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Chapter 11 Saved

I did write to Elijah Muhammad. He lived in Chicago at that time, at 6116 South Michigan Avenue. Atleast twenty-five times I must have written that first one-page letter to him, over and over. I wastrying to make it both legible and understandable. I practically couldn't read my handwriting myself;it shames even to remember it. My spelling and my grammar were as bad, if not worse. Anyway, aswell as I could express it, I said I had been told about him by my brothers and sisters, and I apologizedfor my poor letter.

  Mr. Muhammad sent me a typed reply. It had an all but electrical effect upon me to see the signatureof the "Messenger of Allah." After he welcomed me into the "true knowledge," he gave me somethingto think about. The black prisoner, he said, symbolized white society's crime of keeping black menoppressed and deprived and ignorant, and unable to get decent jobs, turning them into criminals.

  He told me to have courage. He even enclosed some money for me, a five-dollar bill. Mr. Muhammad sends money all over the country to prison inmates who write to him, probably to this day.

  Regularly my family wrote to me, "Turn to Allah . . . pray to the East."The hardest test I ever faced in my life was praying. You understand. My comprehending, mybelieving the teachings of Mr. Muhammad had only required my mind's saying to me, "That's right!"or "I never thought of that."But bending my knees to pray-that _act_-well, that took me a week.

  You know what my life had been. Picking a lock to rob someone's house was the only way my kneeshad ever been bent before.

  I had to force myself to bend my knees. And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me backup.

  For evil to bend its knees, admitting its guilt, to implore the forgiveness of God, is the hardest thing inthe world. It's easy for me to see and to say that now. But then, when I was the personification of evil, Iwas going through it. Again, again, I would force myself back down into the praying-to-Allah posture.

  When finally I was able to make myself stay down-I didn't know what to say to Allah.

  For the next years, I was the nearest thing to a hermit in the Norfolk Prison Colony. I never have beenmore busy in my life. I still marvel at how swiftly my previous life's thinking pattern slid away fromme, like snow off a roof. It is as though someone else I knew of had lived by hustling and crime. Iwould be startled to catch myself thinking in a remote way of my earlier self as another person.

  The things I felt, I was pitifully unable to express in the one-page letter that went every day to Mr.

  Elijah Muhammad. And I wrote at least one more daily letter, replying to one of my brothers andsisters. Every letter I received from them added something to my knowledge of the teachings of Mr.

  Muhammad. I would sit for long periods and study his photographs.

  I've never been one for inaction. Everything I've ever felt strongly about, I've done something about. Iguess that's why, unable to do anything else, I soon began writing to people I had known in thehustling world, such as Sammy the Pimp, John Hughes, the gambling-house owner, the thiefJumpsteady, and several dope peddlers. I wrote them all about Allah and Islam and Mr. ElijahMuhammad. I had no idea where most of them lived. I addressed their letters in care of the Harlem orRoxbury bars and clubs where I'd known them.

  I never got a single reply. The average hustler and criminal was too uneducated to write a letter. Ihave known many slick, sharp-looking hustlers, who would have you think they had an interest inWall Street; privately, they would get someone else to read a letter if they received one. Besides,neither would I have replied to anyone writing me something as wild as "the white man is the devil." What certainly went on the Harlem and Roxbury wires was that Detroit Red was going crazy in stir, orelse he was trying some hype to shake up the warden's office.

  During the years that I stayed in the Norfolk Prison Colony, never did any official directly sayanything to me about those letters, although, of course, they all passed through the prison censorship.

  I'm sure, however, they monitored what I wrote to add to the files which every state and federalprison keeps on the conversion of Negro inmates by the teachings of Mr. Elijah Muhammad.

  But at that time, I felt that the real reason was that the white man knew that he was the devil.

  Later on, I even wrote to the Mayor of Boston, to the Governor of Massachusetts, and to Harry STruman. They never answered; they probably never even saw my letters. I hand-scratched to themhow the white man's society was responsible for the black man's condition in this wilderness of NorthAmerica.

  It was because of my letters that I happened to stumble upon starting to acquire some kind of ahomemade education.

  I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in letters that Iwrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad. In the street, I had been the most articulate hustlerout there-I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English,I not only wasn't articulate, I wasn't even functional. How would I sound writing in slang, the way Iwould say it, something such as, "Look, daddy, let me pull your coat about a cat, Elijah Muhammad-"Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I'vesaid, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is due entirely to myprison studies.

