Issue 60 Containers Winter 2015–2016

Poor, Righteous Teachers

Matthew Spellberg

I know a man who believes he is God. I met him in a prison where I was teaching, and I saw, on his own terms, what it meant for his face to become the Face of God. To him, this occurrence was as common as the dawn. “At the end of the day,” he explained to me once with a shrug, “everyone’s the Face of God.” And yet when it first happened, it came to me as a great surprise—in retrospect, the way that certain elemental rhythms of nature, the rising of sun and moon, the materialization of the stars, though long familiar, can steal upon us unawares in an early sunrise or sudden nightfall, the ambush serving to restore our sense of their beauty, and extend the inner horizon of expectation.

* * *

When it began, four students were sitting with me at desks pushed together in a prison classroom. K. had turned to S., the student sitting next to him, and said, “What’s today’s math?” And S. had laughed a little ruefully in response and answered, “Man, I don’t want kids.” I didn’t give this non sequitur much thought, assuming, without even being fully conscious of my assumption, that it was a joke I had missed or wasn’t supposed to understand.

A conversation started about books, and religion. Another student, W., said he’d been reading Left Behind, the Christian novel about imminent Armageddon. He announced that he had liked it and added, in a slightly sententious voice, that it had brought him closer to God.

The three other students in the class—besides S. and K. there was only R.—burst out laughing, and W. began smiling too.

The teacher in me felt a twinge of panic. “Why are you laughing?” I asked.

“Sometimes you just got to,” someone said.

I pressed them, fearful that an unseemly hostility toward W.’s religious beliefs was behind this behavior. Strangely benevolent smiles parried my questions.

Finally W. spoke up, with a certain weariness: “They’re laughing because I’m stupid,” he said.

“You’re not stupid,” I said reflexively.

He looked at me with disappointment.

“I don’t mean stupid like that,” he continued, “I mean goofy.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“We know,” said R. with a big grin.

Under normal circumstances I would have dropped the conversation and gone on with the lesson, but something about its character had taken me aback—the gentleness of it, and the tranquil ease with which the students had awakened in me, intentionally it seemed, a sense of mystery and suspense. So I asked again for an explanation. I was told you needed to have Knowledge, but the meaning of that familiar word eluded me. Then K., normally quite taciturn, began to recite a poem. In retrospect, its content seems nearly meaningless without its enunciation, rather in the way a river and its current cannot be separated without both ceasing to exist. The poem and its astonishing, coincident recitation, the river and its cleaving current, had the same effect on the other students as on me: “Ask him,” meaning K., they said, after a moment of silence.

I did, and the poem could be said to have begun again, though this time as a conversation in which K. led the others—and me, fumbling behind in last place—on a parade of questions, propositions, and contestations, so that it was at once an expansive performance and a carefully planned lesson. I can only paraphrase what seemed to be materializing everywhere at once, and yet in sequence:

Knowledge led to Wisdom, which led to Understanding. It’s all math, the numbers don’t lie. What numbers? The numbers which are right and exact. There are ten numbers in the Supreme Mathematics. Which numbers? 0, the Cipher, and 1, the Knowledge, which is also the Sun, and also Man. 2 is Wisdom, and the Moon and the Earth, and Woman; and 3 is Understanding, the Stars, and the Child. And the coupling of the Sun and the Earth produces the Stars, like Allah’s drop of semen that created the world, so making the Child, and so, too, just as 1 and 2 make 3, so do Knowledge and Wisdom together make Understanding.

4 is Culture and Freedom; 5 is Power and Refinement; 6 is Equality; 7 is God, or GOD, that is, G.O.D., namely Good Orderly Direction, or God Cipher Divine. 8 is Build and Destroy, and 9 is Born, which like the diatonic scale and the ouroboros brings us back to birth, the beginning, the 0 of the Cipher, which is also C.I.P.H.E.R., or See, I Power He or Her, and since the circle is traced both ways, also His or Her Power I See, so that each source of power recognizes the flame in every other. And the numbers are everywhere, including the days of the month, so that because that particular day on which we were talking was the third, and 3 is Understanding and the Child, S. had replied to K.’s earlier question about the day’s math with, “Man, I don’t want to have kids.” (Had it been the 13th, then 1-3 would have been under discussion, and so therefore: Knowledge-Understanding, Sun-Stars, Man-Child.)

