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[Essay]

The Charmer

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Louis Farrakhan and the Black Lives Matter protests

Twenty-one years ago, on the National Mall, Louis Farrakhan rose to speak to the largest gathering of African Americans in history. Flanked by a crowd of young men in navy-blue uniforms, Farrakhan looked out at the Million Man March, a sea of black humanity that stretched from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. The people had gathered at a time of profound suffering for black America. The fire of the civil-rights movement had burned out; the hope and progress of the 1960s had turned to cynicism and regression. The march had been conceived as part of the great legacy of black protest against injustice. And yet, curiously, when Farrakhan addressed the crowd, he spoke of atonement: that October day, he suggested, was a day to ask forgiveness.

Louis Farrakhan before his speech at the Million Man March, October 16, 1995 © Eli Reed/Magnum Photos. Reed’s monograph A Long Walk Home was published last May by University of Texas Press

Louis Farrakhan before his speech at the Million Man March, October 16, 1995 © Eli Reed/Magnum Photos. Reed’s monograph A Long Walk Home was published last May by University of Texas Press

Even now, estimates of the event’s attendance inspire considerable controversy, with figures ranging from 400,000 to more than 800,000. There is little question, however, that in both its origins and its scope, the march was unprecedented in the United States. As the late historian Manning Marable points out in Black Leadership, the 1963 March on Washington, which featured Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, was a coordinated effort in support of civil-rights legislation, and its planning intimately involved the Kennedy Administration. The Million Man March sought no such approval from white leaders. It was organized, after all, in part by the Nation of Islam (N.O.I.), which was led by Farrakhan, who had come to believe that racial reconciliation offered no hope for black Americans. The march was meant to prompt a look inward by black men. (And only black men; as Angela Davis complained at the time, the exclusion of women implied by the event’s title was neither coincidental nor casual.) Farrakhan called on his audience to interrogate their own lives, to stop seeking salvation in white America. With its bootstrapping mentality and narrative of deliverance through personal resolve, the Million Man March appears today to occupy a strange ideological space: part G.O.P. convention, part Black Panther rally.

Some have blamed the march’s conservative, self-criticizing impulse for its failure to develop into a durable black political movement. Adolph Reed, a political scientist and labor activist, has said that the march was “the first protest in history where people gathered ostensibly to protest themselves.” Marable notes that black turnout spiked in the elections immediately following the gathering, but no enduring protest movement developed in the streets of Washington that day; no major third party was organized; no new dedication to unions, or to community activism, or to fusions of religion and politics was born. In a world of entrenched racism, real, lasting victory was too much to ask of any individual protest. Even those impressed by the march, however, recognized its political moment as fleeting.

Such criticisms are accurate enough, but perhaps they miss the point. For if the Million Man March did little to prompt a new black movement, it achieved at least one of its intended effects: it shook white America. Years later, in her memoir, Uncovering Race, Amy Alexander would write about how journalists of the time were “apoplectic” about the march: “A high level of hysteria had infused many of the stories” about the event. Politicians were little better. A year before Bob Dole unsuccessfully ran for president in 1996, he called Farrakhan’s views “a message of hate.” Abe Foxman, who was the leader of the Anti-Defamation League, referred to the Fruit of Islam, the N.O.I.’s paramilitary security apparatus, as “brownshirts,” thereby explicitly comparing the march to a Nazi gathering.

At the height of the Gingrich revolution, during a Democratic presidential administration that was marked by the abandonment of traditional liberal principles, black Americans were daily being scapegoated as the faces of the welfare state, unwanted freeloaders living on the dole. The New Republic’s shameful cover image of a cigarette-smoking black “welfare mother” defined the prevalent attitude of the political class of the time. With its message of black autonomy and black pride, the march served as a rebuke to a cross-partisan consensus that saw only dependence whenever it looked at poor black people. The march was a show of force, one of the most elementary and most important types of political statement. In that, perhaps more than in any other way, it prefigured both the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements. The marchers demanded an acknowledgment of profound, principled grievance — and they insisted that a reckoning was yet to come.

