Richard Brent Turner. Journal of Religious Thought. Volume 51, Issue 1. Summer 1994.
Naming the African-American has been a problematic issue in black political and religious discourse. Jesse Jackson, for example, has recently suggested that black people in the United States call themselves African-American in order to emphasize “the African roots of American culture” and “the link to Africa as a key to America’s relations with the third world.” Suggestions like this one have drawn mixed reactions from black leaders. Arthur Ashe, the late tennis star, believed that “‘African-American’ was much more appropriate than ‘Afro-American’ or ‘black’ or any other alternative,” while Bayard Rustin, the late civil rights leader, said in 1971 that African-Americans “should not be fooled by names or appearances. The real problems lie beneath the surface.” Clearly, the issue of naming is crucial to the formation of black identity in North America. Unlike white Americans, African-Americans, who were involuntarily taken away from their land of origin, have been stripped of their genealogy and their history. For these Americans to reclaim a cultural identity, they must not only reject the names imposed on them by their former slave masters, but also create new names that signify new identities. Since the colonial era, Islam has provided black Americans with alternative names and identities. With this perspective in mind, Noble Drew Ali, the charismatic and mysterious prophet of the Moorish Science Temple of America, issued a universal message to his followers in the 1920s entitled “What Shall We Call Him?” He proclaimed:
So often our various journalists find trouble in selecting the proper name for the Moorish American. Some say “Negro,” another will brand him “Race Man.” still another will call him “Afro-American” … Is it that these people had no proper name when first brought to these shores in the early part of the seventeenth century? If so what was it? Did not the land from which they were forced have a name? … The matter of the various names given to these twenty-two million people with all of the colors of every race of the globe was an act of European psychology. They gave him a name, then defined it as something inferior to theirs.
The questions that these words raise regarding black identity and names permeate the history of Islam in America from the eighteenth century to the present. The purpose of this paper is to sketch selected aspects of this history and to analyze the threads of signification that are woven in the ever-changing tapestry of a vibrant religious tradition that has profoundly influenced and changed political consciousness, intellectual thought, economics, music, dress, diet, and family life in black America. Signification, the issue of naming and identity, is not only the interpretative thread that runs through the historical narrative of Islam in black America; it is also the key to understanding that history in the context of global Islam. The names that black Muslims have chosen to call themselves, at different times, signify subtle and complex political positions in American racial discourse, and in the production of black cultural identities, that are based on the ethos and worldview of global Islam.
The concept of signification, as Charles H. Long has developed it in the context of religious studies, is the basic analytical tool used throughout this paper. By signification, Long refers to the process by which names, signs, and stereotypes were given to non-European realities and peoples during the Western conquest and exploration of the world, from Christopher Columbus’s voyage in 1492 until the twentieth century. Signification was part of the ambiguous heritage of the Enlightenment. On the one hand, people of color were categorized, stigmatized, and exploited for the purposes of economic and political hegemonies; on the other, egalitarianism and the universality of humanity were affirmed by critical Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and John Locke. The black American community was signified during this period as inferior to the dominant group in America. Since slavery, however, Islam has undercut this signification by offering black Americans the chance to signify themselves, giving them new names and new political and cultural identities. Thus, signification was both imposed and self-affirmed.
In Long’s work, signification is a thematic mode, as well as a concept. This paper, however, develops signification into a concept for understanding both the cultural strategies of the African-American community more generally and the black experience in global Islam. The most useful way to see this concept may be as self-signification—the counter-conception to the hegemonic discourse of an oppressive majority community; for it identifies an ideological fulcrum which has enabled this community to achieve independence from the dominant culture. There are two sources of meaning for the term, one derived from popular culture and the other from intellectual culture. In African-American popular culture, signifying is a clever verbal game that has a long, rich, and continuing tradition. More important for this study, however, is the intellectual meaning of signification, derived from Ferdinand de Saussure’s work in structural linguistics. Saussure posits that between truth and falsity is something else—an interface of meanings—signification. According to him, language has a structure of its own—meanings and names are arbitrary. Thus, there are no absolute meanings. African slaves in the New World knew this when they received their European names. For the same names that Europeans gave to blacks were indications of another time, space, and meaning for black people. Signification thus involved double meanings. It was both a potent form of oppression and a potent form of resistance to oppression.
In America, a black person preserved his or her Muslim name or took a new Muslim name to maintain or reclaim African cultural roots or to negate the power and meaning of the European name. The African-American adoption of a Muslim name, whether the person was a Muslim or not, always signified a radical change in political, cultural, and/or religious identity. This was positive and represented intellectual resistance to racism. Through renaming black Americans, although signified outside the realm of mainstream structures, became empirical others—they were not just the product of theory and imagination but real others who had their own meanings and significations. Thus, naming and renaming, in the context of Islam, documented the struggle of people of African descent to define their communities of origin in the context of a global, non-European religious tradition.
In this paper, I will present three interrelated analytical perspectives for the study of these issues in the context of African-American history. They are 1) resistance in pre-twentieth century Islam; 2) the construction of identity in the context of early-twentieth century Islam; and 3) the commodification of identity in contemporary Islam.
Resistance: Pre-Twentieth Century Islam
In the New World, African Muslim slaves were noteworthy for their sometimes violent resistance to the institution of slavery. In Brazil, hundreds of African Muslim slaves planned and executed a major slave uprising in Bahia, in 1835, fighting soldiers and civilians in the streets of Salvador. Moreover, at least one African Muslim participated in the revolt on the Spanish slave ship the Amistad in the Caribbean, in 1839. The slaves’ knowledge of Arabic and of the religion of Islam were key factors in their identification as African Muslims. In other locations, African Muslims were noted for their bold efforts both to resist conversion to Christianity and to convert other Africans to Islam. Mohammed Sisei, an African Muslim in Trinidad in the early nineteenth century, noted that the Free Mandingo Society there was instrumental in converting a whole H. M. West Indian Regiment of blacks to Islam. At the same time, prominent African Muslim slaves in Jamaica in the early 1800s circulated a letter urging other African Muslims in their communities to adhere to their religion. Muhammad, an African Muslim slave in Antigua, was manumitted by his master because of his stubborn adherence to Islam and returned to Africa in 1811.
Resistance, then, was a global theme in New World black Islam in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the United States, however, African Muslims practiced more subtle forms of resistance to slavery. Some of them kept their African names, wrote in Arabic, and continued to practice their religion; others used the American Colonization Society to gain their freedom and return to Africa. All of this constituted intellectual resistance to slavery, as African Muslims, who had been members of the ruling elite in West Africa, used their literacy and professional skills to manipulate white Americans. This peculiar form of resistance accounts in part for the compelling and provocative nature of the life stories of the known African Muslim slaves in America.
