Pulitzer Prize for Book on Malcolm X Stirs Fond Memories of N.O.I in D.C.

Previously published in The Washington Post

When I heard the news that Manning Marable’s book, Malcolm X: A Life Reinvented, received the Pulitzer Prize for it value as “a work that separates fact from fiction and blends the heroic with the tragic,” I was reminded of growing up in the N.O.I. here in the nation’s Capital, where much of what we learned as “fact” turned out to be philosophical fiction. Some of the teachings were little more than black nationalist non-sense.


At age three, I was enrolled in Muhammad’s University of Islam, a school for grades K-12, located in the temple that still stands at 1519 4th Street, N.W. There, I began memorizing what we called, “Actual Facts,” and “Student Enrollment Rules of Islam.” The indoctrination was intense. I was little Sonsyrea X at the time, one of hundreds of children in Nation of Islam schools around the country. We were little girls dressed in N.O.I. head scarfs, and knee-length dress tops over ankle-length pantaloons. The little boys sported close haircuts, dark suits, white shirts and dark bowties to school everyday.


Some of the “facts” we learned turned out to be harmless. “The earth is inclined at 23.5 degrees in its orbit…The average man breathes 3 cubic feet of air per hour,” we would recite in class. Standing like mini-soldiers, we recited these “facts” on command. They drilled us on the dimensions of the planets to give us an understanding of the universe and of our place in it. A noble undertaking.


But some of what we committed to memory was borderline dangerous. “The original man is the Asiatic black man, the maker, the owner, the cream of the planet earth, God of the universe…the colored man is the Caucasian white man, or Yacub’s grafted devil, the skunk of the planet earth,” older students recited. “Why does Muhammad and any Muslim murder the devil? What is the duty of each Muslim in regards to four devils? What reward does the Muslim receive for presenting four devils at one time?” The answer was spit rapid-fire. “Because the devil is one-hundred percent wicked and will not keep and obey the laws of Islam…each Muslim is required to bring four devils, and by bringing and presenting four devils at one time, his reward is a button to wear on his lapel, also a free trip to the Holy City Mecca.”


(No, this is not all from my memory. I still have the original documents my paternal grandmother, who was an original N.O.I. member in D.C. bequeathed me.)


Some of what was perpetrated as fact was outright foolishness. “The average original man weighs 150 pounds,” we were taught. The Nation of Islam charged members a “penny tax” for each pound they were deemed overweight during random weigh-ins. The belief was that being overweight meant taking up too much space, using too much of the earth’s natural resources. But really, tt was a fund-raiser of sorts.


Malcolm X led the N.O.I. during its most prosperous years – when it opened Muslim bakeries, restaurants, and schools in cities around the country. Malcolm X had left the N.O.I. before I was born, but the Nation of Islam he helped inspire and popularize was thriving when I came along.


In Washington, D.C., we had an N.O.I. bakery on Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast, and a popular restaurant on 14th Street N.W. Several of my uncles, who were part of the N.O.I.’s famous “F.O.I.” (Fruit of Islam, the N.O.I. “soldiers” of sorts), worked in the N.O.I. restaurant. I fondly remember the carrot fluff, the bean pies, the fish burgers and fish loaves served there. The whole wheat donuts and gingerbread with chocolate icing were distinct and delicious.


Muslim brothers breezed through D.C. neighborhoods on “the fish truck” selling frozen fish. The popular “Whiting H&G” (Whiting fish headed and gutted) were produced through an N.O.I. connection with foreign leaders before African Americans were engaging large-scale in international trade.


Muslim men and women took pride in building an all-black nation at a time when Blacks were legally marginalized from mainstream America. Many of the N.O.I. members in the District and around the country later followed Malcolm X’s conversion to orthodox Islam, but they credit the N.O.I. with personal training, religious discipline, and philosophical perspectives that propelled them to excellence.