Louis Farrakhan’s first love was not Islam, or politics, or public address. It was music. He was born Louis Walcott in the Bronx in 1933, moved to Boston three years later, and received rigorous musical training starting at age five. A gifted violinist, some say a prodigy, Farrakhan performed with major symphony orchestras as a teenager, and, under the name the Charmer, recorded several successful calypso tracks. With his musical ability and his dedication, he had all the makings of a distinguished career musician.

But if Farrakhan was born to be a musician, he was also born black. To be born black in America, and to be raised black in the Boston of the 1930s and 1940s, was to live under a system of oppressions both petty and grand. Little wonder, then, that a young man with a scholar’s dedication to self-education would be attracted to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. As the leader of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad met the indignities and tragedies of American racism with an insistence on the inherent divinity of black men. When Farrakhan joined the N.O.I., in 1955, he took the name Louis X and was told that he must choose between his music and the movement. He put down his violin and did not touch it again for decades. It was discipline, after all, that had given him his great skill in music, and discipline now compelled him to abandon it. (In 1993, Farrakhan agreed to take part in a symposium on classical music and black musicians, during which he played Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. “Can Louis Farrakhan play the violin?” the New York Times asked in its review. “God bless us, he can.”)

In the decade that followed his conversion, as Louis X became one of Elijah Muhammad’s most trusted lieutenants in the N.O.I., he would be defined by his deep scholasticism, his great discipline, and his fierce loyalty. Muhammad renamed him Farrakhan and appointed him, in 1967, as his national representative. Farrakhan’s influence and reputation grew over time, and not only because of his oratory. In 1972, the NYPD staged a notorious attack on the Harlem mosque where Farrakhan served as minister. When residents of the neighborhood clashed violently with police, Farrakhan intervened; he successfully defused the situation while remaining defiant toward the authorities. His stature in Harlem only grew.

The Nation of Islam that Farrakhan led during the Million Man March was not, strictly speaking, the same organization he had joined forty years earlier. Following Elijah Muhammad’s death, in 1975, one of his many children, Warith Deen Mohammed, took over the group. The FBI, which had surveilled the N.O.I. to the point of obsession for decades, had predicted a violent succession struggle, but the handoff was relatively smooth; Elijah Muhammad’s insistence on strict hierarchy left little room for dissent. After assuming his father’s mantle, Warith Deen undertook a project of rapid and complete reformation. In short order, he converted the N.O.I. to conventional Sunni Islam and changed the organization’s name, to the World Community of al-Islam in the West. No less important, he abandoned the N.O.I.’s long-standing policy of militant black nationalism, embracing a vague, flag-waving patriotism and a feel-good rhetoric of racial harmony.

For Farrakhan, the ideals that Warith Deen asked the Nation to embrace were a betrayal of Elijah Muhammad’s legacy. Then as now, Farrakhan stood for nothing if not resistance: resistance to reconciliation, resistance to the language of uplift, resistance to the race-blind vision that continues to entrance and flatter Americans. In turning the N.O.I. into a hand-shaking, conciliatory enterprise, Warith Deen made Farrakhan’s departure inevitable. Farrakhan initially made an effort to remain the good soldier he had always been, but Warith Deen soon transferred him from his longtime home mosque in Harlem to a station in West Chicago. Farrakhan, by most accounts, saw this as a demotion and an unacceptable insult. In late 1977, he met in secret with other leaders of the organization, and, not long after, he formally announced that he was leaving the World Community to reestablish the Nation of Islam. Though a radical move, this step must have come naturally. After all, what could be more appealing to a separatist than a new form of separation?

