In all honesty, it is Darnell to whom I’m indebted for my interest in Islam. It was he who introduced me to the term while I was still preoccupied in my world of The Church and the Sunday school classes I taught to the children of members, the only children still young enough to appreciate my words and admire me for them, and naïve enough to be oblivious to the unpopularity of my father’s church and my weekly youth classes. My oldest student was ten years old.
I was fifteen and a senior in high school, the same school William and I had attended years before, and it was still winter break, two days after Christmas. It was too cold to go outside, at least to me it was. Reggie had stopped by earlier to ask if I wanted to join him and his friends in a snowball fight. I, who I suppose was always a bit pragmatic, decided that it was not judicious to join them. I figured, though not aloud, that it would take, at most, fifteen minutes before my fingers and toes would feel as if they weren’t mine and my boots would be filled with snow, making the matter worse. Then I’d have to trudge home alone in the cold because Reggie would be just getting started, and he and his friends would most likely be unable to resist the one smack of a good, packed snowball across my face as I walked away in cowardice of, of all things, the weather.
I was in a bad mood anyway. For Christmas my aunt, who was a successful beautician, had taken Courtney and Patricia to her home and given them perms. They were college students, Courtney a freshman at Howard University and Patricia a junior at Ball State, but they were still haunted by my parents’ rules, and despite their rebellious nature, they hadn’t dared to stray so far as to show up in the house with a permanent although they kept their hair meticulously straight from a hot comb at all times. This, the forbidding of permed hair, was really more a rule of my mother than my father. I knew that much because none of the women in The Church’s congregation followed it, and I’d never heard my father speak of it outside the home. Generally, if my father had a rule, it was a rule of The Church.
My mother was livid and my father nonchalant, which made my mother suspect that this was really his idea and not his sister’s. But I couldn’t care less about my mother’s anger. I was nursing my own. Why had Aunt Juanita singled them out? They didn’t deserve it. What had they done to earn such a priceless gift? If anything, their heads should be shaved for their relentless disobedience and disrespect of my parents.
“They’re in college now,” my father said, shooing his wife away as he tried to direct his attention back to the Bible he was reading to prepare for the after-Christmas sermon.
“But they are still our children. My children.”
“They aren’t yours. And they’re not children.”
“We talked about this, and you agreed that—”
“I didn’t agree, Wilma, I acquiesced.” He had looked up from his Bible to say that, and I grew disgusted and started for my room. But the sound of the doorbell stopped me. I headed to the front door instead.
“If that’s Juanita,” my mother shouted, “tell her we’re not home.”
It wasn’t Juanita. It was my mother’s brother Marvin, his wife Marcella, and their son Darnell. In keeping with the Christmas spirit, I smiled. But I didn’t feel like being friendly.
“Thank God it’s not your family,” my mother said as she went to greet the guests.
Uncle Marvin laughed as he unbuttoned his coat. “What are you two arguing about this time?”
“Your brother-in-law has decided that God didn’t know what He was doing when He gave our daughters beautiful, African hair.”
My uncle’s eyebrows rose. Disapproval was on his face although he wore a smile of cordiality. “You’re kidding, right?”
Instinctively, I looked at my aunt’s hair, and to my relief, at least for the sake of her comfort amid my mother’s comment although I wasn’t particularly in love with my African hair, I noticed the small braids pulled back into a bun, realizing at that moment that I’d never seen her with straight hair.
After removing his coat, Darnell pulled me by the elbow and led me to the kitchen. I sensed he had something urgent to tell me and I started to ask him when I noticed the bowtie on his neck. It was small and colorful and sat purposefully situated at the white collar of his button-up dress shirt. Thinking it was a joke of his, I started to laugh.
He ignored me. His face grew serious. “You’re not going to do it, are you?”
I furrowed my brows and stopped laughing to regard him curiously. “What?”
“She’s joking, right?”
I shook my head. “What are you talking about?”
“Your mother. She said your father is allowing you and your sisters to straighten your hair.”
I grew defensive. “And what if he is?” What I meant to say was, What’s it to you?
“Don’t do it.”
I decided against telling him that the decision had already been made for me. “Why shouldn’t I? If my sisters can have a perm, why can’t I?”