Even the slave community noted the compelling presence of African Muslims in its midst. Ex-slave Charles Ball, one of the first African-Americans to publish an autobiography, was struck by the religious discipline and resistance to Christianity of a nineteenth-century African Muslim slave on a plantation in North Carolina. He wrote,
At the time I first went to Carolina, there were a great many African slaves in the country … I became intimately acquainted with some of these men … I knew several, who must have been, from what I have since learned, Mohamedans; though at that time, I had never heard of the religion of Mohammed. There was one man on this plantation, who prayed five times every day always turning his face to the East, when in the performance of his devotions.
Signification is the analytical key that explains resistance in the lives of the African Muslims noted previously and in the biographical sketches that follow, for African Muslim slaves preserved their Islamic identities by refusing to internalize the Christian racist significations that justified the system of exploitation. These were profound acts of resistance to an institution that, in setting the terms for pre-twentieth-century racial discourse in America, attempted to eradicate all aspects of African heritage in the slave quarters by stripping slaves of their culture, thus leaving them powerless. As African Muslims signified themselves as the people they wanted to be in America, they transformed Islam to meet the demands of survival and resistance in this “strange Christian land.” Their signification turned their history, religion, and genealogies into “an instrument of identity and transformation.”
In this context, writing in Arabic, fasting, wearing Muslim clothing, and reciting and reflecting on the Quran were the keys to an inner struggle of liberation against Christian tyranny. Thus, for African Muslim slaves, their significations became “the ultimate test of their faith” in America and a “paradigm for the liberation struggles” of other oppressed blacks in the New World. Their stories reveal that African slaves had ethnic and religious identities that could not be erased by the trauma of slavery.
Fascinating portraits of a few influential African Muslims slaves exist in the historical literature. Excerpts from several of their life stories follow.
Bilali and Salih Bilali were two of at least twenty black Muslims who were reported to have lived and practiced their religion in Sapelo Island and St. Simon’s Island during the antebellum period. The Georgia Sea Islands provided fertile ground for Islamic and other African retentions because of their relative isolation from Euro-American influences. Both Bilali and Salih Bilali remained steadfast in the struggle to maintain their Muslim identities in America. Both men were noted for their devotion to their religious obligations, for wearing Islamic clothing, and for their Muslim names, and one was noted for his ability to write and speak Arabic, which he passed on to his children. Moreover, available evidence suggests that they might have been the leaders of a small black Muslim community in the Georgia Sea Islands.
Georgia Conrad, a white American resident of one of the Sea Islands, met Bilali’ s family in the 1850s and was struck by their religion, dress, and ability to speak Arabic. She wrote:
On Sapelo Island near Darcen, I used to know a family of Negroes who worshipped Mohamet. They were tall and well-formed, with good features. They conversed with us in English, but in talking among themselves they used a foreign tongue that no one else understood. The head of the tribe was a very old man named Bi-la-li. He always wore a cap that a resembled a Turkish fez.
Bilali, who was also known as Belali Mahomet, Bu Allah, and Ben Ali, was a Muslim slave on the Thomas Spalding plantation on Sapelo Island, Georgia from the early to the mid-1800s. His great grandchildren told his story to Works Progress Administration writers in Georgia in the 1930s. Bilali maintained his identity by giving his nineteen children Muslim names and teaching them Muslim traditions. When he died, he left an Arabic manuscript he had composed, and had his prayer rug and Quran placed in his coffin.
Only a few facts are known about Bilali’s pre-American history. Although his surname is unknown, we do know that his first name represents the West African Muslim fascination with Bilal, the Prophet Muhammad’s black companion and the first muezzin. Bilali was born in Timbo, Futa Jallon. Like other Fulbe Muslim compatriots in America, he was probably raised in a prominent scholarly family, for the Arabic manuscript that he composed in America was undoubtedly the product of someone who wrote and read Arabic at an advanced level. The manuscript was a compilation of pieces from the Malikite legal text, ar-Risala, which was originally written by Abu Muhammad ‘Abdullah ibn, Abi Zaid al-Qairawani. Bilali’s work, “First Fruits of Happiness,” attempts to reconcile the law of Islam with a wholesome daily life. It suggests that Bilali was struggling to uphold his faith in America.
Bilali’s leadership ability, reflecting his elite roots in West Africa, was legendary on Sapelo Island. He was the manager of his master’s plantation, which included close to five hundred slaves. During the War of 1812, Bilali and approximately eighty slaves who had muskets prevented the British from invading their island. Some of these slaves were undoubtedly Muslim, since Bilali forewarned Thomas Spalding that, in battle, “I will answer for every Negro of the true facts, but not for the Christian dogs you own.” Moreover, in 1824, during a hurricane, Bilali saved the slaves on Sapelo Island by leading them into cotton and sugar shacks constructed of African tabby.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Bilali’s Islamic legacy was that his descendants on Sapelo Island remembered him in the 1930s, when they were interviewed by the Savannah Unit of the Georgia Writer’s Project. These interviews also brought to light other nineteenth-century blacks who practiced Islam on the Georgia Sea Islands. Although they have been criticized for inaccuracy and contextual problems, these interviews are an invaluable source of information on Bilali and his descendants.
According to Shadrack Hall, who was Bilali’s great grandson, the African Muslim slave was brought to Georgia from the Bahamas with his wife Phoebe and maintained Islamic names and traditions in his family for at least three generations:
Muh gran wuz Hestah, Belali’s daughter. She tell me Belali wuz coal black, wid duh small feechuhs we hab, and he wuz very tall … Belali hab plenty daughtahs, Medina, Yaruba, Fatima, Bentoo, Hestah, Magret, and Chaalut.
Ole Belali Smith wuz muh uncle. His son wuz George Smith’ s gran. He wuz muh gran Hestuh’s son an muh mudduh Sally’s brudduh. Hestah an all ub um sho pray on duh head. Dey weah duh string uh beads on duh neck. Dey pray at sun-up and face duh sun on duh knees an bow tuh it tree times, kneelin’ on a lill mat.
Finally, Katie Brown, another one of Bilali’s great grandchildren, recalled her Muslim grandmother Margret, who wore a Muslim head dress and made rice cakes for the children at the end of a fast day;
Yes’m, I membuh gran too. Bilali he from Africa but muh gran she came by Bahamas …
She ain tie uh head up lak I does, but she weah a loose wite clawt da she trow obuh uh head lak veil an it hang loose on uh shoulduh. I ain know wy she weah it dataway, but I tink she ain lak a tight ting roun uh head.
