That was how my grandmother came to work for the Nation of Islam. Like a cleaning lady working in Grosse Pointe, she came and went by the back door. Instead of a hat, she wore a head scarf to conceal her irresistible ears. She never spoke above a whisper. She never asked questions or complained. Having grown up in a country ruled by others, she found it all familiar. The fezzes, the prayer rugs, the crescent moons: it was a little like going home.
For the residents of Black Bottom it was like traveling to another planet. The temple’s front doors, in a sweet reversal of most American entrances, let blacks in and kept whites out. The former paintings in the lobby—landscapes aglow with Manifest Destiny, scenes of Indians being slaughtered—had been carted down to the basement. In their place were depictions of African history: a prince and princess strolling beside a crystal river; a conclave of black scholars debating in an outdoor forum.
People came to Temple No. 1 to hear Fard’s lectures. They also came to shop. In the old cloakroom, Sister Wanda displayed the garments that the Prophet said were “the same kind that the Negro people use in their home in the East.” She rippled the iridescent fabrics under the lights as converts stepped up to pay. Women exchanged the maids’ uniforms of subservience for the white chadors of emancipation. Men replaced the overalls of oppression with the silk suits of dignity. The temple’s cash register overflowed. In lean times, the mosque was flush. Ford was closing factories but, at 3408 Hastings Street, Fard was open for business.
Desdemona saw little of all this up on the third floor. She spent her mornings teaching in the classroom and her afternoons in the Silk Room, where the uncut fabrics were stored. One morning she brought in her silkworm box for show-and-tell. She passed the box around, telling the story of its travels, how her grandfather had carved it from olivewood and how it had survived a fire, and she managed to do all this without saying anything derogatory about the students’ co-religionists. In fact, the girls were so sweet and friendly that Desdemona remembered what it had been like in the times when the Greeks and Turks used to get along.
Nevertheless: black people were still new to myyia yia . She was shocked by various discoveries: “Inside the hands,” she informed her husband, “themavros are white like us.” Or: “Themavros don’t have scars, only bumps.” Or: “Do you know how themavro men shave? With a powder! I saw it in the store window.” In the streets of Black Bottom, Desdemona was appalled at the way people lived. “Nobody sweeps up. Garbage on the porches and nobody sweeps it. Terrible.” But at the temple things were different. The men worked hard and didn’t drink. The girls were clean and modest.
“This Mr. Fard is doing something right,” she said at Sunday dinner.
“Please,” Sourmelina dismissed this, “we left veils back in Turkey.”
But Desdemona shook her head. “These American girls could use a veil or two.”
The Prophet himself remained veiled to Desdemona. Fard was like a god: present everywhere and visible nowhere. His glow lingered in the eyes of people leaving a lecture. He expressed himself in the dietary laws, which favored native African foods—the yam, the cassava—and prohibited the consumption of swine. Every so often Desdemona saw Fard’s car—a brand-new Chrysler coupe—parked in front of the temple. It always looked freshly washed and waxed, its chrome grille polished. But she never saw Fard at the wheel.
“How do you expect to see him if he’s God?” Lefty asked with amusement one night as they were going to bed. Desdemona lay smiling, as though tickled by her first week’s pay hidden under the mattress. “I’ll have to have a vision,” she said.
Her first project at Temple No. 1 was to convert the outhouse into a cocoonery. Calling upon the Fruit of Islam, as the military wing of the Nation was known, she stood by while the young men pulled out the wooden commode from the rickety shack. They covered the cesspool with dirt and removed old pinup calendars from the walls, averting their eyes as they threw the offending material in the trash. They installed shelves and perforated the ceiling for ventilation. Despite their efforts, a bad smell lingered. “Just wait,” Desdemona told them. “Compared to silkworms, this is nothing.”
Upstairs, the Muslim Girls Training and General Civilization Class wove feeding trays. Desdemona tried to save the initial batch of silkworms. She kept them warm under electric lightbulbs and sang Greek songs to them, but the silkworms weren’t fooled. Hatching from their black eggs, they detected the dry, indoor air and the false sun of the lightbulbs, and began to shrivel up. “Got more on the way,” Sister Wanda said, brushing off this setback. “Be here directly.”
