow, such young innocent girls, barely teenagers. She was stunning and remained beautiful throughout her life” — a memory which may date from around the time Bea first met Malcolm.

That Malcolm and Bea were together from the moment of their own Astaire and Rogers-style first encounter at Boston’s Roseland State Ballroom in 1941 to the fateful day, five years later, of their 1946 courtroom appearance for their Bonnie and Clyde-like felonious escapades suggests that this long-term relationship was no mere interracial fetish. These two sweethearts clearly shared a love more passionate than Malcolm felt it prudent to reveal and of more intensity than has been documented in the biographical works of Manning Marable, Peter Goldman, Les Payne, Bruce Perry and Louis DeCaro.

And that Malcolm was involved in a race-traversing romance in America’s brutally segregated 1940s nearly two decades before Mildred and Richard Loving were arrested for their own taboo-taunting marriage in 1958 provides early evidence of Detroit Red’s insurrectionary streak long before it manifested itself in his revolutionary reincarnation as Malcolm X.

The significance of a romance as defiant of societal gravity as that between Malcolm and Bea in the racial Dark Ages that was Forties America must therefore be accorded the status of a civil liberties milestone in its own right. In his brazen flouting of racial etiquette by flaunting an upper middle-class blonde in broad segregationist daylight, Malcolm displayed rebellious tendencies that merit recognition as a portent of the political revolutionary he was to later become.

Indeed, given the twisted angst that such trysts had long triggered in white bigots, Malcolm’s bold decision to ‘sleep with the enemy’, far from being an act of self-hating ‘racial treason’, was the ultimate banner of defiance one could have flailed in their faces. ‘Malcolm X’, it now appears, was born long before he met Elijah Muhammad.

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I’ve always wondered how Bea, years later, must have first reacted upon seeing her one-time lover, now reborn as a blazing Black Muslim firebrand, as he dazzled audiences on the evening news with his excoriations of ‘white devils’ for their sins against Black America.

Perched on the edge of her suburban settee, her heart racing and eyes glued to the TV screen, one can almost picture the shock on Bea’s face as the Malcolm she once knew, still entrancing in his matinee idol looks, unleashed that captivating wit and those razor-sharp rhetorical barbs that so effortlessly laid waste to any newsman foolhardy enough to take on this imposing, golden-skinned intellectual LeBron.

How Bea’s mouth must have flown open in horror when first confronted with newspaper headlines about the man whom she may have still regarded as ‘her Malcolm’, towering like a god at his blistering Harlem lectern, and who was now reportedly mesmerizing thousands with his spellbinding orations.

Not in the least bit surprised should we be were we to later learn that Bea, still under the hypnotic spell of Big Red, might have occasionally slipped unseen into the back rows of some convention hall where Malcolm was speaking or craned her neck at the crowd’s edge of one of his electrifying outdoor rallies just to once again hear, in person, that voice that had once whispered sweet nothings in her ear and that man in whose loving arms she once nestled.

For it had by now become blindingly obvious that the Malcolm who, like a leather-clad and Harley-riding black Brando, had once swept her off her bobby-socked feet and revved off into the night with her dancer’s frame wrapped about him, had long since metamorphosed before her stunned blue eyes into white America’s most terrifying tormentor.

Readers of Malcolm’s Autobiography have tended to view the drug-fuelled gangland exploits it details in terms of the comparatively liberated 1960s in which the book was written and forget that its author was describing the world of 1940s America. And for us to fully appreciate just how daring Malcolm and Bea’s courtship was for its time it’s useful to picture their romance through the prism of that era’s biggest movies, music hits and star personalities.

This, after all, was the age of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, of Citizen Kane and Double Indemnity. Of Clark Gable and Bette Davis and Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby. Of Song of the Volga Boatmen and Chattanooga Choo Choo and (I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo. An all-white world before Little Richard and James Brown, before Civil Rights and Woodstock. A segregated USA in which a love affair like theirs was simply unheard of. Think of Malcolm as Bogart and Bea as Bacall and you get the drift. For here was an amour wholly at odds with anything we imagined the America of that period would permit.

Indeed, it wasn’t until 1967 that Hollywood felt bold enough to dare any big-screen depiction of romance across racial lines with the cringeworthy drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn). But to hear him tell it, as far back as 1941, not only had Malcolm ‘gone to dine’; Bea had positively insisted he stay for dessert.

