Nationalism of Fools

Though it seemed at first only a fanatical cult committed to a bizarre version of Islam, Elijah Muhammad’s homemade Nation was far from an aberration.


Nationalism of Fools

There again were the black suits and red ties, the bodyguards in blue uniforms, the women in white, the aloof cast of the eyes and the earthly manner: the Nation of Islam. Twenty-five years ago it was Malcolm X’s show, though he could never have filled Madison Square Garden. On October 7, 25,000 people turned out to hear Louis Farrakhan.

They queued up outside—the poor and the young, the unemployed and the gang members, the middle-class Negroes. They were anxious to get in and hear someone attack the people they felt were responsible for their positions in the burgeoning illiterate mass; or they were there out of curiosity, intent on hearing for themselves what Farrakhan was about. Many came because they were happy to support a black man the “white-controlled” media unanimously hated. Or because Mayor Koch had called Farrakhan “the devil,” usurping the Muslims’ term for the white enemy—if Koch hated him, he might be lovable, an understandable reaction given the long-standing antipathy between the mayor and New York’s black community. I also think many were there, especially the young, because they had never been to a mass black rally to hear a speaker who didn’t appear to care what white people thought of him, a man who seemed to think their ears were more important than those of Caucasians.

The atmosphere at Madison Square Garden was unusual. Though the speeches started two and a half hours late, the audience was patient, partly out of respect and partly out of awareness that the Fruit of Islam doesn’t play. A fool and his seat would soon have parted. I overheard one young black man saying that he would look at the Muslims with their neatness and their discipline, their sense of confidence and their disdain for white privilege, and understand their appeal: “They look like the last thing they ever think about is kissing some white boody.” After repeatedly telling a blond female photographer that she couldn’t sit in the aisle, one of the FOI said, to the joy of the black people listening, “Miss, I asked you three times to please not sit in the aisle. Now you will either get your behind over or you will get your behind out.” And there was something else. As one woman put it, “Well, what can you say? Nobody looks better than a black man in a uniform. Look at all those handsome black men. I know I wouldn’t want to be in the Nation, but I wouldn’t mind if they lived on my block. I bet there wouldn’t be any mugging and dope dealing and all of that. “From the outside, at least, Farrakhan’s group projects a vision of restraint and morality. It’s about smoothing things out, upholding the family, respecting the woman, doing an honest day’s work, avoiding dissipation, and defining the difference between the path of the righteous and the way of the wicked. At one point the commander of the FOI came to the microphone and said that he could smell reefer smoke. He asked that anyone who saw those guilty parties report them to “the nearest brother.” Wherever the puffing was going on, it stopped.

Beginning in 1959, when the press started bird-dogging Malcolm X, the Muslims’ disdain for white people seared through the networks, eventually influencing the tone, the philosophy, and the tactics of black politics. The Nation of Islam offered a rageful revision that would soon have far more assenters than converts. Though it seemed at first only a fanatical cult committed to a bizarre version of Islam, Elijah Muhammad’s homemade Nation was far from an aberration. The Nation fit perfectly in a century we might appropriately call “The Age of Redefinition.” Its public emergence coincided with the assault on Western convention, middle-class values, and second-class citizenship that shaped the ’60s in America. The whole question of what constituted civilized behavior and civilized tradition was being answered in a variety of wild ways. So Elijah Muhammad’s sect was part of the motion that presaged transcendental meditation, sexual revolution, LSD, cultural nationalism, black power, the Black Panther Party, the anti-Vietnam war movement, feminism, and other trends that surely appalled the Muslims as thoroughly as the Nation did its roughest critics. As much as anything else, these angry home-grown Muslims foretold the spirit of what was later known as “the counterculture.”