I felt myself growing upset as I thought of spending all my years in braids and a huge “Afro puff” at the back of my head when my mother was unable to braid my hair in time for school. I was tired of being laughed at, called Nappy Head, and listening to the taunting of the Black girls who would whisper, chant-like in my ear, “You need to get your hair done.” If I were honest, I didn’t mind my hair. In fact, there were moments that I loved it. But I did mind it creating an even greater barrier between me and normalcy at school.
“Because you’re a goddess, Renee.”
I grinned, enjoying his sense of humor in his attempt to flatter me.
It took me a moment to see it. But he really wasn’t joking. Now I stared at him. Then I realized I must have heard him incorrectly.
“You’re a goddess. A beautiful, Black African queen. Your hair is your honor, your crown. Don’t put the White man’s poison in it.”
This time I withheld laughter. I had always thought Darnell a bit off, but this was over the top. Maybe he was the one addicted to intoxicants and not William’s father. “Poison?”
“Yes, poison, Ray.”
He sighed, deciding to take a rational approach. “Think about it. When did Black people start straightening their hair?”
I didn’t have an answer.
“After slavery. After they were slaves of the White man. He didn’t just chain our bodies, he chained our minds.”
Stunned that Darnell was actually taking his words seriously, I stared at him, seeing him for the first time. He had the beginnings of a mustache and beard and the brown of his face glowed the color of cashews, and I noticed in his dark eyes a profundity—a profoundness of knowledge and worldly awareness—that I hadn’t before. It was as if he’d matured overnight, even as the insanity of his words betrayed what I was sensing.
“—in your father’s church for example.”
At his reference to The Church, I felt my heart quicken and my defensiveness grew thick and tight in my chest. “What about my father’s church?”
“Have you ever noticed, Ray? Look on the wall, in front of the church. What is there? What do you see?”
I could hardly think to answer his question because I was so offended that he had asked it. “What do you mean, what’s there?”
“Think, Ray.” It was as if I were the one losing my mind, not him, and for a moment I felt as if I were. His eyes were so concerned, so intense that I wondered if I had in fact done something wholly inappropriate to warrant such heart-felt directives to use my mental faculties.
“Think about what?”
“Your church.” At the last word, he lowered his voice, as if suddenly aware that my parents were in the living room, within earshot, as if it were a bad word and we were exchanging a secret at their expense.
“There’s nothing to think about.” I intentionally raised my voice to let him know where my loyalties lay. If I wouldn’t side against The Church for my own blood sisters’ pleasure, I most certainly wasn’t doing if for a thoughtless, cruel person like Darnell. In retrospect, I know I had judged him harshly, holding him accountable for the sins of that day on the back porch and sullying with it his image in the present. But I didn’t know that I was being unjust, nor would I have cared, because I hated him for upsetting Reggie and insulting William. And now he had the nerve to attack my father, the lifeblood of my family and religious affiliation.
“There’s a lot to think about, Ray. Too much to go over now.”
As if I’d asked him to teach me. I could have spit on him right then.
“But it will behoove you to take one look at what’s on your church wall to see what I mean. Then maybe you won’t hate the beautiful, African skin and hair God has given you. Then maybe you’ll wake up.”
His last words reminded me of Courtney’s and my offense was fierce. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
“No,” he said so calmly, with so much concern that I too calmed, even if just to marvel at his audacity in remaining level-headed when I was unable to. “You are the one who needs to think about who you are. I already know who I am.”
I laughed. Most likely because I didn’t know what else to do to repair my injured pride. “And just who are you?”
I started to say something but stopped mid-sentence because he had used a word I did not know, and this startled me. The word sounded vaguely familiar as if I’d seen it in a book or heard it during a history lesson. The only images it conjured up were that of my former friend Raksha, but she had been Hindu.
“A what?” I was more curious than upset, momentarily forgetting our argument and what had angered me.
“Muslim.” He said it calmly, more reserved this time, as if he was spent from all the arguing and realized just then he was making my affliction worse instead of better. There was a long pause as he tried to gather his thoughts, as if there was a confession he was about to make.
