… And an Exodus (Entry #23)
After having my world rocked by the Philadelphia trip, I return to the cold barren Valley. It’s winter break, and there not much happening. The buses are running infrequently, and there isn’t much to do other than hunker down and hibernate. This would be a particularly brutal winter. Nonetheless, I did love the blizzards. Even as a kid, I liked blizzards not only because it meant a day or two off from school, but they served as a reminder that someone other than “man” was in control.
By the time the students return from the winter break, and the Happy Valley has regained some vitality, it is almost February. And February is Black History month. It was then that my black nationalist sympathies underwent an accelerated transmutation. My “unconventional” views about race and black identity were significantly influenced by what would occur that month.
I am a person who demands intellectual clarity. This is why I found non-Islamic and quasi-Islamic doctrines inadequate for me. I could not believe that the Creator of the universe is a human being, or a or a statue, or the sun, or the moon, or a “force of energy” inside our bodies. The Creator is Greater than everything else, and the Creator absolutely does not need or resemble the creations. The Creator, and the Creator alone, deserves to be worshiped. This is what Muslims believe about God, and this is the reason why I became a Muslim.
I like to see and understand things for what they are. And ideally—in spite of my character flaws—I want my behavior to conform with the truth. I would like to think that I have this same attitude towards race and identity. I want to think about racial matters in a clear and honest way. Growing up I could not help but notice the differences between black and white cultures (and, yes, I am going to dare make generalities… so, reader, get over it). I could see that white racism was motivated to a large degree by the BEHAVIOR of black folks as much as “pure” white racism. After all, East Asians were not regarded the same way as were blacks (or Puerto Ricans, for that matter) by white people. To the contrary, white folks often admired Asians. Also, I realized that it was black BEHAVIOR that kept us at the bottom of the social order, more so than white racism.
When I had my “Great Racial Awakening” upon reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X after my first year at Amherst, I finally understood WHY black people were the way they were. Something had happened to us on those slave ships and on the plantations that distinguished us from the rest of America. And this distinction has defined us. During slavery, black men were humiliated, and black women were degraded; psyches were broken, and we were left to be consumed by a culture of self-hatred that was passed down from generation to generation. Black (social) inferiority was not the result of some sort of genetic deficiency. It was the legacy of a socially engineered slave culture that was not designed to ever be functional—to ever challenge the white hegemony. This line of reasoning explained a lot to me, and it complied with what I saw as the truth. This was not to excuse black pathology and dysfunction, but it was to explain it—and explaining is not the same as excusing.
As I said before, one of the appeals of the so-called Nation of Islam1, was that it was EXTREMELY critical of black culture. Malcolm X, a product of the Nation said:
“The black man in the ghettoes, for instance, has to start self-correcting his own material, moral, and spiritual defects and evils. The black man needs to start his own program to get rid of drunkenness, drug addiction, and prostitution. THE BLACK MAN IN AMERICA HAS TO LIFT UP HIS OWN SENSE OF VALUES.”
And what could be seen amongst the followers of Elijah Muhammad were a people who were committed to living disciplined lives. They had (moral) standards that the members were expected to live by—and as a result, the so-called “Black Muslims” (who were not, of course, Muslims in reality) had the respect of black and white folks alike. The Nation did not overlook or excuse the prevalent self-destructive behavior in the “hood.” To the contrary, it challenged black men to step up and be men and take responsibility for the black condition.
I say that to say with the growth of hyper-liberalism among the black leadership—with the occasional Uncle Tom thrown in for black folk to hiss at—the concept of morality and discipline has been removed from the discourse regarding the improvement of the black condition. The discourse has been subsumed with litanies about the evils of white racism… and the need for more and more government handouts. Even at the zenith of my red-black-and-greenism, I could not turn a blind eye to the counterproductive behavior of black folk. For instance, on the one hand, you would have folks talking of grand conspiracies about black genocide, and on the other hand, these same folks would feel compelled to have “parties” and “after parties” for every imaginable event. A people who are serious about resisting extermination aren’t thinking about shaking their rumps at two o’clock in the morning. They are thinking about getting organized and building institutions that can safeguard their existence—and their children’s existence.
