The X Files
Outside the Eulipions Cultural Center in Capitol Hill, a mostly black crowd is waiting to hear Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who's in the middle of a ninety-city tour of the United States. The scene out front is like a festival: Candidates for elected office pass out fliers alongside Nation of Islam barkers hawking T-shirts and stray pamphleteers selling other truths.
The men and women waiting to get in are separated into two lines so that they can be frisked--an activity the Nation takes seriously. Then everyone presses into the crowded, two story-room, whose wraparound balcony recalls the stately Southern courtroom from To Kill a Mockingbird.
Inside, Jamal Muhammad, in a smart burgundy suit and bowtie, makes the rounds with a magnetic smile and strong handshake. He appears to know everyone in the place. When Farrakhan emerges half an hour later, Muhammad, the preacher formerly known as Jamal X, the accused bigot who touched off a political firestorm with a speech at a Denver high school in which he accused white people of "eating their dead," takes up a silent post off in the wings. As a lieutenant in Farrakhan's army, this is where he belongs: near his leader.
A week later, though, a different version of Muhammad emerges: a man who has traded in his snazzy Nation of Islam minister's garb for the plain clothes of a book clerk. These days the Nation's onetime point man in Denver is just the latest hire at the Hue-Man Experience book store on Park Avenue West. Taking orders over the phone, helping customers pick out reading material, he is a paragon of politeness.
For the man who was once Jamal Elliot, then Jamal X and now Jamal Muhammad, the contradictions in personas go way back. While he embraced integrationist sentiments during his days as a guitarist in L.A. punk bands like J. and the Strays and the Screaming Cadavers, he also harbored a separatist distrust of the mainstream. And while he talks like an intellectual, quoting freely from literary classics, his fiery speeches are often steeped in raw emotion.
It's been more than a year and a half since Muhammad vaulted into Denver's consciousness with his February 1996 speech at Montbello High School, during which he told students that black people had been building pyramids while whites were living in caves.
More than seventy local newspaper articles were written about him in the following three months, including scathing editorials that questioned why the public schools would grant such a provocateur access to impressionable teenagers. He was widely referred to in the press as a "black leader." Then, just as quickly as he'd showed up, he disappeared. It was even rumored that he'd left town.
But during a recent interview at a restaurant a block away from the Hue-Man Experience, the 37-year-old Muhammad makes it clear that he hasn't gone anywhere. He's given up his leadership gig with the Nation, and his views have been leavened somewhat by the weight of the last two years' experience. But he hasn't softened his outlook on racial politics.
Muhammad feigns a great reluctance to deal with the press. He's not seeking publicity, he says, though he was recently featured on the cover of the Urban Spectrum with his twelve-year-old son. The boy, Kaliq, the product of a ten-year marriage that ended in divorce in 1994, accompanies Muhammad to several recent interviews. He seems to serve as a sort of talisman to ward off negative perceptions that have followed Muhammad since the Montbello appearance. "He watches my back," Muhammad says of his son.
Being "catapulted" into the limelight was a mixed blessing, Muhammad says, his tone switching between one of caustic intellect and one of good-natured humor. "I wasn't seeking it [publicity]," he says. "It's not my mission to go after the media; they come to me."
Yet, still eager to get the Nation's message out, he rarely says no.
Now that the dust has settled from the Montbello speech, the weight of Jamal Muhammad's accomplishments seems far out of proportion to the attention he received.
Just before the Montbello speech and a repeat performance a month later at East High School, Muhammad was involved in a successful community effort to ferret out the killer of three-year-old Casson Evans, who was killed in a 1995 drive-by shooting while he sat in a car seat. A month after that he helped organize a well-attended All Black Men's Conference, a roundtable discussion designed to call black men to "unity and action."
But Muhammad was also part of an embarrassing schism between several Million Man March organizations in Denver. Partly as a result of their infighting, a rally at Mile High Stadium that was supposed to bring in 80,000 people and Farra-khan himself withered to a mere 300 souls at Stapleton Airport and no Farrakhan.