One of the brothers, who considered his years in the N.O.I. his “boot camp” initiation into manhood, would go on to become one of the nation’s first Muslim judges. Some of the brothers who worked in the restaurant and bakery created lucrative careers in food service. Muslim women, who attended “M.G.T.” (Muslim Girl Training) classes Saturday mornings at the temple, learned to take home-making and parenting seriously. Some of them pursued careers in education and excelled in academia. Many of my peers from the Muslim school have had successful careers in media and government and private industry despite our initial indoctrination against mainstream America. The first African American Muslim in Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison, had been in the N.O.I. at one time.


Malcolm left the N.O.I. and denounced black nationalism in favor of a universal brotherhood after his pilgrimage to Mecca. He remains a shining exemplar of strength, courage, conviction, and independence despite controversial personal revelations in the book crowned by a Pulitzer Prize committee this week. His speeches, available on YouTube, offer timeless (yet debatable) insights: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yy7M3x7Ll7g.


A popular YouTube video, “Stuff M.G.T. Girls Say,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVkma2U8EVg, indicate that some of the N.O.I. foolishness is still being taught, but the N.O.I. has definitely evolved. The history of the Nation of Islam is still unfolding. Minister Louis Farrakhan’s curious alliance with the predominantly Caucasian Scientology church and the increasing visibility of N.O.I. women as seen in this YouTube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhuryC-cbqI hint at another compelling historical account just waiting to be told.


The Pulitzer Prize reminds me of the need to preserve the history the Nation of Islam because of its historical impact in – and on behalf of – the African American community.


Sonsyrea Tate is a Washington Post blogger. She is also author of Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam (Harper) and Do Me Twice: My Life After Islam (Simon and Schuster). Friend her on facebook for more stories and insights. 

Creative Writing – Week 4

Consider what are your optimal conditions for writing well. Consider this from Legendary Author Toni Morrison: “I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are at their best creatively. They need to ask themselves, ‘What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?”


If you suffer from writer’s block, ask these questions of yourself: Where do you write well? During what time of the day are you most creative? Then adjust your surroundings in a way that best suits your imagination.


(from the book, “Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas to Jump Start Your Imagination”)

Nikki Giovani’s “Ego Trippin”

Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)

Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)

I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
   the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
   that only glows every one hundred years falls
   into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad

I sat on the throne
   drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
   to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
   the tears from my birth pains
   created the nile
I am a beautiful woman

I gazed on the forest and burned
   out the sahara desert
   with a packet of goat’s meat
   and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
   so swift you can’t catch me

   For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
   He gave me rome for mother’s day
My strength flows ever on

My son noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
   as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was
   men intone my loving name
   All praises All praises
I am the one who would save

I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
   the filings from my fingernails are
   semi-precious jewels
   On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
   the earth as I went
   The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
   across three continents

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission

I mean…I…can fly
   like a bird in the sky… 

I was watching a re-run of an episode of “Different World,” and was particularly impressed by a rendition of this poem. So, I googled the poem and was further impressed reading it. It impresses me as a reminder of our connectedness to earth and all that is in and around it. 
As a Muslim girl in the Nation of Islam, we were drilled on the facts and dimensions of the universe. We were trained and encouraged to believe we commanded control of the universe, because we each were gods and goddesses. Life has taught me otherwise. 

Spirit in Nature – The Bible Says So

“Ask now the Beasts

And they shall teach thee;

And the fowls of the air,

And they shall teach thee; Or speak to the Earth,

And it shall teach thee.”

-Job 12:7-8

Instinctively, I’ve known this since my mother took us to rejuvenate in the park on Sunday mornings.

Marriage: A Living, Breathing Thing

(Previously published in The Washington Post.)

Marriage: A Living, Breathing Thing


By Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery


June is the month we romanticize marriage, right? Reception halls and churches are booked for elaborate ceremonies and receptions full of laughter and fun.  We look at the wedding cake, a mountain of confection, and privately hope marriage will be as sweet.  I joined my grandparents for their 73 wedding anniversary earlier this month, and finally made peace with the fact that love ain’t always romantic – and every year in a marriage won’t be sweet.  Unconditional, unwavering love can take a lifetime to achieve.


