Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

For Black collegians, Farrakhan and Khallid Muhammad channel the rage of a generation

March 6, 1994 


The Nation of Islam’s Khallid Abdul Muhammad, who is best known to America for his excoriations of Jews as slavemasters, bloodsuckers and provacateurs of their own Holocaust, received a hero’s welcome at Howard University, America’s Mecca of black scholarship.

At the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, black students, stung by the ridicule and indifference they endured when they hosted Al Sharpton on campus last semester, announced that they have invited a man who they are sure will command intense attention and something less demeaning than a smirk – Minister Louis Farrakhan, the ultimate leader of the Nation of Islam.

Together, these two events, at mostly black Howard and mostly white UMass, tell a larger story. If the escalating belligerence toward Jews expressed by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan and Khallid Abdul Muhammad may have put off some black leaders – and led them to publicly distance themselves – the ensuing tempest has only endeared the pair further to black college students.

Simply put, Farrakhan and Muhammad, like no others, express the rage of a generation. And anyone waiting for black students – the rising generation of black leaders – to repudiate the Nation of Islam, will have a very, very long wait.

Indeed, longtime activists and observers say that the real question posed by the recent controversy surrounding Farrakhan and Muhammad is not what they are saying, but who is listening, and why.

“Someone has to somehow find a way to call attention to what is pretty close to a disease that is sweeping much of the black community, and that is the growing tolerance of hateful expression,” said Milton Morris, the vice president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that focuses on issues of concern to the black community.

“I think there is a kind of nihilism, philosophical nihilism in the black community that is unparalleled in American black history,” agrees Julius Lester, an activist and scholar who teaches at UMass. Lester, a black who converted to Judaism, believes the nation is reaping the consequences of the national indifference to the black community during the conscious life of this youngest generation.

“I don’t think we’ve begun to add up the damage that was done in the Reagan years and the lack of empathy that was exuded at the highest levels,” he said.

And William Strickland, another UMass professor with a long history of civil rights activism, said Farrakhan is tapping into existing tensions between some blacks and Jews over issues like affirmative action and Israel.

And, of course, said another civil rights eminence, Roger Wilkins, who teaches history at George Mason University, college students are those most open to experimenting with extremes.

“The hallmark of being 18 is to be an open wound, bleeding to the world,” said Wilkins.

“This is an aggressive, hard-core generation, and we want an aggressive hard-core message,” said Malik Zulu Shabazz, the Howard University student who recently brought the charismatic Khallid Muhammad before an overflow crowd of more than 1,000. It was a crowd that was all the more zealous in its enthusiasm because of the criticism that Muhammad has endured, criticism that has made him, in the words of the posters plastered on the Howard campus, “The Man The Enemy Is Afraid Of … The Man Repudiated by Negro Leaders.”

And yet, it would be a mistake to view students’ embrace of Farrakhan and Muhammad as blanket, unthinking acceptance of anti-Jewish sentiments.

As conversations with black students at Howard and UMass reveal, it is all a lot more subtle and complicated than that.

Those conversations indicate that the stirring allegiance to Farrakhan and Muhammad has much more to do with an overwhelming commitment to black unity and resistance to white meddling in black affairs.

It has more to do with a respect for the active example of self-discipline, self-improvement and caring for the black condition that the Nation of Islam projects.

And it has more to do with a deep, suppressed vein of anger about the state of black America and its relationship to the extraordinarily painful history of slavery. It is a history that this generation of students, exposed to Afrocentric education like none before it, is facing, reliving and reacting to like none before it. They are angry, and no black leaders express that anger with the pure and unforgiving heat, or concentrate as directly on the history of slavery, as do Farrakhan and Muhammad.

“My readings of history are showing me that slavery was more vile than I ever knew,” said Shomwa Shomapande, a student at UMass.

Shomapande, who is president of the Black Student Union at a school that is only about 4% black, together with Douglas Greer, a UMass student active in a black fraternity, arranged for Farrakhan’s visit, scheduled for March 9. Both consider themselves great admirers of Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, for the usual reason – the Nation’s commitment to economic self-sufficiency, discipline, clean living and turning around lost lives.

Shomapande cites the example of two UMass students who the Nation transformed from prison inmates to “two of the nicest, most mild-natured, best people to know in the world. I don’t know if any other religion could do that.”

But, beyond that common ground of admiration for the Nation, the differences between Shomapande and Greer at UMass, and Shabazz at Howard indicate the varied shadings of attitude and approach that get lost in the recent tumult.

Shabazz obviously revels in assigning Jews special responsibility for the oppression of blacks.

While even Farrakhan condemned the “repugnant” manner in which Muhammad criticized Jews and others in a now celebrated December speech at Kean College in New Jersey (though Farrakhan stood by the content of that criticism), Shabazz said, “I agree with every statement he made, 1,000%.”

Before introducing Muhammad this week, Shabazz endeavored to lead his audience in a call and reponse of Jewish culpability for crimes against blacks.

“Who set up Nat Turner?” he asked. “Who is it that controls the Federal Reserve?” and, “Who is it that controls the media and Hollywood, which has black entertainers and athletes in its vise grip?”

Yet, Shabazz found himself having to admonish his otherwise tautly attentive audience for insufficient enthusiams in their shouted reply of “Jews!”

“Are you afraid to say it?” Shabazz asked, provoking a somewhat more energetic “Jews!” to his next question of Jewish guilt.

By contrast, Shomapande read Muhammad’s Kean College speech and concluded it was “excessively vile.”

“We as black people in America are going to have rage, but those in leadership should try to control that rage and try to have a reasonable discourse,” said Shomapande.

But, like other blacks interviewed, Shomapande did express irritation with the Jews “hitting us over the head with their suffering.”

Whether it’s the Holocaust Museum or “Schindler’s List,” there are very tender feelings among blacks that Jews are not only much more successful than blacks in America, but also much more successful in enshrining their suffering and making the rest of the nation acknowledge it.

“We don’t want to get into which Holocaust was worse – though I would say the Holocaust of the American Negro was worse – but go out and hit the rest of the world over the head with your suffering, don’t tell me about it. I’ve known suffering in my lifetime.”

And like other students, Shomapande was deeply disturbed by what he saw as black leaders buckling to Jewish influence in distancing themselves from Farrakhan.

“The most appalling thing I’ve seen in this whole controversy has been this notion that (Jews) would inform us as black people, as if we were little kids, who we could invite to our party and who we couldn’t invite to our party.”

“You shouldn’t have to apologize for something you believe in,” agreed Portia Bruner, an editor at the Hilltop, the Howard student newspaper. Bruner said she understands that Jews would be “legitimately offended” by what Muhammad said. But, she said, he’s been saying the same things about Jews at least since she heard him as a 16-year-old growing up in Denver. People would laugh at his anti-Jewish remarks, she said, and while it may have been unfair, she said, it reflected some “real pain.”

She recalled how a Jewish dentist served her middle-class black community in Denver and made a lot of money putting in what she has since discovered were in her case inferior fillings. She has since had her mouth redone at Howard and she bears no ill will to Jews in general. But on such strands of experience, she said, black-Jewish tensions are built.



Memo: This was written for the Newhouse News Service.


Written by jonathantilove

August 1, 2022 at 3:56 pm

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