And this belonged, all of it, to the Knowledge, the Know-Ledge, know the ledge on which you stand. A simple enough injunction, it might seem, but in fact beyond most of us. Eighty-five percent of the world, I learned, is ignorant of Knowledge, and exploited as a result. Ten percent, meanwhile is enlightened but uses its Knowledge to enslave the 85 percent. Only the remaining 5 percent are the true sages, the poor, righteous teachers who use their enlightenment to lead others out from the darkness. What does this mean, bring others out from the darkness? To show them, first off, that there is no Mystery God in the Sky, and there is no Mystery Devil beneath the Earth—that these are merely tools for keeping men in chains, as the fate of the Blackman in the Wilderness of North America, twice enslaved by government and church, has shown. You must create the world for yourself, as it is said God did; heaven is no higher than your head, hell is no lower than your feet. Allah is really A.L.L.A.H., Arm-Leg-Leg-Arm-Head, the human body with all limbs extended in Vitruvian perfection. Islam is no longer, as it once was in Arabic, “submission,” but rather I.S.L.A.M., that is to say, I Self Lord And Master.1

In stark contrast to all this, there was W. reading and enjoying Left Behind, still imprisoned by the idea of the Mystery God planted long ago in his head by the 10 percent. W., apparently untroubled by this assessment, smiled and nodded. It had taken nearly an hour to unravel why they had been laughing at him.

Question: Where did this Knowledge appear? Where had it come from? Answer: Books, or people, or pages, from yesterday and from long ago. There was some Knowledge that happened to be in R.’s pocket, a piece of paper with typed text on it that appeared to be the last in a lengthy sequence of photocopies, each luminous capture the midwife to the miraculous self-begetting, if also continuous self-diluting, of the now-ancient and perhaps mythic original. The text, which the students asked me to read aloud, told the story of the Cigarette Dudes, well-dressed, well-educated black men with handsome watch chains and long cigarillos and a fine liberated swagger who held court in the rural train stations of the postbellum South to help their illiterate brothers and sisters decipher the deceitful sharecropping contracts that would have indentured them, in all but name, to the bondage they had so briefly escaped.

But who, and where, and how? Just ask. Were there priests? No. Leaders? No. A founder? Yes, and his name was Clarence 13X. He was a member of the Nation of Islam but he left and he was murdered, possibly by the federal government. His followers were sometimes called Godbodies because they were, like him, A.L.L.A.H., Arm-Leg-Leg-Arm-Head. That is, they are Gods, divinity incarnate.

Were any of them in this room Godbodies? They laughed and said in prison you can’t say you are or they’ll lock you up in the psych ward. Oh yeah, added R., they put you in a thin gown with your ass hanging out. He got out of his seat and stuck his ass in the air to emphasize the point, which seemed important to him: no drawers, no shoes, only socks in the psych ward he explained, with an exaggerated smile. The lack of pants seemed the most fearful detail, but also the funniest, and everyone laughed. A further explanation quickly sobered us all: if you say you’re God, they put you in lockup right quick.

* * *

K. was God, the Allah that was Arm-Leg-Leg-Arm-Head, and the other students in my class, though still agnostic, seemed to bathe in his divinity, which was exigent without being binding, and they were free to kindle it in themselves or not. After all, only God can subdue God, and if anyone can be God, then there is no use in trying to force him to be this or that—for who can bind God like Prometheus on his rock but God himself? K. was what is sometimes called a Five Percenter, for he is one of the 5 percent who are poor, righteous teachers; and he is a member of what is also sometimes called the Nation of Gods and Earths.