But Elijah Muhammad’s counterculture was black. Where others explained the world’s problems with complex theories ranging from economic exploitation to sexism, Muhammad simply pinned the tail on the white man. In his view, black integrationists were only asking for membership in hell, since the white man was a devil “grafted” from black people in an evil genetic experiment by a mad, pumpkin-headed scientist named Yacub. That experiment took place 6000 years ago. Now the white man was doomed, sentenced to destruction by Allah. If “so-called American Negroes” separated themselves form the imposed values of white culture, then moved into their own land, black suffering would cease. In calling for five or six states as “back payment for slavery,” Muhammad reiterated a Negro Zionism rooted in the “back to Africa” schemes of the middle 19th century, which had last fizzled under the leadership of Marcus Garvey.

In the context of prevailing media images and public racial struggle, this was all new. Here were Negroes who considered themselves the chosen people. They proclaimed that the black man was the original man, the angel, and that since the first devils to roll off Yacub’s assembly line were the Jews, the idea of their being the chosen was a lot of baloney. By embracing Muhammad’s version of Islam, his followers stepped outside of Judeo-Christian civilization, asserting their African roots at exactly the same time Africans were coming out from under colonialism and remarkable shifts in world power were in the offing. They declared the white man a thief and a murderer; he had ripped off the secrets of science from Africa. (Muhammad’s ministers taught that Egypt was an acronym for “he gypped you.”) Using the Africans’ information, the blue-eyed devil went on to steal land all over the world, including America from the Indian. The Muslims “exposed” Christianity as no more than a tool to enslave black people, a way of getting them to deny their origins and worship a “white Jesus” (when the Savior was described in Revelations as having skin the color of burnished brass and hair akin to pure lamb’s wool). They spoke of dark skin and thick lips as beautiful, charging that the mulatto look of light skin, thin lips, and “good” hair was the mark of shame, of rape on the plantation. In attacking the Caucasian standard of beauty, the Muslims foreshadowed the “black is beautiful” buttons and revisionist images of race and gender we would soon hear from all quarters.

Though most of what they said was no further out than the mythological tales of biblical heroes, their explanations lacked poetic grandeur. But their exotic integrity made that irrelevant. Just as there is a beauty in a well-made club or knife or rifle, there is a beauty in those who yield to nothing but their own ideals and the discipline necessary to achieve them. The Muslims had that kind of attraction, particularly for those who had known the chaos of drug addiction, prostitution, loneliness, abject poverty. Suddenly here were all these clean-cut, well-dressed young men and women—men, mostly. You recognized them from the neighborhood. They had been pests or vandals, thieves or gangsters. Now they were back from jail or prison and their hair was cut close, their skin was smooth, they no longer cursed blue streaks, and the intensity in their eyes remade their faces. They were “in the Nation” and that meant that new men were in front of you, men who greeted each other in Arabic, who were aloof, confident, and intent on living differently than they had. Now the mention of a cool slice of ham on bread with mayonnaise and lettuce disgusted them. Consuming the pig was forbidden and food was eaten once a day because a single throe of digestion “preserved the intestines.” Members didn’t smoke, drink, use drugs, dance, go to movies or sports events.

The Muslims’ vision of black unity, economic independence, and “a true knowledge of self” influenced the spirit of black organization as the civil rights movement waned. Few took notice that it was much easier to call white people names and sneer at voter registration drives from podiums in the North than to face the cattle prods, the bombings, and the murders in the South. Since the destruction of America was preordained, the Muslims scorned efforts to change the system. Theirs was the world of what the French call “the total no.”

Though they were well mannered and reliable, the Muslims were too provincial and conservative to attract the kind of mass following that would pose a real political threat. Yet as chief black heckler of the civil rights movement, Malcolm X began to penetrate the consciousness of young black people, mostly in the North. While his platform was impossible, a cockeyed racial vision of history that precluded any insights into human nature, young Negroes loved to watch him upset white people, shocking them no end with his attacks on their religion, their history, their morality, their political system, and their sense of superiority. He described nonviolence as nonsense. And he said it all with an aggressive, contemptuous tone that had never been heard from a black man on the air. What we witnessed was the birth of black saber rattling.