The days passed. Desdemona became accustomed to the pale palms of Negro hands. She got used to using the back door and to not speaking until spoken to. When she wasn’t teaching the girls, she waited upstairs in the Silk Room.
The Silk Room: a description is in order. (So much happened in that fifteen-by-twenty-foot space: God spoke; my grandmother renounced her race; creation was explained; and that’s just for starters.) It was a small, low-ceilinged room, with a cutting table at one end. Bolts of silk leaned against the walls. The plushness extended floor to ceiling, like the inside of a jewelry box. Fabric was getting harder to come by, but Sister Wanda had stockpiled quite a bit.
Sometimes the silks seemed to be dancing. Stirred by air currents of a mysterious origin, the fabrics flapped up and floated around the room. Desdemona would have to catch the cloth and roll it back up.
And one day, in the middle of a ghostly pas de deux—a green silk leading as Desdemona backpedaled—she heard a voice.
“I WAS BORN IN THE HOLY CITY OF MECCA, ON FEBRUARY 17, 1877.”
At first she thought someone had come into the room. But when she turned, no one was there.
“MY FATHER WAS ALPHONSO, AN EBONY-HUED MAN OF THE TRIBE OF SHABAZZ. MY MOTHER’S NAME WAS BABY GEE. SHE WAS A CAUCASIAN, A DEVIL.”
A what? Desdemona couldn’t quite hear. Or determine the location of the voice. It seemed to be coming from the floor now.“MY FATHER MET HER IN THE HILLS OF EAST ASIA. HE SAW POTENTIAL IN HER. HE LED HER IN THE RIGHTEOUS WAYS UNTIL SHE BECAME A HOLY MUSLIM.”
It wasn’t what the voice was saying that intrigued Desdemona—she didn’t catch what it was saying. It was the sound of the voice, a deep bass that set her breastbone humming. She let go of the dancing silk. She lowered her kerchiefed head to listen. And when the voice started up again, she searched through bolts of silk for its source.“WHY DID MY FATHER MARRY A CAUCASIAN DEVIL? BECAUSE HE KNEW THAT HIS SON WAS DESTINED TO SPREAD THE WORD TO THE LOST PORTION OF THE TRIBE OF SHABAZZ.” Three, four, five bolts, and there it was: a heating grate. And the voice was louder now.“THEREFORE, HE FELT THAT I, HIS SON, SHOULD HAVE A SKIN COLOR THAT WOULD ALLOW ME TO DEAL WITH BOTH WHITE AND BLACK PEOPLE JUSTLY AND RIGHTEOUSLY. SO I AM HERE, A MULATTO, LIKE MUSA BEFORE ME, WHO BROUGHT THE COMMANDMENTS TO THE JEWS.”
From the depths of the building the Prophet’s voice rose. It began in the auditorium three floors below. It filtered down through the trapdoor in the stage out of which, at the old tobacconist conventions, the Rondega girl used to pop, clad in nothing but a cigar ribbon. The voice reverberated in the crawl space that led to the wings, whereupon it entered a heating vent and circulated around the building, growing distorted and echoey, until it rushed hotly out the grate at which Desdemona now crouched.“MY EDUCATION, AS WELL AS THE ROYAL BLOOD THAT RUNS IN MY VEINS, MIGHT HAVE LED ME TO SEEK A POSITION OF POWER. BUT I HEARD MY UNCLE WEEPING, BROTHERS. I HEARD MY UNCLE IN AMERICA WEEPING.”
She could make out a faint accent now. She waited for more, but there was only silence. Furnace smell blew into her face. She bent lower, listening. But the next voice she heard was Sister Wanda’s on the landing: “Yoo-hoo! Des! We ready for you.”
And she tore herself away.
My grandmother was the only white person who ever heard W. D. Fard sermonize, and she understood less than half of what he said. It was a result of the heating vent’s bad acoustics, her own imperfect English, and the fact that she kept lifting her head to hear if anyone was coming. Desdemona knew that it was forbidden for her to listen to Fard’s lectures. The last thing she wanted was to jeopardize her new job. But there was no other place for her to go.
Every day, at one o’clock, the grate began to rumble. At first she heard the noise of people coming into the auditorium. This was followed by chanting. She rolled extra bolts of silk in front of the grate to muffle the sound. She moved her chair to the far corner of the Silk Room. But nothing helped.