“Have you heard of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad?”
“No,” I said, still a bit bemused.
“The Nation of Islam?”
I shook my head, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. Why was there a sense of sorrow in his eyes? What had I done to deserve so much pity?
He sighed and started to leave the kitchen. “Wait here.”
He returned a minute later with a book. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He handed it to me. “You heard of Malcolm X?”
I laughed. Who hadn’t? It had become the recent craze of Black youth to sport the “X” on their caps, and I had heard many Black students in hushed whispers talking about how “powerful” the movie had been. I had never seen it. I knew not to ask to see something like that. From the little I gathered from my schoolmates, it was a movie that The Church wouldn’t permit, and thus one I wouldn’t waste my time wanting to see. But at that moment, my interest was peaked.
I held the book in my hand and stared at it. I felt a connection to the serious-looking, intelligent man on the front cover. But I doubted I would read it. My father wouldn’t approve.
“Read this, and do what I said.”
I met his gaze, suddenly reminded why he had offended me a moment before. But for some reason I couldn’t muster the same outrage at his implicit attack on The Church. And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why he wanted me to stare, in judgment, at the walls of my father’s church.
“And what have you gained in your Afro-centricity?” My father’s voice was so distinct in its upset that his words cut through the pseudo-privacy my cousin and I had successfully forged only minutes before.
“A true understanding of God.” It was my uncle’s voice. O Lord. They were all arguing now.
“Put it away,” Darnell whispered, as if sensing our family’s current distraction would be my only opportunity to keep the book away from my father’s attention.
Because I didn’t want to hear the argument—it tore me apart to hear my family bickering—I left and did as Darnell said although I couldn’t have, at that moment, cared less whether or not my father saw the book and reluctantly approved or told me to burn it.
In the quiet of my room, I locked the door. Darnell never ventured upstairs to my room, but I didn’t want to take the chance of someone destroying my quiet. Why, I don’t know, but I sat on my bed, my back supported by a pillow and began reading the autobiography. My reading was most likely to mollify the aching I felt in my chest as the voices from downstairs rose and stole their way into my room, burning my eyes and threatening to shatter my weakly fortified existence.
During the after-Christmas service, with thoughts of the racial suffering of Malcolm Little and his family floating in my mind, I stared at the wall above my father’s head and saw what Darnell had told me to look for—a three-dimensional likeness of Jesus’ crucifixion. Blood spilled from his hands on either side and his head dangled to his right in apparent pain, even as his eyes were peaceful, as if surrendering to this fate. It was the helplessness of my savior that I noticed before registering what Darnell wanted me to see. And I felt the perversity of it. How could he be my savior if he couldn’t save himself?
I pushed the thought from my mind and concentrated on my hands. I couldn’t look at my sisters on either side of me because the sight of their shiny, straight hair still inspired resentment. But I couldn’t help noticing the likeness of their hair to that of Jesus’ image on the wall.
White man’s poison, Darnell had called the hair chemicals I envied.
White man. A White man. That’s what Darnell wanted me to notice. Our savior was a White man.
That afternoon, I asked Reggie what he thought of Malcolm X and all this White man is the son of God business.
He sat in our dining room across from me and shrugged. “He has a point.”
“Darnell?” I was shocked that Reggie had anything good to say about him after what he had said about William’s father.
“Not just Darnell, all of ‘em.”
“All of who?”
“You know about them?”
“Of course.” He paused and regarded me. “You don’t?”
My pride was hurt, but I decided that satisfying my curiosity was more important than being the smart one this time. “No, I never heard of them before Darnell said he was one.”
“Well, Darnell’s a Black Muslim.”
“As opposed to what?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Black Muslims are members of the Nation of Islam, who believe Black people are gods and White people are devils. Regular Muslims are mostly Indians and Arabs who believe women shouldn’t show their faces in public.”
“What?” They both sounded like lunatics to me.
Reggie laughed and shrugged, as if saying, You asked.
“And exactly what makes you think they have a point?”
“I’m not talking about the Indians and Arabs. I’m talking about the Nation of Islam.”
“You think William’s family is full of devils?”
Reggie burst out laughing then settled for smiling at me. “Of course not. I just said they have a point. I didn’t say they were right.”
