What Time is it?
That summer my mind was stretched to the extent that it could never return to its former dimensions. As I pour through those summer Journals, I see that “revolution” is a dominant theme: Power to the People—with a strong black fist held defiantly in the air. I am down for the cause—I am down for my people. I had awakened from what felt like a lifelong slumber, and now I awaited the black students to return to Amherst, so I could share with them this new found “knowledge of self” that I had gained over the summer. And I wanted to take this knowledge back to my people on the streets, as well. For I thought, if only my people were to know about their history, their achievements, their heritage, if they could get reconnected with Mother Africa, then we would have the power of self-love and the unity to overcome white supremacy, and we could mend our collective fractured psyche.… and we’d have the power to start building, to start building our own Nation.
I was going off into uncharted waters… and there were still lingering doubts: if black people had reached this level of political/social consciousness less than 20 years earlier, then how was it that I—and my peers—grew up so ignorant and mentally dead. Could African medallions and Public Enemy and “conscious rap” be just another fad? It couldn’t possibly be, for once one wakes up, one can’t go back to sleep… at least I thought.
I needed to know all I could about my people and our history. I dropped my Poli-Sci major and went into “Black Studies” (African/African-American Studies). This wasn’t a “career move”—I wanted to find the truth, and I felt that an inter-disciplinary major would give me more flexibility in my quest. I had enough sense to know that I wasn’t going to find the truth in the writings of Hobbes, Payne, Rousseau, or the Magna Carta. I had greater questions that needed answering. I moved into the Charles Drew2 black cultural house. I was going to be involved in the Black Student Union (which I was only nominally involved the first year). I was down for the cause. I was down because I now really understood what was at stake. My people, the integrity of our culture and identity were in jeopardy.
But again what happened? How did we grow up not knowing about the struggles—the recent struggles of the black nationalists and radicals who were active not that long ago? Well, for one there was the systematic assassination and incarceration of black leadership through the 60’s and early 70’s. There was the infiltration and instigation from security agencies, in particular Edgar Hoover’s FBI. But still, even if a few leaders were imprisoned and a few were killed, that shouldn’t have stopped my people—who had become conscious, who had transcended their simple-minded faddishness—from having the revolution that black folk anticipated back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Again, what happened?
I posed that question to a professor I had at UMASS who was teaching a course on blacks in the media. From what I was able to piece together, COINTELPRO3 was a major reason for the demise of the black nationalist movements. But there was also the heroin epidemic that struck the hood in the late 60’s early 70’s. Incidentally, this was the same time that the Vietnam War was taking place, and reports of heroin trafficking abounded from the “Golden Triangle.” 4But this time, things were going to be different—now the “revolution” was going to come via black music—in particular by way of rap: a medium that virtually every urban male could relate to. This professor said that one of the main ways that black political/social activism was subverted in the early 70’s was the promotion of Blaxploitation flicks. Instead of young black boys wanting to grow up and be politically conscious revolutionaries, they would, because of the influence of these movies, want to be hustlers, dope dealers, and pimps.
…This subversion couldn’t possibly happen a second time… could it? Although when I was in college there weren’t many prominent grassroots leaders to kill or incarcerate, black America did come under siege by the crack epidemic (incidentally, this was a time when elements in the US military were involved in cocaine trafficking), and then the gangsta rap became the standard mode of expression in the industry. Black folks went from the revolutionary rhetoric of Sista Soulja and Professor Griff to the utterly degenerate lyrics of the likes of Easy E. and the Getto Boys. “Thuggin’” became the new chic, and this is something that black culture has not recovered from until today.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. The fall semester is on, the students return, and the freshmen arrive. I’m “droppin’ the knowledge” with as many people who want to listen. Early in the semester, I take a trip to New York City for our African Art class. I’ll call her “Delta;” we sat together on the bus. She was my Mississippi homegirl—and she reminded me of my most beloved cousin with the down home Southern flair (she favored her not only in manners but also appearance… to the point that it was eerie). I remember buying a bootleg copy of the X-Clan’s, To the East Blackwards, off the Ave. This album, too, would be another catalyst to what I considered “deeper consciousness”—and a step toward the “revolution.” In Harlem, I feel that I’m home—I’m in the hub of my beautiful people. This is where I want to go when (or if) I graduate from college.
A few days after the trip to Harlem, I write: “I’m thinking of becoming a Muslim.” Prior to reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X (ABX), I had a pretty standard liberal/”Marxist” view of religion. As Marx said, I considered it to be the opiate of the masses. And as I said elsewhere, Christianity was never an issue for me. I knew enough of its history. As for Islam, what I knew about Islam while growing up was people in the Middle East having a proclivity for fanaticism, kidnapping embassy workers, and blowing themselves up (but back then, it was Shi`ites who were doing the suicide bombings—the (pseudo) Sunni suicide bombings were a later innovation). This was how Islam was portrayed in the media while I was growing up. I had some family members who were involved in the W.D. Mohammed community, but I think that the only thing I paid attention to was the fact they didn’t eat pork.
Now, things were different. When I read AMX, I did not immediately take from it, its religious angle. I was more concerned about just learning about black history and what could be done to improve the black condition. Although I admired Malcolm more, I was intrigued with where Elijah Muhammad had gotten his knowledge, and I wanted to know exactly how much of what he was saying was true. If we had been lied to by white racists about our past, then it made sense that we were lied to about God. At the same time, I remained somewhat skeptical of many of the teachings of the Nation, such story of Yaqub, the mad scientist, “grafting” white people on the Island of Patmos 6,600 years ago or Fard Muhammad allegedly being “Allah in person.”
I did not know which “version” (as I might have called it then) of Islam I wanted to follow—although on a couple of trips to Springfield, I considered going the Nation temple to hear what they had to say. My next door neighbor at Drew, who would later live a couple of blocks away from me in Philadelphia while he attended UPENN, had a case full of Farrakhan lectures on tape. Farrakhan’s analysis of black history and the black psyche, American foreign policy, and white racism were spot on. But I was still having a hard time accepting everything Farrakhan was saying, especially, when it came to the more “religious” teachings of the Nation.
It was also at this time that I, while walking through the Carriage Shops in Amherst, I stumbled upon a store selling “Afrocentric” books, and oils, and incense. The store owner became my mentor for the next couple of years, introducing me to many books—much of the standard fare that at the time passed as “Islamic literature” in the States. I would realize later that in that era there was a dearth of information that could remotely pass as traditional Islamic knowledge, and this was (and remains to be) the cause of much of the confusion, disunity, and division amongst the Muslims in the United States.
My mentor had been in the Nation or had joined the W.D. Mohammed community shortly after the passing of Elijah Muhammad in 1975. He did not think favorably of the Nation, but I still felt that the Nation had access to some profound deep secret knowledge that the rest of humanity wasn’t privy to. I wanted to know more. It was perhaps then, that this “quest for clarity” began to take a greater and greater priority in my life. It was also during that fall that I had my first encounter with a member of a splinter faction from the “Nation.” This would take my pursuit of knowledge of self to a whole new dimension….
1For the record, Muslims do not believe that actual men become literally pregnant.