Muhammad, however, says he hasn't claimed to have done great things. "I'm just addressing the issue," he says. "I pricked the consciousness of the city, like you prick a boil and let that stuff ooze out."
Although the Reverend Gill Ford, minister of Salem Baptist Church and a former member of the city's Public Safety Review Commission, doesn't agree with the message of the Nation, he says Muhammad has "tapped into a vein that's a problem across the country for many African-Americans." Many other local black leaders decline to comment at all about Muhammad. "He hasn't hurt the black community," says one activist. "Whether he's helped the black community, that's a consciousness question."
Muhammad grew up as Jamal Elliot in the working-class neighborhoods of Panama City, Gamboa and Paraiso, Panama, the youngest of six children. His Panamanian father, who supervised deckhands working on ships passing through the Panama Canal, put in long hours and was rarely home with the children or their mother, whom Jamal describes as "a good Christian lady." But it was from his father that Muhammad learned his outspoken ways. "Dad spoke up--that's where he says I got it from," he says. "He wouldn't go for it, this whole system of whites being over blacks."
As a young boy, the future agitator was a budding capitalist. He recalls stealing fruit from the tree of a neighbor and, with a friend, selling it around the block. "I thought I was an entrepreneur," he says. "I got the worst whupping of my life. I had to read the whole book of Proverbs."
Jamal continued to rebel as he got older, skipping school and ultimately flunking out of the seventh grade. That prompted his father to ship him off to America in 1975, when he was fifteen. The family had plenty of relatives in the States, especially in Brooklyn and Queens, but Jamal settled with his sister Sheila in California.
Muhammad says he had little contact with white people while growing up in Panama. His view of the whites he saw in America was marked by both admiration and a strong distrust. "I'd never seen that many [white] people in my life," he says. "I couldn't tell their ages, they all looked alike."
He also began reading philosophy, immersing himself in the intellectual traditions of Europeans and soaking up books like Kant's Critique of Pure Reason as a teen. "I've read so much Western philosophy," he says. "The German thinkers were my favorite. They were more aggressive, more motivated. I read a lot of Nietzsche."
And like Nietzsche, who disavowed racism and nationalism while promulgating theories about "little men" and great leaders that were ultimately embraced by the Nazis, Muhammad began to think about society in sweeping terms.
"I've always admired whites for being go-getters," he says matter-of-factly. "They don't sit around and wait for anything. You have to respect people who were in caves for 2,000 years and now rule the world...They're world-class people."
Albert Einstein, he adds, is "one of my heroes. He's an icon for intelligence. Who is that man with that hair? I love physics, man."
But Muhammad's reading list also led him to draw more ominous conclusions. Despite the great intellectual tradition of whites, he says, "they have an innate need to rule the weak. Part of it is greed, part of it is that entrepreneurial spirit."
Muhammad says whites have historically tried to justify racial oppression through appeals to God, theories about blacks' inherent inferiority and, mostly recently, through the book The Bell Curve. "They're saying they came up with everything," he says, "and that has to be questioned."
And sometimes the questions lead to pretty black-and-white answers. "Some white people I hate," he says. "Some black people I have serious problems with. But I don't hate white people. I don't hate Jewish people."
Though Muhammad was never one to back away from a verbal joust, his first real passion wasn't politics, but music. As he moved around California by himself during the late 1970s and early '80s, he took up guitar and bass. He played with friends in garage bands, influenced by such young black guitarists as Vernon Reid, who'd later go on to fame in the rock group Living Colour, and James "Blood" Ulmer, who recorded with free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. He also took inspiration from the spiritual leanings of reggae, bebopper Charlie Parker and the perpetually permutating Miles Davis.