“How could you even say they have a point?”
“I’m not talking about the god and devil bit. I’m talking about Jesus being a White man. Why think of God’s son like that?”
I didn’t know what to say, suddenly reminded of my own doubts earlier that day.
“Who cares?” Reggie said finally, sparing me the agony of a further crisis of faith. “Who cares what color Jesus is?”
Reluctantly, I smiled. “Yeah, that’s true.”
But, somehow, although momentarily relieved, I hadn’t convinced myself. I was thinking about the autobiography I was reading.
It was New Year’s Eve, and following my father’s sermon that evening, my parents had accepted an invitation to dinner. I was home with Patricia and Courtney, who were in our parents’ room watching a movie that I suspected wouldn’t be approved by The Church, and my younger brothers were asleep. Having already taken it upon myself to remove the dust jacket of the book and replace it with one of Mildred D. Taylor’s, I was relaxing in the living room when the doorbell rang. Setting the book aside, I answered it and found William standing on the front porch holding a bag.
I stared at him. Most of the MSGT students were at a New Year’s party, and I knew its most valued attendees were William’s friends. Even Reggie had gone to a party of his own, and although he invited me to join him, I already knew my father wouldn’t approve, and that even if he would, I couldn’t put myself or Reggie through the humiliation of my being a tag-along with him and Shauna, his current girlfriend.
“Can I come in?”
I hesitated because I really didn’t want to be disturbed, or more likely because I wasn’t used to entertaining William if he wasn’t with Reggie. But I felt it would be rude to say no. So I stepped aside and let him in.
“I won’t stay long,” he said, as if sensing my discomfort. He shrugged off his coat, carefully setting the bag on the foyer floor then picking it back up after hanging his coat. He walked over to the couch, sat down, and peered into the bag before pulling out a neatly wrapped gift. He faltered, glancing at my open book next to him, most likely because he was nervous to present the gift. But he did a double-take and read the words more closely, and my heart hammered in my chest, suddenly recalling the offensive passage I was reading.
His face colored slightly and he smiled, as if approving, but I knew he didn’t. He couldn’t approve of his race being talked about in such demeaning terms.
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” he said, allaying my fears.
I couldn’t get my question out from the shock I felt right then. But my eyes must have been indication enough.
“I’m reading it for history class.”
“They assign that there?”
He shook his head. “I’m doing a research paper.”
“On Malcolm X?”
He nodded. “And Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m comparing them.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Pretty good, isn’t it?”
“You selected the topic or the teacher assigned it?” I was so intent on finding out more about the paper that it wasn’t until after he had gone that I understood the weightiness of his last question concerning my reading.
“I selected it.”
He held out the gift to me. “Merry Christmas.”
I accepted the gift and studied it for sometime. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” He stood to go. For a moment he hesitated, then as if thinking better of it, decided to excuse himself.
“Tell your parents I said hello and merry Christmas,” he said.
“And tell your parents the same.”
He lifted his coat from the hook and shrugged it on, a smile on his face as he opened the door. “I hope you like it.”
“I’m sure I will, William. Thank you.” I paused. “I’m sorry I, uh, didn’t have anything for you.”
He waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it.” He laughed uncomfortably. “I’m sorry I’m giving it so late. It’s just that we had to travel to Evansville and I—”
“It’s okay. I understand.”
There was a long pause. “Good night.”
“Good night,” I said as I closed the door.
Still recovering from surprise, inspired more by his research topic than his surprise visit, I sat down on the couch and stared at the box, too distracted by my shock to wonder, or care, what was inside, let alone ponder the reason for his giving it to me.
Mindlessly, I tugged at the bow and tore the shimmering red paper and opened the lid.
I blinked, staring at the gold necklace with a crucifix pendant. I pulled it from the box and noticed a single diamond in the middle of the cross. My eyes widened and I wondered how much he had to pay for something like this. Maybe the stone wasn’t real, I considered, but I somehow sensed that I was wrong.
Next… Story 3 of 11 Posted every Friday
This series is derived from the UZ novel by the same name and does not feature the full book. To read the entire novel CLICK HERE.
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