“PERHAPS YOU RECALL, IN OUR LAST LECTURE, HOW I TOLD YOU ABOUT THE DEPORTATION OF THE MOON?”
“No, I don’t,” said Desdemona.
“SIXTY TRILLION YEARS AGO A GOD-SCIENTIST DUG A HOLE THROUGH THE EARTH, FILLED IT WITH DYNAMITE AND BLEW THE EARTH IN TWO. THE SMALLER OF THESE TWO PIECES BECAME THE MOON. DO YOU RECALL THAT?”
My grandmother clamped her hands over her ears; on her face was a look of refusal. But through her lips a question slipped out: “Somebody blew up the earth? Who?”
“TODAY I WANT TO TELL YOU ABOUT ANOTHER GOD-SCIENTIST. AN EVIL SCIENTIST. BY THE NAME OF YACUB.”
And now her fingers spread apart, letting the voice reach her ears . . .
“YACUB LIVED EIGHTY-FOUR HUNDRED YEARS AGO IN THE PRESENT TWENTY-FIVE-THOUSAND-YEAR-CYCLE OF HISTORY. HE WAS POSSESSED, THIS YACUB, OF AN UNUSUALLY LARGE CRANIUM. A SMART MAN. A BRILLIANT MAN. ONE OF THE PREEMINENT SCHOLARS OF THE NATION OF ISLAM. THIS WAS A MAN WHO DISCOVERED THE SECRETS OF MAGNETISM WHEN HE WAS ONLY SIX YEARS OLD. HE WAS PLAYING WITH TWO PIECES OF STEEL AND HE HELD THEM TOGETHER AND DISCOVERED THAT SCIENTIFIC FORMULA: MAGNETISM.”
Like a magnet itself, the voice worked on Desdemona. Now it was pulling her hands down to her sides. It was making her lean forward in her chair . . .
“BUT YACUB WASN’T CONTENT WITH MAGNETISM. WITH HIS LARGE CRANIUM HE HAD OTHER GREAT IDEAS. AND SO ONE DAY YACUB THOUGHT TO HIMSELF THAT IF HE COULD CREATE A RACE OF PEOPLE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FROM THE ORIGINAL PEOPLE—GENETICALLY DIFFERENT—THAT RACE COULD COME TO DOMINATE THE BLACK NATION THROUGH TRICKNOLOGY.”
. . . And when leaning wasn’t enough, she moved closer. Walking across the room, moving silk bolts aside, she knelt down before the grate, as Fard continued his explanation:“EVERY BLACK MAN IS MADE OF TWO GERMS: A BLACK GERM AND A BROWN GERM. AND SO YACUB CONVINCED FIFTY-NINE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND NINETY-NINE MUSLIMS TO EMIGRATE TO THE ISLAND OF PELAN. THE ISLAND OF PELAN IS IN THE AEGEAN. YOU WILL FIND IT TODAY ON EUROPEAN MAPS, UNDER A FALSE NAME. TO THIS ISLAND YACUB BROUGHT HIS FIFTY-NINE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND NINETY-NINE MUSLIMS. AND THERE HE COMMENCED HIS GRAFTING.”
She could hear other things now. Fard’s footsteps as he paced the stage. The squeaking of chairs as his listeners bent forward, hanging on his every word.
“IN HIS LABORATORIES ON PELAN, YACUB KEPT ALL ORIGINAL BLACK PEOPLE FROM REPRODUCING. IF A BLACK WOMAN GAVE BIRTH TO A CHILD, THAT CHILD WAS KILLED. YACUB ONLY LET BROWN BABIES LIVE. HE ONLY LET BROWN-SKINNED PEOPLE MATE.”
“Terrible,” Desdemona said, up on the third floor. “Terrible, this Yacub person.”