She make funny flat cake she call “saraka.” She make um same day ebry yeah, an it big day. Wen dey finish, she call us in, all duh chillun, an put in hans lill flat cake an we eats it. Yes’m, I membuh how she make it. She wash rice, an po off all duh watuh. She let wet rice sit all night, an in mawnin rice is all swell. She tak dat rice an put it in wodden mawtuh, an beat it tuh paste wid wooden pestle. She add honey, sometime shuguh, an make it in flat cake wid uh hans. “Saraka” she call um.
James Hamilton Couper, a Georgia aristocrat who owned a plantation on St. Simon’s Island with several hundred slaves, contributed a paper to the American Ethnological Society about one of his Muslim slaves, Salih Bilali, also known as Tom:
He is a strict Mahometan; abstains from spiritous liquors, and keeps the various fasts, particularly that of Rhamadan. He is singularly exempt from all feeling of superstition; and holds in great contempt the African belief in fetishes and evil spirits. He reads Arabic and has a Koran … in that language but does not write it … Mr. Spaulding of Sapelo has, among his Negroes, one named Bul-Ali who writes Arabic and speaks the Fonlah language. Tom and himself are intimate friends. He is now old and feeble. Tom informs me that he is from Timboo.
Salih Balali, born in Massina in 1765, was probably a member of a prominent Mandingo Fulbe clerical family. When he was twelve years old, he was taken into slavery while he was returning home from Jenne, one of the major black Muslim intellectual centers of West Africa. In his African reminiscences, Salih Bilali remembered well the racial and cultural differences between the black Muslims in his land and the white Arab Muslim traders who sold them goods in Jenne, Timbuktu, Kouna, and Sego.
Salih Bilali’s odyssey in the New World brought him first to the Bahamas, where he was purchased by the Couper family around 1800. By 1816, he had become the overseer of the family’s St. Simon’s plantation, which had more than four hundred slaves. By all accounts, Salih Bilali was an impressive figure in the Georgia Sea Islands. His steadfast religiosity may have been the result of Islamic training under Bilali in the Bahamas and Georgia. Together they formed the nucleus of a small Muslim community, of which the members can only be suggested by the interviews with Salih Bilali’s grandchildren, conducted by the Georgia’ s Writer’s Project on the Georgia Sea Islands in the 1930s.
Salih Bilali’s grandson, Ben Sullivan, remembered that his father had received his Arabic name—Bilali—from his own father. Bilali was the butler on another Couper plantation until the end of the Civil War, when he chose the surname Sullivan. Bilali Sullivan also made saraka (rice cakes) at certain times of the year. Ben Sullivan was one of several of Couper’s slaves who practiced Islam. This group included Alex Boyd, his maternal grandfather, and a light skinned man named Daphne, and Israel: “Ole Israel he pray a lot wid a book he hab wit he hide, and he take a lill mat and he say he prayuhs on it. He pray wen duh sun go up and wen duh sun go down … He alluz tie he head up in a wite clawt.”
At the same time Rosa Grant, who may have been descended from Salih Bilali, recalled her Muslim grandmother, who lived in Possum Point: “Muh gran came from Africa too. Huh name wuz Ryna. I membuh wen I wuz a chile see in muh gran Ryna pray. Ebry mawnin at sun-up she kned on duh flo in uh ruhm an bow abuh an tech uh head tuh duh fo tree time.”
Finally Grant remembered one more Muslim woman in Darien:
Baker told us that many people in the section refused to eat certain foods, believing bad luck would follow if they ate them.
Deah’s lots dataway now. Lots uh folks dohn eat some food cuz ef dey did dey say it would bring bad luck on duh parents. Some dohn eat rice, some dohn eat egg, an some dohn eat chicken.
Muh gran, she Rachel Grant, she use tuh tell me bout lot uh deze tings. I membuh she use tuh pray ebry day at sunrise, at middle day and den at sunset. She alluz face duh sun an wen she finish prayin she alluz bow tuh duh sun. She tell me bout duh slaves wut could fly too. Ef dey didn lak it on duh plantation, dey jus take wing an fly right back tuh Africa.
In the biographical sketches of Bilali and Salih Bilali, there is fragmentary evidence of a small African Muslim slave community that attempted to preserve Muslim identities and traditions in the nineteenth century. In these sketches, we also have evidence of how African Muslim women were involved in the struggle to preserve Muslim identities in America. It appears that they played a significant role in this struggle, for their preparation of Muslim foods, their Muslim clothing, and their disciplined devotion to their religion deeply impressed their children and grandchildren. And their families’ memories of their Muslim identities have influenced the significations of nineteenth-century Islam that African-Americans have preserved in their folklore in the twentieth century.
But now, to the point most relevant to our discussion. What did African Muslim slaves’ retention of Muslim names and traditions signify in American racial discourse in the nineteenth century? We know that identity was important to this discourse for both blacks and whites. The act of taking away an African’s name and religious traditions and assigning him a new name and a new religion in an alien land imposed on the black a rite of passage, an unholy confirmation—”branding a mark” into his consciousness that symbolized his depersonalization and his subordinate state in a new social order. These measures placed the slave in a state of permanent marginality, for his old identity was lost forever and he could not acquire a new one on his own. Therefore, he was positioned as an “acquired stranger” or a “non-person” in the structure of the racial discourse. In that discourse, only the master had the power to define who or what the African slave could signify. For a slave to retain Muslim names and traditions must have been perceived by some whites as an intolerable threat to the social order.
For some whites, slaves had to remain “the unspoken invisible other” in the racial discourse. Who they were was not important. What they could signify, however, was. Therefore, some white Americans used the power of signification and characterized the Muslim slaves as “overly tanned” Arabs or referred to them as “Moors” instead of Africans. For people of European descent, the term “Moor” signified their Muslim enemies wherever they encountered them in the world. Indeed the term Moor held complex and longstanding religious and political significations for Euro-Americans. In the Middle Ages, Europe was significantly threatened by the political, military, and cultural power of the Moors from Morocco. It was not until the eve of the modern era that Spanish, Portuguese, and southern Italian Christians achieved the reconquest of their own lands after centuries of domination by Moroccan Muslims; around the same time, Russian Christians finally conquered the Tatar Muslims who had ruled and/or threatened them for centuries. Partly because of the long-standing history of warfare between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades in the holy lands, other European peoples welcomed the Christian reconquest of Europe and connected it ideologically to the new voyages of discovery and exploration in the New World. It was not until 1683, however, that the “Moorish” Muslim threat to Europe really ended. On September 12 of that year, Turkish Muslims finally withdrew from the outskirts of Vienna after a failed attempt to seize the city. In 1699, the Treaty of Carlowitz officially signaled the hegemony of the Hapsburgs over the Muslim Ottoman empire. Because of this history of conflict between Europe and Muslims, Europeans “continued to name all of their Muslim enemies ‘Moors.'”