Upon studying a book covering “The Personal Obligatory Knowledge” (of Islam), with the “Teacher,” I finally felt I had a sound standard by which to judge myself and others. Many of the Islamic rulings contained therein seemed common sense and were in line with how I was raised: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t show-off, don’t brag, don’t cheat, don’t do drugs, stand up for worthy principles—even if they are not popular. The black “get-over” mentality just doesn’t work in Islam. And although black folk have not been treated equally in America, it does not justify that one cheat or steal from whites folks (or anyone else). In Islam, a wrong should not be reciprocated by another wrong. With the Personal Obligatory Knowledge, it became clear that if black folk (genuinely) wanted to improve their condition, they would have to get serious about obeying their Creator.
With that said, during February Bobby Seale came to Mount Holyoke. Mount Holyoke and Smith are two elite all-female colleges in the Happy Valley. Having become a big fan of the Black Panthers during the summer of my “Racial Awakening,” I wanted to see what the former chairman of the BPP had to say. This would be my first “black social event” since the summer. I was at an all-women’s college, I was single, and I was having a difficult time controlling my organs of sight. I had been striving very conscientiously to avoid the “lustful looks,” but under those circumstances—and my weaknesses—it was difficult to resist. I say that not to broadcast some sins committed years ago, but that it was becoming clear to me that black folk could not have a build stable communities if their nafs (lower self) were constantly agitated by carnality—and I say that as someone one who was consciously trying to resist his lower impulses. This experience was very different from the sort of modest and subdued environment I had become accustomed to while with the Muslims.
As for Bobby Seale, his professing “humanism” as his (then) current philosophy, brought me to the realization that black nationalism was not necessarily a phase one passes through to reach the Truth. Seale knew about Malcolm, and there had been plenty of Sunni (and self-professed Sunnis) in the black community, yet somehow, Bobby Seale was satisfied with humanism? The speech drove home the fact that the black nationalists (or black humanists, for that matter) could not adequately answer the big questions I had–the questions about God, about the purpose of life, about death and the Hereafter—or about the role of Prophet Muhammad in the history of the world. To content oneself with “humanism” after knowing about the message of the Prophet Muhammad seemed like the ultimate sell-out and betrayal of the soul.
On another occasion that month, I attended a play at UMASS. It was about what was happening to the urban black male. This was during the time when the crack plague was ravaging the inner cities of the Northeast. An untold number of young black males had become crack addicts or crack dealers or had been incarcerated for either selling crack or committing other crimes to sustain their crack habits. And, of course, there was the black on black carnage that was taking place because of the street level drug wars for crack. Young black males were killing each other by the thousands annually in drug turf wars.
I don’t remember much about the play, but I remember the feeling. I remember a general sense of despair—despair not only from the actors but from the audience. I wasn’t feeling it, per se, but the people around me were. There was this nearly overwhelming sense of victimization. And this was something that I could never relate to in black culture. As a child, I did very well in school—better than most if not all the white kids. I didn’t feel they were smarter than me, and I felt that I could do whatever they could do. Later, when I became racially conscious, I realized that I had been done wrong—in a PROFOUND manner—but I didn’t feel like there was nothing I could do about it. I knew I had to empower myself through knowledge and discipline, be wiser, and do better. I knew I was up against powerful interests and institutions. I did not, however, feel defeated.
