Features — 11 May 2019
On becoming a Muslim – The UBAD period

To understand how I came to be a part of UBAD and later join the Nation of Islam, you would have to go back four years earlier to 1965 and the Watts Riots of Los Angeles.  The Watts Riot was my first wake-up call to the fact that there was another way, a revolutionary way, to approach to the Civil Rights Movement which up to that time had been confined to sit-ins, stand-ins, strikes, boycotts and marches. The urban riots marked a new turn in the civil rights movement of the sixties and served as a radicalizing point for many young urban blacks in the States, including myself.

During that time the Black Student Unions (BSU) at various universities and colleges were fighting for the radicalization of the university system and making demands for “black studies and reduced restrictions on entrance requirements for black and Chicano students”. The BSU was also doing outreach work in poor and disenfranchised communities with groups like the Back Panther Party (BPP). It was through these community outreach programs that I learned about the idea of the Breakfast Program and the Liberation Classes which were successful programs promoted by the BPP in California, New York and Chicago.

I was involved in the many debates on campus at the university surrounding blackness, and who was blackest. I was already having problems with the false dichotomy between the black cultural nationalists and the black revolutionary. On the surface this was an argument about the afro, dashiki and ‘Black is Beautiful’; the popular song, “I’m Black and I’m Proud”, was like a black national anthem back then, but deeper down there were those on the other side who wanted to take the struggle to another level. They were not interested in “dress” as much as they were in a struggle to change the system of oppression.  Each group had their heroes and their ideological position to which they gravitated. At that point in my development I gravitated to the outlook of Malcolm X, with a mixture of Che.

In the sixties there were three vantage points in the spectrum of the African American freedom movement: the cultural nationalist movement, the revolutionary movement and the civil rights movement.  The cultural nationalist movement was represented by people like Ron Karinga and before him, Imamu Baraka (Leroy Jones). They both advocated a kind of cultural break with the dominant Euro/American system and the establishment of a new, entirely re-created black system of values based on the antecedents of the African historical experience. They emphasized blackness in everything: knowing black, loving black, living black, managing black, etc.

The revolutionary movement was represented by groups like the Black Panther Party and the Republic of New Africa. This movement was represented by voices like Malcolm X, Harvey P. Newton, and Stokely Carmichael and at the core they were all influenced by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. They took a confrontational position and would use the principles of the US Constitution on rights and liberty, and the right to bear arms, to justify their militant position. They advocated a learned ideology and practiced a ‘nation within a nation’ concept.

Then there was the civil rights movement represented by the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), whose tradition was one of calling on white America to respect its black citizens and grant them their rights by changing the laws and enforcing them to give blacks equal opportunities. Their method was peaceful, non-violent, and primarily involved civil-disobedience.

As a member of the Black Students Union at San Francisco City College and later the University of California in Santa Barbara, by 1968 I had already reached a point where I was ready for some action. I knew that many were saying ‘black is beautiful’, with only their lips and they had no knowledge or moral basis to set those words into action, so they were just blowing hot breeze. At that point I was ready for something more serious than talking. I had two choices in front of me: join the Nation, which at that time, because of the influence of the autobiography of Malcolm X, had inspired me to see the relevance of a structured, organizational approach to addressing the problems faced by black people. Besides, I had some good friends at the university who were practicing members of the Nation of Islam and their clean, disciplined and focused living also inspired and attracted me. But my other choice was to return to Belize and start organizing. And so, this was what I decided to do.

In the summer of 1969 my friend Mike Allen had just bought a Willys Jeep — just the thing for a journey through Mexico to Belize. The year before the two of us roughed it through Mexico to Belize, by bus.

In 1969, Belize was in a politically dormant period, that is, there were no outstanding issues of public debate and what was there was what had been there for years before: the awesome control of George Price and the PUP over all areas of development in Belize. Nowhere was this more blatant than in the one national radio station, Radio Belize, which was a government arm for controlling information to the population. Belize was a place blazing with many important issues about people’s rights and participation, but to have experienced Belize in 1969, you would have had a hard time making people excited about any of the social conditions. Generally, people were not much concerned and the only issue that seemed to excite and galvanize people was the fear of a Guatemalan invasion.

When I got home in July 1969 I met Brother ____ Faber who told me about a group named UBAD recently formed to advance the cause of black people. The following day he returned with Brother Shabazz; we sat on my aunt’s verandah and talked for hours. I was especially drawn to Brother Shabazz because he was a follower of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad and I shared with him my personal struggle in deciding if I would join. Of course, Shabazz encouraged me to take that step, but I wasn’t ready yet.

