Short Guys Who Cast Long Shadows
Has Anybody Here Seen My Old Friends George and Elijah?
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Book reviews by the Honorable Jim Goad
AN ORIGINAL MAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ELIJAH MUHAMMAD by Claude Andrew Clegg III. St. Martin's Press, 1997.
GEORGE WALLACE: AMERICAN POPULIST by Stephan Lesher. Addison-Wesley, 1994.
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Like many members of the Montana Militia, Elijah Muhammad believed that a Social Security number represented the Mark of the Beast. And George Wallace's comment during Alabama's 1970 gubernatorial campaign- "300,000 nigger votes is mighty hard to overcome"--expresses essentially the same sentiment as Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back.
Elijah and George were little men who stood up for the little man. When Wallace took a stand against federal intervention, he measured only 5'8", while the tippy-top of Elijah Muhammad's spangled pillbox fez strained to reach five-and-a-half feet. But these two feisty shrimps set the world on its ass.
Both Wallace and Muhammad appealed to the hopes and resentments of groups which mainstream pundits would prefer to ignore. Both seemed to actually care about their constituencies. Both were Southern boys who weathered the Great Depression. Both said that racism was not exclusively, or even predominantly, a Southern problem. Both of them benefited from being stricken with Messiah complexes. Both were on mystical quests to avenge wrongs committed against their "people." Both were trying to redeem a slice of lost history. Both pinched pennies and stressed self-reliance. Both were audited by the IRS. Both hated and mistrusted white liberals. Both believed that communism was a plot to destroy white civilization. Both played on class tensions within their respective races. Both had a gift for sardonically rubbing others' noses in shit. Both were married to longsuffering doormat wives who withstood inattentive philandering for decades. And both Wallace and Muhammad would think I'm a degenerate lunatic.
They had a lot in common.
When Muhammad's biographer writes, "he counseled against black participation in electoral politics, railed against the Civil Rights Movement, encouraged racial separation, wrote off much of Africa as uncivilized, and did not question the basic operation of American capitalism," he could just as easily have been talking about George Wallace.
Both biographers are to be congratulated for tackling difficult subjects. Both writers are adept at evaluating the psychological significance their subjects embodied to their followers. Both dutifully lists his subject's perceived virtues alongside his shortcomings. Both authors use the phrase "bête noire," although Wallace's biographer uses it twice. On the other hand, the paper in the Muhammad book has a nicer smell. It's a sweet, waxy, almost-Islamic smell.
I've been a fanboy of hardcore black racist sects ever since stumbling upon an Ansaaru Allah community booklet on a Philly subway seat back in the late 70s. To my delight, I learned that not only was I the Paleman and by nature a devil, but that the rock groups KISS, Santana, and the Bee Gees had collaborated with me in the conspiracy. Driven by a perverse sense of humor and an even more twisted sense of ethnic masochism, I yearned for more pan-African racial science to be dropped like pigeon poop onto my white head.
If one were to depend strictly on TV news broadcasts for one's information, one might think that the Nation of Islam is an organization which exists strictly for the purpose of making insensitive comments about Jews. You'd hear very little about the Nation's considerable economic and organizational contributions to black America. Nor would you know about some of the Nation's more esoteric teachings, shit that makes the Jew-baiting seem tame.
Thankfully, Claude Clegg's An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad contains everything you always wanted to know about the Nation of Islam (but were too white to get a straight answer). To his credit, Clegg will probably please neither the believers nor the infidels with his straight-down-the-middle approach. His book will appease neither the Fruit of Islam nor those who'd prefer to bury Elijah's legacy under a mere compost heap of hatemongering. Clegg sits squarely at the 50-yard line. It's an admirable job given the magnitude of the task. He may not have humanized Elijah Muhammad, but he softened both the divine halo and the wacky aura surrounding him. He contextualized the brutha.
Clegg traces the Nation's ideological roots in Freemasonry, the Moorish Science Temple of America, and the economic elements of Garveyism. You'll finally learn the truth about the Tribe of Shabazz's 76 trillion years of Islamic history and its OCD-level adherence to simplistic numerology. You'll say, "Wow!" when you read that Black Muslims believe in Black Martians. You'll thrill time and again to the story of the Jap-built Mother Plane, a giant flying saucer which will hasten an Independence Day-style onslaught of Space Negroes to snuff the white devils en masse.
