Archive for December 13th, 2010

December 13, 2010

Nations of Gods & Earths

by Sara Gran

(Occasional rambling non-scholarly thoughts on nonmainstream religions/belief systems/spiritual traditions/schools of spiritual science that interest me)

Growing up in Brooklyn, I was fascinated (and still am) by the spiritual movement called Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE), known colloquially as Five Percenters, or, along with the Nation of Islam and other groups, just plain old “black muslims,” an innaccurate but functional nickname (there are many Muslims in Africa and of African descent in the diaspora who practice so many different forms of Islam as to render the term useless, but it’s stuck, at least in New York City). The NGE was born out of the Nation of Islam, which was born itself from the  Moorish Science Temple. The MST has a really interesting history: according to one story, Noble Drew Ali, the founder of the religion and a stage magician, received Egyptian Mysteries in a pyramid at Giza. According to other stories, he blended together elements if Islam, freemasonry, and other religions to found the first MST church in New Jersey in the teens or twenties, which later moved the Chicago and then spread through African-American communities throughout the country, but faded to a few small outposts by the thirties (and still exists, on a small scale). I’m not at all clear on what the original MST actually believed, but out of this brilliant experiment were born both the Nation of Islam and the tiny but important and influential Moorish Orthodox Church, a kind of counter-culture semi-religion that I’ve never actually met a member of. And out of the Nation of Islam, famous over the years for transforming into a political movement with a conformist, neo-militaristc stance, came the Nation of Gods and Earths, a creative flowering of inspiration that (from the outside, at least) has little resemblance to the NOI.

If you’ve heard, in rap music or real life, people use terms like “dropping science” or “dropping knowledge,” you have heard the influence of the NGE. References to “the Asiatic black man” or to “elevate” by spreading knowledge are also NGE inspired. Like many schools of yoga, Judaism, or Buddhism, NGE folks believe that they have access to knowledge which tells the real story of –well, just about everything. There is an NGE school of numerology called Supreme Mathematics and an NGE method  of gematria (the Kabbalistic science

of linking letters to numbers and doing the math to find hidden meanings in language–a kind of deconstructionist math). Numerology is one reason why NGE members often have uniquely-spelled names (for example,  singer Erykah Badu). Many NGE members eat a vegan and/or raw diet–among many other forces they have played a role in the spread of veganism and an awareness of alternative health practices within black community (interestingly, I’ve read that a higher percentage of African American people are vegetarian/vegan than white people, which jibes with my experience although I can’t remember the source ). And although they are clear on their believe that the Black man and woman are the original man and woman on this earth, I have never known this movement to espouse anti-white or anti-jewish views. My impression is they’re more about being pro-the-things-they-like than anti-the-things-they-don’t-like, which may seem like a simple distinction but is actually, I think, profound.  According to one website: “Allah’s Nation, The Nation of Gods and Earths, is NOT A HATE GROUP, GANG, OR RELIGION. We are NOT ANTI-WHITE OR PRO BLACK, we are ANTI-DEVILISHMENT AND PRO-RIGHTEOUSNESS. We recognize the the OPPORTUNITY AND CHANCE of everyone from the Human Families of the Planet Earth to make a positive contribution to CIVILIZATION regardless of their ethnicity.”

The NGE has no leader, as far as I know. Their beliefs often remind me of some of the schools of yoga I’ve studied–for example, that everything is to be sacred and bears spiritual significance, from clothing to food to thoughts. Another similarity is the belief (if I understand correctly), that all knowledge is within, and through study of the self you can learn the truth of reality–in yoga this is called svadhyaya.

The Five Percenters are referred to as such because they believe that 85% of humanity sleepwalks through life and doesn’t know the truth, 10% do know the truth but will try to hide it for selfish aims, and only 5% will both know the truth and disseminate this knowledge. Unfortunately, that sounds about right to me. But I do believe we can do much better in years to come.

A photo of the 1928 Moorish Science Temple Con...

Image via Wikipedia

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December 13, 2010

perfect strangeness

by Megan Abbott

Sara has been recommending the fiction of Charles Portis to me for some time and, in anticipation of the new Coen Brothers’ adaptation, I just read True Grit, his 1968 novel, which became the Glen Campbell–and yes, John Wayne for whom I have unguarded cinematic affection–movie in 1969.

Oh, what a thrill to read. Do you ever read something and suddenly see the DNA of 50 novels you’ve read over the years, suddenly understanding those novels would not be possible without this book you’ve finally read? Suddenly, beloved authors such as George Pelecanos, Tom Franklin and Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone in such perfect lineage) seem all the richer to me.

I think Sara told me The Dog of the South is her favorite Portis novel, and Scott P. just recommended Masters of Atlantis to me. I only wish there were more.

True Grit is a first-person reminiscence: Mattie Ross recalls, much later in life, the winter of 1873, when, as a fourteen-year-old from Yell County, Arkansas, she hunted down her father’s killer, calling on the occasionally dubious help of a hardboiled U.S. marshal, Rooster Cogurn, and a dashing Texas Ranger. Like most books, it’s a tale of a journey, and wily and determined Matty takes a rough one, her eyes forced open to all the hardness (and much of the beauty) of the world.

I can speak only for True Grit, but it has the thing I most love in a book: a contagion quality, where the language (both filled with formal antiquities and gorgeous slang), signifiers (the “corn dodgers” they eat), the parade of self-pitying and/or melancholic “hard men” Mattie faces, the mythic qualities of the journey…well, they all paint a wholly different world that you enter on the first page and never really leave.

A favorite moment, which also shows the abundant humor in the book too:

Rooster talked all night. I would doze off and wake up and he would still be talking. Some of his stories had too  many people in them and were hard to follow but they helped to pass the house and took my mind off the cold. I did not give credence to everything he said. He said he knew a woman in Sedalia, Missouri, who had stepped on a needle as a girl and nine years later the needle worked out of the thigh of her third child. He said it puzzled the doctors.

Here’s a great piece by Ed Park in The Believer about Portis. Noting the special quality that Portis’s sporadic literary output (and removal from the publishing world) imparts upon his books, he uses a phrase that seems about as perfect as any I can imagine: “a shimmering coat of perfect strangeness.”