He might be said to belong to a religion, except that Five Percenters reject the term, associating it with the exploitation of the poor through the fiction of the Mystery God. It might be said to be a philosophy, a culture, a practice. In their own language, so elaborate and all-embracing that any attempt to paraphrase one aspect will have to be done with recourse to another, they are a civilizing institution through which Gods gain Knowledge of Self. To allow men and women to civilize themselves after having been lost in the wilderness is central to their project, and no small reason why they are often found in prisons.2

The Five Percenters are a late-blooming branch on a stalk of black spiritualism at least one hundred years old, maybe older. In the era of Du Bois and Garvey, new religious movements arose in the industrial cities of the North, struggling with the legacy of slavery and feeding on that mysticism of America rising which came to permeate the late nineteenth century. Manifest Destiny, having exhausted the landmass, turned its attentions toward intangible landscapes of mind and culture in an imperial commingling of science and faith—America imagined as innovator, light-bringer, redemptor, oppressor, and snake oil salesman—that produced spirit mediums and experimental physics, Harry Houdini and William James, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Christian Science and Theosophy.

Into this milieu came the Moorish Science Temple, founded by Noble Drew Ali in 1913 in Newark, New Jersey. (Ali renamed it “New Ark,” inaugurating a long tradition of black religious renaming of the landscape.)3 Ali taught that the black man was not a Negro, but rather an “Asiatic,” a Moor from Morocco and ultimately from the East, carrying the same blood as Jesus and the prophets. His followers wore fezzes like the Shriners and considered themselves Muslims, although they had almost no contact with Eastern Islam.

The language and aspirations of this faith, with its affection for the East and its hope that outside of Christianity a messianic spirituality might be found not inimical to the needs of the American black community, seemed everywhere in the air during the years of the Great Migration. Such sentiments crystallized into yet another religion in Detroit in the early 1930s when a mysterious man named W. D. Fard appeared selling oriental rugs to black families recently arrived from the South. In the living rooms where he showed his wares, he also began to preach a new doctrine about blackness to African Americans, whom he collectively called his “Uncle, the Lost-Found Nation of Islam,” also known as the “Blackman settled in the Wilderness of North America.” Fard taught that “the original man is the Asiatic Black man; the Maker; the Owner; the Cream of the planet Earth—Father of Civilization, God of the Universe.” In contrast, “the Colored man is the Caucasian (white man). Or, Yacub’s grafted Devil—the Skunk of the planet Earth.” The Blackman was the generative force of the entire species, and it was the white man who was his colored inferior (and this while Jim Crow was reaching its zenith, and long before the scientific community had accepted the theory that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa).

But these doctrinal statements are not the whole of the matter: Fard was concerned with black uplift and hard work, with casting off the remnants of slavery and the mentality that went with it, with control over diet and physical exercise. He preached the importance of mathematics as discipline for the mind, and taught his disciples that they should memorize key figures about the population and size of the earth: the square miles of arable land, the diameter of the planet, the ratio of water to land.

Fard disappeared in 1934. (J. Edgar Hoover tried to find him, and couldn’t.) He was succeeded, after a power struggle, by Elijah Poole, who became the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, leader of a newly militant Nation of Islam. Muhammad taught that Fard was Allah himself, and that he, Elijah, was Allah’s appointed messenger. Under his custodianship, the Nation became an institution, with an institution’s structures and dogmas. There was a complex mythology, according to which blacks had built a magnificent civilization thousands of years ago in the holy city of Mecca. And there had arisen in Mecca a jealous and evil scientist named Yacub who, banished from the city, went to the isle of Patmos and, through a brutal eugenics program, created the white man, a devil who would overspread the world with barbarity. To protect against this devil and his legacy of “tricknology,” Elijah Muhammad’s temples in Detroit, Chicago, and elsewhere developed cultures of powerful discipline: Nation of Islam members abstained from drugs and alcohol; they dressed modestly and began to favor the famous bow tie; they studied Fard’s meditative mathematics and his Lost-Found Lessons. The strong men among them joined the Fruit of Islam and became the Nation’s warriors, studying judo and keeping order at rallies. Converts dropped their last names, inherited from their great-grandparents’ masters, and took X instead, to remind everyone that in leaving Africa they’d lost their real names, and that placeholders would suffice until they would one day be recovered.4 The religion was heavily focused on the here and now and not the hereafter. There is no heaven higher than your head, preached Elijah Muhammad, no hell lower than your feet.