If you're pale like I be, you'll shiver at the scriptural instructions from Fard Muhammad for each Moslem to murder four white devils. You'll flinch at the Nation's doggie dogma, which alleges that white women enjoy the occasional sexual coupling with their pet canines (I've yet to meet one who hasn't). You'll react with vicious denial when you hear of the voodoo that Yacub do, genetically grafting white snakes to fuck up the black man's Eden through "tricknology." You'll gasp upon realizing that the Nation of Islam, for all its hymie-baiting rep, has historically been less anti-Semitic than it is anti-Euro, anti-Catholic, anti-Fed, anti-homo, and misogynist.
The book's title comes from the Nation's doctrine that blacks are the earth's "Asiatic 'Original People.'" To me, this assertion always seemed to play right into the white-supremacist belief that blacks are the "mud" race most closely related to apes. After all, doesn't "original" imply "most primitive" and "least evolved"? You might wanna think twice before bragging about being the original people. At the very least, the concept of "original people" should confuse white liberals who think it's a sign of Southern ignorance not to believe that we evolved from apes, but who also think it's a sign of Southern ignorance to believe that some of us evolved further from the apes than others did.
Elijah Muhammad wasn't an original man in the theological sense, either, because he merely copied the cocoa-nutty tenets laid out by his mentor, Fard Muhammad.
Fard (pronounced "Far-rod" rather than the flatulent-sounding "Fard"-more "far out" than "fart") is the truly fascinating character here, probably worthy of a whole book himself. Hard to pin down historically because he used a series of aliases (and because much of the information about him comes from the less-than-impartial FBI), Fard Muhammad was an ex-convict who declared himself to be God incarnate. Not a bad twist, actually. The jaw-dropping surprise is that pictures of Fard are included, and he sure as shootin' looks like a WHITE boy to me. In an official Nation of Islam portrait, he resembles Buster Keaton, and in two FBI photos allegedly taken after an arrest, he looks like a barely awake Robert DeNiro. The FBI called him "a white man masquerading as a Negro." (I'm sure that several readers can relate.) Possibly the most amazing thing about the oft-amazing Nation of Islam is that a devil may have founded it.
Devil or no, Fard Muhammad's primary innovation was the thoroughness and boldness with which he inverted white racism and spat it back at whitey. A brilliant revisionist, Fard cast whites as the uncivilized, tiny-brained, hairy-tailed simians crawling around on all fours. He spread joy through his audiences by reassuring them that they would one day know the pleasure of oppressing crackers. There was the sly genius of banning whites from his meetings and calling them "spooks." He cleverly placed Mr. Charley in the defensive position of having to scream, "racism!"
At least I'll agree with Fard that my ancestors lived in caves. That's because trailer parks hadn't been invented yet. Maybe I am the cave-dweller. The boy with recessive genes. A cloven-hoofed albino dog-fucking demon with no sense of justice, freedom, or equality. Sigh. So what? Might as well enjoy being a devil.
Elijah Muhammad, wise man that he was, learned to slay the devil by imitating him. The Nation of Islam was like Orwell's Animal Farm in that all Muslims were equal, but some were more equal than others. It was essentially feudal in its strict hierarchical structure, despite its appeals to pan-Afro stuffed-pig-luau communalism. Like a slavemaster, Elijah once informed Malcolm X that Malcolm was his "property." Elijah also owned a mansion and a butler. His ideas about decency differed little from Jerry Falwell's. And by demanding financial tribute from his adherents (like Falwell), Muhammad made the mountain (of cash) come to him. Elijah excommunicated anyone, such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, who seemed popular enough to threaten his primacy. But without all the murders, nepotism, and cold-blooded excommunications, Muhammad probably would have been unable to maintain power, and this Angry White Male wouldn't be writing about him today.
Being a leader necessitates being a liar. Even after seeing Africa with his own eyes, Elijah Muhammad couldn't admit that Africans had it better in America. His trips to the Mideast taught him that Islam can be imperialistic and intolerant all by its lonesome, thank you. And Elijah's brand of Islamic salami contradicted the traditional Qu'ranic doctrine of global equality under Allah's thumb.
A further irony was that in replacing European names with Arabic ones, the Nation of Islam merely swapped one set of slave names for another. While the Freedom Riders galloped through the Evil Demon Firehose South in the early 1960s, Saudi Arabian Muslims still owned a hundred thousand black slaves. Arabic culture has historically been hostile to sub-Saharan Africans, and Arabic Muslims were instrumental in orchestrating the black slave trade across the Atlantic. There is also ample evidence that human chattel slavery still exists in the Sudan and Ethiopia, none of it perpetrated by the Sons of Yacub.
