In the spring of 1972, I voluntarily withdrew from the prep school integration experiment. The pendulum swung and I took a deep dive into my black nationalism period.
From September, 1973 until July, 1975 I lived in Washington, DC and for the majority of that period I worked at Nation of Islam-run Shabazz Bakery. During the day I was finishing up my senior year in high school and taking university-level courses. I worked second shift, 4-12 midnight, at the bakery. It was tough going back and forth, catching one bus on Florida Avenue to 8th and I St, and a second one to Anacostia, but I was young and energetic and I pushed through it. I remember having to walk several blocks through a then tough neighborhood from Florida Ave up 4th street after midnight when I got off the bus at the end of my shift. The brothers told me to walk fast and look straight ahead. That’s what I did and nobody ever bothered me. It would turn out to be a good lesson in life: Walk fast and look straight ahead!
In my first bakery position, I was apprenticed to the pastry maker. I made mistakes, God did I make mistakes! I let the donuts proof too long, and sometimes the icing came out either too thick or too watery. I figured it out quickly though. My boss was a funny guy. Often I could feel him staring at me from behind the cooling racks. He always went there to eat pastries we had prepared. Oh yeah. The bakery had a firm “no snacking” policy, which I was ok with, but those who broke the rules had to sneak while doing it. I’ll not mention my supervisor’s name because he died in ’75 and one should not speak ill of the dead. He came down with some sort of virus, got weaker and weaker, and his absences from work got longer and longer. Eventually he passed away. I had moved back home by that time, but was still in the area, on an engineering co-op at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. I hitchhiked back to DC for the funeral.
From pastries I went to pie crusts, replaced in pastries by a new Fruit of Islam (FOI) member, Linzell. The FOI was the paramilitary organization all male members belonged to in the Nation of Islam (NOI). I would prepare a predetermined number of large and small pie shells based on the orders from the front shop and the route salesmen, stack them up, and have them ready for the pie guy who came in at midnight. Brother George. Very patient guy, very even-tempered. Student minister. Occasionally I would stay and make the pies with him. Brother Richard also came in around midnight to wash the pots and pans stacked in the stainless steel sinks from the previous day’s production. He and I lived in the same FOI house in Northwest. Richard took me under his wing. Somewhere I have a poem I wrote about him and the church songs he used to sing while slinging the pots and mixing bowls. Richard had made two migrations in his life: from Mississippi to Chicago, and from Chicago to Washington. My only migration was from Greensboro to Washington.
High school graduation was held in February, 1974, and my mother and sister came up from Greensboro to celebrate the occasion. I was salutatorian! I fell asleep at my cousin’s house after dinner and they let me sleep through my bakery shift. George stepped up and covered for me. What a prince of a guy!
On those overnights I became buddies with the guys in shipping, Lawrence, Dayne, and Carl, whose main job was preparing the orders for outgoing distribution the next morning. There was bread to bag and label, pies to wrap, and cakes and cookies to box and/or wrap. And gingerbread, our famous gingerbread with raisins and chocolate icing to cut and wrap individually. We had three route salesman, Jeffrey, Darnell and James. James was from Martinsville, VA and had studied engineering at A&T. Jeffrey was the Mosque’s leading Muhammad Speaks salesman. I think at one point he was pushing 1000 copies per week. The day bakers were Ralph, Charles and Floyd. Michael came later. Ralph and Floyd both adopted me as their little brother and showed me the ropes. Charles had been a basketball player at Howard and was always very intellectual and sophisticated. We had long chats and conversations about life from time to time. He had been friends with Paula, a girl from Pichard Street who went to Howard. And the Bakery had two managers, James and Melvin. Melvin was from Greensboro. James was from New Jersey and had also been a student at Howard.
The folks in the Mosque referred to the bakery brothers as “the scientists.” It was a derogatory reference to conversations we had late at night, on the midnight shift, that leaked out perhaps, conversations questioning a lot of the fundamental tenets of the faith. No, we had concluded, for example, W. Fard Muhammad was not God in person and no, Elijah Muhammad was not infallible. No, white people were not all devils. No, twelve black scientists did not separate the moon mass from the Earth and send it hurtling into space. And yes, a lot of really bad shit went down in Detroit and Chicago in the 20’s and the 30’s, including murders and ritual sacrifices, all of which resulted in the founding of the Nation of Islam under a cloak of secrecy. But the Yacub thing, and the Tribe of Shabazz thing? Well, maybe? I still haven’t figured it out.