In the early sixties, the Nation flourished, nowhere more so than in Harlem, where Temple Number 7’s minister Malcolm X preached to the world. His congregation attracted, among thousands of others, a Korean war veteran named Clarence Smith, who took the name Clarence 13X. But from early on, Clarence seems to have been displeased with some of the religion’s orthodox principles, especially the worship of Fard as Allah. How could an absent founder be worshipped as God if there is no heaven above our heads, no hell beneath our feet?5 He also seems to have indulged in gambling, drugs, alcohol, and extramarital sex, all of which were prohibited by the Nation. He left the Nation, or was thrown out, in 1963, very close to the time when Malcolm X broke with Elijah Muhammad.

Clarence 13X was a charismatic man, and the lost boys of the uptown streets were quickly drawn to him. He began to preach a doctrine of righteousness and self-realization. He told them to abstain from pork, and learn the Nation’s catechistic Lessons. In reading holy scripture, Clarence had a prophetic passion for the literal: when he read in Fard’s testament that the “Asiatic Blackman” is the “God of the Universe,” he understood it to mean that every black man is God. This had nothing to do with magic or miracles, but it meant that the black man was, in the largest possible sense, the author of his own existence. By 1964, Clarence had begun to call himself Allah and his followers the Five Percent Nation. Before long, he had become a presence in Harlem, which he renamed Mecca. (Like Noble Drew Ali, he put new names on the land wherever he went.)

Allah and his friend Shahid (later Abu Shahid) developed the Supreme Mathematics—the Cipher, the Sun, the Moon, the Stars and Child, 0 to 9—and the Supreme Alphabet, a similar code for all of the letters, which could be used to spell out further words and encode new meanings into language. They organized Parliaments in which Five Percenters could build together, that is, practice the exegesis and elaboration of these codes through conversation.

The Five Percenters were suspected by the FBI of stirring racial violence, but the truth was that in the wake of Malcolm X’s assassination in February 1965, all of New York was on a knife’s edge. Allah himself was arrested in June 1965 on assault charges after a tense and confused night in Harlem. After several months in custody, he was sent upstate to the asylum for the criminally insane at Matteawan. (He thought he was God, the evaluators pointed out.) During this time the New York press regularly ran alarmist articles calling the Five Percenters a hate group and a terrorist organization.

But how cruel to judge preemptively the politics of a movement based in spiritual life! When he left the asylum in 1967, Allah the Father, as he came to be known, was courted by Mayor John Lindsay’s administration as part of a campaign to build bridges to the city’s poorest and angriest neighborhoods. The man thought by the FBI and police to command an army of black supremacists turned out mostly to want support for educational programming. “I’m neither pro-black, nor anti-white,” he told Barry Gottehrer, the mayor’s representative in poor neighborhoods, who came to consider Allah his close friend and ally.6 New York City helped the Five Percenters open a storefront school to offer instruction to young black men and women. (Now known as the Allah School in Mecca, it still exists, and it is still leased from the city on favorable terms.) The mayor’s office sent young Five Percenters on field trips to Long Island and on novelty airplane rides. Allah encouraged young Five Percenters to go to college, and several were ready to matriculate by the late sixties. On the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in April of 1968, Mayor Lindsay walked through Harlem alongside Allah and other community leaders, calling for calm and peace. This presence on the ground, and the peacekeeping efforts of Five Percenters that night, is credited with having saved New York from the terrible riots that razed Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, DC.