Elijah Muhammad's white-devil bojangles rhetorical tap-dance varied little over forty years. Through all the power struggles and persecutions, he steadfastly clocked the dough and aggravated the devil. Apart from his goofball doctrines and dictatorial hypocrisy, I think Elijah Muhammad was a pretty decent man. A mensch, even. From my observations, Black Muslims do seem healthy and filled with self-esteem. Very neat and tidy. Good posture, too. I enjoy their mushy bean pies and the high-yella journalism of The Final Call. The Nation also seems to rehabilitate black criminals better than the US justice system does. I also might add that if the feds sincerely want to help blacks instead of merely putting on a good PR show, they should allow Farrakhan to have that billion dollars from Qaddafi.
The Nation of Islam is already America's wealthiest black organization, so it's doing something right. Beyond its obvious economic savvy, Clegg seems to have figured the secret behind the Nation's staying power, and why it outlasted more potentially volatile groups such as the Black Panthers: "the Nation's view of the end of the world, while revolutionary in a superficial sense, was an essentially conservative approach to changing the conditions of black oppression. Conveniently, the burden of deliverance was left to God, who would act in his own good time."What always scared me most about the Nation of Islam was the suspicion that Elijah Muhammad might actually be as boring as he seemed. And after reading An Original Man, he remains the most charisma-free of all black nationalists, if the most dangerous to insult. His dull personality tends to blur everything about him, both good and bad. The book does not provide, as a dust-jacket review blurb promises, "an Elijah you can touch." Goddamnit, I want an Elijah Muhammad I can cuddle! I want a Messenger of God I can tickle in the tummy and slap on the back, but it just ain't happenin'. However, I think it's the subject's fault rather than the author's. Maybe Elijah Muhammad was a little too holy for my tastes. The fact that he fucked several of his secretaries turns out to be the most interesting thing about him. Why, the mini-Muslim was human after all! Otherwise, his personality seems about as appealing as the idea of performing cunnilingus on Janet Reno. He remains no more accessible than Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon serials. The Joe Franklin of late-night Islamic talk-show hosts. A mystical Marvin the Martian straight outta Looney Tunes: "You're making me VERRRY ANGREEE, white man!" I'm still not sure I'd be able to tell Elijah Muhammad from Elijah Blue Allman.
It's a shame, because every other major N.O.I. spokesman, both before Elijah and after, was a charisma powerhouse-Fard Muhammad, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, and (my fave) Khalid Abdul Muhammad. THOSE are men whose bow ties fairly spun by the brute force of their charisma. Dark-hued choco-baldie former N.O.I. spokesman Khalid Abdul Muhammad has charisma oozing out of his meticulously shaven-and-oiled ears. Khalid has so much chutzpah, he should be awarded his own Rosie O'Donnell-styled afternoon TV talk show. But his mentor Elijah was a dull bird indeed.
Unlike Elijah Muhammad, George Wallace ate pork and smoked cigars, which could mean all the difference. I used to hate George Wallace, and now I'd like to publicly apologize. Although I used to consider him a vote-hungry, prawn-peeling, slime-stirring redneck rabble-rouser, I've come to find solace in Wallace. I'm sorry he's gone. I miss George Wallace in the same way that I miss Malcolm X and Meir Kahane.
George Wallace was as thoroughly 1960s as Jimi Hendrix. He emerged from the South, the fabled land of boiled peanuts and ethnic intolerance, of eager hospitality and racially motivated gator hunts. To many, Wallace was no more than a frog-faced scion of hatred who spewed Confederate folderol, the man who gave us the phrases "tax, tax, spend, spend" and "the ultra-liberal-controlled press." But Wallace also had an undeniable flair for ominous comments such as, "they are not concerned about me, but about the growing power of the people" and the rather Nietzschean assertion that cab drivers "come into fierce contact with life." A true Übercracker, Wallace won Alabama's Golden Gloves boxing title in both 1936 and '37. The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture boasts a wonderful picture of a skinny George Wallace bloodying an opponent's nose.
