‘Black Power’ and shallow scholarship at the Smithsonian

If I may be so bold, I would like to put all the shucking and jiving so-called “Public Intellectuals” who pimp their snake-oil brand of Black history around the country, which excludes the heroic role of the Nation of Islam in their accounts, I would like to put them on notice that at least one writer–yours truly–will not countenance their shallow scholarship and faux intellectualism. Not without a complaint. Not without a scream!

To put it mildly, I am sick and tired of the cheap 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.

To be fair, there are a few young, curious scholars who (as one told me) “make a living by reading and telling people what I’ve read,” who decry the pernicious exclusion of all positive references to the Nation of Islam’s contribution to the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s and who exclude NOI scholars from their discussions of it. These scholars describe the omission as “anti-historical.” They’re correct. And the Muslim haters are fake, bogus, scholars in my opinion!

Three years ago, I was the skunk at a garden party organized by English professor and English department “legend,” Eleanor Traylor at Howard University. I was rudely escorted from the room when I respectfully demanded to know during the public comment session of a panel, why the Nation’s contribution had been omitted.
Now, here comes the vaunted Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture with a two day colloquium March 30-31 it calls: “1968 and Beyond: A Symposium on the Impact of the Black Power Movement in America.” Ha!

I predict there will be many devout references and libations over the name of Malcolm X, but only scorn and derision (if his name is mentioned at all) of Brother Malcolm’s mentor and teacher, the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
Shallow Black intellectuals and academics love to lionize Brother Malcolm, 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–and to the Black Liberation Movement inside and outside the U.S.–which was his platform for earning national attention in the first place. They do the same with Muhammad Ali.

When I saw the Smithsonian’s 2009 announcement, just as I had done when I saw Howard University’s program in March 2006, I went bonkers! “They’ve done it again. They’ve kicked the Nation of Islam’s contribution to Black intellectual development to the curb.”

At these events they always get a truckload of fake Ph.D. candidates chaperoned by real professors, presenting papers and performances for days on end, talking about the Black intellectual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s—the Black Arts Movement, Black Power and such.

The topics sometimes even reflect the prevailing mood of that period: “It’s Nation Time.”
“Nation Time” that is, without “The Nation.”

As unseemly as it is for me to do so, I take personal umbrage at the insinuation when Muslims are excluded, that all these well educated organizers can’t find any “smart people” from within the circle of the Nation of Islam to talk about its role. Well, call me “ill mannered” then.

I’m not angry at the panelists themselves, they do not organize these shallow intellectual events and call them academic exercises. But at some point some of them (especially those who had personal experiences with the Nation of Islam in the 1960s and 1970s) ought to be curious enough when they go to seminar after seminar and only see the Nation’s contribution referred to anecdotally to at least ask once in a while if the Nation’s larger role shouldn’t be considered.
There are many living, breathing, members of the Nation who are much better speakers and presenters than me, who I will not embarrass by including their names in this personal rant, but I can say that for 40 years I’ve personally known of this Black “militant” intellectual bias against the Nation.

In 1970, after I had seen two of my poems published in subsequent Annual Poetry Editions, and a short story of mine featured in the Annual Fiction Edition with my portrait on the cover of Johnson Publishing Company’s Negro Digest and Black World magazines, I wrote Editor Hoyt Fuller over my joy at receiving my “X.” I had an X, “just like Brother Malcolm” I wrote. I never had another mumbling word published in any publication edited by Mr. Fuller.
But I went on with my career as a journalist who was involved in the Black Power movement, published in the pages of the Nation of Islam’s newspaper Muhammad Speaks. I can still put my hands on my original manuscript—sent by Western Union Telegram—of the article I wrote when Angela Davis was acquitted in San Jose California, June 4, 1972. I still have my manuscripts and photos from the funeral of Jonathan Jackson in 1970 and the murder of George Jackson in 1971.

Been there! Done that!

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 all over again. Like I said: call me ill mannered.

Granted I wrote using the names Charles K. Moreland Jr. in poetry anthologies and magazines, and Charles 20X and Charles 67X in Muhammad Speaks 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? We know that Askia Muhammad Toure was Roland Snellings, don’t we? Of course we do, and the irony is that were it not for the influence of the Nation of Islam and the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad, those giants of our struggle would still probably be known by their dreaded “slave names.”

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. Heck no! The object remains the same, and in some vital ways it is independent of a religious label. It is to change the minds of Black people to realize what Mr. Muhammad taught us: 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, not by the NAACP, not by the SCLC, not by SNCC–as important as their contributions were. “Nation Time” 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 and most recently those shallow thinkers at the Smithsonian apparently want to overlook, and try mightily to ignore.

4 thoughts on “‘Black Power’ and shallow scholarship at the Smithsonian

  1. Brother Askia,

    Isn’t the reason for the silence obvious? Malcolm and Elijah had a very violent split. FOI members attempted to kill Malcolm. NOI members firebombed Malcolm’s house while Betty and the children were in the house. “Rogue members” of the NOI were finally successful in assassinating Maloolm. Obviously there are hard feelings on both sides. What about the silence in NOI mosques regarding Malcolm’s important contributions to the NOI? I have encountered, on several occasions, numerous current members of the NOI who have had bitter words for the (in their words) “traitor” Maloolm. I think you raise a fair question, but you need a bit more balance. There has been silence on both sides of the equation.

    Respecfully,
    IB

  2. Brother Kwame,

    Thanks for your comment. You are correct. Hard feelings remain.