“Deac! You two have been married longer than most people in this room have been alive!” said their Pastor A.C. Durant, of Tenth Street Baptist Church in Northwest, as we celebrated the marriage of my grandfather, Deacon Clifford Thomas, 92, and his bride Deaconess Irene C. Thomas, 92.


Their church’s marriage ministry treated them to a feast at home.  Their home smelled of southern cuisine – macaroni and cheese, cabbage, fried fish, fried chicken, meatballs, and more – prepared by the marriage ministry. The table looked like Thanksgiving.  We ate and laughed for hours. I snapped photos for the family album.


One young woman in the church ministry joked with me privately, “when I saw those two couples on TV celebrating their 70th anniversary, I was in their yelling at the TV.” Unlike two couples celebrated in local news earlier this month when they reached their 70th anniversary, my grandparents have been married 73 years. They also are celebrated for their fierce independence. They live alone, taking care of each other.  At their anniversary celebration, I more fully appreciated the wealth of their strength and endurance.


I have long valued their grit and determination. Granddad likes to say, ‘If you see me fighting a bear, help the bear!” Grandma’s peaceful, patient –and prayerful – tolerance of granddad’s fussing spoke volumes.


I recorded video of the pastor and others reveling in the history of my grandparents’ marriage: when did you meet? How did you know she was the one? My Grandparents told stories of some of their newly wed escapades. They eloped when they were 21. The year was 1940.  They told of migrating to the District from Georgia. In the comfort of their home, they shared stories they had not shared last year when the marriage ministry hosted a grand anniversary celebration at church.


“Grandma you told me you pulled Granddad’s name out of a hat!” I said, seated with a small group in their living room. I had not realized that was privileged information, but Granddad laughed it off.


“You keep telling everything, and this marriage won’t make it to tomorrow,” the pastor laughed.


I delighted with everyone as a four-year-old girl recited Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman” from heart. It was a fitting tribute to my grandmother, whose memory remains sharp even as her day-to-day recall becomes more challenged.  My grandmother recited a poem she had learned in 11th grade, ending with . “Give me liberty or give me death.”


Bowling trophies around their living room reminded me of how they built a life together. They had joined a bowling league together. When Granddad took up golf, Grandma took up golf. They went fishing together. When Granddad joined the Masons, Grandma became an Eastern Star. When Grandma joined church, Granddad soon followed. They both joined the choirs. When Grandma took up gardening, Granddad joined her, and they gardened religiously for decades.


“Deac, let me ask you this. When you were standing there [73] years ago, did you have any idea…” before the pastor completed his question, Granddad was shaking his head and smiling.


“One day at a time,” I said. I had learned that much from them over the years.


They could not have predicted they would even live to be 73, but they had planned – and determined over and over and over again – to love each other as best they could for a lifetime. They have told me that in marriage you have bad days, bad months, bad years, but you hang on to the commitment you made to God.


I snapped more pictures of couples delighting in my grandparents’ milestone moment. I took a photo of my grandparents with the youngest couple in their church ministry, a couple married barely a year. I reflected on the pastor’s comment and considered that marriage, itself, must be loved, nurtured, protected, and raised like a child. I considered that each marriage, also, may be as unique as an individual.


“You two have been married longer than most of us have been alive.”


With the pastor’s comment, my judgments of my grandparents’ marriage – and marriage in generally, suddenly shifted. Expectations of my own marriage shifted, too. It can take a lifetime to achieve mutual understanding, trust, communication, and shared beliefs.


Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery is a contributing writer for The D.C. Root. She is also author of “Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam” and “Do Me Twice: My Life After Islam.” Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/Sonsyrea

Celebrating the Earth in Our Own Backyards

Previously published in The Washington Post 

When I visited my grandparents at their home in Northwest, D.C. on Earth Day, they were priming a portion of their yard for gardening, unaware that around the world millions of people were celebrating the earth and its various natural resources. April is National Earth Month, and in the D.C. area celebrations were held on the National Mall, along the shores of the Anacostia River and at parks throughout the area. I found myself appreciating a lifetime of earth-bound memories at home in my grandparent’s backyard garden.


