Magida on Farrakhan: The enigma lives

June 30, 1996|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Staff

"Prophet of Rage" by Arthur J. Magida, Basic Books. 263 pages. $25

In the foreword to "Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and his Nation," Julian Bond writes that Farrakhan's prominence "ought to make the nation question itself. An understanding of who he is and where he comes from, and from what sources his thinking arises is important to our understanding of ourselves."

Unfortunately, there is relatively little in the book, touted as the first full-length biography of Farrakhan, to point the reader toward that deeper understanding. The author reprises the by now familiar outline of Farrakhan's early life as Louis Eugene Walcott, the son of a hard-working West Indian immigrant mother in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, where he grew up in the Episcopal church to become a model student, accomplished musician and track star.

After high school Walcott attended Winston-Salem Teachers' College in North Carolina. There he was an indifferent student but evinced a remarkable talent as a singer known as "the Charmer" in a Calypso band he formed.

After three years he dropped out of school to marry his 17-year-old hometown sweetheart, Betsy Ross, who had become pregnant during the summer of 1953. With a family to support and no college degree, Walcott tried to make a career as a Calypso singer with a touring band. While he was performing in a Chicago revue, a friend persuaded him to attend a Nation of Islam convention.

A few months later Walcott heard Malcolm X speak and decided to devote himself to the NOI cause. He dropped the name Walcott and became Louis X, later Louis Farrakhan, and began his steady rise to pinnacle of the sect's leadership.

The author, a former editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, claims had "unprecedented" access to the Nation of Islam leader. Yet Arthur J. Magida's personal contacts with Farrakhan turn out to be only a couple of long interviews and a dinner conversation at the minister's Chicago home.

Most of the book is based on newspaper reports and other previously published sources. Magida talked to current and former members of the Nation of Islam, but they cast surprisingly little new light on his subject.

And although the book does contain tantalizing tidbits culled from internal FBI and CIA documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, there are virtually no quotes or insights from members of Farrakhan's own family or his trusted inner circle of advisers.

This lack makes for a somewhat one-dimensional portrait. Though Magida complains about the "cartoon" image of Farrakhan purveyed by the media, he never quite manages to get inside his subject. The result is that the Farrakhan that emerges from these pages, while recognizable, remains nearly as flat as the caricatures the author describes.

Glenn McNatt is an arts columnist for The Sun. He was previously an editorial writer for 10 years.

` Pub date: 06/30/96

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