By the time of the antebellum period in America, Europeans had finally surpassed global Islam in terms of technology and military power, but the image of the “Moor” or the Muslim enemy was still a powerful signification for people of European descent everywhere. It explained the awe and respect that some African Muslim slaves received from some white Americans, as well as the repeated attempts by whites to facilitate these slaves’ return to Africa as a means of ridding America of Islam.
According to Charles H. Long, encounters between the enslaver and the enslaved, the colonizer and the colonized, the conqueror and the conquered produced during the modern period a “structure of experience” and an intellectual problem for both the signified and the signifier. The signifier created new intellectual categories, such as “race” and “Moor,” to objectify people who were “novel” and “other.” At the same time, the signifier used these intellectual formulations to obscure the culture’s real economic, political, and military objectives among black people. The signified had to cope with these new names and categories in order to survive in the context of European domination. However, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they began to reformulate their racial and cultural identities through “a signification upon this legitimated signifying.”
For blacks, both slave and free, slave names were a metaphor for the cultural pain inflicted on Africans. The purpose of this pain was to destroy the African’s ethnicity and to replace it with a racial identity. This is one of the reasons why naming the African-American was such a controversial issue for black political leaders and intellectuals in the nineteenth century. Some of those leaders were attempting to come to terms with their own slave names and to reconstruct their ethnicity. They proposed many names for their race: Free African, African, Children of Africa, Sons of Africa, Ethiopian, Negro, Colored American, Colored, people of color, free people of color, Afro-Saxon, African, Afro-American, Africo-American, African-American, Aframerican, and Afmerican.
African Muslim slaves established a unique position in this discourse. They constituted the first Islamic group in America, and their original ethnic identities and names had remained intact in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were Songhai-Hausa, Mandingo, Fulani, Kanuri-Mandara, Sereculeh, and Tukolor. In Africa, most of them had been professionals: teachers, doctors, traders, translators, religious scholars, and military and political leaders. Their positions in the racial discourse of their time were complex, since their names, dietary laws, rituals, dress, literacy in Arabic, former social status, and ethnicity set them apart from other slaves.
Moreover, the very qualities that distinguished African Muslims from other slaves impressed their black compatriots, both slave and free, because they represented resistance, self-determination, and education. Vincent P. Franklin has shown that resistance, self-determination, and education were the “core values” of African-American culture from slavery to the present. Indeed, in the antebellum period, no other group of blacks in America had a religion that articulated these values more uniquely and effectively than African Muslims. Aspects of global Islam—literacy in Arabic and signification—equipped them with the tools for a liberation struggle in America that in many cases resulted ultimately in their emigration back to Africa. Furthermore, resistance, self-determination, and education connected the religion of the African Muslim slaves ideologically to the Pan-Africanist impulse that bridged ethnic differences binding slaves together and sustaining them under brutal conditions of oppression. This Pan-Africanist impulse, which became more pervasive and influential in black America as the nineteenth century progressed, was the ideological link between the “old Islam” of the original African Muslim slaves and the “new American Islam” that developed at the turn of the century.
At the same time, by the eve of the Civil War, the old Islam of the original African Muslim slaves was, for all practical purposes, defunct because these Muslims were unable in the nineteenth century to develop institutions that would perpetuate their religion. With no community of believers for them to connect with outside of the slave quarters, they were religious oddities, mavericks. When they died, their version of Islam, which was private and individually oriented, disappeared. Unfortunately, the historical record does not provide us with a holistic picture of their religious life. They were important, nevertheless, because they brought the religion of Islam to America.
Pan-Africanism and black bitterness towards Christian racism were new seeds planted in the consciousness of nineteenth-century African-Americans that in turn flowered into a new American Islam in the early twentieth century. This new American Islam in the African-American community was at once anti-Christian and multicultural; and it developed a distinct missionary and internationalist political agenda. It was also part of a new era in American religious history as Eastern religions began to flourish in the United States. Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple of America was the first mass-based version of this new American Islam among African-Americans in the early twentieth century.
Construction of Identity: Early Twentieth-Century Islam
Booker T. Washington, an ex-slave and a conservative black leader at the turn of the century, wrote that black people in the South generally agreed upon two points when they were freed from slavery, “that they must change their names and that they must leave the old plantations for at least a few days or weeks in order that they might really feel sure they were free.” Thus in 1913, when Noble Drew Ali, the flamboyant prophet and founder of the Moorish Science Temple of America, said “the name means everything,” his words surely echoed the sentiments of the former slaves. Their children and grandchildren were part of the Great Migration of four to five million blacks from the South to the northern and midwestern industrial cities in the early twentieth century. Some of them were Drew Ali’s earliest followers.
Noble Drew Ali, the first self-styled prophet of the new American Islam, appropriated ideas and symbols from the global religion of Islam, Freemasonry, Theosophy, and nineteenth-century Pan-Africanism. Although he lacked a formal education, he was a clever signifier who constructed an Asiatic identity for his followers that involved changes in name, nationality, religion, diet, and dress.
Noble Drew Ali was born in North Carolina on January 8, 1886. His birth name was Timothy Drew. Diverse legends have developed around his identity and activities before 1913. Some of his first followers claimed that “he was a child of ex-slaves raised among the Cherokee Indians.” He spent his early childhood as an orphan, wandering with a gypsy group. At the age of sixteen he was spotted by a gypsy woman who took him to Egypt, where he studied in the Essene Schools. As a young man, he then returned to America and became a merchant seaman in Newark, New Jersey. Another legend claimed that Ali went back to Egypt in the early twentieth century and met the last priest of an ancient cult of high magic. He proved that he was a prophet by finding his way out of the pyramids. He was also thought to have traveled to Morocco and Saudi Arabia, where he obtained a charter from the sheiks to teach Islam in America and received the name Ali from Sultan Abdul Ibn Said in Mecca. In 1910, he returned to the United States, where he worked as a train expressman and joined the Prince Hall Masons. The final legend concerning his early years was that Noble Drew Ali went to Washington, D.C., in 1912 to ask President Woodrow Wilson for the authority to teach his people Islam, the religion of their “ancient forefathers.” He also asked that the nationality “Moorish American,” the names “Ali, Bey, and E1,” and the flag of Morocco, which were taken away from his people in the colonial era, be given back. Closer to the truth than these legends is the Associated Negro Press’s report that “he Ali was accompanying a Hindu Fakir in circus shows when he decided to start a little order of his own.”