Warith Deen’s embrace of conventional Islam entailed the rejection of the strange, amalgamated creation myth that was one of the N.O.I.’s most essential teachings. According to the story, the races of the world were the creation of an ancient genius named Yakub, who perverted the original, black human form through a process of selective breeding, mating lighter-skinned people together until he had created a race of pale, wicked mutants. Farrakhan was and remains a Yakub literalist: he believes that Yakub, held by N.O.I. tradition to be the biblical Jacob, made the races, and that he crafted a world where the lighter-skinned want always to dominate the darker. White America seeks to dominate black, Ashkenazic Jews seek to dominate Sephardic, northern Africa seeks to dominate southern. From Yakub stems race, stems racism, stems everything. Because Yakub theory posits racial antagonism as inherent and existential, it leads naturally to racial separatism.

The initial sketch of Yakub was developed by Wallace Fard Muhammad, the shadowy founder of the Nation of Islam, who spread his teachings in Detroit briefly in the 1930s and just as quickly disappeared. Fard’s identity stands as one of the great mysteries of the twentieth century. Mattias Gardell, a Swedish religious historian whose In the Name of Elijah Muhammad is an indispensable study of the N.O.I., notes that theories about Fard diverge wildly: some say he was a white con artist, others a Lebanese carpet salesman, still others a black Barbadian rabbi and songwriter whose attempts to reform black America through mass conversion to Judaism caused him to split from Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Whatever the truth, Elijah Muhammad deepened and extended Fard’s theology into what Wayne Myers-Taylor, of Columbia University’s Malcolm X Project, has called a “mechanical universe,” an impossibly intricate system complete with eschatology, demonology, and UFOs.

Even many of those who were most loyal to Elijah Muhammad’s legacy have preferred to be done with Yakub theory, but the centrality of that theory to the teachings of the original N.O.I. suggests a reason why Farrakhan has remained a believer. Warith Deen’s rejection was for Farrakhan a rejection of God’s word itself. Starting with his public call to reinstitute the Nation of Islam, Farrakhan set about reclaiming its name, launching a protracted series of legal and economic battles to gain control. In the early 1980s, Warith Deen’s organization, which had been worth $75 million in property and investments, was pushed to the edge of financial disintegration. Thousands of followers left. By 1988, however, Farrakhan had rebuilt the N.O.I. into a national powerhouse. His efforts culminated in the Million Man March, after which his power and influence began to wane. Today, he avoids most public appearances and speaks mainly through videos posted on the YouTube channel of The Final Call, the N.O.I.’s newspaper.

Like David Icke or L. Ron Hubbard, Farrakhan has proved remarkably adept at gaining followers despite his rigid belief in an utterly alien creation story. Given the disadvantages of that vision — the unambiguous racial animosity and the bizarre mythology — how did a man like Farrakhan become, for a time, America’s most prominent black leader?

A mock trial staged by the Nation of Islam in 1959 suggests the start of an answer. At the time, the N.O.I. was newly ascendant, riding a wave of expansion and increasing influence. Thousands of dissatisfied black Americans were turning to Elijah Muhammad’s gospel of black nationalism as a means of rejecting the abundant horrors of Jim Crow. The mock trial, staged in Washington, D.C., demonstrated the seductive appeal of the Nation: the movement was a muscular, unapologetic defender of black pride, which was unafraid to condemn the white supremacy around it and was committed to meeting force with force. The defendant in the trial was the white man, the indictment listed the crimes of racism and segregation, and the judge and jury were the members of the N.O.I. Rising in relentless judgment came the voice of the prosecutor:

I charge the white man, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, with being the greatest murderer on earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest peacebreaker on earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest adulterer on earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest troublemaker on earth. So therefore, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you: bring back a verdict of guilty as charged.

The prosecutor’s speech was written by a twenty-six-year-old Louis X. Farrakhan’s precocity was unusual within the N.O.I.’s traditionally strict hierarchy, but then he was an unusually passionate and talented young convert. As that speech and others over the decades make clear, it’s not exactly inaccurate to call him an antiwhite racist. But to make that claim is to indulge a host of bad assumptions about American race relations, chief among them the specious idea that the race-based antagonism of someone like Farrakhan could ever mean the same thing as the centuries of slavery, assault, and murder committed against black people by white.