“YOU HAVE HEARD OF THE DARWINIAN THEORY OF NATURAL SELECTION? THIS WAS UNNATURAL SELECTION. BY HIS SCIENTIFIC GRAFTING YACUB PRODUCED THE FIRST YELLOW AND RED PEOPLE. BUT HE DIDN’T STOP THERE. HE WENT ON MATING THE LIGHT-SKINNED OFFSPRING OF THOSE PEOPLE. OVER MANY, MANY YEARS HE GENETICALLY CHANGED THE BLACK MAN, ONE GENERATION AT A TIME, MAKING HIM PALER AND WEAKER, DILUTING HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS AND MORALITY, TURNING HIM INTO THE PATHS OF EVIL. AND THEN, MY BROTHERS, ONE DAY YACUB WAS DONE. ONE DAY YACUB WAS FINISHED WITH HIS WORK. AND WHAT HAD HIS WICKEDNESS CREATED? AS I HAVE TOLD YOU BEFORE: LIKE CAN ONLY COME FROM LIKE. YACUB HAD CREATED THE WHITE MAN! BORN OF LIES. BORN OF HOMICIDE. A RACE OF BLUE-EYED DEVILS.”
Outside, the Muslim Girls Training and General Civilization Class installed silkworm trays. They worked in silence, daydreaming of various things. Ruby James was thinking about how handsome John 2X had looked that morning, and wondered if they would get married someday. Darlene Wood was beginning to get miffed because all the brothers had gotten rid of their slave names but Minister Fard hadn’t gotten around to the girls yet, so here she was, still Darlene Wood. Lily Hale was thinking almost entirely about the spit curl hairdo she had hidden up under her headscarf and how tonight she was going to stick her head out her bedroom window, pretending to check the weather, so that Lubbock T. Hass next door could see. Betty Smith was thinking,Praise Allah Praise Allah Praise Allah. Millie Little wanted gum.
While upstairs, her face hot from the air rushing out of the vent, Desdemona resisted this new twist in the story line. “Devils? All white people?” She snorted. She got up from the floor, dusting herself off. “Enough. I’m not going to listen to this crazy person anymore. I work. They pay me. That’s it.”
But the next morning, she was back at the temple. At one o’clock the voice began speaking, and again my grandmother paid attention:
“NOW LET US MAKE A PHYSIOLOGICAL COMPARISON BETWEEN THE WHITE RACE AND THE ORIGINAL PEOPLE. WHITE BONES, ANATOMICALLY SPEAKING, ARE MORE FRAGILE. WHITE BLOOD IS THINNER. WHITES POSSESS ROUGHLY ONE-THIRD THE PHYSICAL STRENGTH OF BLACKS. WHO CAN DENY THIS? WHAT DOES THE EVIDENCE OF YOUR OWN EYES SUGGEST?”
Desdemona argued with the voice. She ridiculed Fard’s pronouncements. But as the days passed, my grandmother found herself obediently spreading out silk before the heating vent to cushion her knees. She knelt forward, putting her ear to the grate, her forehead nearly touching the floor. “He’s just a charlatan,” she said. “Taking everyone’s money.” Still, she didn’t move. In a moment, the heating system rumbled with the latest revelations.
What was happening to Desdemona? Was she, always so receptive to a deep priestly voice, coming under the influence of Fard’s disembodied one? Or was she just, after ten years in the city, finally becoming a Detroiter, meaning that she saw everything in terms of black and white?
There’s one last possibility. Could it be that my grandmother’s sense of guilt, that sodden, malarial dread that swamped her insides almost seasonally—could this incurable virus have opened her up to Fard’s appeal? Plagued by a sense of sin, did she feel that Fard’s accusations had weight? Did she take his racial denunciations personally?
One night she asked Lefty, “Do you think anything is wrong with the children?”
“No. They’re fine.”
“How do you know?”
“Look at them.”
“What’s the matter with us? How could we do what we did?”
“Nothing’s the matter with us.”
“No, Lefty. We”—she started to cry—“we are not good people.”
“The children are fine. We’re happy. That’s all in the past now.”
But Desdemona threw herself onto the bed. “Why did I listen to you?” she sobbed. “Why didn’t I jump into the water like everybody else!”
My grandfather tried to embrace her, but she shrugged him off. “Don’t touch me!”
“Des, please . . .”
“I wish I had died in the fire! I swear to you! I wish I had died in Smyrna!”