As an aside, for several months the DC Mosque (Mosque #4) was locked in a rivalry with the Philadelphia Mosque (#12) over the sale of Muhammad Speaks newspapers. When we went up to 60,000 (weekly circulation), Philadelphia increased to 75,000. When we went up to 90,000, Philadelphia went up to 100,000. We pushed past to 105,000 and Philadelphia went to 125,000. This was about the same time that the so-called Black Mafia in Philadelphia had completely infiltrated the Mosque and was using it as a front for criminal operations, mostly drugs, extortion and prostitution. Street gangs controlling turf would be forced to buy bundles and bundles of Muhammad Speaks newspapers whether they sold them or not. It was probably a good time to be in the newsprint recycling business! Washington had no such Black Mafia infiltration, though we probably had plenty of US Government agents in our ranks. Eventually we yielded to Philadelphia’s numerical superiority. There has always been a tale of two cities thing going on between Philadelphia and Washington, going back to the early days of the republic. We were just another manifestation of an age-old struggle.
For a short while during the following summer months I shifted my hours to begin a bit later and work through the night making pies as demand for bean pies increased. We were doing something right. And for a short while, as demand for carrot cakes increased, I would get an early start before her arrival helping Charlotte out with cake decorating, which took some practice, but she needed the help and I was a quick study and the cakes were a high profit margin item. The cake decorating training was where I fell in love with a much older woman, or so it seemed at the time when I was 18 and she was 27. But it happened. It was a period of extreme mania for me. I wrote poems and convinced myself the sky was the limit. There was this song Valerie Robinson played on WHUR’s Quiet Storm program every night, the Spinners, I’m Glad You Came Into My Life. It was our song. So silly. I lost the poems she wrote. I still have mine. Eventually Robin was hired to help with cakes. One of the managers had a thing for the cake decorator who trained me and resented the attention she was giving me. So he pushed me out of that close proximity situation by bringing in a new hire. But by that time the die was cast. Love was in the air. I was eighteen and she was twenty-six. It was scandalous.
Then things became complicated. The procedure for “dating” was that the man sought permission though his FOI captain to “meet” the woman. The FOI captain carried the message to the MGTGCC captain (MGTGCC was Muslim Girls Training and General Civilization Class, a para-military training organization for women that paralleled the FOI organization for men). The MGTGCC captain would get the woman’s permission to “meet,” relay it to the FOI captain, who would then relay it to the man. So I went to Captain Harrell X, requesting permission to “meet” Charlotte, though we saw each other every day at the Bakery. And every day, she was expecting to hear from her captain. Well, the information was never relayed, and we figured out that at a higher level, the decision was made that “this” was not to happen. Three or four weeks passed, during which her friends convinced her that this was not the best move for either if us, that she needed an older man than me, and I needed a younger woman than she, I supposed.
Our eventual breakup marked the end of my manic period. WHUR’s Quiet Storm played a new song by that time whose lyrics I didn’t really understand but I knew it had some bearing on my situation, Love Don’t Love Nobody. Lucky for me the pendulum did not swing from manic to depressive, or if it did I never noticed.
At some point I moved from pies and cakes to front shop management, working for Nelson. Nelson was a cool guy who didn’t suffer fools gladly. And I was a bit of a fool. But I learned a lot from him. In fact, I’d say I grew up under Nelson’s tutelage. Nelson ended up getting married to Robin, the new cake decorator.
Somewhere along the way I decided that bakery management was a worthy career path. I was still studying, but I was wondering whether it was worthwhile. The bakery was expanding, soon we’d have shops in Alexandria, in Arlington, in Seat Pleasant, and we, the original crew, would all get our own shops to run. Every other Monday we had Bakery meeting at the Mosque. Dr. Shabazz, the minister of #4 who presided over the meetings (and who was also my calculus tutor, though I never became the mathematician he would have had me become) would remind us how important the bakery was to community economic development, and by extension, how important our individual contributions were to its success. And we would talk about these long-range plans for expansion. I was a true believer.
I joined a bunch of bakery brothers who jumped in a car and traveled to Chicago in February 1975 for the annual Savior’s Day Convention. Unbeknownst to us, Elijah Muhammad was deathly ill and would die the night before the big convention. His son, Wallace, was installed in the leadership position and it was he who addressed us on the 26th in place of his father. A couple of months later, we all drove up to Philadelphia where the organization’s new leader, Wallace D. Muhammad, would give a seminal keynote address, “Remake the World.”