  It had really begun back in the Charlestown Prison, when Bimbi first made me feel envy of his stock ofknowledge. Bimbi had always taken charge of any conversation he was in, and I had tried to emulatehim. But every book I picked up had few sentences which didn't contain anywhere from one to nearlyall of the words that might as well have been in Chinese. When I just skipped those words, of course, Ireally ended up with little idea of what the book said. So I had come to the Norfolk Prison Colony stillgoing through only book-reading motions. Pretty soon, I would have quit even these motions, unless Ihad received the motivation that I did.

  I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary-to study, to learn some words. I waslucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn't evenwrite in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along withsome tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.

  I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary's pages. I'd never realized so manywords existed! I didn't know _which_ words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.

  In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that firstpage, down to the punctuation marks.

  I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I'd written on the tablet.

  Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.

  I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words-immensely proud to realize that not only hadI written so much at one time, but I'd written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover,with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the wordswhose meanings I didn't remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that"aardvark" springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowingAfrican mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does forants.

  I was so fascinated that I went on-I copied the dictionary's next page. And the same experience camewhen I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events fromhistory. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary's A section hadfilled a whole tablet-and I went on into the B's. That was the way I started copying what eventuallybecame the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick uphandwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my timein prison I would guess I wrote a million words.

  I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a bookand read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great dealcan imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison,in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn'thave gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammad's teachings, my correspondence,my visitors-usually Ella and Reginald-and my reading of books, months passed without my eventhinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.

  The Norfolk Prison Colony's library was in the school building. A variety of classes was taught thereby instructors who came from such places as Harvard and Boston universities. The weekly debatesbetween inmate teams were also held in the school building. You would be astonished to know howworked up convict debaters and audiences would get over subjects like "Should Babies Be Fed Milk?"Available on the prison library's shelves were books on just about every general subject. Much of thebig private collection that Parkhurst had willed to the prison was still in crates and boxes in the backof the library-thousands of old books. Some of them looked ancient: covers faded, old-timeparchment-looking binding. Parkhurst, I've mentioned, seemed to have been principally interested inhistory and religion. He had the money and the special interest to have a lot of books that youwouldn't have in general circulation. Any college library would have been lucky to get that collection.

   As you can imagine, especially in a prison where there was heavy emphasis on rehabilitation, aninmate was smiled upon if he demonstrated an unusually intense interest in books. There was asizable number of well-read inmates, especially the popular debaters. Some were said by many to bepractically walking encyclopedias. They were almost celebrities. No university would ask any studentto devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and_understand_.

  I read more in my room than in the library itself. An inmate who was known to read a lot could checkout more than the permitted maximum number of books. I preferred reading in the total isolation ofmy own room.

  When I had progressed to really serious reading, every night at about ten P. M. I would be outragedwith the "lights out." It always seemed to catch me right in the middle of something engrossing.

  Fortunately, right outside my door was a corridor light that cast a glow into my room. The glow wasenough to read by, once my eyes adjusted to it. So when "lights out" came, I would sit on the floorwhere I could continue reading in that glow.

  At one-hour intervals the night guards paced past every room. Each time I heard the approachingfootsteps, I jumped into bed and feigned sleep. And as soon as the guard passed, I got back out of bedonto the floor area of that light-glow, where I would read for another fifty-eight minutes-until theguard approached again. That went on until three or four every morning. Three or four hours of sleepa night was enough for me. Often in the years in the streets I had slept less than that.

   The teachings of Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been "whitened"-when white men hadwritten history books, the black man simply had been left out. Mr. Muhammad couldn't have saidanything that would have struck me much harder. I had never forgotten how when my class, me andall of those whites, had studied seventh-grade United States history back in Mason, the history of theNegro had been covered in one paragraph, and the teacher had gotten a big laugh with his joke,"Negroes' feet are so big that when they walk, they leave a hole in the ground."This is one reason why Mr. Muhammad's teachings spread so swiftly all over the United States,among _all_ Negroes, whether or not they became followers of Mr. Muhammad. The teachings ringtrue-to every Negro. You can hardly show me a black adult in America-or a white one, for that matter-who knows from the history books anything like the truth about the black man's role. In my own case,once I heard of the "glorious history of the black man," I took special pains to hunt in the library forbooks that would inform me on details about black history.

  I can remember accurately the very first set of books that really impressed me. I have since bought thatset of books and have it at home for my children to read as they grow up. It's called _Wonders of the World_. It's full of pictures of archaeological finds, statues that depict, usually, non-European people.

  I found books like Will Durant's _Story of Civilization_. I read H. G. Wells' _Outline of History_.

  _Souls Of Black Folk_ by W. E. B. Du Bois gave me a glimpse into the black people's history beforethey came to this country. Carter G. Woodson's _Negro History_ opened my eyes about black empiresbefore the black slave was brought to the United States, and the early Negro struggles for freedom.