Malcolm quickly became what is now called a cult hero. But for all the heated, revisionist allusions to history and exploitation, Malcolm X’s vision was far more conventional than King’s. Where the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the Student non-Violent Coordinated Committee were making use of the most modern forms of boycott, media pressure, and psychological combat, revealing the werewolf of segregation under a full moon, Malcolm X brought the philosophy of the cowboy movie into Negro politics: characters who turned the other cheek were either naive or cowardly. The Civil War had costs 622,500 lives; the civil rights movement had brought about enormous change against violent opposition without losing 100 troops. But you could never have told that listening to Malcolm X, who made each casualty sound like 100,000. He talked like one of those gunfighters determined to organize the farmers against the violent, vicious cattlemen. One of his last speeches was even called “The Bullet or the Ballot.” Hollywood had been there first.

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. America 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 Africa 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 guerrilla 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.

A Palestinian, Said Arafat, attacked Zionism as “a cancer” and called for “the total liberation of Palestine.” Russell Means, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, gave a predictable address about an Indian taking his tomahawk to an insulting white man. Then a golem popped out of his bandana: “When we were in Los Angeles the Jews did a number on Mr. Farrakhan.” He concluded by saying, “I want you all to remember that Hollywood has denigrated and debased every race of people, but there are no plays or movies denigrating the Jewish people.” (Half right, half wrong. As J. Hoberman points out, many movies with Jewish stereotypes were made during the silent era, but the moguls backed off when sound came in, yielding to community pressure. And though Hollywood’s contribution to “negative images” of ethnic groups is unarguable, it is also true that revisionist westerns such as the classic Fort Apache started appearing long before AIM was founded.)

All the speeches were short and made their points. Then the featured attraction was introduced. The audience rose to its feet and burst forth with a heroic sound, filling the Garden with a gigantic chord of collected voices. Very soon, Farrakhan proved his shrewdness, highhandedly using the rhetoric of social movements he would have opposed 25 years ago. When the applause ended, Farrakhan called attention to the female bodyguards who surrounded him and claimed that Elijah Muhammad was the first black leader to liberate the woman. Point of fact, the Muslims used to say, “The black woman is the field in which the black man sows his nation.” But after all, the past is Silly Putty to men like Farrakhan, who used the subject of women as the first of many themes he would pass through or over. “The world is in the condition it is,” he said, “because it doesn’t respect women.” Growing bolder, Farrakhan attacked the separation of the sexes in traditional Islam, saying women should be allowed into the mosque. That will no doubt be quite a revelation in the Middle East, when Farrakhan goes on his promised third world tour.

Farrakhan went on to be consistently incoherent for three hours, embodying the phrase “Didn’t he ramble?” He circled many topics, always ending on his favorite subject: Louis Farrakhan. He talked about how good he looked, how he should be compared to Jesus, how the Jews were after him, how he was on a divine mission, how he would go to the southwest and die with the Indians if necessary, how “examples” should be made of black leaders who criticized men like him, how black people needn’t worry if they were called upon to go to war with America, since Allah would do for them what he did for David when the boy fought Goliath. He piled his points in Dagwood sandwiches of contradiction, moving from the “fact” that whites were invented devils to the observation that if America is hell, then those who run it must be devils; then obliquely referring to the
Annacalyptus, an occult history, with the remark that we have never seen races evolve from light to dark, further proof that the “Asiatic black man” must be the father of all races. To finish off that run, Farrakhan dug out the anthropological findings in East Africa, which suggest that man originated there. Rounding the bases of absurdity, metaphor, and the occult, he hook slid into science.

When Farrakhan wasn’t talking about himself, he most frequently baited Jews. When he does that. Farrakhan plumbs the battles that have gone on between black people and Jews for almost 20 years. He speaks to (though not for) those who have fought with Jews over affirmative action, or have felt locked out of discussions about Middle East policy by Jews as willing to bully and deflect criticism with the term “anti-Semite” as black people were with “racist” 20 years ago. I’m sure he scores points with those who argue that Jewish media executives are biased in favor of Israel, who say that films like Exodus, TV movies about Entebbe, Golda Meir, Sadat, the stream of documentaries, docudramas, and miniseries given over to “the final solution” are all part of a justification for Zionism; who were angry when Hollywood saluted Israel’s 30th anniversary with a television special, and cynically wondered if “those Hollywood Jews” would salute any other country’s birth.