She began to watch her children closely. So far, aside from one scare—at five, Milton had nearly died from a mastoid infection—they had both been healthy. When they cut themselves, their blood congealed. Milton got good marks at school, Zoë above average. But Desdemona wasn’t reassured by any of this. She kept waiting for something to happen, some disease, some abnormality, fearing that the punishment for her crime was going to be taken out in the most devastating way possible: not on her own soul but in the bodies of her children.
I can feel how the house changed in the months leading to 1933. A coldness passing through its root-beer-colored bricks, invading its rooms and blowing out the vigil light burning in the hall. A cold wind that fluttered the pages of Desdemona’s dream book, which she consulted for interpretations to increasingly nightmarish dreams. Dreams of the germs of infants bubbling, dividing. Of hideous creatures growing up from pale foam. Now she avoided all lovemaking, even in the summer, even after three glasses of wine on somebody’s name day. After a while, Lefty stopped persisting. My grandparents, once so inseparable, had drifted apart. When Desdemona went off to Temple No. 1 in the morning, Lefty was asleep, having kept the speakeasy open all night. He disappeared into the basement before she returned home.
Following this cold wind, which kept blowing through the Indian summer of 1932, I sail down the basement stairs to find my grandfather, one morning, counting money. Shut out of his wife’s affections, Lefty Stephanides concentrated on work. His business, however, had gone through some changes. Responding to the fall-off in customers at the speakeasy, my grandfather had diversified.
It is a Tuesday, just past eight o’clock. Desdemona has left for work. And in the front window, a hand is removing the icon of St. George from view. At the curb, an old Daimler pulls up. Lefty hurries outside and gets into the backseat.
My grandfather’s new business associates: in the front seat sits Mabel Reese, twenty-six years old, from Kentucky, face rouged, hair giving off a burnt smell from the morning’s curling iron. “Back in Paducah,” she is telling the driver, “there’s this deaf man who’s got a camera. He just goes up and down the river, taking pictures. He takes the darndest things.”
“So do I,” responds the driver. “But mine make money.” Maurice Plantagenet, his Kodak box camera sitting in the backseat beside Lefty, smiles at Mabel and drives out Jefferson Avenue. Plantagenet has found these pre-WPA years inimical to his artistic inclinations. As they head toward Belle Isle he delivers a disquisition on the history of photography, how Nicéphore Niepce invented it, and how Daguerre got all the credit. He describes the first photograph ever taken of a human being, a Paris street scene done with an exposure so long that none of the fast-moving pedestrians showed up except for a lone figure who had stopped to get his shoes shined. “I want to get in the history books myself. But I don’t think this is the right route, exactly.”
On Belle Isle, Plantagenet pilots the Daimler along Central Avenue. Instead of heading toward The Strand, however, he takes a small turnoff down a dirt road that dead-ends. He parks and they all get out. Plantagenet sets up his camera in favorable light, while Lefty attends to the automobile. With his handkerchief he polishes the spoked hubcaps and the headlamps; he kicks mud off the running board, cleans the windows and windshield. Plantagenet says, “The maestro is ready.”
Mabel Reese takes off her coat. Underneath she is wearing only a corset and garter belt. “Where do you want me?”
“Stretch out over the hood.”
“Yeah. Good. Face against the hood. Now spread your legs just a bit.”
“Yeah. Now turn your head and look back at the camera. Okay, smile. Like I’m your boyfriend.”
That was how it went every week. Plantagenet took the photographs. My grandfather provided the models. The girls weren’t hard to find. They came into the speakeasy every night. They needed money like everybody else. Plantagenet sold the photos to a distributor downtown and gave Lefty a percentage of the take. The formula was straightforward: women in lingerie lounging in cars. The scantily dressed girls curled up in the backseat, or bared breasts in the front, or fixed flat tires, bending way over. Usually there was one girl, but sometimes there were two. Plantagenet teased out all the harmonies, between a buttock’s curve and a fender’s, between corset and upholstery pleats, between garter belts and fan belts. It was my grandfather’s idea. Remembering his father’s old hidden treasure, “Sermin, Girl of the Pleasure Dome,” he’d had a vision for updating an old ideal. The days of the harem were over. Bring on the era of the backseat! Automobiles were the new pleasure domes. They turned the common man into a sultan of the open road. Plantagenet’s photographs suggested picnics in out-of-the-way places. The girls napped on running boards, or dipped to get a tire iron out of the trunk. In the middle of the Depression, when people had no money for food, men found money for Plantagenet’s auto-erotica. The photographs provided Lefty with a steady side income. He began to save money, in fact, which later brought about his next opportunity.
