The news reports last week sounded like the premise for a novel: a treasure trove of Malcolm X's papers, provenance murky, to be auctioned to the highest bidder. Malcolm's copy of the Qur'an; notebooks of his trips to Africa and the Middle East, after which he renounced the Nation of Islam in favor of orthodox Islam; letters, drafts of speeches, and more: extraordinary. How to keep the collection intact and open its contents to researchers? You can bet the details will be worked out—and down the road, biographies and other scholarly studies will emerge, changing what we thought we knew. While we wait, close at hand is Karl Evanzz's recent book, The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad (Pantheon), essential reading not only to understand Malcolm X but also to provide some context for all those post-9/11 stories referring vaguely to the appeal of Islam among African Americans.
Rarely one to miss an occasion for poetry (or publicity), Jesse Jackson waxed eloquent at the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's funeral in Chicago on February 26, 1975. Muhammad had "turned alienation into emancipation," Jackson said. "He concentrated on taking the slums out of the people and then the people out of the slums. He took dope out of veins and put hope in our brains." Early Jesse, vintage stuff. Undoubtedly, Jackson meant to uplift: focusing not on the past but on things that last, he reached out (not down) to hearts torn apart. But, as readers of Evanzz's very fine biography of Elijah Muhammad will discover, the truth is a little more complicated than Jackson's rhymes suggest.
It is true, for instance, that Muhammad's Nation of Islam (NOI) gave a sense of purpose and dignity to many "alienated" blacks in urban American. But it's also ...1