Not long after the Million Man March, Farrakhan was presented with video of the prosecutor’s speech by a skeptical Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. Wallace was, in the inimitable way of the white media, a careful interviewer who nevertheless managed to miss the point at every turn. Asked if he stood by the words he had written when he was younger, Farrakhan was unrepentant. “The history of the white man is written in murder, in the bloodshed of the darker peoples of the world,” he said. “I did not write the white man’s history.” Wallace responded, as he would throughout the interview, with a benevolent, condescending patience, not seeming to understand or to care that Farrakhan’s statement was plainly true.

Though it was less than a year removed from the Million Man March, Farrakhan’s appearance on 60 Minutes was an occasion not of celebration but of defense. His first major post-march initiative had been a trip to Africa and the Middle East, where he hobnobbed with bad actors such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi. For a black nationalist, Islamic leader, and explicit anti-Semite, such a tour made sense. For a man who had become the de facto face of black political leadership, the tour was a disaster. Black intellectuals and politicians who were previously supportive deserted him in droves; influential white conservatives claimed that Farrakhan’s tour confirmed all their initial fears about the march. Wallace laid out the common complaints: that Farrakhan had violated his responsibilities toward his own country, that he had made himself the friend of America’s enemies, and that he had offended the American people.

As always, Farrakhan was unyielding. “Some of your best patriots were the ones who never went along with the government position. . . . I am not a politician. I don’t do what people want me to do. I do what God inspires me to do.”

That 60 Minutes interview was filmed almost two decades ago. Yet there is something profoundly contemporary in Farrakhan’s argument with Wallace. Though his beliefs may appear foreign to us now, Farrakhan’s utterly unapologetic attitude and his refusal to adopt the congenial bromides of racial harmony presaged an understanding, now commonplace, that progress tomorrow requires honesty today.

Last summer, Farrakhan gave a speech in which he addressed the movement to remove the Confederate flag from government land, which followed Dylann Roof’s horrific massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, in June. As is his habit, Farrakhan took off from the specific, limited manifestation of American racism and redirected his complaint toward the ubiquitous rot out of which that racism grew. “We need to put the American flag down,” said Farrakhan. “We’ve caught as much hell under that as the Confederate flag.” Despite his eighty-two years, this is vintage Farrakhan: perhaps a bit obtuse, perhaps a bit facile, but relentless and focused in its insistence that racism belongs to the DNA of the American organism. At a time when most people were rallying around a shared loathing of a racism that we’d all prefer to think of as dead and buried, he insisted on pointing to the living, breathing animal. “What flag do the police have?” Farrakhan asked — meaning the police who killed Eric Garner, who harass and degrade black people every day, who are the knife edge of American white supremacy.

To speak of what Farrakhan gets right about racism is to risk lending credence to all he gets wrong. For just as he has been correct in his indictment of white supremacy, so too have his critics been correct in their indictments of him. Farrakhan’s ample critical gifts have always come packaged with abundant bigotries: hatred of Jews, mockery and fear of homosexuals, denigration of women. I have heard occasional attempts to deny Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, but these defenses approach lunacy. Farrakhan’s distrust of and anger toward Jews are as central and constant as any other aspect of his philosophy; anyone reading over his speeches for examples of anti-Semitic rhetoric will quickly find herself spoiled for choice. Jews control the banks, they control the media, they control the government, Israel knew 9/11 was coming.

Farrakhan has long entertained a fantasy that he will be assassinated, which he has made a calling card of his oratory. It’s impossible to dismiss this notion, given the history of black leadership in this country. But given that very history, Farrakhan’s fears that Jews will be responsible for his death are strange. Martin Luther King was killed by white supremacy; Malcolm X, by members of the N.O.I. itself. (Farrakhan has been accused of involvement in that killing, including by Malcolm X’s daughter, who was later arrested for attempting to hire a hit man to kill Farrakhan. Though Farrakhan had written that “such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death,” there is no evidence that he had a direct hand in ordering the assassination. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) Why then does Farrakhan fear Jewish reprisals? For no good reason, it seems, other than his palpable anti-Jewish paranoia, along with the anti-Semite’s tendency to see one of the world’s most oppressed peoples as the shadowy driver of all events.