My grandparents, Irene and Clifford Thomas, have loved gardening ever since I could remember. Saturday morning, I sat on a step and watched Grandma plant seeds in rows Granddad carved for her, pressing his foot on a shovel to turn over soil that had become hardened through the winter.


Gardening had become their second occupation after Grandma retired as a nurse from Washington Hospital Center, and Granddad retired as a chef from Marriot.  Planting seeds, pulling weeds, watering plants, and harvesting vegetables in their backyard and a community garden near their home has allowed them to stay productive into their 90s. They grow tomatoes, white onions, spring onions, and chives. They grow lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. They grow beets, potatoes, and carrots. I have helped pulled weeds from their rows of kale and collards.


We have talked about their gardening over the years.  Grandma has told me the garden is where she finds peace and balance. Granddad has told me he hated gardening as a boy, but he has been gardening with his wife of more than 70 years “to help her out.” It has been his love offering.


They have taught me lessons in gardening, and lessons about life based on wisdom gleaned while working the earth. Grandma taught me to pickle beets.  Be sure to make the sugary-vinegar juice extra strong so it retains its flavor even after absorbed by the vegetable.  Granddad taught me to make wine from red grapes they grew in their backyard, but reminded me that the Bible cautions against drunkenness.  They taught me that if you don’t pull weeds from the garden, the weeds will rob the soil of nutrients needed to grow vegetables.


I learned something new during my most recent visit. Realizing I must have looked lazy sitting on the steps as they toiled away in the garden, I insisted on helping. Granddad said I could use the rake to remove the dead roots he was digging up.


“Granddad, won’t these roots grow more veggies if you leave them in the ground?” I asked. He shook his head and explained that the roots he was digging up were roots from the tall oak tree standing a couple yards away.


“I have always loved that tree,” I said staring up at it, admiring its reach and the miraculous curves and twists of its branches. That tree had become, in my mind, a testament of endurance because it had survived Washington’s windiest winters and its scorching summers.  The tree had also been an annual reminder that harsh winters give way to bright summers. The tree had long been a source of inspiration for me. For Granddad, it has been a nuisance.


Granddad explained that the tree in question, a stately oak, had been only two feet tall when they moved into the house some 60 years ago. But as the tree grew, the reach of its roots threatened the vegetable roots underground and its heavy, looming branches pose a risk to electrical power lines.


“But it’s given you so much shade,” I reminded him.


He looked up at the tree. “I should have cut that thing down a long time ago,” he said.  “Ya’ll can get some money for it now, though. That’s good oak. That’s a lot of lumber somebody will pay for.”


Aaaah, there was a bit of common ground between us. We agreed that the tree has value. We simply did not wholly agree on what that value is – inspiration or income?


I have watched my grandparents keep their grocery bills to a minimum by gardening. They also canned and froze foods from their garden to sustain them through winter months. They shared fresh corn and corn-chowder they made with family and friends. They used greens and green beans from their garden for Thanksgiving and Christmas family feasts. I have watched them recycle egg shells, coffee grinds, and fruit and vegetable peels as compost to feed the soil that would continue to feed them, their friends and their family.

Saturday morning, I had gone to the Annapolis Wild Bird Center for an Earth Day celebration, but a personal celebration of the earth unfolded for me naturally back home in my grandparents’ own back yard.


D.C. has many community gardens where residents can enjoy and fully appreciate the earth. For a list of D.C.’s community gardens, click here: http://fieldtoforknetwork.org/community-gardens/.


Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery is a Washington Post blogger. She is also author of Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam (Harper) and Do Me Twice: My Life After Islam (Simon and Schuster). Follow her on Twitter @Sonsyrea. 

Creative Writing – Week 3

Have fun. Take out a couple sheets of paper – or go to your computer – and do this: Trace a five dollar bill through five the lives of five different owners.

What was exchanged in the transaction? How much – or how little – did each transaction mean to the owner involved? Give yourself only 15 minutes for this exercise. It’s just for fun.

If the bill doesn’t make it through five people in 15 minutes, that’s fine. If you had fun with this you’re a success! (from the book: “The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas to Jump Start Your Imagination” by Jason Rekulak)