Muhammad took music seriously, moving from jazz-oriented groups to R&B groups and even dabbling in hardcore punk. "We sounded like buzzsaws in trash cans," he says with a laugh. "We were singing about revolutionary stuff, bringing down Babylon. You know, youth are restless, determinism, just a bunch of stuff. Sex, drugs, rock-and-roll...every song lasted about twenty seconds."
The largely white world of punk was a strange breeding ground for a budding black nationalist. But Muhammad says several white musicians were among his favorites--that is, until they messed up by making what he viewed as politically incorrect comments. He was a huge Lou Reed fan, for instance, until Reed came out in recent years against the message preached by Farrakhan. "That's too bad, Lou," he says callously. "You don't know what you're missing." Muhammad says he was also an Eddie Van Halen fan until Van Halen professed to have been more influenced by Eric Clapton than by Jimi Hendrix. "It's kind of weird to be in the Nation now," he admits, having once had a taste for groups like the Velvet Underground and speed-metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteem.
Muhammad says the highlight of his musical career was a battle-of-the-bands contest in L.A. several years ago. His group came in second. "We were the youngest band, with the raggiest instruments," he says. "I'd rather be in the background. I enjoyed being on stage, but not all the crazy stuff."
But the boy who didn't like the spotlight put himself square on the road toward it when he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X at the age of fifteen. "When I saw it, I joined," he says. "I didn't have to think about it. When I want something, I go for it. It's like wanting a dirt bike--when you get it, you're all geeked up. I felt connected with something bigger than me."
Like Malcolm X, he began challenging teachers in class. He recalls just passing time in a tenth-grade political-science class, never bothering to raise his hand, until the teacher had the class read a chapter on the civil-rights movement that glorified Martin Luther King Jr. at length but wrote off Malcolm X as "someone who preached hate."
"I took umbrage," he says. From that point on, the self-described "vegetable" began going toe-to-toe with the teacher. "After that," he notes, "she always called me 'Mr. Jamal,' with sarcastic respect."
Muhammad finally joined the Nation in 1984, while living in San Diego. That's when he took the name X, a symbol of the Nation's rejection of African-American surnames obtained during slavery. In the early days, "I was just a foot soldier," he says. "I didn't know anything. I was nobody. I was green as you know what."
A year later he met Farrakhan, who was on a visit to the area. The minister suggested that Jamal should begin speaking on behalf of the Nation. It was six months before he tried his hand at talking to crowds, and he hated it. "I didn't want to get in front of people," he says. "I didn't like it. I never wanted to be a preacher."
It was another several months before he worked up the nerve to speak in public again. He moved to Los Angeles in 1987, and over the next six years worked his way up the ranks in the Nation, finally gaining the title of first officer, a job that made him assistant to the region's second-ranking individual. He was married in 1984 to his longtime sweetheart, whose name he declines to give; they divorced in 1994. "Just didn't work out," he says, clearly uncomfortable talking about his personal life. "People grow apart. I was really gung-ho in the Nation--that had something to do with it. I'm ballistic like a missile."
Despite his reluctance as a public speaker, he found inspiration in one of his musical heroes, Miles Davis. He says the speaking style he began to develop is modeled after Davis's improvisational patterns: precise, spare phrases punctuated by silence. "He was always adding elements and pulling things up, rephrasing things," he says of Davis. "He'd play notes, stop, then play them in a different way--play behind the beat, play ahead of the beat."
Inside Jamal Muhammad is a man who must reconcile the rational world of philosophy and history with the more mystical world of the Nation of Islam. For all his wide-ranging intellectual interests, he is bound by the controversial truths preached by Farrakhan, who, despite toning down his black nationalist rhetoric in recent years and distancing himself from past anti-Semitic comments, continues to find new ways to raise the hackles of the American mainstream.
The Nation, Muhammad admits, is saddled with the bureaucracy and cronyism of any large organization. But he defends its version of history--an Afrocentric account of black achievement juxtaposed with white savagery. "It's for a reason, for a season," he says.