With his puffy cheeks, disciplined haircut, and some of the meanest eyebrows this side of Saddam Hussein, Wallace appealed to a Lost Nation of white Southerners who felt abandoned by the federal government and the mainstream media. He only became "dangerous," apparently, when his surprisingly successful presidential campaigns started appealing to white commoners outside of the South, and especially when he stressed the non-racial tenets of his platform. George Wallace was the first Southern politician to be taken seriously outside of Dixie since the War of Northern Aggression ended. If Wallace's messages hadn't crossed the Mason-Dixon Line in a big way, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton would still be plowing the red clay. Biographer Stephan Lesher argues that every successful presidential candidate from Nixon to Clinton employed planks of Wallace's campaign strategies. Lesher calls him "the most influential loser in American politics": "Wallace, like the original populists of the 1890s, distrusted banks and the rich while advocating tax reforms that would favor farmers and working people. His suggestion to tax foundations and church-owned property went far beyond anything offered by any other candidate. Until he was struck by a would-be assassin, Wallace drew consistently larger crowds on the campaign trail than any of his opponents. His campaigns were financed by tens of thousands of small donations, making them closer to authentic 'people's crusades' than anything in previous political history; he alone among serious presidential candidates was wholly independent of special interests."Wallace was the bane of well-compensated, tax-free-foundation-funded social engineers and theoreticians, those whom he called "pointy-headed intellectuals who can't park their bicycles straight." He railed relentlessly against self-satisfied urbanites who identify with the black experience in the abstract, yet who don't know poverty and suffering nearly as well as Alabama crackers do. Georgie-Porgie knew a hypocrite when he saw one: While Wallace sent his kids to integrated public schools, both Earl Warren and George McGovern shuffled their offspring off to private institutions which were almost entirely white.
Lesher sagely discerns that race wasn't the principal element of Wallace's appeal. He points out that Abe Lincoln, LBJ, and Harry Truman all made comments more scathingly racist than anything Wallace was ever accused of saying. He demonstrates how Wallace's pro-worker policies helped thousands of Alabamians. He demonstrates how Wallace went from screaming "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" in 1963 to being voted Alabama blacks' all-time favorite governor in 1986. And it's good to see Nipsey Russell mentioned, whatever the context.
Corrupt old bassett hound Richard Milhous Nixon siphoned off the exterior of many of Wallace's ideas, then secretly financed the political campaigns of Wallace's enemies. He also directed his goons to plant pro-McGovern literature in Arthur Bremer's apartment immediately after learning that the hipster psychopath shot Wallace, but Nixon's bumbling spy team arrived long after police and reporters had already canvassed the scene.
Wallace ate five bullets at the peak of his power, right when he seriously threatened to capture 1972's Democratic presidential nomination. The shooting left him incontinent, impotent, and puttering around in a wheelchair. By the mid-70s, voters had soured on the idea of a nonambulatory ex-segregationist with a redneck accent for president. The handicapped hatemonger slowly rolled off the national scene. He returned to being a gimpy gov'ner. A crippled cracker. A disabled demagogue.
Wallace biographer Stephan Lesher seems to like Wallace better in a wheelchair, anyway. He's the type of guy who's still touched by images of white and black hands clasped together. Seriously. He agreed with David Dinkins that America's ethnic fabric is a "gorgeous mosaic." And while he worries about whether Wallace actually said "nigger" or "nigra" in 1962, he doesn't ponder the ethno-classist underpinnings in his own usage of phrases such as "Neanderthal redneck" and "a redneck racist of the right." And in a meaninglessly moralistic turn, he scolds us that "We made George Wallace, not the other way around." Come again? What the fuck does that mean, precisely? I am not a moral Frankenstein, and I played no part in making George Wallace. Keep your squirrelly guilt complexes to yourself.
The major enjoyment in George Wallace: American Populist arises from the tension created when the author's soft-left social conscience struggles against his obvious admiration for Wallace the Man. Which brings me to a general criticism of both books.
You knew there had to be some complaints.
Both authors seem afflicted with an overwhelming suspicion that Southern whites are a breed of subhuman conformists who don't know what's best for themselves. Accordingly, they repeatedly refer to Southern whites as one big faceless vanilla malignancy. Lesher mentions:
· "defiant white Southern resistance";
· "inherent embers of racial fear and hatred among whites";
· "the South's insistent inclination to [pursue] Lost Causes";
· "the violence that lurked as an almost breathing presence behind the mannerly veneer of the South in general"; and
· "the dumfounding [sic] ignorance of black affairs that characterized white Southern officialdom."
For his part, Clegg refers to:
· "foul dealings perpetrated by whites";
· "odious Southern traditions";
· "the South's crimes";
· "the hostile white community";
· "the naked brutality of Georgian whites"; and
· "the reality of racism and brutality that underlay Southern culture."
These sort of references are such a consistent element of both books, I can only speculate that both authors fear whatever potential they suspect is laying dormant within the hearts of Southern whites.
But as evil as Southern whites supposedly are individually, DON'T get them together in a group, because they instantly become a MOB. Both books refer to large assemblies of angered whites, even if peaceful, as "mobs," while groups of blacks, even if throwing rocks and chanting "Kill 'em, kill 'em," are called "crowds" and "protesters." While Lesher applies the term "mob" to just about any grouping of whites, he objects to Wallace's use of the phrase "lawless Negro mobs."
