My wife said, “The Minister is speaking at the Chapel on Friday.”
In Detroit, where the Nation of Islam got its start more than a half century ago, where the labor movement got its start, and where radical politics has always felt more or less at home, there really wasn’t any need to ask who The Minister was. It was Farrakhan. And just like every other time I went to hear what he had to say (I first saw him speak in Chicago more than 30 years ago, then later in Los Angeles at the Forum, at both Million Man March events, and three times here in Detroit including last night at Fellowship Chapel) the place was overflowing. My wife and I got there 45 minutes before the event was supposed to begin and already we had to park three blocks away – and Fellowship has a HUGE parking lot. Then, once we got inside, we had to be steered to the overflow room called ‘the Village Dome’ because all seats in the main hall (also huge) were already taken. But believe it or not, this was a piece of cake compared to previous experiences. When I saw Farrakhan at the L.A. Forum back in the mid-80s the line to see him was wrapped around the building twice, and if you have ever seen the size of the Forum you can just imagine. It took me and a friend three hours before we even got inside.
Those who hate Farrakhan and who wear themselves out trying to discredit him simply cannot understand the attraction. Given some of the admittedly shocking things he has said over the years, why don’t black people disavow the man? Well, for one thing because most black people, unlike Barack Obama, are not running for public office so they don’t have to disavow Farrakhan just because certain media outlets say that’s what ‘responsible’ folk should do. After all, in the eyes of the black community these are the same media outlets that can’t seem to get enough of portraying black folks in a negative light – or of attacking our first black President of the United States for obviously and transparently racist reasons. So f— them.
But the other reason, quite frankly, is because Farrakhan is the only big-time black leader on the scene who we know to a certainty has not been bought off in some form or another, which means we know he doesn’t have to bite his tongue for fear some major corporate contributor will pull the plug. He has an autonomy and a freedom to speak his mind that is usually reserved only for white figures of his stature, and believe me when I tell you that matters to black people. A hell of a lot. Because most of our leaders have either been bought or shot. That doesn’t mean we have no use for those who had to compromise, because if that were the case we would have written off President Obama before he ever got started. I think most of us accept the fact that he was going to have to watch his step because of where he is. But when we can listen to someone spew fire unfettered, well, that’s a good thing to a lot of black folks because it’s so damned rare.
That being said, Friday night’s speech (to me) was far from Farrakhan at his best. From what I read in the paper, his comments at a City Council meeting may have had a bit more substance. For a man who just turned 80 he looks remarkable, especially considering his bout with cancer. And his stamina (he spoke for nearly two hours straight) appears practically undiminished from his younger years (those who know Farrakhan know he can speak for quite a long time, and without notes). But last night’s event seemed particularly heavy on the homophobic side, where he came back again and again to how wrong and unnatural he believes homosexuality to be, how wrong same sex marriage is, and even suggested that immoral ‘sins’ such as homosexuality could actually be caused by something in the water. Fluoride maybe? I still don’t know. The mere suggestion that anyone could possibly be born gay was dismissed out of hand as scientifically ludicrous.
As I said I have heard Farrakhan speak many times, so I’m not unaccustomed to his more outrageous statements or claims which he does engage in from time to time. It’s usually balanced out by some extraordinarily profound, useful and culturally critical insight that nobody else can deliver quite like Farrakhan, who is one of the most gifted speakers I have ever seen or heard. So I wasn’t even surprised that he was opposed to same sex marriage or that he found homosexuality deviant, because he has always shown himself to be extremely conservative and traditional (for lack of a better term) on social issues such as those. Even Dr. Martin Luther King let it be known he was no fan of homosexuality. And like King, when you boil it down, Farrakhan is very much an old school black preacher who just can’t get beyond his old school roots, even if rooted in bitter soil. But the man is 80, so..like I said, I wasn’t shocked. Very disappointed, but not shocked.
But what was more surprising was that given all that Detroit is going through right now (which is why I thought was a primary reason for him coming) he said surprisingly little of value about what Detroit is going through or how we might address these problems. Sure he accused Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr of being a puppet of Gov. Rick Snyder, but what else is new? Of course Orr is a puppet. He suggested that if all black folks in Detroit contributed $1 per month to an as-yet unspecified fund that we could buy back our city, starting with all the vacant and abandoned property. Within several months black Detroiters could raise several millions dollars using this model of black cooperative economics that has been promoted by the Nation of Islam pretty much since its inception.
“This is an opportunity,” he said.
I guess it could be, but I can’t help but question how realistic it is to expect all black Detroiters to contribute $1 per month to some fund for the buying back of Detroit. Maybe that’s just me. I found more reason for optimism in Farrakhan’s promise to re-focus his attention on Detroit (“Where it all began for us”) and to work more cooperatively with local leaders such as Detroit NAACP President Wendell Anthony, Rep. John Conyers, and national leaders as well, to formulate a collective plan of action. If executed properly, this is something that could actually yield fruit and point a clear direction out of this mess that doesn’t involve docile cooperation with Orr and Snyder.
We’ve tried the ‘responsible’ approach. Now may be the time to reach back to Detroit’s roots and go all-in for the radical.
Keith Owens (AKA Black Liberal Boomer) is a Detroit-based writer who has worked for The Detroit Free Press, Detroit’s alternative newsweekly the Metro Times, the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, and other newspapers. He was also a nationally syndicated columnist with Universal Press Syndicate for three years beginning in 1993.