This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1997, Volume 14, Number 1, pages 161. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.
Book Review - Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam.
Sonsyrea Tate. Harper San Francisco, San Francisco, 1997, 230 pages.
Sonsyrea Tate, an award-winning journalist, chronicles her childhood growing up in the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam was very active in the 1960s and 1970s in America and brought us such familiar figures as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Although Tate doesn't seem to be in the circuit of informed ex-cult members, she nonetheless details the various aspects of the group in her narration, where one can quite easily identify Robert Lifton's eight criteria for thought reform.
Tate's account begins in 1969, when she is 3 years old and already at school, mouthing words she doesn't understand. She describes the separate schools the children attended, and the indoctrination techniques. School was all memorization, where no questions were allowed; the teachers ruled by fear and were strict disciplinarians. Followers were taught that lack of discipline was one of the problems with their downtrodden race. (From Tate's description, they had no idea of the gains that Black Americans were making during the same era.)
Tate's book also becomes an interesting account of reverse racism. Elijah Muhammad, the Nation's self-appointed prophet, taught that White men are the enemy and the devil. Followers had to submit to body searches before Temple services (because the devil was always trying to sneak in), and were taught that America is the most vile and wicked nation on earth (p. 30). They were being trained to rule the world, believing that all people of color are good, and Blacks the very best.
When Tate was 9 years old, Elijah Muhammad died; his son took over the leadership of the Nation and instituted many changes. For one, the Muslim schools closed, causing Tate to go to public schools. For the first time, she was around White people and people of different faiths, and for the first time, some of her ideas were being challenged. As a teenager, Tate began to question the Nation's sexism and hypocrisy; she began to pull away from some of the teachings. She resented how differently her brother was treated. She began to see how unhappy the women were and witnessed her own mother begin to question the Nation's teachings and lean toward Orthodox Islam, which much of the rest of her family followed. One of her aunts, for example, describes her time in the Nation as her "coffin years" (p. 183).
Throughout, Tate writes with the freshness of the child she was, bewildered by so many things she had to accept as fact and truth. She looks back and examines the ideas and people that shaped her with the perspective of an adult who has removed herself from a controlling environment. She writes with great fondness and honesty about various family members and their individual searches for truth and spirituality.
While the publisher classifies this book as African-American Studies, and for some people it might describe an "interesting" time in American Black history, I find it a more important study of one child's experience growing up in a high-control group. Although Tate never says outright, AI grew up in a cult," she certainly implies it and at one point calls the Nation a "militant, cultlike institution" (p. 104). Yet, she never analyzes the experience in a greater context, leaving a reader familiar with cults somewhat frustrated.
Former cult member
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1997