Like Farrakhan, Muhammad is also a believer in the superstitious science of numerology. He says the obtuse, numbers-laden diatribe Farrakhan launched into during his speech at 1995's Million Man March referred to the belief that white Masons will at some point come to aid of black Muslims. But he hesitates to delve too deeply into the subject. "Empiricism has its limits," he says. "Rationalism has its limits. I kind of look at it the same way. Some things can't be explained."
The death of another spiritual mentor, Malcolm X, is one example. Despite his respect for the slain leader, Muhammad seems to gloss over Malcolm's much-publicized split with the Nation in 1964, spurred in part by allegations that its leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, was committing adultery. "That never registered with me," he says. "Getting older and wiser, Malcolm is a history lesson. Don't speak out against your teacher in public. He did it the wrong way. Don't walk away from the man and blast him. Go directly to the man."
Similarly, he finds the notion that Malcolm X was murdered by Nation members--or by Farrakhan himself, as has often been rumored--preposterous. His allegiance to the Nation was reaffirmed in February 1996, shortly after the Montbello speech, when Farrakhan awarded him the name Muhammad, which means "elegant and praiseworthy." Muhammad says he doesn't mind it when people accuse him of being the minister's "mouthpiece." "That's good," he says. "I can't speak for him, but as someone who defends his position, that's good. He's the one blowing, not me."
Farrakhan ordered Muhammad to take over Denver's Mosque 51 in 1994. Given Denver's relatively small black population, a non-confrontational approach was recommended by Nation leaders in the Mile High City. With Muhammad at the helm, though, that policy didn't last long. "When you're a public person dealing with an issue like race," he says, "it's like kicking dirt in someone's eye."
Muhammad got his first taste of publicity in 1995, when black students at the University of Colorado at Boulder held protests asking the school to bring in controversial Muslim speaker Khallid Muhammad, who was on the so-called "Goddamn White Man's Tour."
"They asked me to come be a part of the community, even though Khallid's position with the Nation was strained," Jamal says. "But we still supported him."
Jamal says he and others met with CU officials, who were prepared to okay the visit but backed down when Khallid Muhammad demanded $5,000. "They said they wouldn't pay $5,000 to let a racist bigot spew hatred," he recalls.
The reaction from the Nation's new spokesman made it clear the group was abandoning its low profile in Denver. "Welcome to the 21st century, white America," Muhammad was quoted as saying. It was a mere prelude to his speech at Montbello High School, which came fourteen months later.
He had been asked by principal Ida Jones to give a talk to the boys at the school, Muhammad says, because there had been instances of boys pulling up the skirts of girls, pinching them and calling them "ho's." "I was gonna talk a little rough," he admits. There were a few girls in the auditorium when he showed up, he remembers. He asked them to leave.
Then he gave his listeners the Nation's unique take on history:
"When black people in Africa were building pyramids, the Greeks were [fighting each other] all over Greece. The Romans, killing each other. And German tribes, and the British tribes, and Anglo tribes, were killing each other all over Europe. Cannibalism was practiced in Europe. They lived in caves while black people were building pyramids. We're not knocking white folks, but that's part of their history."
While the racial history lesson got most of the media coverage, the speech also encouraged black youth to get their priorities straight. "I'm tired of hearing brothers talking about basketball," Muhammad told the students. "Black people don't get respect for that. We have put sports above the intellectual pursuits. Teachers should get paid more than Michael Jordan. What is Michael Jordan teaching you?"
Few people realized that Muhammad had been making similar presentations for months at local high schools and colleges. At Montbello, though, he ran into a teacher who wouldn't stand for it.
"Jamal Muhammad was being Jamal Muhammad," recalls Alan Chimento, the social-studies teacher who blew the whistle by complaining to the American Civil Liberties Union. "He was pretty much proselytizing at times to the students," Chimento says. "Some of the things I thought could be construed as anti-white."
