THE NATION OF ISLAM’S JEREMIAD
Over the past decade, Minister Farrakhan has slowly moved the Nation of Islam from its separatist position toward mainstream political activity. His dramatic entry into the 1984 presidential campaign inaugurated this shift. During the election, Minister Farrakhan registered to vote for the first time and urged his members to do so as well. After his own involvement in national politics, a number of Farrakhan’s ministers ran for local office. The national office in Chicago funneled moneys to support these candidates in an attempt to interject the Nation of Islam into the mainstream of black political life. Yet, in so doing, the Nation of Islam relinquished its traditional rhetorical stance toward America, a language based in a deep-seated pessimism about the possibility of racial justice in America.
In spite of this shift, in the context of the Million Man March, the Nation of Islam was quite effective in using the language of atonement to pose as a viable mainstream option because most of us take the issue of personal responsibility seriously. But the traditional rhetorical stance of the Nation of Islam inhibited the organization and, by extension, the March from connecting talk of responsibility directly to criticism of the policies of the State. The Nation of Islam believes that African Americans have a messianic destiny apart from or, better put, in opposition to the national mission of America. The organization has no faith in American democracy. America is not and cannot be a home for African Americans. It is Hell and inherently evil. As such, matters of responsibility are to be addressed as internal problems of the community, not as issues for redress by the State. Since it views the moral fate of America as sealed, the Nation of Islam’s concern remains only with the souls of a lost people—a lost black people.
The Nation of Islam has always relied on medicinal language in speaking to black America: we are a sick people; we don’t know ourselves. It is the job of the prophet to turn us back to the true knowledge of our past and lead us to our future. But these efforts were always couched, until recently, in the form of an antijeremiad. However, in his address at the March, Minister Farrakhan astutely transformed the Nation of Islam’s antijeremiad into a traditional African American jeremiad. Like most African American political orators, he warned whites of the impending judgment that was to come from the sin of slavery and continued racial discrimination unless America lived up to its stated ideals.
The keynote speech, on one level, was all about America and what the country needed to do to avoid destruction. His subject was taken from the preamble to the American Constitution: what we need to do to move toward a more perfect union. Minister Farrakhan stated, "We’re not gathered here to say all the evils of this nation. But we are gathered here to collect ourselves for a responsibility that God is placing on our shoulders to move this nation toward a more perfect union." He placed black people in a messianic role—a chosen people who will call the chosen nation, America, back to its covenantal duty, specifically, its duty to deal justly with African Americans. Minister Farrakhan very skillfully deployed the African American jeremiad to ground his intervention into mainstream political conversation. The power of the Nation of Islam’s antijeremiad gave way to an abiding faith in American democracy—something we have heard before, just not from the Nation of Islam!