In 1913, Noble Drew Ali, calling himself the second prophet of Islam, founded that order—the first Moorish Science Temple of America—in Newark, New Jersey. Over the next decade, his movement grew to an estimated membership of thirty thousand, and he established temples in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. In 1914, Ali’s leadership was unsuccessfully challenged in Newark by Abdul Wali Farad Muhammad Ali, a mysterious teacher of Islam from the East about whose origins and early years at his Newark mission little is known. At any rate, in 1923 Drew Ali moved to Chicago, and in 1925, he set up the permanent headquarters of his movement there.
In their quest for an alternate signification and identity, the Moorish Americans wore black fezzes and white turbans. They carried nationality cards and used as their symbol a red flag with a five-pointed star in the center, recalling the flag of Morocco. They claimed that they were not Negroes, blacks, or colored people, but instead an olive-skinned Asiatic people who were the descendants of Moroccans. According to their teachings, the Moorish Science Temple of America had been founded so that the prophet Noble Drew Ali could lift the fallen “Asiatic nation of North America” by teaching its members their true religion (Islam), their true nationality, and their true genealogy. Noble Drew Ali taught his followers that they could trace their genealogy directly to Jesus, who was a descendant of “the ancient Canaanites, the Moabites, and the inhabitants of Africa.” The sacred text of the Moorish Science Temple of America, a so-called Holy Koran, was written by Ali in 1927; but it was rejected by other Islamic groups because it replaced the original Quran, which Muslims believe was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by Allah in the seventh century. Noble Drew Ali wrote several versions of this sixty-four page book, compiling his information from four sources: The Aquarian Gospels of Jesus Christ (an occult version of the New Testament), Unto Thee I Grant (literature of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood, a Masonic order influenced by the lore of the Egyptian mystery schools), the Bible, and the Quran.
The primary theme of the Holy Koran was the “genealogy of Jesus.” The book focused on Jesus’s supposed life and work in India, Europe, and Africa; but while glorifying him as a forebear of the Moorish Americans, it still insisted that Christianity was a religion for Europeans, whereas Islam was the religion of the Asiatics. The final message of the work was that civilization was in the hands of the descendants of the Asiatic nations. Noble Drew Ali maintained that a series of peoples were descendants of Canaan and Ham, and therefore constituted the original Asiatic nations. Among them he numbered the Egyptians, the Arabians, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Indians, the people of South America and Central America, the Turks, and the African-Americans.
Here we can discern Noble Drew Ali’s ideological connections to the global Pan-Africanist and Pan-Islamic movements in the early twentieth century. In the style of Duse Mohammed Ali, the Egyptian-Sudanese mentor of Marcus Garvey, Noble Drew Ali formulated a version of Pan-Africanism that expanded the original geographic referents of the ideology to include and unite people of color in Africa, Asia, and America. Noble Drew Ali’s Pan-Africanism was also a form of Pan-Islamic thought in its attempt to unite “the descendants of the Asiatic nations” under the banner of Islam. The emphasis on “civilization” in his Quran and other texts linked him to the civilizationist agenda of nineteenth-century Pan-Africanists such as Edward Wilmot Blyden.
Moreover, Noble Drew Ali’s emphasis on the lore of the ancient Egyptians and his mixing of eastern and western religious ideas indicate the influences of the eclectic occult religious movement of Theosophy, which its adherents viewed as a “spiritual pilgrimage of discovery to the East.” Clearly, some of Noble Drew Ali’s ideas were “theosophical lore without historical foundation.” The Theosophical Society was one of the first organizations to introduce Eastern religious thought to America; Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, the first known American convert to Islam, was a theosophist. Moreover, Levi H. Dowling’s The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ, which inspired Drew Ali’s Holy Koran, was also “mystical—Theosophical—gnostic in tone.” Sufism was possibly another eastern religious influence for Noble Drew Ali. In 1910, Hazrat Inazat Khan, an Indian musician and Sufi came to the United States teaching a form of Sufism that emphasized mysticism, “the unity of the world’ s major religions and the unifying power of love.” These esoteric ideas were also evident in Drew Ali’s movement, which emphasized “love, truth, peace, freedom, and justice” as a path to Islam and synthesized ideas from several religions and cultural traditions, creating a new religious identity for his followers.
These ideas—the basic teachings of the Moorish Science Temple of America-were the product of a shrewd leader of the black masses in the 1920s. Noble Drew Ali cared little about the authority of orthodoxIslam. However, he understood that the religion’s name and some of its symbols could be appropriated to subvert the racism and the ethnocentrism of American Christianity, and to construct a new genealogy and ethnic identity for black Americans. He emphasized the dietary laws of Islam in order to stop his people from eating pork—a meat that they were forced to eat in slavery and therefore a dietary symbol of their oppression. He also appropriated some of the symbols of Freemasonry, such as the fez, turban, crescent and star, circle seven, all-seeing eye, clasped hands, Sphinx of Giza, and pyramids for his movement. As Ali knew, black Freemasonry was a cultural conduit for eastern religious ideas and rituals, and Pan-Africanist thought; and it was packaged in a form that appealed to the black masses.
These links between Islam and Freemasonry are rooted in global Islam. Idries Shah has noted that Freemasonry originated in the context of Sufism, the mystical teaching of Islam, and that Muslim architects from Africa brought Freemasonry from the Iberian peninsula in the ninth century. Thereafter, Freemasonry spread to England and Scotland, where its original roots were obscured by its European Christian practitioners. In America, the Islamic Asiatic roots of Freemasonry were resurrected in 1877 when Scottish Rite Masons established the Shriners, also known as the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, in New York. According to Peter Lamburn Wilson, the Shriners’ signification of Islamic identity was similar to Noble Drew Ali’s ideas:
They concocted a legend claiming initiations from a Grand Shaykh of Mecca, honors from the Ottoman sultan Selim III … and links with the Bektaski Sufi Order. They bestowed the title “Nobles” on themselves, wore fezzes, displayed a crescent moon and star with Egyptian ornament (including the Great Pyramid) and founded lodges called “Mecca,” “Medina,” and “Al Koran,” etc. Later Shriners found this esoteric mishmash embarrassing, repudiated the legend, dissolved the organization into a charitable fraternity, and saved their fezzes for parades and costume balls.
The African-American signification of Shriner symbols began at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. At this event, which was also the site of the first World’s Parliament of Religions, a group of blacks said that they had been initiated by “visiting Moslem dignitaries” and established the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order of Nobles of the Shrine and the Daughters of Isis.
