The Summer 1996 issue of Transition: An International Review featured a conversation between Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam and Henry Louis Gates, the Chairman of Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department. Gates serves as co-editor of Transition together with Harvard's Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Gates provides an introduction which reviews the history of the Nation and describes some of the core tenets of its spiritual teachings. One interesting historical fact Gates mentions is that the Nation's size nearly doubled after CBS-TV ran a documentary on the Black Muslims that featured Malcolm X, "The Hate That Hate Produced."

In the introduction, Gates provides a revealing look at Farrakhan and the contradictory feelings he causes among Americans, black and white, saying:

...there is in Farrakhan's discourse a strain that sounds awfully like liberal universalism; there is also, of course, its brutal opposite. The two tendencies, in all their forms, are constantly in tension. Pundits like to imagine that Farrakhan is a kind of radio program: the incendiary Louis Farrakhan Show. In fact, Farrakhan is more like a radio station: What you hear depends on when you tune in. His talk ranges from farfetched conspiracy theories to Dan Quayle-like calls for family values...

Gates also describes the fear that Farrakhan inspires in whites ... and blacks, himself included:
Much is made of Farrakhan's capacity to strike fear into the hearts of white liberals. And it does seem that for many of them Farrakhan represents their worst nightmare: the Nat Turner figure, crying out for racial vengeance. As Adolph Reed Jr. writes of Farrakhan, "He has become uniquely notorious because his inflammatory nationalist persona has helped to center public discussion of Afro-American politics on the only issue (except affirmative action, of course) about which most whites ever show much concern: what do blacks think of whites?"

A subject that receives far less attention is the fear that Farrakhan inspires in blacks. The truth is that blacks often feel astonishingly vulnerable to charges of inauthenticity, of disloyalty to the race. I know that I do, despite my vigorous efforts to deconstruct that vocabulary of reproach. Farrakhan's sway over blacks -- the answering chord his rhetoric finds -- attests to the enduring strength of our own feelings of guilt, our own anxieties of having been false to our people, of having sinned against our innermost identity. He denounces the fallen among us, invokes a wrath of heaven against us: and his outlandish vitriol occasions both terror and curious exhilaration.

One of the central elements of the Nation of Islam's theology concerns the creation of the white race. Gates writes:

In the world according to Elijah Muhammad, blacks were descended from the tribe of Shabazz, which 'came with the earth' when an explosion separated our planet from the moon sixty-six trillion years ago. The white race, by contrast, was less than seven thousand years old, the result of the genetic experiments of a wicked scientist named Yakub. Although whites had assumed control for millennia, the end of the reign of the white race was foreordained.

Gates engaged Farrakhan on this subject:
HLG: I wanted to ask you about Yakub. I've always said that Muhammad is one of the few black people to have invented a mythology. But I want to know from you -- do you literally believe that aspect of the Nation's theology, or is it metaphorical?

LF: It is not, in our judgment, metaphorical. The reason it seems like an invention is because it was not heard before. It was not known before. And rather than credit it as revelation, intellectually we give it a name that allows us to deal with it. Now if it is an invention, then the man who invented it had to be very brilliant in order to invent a mythology that now has some basis in fact. Let's go into it a little deeper. Personally, I believe that Yakub is not a mythical figure -- he's a very real scientist. Not a big-head silly thing, as they would like to say.

But in the teachings of the honorable Elijah Muhammad, this young man Yakub discovered, in the life germ of the black man, that under certain conditions you could produce another human being. But different -- a different kind of human being. Well, where that sounded so farfetched yesterday, now modern genetics, modern eugenics are beginning to see, in the genes of the human beings, the characteristics that make us who and what we are. And through splicing the gene, they can cut this disease out or that characteristic out of the human being. That's a very real scientific breakthrough. But I believe it's based in the teachings of the honorable Elijah Muhammad.

We believe that Yakub was not a mythical figure but a real-life scientist. And I'm very proud of that people that he made. They are not old. They are very young. and like young people they got involved in mischief. i believe that white people are a new people on our earth and God allowed them to come on the earth for a very great and divine purpose. ...

On other matters, including the relationship between blacks and Jews and the Million Man March, Farrakhan doesn't stray very far from the man we've come to know over the years. As Gates pointed out, there are lots of contradictions. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that, while he never backs down from confrontations with whites and Jews, he is equally harsh when dealing with the black community, particularly when he says:

LF: Part of our problem is definitely historical, and structural. What happened in the past impacts us in the present. However, there's another part of it that is based on our own choices and we have to accept now -- more so than in any other time in our history -- responsibility for our failures. It's so easy to put it on the white man. That disallows us to look at ourselves, and I think that we have to force our people to see ourselves as we really are. As long as we can beat up on white people, and make the world think that everything that went wrong in the world is due to them and we had nothing to do with this, then we rob ourselves of the impetus, the motivation and the inspiration for personal change and to accept personal responsibility...

...I think through the process of education you make people proud of who they are. You don't want to take that away from any human being. But then they must outgrow the narrowness of their own nationalistic feelings to see themselves as human beings inhabiting space and time with other human beings. When we outgrow the color thing, outgrow the race and the ethnic thing, outgrow the religious thing to see the oneness of god and the oneness of humanity, then we can begin to approach our divinity. [emphasis added]

Maybe it's just a question of emphasis? Gates provides a pretty even-handed view of Farrakhan. Despite the personal reservations he might have, the interview amounts to a couple of brothers having a conversation. Not exactly the inquisition groups like the ADL might have in mind. When I finished reading, I was wondering what the point was. I still am.

Clearly, Farrakhan says things, tough things, that the most right-wing conservative would agree with. But Gates seems to think, and I tend to agree, that the part of Farrakhan that energizes blacks and attracts media fire, is the vitriolic Farrakhan who doesnot give an inch.

What do you think?

Related Links:

The Nation of Islam Online

Meanderings: Farrakhan, Khalid Muhammad and the Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam: The Relentless Record of Hate
(compiled by the Anti-Defamation League)

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