The Nation of Islam, Caring for the Black Body, and Vaccine Hesitancy

Guest post (unrolled from a thread that appeared originally on Twitter) by Edward E. Curtis IV, author of Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975

The history of the Nation of Islam helps to explain why some U.S. African Americans do not want a foreign substance injected in their arms. As COVID Black and others have revealed, the horrible impact of COVID19 has had on Black people is due to the health care system’s anti-Black racism as well as social and economic racism.

Any “cultural explanation” that blames Black people for vaccine hesitancy repeats racism. The assault on Black people’s bodies is a pillar of U.S. culture. And since forever, Black people have developed cultural, social, political, and economic strategiesfrom root work to community organizingto protect the Black body. I see vaccine hesitancy as one of many attempts to resist racist abuses of Black people’s health. My view is influenced by my work on how protecting, caring for, dignifying, and strengthening the body were among of the Nation of Islam’s most popular activities.

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Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam had a complete program that included a holy diet, beautiful clothes, physical training, sexual proscriptions, mental exercises, time management, and business to heal the body and mind from internalized oppression.

Much of the program featured on the gender of members, and the Nation of Islam offered its Islamic version of middle-class Black respectability and what Ula Taylor called the promise of patriarchy. In addition to a Black Muslim ethics of the body, the Nation of Islam’s leaders preached a terrifying mythology that identified white-dominated science, medicine, and health care, including eugenics, as a primary abuser of Black people.

Image: Public Domain

The horrors of twentieth-century medical scienceforced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, and Nazi experimentsbegan in primordial time when the big-headed, mad scientist Yakub engineered the white man. This was “stigmatized knowledge” (Barkun) hidden from Black people: Yakub recruited ‘‘doctors, ministers, nurses and a cremator,” he “ordered the nurses to kill all black babies . . . by pricking the brains with a sharp needle as soon as the black child’s head is out of the mother.’’ If the mother was watching, then the nurse was to lie to the mother and claim that the baby was an ‘‘angel child’’ that must be taken to heaven. The child would then be fed to ‘‘wild beasts,’’ or if none was available, ‘‘Yakub told the nurses to give it to the cremator to burn.’’ The message that the white medical establishment and its medical technologies and therapies could harm Black people had staying power.

Wu-Tang Clan’s Gravel Pit samples lines from a movie: “You, Yakub, are the bearer of 9,999 diseases, evil, corrupt, porkchop-eatin’ brain!”

The case of the Nation of Islam’s approach to white medicine is just an illustrative example, one branch of a larger tree that explains how grassroots medical knowledge is a rational and also aesthetic, affective, imaginative, world-remaking response to racism. Please add to it. 

Edward E. Curtis IV is Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts in Indianapolis. He is the author of The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora and Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975, among other books.