Noble Drew Ali was probably a Freemason (there are photographs of him in “Egyptian Shriner” garb), and his association with this organization partly explains the “eclectic religious motif” of his movement. In April 1922, the Negro World reported that there was a notable gathering of prominent Masons in … Garvey’s well known hostelry, 102 130th St … to meet Dr. Abdul Hamid of Khartoum, Egypt, a 96 degree Mason and a Shriner at a dinner … Among others in the party were Arthur Schomburg. Duse Muhammad Ali Effendi, a friend of the guest of honor; John Edward Bruce, contributing editor of the Negro World and editor of the Mason Quarterly Review.
This report provides evidence for connections among Muslims, Egyptian Freemasons, and American Pan-Africanist Freemasons. At the same time, Drew Ali’s appropriation of Freemasonic symbols has roots in late nineteenth-century American middle-class culture that often “subverted the forms and ideologies of capitalist social organizations.” Because Masonry generated profits that approached a billion dollars a year, “the writing of rituals” became a major industry. Carnes tells us that “self-styled ritualists used the Bible, ancient mythology, and even contemporary fiction for materials” and that they were not concerned with historical accuracy. Thus, the cultural exchanges that were involved in Noble Drew Ali’ s quest for an Asiatic identity were part and parcel of a similar trend in white American middle-class culture.
Noble Drew Ali’s inquiries into the origins of Western civilization and his construction of genealogy and a new identity were not new processes in the history of political ideas. Judith N. Shklar has noted that politically disaffected individuals, from Hesiod in antiquity to Rousseau and Nietzsche in modern times, have used myths of creation and genealogy to express their utter contempt for society. All of these writers utilized the political device of subversive genealogy—the search for the origins of a particular people or an institution—to question and possibly threaten the foundation of the established order of society. Such genealogical myths, as Shklar says, have been “typical forms of questioning and condemning the established order, divine and human, ethical and political.”
Noble Drew Ali also utilized an oppositional cultural strategy. He transformed the black American’s marginality by reconstructing a so-called forgotten Islamic identity of the slaves. His building blocks were fragments taken from four sources of African-American popular culture—biblical imagery, fraternal groups such as Freemasonry, Pan-Africanism, and Theosophy. Ultimately, he attempted to radically invert the religious values of American culture by presenting Christianity as an inferior European religion which had been surpassed by Islam, the so-called true religion of African-Americans.
Noble Drew Ali chose to connect his movement to Morocco, rooting it in the first African Muslim slaves in America. Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima, the extraordinary “Moorish Prince” from Futa Jallon, whose biography Prince Among Slaves was written by Terry Alford, had used a pretended connection to Morocco to gain his freedom. If this strategy for liberation worked in the nineteenth century, Drew Ali reasoned, it might also work for black people in the twentieth century.
How did Noble Drew Ali’s construction of a Moorish American ethnic identity position his group in the racial discourses of the early twentieth century? “Moorish American” signified an ethnicization or deconstruction of race. This shift from the racial category—black—to the ethnic category—Moorish American—was not only a psychic escape from racism but also a shrewd if unrealistic political move. Cedric Robinson has correctly stated that black is the “pre-eminent category of racial discourse” and that there is a “dialectic between race and ethnicity” in America. When black leaders concentrate on ethnicity and construct new ethnic names for their race, they throw water on the coals of racial discourse, thereby making themselves and their constituencies more acceptable to the white American mainstream. Thus, by distancing themselves from their culture, these leaders hope to receive preferential treatment from mainstream whites. Ultimately, however, this strategy may retard black political progress, since everyone is ethnic and only black Americans depend on the category of race for their cultural and political identity and survival.
Nonetheless, when Noble Drew Ali said, “The name means everything,” he was convinced that he could change the political and economic fate of African-Americans in the Jim Crow era by ethnicizing the name of the race and by changing the names of his followers, thereby erasing the stigma of slavery and distancing them from ordinary Negroes who were not respected as Americans. After all, thousands of south, eastern, and central European immigrants had been able to assimilate into American society in the early twentieth century by changing their surnames, dress, and customs. This kind of assimilation was encouraged by white Americans of northwestern European heritage in order to generate loyalty to the United States. The immigration officials at Ellis Island had even aided the process when, unable to spell the names of these immigrants, they gave them new Anglicized ones. Although the European immigrants adopted what they took to be genuine American names, dress, and customs and the Moorish Americans were headed in the opposite direction, the ultimate objective of both groups was the same: to erase the stigma of their minority group status in order to be accepted as genuine Americans by the prevailing culture.
But Noble Drew Ali misread the politics of assimilation in the United States in the 1920s. Assimilation was not a possibility for blacks; their physiognomy and white society’s discriminatory practices against them prevented that. Although new white immigrants also faced a certain degree of prejudice and discrimination, these were based more on cultural characteristics than on race. Eventually, white immigrants’ crusade for assimilation and equality was welcomed as America came to be known as the “great melting pot.” Unfortunately, Noble Drew Ali did not understand that the melting pot was closed to black people.
The end of the prophet’s reign began on March 15, 1929, when one of his opponents for leadership, Sheik Claude Greene, was shot and stabbed to death at the Unity Club in Chicago. Noble Drew Ali was arrested and jailed for the murder. He died several weeks later while released on bond. His death has been variously attributed to Greene’s supporters and the Chicago Police Department. However, according to Ernest Allen, Jr., he died on July 20, 1929 of tuberculosis. The coroner’ s inquest into Greene’ s murder revealed a picture of the Moorish Science Temple that was more like a melodrama than a religious movement. An investigation of Drew Ali’s life showed that he was romantically involved simultaneously with three young women in his movement. Respectively they were aged fourteen, sixteen, and mid-twenties. Apparently he had married the two youngest girls in Moorish American ceremonies, but there were no legal records of the marriages. Since the youngest was pregnant at fourteen, Ali was guilty of statutory rape under Illinois law. At the same time, an alleged connection to Greene’s murder came to light with rumors of an affair between Greene and Pearly, Noble Drew Ali’s third lover.