I had never been the kind of person to just allow my reason to be overwhelmed by emotions. I didn’t see any benefit in it. And I think this was in part due to have never been to church. The black church, in particular, is a place of unadulterated emotionalism. The black church encourages folk to harbor pain and then release those pent up feelings during the Sunday morning services. The black church, however as a rule, does not encourage black folks to discipline themselves so as to avoid the CAUSES of those pains. A person who is disciplined and orderly is a whole lot less likely to have a bunch of drama in his life or feel the need for weekly emotional purges. Instead, the person will live by the dictates of reason and strive to rationally solve his problems—and not just emotionally wish his problems would somehow magically vanish… or that the white man would have a change of heart and come along and fix them. It made no sense to me to think that one could cry or beg his way to manhood and freedom.
At the end of February, the Mentor and I take a trip to the University of Kansas for what was called (if I remember correctly) “The Big Eight Black Student Conference.” African-American college students from all over the Midwest would be there in attendance. The Mentor was going to do a presentation and had a table for selling his goods. I was to watch watch the table and try to sell some books (which I shouldn’t have been selling), incense, and oils, which was the standard fare of what one used to find amongst Muslim vendors back in the day.
On a side note, we rode with Sonya Sanchez from the airport to the university. On the way, she was like a griot filling us in on that black history that isn’t found in books. Also, I have to say that she was the most powerful speaker I have ever seen (with the exception of one Shaykh I saw give a khutbah (sermon) when I first arrived in Beirut). There were 700 people in the room, and you could literally (almost) hear a pin drop. We were all, I think, spellbound. Her subject matter was the same as the play I had attended earlier in the month: something was going on on the streets of black America. Something was going on with the black male and the crack plague. Something, perhaps, irrevocable was going on. A seismic social shift was taking place.
(This has some very graphic lyrics, but this is the reality of what crack addiction did to a multitude of people at the time of which I am speaking):
As for me at the vending table, it was torture. It was Ramadan; I considered myself to be fasting; and I was, again, having ocular problems. Once more, there I was, a young single guy, totally committed to the idea of marriage (but with no practical means to get married), in a sea of (many) attractive black females. It wasn’t only my weakness, however; it was the nature of the entire scene. To call it a “meat market” would be an understatement. It was more like as if someone had chummed the sea red and sent the sharks into a feeding frenzy. There was no shyness or modesty in how the males approached the females—or how the females allowed themselves to be approached. Something just isn’t right here. I am striving to be “righteous”—but this environment is only conducive to its opposite. It is getting clearer to me that a culture that doesn’t value self-restraint, especially a culture that is already “behind in the societal race,” isn’t going to be able to compete with cultures that are more well-established or more disciplined.
Furthermore, it was clear, given what Sonya Sanchez and other speakers were saying, that a somewhat “soft genocide” was taking place in (or against) black America. But the black males (the overwhelming majority, at least) were concerned only about being “gash men.” I was sitting at a table full of books on black social movements, black politics, black empowerment, and black history—but the black folk (the males, in particular) were not interested in that. They were more concerned about where they could put their reproductive organs than they were about the issue of black survival in America.
At the end of the day, I am released from the “torture table,” and the Mentor and I go down to the campus Islamic center.2 As I said, it was Ramadan. We enter the building and there are men sitting on the floor chatting and eating. There are people of all different colors, from different nations, speaking different languages, and enjoying each others company. I felt that I was experiencing a micro-version of the Malcolm X’s Hajj experience. But instead seeing an alternative to the racism of white America, I was seeing an alternative to the lack of moral structure in black America. After being amongst “my racial kinfolk” and witnessing their petty scheming for boudoir conquests–and my own struggle with my nafs (lower self)—I enter an environment of tranquility. I can now find the stillness within. “With hardship comes relief. Certainly with hardship comes relief.” I am making an exodus from “blackness.” I have found my people. This is where I want to be.
1This does not free this organization from numerous doctrinal deviance: http://facetofloor.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/refutation-of-farrakhanism-the-so-called-nation-of-islam/
2For the record, I do not know what school of thought or school of doctrine prevailed there at the Islamic center. What was of note was just the difference between the two cultures (i.e., general African-American culture and Muslim culture).