Civil War of the Black Self

June 26, 1994|By MICHAEL DATCHER

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- When Khallid Abdul Muhammad, the fiery Nation of Islam speaker known for his attacks on Jews, Catholics and whites, was shot recently in Riverside, California, critics remarked on the irony that his assailant was a fellow black man. But for those young black Americans who turn out in droves to hear him, that fact only underscored the urgency of his message, a message aimed exclusively at black Americans.

Mr. Muhammad calls himself a ''truth terrorist'' and his choice of military imagery is not accidental. He sees himself as a man at war because his people are at war. Anyone who looks at the high casualty rates we blacks are suffering every day would have to agree with him. In metropolitan areas homicide is the leading cause of death for black men between the ages of 18 and 24; high school drop-out rates hover at 60 percent; AIDS and crack cocaine abuse are nearing epidemic levels.

In many ways this African-American war is a civil war -- a war against the black self. Khallid Muhammad sees self-hate as the root of the problem and knowledge of self as the key to the answer. To begin winning the war, he argues, blacks must break free of their continuing dependency on a cultural mindset that views everything black -- skin color, hair texture, Africa -- as inferior, and everything white as superior. He starts by attacking some of white AND black America's most cherished icons.

He calls Pope John Paul II a ''cracker,'' a term normally associated with white racists. The pope, he points out, presides over a church that once validated the Atlantic slave trade, yet neither he nor his predecessors has ever acknowledged that fact. Nor has the pope ever spoken out against the black holocaust even though he has acknowledged the Jewish holocaust. Mr. Muhammad wants blacks to consider the possibility that the pope may not be the spiritual leader they think him to be.

By targeting individuals and groups the black community feels closest to rather than its obvious enemies, Mr. Muhammad drives home his central idea -- the totality of the war that is ravaging black America. In wartime, he reminds us, no one is above question. Black America's only hope for survival is to look inward and unify itself. Anything that diverts blacks from this process, such as alliances with white liberals, will only split the community further.

Khallid Muhammad's message has a strong appeal on college campuses where fewer than 25 percent of black male students graduate. Almost every week, whether in Kean, New Jersey or Riverside, California, he can be found addressing large campus audiences, commanding speaker fees of $10,000. Yet the day before he was shot, he appeared at an Afrikan Liberation Day rally at an inner-city park in Los Angeles.

The sight of the speaker ascending the stage in flowing purple robes sent a wave of excitement through the crowd. Mr. Muhammad immediately attacked Steven Spielberg and his film ''Schindler's List,'' dubbing it ''Swindler's List.'' ''Don't let that hook-nosed, bagel-eating, Johnny-come-lately so-called Jew make you believe he has suffered more than you,'' he told his audience.

The point which survived his crude diatribe was how Hollywood, in its effort to dramatize the suffering of one people, has had the effect of excluding another's -- in this case the black holocaust. Two centuries of slavery wiped out over 40 million black lives, yet in decades of film making Hollywood has all but ignored this tragedy. That failure -- like the pope's failure to acknowledge the church's role in slavery -- exposes the true nature of the white culture's disdain for African-Americans. To eradicate black self-hate, blacks must rethink and redefine their own history.

''Khallid's truth is straight. . . . It cannot be denied,'' remarked Aaron Kenneth Toney, a 23-year-old college student who cheered the speech along with the rest of the audience. ''Like he said, 'The dog that bit me, bit him, and a lot of other people. . . . The dog needs to be leashed or shot.' ''

Khallid Muhammad's appeal to young blacks like Mr. Toney goes beyond the exhilaration of breaking rhetorical taboos. By defining the condition of black America as one of war, he gives a point to the individual lives of his listeners, even the most marginalized. He demands that all blacks exhibit the vigilance of wartime sentries.

The danger is that even if he succeeds in replacing black self-hate with self-esteem, he will merely transpose that self-hate into hatred of ''the other.'' If that proves to be the case, his drive to turn a fragmented, dependent and self-destructive black population into a self-reliant fighting force could instead accelerate a tribalistic implosion.

Michael Datcher, a free-lance writer, wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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