(FinalCall.com) – I’ve been preaching the importance of our oral history since Columbia University Professor Dr. Manning Marable, and one of his doctorate candidates, Zaheer Ali gave me a wakeup call with Dr. Marable’s research on an upcoming book on the life of Malcolm X.
What distinguishes Dr. Marable’s book is much of its content is devoted to Malcolm’s life and work inside the Nation of Islam from 1952 to 1964. Zaheer Ali’s doctoral dissertation is on Harlem’s Mosque No. 7 during much of the same period, from 1954-1964–the decade that Malcolm served as its minister. Both studies highlight the “Unseen,” the inner life of the Nation of Islam, as experienced and remembered by the people who actually experienced that history.
Imagine if the slaves were free to pass on their oral history to the generations from 1555 to 2010–455 years. We would still have a sense of our language, culture, religion and an idea of where we came from on the African continent. This oral history would have informed us of our names when we arrived in America. This oral history would identify the names and places of the plantations and of the slave masters. There would have been stories repeated over and over again about the ships that brought us here and what happened on those ships. This oral history would have helped us keep contact with our family members.
Most of us know that we were deprived of learning how to read and write. The elders would have taken the young and repeated these stories to them, which would have also helped us, retain words from our own languages.
Instead what we have are remnants, oral histories of former slaves and their descendants that were recorded in the 1930s as part of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration (WPA). During the Great Depression, as part of the federal government’s massive employment program, millions were employed to complete public works projects, including programs in the arts, literacy, and historical preservation. These WPA narratives and what could be remembered by the children and the adults forms the basis of a complete reevaluation of the history of slavery. One of the most interesting aspects of the story told by the former slaves and their children was recalling the Muslim practices of their ancestors and parents.
It was the Black historian John Blassingame, who in 1972 challenged the account of slavery given by the slave-owner/masters. In his book, “The Slave Community; Plantation life in the Antebellum South,” Mr. Blassingame presented the slave as the agent of his own history. In the Nation of Islam today, Carlos Muhammad, one of Minister Farrakhan’s young representatives from Baltimore has committed to pull together the history of the NOI, not from the eyes of outsiders, but from the voices and deeds of those who lived that history themselves.
Now as the Nation of Islam approaches 80 years as an entity in America, we are losing the oral history of this most important movement in the struggle of the descendants of slaves for justice, respect and dignity as a people.
Dr. Abul Pitre wrote in one of his illuminating books titled, An Introduction to Elijah Muhammad Studies: the Education Paradigm, “imagine what America and the world would be like if Malcolm X never met Elijah Muhammad? Would Malcolm X have reverted back to his life of crime? What would he teach that would make him known throughout the world? What would have been the philosophical base for him to begin his quest for knowledge? How would Muhammad Ali be viewed if he had remained Cassius Clay? Would he have remained just an ordinary boxer who could have been killed in Vietnam? What would the world and America be like if there was no Louis Farrakhan? Would Farrakhan have remained Louis Wolcott, the calypso singer and entertainer? Would Farrakhan’s name be mentioned as one of the people who impacted the world? What would have happened to the millions across the world impacted by Elijah Muhammad teachings? What would have become of the drug user who was transformed by Elijah Muhammad or the professor who was given a new idea that generated new research? And what about the personal transformation and discipline that many incorporated into their daily lives?”
Dr. Pitre goes on to say in this book that Elijah Muhammad, a man who completed only the fourth grade of school in his transition from rural Georgia to Detroit, Michigan, could never have imagined the enormous potential that laid dormant in him. The early years of his teachings and personal resurrection are the initial steps in his growth into the knowledge of self. As he grew into greater understanding of himself, his ideas became more profound. Of course, all of this was rooted in what his teacher Master Fard Muhammad gave to him in the three and a half years they spent together in Detroit.
For years traveling on behalf of Minister Louis Farrakhan, I’ve encouraged the Muslims to write the history of the Nation of Islam in their particular city and interview the elders about how the Nation of Islam began, in turn separating fact from fiction, half-truths and lies. I recently watched the DVD, “8 Centuries of Muslims in America,” when a narrator stated that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s teacher was from the Pakistan-India area. I wanted to inform those who produced this wonderful history about Islam in America that Pakistan did not exist when Master Fard Muhammad made himself known in America (1930).
In 2008, while attending Jumu’ah prayer, an Imam giving the Kutbah (sermon) said, “When Fard Muhammad taught here at the Mosque,” I had to look around out of confusion over what he was talking about, because this mosque did not exist in the early ‘30s when Master Fard Muhammad was in America. As he spoke further, I realized he was talking about Muhammad Abdullah who lived in Oakland, California, now deceased.
In a conversation with Muhammad Abdullah in 1976, he said to me that he was encouraged to take February 26 as his birthday. Anyone can research this by checking with his two sons who are well known in the African—American/Muslim community. As part of our oral history, we can ask his sons directly: Was your father Master Fard Muhammad? We will get the answer.
In 1986, I was in New Zealand, where a group of people belonging to a nationalist-religious movement was convinced that Master Fard Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam was a Maori from New Zealand, half White and half Maori. The misinformation was propaganda floated by the FBI through the Hearst Corporation, headed at that time by Randolph Hearst, the father of the infamous Patti Hearst. The Maori are the indigenous people the Europeans found when they invaded and conquered New Zealand.
If we properly document our oral history, this will protect the authenticity of our story. There are many brothers and sisters who desire to accomplish this endeavor. There are also groups of non-Muslims and scholars like Dr. Abul Pitre and Mathias Gardell from Sweden who authored “In The Name of Elijah Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam,” who realize the impact of the Nation of Islam from its 80-year history in America. Graduate students from all over the world; from Turkey, Ireland, and countries in the Middle East and across America have done an intense study of what they call the “movement of the Nation of Islam.” They have plumbed the depth of the Nation of Islam’s influence on the Black lifestyle in America and that because of Minister Louis Farrakhan’s work the Nation of Islam’s impact on the world. They observed spinoff groups and organizations, which came across the bridge, built by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad only to turn around and condemn the bridge, seeking to burn it. They examined people who used the guidance and the words of Elijah Muhammad to become very successful in their professional pursuits, but they never became official followers. Many of them never attended a mosque meeting other than a public lecture by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X or Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Those of us who lived this history and never took the time to record what we did day in and day out to build the Nation of Islam, have an obligation to share the oral history with the generations that follow, so that our experience and work does not die when we leave this earth. It will help future generations understand what it took to build the Nation of Islam in America.
(To reach Akbar Muhammad for Comments and Questions, email: [email protected].)