Killing The Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist
by Thomas Peele
The Crown Publishing Group
441 pages, $26
Review by Jess Mowry for The Columbia Journalism Review March/April 2012
It’s often said that the devil is in the details. For example, it’s often the small things that become the most important in making a legal case. Most experienced writers would agree that this concept also applies to their profession: the tiniest details can make or break a story. This may tempt authors into emphasizing or embellishing details that seem to reinforce a theme; to present the facts in a way that fits the frame.
One may receive impressions of this in the first forty pages of Killing The Messenger, Thomas Peele’s new book about ideology, murder, and journalism, set primarily in Oakland, California. For instance, one may wonder why the author, who in the first paragraph of the introduction states, “Oakland was little more than a place I passed through to get anywhere,” should choose to inform the reader of gritty little details such as Oakland’s Lake Merritt “had been created from a drained swamp in the 1860s,” or at low tide the area where the lake drains into the San Francisco Bay (actually the Oakland Estuary) “reeked of rotting mussels ripped open by hungry gulls.”
He might have said that Lake Merritt is the largest saltwater lake located within an urban area and is quite picturesque. And what could be more natural than seagulls feeding on mussels? But of course he was trying for gritty atmosphere; just as one could add grit to San Francisco’s image by mentioning that much of the riprap around its Aquatic Park is composed of old tombstones leftover when the city moved most of its graveyards to Colma in the early twentieth century.
Likewise, the author repeatedly describes the neighborhood around the (former) Your Black Muslim Bakery on San Pablo Avenue, home base for the semi-legit organization that this book is about, as being the “North Oakland ghetto.” Having frequented this bakery for fish sandwiches, as well as still passing through the neighborhood at least once a week, this reviewer can attest that while it’s not one of Oakland’s upscale communities, it’s far from being a ghetto. Nor did this reviewer ever find the bakery’s visible staff anything less than pleasant, neat, clean, and physically undamaged -- particularly in regard to ostensibly battered females -- or observe the “compound” being guarded by “thugs in bow ties” or “the frenzied pit bull and mastiffs,” (one may wonder what was frenzying them) though that would have certainly been wise at night, and many businesses take similar precautions.
None of which is to say that this reviewer admired the Black Muslims or agreed with their doctrine -- though the sandwiches were killer -- but rather to note that superfluous details, especially when one already has an ironclad case, may undermine credibility. For example, when the author describes the kitchen of Your Black Muslim Bakery as housing “steaming industrial ovens, assault rifles leaning against them, spent cartridges and banana clips scattered on the rat shit-flecked kitchen floor,” readers may wonder why there was (apparently) shooting going on among baking buns, and/or why Black Muslims were (again, apparently) exempt from State Health Department inspections. Just as an experienced pilot noting technical errors or inaccurate descriptions might doubt an author’s qualifications to write about airplanes, so, too, many readers who have experienced inner city life, if not actually in Oakland, may begin to distrust the author.
Earning readers’ trust is especially important when an author is writing about black people, who are so accustomed to being misrepresented and negatively portrayed that many automatically distrust or outrightly dismiss anything written about them, especially by a non-black author. It is therefore unfortunate that the first three chapters of Killing The Messenger appear, at least to this Oakland-based reviewer, as if Peele was trying too hard to set his stage and included a few doubtful props.
While Part One of this book, opening with the August 2, 2007 gangstuh-style murder of Chauncey Bailey, an Oakland Post editor who was working on a story about Your Black Muslim Bakery, may abound with gritty descriptions of thugs, thuggery, and Dashiell Hammett meets Boyz n the Hood atmosphere, one quickly forgives Peele when he settles down to solid journalistic writing, especially since Peele was a principal in the Chauncey Bailey Project, an ad hoc group of journalists dedicated to reporting the circumstances of Bailey’s death. But, though the hook is the murder of Bailey, an undistinguished journalist whose article, Peele notes, would probably not have been very good, Bailey is actually a very minor character. The real story is about the Black Muslims, and particularly the Oakland-based Bey family. For decades, Peele reports, the Beys used their health food bakery as a front for criminal activity, operating largely untouched by police. (The bakery’s founder, Yusuf Ali Bey, actually ran for mayor of Oakland in 1994.) It was only when the erratic, overmatched Yusuf Bey IV assumed control in 2005 that everything began to crumble.
With exceptions noted and forgiven, Killing The Messenger is a very well written and thoroughly researched book; this becoming apparent as one gets deeper into it. Like James A. Michener, when Thomas Peele writes on a subject he begins at the roots, in this case a man named Wallace Dodd Ford, aka Walli Dodd Fard (and many other akas), who filled out a draft card on June 5, 1917 stating his birthplace as Shinka, Afghanistan, his birth date as February 26, 1893, and his race as “Caus” (presumably an abbreviation of Caucasian)... ironic, since he was the co-founder of what would become the Black Muslim faith, after teaming up with a spiritual charlatan who styled himself Noble Drew Ali from Morocco, though reputedly born Timothy Drew in North Carolina, USA. (It should also be understood, as Peele makes clear, that the Black Muslim “faith” is Islamic in name only, just as the Ku Klux Klan bills itself as a Christian organization.)
