The written history of the Nation of Islam has focused heavily on the movement's leaders, such as Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X; it has been told from an almost exclusively male perspective; and it has virtually ignored the transitional period of the 1970s, when Elijah Muhammad's son transformed the movement into one more in keeping with orthodox Islam. This cogent memoir challenges all three of these trends.
Tate, a 30-year-old journalist, offers an autobiographical portrait of her childhood in the Nation and then in orthodox Islam. Here we see how rank-and-file members of the Nation lived, how their dress, organizations, and dietary restrictions set them apart even within Islam (not only pork was forbidden, but also white rice, white potatoes, and white bread). Tate's earliest years were spent in an all-Nation school, which she attended year-round and where she was drilled with the Nation's ideology about race (that whites are blue-eyed devils and blacks the superior race) and gender roles (women's role being to bear children for the Nation). She struggled against many of the strict regulations, though this rebellion was always mixed with a sense of pride, of corporate identity. But with the 1975 death of their leader, Elijah Muhammad, Tate's family and other followers were set adrift, trying to find a place in orthodox Islam, seeking ways to juxtapose being Muslim and African-American. Tate began attending public school, wearing street clothes and enjoying new freedoms, though always with more restrictions than her classmates (and her male relatives). In her teen years, Tate's family began to crumble beneath the weight of intergenerational and religious disagreements, and orthodox Islam did not prove a strong enough force to hold them together.
Little X is a compelling story, despite an indifferent prose style, because it provides an honest, inside view of one of America's most controversial religious movements and perceptively points to social tensions of race, gender, and religious identity.