In retrospect, Muhammad claims the whole thing was blown out of proportion. "White Denver overreacted and then said, 'He's a media hound,'" he claims. "I didn't go there to bash whites. I can be very hard, merciless, caustic, but I was not. I was stern, but respectful to whites and Mexicans there. Whites lived in caves just like we lived in a backward state. We can come up and do the same thing and become world leaders."
Controversy erupted again a month later when Muhammad sought permission to give another speech, this time to a crowd of both boys and girls, at East High School. Several school-board officials were against it, but the board finally okayed the presentation.
The East High speech was less incendiary, though Muhammad still got his jibes in. "I ain't got no apologies until you apologize for putting my people in slavery," he was quoted as saying.
Though some black leaders came to his defense, the white-hot media glare following the speeches did little to help the Nation's cause. At the same time, his efforts to organize a Million Man March rally in Denver, aided by city neighborhood-watch coordinator Alvertis Simmons, were undermined by infighting among various black organizations. Though Jeff X, a local Muslim businessman who runs an art store called the Black Market, was credited with putting together the coalition that went to Farrakhan's march in Washington, D.C., Simmons broke off prior to the Denver rally and formed his own group. Muhammad allied himself with Simmons, and the apparent outcome was that the two organizations canceled each other out.
"Brother Jamal and I, our relationship had become fractured due to the lack of experience on both our parts," says Jeff X. "The energy created after the Million Man March was so intense, people didn't have the experience to harness that kind of energy. Mistakes were made. Issues that affected us as a people--jealousy, greed, people doubting each other's motives--came up."
But both Muhammad and Jeff X say the bickering is in the past. At a rally last week for Farrakhan's latest cause--a "Day of Atonement" during which he asked black people to stay home from work--leaders from all of Denver's Million Man March organizations stood on the podium together, and Muhammad delivered an almost self-consciously mild speech.
"I'm not here to teach or preach," he told the crowd of about sixty people. "I'm just here to bear witness that we need to atone. I'm not gonna say anything controversial. I'm not gonna blast anyone today."
Late last summer, Muhammad and the Nation agreed that it was time for him to step down from running Mosque 51. "It was mutual," he says, denying that he was forced out. "Time for me to move on."
Muhammad says the media coverage he'd received wasn't a factor, but he acknowledges that he didn't always care for the public stage. "A lot of people recognized me," he says. "Some people looked at me with all this anger. It's not like I have all these bodyguards standing around."
He was replaced by a longtime fixture in the local Muslim community, Henri Muhammad, the same man who headed up the Nation's Denver office in the 1970s. Reverend Ford speculates that Jamal Muhammad was brought in to agitate, while Henri Muhammad is here to negotiate. "In the nation they send young men for war and old men for counsel," Jamal Muhammad replies. "In that sense, he's right. But the brother's always been there."
In recent months, Muhammad has been seen at poetry readings in Five Points reading love poems. He's also been spotted in less cozy surroundings. Only recently, he says, he spoke to a criminal-justice class at Metro, "blasting white folks.
"I didn't like how they were dealing with Alvertis," he says. "Even with his mistakes, I love him. He's a real person."
Muhammad says he thought about getting involved in the local rock scene while he was a minister, and he remains interested in putting a hip-hop music project together. He started at the Hue-Man Experience a month ago--a job that gives him plenty of time to think and plan his next course of action. Though owner Claire Villarosa has known Muhammad since he arrived in Denver, it wasn't until one of her employees recommended him that she considered him as a potential employee. She says she was wary of him preaching in the store. "I had to interview him, see where he was coming from," says Villarosa. "I liked what I heard."
Muhammad says he wants to leave Denver soon and embark on a national tour of high schools to spread the Nation's word. He also says his view of racial politics has expanded beyond the inequalities of black people to consider the inequalities of other people of color as well. And though he remains outspoken in his approach, he admits he may have been too sweeping in his past indictments.
"I've met some very fine white people who've been very helpful," he says. "I can't just take an ignorant paintbrush to everything. The world is getting smaller."
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