The year I was born, my father joined the Nation of Islam. He was in prison at the time. Some of our earliest family pictures show him holding me inside the facility.

Before being sent to prison, my father had been introduced to Nation of Islam teachings. During his incarceration, he officially became a member, joining a growing number of African American men for whom the nation signified community, identity, reform, and dignity.

After converting, my father placed our family under the authority of the nation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad. We belonged to Temple 7B in Corona, Queens, a mosque annexed by the famed Temple 7 in Harlem, where Malcolm X had once served as minister. (Louis Farrakhan was in charge of Temple 7 at the time.) Malcolm had been assassinated only seven years earlier, and no one dared mention his name, almost as if there were an unspoken rule forbidding it.

The Invisible God

Growing up within the Nation of Islam, I was exposed to certain beliefs that, in retrospect, seem quite bizarre. Sometimes we would look up at the night sky, spot the lights of planes flying at high altitudes, and wonder if we had caught a glimpse of the “Mother Plane.” According to the nation’s leaders, this was a spacecraft equipped by Allah to destroy the world and its white ruling structures in what they called “the Battle in the Sky,” a reference to Armageddon.

Other memories are more pleasant. Scented body oils and the fragrance of burning incense were common in every Nation of Islam household alongside pictures of the nation’s founder, “Master” Wallace Fard Muhammad, and Elijah Muhammad, his successor. I also have fond recollections of cheering for Muhammad Ali. To us, he was something ...

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