  J. A. Rogers' three volumes of _Sex and Race_ told about race-mixing before Christ's time; aboutAesop being a black man who told fables; about Egypt's Pharaohs; about the great Coptic ChristianEmpires; about Ethiopia, the earth's oldest continuous black civilization, as China is the oldestcontinuous civilization.

  Mr. Muhammad's teaching about how the white man had been created led me to _Findings InGenetics_ by Gregor Mendel. (The dictionary's G section was where I had learned what "genetics"meant. ) I really studied this book by the Austrian monk. Reading it over and over, especially certainsections, helped me to understand that if you started with a black man, a white man could beproduced; but starting with a white man, you never could produce a black man-because the whitegene is recessive. And since no one disputes that there was but one Original Man, the conclusion isclear.

  During the last year or so, in the _New York Times_, Arnold Toynbee used the word "bleached" indescribing the white man. (His words were: "White (i.e. bleached) human beings of North Europeanorigin. . . .") Toynbee also referred to the European geographic area as only a peninsula of Asia. Hesaid there is no such thing as Europe. And if you look at the globe, you will see for yourself thatAmerica is only an extension of Asia. (But at the same time Toynbee is among those who have helpedto bleach history. He has written that Africa was the only continent that produced no history. Hewon't write that again. Every day now, the truth is coming to light. )I never will forget how shocked I was when I began reading about slavery's total horror. It made suchan impact upon me that it later became one of my favorite subjects when I became a minister of Mr.

  Muhammad's. The world's most monstrous crime, the sin and the blood on the white man's hands, arealmost impossible to believe. Books like the one by Frederick Olmstead opened my eyes to the horrorssuffered when the slave was landed in the United States. The European woman, Fannie Kimball, whohad married a Southern white slaveowner, described how human beings were degraded. Of course Iread _Uncle Tom's Cabin_. In fact, I believe that's the only novel I have ever read since I startedserious reading.

  Parkhurst's collection also contained some bound pamphlets of the Abolitionist Anti-Slavery Societyof New England. I read descriptions of atrocities, saw those illustrations of black slave women tied upand flogged with whips; of black mothers watching their babies being dragged off, never to be seen bytheir mothers again; of dogs after slaves, and of the fugitive slave catchers, evil white men with whipsand clubs and chains and guns. I read about the slave preacher Nat Turner, who put the fear of Godinto the white slavemaster. Nat Turner wasn't going around preaching pie-in-the-sky and "non violent" freedom for the black man. There in Virginia one night in 1831, Nat and seven other slavesstarted out at his master's home and through the night they went from one plantation "big house" tothe next, killing, until by the next morning 57 white people were dead and Nat had about 70 slavesfollowing him. White people, terrified for their lives, fled from their homes, locked themselves up inpublic buildings, hid in the woods, and some even left the state. A small army of soldiers took twomonths to catch and hang Nat Turner. Somewhere I have read where Nat Turner's example is said tohave inspired John Brown to invade Virginia and attack Harper's Ferry nearly thirty years later, withthirteen white men and five Negroes.

  I read Herodotus, "the father of History," or, rather, I read about him. And I read the histories ofvarious nations, which opened my eyes gradually, then wider and wider, to how the whole world'swhite men had indeed acted like devils, pillaging and raping and bleeding and draining the wholeworld's non-white people. I remember, for instance, books such as Will Durant's story of Orientalcivilization, and Mahatma Gandhi's accounts of the struggle to drive the British out of India.

  Book after book showed me how the white man had brought upon the world's black, brown, red, andyellow peoples every variety of the sufferings of exploitation. I saw how since the sixteenth century,the so-called "Christian trader" white man began to ply the seas in his lust for Asian and Africanempires, and plunder, and power. I read, I saw, how the white man never has gone among the nonwhite peoples bearing the Cross in the true manner and spirit of Christ's teachings-meek, humble, andChrist-like.

  I perceived, as I read, how the collective white man had been actually nothing but a piraticalopportunist who used Faustian machinations to make his own Christianity his initial wedge incriminal conquests. First, always "religiously," he branded "heathen" and "pagan" labels upon ancientnon-white cultures and civilizations. The stage thus set, he then turned upon his non-white victims hisweapons of war.

  I read how, entering India-half a _billion_ deeply religious brown people-the British white man, by1759, through promises, trickery and manipulations, controlled much of India through Great Britain'sEast India Company. The parasitical British administration kept tentacling out to half of thesubcontinent. In 1857, some of the desperate people of India finally mutinied-and, excepting theAfrican slave trade, nowhere has history recorded any more unnecessary bestial and ruthless humancarnage than the British suppression of the non-white Indian people.

