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The Charmer


By Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
(Excerpts from his article originally published in The New Yorker, April 29, 1996.)

The drive to Louis Farrakhan's house, on South Woodlawn Avenue, took me through the heart of black Chicago -- past campaign billboards for a hot city-council race, past signs for Harold the Fried Chicken King and Tony's Vienna Beef Hotdogs. Much of the area is flecked with housing projects and abandoned lots, but when you turn the corner at Woodlawn and Forty-ninth Street things abruptly look different. It's a street of large brick houses, enshrining the vision of black-bourgeois respectability, and even grandeur, that has always been at the nostalgic heart of the Nation of Islam's creed.

It was a warm spring morning the week after Easter, and everything was peaceful, quiet, orderly, which somehow made matters all the more unsettling. Farrakhan was relaxed and gracious. "Get the battlefield ready," he said, laughing. For the rest of the long day, we sat together at his big dining-room table, and it became clear that Farrakhan is a man of enormous intelligence, curiosity, and charm. He can also be deeply strange. It all depends on the moment and the subject. When he talks about the need for personal responsibility or of his fondness for Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra, he sounds as jovial and bourgeois as Bill Cosby; when he is warning of the wicked machinations of Jewish financiers, he seems as odd and obsessed as Pat Robertson.

It is true that the two things nearly everybody knows about Farrakhan - that he extolled Hitler as a great man and deplored Judaism as a "gutter religion" - are, strictly speaking, false. The point may not speak well of the accuracy of some of our leading media, but it hardly absolves him of the larger charge of anti-Semitism. And for all his talk of reconciliation, Farrakhan refuses to budge. "It doesn't make any difference what I say, how I explain myself," he said. "I have never got away from 'Judaism is a gutter religion,' 'Hitler is a great man.' " He shrugged. "I'm a man - I'm not afraid of white folk. And so if they got the nerve to say that about me I got nerve enough to defend myself and to drop an accusation on them that I believe to true. So the fight was on -- me and the Jews." He spread his arms, holding up two clenched fists, like a pugilist.

Louis Farrakhan will say, up and down, that he reveres the Jewish people. Listen to him: "Personally, I don't know what this argument has served. Jewish people are the world leaders, in my opinion. They are some of the most brilliant people on this planet. The Jews are some of the greatest scientists, the greatest thinkers, the greatest writers, the greatest theologians, the greatest in music, the greatest in business. And people hate them sometimes because of envy, and because the Jews succeed in spite of the hatred of their Gentile brethren, or anybody else's hatred. I admire that, as God is my witness."

What is one to make of all this? Farrakhan isn't feigning admiration for Jews as a distraction from his hate-mongering. Rather, his love and his loathing flow from the same ideas. There's a sense in which Farrakhan doesn't want his followers to battle Jews, but, rather, wants them to be Jews. Yet when he describes Jews as "world leaders" it is a double-edged compliment. There is no sense in being gladdened when he extols Jewish wisdom and troubled only when he warns of Jewish evil: both sentiments are sincere, and both are aspects of a single unhealthy obsession.

Farrakhan's peculiar mixture of insight and delusion would be a matter of mainly academic interest if it weren't for his enormous populist appeal among black Americas - an appeal that was clearly demonstrated in last fall's Million Man March. That occasion has been widely seen as an illustration both of Farrakhan's strengths and of his weaknesses. "If only somebody else had convened it," the liberal-minded are prone to say. But nobody else - not Colin Powell, not Jesse Jackson - could have.

In the months following the march, Farrakhan dropped out of public view, and he spoke of having suffered from depression, in part because he was still being misrepresented by the press. This response highlights Farrakhan's paradoxical relation to the wider public -- that of a pariah who wants to be embraced. Such acceptance has been elusive so far. A few weeks before the Million Man March, Farrakhan gave an interview to make it clear that when he referred to Jewish "bloodsuckers" he didn't mean Jews in particular -- he meant all nonblack shopkeepers in the inner city, some of them Jewish but these days more often Koreans or Arabs. He must have found it galling when many newspapers wrested his remarks out of context, leaving the impression that he had merely repeated the original accusation: Farrakhan calls Jews bloodsuckers. Farrakhan's image also suffered when, early last year, the Chicago Tribune published an investigative series, by David Jackson and William Gaines, revealing financial disarray among Nation-owned businesses. Farrakhan's calls for economic self-sufficiency, it appeared, were not matched by his organization's performance.

Farrakhan hurt himself yet again, with his so-called World Friendship Tour, in January and February. Even many of those who supported Farrakhan were chagrined to find him holding friendly meetings with some of the world's worst dictators: Nigeria's Sani Abacha, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, Zaire's Mobutu, and Sudan's Omar al-Bashir. Ron Walters observes, "He gave all those people who wanted an opportunity not to have to deal with him the golden reason. The tremendous political capital of the march had been dissipated." Black nationalists were among those who were the most horrified, Molefi Kete Asante, the Afrocentric scholar, says, What Farrakhan did, in my judgment, was to take the legitimacy of the march and put it in his back pocket, and march around to these terrible governments, as if somehow he were the leader of a million black people. That upset me."

It is a sore subject with Farrakhan. Sure, he met with dictators, he said to me, but when you are dealing with atonement, sin, and reconciliation you don't travel to the blameless. "It's alright for Jesse to sit down with George Wallace in Alabama, and for them to pray together -- and there's applause," he went on. "But I can't go sit down with my brother who is a sinner? Nixon died a hero, but I cannot forgive a black man?... To hell with you for that. That's why I am not a politician."

We all know that the world isn't divided between saints and sinners. And yet the private Farrakhan' s very humanness -- those traits of kindness, concern, humor -- makes his paranoia all the more disconcerting. He rails against the way the mainstream has demonized him, and yet he refuses to renounce the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that have made him anathema: to him, it would be like denying the law of gravity. And so he is trapped, immobilized by his contradictory desires. His ongoing calls for dialogue are seemingly heartfelt; he genuinely wants a seat at the table, craves the legitimization of power. Yet he will not engage in the compromises and concessions that true dialogue requires. He cannot afford to. This is a man whose political identity is constituted by antagonism to the self-image of America. To moderate his stance of unyielding opposition would be to destroy the edifice he has spent his life constructing.

The Million Man March had all the hallmarks of a watershed event, yet a march is not a movement. I asked Farrakhan at one point what the country would look like if, by magic, he could turn his hopes into reality. The answer he gave me was long and meandering, but it centered on things like "revamping the educational system" to make it less Eurocentric -- proposals of the sort debated by the New York State Board of Regents, rather than something that was radically transformative in any obvious way.

That was, in a sense, the most dismaying response I'd heard all day. Farrakhan is a man of visions. Just weeks before the march, he told congregants in a Washington, D.C., church about the "Mother Wheel" -- a heavily armed spaceship the size of a city, which will rain destruction upon white America but save those who embrace the Nation of Islam. What gave me pause was the realization that such visions coexist in Farrakhan's mind with a real poverty of -- well, vision, which is to say a broader conception of the human future.

Farrakhan is a man of unhealthy fixations, but the reciprocal fixation on Farrakhan that you find in the so-called mainstream is a sign of our own impoverished political culture. Thirteen decades have passed since Emancipation, and half of our black men between twenty-four and thirty-five are without full-time employment. One black man graduates from college for every hundred who go to jail. Al most half of black children live in poverty. People say that Farrakhan is now the leading voice of black rage in America. One day, America will realize it got off easy.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Originally published in The New Yorker magazine. Used with permission.


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