After Noble Drew Ali’s death his attorney, Aaron Payne, tried unsuccessfully to unify the Moorish movement. Meanwhile, several of the late prophet’s disciples who became known as “Brothers Prophets”—Steven Gibbons El (his chauffeur), Ira Johnson Bey (a leader from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), Mealy El, R. German Ali, and Kirkman Bey—fought each other for leadership positions. Steven Gibbons and Ira Johnson claimed that the dead prophet’s spirit had entered their bodies. Eventually, a gun battle occurred at the Moorish Science Temple branch headquarters in which one Moorish American and two policemen died. The police arrested sixty-three Moorish Americans, and Ira Johnson was sent to the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he eventually died. Steven Gibbons was also committed to the State Hospital but gained his release several years later. By 1941, he had founded a new Moorish Temple in Chicago on East 40th Street. Gibbons, along with six other Moorish leaders, still insisted that he was the Grand Sheik of the Moorish Science Temple of America. R. German Ali became the leader of a branch of the movement that recognized only Noble Drew Ali as prophet. Thus, the quest for identity resumed, and the Moorish Science Temple movement continued to grow after Noble Drew Ali’s death. Major factions of the movement exist today, with their national headquarters in Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Commodification of Identity: Contemporary Islam
Today, most African-Americans are aware that Islam has deep roots in their culture. Since the 1960s, the Nation of Islam’s leaders, businesses, newspapers, radio programs, food, and distinctive clothing have become visible and routinized aspects of black communities in America’s inner cities. Although most black Americans are Christians, they tend not to share white America’s open hostility toward Islam. As Akbar Muhammad has pointed out, since African-Americans have “no real political stake in America, political opposition to the Muslim world is unworthy of serious consideration.” On the contrary, the political ideas of black Muslim leaders, from Elijah Muhammad to Malcolm X, and from Warith Deen Muhammad to Louis Farrakhan, are the subject of constant debate and intrigue in contemporary black America.
In this context, aspects of black Muslim identity have become commodities in black America, taking the form of stylized, media oriented “cultural products” with little of their original religious content or substance. Bean pies, incense, the television series Roots, Muslim clothing, Arabic names and expressions, and the speeches of Louis Farrakhan have all become products for mass consumption.
Even Malcolm X must be considered in the context of this process. After his death, he became an icon in African-American culture. Black artists, intellectuals, and celebrities began to commodify his image and political ideas in a way that makes it easy to forget that Islam was at the center of his spiritual and political journey—a journey he began as Malcolm Little, traveled as Malcolm X and ended as al-Hajj Malik Shabazz. Sonia Sanchez and Gwendolyn Brooks have written poems about his life and death. Amiri Baraka (formerly Le Roi Jones) was spiritually and artistically influenced by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam in the 1960s. The novelists Alex Haley in Roots and Ishmael Reed in Mumbo Jumbo, inspired by Malcolm’s life, have used Islam as central themes in their work. Malcolm’s influence is also evident in two provocative recent black autobiographies—Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler and Sanyika Shakur’s Monster. Jazz musicians such as Yusef Latef, Ahmad Jamal, Idris Sulayman, and Sahib Shahab and professional athletes like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Ahmad Rashad, and Jamal Wilkes have converted to Islam and adopted Arabic names. Mike Tyson studied Islam while in prison and is reportedly in the process of converting to Islam. Grand Puba and the Islamic rap musicians, Lakim Shabazz, Poor Righteous Teachers, Eric B. and Rakim, King Sun, Movement X, Prince Akeem, Ice Cube, KMD, and A Tribe Called Quest all mention Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam in their lyrics.
Also influenced by Malcolm X, as well as the historical significance of Islam in nineteenth-century African-American culture, Julie Dash, the writer and director of the 1992 film masterpiece Daughters of the Dust, commodified aspects of Bilali’s life in her black woman’s story of a Gullah family preparing to leave the South Carolina Sea Islands at the turn of the century. She writes:
When I came to this project, I assumed that I already knew a lot about Islam from my family and from the little research I had done early on. But as I got deeper and deeper into it, I learned a hell of a lot. For instance I learned about Bilal Muhammed. Actually, he lived earlier than the time of my story. He was in the Sea Islands during slavery, but by the turn of the century, his five daughters who were also Muslim, were still carrying on the tradition of Islam. He was an actual person, a Muslim, and his diaries and his papers are on permanent exhibition in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. He had been a boy of twelve when he was taken from the Sudan … He was also fluent in French, having worked in the West Indies before being brought to the Sea Islands. And he never stopped practicing his faith. As a slave in the Sea Islands he prayed five times a day. People thought he was an odd fellow, but it really goes to show the persistence of tradition … So it was important for me to include this man in the story, even though I knew actually that he was living and practicing his faith in the 1800s. I wanted him to be part of this day, too, to include him because he meant so much to me.
No artist, however, has commodified Malcolm X’s identity more effectively than Spike Lee, first in his 1989 film Do the Right Thing and then in Malcolm X (1992). Do the Right Thing is set in Brooklyn and focuses on simmering racial tensions between black residents and Sal, an Italian American who owns a pizzeria in their neighborhood. During the final segment of the movie, a white policeman strangles a young black man to death in front of Sal’s Pizzeria; the black residents respond by setting the building on fire. Sal precipitates the violent climax of the movie by his refusal to put any images of his main customers, black people, on the walls of his pizzeria which are covered with pictures of famous Italian Americans, and by his destruction of the murder victim’s radio with a baseball bat.
The central symbol of Do the Right Thing is a photograph of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., shaking hands, copies of which are sold in the black neighborhood by Smiley, a retarded black youth. Before he sells each photograph, Smiley marks an X over Malcolm’s picture. Here the X is probably a metaphor for the cultural pain inflicted on contemporary African-Americans by racism. This pain still raises questions about black identity, black names, and black self esteem in white mainstream America. In Sal’s Pizzeria, the integrity of African-American names and culture is not respected and Sal’s son, Pino, constantly slurs blacks: “you gold teeth, gold-chain wearing, fried-chicken-and biscuit-eating, monkey, ape, baboon, big thigh fast running, high-jumping, spear chucking, 360 degree basketball-dunking spade, Moulan Yan. Take your … piece of pizza and go … back to Africa.”
In Da the Right Thing Pino symbolizes the ultimate signifier whose euphemisms and stereotypes of blacks reflect a shameful cultural code and structure of language that are undeniably American. In this light, it may be that one of the most significant questions the movie raises is the following: how do black Americans today come to terms with signification, with the names, language, and images created about them by a racist culture and society?
Mookie is Sal’s delivery man and the main black character in the movie. For him, the photograph of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., signifies his struggle to “do the right thing”—violent or nonviolent resistance against racism. Spike Lee says, “King and Malcolm. Both men died for the love of their people, but had different strategies for realizing freedom … In the end, justice will prevail one way or another … Yep, we have a choice, Malcolm or King. I know who I’m down with.” Thus, for Lee, the commodification of Malcolm X’s ideas represents not only his interpretation of a dialectic tension between the political philosophies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., but also, perhaps, a prophetic vision of what was to come in America: the racism, police brutality and inequitable economic practices Lee saw in the inner cities ultimately exploded in the 1991 Los Angeles uprising that occurred in the wake of the Rodney King verdict.