Though Farrakhan has always had a scholarly gentility to him, he can be crude and insulting when he wants to be. As dictated by N.O.I. tradition, his gender politics are resolutely patriarchal. He expects women to have unambiguously servile positions, though like many sexists he imagines that his views are the only truly pro-women stance. He has also called homosexuality an unnatural affront to God that was promulgated by white conspirators.

Like Marcus Garvey before him, Farrakhan is a radical conservative: his resistance to racial reconciliation and his insistence on black nationalism are married to a political ethic of personal responsibility, one that exhorts black Americans to pull up their pants and take control of their own lives. No surprise, then, that Farrakhan, for all his divisiveness, received praise from Republican politicians such as Jack Kemp; he was speaking their language.

Faced with a white establishment that was resistant to black equality in the best of times, many black leaders have adopted a rhetoric of self-reform to accommodate our standard American mythology. But Farrakhan appears to truly believe what he says about the possibility of liberation through self-improvement. It’s the final affirmation of his commitment to the vision of Elijah Muhammad, who embraced the conviction that black men were divinely inspired and therefore capable of anything. It’s also a reason why, at a time when our racial discourse appears more congruent with rhetoric like Farrakhan’s than ever before, his speeches are still ignored. Today’s protest movement may fizzle and fail. But in its utter rejection of the traditional marriage of radicalism and conservatism, it stands as a nascent era of proud black activism. This is a new world, and Farrakhan has little place within it.

Farrakhan is now deep into his fourth decade of leadership of the N.O.I., but his day-to-day role in the organization is unclear. (Ishmael Muhammad, his longtime lieutenant and potential successor, is believed to direct much of the operation.) Though it is hard to say how much control Farrakhan has over his own activities, he has recently descended into a credulous, directionless conspiracism. Once feted by world leaders, he now struggles for relevance. He has reached out to rappers such as Kanye West and Young Jeezy — both of whom made respectful statements about him and then went back to making music — but he has exerted no demonstrable influence on the political leaders of today’s burgeoning black protest movement. Who could blame them, with all the baggage Farrakhan brings? Piling absurdity on absurdity, his video broadcasts are now dotted with endorsements of medical conspiracy theories, nostalgic reminiscences of the gold standard, and images of the Star of David superimposed on a dollar bill. He has taken to endorsing concepts from Hubbard’s Dianetics, as if convinced that no school of corrupt mysticism should escape his philosophy.

The black-liberation movement of today has left Farrakhan behind, as it has also left behind Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Given the activists’ rejection of the reactionary elements of Farrakhan’s philosophy, no one could credibly say that he has been a father to this new movement. In particular, the marginalization, sexism, and outright patriarchy of the N.O.I. have been cast aside in the world of Black Lives Matter, an explicitly feminist movement that is powered and directed by black women. If the spirit of Farrakhan lingers, that spirit manifests the legacy of only the best parts of him — his fire, his scholarship, his spirit of utter and proud refusal.

There’s a saying that’s reserved for the children of privilege who do not live up to their advantages: “He could have become anything, and he became this.” We might be inspired to amend that statement when we look at the profound waste of talent that is Louis Farrakhan: we could have been the kind of society in which Farrakhan became anything, and instead we’re the kind where he became this. I have no desire to rescue his reputation. But as a citizen of a country that seems determined to strangle the ambitions of its black children in the cradle, I feel compelled to ask: what might a man of Farrakhan’s discipline and passion have become were this the kind of country that was inclined to nurture him rather than stamp him out? One can imagine another Farrakhan, one still possessed of his scholarly dedication and his rhetorical fire, who was no less direct in his denunciation of America’s cruel inequity but was freed from the dull distortions of conspiracy and pseudoscience. One can imagine another Million Man March, one that was open and accepting of women and their leadership, one that built an enduring and forceful black political movement. One can imagine another America, freed from the hideous stain of racism, where Farrakhan would have been content to play his violin.

is an academic and writer. He lives in Indiana.

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January 2016