I don’t know of any other country Hollywood has saluted, but a propaganda ploy by a few executives does not a conspiracy of six million Jewish Americans make. (You can hear them whispering into the phone at your nearest deli, “Hey, Murray, I just got word we’ll have another special coming up; spread the word in your block. But make sure no goyim are listening.”) If such a conspiracy exists, how has it allowed South Africa, Israel’s ally, to get such an overwhelming amount of bad press?

Of course, Israel’s relationship to South African complicates the question. For all its moral proclamations, the Israelis supply arms to Botha’s gang and refuse to cooperate with sanctions. This convinces certain quarters that Israel and its sympathizers support racial injustice and antidemocratic regimes, angering those who had a sense of international black struggle hammered into their minds by Malcolm X and his emulators. That sense of collective black effort was a sort of political evangelism, bent on saving the third world from white savagery and exploitation, a racial variation on international revolutionary Marxism. (It was this sense of foreign destiny that inspired the back-to-African movements, which eventually led to the founding of Liberia, Israel’s true forerunner—a country begun for free ex-slaves to the resentment of the 60 local tribes. One wonders how much Herzl and associates knew about Liberia and whether or not they were inspired by its example.) At present, however, it seems to put more emphasis on the interests of a foreign country than on the conditions of black Americans, a tendency I doubt we would see in the Jewish community if it had the same degree of social, educational, and economic problems that burden millions of Negroes.

But screwed-up priorities are nothing new to black politics, nor, unfortunately, are anti-Semitic attacks loosely using that most dangerous article of speech: “the.” Those three letters fan conspiracy theories and push us back to the 1960s, when LeRoi Jones brought a grotesque refinement to antiwhite sentiment by reading poetry that baited Jews on college campus after college campus, to the cheers of black students. Such tours probably had had more than a little to do with intensifying the Zionist fervor of many Jews who had been told to get out of civil rights organizations.

The failure of Jones, Karenga, and other black nationalists to realize their separatist dreams made for a jealousy that floats to the surface in the speeches of Louis Farrakhan, their heir. When Farrakhan makes references to Reagan “punking out” to the Jews or the Zionist lobby having “a stranglehold on the government of the United States,” he is projecting the kind of power he wants onto the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, commonly called the Zionist lobby. In his version, however, Farrakhan feels free to make threats on the lives of black reporters, politicians, and anyone else who criticizes him.

The envy of AIPAC’s influence reflects a nostalgia for the days when so much of the national dialogue was given over to the racial question and the quality of black life in the country was an issue at the front of the political bus. During those years, desegregation and racial double standards were the primary concerns. There was little room for anti-Jewish or anti-Zionist feeling, regardless of how deep they might have run in black nationalist circles. Now the judas goat of Jewish conspiracy is trotted out again as an explanation for the loss of concentrated attention on black problems.

Yet it would make more sense to emulate the efforts of activist Jews that have made AIPAC, as Paul Findley’s They Dare To Speak Out documents, such a force on Capitol Hill. Obviously, black leaders have failed to create a comparable force to lobby for the interests of Negro Americans. The nationalist rhetoric backfired and made black problems seem more those of a group in a self-segregated world than central to the country at large. As one black woman, infuriated by Farrakhan, said, “We should be putting our feet in the pants of these politicians. Get this dope out of here. Get these schools working. Clean up these neighborhoods. Do what we need done.” The Jews who work in Israel’s interest know the secret: hard work, fund-raising, monitoring voting patterns, petitioning, telephoning, writing to elected officials. It’s difficult and laborious work, but it can get results. As that angered black woman concluded, “We can get all this up off our backs if we want to do something besides listen to some fool who hates ham talk like he’s bad enough to exterminate somebody.”

But for all his muddled convolutions, Farrakhan’s vision isn’t small. He wants it all. The world. Who else would feel free to promise that he would tell the Muslims of the Middle East how they had distorted Islam? Who else would claim to be single-handedly raising a people from the death of ignorance and self-hatred?

