The teachings of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, who led the religious community known as the Lost-Found Nation of Islam (NOI) from 1934 to 1975, frequently refer to the parable of Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-25 AV)— a Biblical figure who grew dependent upon and could not separate his interests from those of a rich man, who fell upon hard times when his benefactor died, and ultimately required the intervention of Jesus to be resurrected from this state of unconsciousness. Similarly, in its newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, NOI cartoonist Eugene 3X deployed a caricature of a desperate, weak-kneed figure named “Lazz” to conceptualize the integrationist-oriented politics of civil rights activists, which the NOI opposed as being irrelevant to the problems faced by African Americans. “Lazz,” short for Lazarus, was a nickname that NOI faithful used to refer to African Americans who were unknowledgeable about the religious community’s teachings.
What roles do naming and self-definition play in the liberation or oppression of a people? One might argue that words give shape and form to the relationships between objects in our lives. Words are also a critical means of orienting a group within the time and space of politics, history, and economic relationships. The naming and self-definition practices of the NOI, however, are not easily recovered given scholarly treatment of the community.
Initial scholarship on the NOI marginalized the group as a religious oddity, using terms like “Voodoo Cult” and “Black Muslims” to describe a community that fell outside traditional understandings of African American and Muslim religious expression. Conversely, more recent scholarship has argued that the NOI centered its religious identity and worldview within Islamic traditions, beliefs, and practices and therefore represents a localized and authentic American expression of Islam. I contend, however, that the NOI’s naming rituals reflected a radical working-class African American liberatory practice that recognized words as having a hidden, esoteric power. Far from being isolated, the NOI’s views on words, names, and definitions found concurrence in the epistemological assumptions of other radical working-class African American contemporaries, such as Sun-Ra, Maulana Karenga, Amiri Baraka, and Assata Shakur.
Since the NOI’s inception in the ghettoes of Detroit, Michigan, in 1930, self-definition was critical to how NOI faithful conceived of their personal and collective identities, or knowledge of self, as well as their spatial and temporal relationships with the secular world. This was most evident in the religious community’s views on words and naming in relation to self-definition. As Kimberly Benston has shown, the NOI’s emphasis on the importance of definitions drew from an understanding of American slavery that recognized the role that language played in bridging metaphysical and concrete possibilities of human liberation. This essay is part of a broader examination that I have undertaken into the NOI’s influence on expanding the organizational and theoretical contours of free speech. More importantly, I suggest here that the NOI’s concept of self-definition as imperative for altering one’s existence raises significant theoretical questions around the writing of African American history.
Not only had slavery resulted in the physical capture and domination of African people in America, but the experience had also resulted in the colonization of knowledge about African people. According to NOI theological teachings, the enslavement of Africans in the United States gave rise to a type of social and cultural death, making African-descended persons both unaware of their true identities and dependent upon the benevolence of their enslavers for their survival. Ultimately, this state of death, or inability to operate in one’s own interests, required mental resurrection, a term that the NOI used to define the African American’s recovery of self-knowledge. The word denotes the verb “to rise” or, in this case, to raise or elevate the mind. Critical to my interpretation of the NOI’s concept of mental resurrection, or being raised, is the concept of ontological design, that is, the human ability to influence and shape the nature of existence. From this perspective, self-definition became an imperative toward attaining self-knowledge and a prerequisite for becoming a self-determining human being.
As used here, the term ontological design refers to the NOI’s practice of decoding and redefining the racist connotations associated with seemingly innocuous words and symbols used in everyday speech. Said another way, for the NOI, the capacity for self-definition, to decode words and symbols that were harmful to the self-knowledge and self-interests of African Americans, such as the words “black,” “white,” and the US flag, became essential to establishing the humanity of formerly enslaved persons. The NOI’s incorporeal idea of death, or physical presence without knowledge of self, constructed an ontological reality whereby African Americans needed to be raised from a state of thingness to human beingness— a problem that could not be resolved by changes in the law, as a lack of self-determination and state of historical unawareness characterized those in need of resurrection.