Gottehrer and many others wept the night Allah was mysteriously killed, only fourteen months after King. John Lindsay went to the Allah School to pay his respects, and more than four hundred people were at the funeral. In the months before his death, Allah had made a crucial final addition to his legacy: he told the Five Percenters that no single leader should succeed him, that every God had to show and prove for himself. Allah B, who knew the Father and had first carried his message from Harlem to the Bronx, recalled him once saying: “If I say I’m your leader, then you got to be my follower. But the only way to follow in my footsteps is to lead yourself.”

* * *

More than forty years after Allah’s death, K. found the Five Percenters in prison. He had grown up in an army family, on bases in the United States and Germany. Early on, he was surrounded by ambitious older kids, many of them the children of his parents’ army colleagues. These kids played sports, excelled in school, and had big plans; K. admired them with that particular admiration of children for their barely-elders. But they moved on to college and jobs, and K. began, as he explained to me, to run with people his own age—a euphemism for joining the Bloods. He doesn’t dwell much on the two years he spent in the gang. It ended swiftly and badly, with a conviction for a serious crime and a twenty-five- to thirty-year sentence before he was even eighteen. While in the county jail, he turned to religion. At first he converted to Sunni Islam. He was particularly touched by the Hadith that tells of a man who kills one hundred of his fellow men and sets out to repent, but dies before he can bring his atonement to completion. The angels of mercy and the angels of torment both claim his soul, but the merciful ones argue that he has walked far enough along the path of righteousness to be forgiven, and he is saved.

Still in jail, K. met an older man named Osiris who had come from New York. He would ask K. curious questions: did he know the day’s math, did he have the Knowledge? Then another man, who called himself Victorious, appeared and began to initiate the curious K. into the Mathematics. His study of the Knowledge of Self, as it is sometimes called, led him to see threads leading everywhere: to the Koran, to the Bible, to casual things people said. He told his mother he had become interested in the Five Percenters, and when she wanted to know more, he put Victorious on the phone to explain it to her.

* * *

In the prison where K. is now incarcerated, the Five Percenters are officially forbidden on the grounds that they constitute a gang. This is in keeping with their public reputation, which, insofar as it exists at all, tends to associate them with racism and extreme violence.7 Judges and correctional officials have long disapproved of the Five Percenter doctrine of black exceptionalism, and of the fact that Five Percenters resist calling what they do religion. And yet the Nation of Islam, in which many of those doctrines originated, can practice freely, and constitutional protections apply to many groups unaffiliated with a religion. Allah B explained to me that only in the states of New York and Massachusetts can Five Percenters practice openly in prisons.8 Elsewhere, absurdities abound: the Five Percenters are an incorporated 501(c)3 nonprofit in New York state offering, among other things, prisoner outreach programs, but in Virginia prisons they are a gang; a member of the Nation of Islam may have a copy of the Nation’s Lessons—known collectively as the 120 Degrees—but a Five Percenter carrying one is in possession of gang paraphernalia and may be sent to solitary confinement. It’s true that the Five Percent movement was born in a violent place and time, and violence of every kind continues, in certain places though not others, to trouble its community. But to disqualify Gods and Earths from constitutional protections because of this would be a hypocrisy remedied only by the subsequent disqualification of the entire human race from believing in the divine by virtue of its long record of violence and evil.

On the matter of what it is, exactly, that Five Percenters believe about race or almost anything else, no complete answer can be given. But there is an ethical charge to this very fact. Allah wanted no priests or politicians to enslave his divinities. There is no binding dogma; every God builds from the Mathematics for himself. And so for some, the doctrine of race and the language of struggle are all-important and literal; for others, they are symbolic, and the blackness of Gods is transracial, all-embracing of the human family. The beliefs vary from Parliament to Parliament, and from person to person.9 K. and his friends in prison, for example, had never said anything about race directly to me, his white composition teacher, perhaps, I thought, to spare my feelings. But when I asked him about it later, he said, “Some people say Five Percenters are about race. But really we’re about being righteous.”