Finally, it is important to note that Spike Lee chose a Muslim name for Radio Raheem, the young martyr of Do the Right Thing. Here signification and the Islamic theme resonate since Raheem, one of the transliterated Arabic names for Allah, means “The Most Compassionate One.” In the movie. Radio Raheem wears gold knuckle rings on each hand. “Love” is written on the ring on the right hand and “Hate” on the ring on the left. These rings symbolize the ambiguities in the discourse between Martin Luther King, Jr.’s concept of unconditional Christian love and Malcolm X’s advocacy of self-defense. Radio Raheem constantly blasts Public Enemy’s recording “Fight the Powers That Be,” which suggests the influence of the Nation of Islam: Public Enemy and Professor Griff, the group’s former minister of information, are Nation of Islam supporters. And Radio Raheem philosophizes about the significance of his rings: “‘The story of Life is this … static] One hand is always fighting the other. Left Hand Hate is bucking … and it looks like Right Hand Love is finished. Hold up. Stop the presses] Love is coming back, yes, it’s Love. Love had won. Left Hand Hate KO’ed by Love.’ But, in the movie’s finale, Love is KO’ed by Hate]”
Spike Lee’s superb cinematic portrayal of Malcolm X’s life in his 1992 film, Malcolm X, has recently inspired renewed interest and debate about Islam and black nationalism in black America. Lee has said, “Malcolm X is my artistic vision, the film is my interpretation of the man. It’s nobody else’s.” But before the movie was completed, his interpretation of Malcolm’s identity was the subject of criticism and controversy among white Hollywood executives, the leaders of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X’s family, African-American cultural critics like Amiri Baraka, and African-American scholars.
However, even the harshest critics of Malcolm X have to acknowledge that the film succeeds magnificently in its portrayal of the significations in Malcolm X’s life. The film scholar Ed Guerrero writes:
The film’s most brilliant dramatic moments, as in Malcolm’s life, turn on a transformation wrought out of suffering leading to illumination. From Malcolm, these awakenings were always punctuated with a name change. Lee has caught this shedding of skins or identities in a number of instances, including a subtle but striking scene when ‘Red’/Malcolm is thrown into solitary confinement for not answering to the prison-assigned number replacing his name. The screen is covered with the blackness of solitary, occasionally stabbed by a shaft of light coming from the slot in the cell door, as Malcolm raves, mumbles. and battles with the devil inside. The scene ends, weeks later, with the cell door opening to reveal a prone, delirious Malcolm finally willing to recite his number. As agonizingly inhuman as this sequence is, it makes the point that the conked, hustling “Red” of Harlem and Boston who occupies the first quarter of the film had to be burned away by some dialectically rigorous process that opened up space in his personality for the growth and transformations to come. For, as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, among many others, tell us, the insight of the social revolutionary is often strengthened with unexpected revelations that come in jail or prison.
Highlighting Denzel Washington’s considerable power as an actor, the contrasting scene to this solitary confinement sequence occurs in another sort of isolation, the shadowy inner sanctum of power, the guarded private office where, on release from prison, the dedicated and cleansed disciple Malcolm meets the leader of the Black Muslims, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, brilliantly played by Al Freeman. Here one gets a poignant cinematic insight into the often-written-about-meetings between guru and acolyte that fill so much of Eastern spiritual literature, as Malcolm (Washington) bows, clasps the teacher’s hands, and bursts into silent tears of joy. Of course, this moment sets up its dialectical opposite when, later in the film, Malcolm, discovering the flaws and corruption of the great man, undertakes his spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca and the final metamorphosis in his life … The film ends with Nelson Mandela standing in front of a South African classroom as the next generation chants “l am Malcolm.”
Spike Lee’s Malcolm X has also spurred new African-American interest in Louis Farrakhan’s message. Farrakhan is “the most revered leader among the Black masses,” as Ron Daniels has noted. “His appeal is widespread. In addition to the dispossessed and disadvantaged, Farrakhan’s rallies include large numbers of Black professionals, business people, and members of the Black middle class.” Of course, Farrakhan’s appeal is partially explained by his “militant voice” of black separatism, which resonates throughout black America at a time when many African-Americans believe that black elected officials are powerless to improve their lot.
Commodification of identity, however, is also a provocative way to understand “the Farrakhan phenomenon.” Farrakhan’s message presents multifaceted significations of African-American Islamic identity that include specialized aspects for black men, women, and children; strategies for black economic and political empowerment; Afrocentric interpretations of history; an African-American worldview and cultural ethos; and potent psychological strategies to enhance black pride and self-respect. In the context of this rich tapestry of cultural, political, economic, and spiritual offerings, African-Americans have commodified selective aspects of Farrakhan’s message. Ron Daniels agrees with this evaluation of the Nation of Islam leader’ s appeal to black America. He writes: “In my view, many who go to hear Farrakhan or give him a favorable approval rating do not necessarily agree with all of his pronouncements or concur with every aspect of his program.”
Of course, the focal point of Farrakhan’s attraction and fame is his oratory. As he “talks back” at America, reminding its rulers of this country’ s slavery and Jim Crow past, he presents black people with a “psychological alternative,” “nonpacifist” way of resisting oppression. And as the white media and political establishment focus on the anti-Semitic aspects of Louis Farrakhan’ s and Khallid Muhammad’s words, commodifying the Nation of Islam as a hate group and its leaders as “ministers of rage,” they are missing the message and the impact that many black Americans are drawing from African-American Islam today.
Across black America—in black churches and mosques, in black enclaves in cities and suburbs, in black colleges and universities, in black studies departments and black student associations in white colleges and universities, and in black political organizations—people are quietly acknowledging that, in the future, Islam may provide some important answers to African-American economic, political, and cultural questions that have not been resolved by black Christian leaders. Already, in black urban areas across the country, black Christian leaders are organizing special seminars to educate their people about Islam and to stem the tide of what they perceive as an alarming rate of African-American conversions to Islam. Mike Wilson, the founder and director of Project Joseph, which conducts “Muslim awareness seminars” for members of black churches throughout the United States in order to educate them about the threat posed by Islam, believes that “if the conversion rate continues unchanged, Islam could become the dominant religion in Black urban areas by the year 2020.”
Although there is little hard evidence available to confirm or refute this assertion, Islam has recently become an increasingly significant aspect of African-American identity. As the commodification process mainstreams elements of Islamic culture, making them appear even more attractive to non-Muslim African-Americans, Islam (along with its provocative signification) could very well prevail in black America in the twenty-first century.