Nationalism of Fools

Farrakhan Brings It All Back Home

In the wake of Malcolm X's assassination and canonization came the costume balls of cultural nationalism and the loudest saber rattlers of them all, the Black Panther Party. Both persuasions rose from the ashes of the urban riots, each dominated by egomaniacs who brooked no criticism, defining all skeptics as Uncle Toms. They gathered thunder as the civil rights movement floundered. The remarkable Bob Moses of SNCC abdicated following the murders of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney. The organization became a shambles as white support was driven out. Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown devoted their efforts to inflammatory rabble rousing, encouraging the anarchy of urban "revolts." King was felled in Memphis. American then endured the spectacles of Ron Karenga, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. Hollywood didn't miss the point: it turned pulp politics into pulp films. Black exploitation movies saved a few studios as Negro heroes moved from scene to scene beating up white villains, usually gangsters, in chocolate-coated James Bond thrillers. It all wore thin as would-be radical black youth discovered that romanticizing African and wearing robes or calling for the violent overthrow of the American government led to little more than pretentious exotica and the discovery that the police weren't paper tigers.

When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, Louis Farrakhan was a member of the Nation's upper echelon. He had seen the organization survive Malcolm X's defection in 1964. So it might have been rough on him when Muhammad's son, Wallace, repudiated his father's teachings, opting for regulation Islam. Suddenly, Farrakhan was back in the world without a filter. Elijah Muhammad's vision had created an extended family of believers destined to come out in front when Allah gave the word and evil was struck down. Now Wallace was spurning seclusion from society and the guarantees that come with apocalyptic prophecy. And there was another problem. Elijah Muhammad had explicitly aimed his teachings at the downtrodden black man in American, not the Muslims in their own countries. When charged with distorting Islam, he had explained that this was a special medicine for a special case, a people who had "no knowledge of self." Submitting to conventional Islam meant giving Middle Eastern Muslims the inside lane. But Louis Farrakhan wasn't about to become just another one of millions of Muslims. The Charmer, as he was known when he was a singer, wanted to lead. And he did: he broke with Wallace to carry on Elijah Muhammad's teachings.

Now, after 30 years of watching others chased by reporters and interviewed on national television, Farrakhan has his moment. Malcolm X is dead, King is dead, the Panthers have been declawed, Eldridge Cleaver is born again, Ron Karenga and LeRoi Jones are college professors, and the factions devoted to urban guerilla warfare have been either snuffed out or chased into hiding. Now it is all his, the mantle of extreme militance, and the media hang on his words, no matter what they make of him. He is a national, if not an international, figure, a man who can draw turn away crowds, get $5 million for Qaddafi, and surround himself with a surprising array of supporters.

The appearance of Louis Farrakhan at this time seems a comment on the failures of black, liberal, and conservative politics since the Nixon era, when cultural nationalists started putting on suits and Marxist revolutionaries sought the great leap forward of tenured professorships. Though black mayors were elected in more and more cities, and many millions were spent to eradicate obstacles to Negro American success, the thrust of these attempts at social change was no more accurate than Chester Himes's blind man with the pistol. The epidemic proportions of illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, and crime in Negro communities across the nation tells us what went wrong. The schools became worse and worse, the salaries for teachers less and less; there were no serious efforts (including welfare cutbacks) to discourage teenage parenthood; and the courts were absurdly lenient with criminals. The result is a black lower class perhaps more despairing and cynical than we have ever seen.

But conservative programs have been equally deadly. While the administration chips away at the voting rights of black Southerners and panders to religious fundamentalists, it ignores human nature by deregulating the business sphere with such vengeance that the profits of stockholders take precedence over the environment. In this atmosphere, Farrakhan's broad attacks are political rock and roll—loved more for the irritation they create than for their substance.

The guests who filled the podium gave the impression that Farrakhan had a broader base than assumed. They included Christian ministers, American Indians, Palestinians, Stokely Carmichael and Chaka Khan. Of Khan's presence, one young man said, "She shouldn't have done that. Her record sales are going to go down. Those Jews ain't going to like that. She might be through." I wasn't so sure of that, but if it were black people in equivalent positions in the record business, I doubt they would think lightly of a white star sitting on a podium with the Ku Klux Klan.

When things finally kicked off, a Christian choir opened with a song and Stokely Carmichael spoke first. He bobbed and flailed, often pushing his head past the microphone. The sound went up and down; some sentences came through clearly, others were half-heard. He attacked Zionism, calling for war against Israel and recognition of the "sacredness" of Africa, where Moses and Jesus were protected when in trouble. The intensity was so immediate and Carmichael got carried away so quickly that the address seemed more a high-powered act than anything else. In his white robe and white hair the lean and tall West Indian looked much like the ghost of Pan-African nationalism past. As Kwame Touré, he carried the names of fallen idols, African leaders who resorted to dictatorial control when things didn't go the way they wanted, whether that meant throttling the press or subjecting the opposition to the infamous "black diet." But then much of what Carmichael has had to say since the black power years has been itself a black diet, a form of intellectual starvation in which the intricacies of international politics are reduced to inflammatory tribalism.

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