It is the doing, it seems to me, as much as or more than the believing, that constitutes the essential nature of this way of life, and it was the doing, in that classroom, that had so astonished me with its transfiguring power. When K. builds, he is someone new. Normally slow to speak, he becomes ecstatic. His eyes are fixed and he pours forth words in a quiet voice, just barely moving his lips so as not to hinder the emergent and fast-moving stream of language. When his best friend and spiritual brother M. joins him, it’s like watching travelers in the desert drink from an oasis. They thirst for the sense-making power of the Mathematics. M. explained to me: “Once you give something meaning—an act which only a sentient being can do—you enter into a relation of responsibility with it, for now it lies within your power to build it up or destroy it, to make it a meaningful or meaningless thing.”

The Five Percenters possess a brilliantly condensed vocabulary with which to inquire into the nature of being, knowledge, and righteousness. This vocabulary can be learned in a matter of days (Allah was sometimes known to induce righteousness in mere moments) and immediately put to use, even under conditions of terrible poverty, duress, and unfreedom. “Allah invented this for boys from the hood,” M. reminded me. “When were they going to have time to think about Information Theory?”

The wordplay, the compacting of meanings into meanings, the fusion of scientific and spiritual language, the invitation to make your own reality by learning how to talk brilliantly and densely—these at once decenter, and also elevate. To build is to alter the state of the self through the ecstasy of conversation, to partake of a Sufism where the whirling is not whirling but talking. No surprise then that so many New York hip-hop artists—Brand Nubian, Wu-Tang Clan, PRT, Busta Rhymes—were immersed in the words and deeds of the Five Percent.10 No surprise that in America’s prisons, where more than two million people now suffer a condition very close to social death, this philosophy resonates, for it allows men and women, with the use of mere letters and numbers, to awaken a sense of their own divinity, and enter into a meaningful relation with the cosmos.

By his own account (and who can truly speak of God but God himself?), K. has undergone a great transformation, and as a sign of its completion, he has given himself a Righteous Name. Renaming, such a profound part of African American spirituality, is alive and well among Five Percenters, so that you find in their ranks men who bear long names like Born Justice Allah or I Scientific Ruler God Allah which encode a complex, quasi-heraldic symbolism. Since he has gained Knowledge of Self, K. is no longer K. His name, which he asked me to use here, is Mental Victory: mental victory over despair, over nightmares, over violence, over the oppression—internal as well as external—that Five Percenters call devilishment. Mental Victory read many drafts of this essay, making sparing but precise notes, so that there would be nothing that was not, in his eyes, right and exact. “End it with Peace,” he wrote on one draft, “that would be a good ending. P.E.A.C.E. Proper. Education. Always. Causes. Elevation.”