An exemplar and undoubtedly one of the most well-known NOI figures whose life epitomized the concept of self-transformation and who became adept at the process of decoding the social connotation of words in American English was Malcolm X, a former national spokesperson for the religious community. In his teaching on the etymology of the word “Negro,” Malcolm X drew a direct connection between the word as a reference to African Americans, its signification of death, and the experience of slavery. As Imam Benjamin Karim, a former NOI assistant minister, recalled, “Malcolm taught that [‘Negro’] … derived from the prefix ‘necro-’ meaning ‘death,’ ‘corpse,’ ‘dead tissue.’ So I would write the word ‘nekropolis,’ which is the Greek form for ‘necropolis,’ explaining that we were a dead people …and that what had put us to death was our sojourn here in slavery.”
With respect to spatial relationships, the NOI created an ecosystem of terms related to this concept of death, as it referred to the world outside of the religious community as the “grave” and to persons unfamiliar with the knowledge of self as “deaf, dumb, and blind.” For example, the NOI employed a vision of black futurity wherein a black God held the power over life and death and the post-apocalyptic world was corporeal. The religious community defined the word “Armageddon,” a term that appeared on blackboards through NOI mosques alongside two arrangements: the words “slavery,” “death,” and image of the Cross on one side as indicative of decay, and the NOI’s Flag of Islam and words “freedom,” “justice,” and “equality” on the other as signifying the coming of a New World. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the redefined word challenged both the Christian concept of time and its signification as an end of world, Doomsday term.
Still, perhaps the most well-known practice within the NOI’s ethics of self-definition was the process of renaming that NOI faithful underwent. As they entered into the religious community, NOI members replaced their surnames, which they referred to as “slave names” or the family names of the person who had formerly enslaved their ancestors, with the letter “X,” which indicated the legacy of unknowing wrought by enslavement. Importantly, the “X” occupied a liminal space, bridging those aspects of African American history that remained hidden, inaccessible, and beyond human recovery with an objective and measurable principle observed in mathematics. The NOI’s beliefs about naming might be “out there,” but they were grounded in human logic. For those who joined the NOI, the acceptance of the surname “X” represented both a personal and collective self-transformation.
The NOI’s concept of resurrection, or rising up, has important implications for scholars of African American history, particularly those dealing with the study of freedom and slave insurrections in American history. If, as the NOI suggests, self-definition and naming invests the enslaved with the capacity of moving from thingness to beingness, one might ask if the opposite might also be true; that is, can definitions be used in the oppression or re-enslavement of a person? More specifically, what role do historians play, through their naming conventions, in the re-enslavement of persons who have secured their personal or collective freedom?
Whatever one might think about the NOI’s theology of resurrection, questions over the appropriateness of slave names to identify the formerly enslaved received broader public attention following the US Civil War. As prominent educator Booker T. Washington noted, “In some way a feeling got among the coloured people that it was far from proper for them to bear the surname of their former owners, and a great many of them took other surnames. This was one of the first signs of freedom….there was a feeling that ‘John Hatcher’ or ‘Hatcher’s John’ was not the proper title by which to denote a freeman…” Yet, not only is the NOI’s imperative on self-naming relevant to the study of freedom and African American agency following the Civil War, but it is especially so where it concerns the naming conventions of historians writing about those enslaved Africans who engaged in insurrections, a word that also denotes the infinitive “to rise.”
The simple fact of the matter is that “Nat Turner” is a historical invention. For the enslaved African who waged a resistance struggle for freedom in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831, and who became known as “Nat” or “Preacher Nat,” first appears in the human record as “Nat Turner” following his capture and subsequent appearance in court. The NOI’s reflections on death, self-definition, and ontological design, then, force us to reconsider how historians, through their narratives of the past, re-enslave people who, in rising, became free.