Every now and then at flea markets, or in the occasional photography book, I come across one of Plantagenet’s old pictures, usually erroneously ascribed to the twenties because of the Daimler. Sold during the Depression for a nickel, they now fetch upward of six hundred dollars. Plantagenet’s “artistic” work has all been forgotten, but his erotic studies of women and automobiles remain popular. He got into the history books on his day off, when he thought he was compromising himself. Going through the bins, I look at his women, their engineered hosiery, their uneven smiles. I gaze into those faces my grandfather gazed into, years ago, and I ask myself: Why did Lefty stop searching for his sister’s face and start searching for others, for blondes with thin lips, for gun molls with provocative rumps? Was his interest in these models merely pecuniary? Did the cold wind blowing through the house lead him to seek warmth in other places? Or had guilt begun to infect him, too, so that to distract himself from the thing he’d done he ended up with these Mabels and Lucies and Doloreses?
Unable to answer these questions, I return now to Temple No. 1, where new converts are consulting compasses. Tear-shaped, white with black numbers, the compasses have a drawing of the Kaaba stone at the center. Still hazy about the actual requirements of their new faith, these men pray at no prescribed times. But at least they’ve got these compasses, bought from the same good sister who sells the clothes. The men revolve, one step at a time, until compass needles point to 34, the number coding for Detroit. They consult the rim’s arrow to determine the direction of Mecca.
“LET US MOVE NOW TO CRANIOMETRY. WHAT IS CRANIOMETRY? IT IS THE SCIENTIFIC MEASUREMENT OF THE BRAIN, OF WHAT IS CALLED BY THE MEDICAL COMMUNITY &LSQUO;GRAY MATTER.&RSQUO; THE BRAIN OF THE AVERAGE WHITE MAN WEIGHS SIX OUNCES. THE BRAIN OF THE AVERAGE BLACK MAN WEIGHS SEVEN OUNCES AND ONE HALF.”Fard lacks the fire of a Baptist preacher, the deep-gut oratory, but to his audience of disaffected Christians (and one Orthodox believer) this turns out to be an advantage. They’re tired of the holy-rolling, the shouting and brow-mopping, the raspy breathing. They’re tired of slave religion, by which the White Man convinces the Black that servitude is holy.
“BUT THERE IS ONE THING AT WHICH THE WHITE RACE EXCELLED THE ORIGINAL PEOPLE. BY DESTINY, AND BY THEIR OWN GENETIC PROGRAMMING, THE WHITE RACE EXCELLED AT TRICKNOLOGY. DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU THIS? THIS IS WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW. THROUGH TRICKNOLOGY THE EUROPEANS BROUGHT THE ORIGINAL PEOPLE FROM MECCA AND OTHER PARTS OF EAST ASIA. IN 1555 A SLAVE TRADER NAMED JOHN HAWKINS BROUGHT THE FIRST MEMBERS OF THE TRIBE OF SHABAZZ TO THE SHORES OF THIS COUNTRY. 1555. THE NAME OF THE SHIP?JESUS . THIS IS IN THE HISTORY BOOKS. YOU CAN GO TO THE DETROIT PUBLIC LIBRARY AND LOOK THIS UP.
“WHAT HAPPENED TO THE FIRST GENERATION OF ORIGINAL PEOPLE IN AMERICA? THE WHITE MAN MURDERED THEM. THROUGH TRICKNOLOGY. HE MURDERED THEM SO THAT THEIR CHILDREN WOULD GROW UP WITH NO KNOWLEDGE OF THEIR OWN PEOPLE, OF WHERE THEY CAME FROM. THE DESCENDANTS OF THOSE CHILDREN, THE DESCENDANTS OF THOSE POOR ORPHANS—THAT IS WHO YOU ARE. YOU HERE IN THIS ROOM. AND ALL THE SO-CALLED NEGROES IN THE GHETTOS OF AMERICA. I HAVE COME HERE TO TELL YOU WHO YOU ARE. YOU ARE THE LOST MEMBERS OF THE TRIBE OF SHABAZZ.”
