MAXWELL: Truth in an ugly package

8/28/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


“(Black people) must remember that we just cannot depend on the white race ever to do that which we can and should do for self,” an old man said in 1965. “Get away from that childish way of thinking that the white man forever owes it to you to provide for you the necessities of life. Should you not be too proud of yourself in this modern time to be thinking in the way of dependence instead of independence?”

Would these statements appeal to “gangsta” rappers, average “boyz” in the hood and black nationalist types? The correct answer is yes and no. These statements would appeal to many only if they’re sandwiched between entertaining bits of anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny and attacks on so-called Uncle Toms. Simple, unadorned truths have little if any appeal for some.

I raise this issue because several readers have asked me to explain why young black people, especially urban males and an astonishing number of college students, flock to the speeches of Minister Louis Farrakhan, Khalid Abdul Muhammad and others of the Nation of Islam.

Their appeal is paradoxical and ironic and, unfortunately, shows that too many young blacks and their adult sympathizers don’t think logically and are too easily duped by histrionics and separatist rhetoric. Let me illustrate. Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam as we know it, wrote our opening comments in his once-popular book Message to the Blackman in America. Remember, Elijah Muhammad was Malcolm X’s spiritual mentor.

At random, pick 20 black males on the streets of any black neighborhood and, without revealing the authorship, ask them if they agree with Elijah Muhammad’s comments. I’ll bet that 18 will disagree, condemning the words as the insults of an Uncle Tom. But let a Khalid Muhammad speak the same words, using Jew-baiting and his madcap style, the 18 who disagreed earlier would laugh, applaud and swear that “Brother Khalid is slamming.”

Why the different reactions? How can Khalid Muhammad say the same words without being condemned? The reasons are many, but I’ll mention a few important ones.

First, he, along with other Nation speakers, is a skilled orator, tapping into young people’s natural rebelliousness. Second, he’s attuned to today’s racially charged, homophobic, misogynistic climate and, therefore, serves his impressionable listeners ample bait. Third, he knows that the Nation of Islam _ its practices, its rigid discipline, its bow-tied, stony-faced soldiers _ has the mystique to attract the curious and the gullible. Fourth, he knows that most in his audience crave entertainment.

His speeches, therefore, are pure performance: crude jokes, satire, melodrama, “gangsta” rap without melody and profanity.

Earlier this year when Khalid Muhammad spoke at the University of Florida, many black students I know attended. Afterward, I asked several what they’d learned. Following are some typical responses. A male: “I learned that Jews owned slaves and caused the Holocaust themselves.” Another male: “I learned that Jews control the motion picture industry.” A female: “Khalid is one funny brother. He had everybody cracking up.”

Although much of what the Nation’s speakers say is frivolous and although I condemn all forms of bigotry, I can’t ignore the Nation’s many positive contributions. For example, the group helps communities get rid of problems like drug trafficking and black-on-black crime, and it persuades many residents to abstain from alcohol, tobacco and drugs. Most important, it teaches self-reliance.

But these in-the-trenches efforts occur in places like housing projects, away from the supercharged atmosphere of an auditorium. Knowing that very few youngsters would sit through a calm, logical description of its programs, the Nation attracts attention by entertainingly spewing malice and pseudo-information at public events.

The essential question remains: Would most blacks accept the core principles of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation if the bigotry and the showmanship were removed? I’m one black who long ago accepted these core principles on their merit alone. This revelation will shock my white readers and my black detractors alike. I bought a copy of Message to the Blackman in 1966. I’ve read it many times, discarded its foolishness and incorporated its wisdom into my life. Following are a few of the book’s insights that I often use as theses of my columns:

“As a people, we must become producers and not remain consumers and employees. We must be able to extract raw materials from the earth and manufacture them into something useful for ourselves.”

“Pool your resources, physically and financially.”

“Make your own neighborhood a decent place to live.”

“Spend your money among yourselves.”

“Keep in mind _ jealousy destroys from within.”

“Rid yourselves of the lust of wine and drink and learn to love self. . . .”

“Stop buying expensive cars, fine clothes and shoes before being able to live in a fine home.”

“Protect your women.”

“Observe the operations of the white man. He is successful. He makes no excuses for his failures. He works hard in a collective manner. You do the same.”

The ideas above _ basic Black Muslim philosophy _ could benefit anyone wanting to live happily and successfully. What fair-minded person would condemn them? Sadly, however, many blacks will accept these truths only if they’re presented as entertainment, rejecting them if they’re the focus of a serious speech or a serious article.

Message to the Blackman has a response to this problem: “We must be obsessed with getting the type of (knowledge) we may use toward the elevation and benefit of our people. . . . Knowledge is the result of learning and is a force or energy that makes its bearer . . . overcome obstacles, barriers and resistance.”

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.


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