  1. Later I also heard it expressed “I Self Lord Am Master.”
  2. Very little has been written about Five Percenters outside of their own community. Michael Muhammad Knight has written The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip Hop and the Gods of New York (Oxford: Oneworld, 2007), from which I learned a great deal. He is also the author of a personal memoir on how he, a white convert to Islam, came to identify with the Five Percenters titled Why I Am a Five Percenter (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2011). He also graciously spoke to me while I was preparing this essay. Five Percenters themselves write prolifically on their beliefs, and I’ve especially benefited from a book recommended by K. called Knowledge of Self: A Collection of Wisdom on the Science of Everything in Life (Atlanta: Supreme Design Publishing, 2009), edited by Supreme Understanding Allah, Sunez Allah, and C’BS Alife Allah. I’m also extremely grateful to Allah B and the Allah School in Mecca—the Five Percenter school and cultural foundation in Harlem—for rich conversations about the history and philosophy of the Five Percent.
  3. Though the tradition of renaming persons is a long one in African American culture. See, for example, Kimberly W. Benston, “‘I Yam What I Yam:’ Naming and Unnaming in Afro-American Literature,” Black American Literature Forum, vol. 16, no. 1 (Spring 1982), pp. 3–11.
  4. “The Muslim’s ‘X’ symbolized the true African family name that he never could know. For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears. The receipt of my ‘X’ meant that forever after in the nation of Islam, I would be known as Malcolm X. Mr. Muhammad taught that we would keep this ‘X’ until God Himself returned and gave us a Holy Name from His own mouth.” Malcolm X with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: One World, 1965), p. 229.
  5. Others claim it was W. D. Fard’s mysterious ethnicity—was he from Africa or the East, black or half-black?—that made Clarence feel uneasy about the Nation’s interpretation of its own doctrine.
  6. The Mayor’s Man (New York: Doubleday, 1975), Gottehrer’s memoir of his time as John Lindsay’s assistant and chairman of the city’s Urban Task Force, contains many loving descriptions of Allah, including a remarkable first meeting between Gottehrer, Allah, and Allah’s associate, then calling himself Jesus. Brave Gottehrer, a Jew willing to drink at the Glamour Inn on 127th Street with Jesus and Allah! The book itself is dedicated to Allah’s memory. John Lindsay was also appreciative. A photograph of Allah and the mayor used to hang in the Allah School; it was signed, “To Allah, thanks a lot, John V. Lindsay.”
  7. Anecdotal evidence and guilt by association are usually produced to justify the claim that they are a criminal enterprise. In an important decision for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, Samuel Alito notes a number of incidents in which a single Five Percenter (not acting in the name of the movement) committed an act of violence; he even calls a Five Percenter hunger strike an “incident of prison violence.” In the same list of alleged violent activities, Alito writes: “In May 1996, approximately 50 to 60 inmates belonging to the Five Percent Nation or a rival gang [my italics] conducted an unauthorized meeting during evening recreation.” To his dissenting colleagues’ assertion that any of these incidents are without explanatory value unless accompanied by statistical comparison to other groups in the prison, Alito responds that the effort to gather such data would be simply too great a burden on correctional officials. See Fraise v. Terhune, 283 F.3d 506; 2002 US App; available at <>. For another case that makes use of the same data—primarily one correctional official’s anecdotal summation, known as the Holvey Report—to reach the same conclusions, see Infinite Allah v. The Commonwealth of Virginia, 2014 US Dist. (WD Va., 28 April 2014); available at <>. My thanks to Allah B for pointing me to these cases.
  8. In Massachusetts, the Nation of Gods and Earths was added to the Department of Correction’s Religious Services Handbook in 2007, though the designation of “Strategic Threat Group” was not officially lifted until 2011, and certain restrictions on their practices continue to apply. See, for example, the court’s opinion in the motion McGee v. O’Brien 2016 US Dist. (D Mass., 5 February, 2016). The key case against the New York State Department of Correctional Services is Marria v. Broaddus. Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald’s opinion is a decisive commonsensical defense of the First Amendment rights of Five Percenters. She judges Five Percenters eligible for religious protection on the grounds of William James’s powerful and compassionate definition of religious experience, far more capacious than any organized religion might provide for: “The feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” See Marria v. Broaddus 2003 US Dist. (SD NY, 31 July 2003); available at <>.
  9. Michael Muhammad Knight explained to me, for example, that one group of Five Percenters in Milwaukee has given up much of the racial doctrine and believes whites can be Gods, while another group in the same city remains more orthodox.
  10. The Five Percenters play a major and legendary role in the birth of hip-hop, so much so that there is even an academic study of their influence on the musical form. Written by Felicia M. Miyakwa, it’s called Five Percenter Rap: God Hop’s Message, and Black Muslim Mission (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005).

Matthew Spellberg is a writer and scholar living in New York City. He is finishing a book on solitude and the imagination.

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