And riding through Black Bottom didn’t help. Desdemona realized now why there was so much trash in the streets: the city didn’t pick it up. White landlords let their apartment buildings fall into disrepair while they continued to raise the rents. One day Desdemona saw a white shop clerk refuse to take change from a Negro customer. “Just leave it on the counter,” she said.Didn’t want to touch the lady’s hand! And in those guilt-ridden days, her mind crammed with Fard’s theories, my grandmother started to see his point. There were blue- eyed devils all over town. The Greeks had an old saying, too: “Red beard and blue eyes portend the Devil.” My grandmother’s eyes were brown, but that didn’t make her feel any better. If anybody was a devil it was her. There was nothing she could do to change the way things were. But she could make sure that it didn’t happen again. She went to see Dr. Philobosian.
“That’s a very extreme measure, Desdemona,” the doctor told her.
“I want to make sure.”
“But you’re still a young woman.”
“No, Dr. Phil, I’m not,” my grandmother said in a weary voice. “I’m eighty-four hundred years old.”
On November 21, 1932, theDetroit Times ran the following headline: “Altar Scene of Human Sacrifice.” The story followed: “One hundred followers of a negro cult leader, who is held for human sacrifice on a crude altar in his home, were being rounded up today by police for questioning. The self-styled king of the Order of Islam is Robert Harris, 44, of 1429 Dubois Ave. The victim, whom he admits bludgeoning with a car axle and stabbing with a silver knife through the heart, was James J. Smith, 40, negro roomer in the Harris home.” This Harris, who came to be known as the “voodoo slayer,” had hung around Temple No. 1. Just possibly, he had read Fard’s “Lost Found Muslim Lessons No. 1 and 2,” including the passage:“ALL MUSLIMS WILL MURDER THE DEVIL BECAUSE THEY KNOW HE IS A SNAKE AND ALSO IF HE BE ALLOWED TO LIVE, HE WOULD STING SOMEONE ELSE.” Harris had then founded his own order. He had gone looking for a (white) devil but, finding one hard to come by in his neighborhood, had settled for a devil closer at hand.
Three days later, Fard was arrested. Under interrogation, he insisted that he had never commanded anyone to sacrifice a human being. He claimed that he was the “supreme being on earth.” (At least, that was what he said during his first interrogation. The second time he was arrested, months later, he “admitted,” according to the police, that the Nation of Islam was nothing but “a racket.” He had invented the prophecies and the cosmologies “to get all the money he could.”) Whatever the truth of the matter, the upshot was this: in exchange for having the charges dropped, Fard agreed to leave Detroit once and for all.
And so we come to May 1933. And to Desdemona, saying goodbye to the Muslim Girls Training and General Civilization Class. Head scarves frame faces streaked with tears. The girls file by, kissing Desdemona on both cheeks. (My grandmother will miss the girls. She has grown very fond of them.) “My mother used to tell me in bad times silkworms no can spin,” she says. “Make bad silk. Make bad cocoons.” The girls accept this truth and examine the newly hatched worms for signs of despair.
In the Silk Room, all the shelves are empty. Fard Muhammad has transferred power to a new leader. Brother Karriem, the former Elijah Poole, is now Elijah Muhammad, Supreme Minister of the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad has a different vision for the Nation’s economic future. From now on, it will be real estate, not clothing.
And now Desdemona is descending the stairs on her way out. She reaches the first floor and turns to look back at the lobby. For the first time ever, the Fruit of Islam do not guard the lobby entrance. The drapes hang open. Desdemona knows she should keep going out the back door, but she has nothing to lose now, and so ventures toward the front. She approaches the double doors and pushes her way into the sanctum sanctorum.
For the first fifteen seconds, she stands still, as her idea of the room switches places with reality. She had imagined a soaring dome, a richly colored Ezine carpet, but the room is just a simple auditorium. A small stage at one end, folding chairs stacked along the walls. She absorbs all this quietly. And then, once more, there is a voice:
On the empty stage, the Prophet, the Mahdi, Fard Muhammad, stands behind the podium. He is barely more than a silhouette, slender and elegant, wearing a fedora that shadows his face.
