When I heard the news that Manning Marable’s book, “Malcolm X: A Life Reinvented,” received the Pulitzer Prize this week, I was reminded of growing up in the Nation of Islam here in the District, where much of what we learned as “fact” turned out to be philosophical fiction. Some of the teachings were little more than black nationalist nonsense.
At age 3, I was enrolled in Muhammad's University of Islam, a school for grades K-12, located in the temple that still stands at 1519 Fourth St. NW. 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 across the country.
We were little girls dressed in NOI 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 three 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.
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, it was a fundraiser.
I appreciate Marable’s book for its detailed historical context of the Nation’s activities throughout the country and its relationships with controversial leaders abroad. Much of the information in Marable’s book is rehashed from previously published works, particularly information regarding the lengths to which the FBI went to undermine the Nation. But Marable beautifully weaved together history and compelling new details about Malcolm and lesser-known individuals in the Nation of Islam.
One of the brothers, for instance, who considered his years in the NOI 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 “MGT” (Muslim Girl Training) classes Saturday mornings at the temple, learned to take homemaking 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 NOI at one time.
For as much as many of the things were dangerous, I have long wished to see the the organization’s rank-and-file members and their daily struggles portrayed. Marable shows us one of Elijah Muhammad’s mistresses abandoning their children on the doorstep of the home he shared with his wife. The Nation was — and is — made up of individuals and families more complex than NOI propaganda would allow anyone outside the NOI to know.
Malcolm left the Nation 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.
A popular YouTube video, “Stuff M.G.T. Girls Say, indicates that some of the NOI foolishness is still being taught, but the NOI 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 NOI women as seen in this YouTube video hint at another compelling historical account just waiting to be told.
Manning’s work receiving 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 Montgomery is a blogger for The RootDC. 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.
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