  Over 115 million African blacks-close to the 1930's population of the United States-were murdered orenslaved during the slave trade. And I read how when the slave market was glutted, the cannibalisticwhite powers of Europe next carved up, as their colonies, the richest areas of the black continent. AndEurope's chancelleries for the next century played a chess game of naked exploitation and power fromCape Horn to Cairo.

  Ten guards and the warden couldn't have torn me out of those books. Not even Elijah Muhammadcould have been more eloquent than those books were in providing indisputable proof that the collective white man had acted like a devil in virtually every contact he had with the world's collectivenon-white man. I listen today to the radio, and watch television, and read the headlines about thecollective white man's fear and tension concerning China. When the white man professes ignoranceabout why the Chinese hate him so, my mind can't help flashing back to what I read, there in prison,about how the blood forebears of this same white man raped China at a time when China was trustingand helpless. Those original white "Christian traders" sent into China millions of pounds of opium. By1839, so many of the Chinese were addicts that China's desperate government destroyed twentythousand chests of opium. The first Opium War was promptly declared by the white man. Imagine!

  Declaring _war_ upon someone who objects to being narcotized! The Chinese were severely beaten,with Chinese-invented gunpowder.

  The Treaty of Nanking made China pay the British white man for the destroyed opium; forced openChina's major ports to British trade; forced China to abandon Hong Kong; fixed China's import tariffsso low that cheap British articles soon flooded in, maiming China's industrial development.

  After a second Opium War, the Tientsin Treaties legalized the ravaging opium trade, legalized aBritish-French-American control of China's customs. China tried delaying that Treaty's ratification;Peking was looted and burned.

  "Kill the foreign white devils!" was the 1901 Chinese war cry in the Boxer Rebellion. Losing again, thistime the Chinese were driven from Peking's choicest areas. The vicious, arrogant white man put upthe famous signs, "Chinese and dogs not allowed."Red China after World War II closed its doors to the Western white world. Massive Chineseagricultural, scientific, and industrial efforts are described in a book that _Life_ magazine recentlypublished. Some observers inside Red China have reported that the world never has known such ahate-white campaign as is now going on in this non-white country where, present birth-ratescontinuing, in fifty more years Chinese will be half the earth's population. And it seems that someChinese chickens will soon come home to roost, with China's recent successful nuclear tests.

  Let us face reality. We can see in the United Nations a new world order being shaped, along colorlines-an alliance among the non-white nations. America's U. N. Ambassador Adlai Stevensoncomplained not long ago that in the United Nations "a skin game" was being played. He was right. Hewas facing reality. A "skin game" _is_ being played. But Ambassador Stevenson sounded like JesseJames accusing the marshal of carrying a gun. Because who in the world's history ever has played aworse "skin game" than the white man?

   Mr. Muhammad, to whom I was writing daily, had no idea of what a new world had opened up to methrough my efforts to document his teachings in books.

  When I discovered philosophy, I tried to touch all the landmarks of philosophical development.

   Gradually, I read most of the old philosophers, Occidental and Oriental. The Oriental philosopherswere the ones I came to prefer; finally, my impression was that most Occidental philosophy hadlargely been borrowed from the Oriental thinkers. Socrates, for instance, traveled in Egypt. Somesources even say that Socrates was initiated into some of the Egyptian mysteries. Obviously Socratesgot some of his wisdom among the East's wise men.

  I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison thatreading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke insideme some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. I certainly wasn't seeking any degree, the way acollege confers a status symbol upon its students. My homemade education gave me, with everyadditional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness thatwas afflicting the black race in America. Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London,asking questions. One was, "What's your alma mater?" I told him, "Books." You will never catch mewith a free fifteen minutes in which I'm not studying something I feel might be able to help the blackman.

  Yesterday I spoke in London, and both ways on the plane across the Atlantic I was studying adocument about how the United Nations proposes to insure the human rights of the oppressedminorities of the world. The American black man is the world's most shameful case of minorityoppression. What makes the black man think of himself as only an internal United States issue is just acatch-phrase, two words, "civil rights." How is the black man going to get "civil rights" before first hewins his _human_ rights? If the American black man will start thinking about his _human_ rights, andthen start thinking of himself as part of one of the world's great peoples, he will see he has a case forthe United Nations.

  I can't think of a better case! Four hundred years of black blood and sweat invested here in America,and the white man still has the black man begging for what every immigrant fresh off the ship cantake for granted the minute he walks d............

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