Your Black Muslim Bakery: A Review of Killing the Messenger. A Story of Radical Faith, Racism's Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist
Remington, Alex, Kennedy School Review
by Thomas Peele
(Crown Publishers, 2012)
Reviewed by Alex Remington
Five years ago, a radical Black Muslim sect in Oakland, CA, gunned down the journalist Chauncey Bailey to prevent him from writing a story about them. Bailey's death exposed the shocking, four-decade history of Your Black Muslim Bakery, a brick compound that housed a cult-like splinter from the Nation of Islam. The Nation had long fed on the festering racism of America's inner cities, and Oakland was one of the last strongholds for its viciously violent rhetoric. Thomas Peele's nonfiction narrative in Killing the Messenger explores the Black Muslim movement, including the circumstances surrounding Bailey's death.
Oakland liked to call itself "The Detroit of the West," and the comparison was painfully apt, as both were industrial cities marked by major African American immigration and extreme racism, not to mention significant Black Muslim populations. The Nation of Islam was founded in Detroit amid the Great Migration in the early twentieth century, when African Americans left the South in search of better lives in the North only to find that the colder region had institutionalized its own version of the South's racism and segregation. They were forced into ghettos, then confronted by Southern police officers who had been imported to keep them in line. Typically, factory owners would only hire African Americans for low-paying, menial, or dangerous jobs.
Amid the poverty, unemployment, and despair, an immigrant Afghan named Wallace Fard founded the Nation around 1930. Fard preached African American self-sufficiency while profiting off his indigent proselytes, selling his flock their signature suits and preaching hatred. "Slay four, stab them through the heart, and rewards will be yours."
Ultimately, tens of thousands would convert to Fard's new religion, including Elijah Muhammad, who became the leader of the movement after Fard disappeared in 1934. Muhammad backed his authority with deadly force, but the Nation was publicly discredited after the 1965 assassination of its most public critic, Malcolm X, and Muhammad died a decade later. Few continued to listen to the Nation's hate-filled rhetoric once Fard and Muhammad were gone.
In the decades since, few White Americans have heard much about the history of the Nation of Islam beyond Malcolm's autobiography. That may stem from the same ignorance of the inner-city Black community that created the environment in which the Nation was originally created. Bailey's death is a tragic reminder of the toll of ignorance, and Peele is an engaging historian, though his use of the epithet "fictive Islam" to describe Fard and Yusuf Bey's religious rhetoric is practically a verbal tic. The first half of the book, dealing with the origins of the Nation and the Bakery, is also better written than the more recent history, much of which emerged during the court trial of Bailey's killers that only concluded in the summer of 2011.
That recent history all took place in Oakland, where grinding poverty and toxic race relations enabled Your Black Muslim Bakery to maintain Fard's message for decades after its leader had split with Elijah Muhammad in a power struggle. Beginning in the early 1970s, Bey, a former hairdresser originally named Joseph Stephens, carved out a religious domain in the East Bay.
It was centered on a bakery that Bey opened to sell food to members of the Nation, who were prohibited not only from eating pork but many other foods as well. Bey, like Fard and Muhammed before him, preached Black self-sufficiency through business ownership and seemed to support it by hiring people whom no one else would, especially criminals. Dressed in suits and bow ties, former felons baked bread. Bey preached in a makeshift mosque in the back and broadcast his sermons on local television.
It was a cult of personality. …