Which is why the dubious proposition advanced in Les Payne’s recent biography, The Dead Are Arising, that Malcolm and Bea’s relationship was a purely exploitative one, simply won’t fly. It is highly improbable that a well-born white woman like Bazarian would have risked an affair with a black man in the pitiless 1940s — a liaison which, were it to have been discovered, would have made her a social outcast — unless she truly loved him. And a black man of that era, even one gifted with Malcolm’s dashing looks, was unlikely to have been so awash with well-bred white girls as to have enjoyed the luxury of dismissing a catch like Bea as just one of many he had on tap.

Oh, and contrary to false accounts of the vast age gap between them Bea, who was born on 16 September 1922, was a mere two years and eight months older than Malcolm, who was born on 19 May 1925.

Bea, whatever may be said of her, was no ‘BBQ Becky’ or ‘Permit Karen’. When police arrested her for her role in Malcolm’s burglary ring and sought to cajole her into accusing him of rape or otherwise pressuring her into crime, Bea simply refused to play along.

Let that sink in for a moment. Here, after all, was a well-to-do (and married) 1940s-era white American female. She had nothing to gain and everything to lose. The police had just handed her an ‘he-made-me-do-it’ pass on a silver platter. She could have spared herself the prison time she eventually served by simply playing the same ‘white-damsel-in-Negro-distress’ card that had cost Emmett Till and countless other black males their lives by shifting all of the blame onto Malcolm. But Bea was having none of it. She accepted responsibility for her actions and dutifully served her sentence.

Now, whatever else her motives might have been, it cannot be said this wasn’t true love. No white American woman of that era would have risked her neck for a dalliance with a black man unless she truly adored him. ‘Sophia’, think whatever you may of her, is one of the unsung heroines of Malcolm’s Autobiography. And now that images of Malcolm’s first love have finally surfaced it’s a relief to know he didn’t exaggerate when he extolled her beauty. With her pearl necklace, pretty smile and classy gaze, Bea looks as enchanting as Malcolm described. They would have made a wonderful marriage and birthed beautiful children. But, alas, they were born in the USA.

Malcolm makes no mention in his Autobiography of whether or not he included Bea in his letter-writing sprees during the fertile years of his intellectual awakening at Norfolk Prison Colony. Nor do we know whether Bea, who was committed to the Women’s Reformatory at Framingham, Massachusetts on 27th February 1946 (and paroled on 23rd September of that same year), ever wrote to, or visited, Malcolm during the seven transformative years of his incarceration.

And we can only speculate as to what her reaction must have been to the shocking news of his brutal assassination. These two lovebirds clearly cared for each other, no matter the unhappy events that finally drove them apart, and Malcolm’s tragic death must have hit Bea hard.

One wonders whether the older Bea ever got a chance to read Malcolm’s Autobiography and can only guess at the anguish she must have felt over the unsympathetic portrait of her that it paints. In Malcolm’s defense, his book was written under extreme duress as he raced to stay ahead of Elijah Muhammad’s goons who were gunning for him with a vengeance they never once summoned for the white killers of their own Ronald X Stokes. It is likely that a more balanced view of Bea would have emerged had Malcolm been granted the leisure to draft his Autobiography free of such stress.

We will likely never know whether Bea ever got a chance to view Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic Malcolm X and what, if anything, she made of her memorable portrayal (as ‘Sophia’) by actress Kate Vernon. Just as intriguing would be to find out whether Lee or Vernon ever reached out to Bazarian in crafting Bea’s cinematic depiction.

Bea was plainly a fine and generous woman at heart who, like Malcolm, had made some mistakes but had learned from them and had gone on to transform herself upon leaving the Framingham Reformatory. And she appears, by all accounts, to have led a virtuous life until her sad passing in 2012.

Like Noah and Allie’s first encounter at the Seabrook fairground in The Notebook, I like to picture Malcolm and Bea, upon their heavenly reunion, reminiscing about the night they first met at the Roseland Ballroom and the spark that lit the flame of what could have been one of the great love stories of our time. And while the star-crossed sweethearts in the Nick Cassavetes film eventually find their way back to each other in this life, I imagine Malcolm and Bea strolling on the sandy beaches of the Hereafter having rekindled the affection America had so rudely interrupted.

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