“You’re not supposed to be in here,” he says. “But I guess today it’s all right.”
Desdemona, her heart in her throat, manages to ask, “How you know my name?”
“Haven’t you heard? I know everything.”
Coming through the heating vent, Fard Muhammad’s deep voice had made her solar plexus vibrate. Now, closer up, it penetrates her entire body. The rumble spreads down her arms until her fingers are tingling.
This question rocks Desdemona back on her heels. She is speechless. She is thinking many things at once, first of all, how can Fard know her husband’s name, did she tell Sister Wanda? . . . and, second, if it’s true he knows everything, then the rest must be true, too, about the blue-eyed devils and the evil scientist and the Mother Plane from Japan that will come to destroy the world and take the Muslims away. Dread seizes her, while at the same time she is remembering something, asking where she has heard that voice before . . .
Now Fard Muhammad steps from behind the podium. He crosses the stage and descends to the main floor. He approaches Desdemona while continuing to display his omniscience.
“Still running the speakeasy? Those days are numbered. Lefty better find something else to do.” Fedora tilted to one side, suit neatly buttoned, face in shadow, the Mahdi approaches her. She wants to flee but cannot. “And how are the children?” Fard asks. “Milton must be what now, eight?”
He is only ten feet away. As Desdemona’s heart madly thumps, Fard Muhammad removes his hat to reveal his face. And the Prophet smiles.
Surely you’ve guessed by now. That’s right: Jimmy Zizmo.
She stares, wide-eyed. “We thought you died, Jimmy! In the car. In the lake.”
“But you are Jimmy.” Having said this, Desdemona becomes aware of the repercussions and begins to scold. “Why you leave your wife and child? What’s the matter with you?”
“My only responsibility is to my people.”
“What people? Themavros ?”
“The Original People.” She cannot tell if he is serious or not.
“Why you don’t like white people? Why you call them devils?”
“Look at the evidence. This city. This country. Don’t you agree?”
“Every place has devils.”
“That house on Hurlbut, especially.”
There is a pause, after which Desdemona cautiously asks, “How you mean?”
Fard, or Zizmo, is smiling again. “Much that is hidden has been revealed to me.”
“What is hidden?”
“My so-called wife Sourmelina is a woman of, let us say, unnatural appetites. And you and Lefty? Do you think you fooled me?”
“Don’t call me that. That isn’t my name.”
“What you mean? You are my brother-in-law.”
“You don’t know me!” he shouts. “You never knew me!” Then, composing himself: “You never knew who I was or where I came from.” With that, the Mahdi walks past my grandmother, through the lobby and double doors, and out of our lives.
This last part Desdemona didn’t see. But it’s well documented. First, Fard Muhammad shook hands with the Fruit of Islam. The young men fought back tears as he said farewell. He then moved through the crowd outside Temple No. 1 to his Chrysler coupe parked at the curb. He stepped up on the running board. Afterward, every single person would insist that the Mahdi had maintained personal eye contact the entire time. Women were openly weeping now, pleading for him not to go. Fard Muhammad removed his hat and held it to his chest. He looked down kindly and said, “Don’t worry. I am with you.” He raised the hat in a gesture that took in the entire neighborhood, the ghetto with its shantytown porches, unpaved streets, and disconsolate laundry. “I will be back to you in the near future to lead you out of this hell.” Then Fard Muhammad got into the Chrysler, turned the ignition, and with a final, reassuring smile, motored away.
Fard Muhammad was never seen again in Detroit. He went into occultation like the Twelfth Imam of the Shiites. One report places him on an ocean liner bound for London in 1934. According to the Chicago newspapers in 1959, W. D. Fard was a “Turkish-born Nazi agent” and ended up working for Hitler in World War II. A conspiracy theory holds that the police or the FBI were involved in his death. It’s anybody’s guess. Fard Muhammad, my maternal grandfather, returned to the nowhere from which he’d come.
As for Desdemona, her meeting with Fard may have contributed to the drastic decision she made around the same time. Not long after the Prophet’s disappearance, my grandmother underwent a fairly novel medical procedure. A surgeon made two incisions below her navel. Stretching open the tissue and muscle to expose the circuitry of the fallopian tubes, he tied each in a bow, and there were no more children.