The book, backed up by 74 pages of acknowledgments, notes, and bibliography, traces the history not only of the faith itself -- which was based upon the same kind of “Tricknology," a term coined by its founders to describe the deceptions, misinformation and outright lies foisted upon black people by whites to keep them confused and disunited -- but also the individual histories of the principal men involved. Unlike the Black Panther Party, which had its roots in Oakland and was for the most part purely political, the Black Muslims cloaked their militancy in pseudo-religion, encouraging violence not only in their brainwashed believers but also providing a justification to those who simply wanted to hate and act out their hatred by killing.
Peele brings vital historical context to the contemporary aspects of his tale: the establishment of the Bey family in Oakland, the rise and fall of the Your Black Muslim Bakery Reich, and the eventual murder of Chauncey Bailey; a foolish, arrogant, and typically thuggish act, which, rather than removing a perceived threat to the organization, actually brought it down.
As with virtually all the dramatis personae in this book, including Elijah Poole (later to become Elijah Muhammad) and Yusuf Bey IV, the young high-priest of Your Black Muslim Bakery and supreme commander of its less-healthy sidelines, Peele offers detailed studies of their origins and backgrounds, often not without sympathy in regard to conditions, environment, and events in their lives which may have contributed to what they became. For example, we learn the life history of Devaughndre Monique Broussard, who would become Bey’s hit-man for Chauncey Bailey’s murder; an all-too typical story of a young black man raised in a soul-crushing environment of poverty, drugs, and violence in Richmond, California who wasn’t strong enough to somehow rise above it or see though that kind of Tricknology.
As Peele acknowledges, though most of these men had seedy backgrounds, it was pretty difficult for any black man, especially during the first half of the twentieth century, to be squeaky-clean in regard to white laws, morals, and values. Peele’s extensive research about the horrific oppression of black people in the U.S., not only during the early but though most of the twentieth century, serves well to explain part of Killing The Messenger’s subtitle: Racism’s Backlash, the backlash being the rise of an organization claiming to be a religious faith professing hate toward white people.
But, Peele is not hesitant to give white devils their due, whether brutal and murderous police, racist politicians, journalists or officials, or discriminatory government, city, or business policies. He describes several attacks by police upon Black Muslims in various cities that ended in outright murder of black men, the officers involved invariably cleared of any wrongdoing, just as, in the recent past, police in the Bay Area have gotten away with the murders of black men with excuses that would be laughable had they not left someone dead. Hardly a wonder that, then as now, certain young black men would be attracted to an ideology that encouraged them to fight back.
Throughout the book’s 350 pages, Peele presents detailed accounts of how various individuals became involved with and/or ensnared by the Black Muslim movement; some idealistically, many -- especially young black men intellectually stunted by the U.S. public education system and emotionally scarred by the US judicial and prison systems -- because it offered opportunities no one else seemed willing to offer. Broussard, for example, a once-promising student who lost his way, is Peele’s Exhibit A: an impressionable youth who was lured by the financial and emotional shelter the Beys provided.
Did anything positive come out of this? While Peele seems a bit cloudy on this point, he also appears to imply there did. Though he may have somewhat embellished the grit and grimness of Oakland, he also seems to acknowledge the thousands of young black men taken in off the streets or when fresh out of prison who would have likely been behind bars -- or behind bars again -- had they not been offered productive jobs and educated in matters of self-worth, physical and mental discipline, and personal integrity, and who may well have gone on to live better lives by using these teachings as a basis to self-educate and think for themselves. In other words, Peele seems to realize there are shades of grey in everything—no absolute evils, no untarnished goods, and few saints or devils without their own motives.
Killing The Messenger may well be the best, most thoroughly researched, and -- with exceptions noted -- most objective of any book thus far written on this subject, and is no doubt destined to become required reading in many colleges and universities. Hopefully it will also be read in prisons to educate young black men that Tricknology comes in all colors. If the devil is indeed in the details, Peele has given us many demons to exorcise.
Song For A Summer Night
by Mark Dennis
Kindle Book $4.99
Review by Jess Mowry for Amazon
In the Acknowledgments of Song For A Summer Night, author Mark Dennis credits philosophers and writers Sohren Kierkegaard, Sun Tzu, Friedrich Nietzsche and James Joyce for inspiration, "all of whom I quoted or paraphrased liberally with the hope and understanding that certain people would recognize and appreciate their application." However, after spending a few pleasant hours reading this book (on a hot summer evening) my impressions tended toward authors like Kenneth Grahame, A.A. Miline, Lewis Carroll, and even Thorne Smith.