When I began dialogue with the brothers from UBAD my ideas on the way forward were already fixed. I was not guessing, nor was I searching for a way since I had already reached the conclusion that social action was the only way forward. My experience back in the States had cautioned me against too much reliance on talk as the basis for the revolutionary movement. I had been convinced, through experience, that talk was empty unless carried into some form of social action that benefited the community.

So when I had meetings with Evan and the brothers, my major contribution was in the areas of ideas that would advance the cause by action. One such suggestion was to do a breakfast program. Having experienced a similar program in California, sponsored by the Black Panther Party, I proposed that UBAD set up a feeding program for children in the mornings before they went to school. The idea was unanimously accepted.

I was given responsibility to coordinate the program with assistance from Eleanor Gill, Lillette Barkley, Penny Cassasola, Jeff Scott, Odinga Lumumba, Lionel (“Back-a- town Blues”) Matthews and Charles Stamp.

Our first task was to find the place to feed the children. We first approached the then Minister of Social, the Hon. Hector Silva. There was a building in the Prisoner Creek area which the Social controlled that we felt could be used. The minister was sympathetic, but he couldn’t get Cabinet approval, which prevented him from giving us the go-ahead. It was decided that the breakfast would be served from the UBAD headquarters, on Hydes Lane.

Donations were sought from the larger merchants like Brodies, Gomez, Castillo, and others. The sisters were the main drive behind the program. They arrived early in the mornings and cooked up a healthy breakfast and served it to over 60 children who were brought to the headquarters to eat. These children had to be served by turns because the place was so small. Jeff Scott, Charles Stamp, Odinga Lumumba, and I helped with serving the kids who came in hungry and ready for a hearty breakfast. This would become Belize’s first free breakfast program for school children, started by youths of UBAD in 1969.

At first I used Mike’s Willys Jeep to pick up the kids around the city. The jeep became a courier moving kids to and from the headquarters every morning for breakfast. We were catering to over sixty to eighty kids every morning, so the jeep was very useful, since it saved the expense of transportation to the whole program.

At first I was driving the jeep every morning until the hand of the government stepped in. I was pulled into the police station one morning and asked for insurance for the vehicle, in my name, and since it was not in my name but Mike Allen’s, I was forbidden from driving the vehicle. Clearly this was a ploy on the part of the government to stop the breakfast program.

What happened at the Queen Street Police Station that morning is important because it was also the first arrest of a UBADer. In retrospect, I can say I was arrogant and confrontational with the police that morning, I felt they were agents of a state government attempting to stop a genuine program to help the people; I was disgusted and agitated. So in the exchange with the police, I insisted that I had been driving the vehicle around Belize City since my arrival in the country and there was never a problem, so why now? In the excited exchange between myself and the officers they informed me that my name was not on the insurance as required, and just then, I blurted out “why the f… didn’t you say that before?” The words didn’t leave my lips fully before the Sergeant behind the desk jumped up and tapped me on the shoulder, saying, “I arrest you in the name of Her Majesty”. I’m not sure who was with me that morning I was arrested, but it would either be Charles Stamp or Lionel (Blues) Matthews, since both would accompany me on the early morning run to pick up the kids, so when I was pulled into the station that morning one or both may have been there. Once I was arrested and taken into custody everything changed.

By that time the word had traveled and other brothers and sisters arrived. Among them, were Sisters Lillette and Eleanor. These sisters worked out my bail. I still don’t know what they did; I think I may have had my head too high in the clouds, playing the martyr role, to know really what was taking place, but before I knew it, I was free, and given a court date.

Days later, I appeared before Magistrate Leopold Balderamos, in his court on Church Street, across the street from the Government Printers. I was charged with “Use of Obscene Language”. A simple and minor charge, but to UBADers it was the arm of harassment from a government who wanted to put UBAD “in its place”. The small court room was packed with supporters, and though I was found guilty and fined twenty five dollars, I walked out of that court feeling victorious; after all, the state had acted to stop a genuine people’s movement.

It was at that point that Mike Allen decided that he would pick up the kids in the morning, since I was prohibited by law from driving. And what a spectacle that was! A long-haired, hippie-looking guy, driving a jeep, full of shouting black kids, through the streets of Belize City, early every morning. It was a sight to see. Mike grew to love it. Even now, decades later, when we talk, Mike remembers this period as a life-changing experience for him. This move would prove to be historical for Mike Allen, since it placed him in direct confrontations with the government of the day, who had decided that the “Breakfast Program” was an embarrassment to the government of Belize. It had exposed the poverty that existed in Belize City, at a time when the government was officially saying that things were not that bad. This embarrassment caused anger and resentment on the part of the PUP government. As a result, plans were hatched to arrest Mike and escort him back across the Mexican border, with a persona-non-grata stamp in his passport. By this move, the government took away the main asset of the program, a vehicle that carried the children from different parts of the city every morning.

