First, there are some sour grapes in these upcoming observations…might even be a case of Playa Hatin’. That said, I proceed in behalf of the countless others with similar experiences who never bother to footnote their experiences or keep a paper trail of their slanders…
I am sick and tired of the shallow prevailing Black intellectual view of the Nation of Islam. It’s not just the Neo-Cons and the White Evangelicals of the World who have problems with Muslims, our own Black intelligentsia have issues with the Islamic influence—particularly the Nation of Islam—on Black literature and culture in the United States and they refuse to admit it.
Black literature and academia lionizes Brother Malcolm X, highlighting only the 14 months or so of his life after he broke with the Nation of Islam, while trying to wipe out his 12 years of steadfast service and leadership within the Nation, his platform for earning national attention in the first place. We’ve done the same with Muhammad Ali.
Howard University’s English Department concluded an elaborately produced yet faintly publicized conference celebrating the Black Arts Movement March 24, and when I saw the program, I went bonkers! “They’ve done it again,” I thought. “They’ve kicked the Nation of Islam’s contribution to Black intellectual development to the curb.”
They had a truckload of Ph.D. candidates chaperoned by real professors, presenting papers and performances for two whole days at Howard, talking about the Black intellectual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s—the Black Arts Movement.
The topics genuinely reflected the prevailing mood of that period: “It’s Nation Time.”
The panels and paper topics ranged from “Black Fire” to “Nation Building,” to The Last Poets, to Sonia Sanchez, Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, Marvin X, Haki Madhubuti, to Women Writers, to “New Frontiers: Black Publications of the 1960s and 1970s,” to “Black Panther Party Contributions to the Revolutionary Aesthetic,” all the way to “Organic Intellectuality.”
Naturally the assembled educators referred anecdotally to the NOI or its products often, but they never really talked about the Nation’s impact, nor did they have any intellectuals from the Nation to talk about its role.
After the final speaker had spoken, I indelicately raised the subject and at the same time expressed my vexation over this omission. I was told that my friend Marvin X had spoken for Muslims. Now, I love Brother Marvin like a Play-Cousin, but with all due respect: his scholarship concerning the Nation of Islam is badly flawed and unreliable.
Prime example. In a July 2005 essay called “Marvin X: A Critical Look at the Father of Muslim American Literature,” El Muhajir (Marvin X) wrote that he was the “Foreign Editor” of Muhammad Speaks in 1970, and: “Note: a few months later, Marvin X was selected to be editor of Muhammad Speaks until it was decided he was too militant. Askia Muhammad (Charles 37X [sic]) was selected instead.” That is pure bogus history, riddled with inaccuracies. That is also indicative of the shallow scholarship at the root of Howard’s English Department’s conference.
I’m not angry at the panelists, they did not organize the event and call it an academic exercise. But I was so angry when I saw that someone had presented a paper: “Voice of the Black Arts Movement The Legacy of Negro Digest/Black World,” that I went and dug out copies of both Negro Digest and Black World, in which poems I had written were published, and one Fiction Edition which featured my picture on the cover and a short story I wrote inside. “Am I not a writer, thinker, poet, intellectual?” I wondered to myself.
Howard English Professor Eleanor Traylor even publicly commended a student for writing a paper about writer Leon Forrest. For many years Leon Forrest was the Associate Editor and then Editor of Muhammad Speaks. He in fact hired me in 1972 and prepared me to edit the newspaper after him in 1973. So, let me get this straight. Leon Forrest made a contribution to the Black Arts Movement that is worthy of scholastic attention (of course he did), but Muhammad Speaks did not? Excuse me! Something’s wrong with that picture!
While I was looking through my files, I discovered my original manuscript—sent by Western Union Telegram—of the article I wrote for Muhammad Speaks when Angela Davis was acquitted in San Jose California, June 4, 1972. I found my manuscripts from the funeral of Jonathan Jackson in 1970 and the murder of George Jackson in 1971.
By the time I had reminded myself of my own role in the struggle, and of my own fitness to recount it for a new generation of thinkers and writers, I was not just intellectually perturbed, I was personally offended. “What am I supposed to be? Some kind of Fake Writer?” I thought again to myself.
Granted I wrote using the names Charles K. Moreland Jr. in poetry anthologies and magazines, and Charles 20X and Charles 67X before I was named Askia Muhammad. But we translated LeRoi Jones into Amiri Baraka, didn’t we? We know that Haki Madhubuti was Don L. Lee, don’t we? The contradiction is, that the Black—just like the White—intellectual establishment does not want to know about Muslim writers, accept when they go against the Nation of Islam.
Maybe I should recognize that the Nation of Islam was simply a “change agent,” a catalyst like the War in Vietnam, like the Civil Rights movement—a completely unstudied change agent, I would complain—which helped make the climate in the Black community receptive to the Black Arts Movement and its new way of thinking. Maybe, I should concede that the Nation of Islam was a change agent and not the object of the change.
No. The object remains the same, and it is independent of a religious label. It is to change the minds of Black people to realize that the six most important words for us in the English language today are: “Accept your own and be yourself.”
That is intellectually and artistically distinct. Name. Culture. Religion. Language. Diet. That is the new paradigm injected into our culture by the Nation of Islam. That is the thinking which the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s reflects. That is the 800 lb gorilla in the Black intellectual meeting room, which most scholars, even Black scholars, overlook, or try to ignore.