    To your point about silence in the Nation of Islam concerning Brother Malcolm’s contributions, I believe there is a new spirit created by Minister Louis Farrakhan’s openness on the subject. Please, study his in-depth and thorough remarks. His speeches are all available from The Final Call. Besides Min. Farrakhan, there are very few people in the Nation who can speak with authority on Bro. Malcolm. Bro. Abdul Akbar Muhammad, Min. Farrakhan’s International Representative was an assistant under Bro. Malcolm at Mosque No. 7, he has also written and spoken on the subject from time to time. And there are others in the Nation who knew him personally. My wife, among them.

    Otherwise, most of the condemnation of the Nation by those who admire Bro. Malcolm (as though the two can be separated historically) come from people who were never with Bro. Malcolm when he was alive, either inside the Nation or outside the Nation! There were only 400 people in the Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965 when Brother was assassinated. That was the day he said he would present his “program” for the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). I know two prominent Black intellectuals who told me that “they intended” to go to that meeting, but didn’t make it. (Not to make a joke of it, but it’s almost like those who now claim they were at the original Woodstock concert.) Those intellectuals were not in the Nation when Brother was representing Mr. Muhammad, they were not with Brother when he left the Nation, and they are not in unity in any organization today! It’s easy to lionize someone who is gone. The U.S. Postal Service even issued a Malcolm X commemorative stamp. Does that mean the U.S. government loved him? Of course not.

    In an interview, Autobiography of Malcolm X co-author Alex Haley told me that he believed Bro. Malcolm wanted to find a way to return to the Nation before he was murdered. Surprisingly, others who knew him, thought that may have been true. Sadly, too many harsh words had been said…on both sides! Was he betrayed within his own organization by someone who said, Bro. Malcolm did not want a security check on the day he was murdered? Did those words come from his mouth to those who did not check the murderers for weapons? Bro. Malcolm was given mouth-to-mouth by a police infiltrator, the first person to reach him after he was shot. I’m told that’s the last thing to do for someone with an open chest wound! The Nation may have been an unwitting tool in the plot to silence Brother Malcolm, but don’t blame the Nation for his demise!

    There is a lot more to this discussion than simply anger and frustration about Brother Malcolm, the treachery that was committed against him by jealous helpers who surrounded The Hon. Elijah Muhammad, and Brother Malcolm’s eventual betrayal of his teacher and mentor. That should be the subject of a separate symposium, and someone like the Schomburg, or others should present it, and invite Min. Farrakhan and speakers from the Nation who knew him, as well as the prominent biographers and scholars who have studied his life in depth.

    But my article was not simply about Brother Malcolm. It was about the exclusion of the Nation and its contribution to shaping the culture of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Parenthetically, the important contribution of the Republic of New Africa, was also left out of this conference, along with a number of other important figures, including SNCC meber Willie Ricks (still alive) who coined the phrase “Black Power,” later made famous by Brother Kwame Toure (Stokeley Carmichael). That’s “shallow scholarship.” That’s “anti-historical.”

    I dare say that if scholars were to make a list of the 25 most influential Black people in the 20th Century, every list would include Brother Malcolm, Muhammad Ali, and maybe Minister Farrakhan (convener of the Million Man March). If the list were expanded to the top 100 or so, the lists might also include Emam Warithudeen Mohammed, the son of Mr. Muhammad and leader of the American Muslim Community. I also suspect that if the lists from 20 or so scholars were compared, few if any of them would include the name of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the mentor of all the men I just named! I don’t care what you may say about Mr. Muhammad, and his student Bro. Malcolm, and their relationship, that kind of emotional exclusion is “shallow scholarship!” That kind of intellectual blind spot is profoundly “anti-historical!” That is the point of my article. That is the 800 pound gorilla in the room!

    The Nation of Islam is not responsible for resurrecting Brother Malcolm’s reputation. He has legions of supporters for that. To the extent that Brother’s betrayal of the cause and teacher which transformed his life is an obstacle to the Nation performing its mission of “resurrecting,” uniting, and teaching Black people the knowledge of themselves and their Divine Destiny, then I suspect some people inside the Nation who do not understand the depth of Mr. Muhammad’s message of Unity, and Min. Farrakhan’s expansion and broadening of that “big tent,” some of those persons in the Nation may remain somewhat unforgiving of Bro. Malcolm, and that may be reflected in some of their comments.

    But now, 44 years after his assassination, I insist that true “scholars” and “intellectuals” must get over their anti-Nation of Islam bias because the hero they fantasize about, but whom they never followed was struck down, not by the members of the Nation who were rounded up and framed for the murder by the enemies of both Mr. Muhammad and Bro. Malcolm, but by agents of those enemies!

    Peace,
    Askia

  3. Brothers,

    I’m following the discussion on Dr. Ball’s radio show. While I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Muhammad’s intervention, I might suggest that one of the obstacles to a thorough inclusion of the NOI into a history of Black Power is a practical one. For instance, I would note that university-trained academic historians, like myself, face obstacles on researching the NOI as we are largely reliant on archives and personal papers in the course of our research. Without getting access to these building blocks of academic history, we are hindered in being able to make the sort of arguments that can refute the madness and misinformation that is currently prevalent.

    While much of the existing literature that exists is dated, warped, and inaccurate, these omissions are paralleled by the fact that there are not many opportunities to get access to the NOI’s records. Where are the NOI’s archives? Where are Elijah Muhammad’s personal papers held? What materials, aside from Muhammad Speaks and Final Call, can one get access to in the course of doing one’s research?

    While I’m sure there are good reasons why these materials are not easily accessible, I think the lack of accessibility is perhaps connected to the absence of the NOI in university-trained, academic histories. As contemporary scholars face obstacles in seeking to gain access to materials related to the NOI, they are also less likely to conduct research on it.

    While I do not agree with all of his conclusions, Dr. Claude Clegg III addresses this problem towards the end of his biography of Elijah Muhammad, “An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad.”

    Peace,

    Toussaint Losier
    Doctoral Candidate
    History Department
    University of Chicago