To prove just how evil the white South is, BOTH books reprint that famously overused photo of a snarling white Alabama cop directing his K-9 to bite a black protester who looks as innocent as Tiger Woods. Ironically, the bloodiest racial conflicts in the 60s (Watts, Newark, Detroit, y mucho otros) were all OUTSIDE of the South. And these days, far more American blacks kill each other EVERY YEAR than were lynched throughout American HISTORY. Can we have a little bit of context, people?
Both authors apparently buy into the libbie definitions of good guys and bad guys, where only those aligned with the political "right" are capable of human evil. Both act as if power can only be mishandled by right-wingers, and as if the FBI only monitors left-wing groups. Both act as if racism can be a cynical political strategy, but not anti-racism. They seem to believe that only impoverished white voters, but never blacks, can be duped by crafty politicians. They cluck at white supremacy while endorsing its successor, federal supremacy. Any suspicion of communism is repeatedly depicted as paranoia, while an obsession with racial matters, as long as the slant is anti-racist, is portrayed as mentally healthy. This ignores the stark fact that the pinko communoids stacked up bodies in numbers which would make the Klan and the Nazis envious.
Both books also show a stereotypically superstitious liberal fear of "hate," as if it's something unnatural which should be vigilantly suppressed at all times. It's hate depicted as the Ebola virus. Lesher warns us that "hatred, once unleashed, cannot neatly be channeled toward one group in particular" and counsels that "the hater may be unable or unwilling to change." Clegg writes that "the Muslim leader, like the Nazis and others, understood the power of hatred in mobilizing a people." Do the authors seriously believe that this vague thing called "hate" has harmed more people than quantifiable things such as greed?
Power leans toward neither the left nor the right. You could say that it wears many faces, but it's probably more apt to say it wears no face at all. If the United States government was infiltrating the Nation of Islam and the women's movement at the same time that it was sending spies into the Klan and the Minutemen, it stands to reason that none of these groups represented the primary American power structure. Rather, they were threats to the established order. The FBI's main duty seems to be to ensure that Americans continue peacefully arguing among themselves.
The problem is neither with George Wallace nor Elijah Muhammad, it's with those who'd view them as mutually exclusive. Neither man represented "the mainstream," and yet if their respective constituencies were combined, it would probably comprise a majority of Americans. Largely dismissed by the high-toned tastemakers, Wallace's and Muhammad's followers induce uncomfortable feelings in those mainstream mouthpieces who wish to monopolize the tenor and substance of political debate in this country. Those who profit by the status quo are driven crazy by the fact that, despite all the grade-school brainwashing, a huge hunk of America still pledges allegiance to the Confederate battle flag or to the N.O.I.'s star-and-crescent "National" flag. Instead of tapping into underclass "fears," George and Elijah more properly aroused the fears of those whose job it is to spin fantasies of a benign, self-contained political establishment acting in the masses' best interests.
There's a pervasive misperception that we can't all hate each other and still get along. Not so. The world's obviously big enough to fit both George Wallace and Elijah Muhammad. And that's what makes the ever-shrinking mainstream nervous.
When Georgia trailer-dwellers and Brownsville gangstas both believe in flying saucers and blame the FBI for most of our suffering, what the hell does that mean for America? What are the shared experiences of cowboys and colored people? What if George Wallace's hordes of toothless pitchfork-bearers and Elijah Muhammad's nation of redeemed convicts were to combine their forces? How would this new coalition change the American political landscape? What would change merely by removing the perception that these two camps are eternal enemies?
The fact that I'm a despicable human being shouldn't disqualify me from making unsubstantiated comments about modern American race relations. I'd like to think that up in heaven, Elijah Muhammad and George Wallace are playing ping-pong together. I close my eyes, whistle a medley of "Dixie" and "A White Man's Heaven is a Black Man's Hell," and picture Clara Muhammad and Lurleen Wallace trading fried-chicken recipes in the kitchen while George and Elijah watch a Knicks game in the living room. I visualize Elijah and George teamed as buddy cops in some Mel Gibson/Danny Glover-styled anti-terrorism blockbuster film. I see them paired together in some Sunshine Boys/Golden Girls script in which the two old geezers, because of fixed incomes, are forced to share the same Florida condo, where various bittersweet comical mishaps teach them to gradually reconcile their racial differences. If Dr. King was entitled to ridiculous dreams, so am I.