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.