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International Socialist Review, Winter 1964


Robert Vernon

The Black Muslims


From International Socialist Review, Vol.25 No.1, Winter 1964, pp.29-30.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


When The Word Is Given: A report on Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X and the Black Muslim World
by Louis E. Lomax
New York. World Publishing Co., 1963. 223 pp. $3.95

The Black Muslims are, without doubt, one of the most fascinating social phenomena on the American scene. Lomax’s book is only the third to appear on this key topic. But like its two counterparts, also by Negro authors (C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America and E.U. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism: The Search for an Identity America), this contribution falls far short of an incisive picture of the Black Muslims and of the America which produced them. The three books share much the same defects – primarily the outlook of their authors which is confined to the framework of existing society and their inability to understand phenomena which transcend that society and reflect revolutionary urges to break free from it.

Lomax’s treatment is conscientious and honest, within his limitations. Lomax does not brandish the ridiculous argument that the segregation enforced by white America and the separate black power advocated by the Muslims is the “same thing.” He points out the failure of the white man’s religion, Christianity, to meet the emotional and material needs of many black people and the way the role of Negroes in America has been whitewashed out of history. He clearly establishes the fact that the Nation of Islam is a religion if anything else on the scene is. This is a religion swept up in the revolutionary anger of a frustrated and embittered people and fashioned in their self-image.

Like most critics, Lomax tries to judge the Muslims not on their relevance to the northern ghettos which gave birth to the movement, but on their alienation from the Southern integration struggle. As Lomax puts it: “Allah and Jesus fight it out for the spiritual allegiance of the American Negro at a lunch counter in Woolworth’s.” Poor white man’s Jesus: he is bound to lose both at “Woolworth’s” down South and in Harlem, where Allah has the distinct advantage.

Lomax misinterprets the reactions of a crowd at a Harlem street meeting last July – at which this reviewer was present – listening to Elijah Muhammad’s son Akbar and to Malcolm X. The crowd was cool to Akbar Muhammad who spoke for unity between all Negro leaders, because the nitty-gritty people in Harlem have nothing much to gain from NAACP, CORE, or the Urban League. The crowd warmed up only when the Muslims implied that their unity approach was meant to force these conservative forces into unity on an apparently militant basis and not that the Muslims were hankering for any old kind of “unity” with the conservative elements.

The most valuable contribution Lomax makes to the literature on the subject is the extensive quotes and texts of whole speeches by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, taking up at least half the book. These present an incomplete, but instructive, picture of the content of Muslim utterances. For this alone, the book is worth reading.

Like Lincoln and Essien-Udom, Lomax sees a good or “functional” side to the Muslims in their pricking white America’s conscience and spurring integration by demonstrating the awful alternatives of the failure to integrate the “Negro problem” right out of existence. Missing here is any realization that white American capitalist society not only is incapable of accepting Negroes to its bosom as equals in a declining society, but has nothing to offer that will satisfy black people.

The Black Muslims are by no means the extreme far black or the last resort in the black revolt. The new forms of black revolt in the North (and South too) will be more practical and more oriented to mass action, but will have reason to thank the Black Muslims for their scorching indictment of white America and their legacy of fierce pride in being black inside a white prison.

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