Song For A Summer Night is a young teen's book in the classic tradition where a boy -- in this case twelve-year-old Peter Phye -- on the verge of manhood, or at least what most civilized cultures now call adolescence, is granted the power to converse with animals and nature for a short time and embarks upon a difficult and sometimes dangerous quest. In this story, Peter Phye's mission for the Queen Of The Night is to bring back the songs of nature which have mysteriously disappeared.
The setting is also classic, a rural, or at least still mostly wild suburban, environment of shadowy woods, sunny meadows, leafy glades, a pond, a graveyard, and a field with an old abandoned car, all vividly described; the heat of August afternoons, the coolness of mornings and late at night, the clinging damp of a sweaty T-shirt, the rasp of stickers (or "pickers") on bare arms and legs, the sting and itch of mosquito bites, and the razor-like rake of cat claws. There are villains and friends, human, animal, insect and supernatural; hip-hop blue jays, a gangster raccoon, and devious, drunken bugaboos. Peter has real-world problems, too; an alcoholic mother and a workaholic dad. He also feels the impending ordeal of adolescence... caught hugging his pillow one night.
As with most really good books for kids, Song For A Summer Night will also appeal to adults who haven't forgotten the trials, fears, both real and imaginary, and the simple pleasures of being a kid and living in the moment. It's been too long since I read a book like this.
Rule Of The Bone
By Russell Banks
HarperCollins. 390 pp. $22.
A Runaway Tale
Review by Jess Mowry for The Nation June 12, 1995
It seems inevitable that any book written about a young male struggling to come of age will be compared to either The Catcher In The Rye, Huckleberry Finn or both. Often the comparison is derogatory, maintaining that the experience, wisdom and basic decency of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield should remain the bibles for kids of all succeeding ages. This is a nice thought, because both these young men in their times were warriors on walkabout, discovering the world and themselves, though the sad truth is that neither Huck nor Holden would survive twenty-four hours homeless in most American cities today. Nevertheless, there have been and will continue to be contemporary, informed and socially-committed coming-of-age tales that will inspire hope and good in all youth. Most of the best succeed on their own without nods or winks at either Salinger or Twain, but in Rule Of The Bone, a new novel by Russell Banks, there's a lot more than winking; more like desperate pleas for help from an author who's bitten off more than he can chew... or expect his readers to swallow.
Rule Of The Bone, the press release touts, "is about a homeless, drug-abusing youth living on the edge of society... written in the voice of a street-smart teen that rings utterly true." In reality, the book reads more like the summer afternoon dope-dream of a middle-class suburbanite 9th grader sprawled on his bed with bong in hand and an old Rush album on the stereo. There are many elements of "Adventure Classics" here but unfortunately they're jumbled together like The Hobbit gets Kidnapped by Peter Pan on Treasure Island, meets the (Rastafarian) Swiss Family Robinson and becomes a Stranger in a Strange Land.
The tale is told first-person by Chappie (Chapman), a 14-year-old "homeless" boy from upstate New York, and this style is strike one against the book. (Strike two is that the book begins, unabashedly, exactly the way Catcher does.) This type of narrative is hard enough for many writers to pull off, but complications really arise when your narrator happens to be a seventh-grade dropout who's been stoned "most of his life" and who throughout the whole book is either high, getting high, about to get high, or scheming about how to get high. Yet the reader is relentlessly force-fed the paradox of this (presumably) uneducated and perpetually stoned kid possessing a vocabulary most English professors would envy (not a fight but a "fray," for example, and occasional parenthetical phrases such as "so to speak"). Aside from the fact that this narration wears fast, the reader still might be willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a socially responsible work of fiction -- or even a high-caliber coming-of-age fantasy -- but in Rule Of The Bone one gets neither.
The story opens in the small New York town of Au Sable, with Chappie "heavy into weed" and looking for something to steal from his parents to maintain his habit. It may puzzle the reader why Chappie disses his parents, as both mother and stepfather seem at this point to be rather ordinary, if slightly shopworn, working-class people. For all we know, their sin may lie in simply being too busy paying bills and keeping a roof over their heads to give Chappie all the attention he deserves... or demands. Chappie is already messed up at school and basically living with a friend at a bikers' crash, but he’s not really "homeless" until he gets caught stealing antique coins from his mother and then is busted for boosting a woman's nightgown from the mall. (If the reader wonders why a 14-year-old boy wants a negligee, don't expect any clues from the author.) Even then he's not actually kicked out by his parents, who only seem to want him to stop smoking dope and go back to school, but walks of his own accord.