When Mike was arrested, he did not know what hit him. He was relaxing that afternoon on the verandah at my Aunt Estella’s house, at the corner of George and King Streets, when Corporal Gideon and his goon squad appeared at the house, ordering him to, “Pack up your clothes, you are leaving”. Naturally he panicked, as did my aunt, whose blood pressure shot up. Police at your house was major scandal in those days.

Mike was driven to the Santa Elena border in northern Corozal by Corporal Gideon and his squad. He was put across the border in an official way. Mike drove to Chetumal and made contact with me in Belize City. As far as I was concerned, this was a continuation of the government’s steps to crush the program and was to be expected. At a house party that same night or the night after, Ray Lightburn, who at the time was an operative for the Hon. CLB Rogers, Minister of Home Affairs, came up to me and said “you’re next”. I took this threat seriously because I saw what just happened to Mike.

As a group, UBAD was intent on keeping the program going despite the government’s effort to crush it.  It was decided that we would get taxi drivers sympathetic to the program to assist in the transportation.  This didn’t last long, since the taxis could only carry four or six at a time while the Willys could carry twelve or thirteen, sometimes, fifteen. After a short time the Breakfast Program came to an end.

Another idea I brought to the process at the time was the Liberation Classes. Again, this idea had its roots in my Panthers/Black Student Union experience, as well as the popular education ideas of Mau and Che.  The basic idea was that the real revolution could not be realized without the masses having a basic understanding of the process of how we got to where we were and what we had to do to correct the situation we found ourselves in.  These classes were more a discussion forum with various speakers rather than a formal academic setting with one lecturer. Brother Lumumba and Karlie Menzies, Jr. were very active in these sessions which sometimes became very heated but always with a positive learning experience for all. These classes were short-lived but it did have a number of vibrant and dynamic sessions which included youths like Dynes Barrow, Harry Pilgrim, Philip Lewis and many others who went on to make a significant contribution to Belize’s development. I understand that Norman Fairweather made an effort to continue these classes after my early departure.

The next contribution came with the name of the newspaper that was later to become the leading newspaper in the country. Amandala is actually an aberration of the word, A’mandla, a slogan still popular in South Africa as a reminder that, “all power belongs to the people”. How I ended up with Amandala came from my BSU experience at the university. “A-man-da-la”. This was a major cry of students in those days, especially to accentuate at the end of speeches or protest marches. “Amandala” became the call of all revolutionaries in the sixties; not only was it a call of  fraternity with the South African struggle against apartheid, but it was a call that summed up what black youths all over the world were calling for: power to the people.

The brothers were looking for a name to call the newspaper and a number of suggestions came up, among them “Amandala”, and it was “Amandala” that eventually became the choice. It was kind of natural that “Amandala” would become the name of the group’s organ since “Amandala” was the term that the group popularized to embody its core value: power to the people. Amandala was an initial challenge to the status quo because it reversed the whole paradigm from power to the few, to power to the people.

I did not stay with the UBAD movement very long, from early July to the end of September. But those three months were very meaningful and eventful and in reflection, seem to have been a longer time period. For example, I remember the night  Evan and myself marched in front of a large crowd of youths to the police station to make demands, and the calm and confident composure of the then Commissioner of Police, Mr. Adolphus, and the way he handled a very volatile situation. There was so much that took place in such a short period that it seemed like a much longer time period.

 Really what was going on was my continuing search to find the best way to advance the struggle, of black people. My experience in UBAD was a continuation of that search to find the” proper fit for struggle.” The US experience had convinced me that the methodology in the black revolutionary organizations of the US offered no real alternative for what I was searching for. My whole reason for coming back to Belize in 1969 was to break out of that US paradigm. In my mind I thought Belize was to be a different future, but what I found were elements of the same problem (lack of real alternatives), that I saw in the States.

The UBAD experience was a new and a different set of circumstances, but at the root I found the same shallowness that I experienced in the States. Maybe by that time I was looking for something deeper than the talk of revolution. I had passed the rhetoric stage and was looking for “walking the walk”. My soul was yearning for more, something deeper, but what I continued to experience was this shallow, afro-dashiki-sandals version of blackness. Nobody seemed to want to go deeper than James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud”. So I found myself continuing my search for that deeper conception of the revolution, something spiritual. I must have appeared pensive and somehow withdrawn to many of the brothers in those last days before I left, but I was experiencing a transformation or a metamorphosis: I was gradually moving from talking the talk, to walking the walk. I was moving to the Nation of Islam.