That was before the Russian wheat deal and the effects of the Arab Oil embargo sent our commodity prices sky high, and before our manager, James, spent way more money than he should have on some used equipment he bought from a New Jersey mob-looking guy to mechanize our processes. The combination of events and their effects on prices of our ingredients pushed us into an unsustainable financial position. Oh yeah, and the Mosque leadership changed and the new minister insisted on changing all our recipes from all whole wheat to mixed white and whole wheat and from all honey and brown sugar to a white sugar mixture. Said it had worked for him down in New Orleans. Things went crazy, very crazy, and I got an offer to work as a short order cook at a joint some FOI brothers I knew ran, also in southeast, Amir’s Oasis. That lasted for a couple of months, but when my mother died unexpectedly, I packed my stuff and returned to Greensboro. The bakery is now an Islamic museum.
There’s a lot more for this chapter. I will fill it in as memories return to me.
Next: 1975-1978: The A&T years
Here are some of the poems from that period
A number combination
unlocks the secrets
of the mysteries
of the microcosm called mind.
The young man asked,
“is there life after death?”
The middle-aged man replied,
“there is no life after death.”
The elder replied,
“there is no death.”
Shabazz Bakery poems and prayer-songs 1974-1975
Bakery Victory Song
Work on! O laborers of God!
Our goals have already been set,
Our eventual success is assured,
So we have no need for regret,
Since others through faith have endured.
Strive hard, O servants of God!
The mission is a dead land to raise,
And a new world to bring into being.
We must learn to submit and give praise
To the Lord of the Worlds, the All-seeing.
Fight on! O warriors of God!
The battles are bloody and long,
The trials are hard and severe,
So be brave, be steadfast, be strong,
We shall win if we just persevere.
Newspapers and M&M’s
Coca-cola and a cigarette
In its purest state –
A devil sitting there
“We remind you that federal regulations permit…”
and every conceivable form of immorality….and
“…cigarette smoking only in the rear of the bus.…”
where black people are still forced to sit,
“…in seats clearly marked
…now loading at Gate 3…
your schedule for:
Dear Mr/Mrs Paternalistic White/Black Supremacist,
how many men/women have you destroyed today
with your lustful liberality
with your calloused conceited charm
with your sinister southern smile,
How many of my people have you destroyed today?
How many have you paralyzed:
from the waist down?
from the neck up?
on either side?
How many have you paralyzed?
Did you reach your quota today?
Laundromat at NY and NJ Avenues
dirty puddles of Clorox and
lemon–flavored Fab invade
and pollution without.
a child drops her candy
on the filthy, flooded floor
now she is picking it up
and eating it
and gasping for breath
and dying – her bulging
beautiful brown eyes
the washers are running over
the dryers don’t work
and the customers are satisfied
because they have nothing
In search of knowledge
In search of that missing link
That connects reality with mysticism
And gives one a foundation
From which to understand
The whole as well as the sum of the parts
Conceived in frustration and hopelessness
Born on the verge of a great eruption
Raised in affluence, then poverty
Bred on religious half-truths
and misguided righteousness
Educated by a cruel enemy
I betrayed my teachers and
accepted my own…
Prayer Song for Charlotte (1) – You Have Become the Object
You have become the object
Of my affection,
Of my devotion,
Of my dedication.
From you I understand loyalty
For you are loyal to your guide
And I to you
And I shall forever love you.
This is the extent of my love:
Prayer Song for Charlotte (2) – Softly
Softly and more tenderly –
Give us peace of mind and consolation,
Pacify our urges and our passions,
Put us in a state of earthly heaven.
Softly and exquisitely –
Speak to us sweet words of inspiration,
Warm our hearts, increase our dedication,
Soothe away the aches and pains of hatred.
Softly and so daintily –
So precise and so in tune with nature,
So express, beyond anticipation,
And yet so humble, so reserved in station.
Softly and submissively –
Let us guide each other to perfection;
Let us free ourselves from false subjection;
Let us base our lives on true affection.
Softly but with certainty –
Mould us from the clay of love and kindness,
Fashion us with patience and sincerity,
Breathe in us the breath of generosity.