Though Farrakhan’s address was supposed to reveal his economic program, his ideas about black-produced mouthwash, toothpaste, and sanitary napkins took up only 10 or 15 of his 180 minute montage of misconceptions. They were cheered now and again, as was almost everything he said. I doubt, however, that the black people there rising to their feet, screaming themselves hoarse, roaring as though he was scoring baskets as he bounced his ideas off their heads, followed his content. What clarity there was had little connection to a black American point of view. Though his look and his podium, style owe much to the black church, his ideas were dominated by a bent Islamic fundamentalism that might get him more money from Arabs. But whatever the underlying goals, Farrakhan’s cosmology has little chance of overthrowing the strong tradition of Negro culture, custom, and thought improvised in the “wilderness of North America,” as Elijah Muhammad might say. Few black people will ever believe that Farrakhan is so divinely significant that if the Jews try to touch him Allah will bring down the blood of the righteous on American and they will all be killed outright. As a guy sitting near my row pointed out, “Anybody who uses the first person pronoun as much as he does can’t be saying anything. If they were, they would just say it, not keep telling you how great the one who is about to say it is.”

But Farrakhan isn’t just your Garden-variety megalomaniac. “Louis Farrakhan,” said one woman editor who lives in Harlem, “is a creep. He is a fascist and has nothing to say. Whenever people try to defend him by saying he’s speaking out, I always wonder what the hell they mean. He has nothing to offer but half-truths, he tries to intimidate the black press into a cheering squad or a bunch of silent lampposts. His exterior is clean and neat, but his insides are dirty and his talk is pure sloppiness. How can educated people like him? It’s just laziness. All they want is to anger some white people, or pretend he’s angering them in any way serious enough to warrant the attention he’s getting. Nowadays if you try to bring up a serious topic in a lot of middle-class black circles, people want to change the subject and treat you like you’re causing trouble. This kind of thing is crazy.”

The real deal is that few intellectually sophisticated black people are ever seen on television discussing issues. Reporters seem to prefer men like Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson over genuine thinkers and scholars. Farrakhan obviously reads little that gives him any substantive information, and Jackson admitted in his Playboy interview that he hates to read. As Playthell Benjamin, one of Harlem’s finest minds, says, “There is a ban on black intellectuals in the media. As the ’60s proved, if we were allowed back into the area of discussion, the nature of the social vision would be radically changed, from politics to art. There are all kinds of men like Maynard Jackson, David Levering Lewis, Albert Murray, and others who could bring this sophistry and nonsense to a halt. They could make the dialogue more sophisticated.” Benjamin is absolutely on the money. We rarely get to hear the ideas of black people who have spent many years studying and thinking and assessing their American experience and the policies of this country around the world.

By and large, those were not the kinds of people who came to hear Louis Farrakhan, roaring and cheering until the evening was finished off by an overripe Chaka Khan singing, strangely, a song called “Freedom,” a cappella and quite beautifully. Beyond the podium and not far from Farrakhan’s white limousine were the young women bodyguards, who had stood through the entire three-hour address, hardly moving and constantly scanning the crowd for assassins. They were hugging each other and crying, releasing the tension that had percolated through the long watch. Some were thanking Allah that their leader hadn’t been harmed. All of them were brown and their skin had a luxuriant smoothness, their eyes the clarity of those who don’t dissipate, and behind what I’m sure was experience in martial arts, was the same tenderness a man always notices when women feel deep affection.

Yet one image remained in the front of my mind: this light-skinned young man wearing a camouflage shirt and pants, brown fringe sewn across the shoulders, studded black leather covering his forearms. Whenever Farrakhan said something about “the Jews,” that young man screamed or shouted, pushing both fists into the air, frequently leaping to his feet. Near the end of the evening, when I had moved down toward the stage and was preparing to leave, I looked up and saw him once again. The front of his eight-inch-wide black belt bore a large Star of David formed in studs.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 18, 2005