By the time I left Belize City in late September to meet Mike Allen in Chetumal, I had already made up my mind that I would join the Nation of Islam upon my return to the States. I felt that I had given the alternatives a chance and it all came back to that discipline factor that the NOI offered.

What I saw in my youthful exuberance at age twenty one, was that I needed to join the NOI, and qualify myself as a Minister of this Message, and return to Belize to build a truly revolutionary movement. This was my first impulse for joining the NOI. I truly felt at the time that what was missing from the other movements was the discipline and upward nation-building structure which the NOI offered, a structure that was built on family, brotherhood, industry, education, and trade. The NOI offered all this. Belize was a new nation, not even independent yet, and needed young dynamic participants in the process who were imbued with the vision and retained the discipline to make Belize a new and progressive nation. I saw the NOI as a great training environment for nation builders.

So when I returned to the States I had one objective: join the NOI. I first returned to the University and continued classes as normal but as remarked earlier, my focus was not on academic achievement, I was focused on Belize and what training I had to receive to take this powerful message of the Nation back to Belize. I renewed my contacts with the Muslim brothers in the university community who had initially introduced me to concepts of the NOI. It was not long before I was attending the Wednesday, Friday and Sunday meetings at the Temple in Santa Barbara and eventually identifying with the teachings of the NOI.

I left the university in the next semester and moved to Oakland to participate in the opening of a new Temple in an area deep in the black ghetto of Oakland, California. I was excited by this mission of starting a Temple from scratch, since I reasoned that it would give me the experience of what it requires to establish a Temple in Belize from scratch.

That experience in Oakland was an excellent training ground and served as a rite of passage for me from boyhood to manhood. The many things I experienced in Oakland have served as a reality check for me about the human situation. Oakland brought me out of the clouds of idealism and hit me in the head with the reality of the human struggle. Oakland taught me what to do as well as what not to do in trying to build a Temple from the ground up. My Oakland experience showed me how un-Islamic elements can hide themselves in Islamic clothing and deceive the people. My Oakland experience was a sobering reality of how deceptive the human mind can become. All this was a benefit for me; because I was not caught up in religion, I was able to separate the immorality of the few from the corrective ideals of the teachings of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad itself. The vision of the NOI was above the wickedness of some of its followers.

From the very beginning of my sojourn in the NOI, my objective was to learn as much as I could and return to Belize to teach my people. Belize was always my objective in joining the NOI. One of the first things that I did was to write letters to the Hon. Elijah Muhammad to tell him of my objective and to ask his guidance. I established a regular habit of writing Mr. Muhammad, telling him of the vast potentials of Belize. He replied to several of those letters. I also maintained regular contact with Brother Shabazz, who was always encouraging me try to access investment for More Tomorrow.

Seemingly out of the blue, in July of 1972, Mr. Muhammad sent for me to come to Chicago to meet with him. I was twenty three years old. This was a shock and a blessing at the same time. The invitation provided an all-expense paid visit as Mr. Muhammad’s guest in Chicago, headquarters of the NOI. I was in Chicago for two weeks.

Meeting the Hon. Elijah Muhammad was a turning point in my life. That lurking feeling I had from boyhood that I was born for something special was brought clear to me when I met Mr. Muhammad. I reasoned that there were thousands, if not millions, who wished they had the privilege to meet with the Messenger, and here I was, a boy from Belize, with a special cause, meeting with the man who embodied all that I considered successful for black people. The whole experience was overwhelming and remains in my memory even as I write now.

I had an opportunity to be in the personal presence of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad on eleven different occasions over that two-week period. Some of those occasions were personal, one-on-one conversations, while others were at his dinner table, where some of his top officials were present like Minister Farrakhan, Minister Hasan, Minister Sherriff and so many other top leaders of the NOI, at the time both male and female. My personal conversations with Mr. Muhammad were short but profound in his economy of words in getting his message across to me.

In those discussions Mr. Muhammad said he wanted me to do two things in Belize: open a Temple for the teaching of what he was taught by Master Fard Muhammad and a trading post that would sell Belizeans products, i.e. fish, agricultural products, to the NOI. He promised that he would support me in this venture. His first clear step in this direction was his financing the return of me and my family to Belize in August 1972.

When I returned to Belize in August of 1972, I was a representative of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the NOI, with the twin responsibility of opening a Temple and establishing a trading post. While we have not yet completed the mission of establishing a trading post, we did establish a Temple, in October 1972, which was the beginning of the Muslim Community of today.

Related Articles

Share

About Author

Deshawn Swasey

(0) Readers Comments

Comments are closed.