Anyhow, if you find yourself confused about Chappie's attitude toward his parents, you'll stay that way for almost 200 pages until, in what was probably intended as a shocker but seems more like an afterthought, you're treated to a flashback of the stepfather masturbating in bed beside a younger Chappie after molesting him... assuming that wouldn’t be a continuation of molestation. And that's most of the sex in this tale, folks. In fact, Chappie seems to have little interest in sex or members of the opposite, much less that of a fully functional str8 teenage boy.
Anyway, in the first part of the book readers find themselves wandering in a sort of stoned-out Catcher VR game, as "homeless" Chappie is shunted by the author through various contrived adventures. All this reviewer can say is that if this is supposed to represent accurately the life of a "homeless kid," he knows a lot of real homeless kids who would give all their spare change to be in Chappie’s place. Chappie is never actually hungry, cold, out on the street, or in any particular prolonged discomfort or danger. He never has to compromise his principles... even though we’re not sure what those are. In fact, life in general seems to be one big free lunch for our hero... if one doesn't object to a little petty theft, grand-theft auto, drug-dealing and burglary, all of which seem treated as boyish pranks by the author instead of actual crimes. This may of course have something to do with Chappie being white, because for most black kids -- assuming they even could wander freely in upstate New York -- they'd count as strikes one, two and three.
Even when actually threatened with bodily harm or something unpleasant -- and by the most cardboard of villains since the film, Home Alone -- Chappie talks his way clear with the ease of a French diplomat. (Readers will find that most adults in this book can be talked into or out of just about anything by stoned 14-year-olds.) All the while gentle readers are desperately searching for something to like about Chappie before the author boots him into the next contrived episode. And, the only thing there's more of in this book than contrivance is coincidence, and there's more contrived coincidence than in your average Dickens novel.
Oh yeah, Chappie gets a tat of crossed bones sans skull and becomes, ta-da, "Bone."
Now we switch to the Huck Finn channel, and even Bone's narration increasingly embraces Twainisms such as "suchlike." Bone's Nigger Jim appears in the incarnation of I-Man, a 50-year-old Rastafarian who lives in an abandoned bus. (It is perhaps unfortunate that this reviewer happens to be a 35-year-old semi-Rastafarian who has lived in an abandoned bus.) Not to worry though, Mr. Banks knows as much about Rastafarians as he does about homeless kids. Bone and I-Man do their obligatory raft scene while never leaving home in the dysfunctional bus; growing organic veggies for Ital cooking and of course staying stoned. I-Man, who seemingly has no sex urges either (normal or otherwise) becomes Bone's spiritual role-model. After a minor plot point is conveniently disposed of; the questionable "rescue" of a little girl named Froggy from a possible "pervert" named Buster Brown -- names which would usually only be familiar to the early Baby Boom generation -- Bone and I-Man shove off for Jamaica.
By now the reader should be beyond questioning such minor inconveniences to the plot as Customs, passport-control and suchlike. After all, with silver-tongued Bone teamed with the Magic Rastamon, anything is possible.
Once in Jamaica, Bone begins his spiritual quest a la Carlos Castaneda with an Ital flavor and Bob Marley beat. It's all too predictable that he'll have a mystical experience and learn on the astral what black folks have known on the physical plane for more than a few generations: that being black in this world can be considerably less pleasant than a cruise on the Love Boat. Bone also (coincidentally) meets his real father, but if you've made it this far no coincidence is going to surprise you. Bone’s dad is a sort of a swingin' Doctor Schweitzer whose big-house and life-style seem to advocate the concept that rich white folks can help the economy of a poor black country by turning its people into servants, drug dealers, pimps, meatboys and whores. There's a lot of implied sex happening here, all of it presumably unprotected... hardly street-smart these days, and rather irresponsible if one were to pass moral judgment rather than simply question verisimilitude. After I-Man is caught (and betrayed) by Bone having sex with (technically) Bone's stepmother -- a betrayal that will later bring about I-Man's death -- Bone spends some time at the Root, growing ganja with the Maroons in the Blue Mountains.
After I-Man is murdered (we assume on contract by Bone's dad) Bone in a fizzle of passion finally has sex (unprotected) with (technically) his stepmother. I suppose this symbolizes the closing of some sort of circle since his stepfather (technically) had sex with him. It's interesting that though Bone has been running around in dreds and loincloth, no doubt surrounded by nubile native girls his own age, his first-time choice is a middle-aged white woman.
This more or less completes Bone's coming-of-age adventure. Takes a lot to bring a kid to maturity these days, as Bone can be credited indirectly with causing at least four deaths. The last we see of our boy he's gazing at the stars aboard a boat on his way back to the States and ruminating on all he's learned in this story... which seems to be a little of everything except how to be a decent, responsible human being.