Softly and with thankfulness –
This is our prayer. Amen.
Prayer Song for Charlotte (3) – A Diamond in the Rough
a sweet and tender flower
and a diamond in the rough
a perfect union…
gentility of strength
nobility of character
humility in wisdom
subtlety in understanding
Help us, and be in us, and
show us, and guide us, and
enlighten us, and reveal to us…
Prayer Song for Charlotte (4) – Discovery
God is free from imperfections
and I am full of faults.
Yet if I strive hard in His Way,
They’ll dwindle down to naught.
So I am thankful to my Lord,
Submissive to his will;
For He delivered me from death
And showed me what was real.
Praise be to God!
The Lord of all the worlds.
Prayer Song for Charlotte (5) – The Moment of Creation
step by step
day by day
hour by hour
minute by minute
second by second
transcending the immeasurable progression of time
until one reaches the understanding,
that there is no birth or death,
no beginning or end,
but all things come of God.
the mysterious qualities of space and time
and their relativity, therefore,
are reduced to simplistic roots
of zero and unity.
so we travel through our lives
thanking God for direction and guidance.
Prayer Song for Charlotte (6) – A Flower
blooming in the winter
out of tune with time
out of touch with reality
out of accord with unity
blooming in the springtime
blossoming into its fullest growth
blossoming into its truest beauty
leaning towards the sun
blooming in the summer
and dies in a single season
blooming in the autumn
preparing for the cold wind
preparing for the icy nights
preparing for the coming of spring
Prayer Song for Charlotte (7) – The Will
The will, the unconquerable will –
to come into existence, to survive
the trauma of deliverance, to endure
the loneliness of separation from security.
the will, the irrepressible will –
to grow, to learn all, to comprehend
the whole, to discover oneself and
develop oneself to the fullest.
the will, the indomitable will –
to repel evil, to resist weakness,
to retain one’s inner discipline
against a flood of promiscuity.
the will, the Divine will –
to escape the bonds of slavery mentality,
to transcend the limits of grafted knowledge,
to break the chains of sin and immorality.
Prayer Song for Charlotte (8) – The Flight by Night
What was the meaning of the flight by night?
Was it to escape the enemy’s oppression?
Was it in search of a rare sunbeam?
Or was it to recapture a nostalgic dream?
What was the meaning of the flight by night?
Was it a stage in a gradual progression?
Was it to retrieve the gifts of life and time?
Or was it the revival of something more sublime?
What was the meaning of the flight by night?
We must fight to overcome this frightening obsession.
We must search until we find the answer
to this question. Then, and only then,
will we be free from past transgression.
Be still for a moment…!
Watch the images emerge
watch the ideas materialize
into real life entities
watch the thoughts become visible
watch the truth made manifest.
Peace! …Let there be peace!
Everything takes its natural order
everything tends towards unity
everything fades into darkness
everything is seen in the light.
Slow down for just a second!
Come back down to reality
come back down to nature
come back to your lost faith
Appreciate God’s handiwork,
the morning glories,
the sparrows singing,
the calmness of dawn.
So glad to have you back, to see you again.
You’ve been gone so long.
What did you do while you were gone?
You’ve grown so much.
Not as skinny as you used to be.
You’ve really grown.
Why don’t you take your coat off,
make yourself at home.
This is your home.
Have a glass of water.
Let me turn on the radio.
What kind of music do you like.
You’ve changed a lot.
You’re not like you used to be.
Are you married yet?
Why did you change your name?
Scribbled on bathroom walls
one is made consciously aware
of the funky nature
of the American spirit.
An adulterated spirit,
the wasted semen
of technological fornication,
re-emerging in social incest
and zero population growth
An international whore
who just doesn’t give a good goddamn
what she gives birth to:
resulting in a tribe of illiterate bastards
who are unisexed,
or no sex at all
Afterthoughts become Prologue and beginnings
Part 1 – Foreign Service Exam and Oral Assessment
Part 2 – A-100 and reassignment training
Part 3 – Embassy Bissau – the first year
Part 4 – Embassy Bissau – the second year
Part 5 – The London Embassy
Part 6 – The Ops Center
Part 7 – Embassy Luanda, Angola
Part 8 – Embassy Accra, Ghana
Part 9 – Domestic Assignment – AF/EX
Part 10 – Epilogue: the final eight years
Part 11 – Bonus: Reflections on War and Peace in Iraq