Award-winning journalist Salim Muwakkil is one of the most recognized contemporary African-American writers, representing his intellectual abilities in a way that places him within the confines of Farred’s definition of the vernacular intellectual. Over the course of his life, Mr. Muwakkil has transitioned his views in a way that lends credence to the label of vernacularity, one that has enabled him to both represent and critique the African-American experience from within and outside racial constructs. His experiences—from his military service, to his time in the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam—have helped shape his modern worldview in a way which allows for him to serve as an effective critic and chronologist of minority issues within the United States.
Born Alonzo Canady Jr. in 1947, Mr. Muwakkil was the oldest of four children. Upon his high school graduation, Mr. Muwakkil volunteered for the Air Force, where he served five years as an administration specialist. “I got radicalized while in the service, during the 60’s,” Mr. Muwakkil said in an interview for Studs Terkel’s ambitious book Race. “It was in the Vietnam era. I had been in Germany, but during my four months in Thailand, I found out that what we were doing wasn’t kosher. . . I didn’t see any action there, but when I got back to the States, I was shot. It was at a Georgia motel, near the Robbins Air Base. This was in ’68. I was speaking a kind of racial jargon. The clerk said I threatened him, so he shot me in the abdomen with a .38. I was hospitalized for quite a while. He was exonerated” (Terkel, 166). This experience was one of the turning points in Mr. Muwakkil’s life, as he joined the Black Panther Party soon after leaving the hospital. But something was missing from what Mr. Muwakkil wanted from the Black Panther Party, an intangible quality that propelled its members to reach for a higher sense of purpose. It was at this time that Mr. Muwakkil became a member of the Nation of Islam; while it seemed to him to represent “something sinister, alien,” it provided a stable and uplifting quality for its members: “They possessed the qualities that the Panthers didn’t. They were serious, changing their life-styles, their behavior patterns. We had been socialized in this culture to be self-destructive. I saw the Nation of Islam as counteracting this impulse” (Terkel, 166).
While pursuing his B.A. in political science at Rutgers University following his return from service, Mr. Muwakkil began working for the Newark Bureau of the Associated Press, the first black journalist in the history of the bureau. At this time a fledgling member of the Nation of Islam, he began to do side-work with Muhammad Speaks, the weekly newspaper of the NOI: “Notwithstanding several pages dutifully exalting Muhammad as God’s messenger, whose presence unlocked the key to black liberation and eternal salvation, Muhammad Speaks provided coverage of local and national civil rights struggles, black militancy and corresponding white resistance, and African and Third World liberation movements, explaining how all these elements figured into the international politics of the Cold War era” (Joseph, 25).
After his graduation, Mr. Muwakkil began to work for Muhammad Speaks full-time, moving his family to Chicago where he first served as the copy editor and then soon the managing editor of the newspaper. In 1975 he officially changed his name, dropping Alonzo Canady Jr., and becoming formally known as Salim Muwakkil: “One of the reasons I changed my name is because, while in the service, I was stationed not far from Macon. My maternal family was there, so I made quite a few visits. They told me lots of stories. One was about an ancestor called Guinea Sultan. He came as a slave and was part of my family’s history. It was the only connection I could find between myself and my land of origin. So I feel a soft spot at least for Islam” (Terkel, 170).
The tumultuous years following the assassination of Malcolm X by members of the Nation of Islam, as well as the death of its leader Elijah Muhammad, disillusioned Mr. Muwakkil from the organization. While still close with Louis Farrakhan, who at the time was involved in a bitter power struggle with Elijah’s son Wallace to assume control of the NOI, Mr. Muwakkil grew tired of the infighting and soon cut his ties with the organization: “As a reporter in Newark during the early 1970’s, I covered some of the ritualistic murders still reverberating from Malcolm’s 1965 assassination. My reflections on the ease with which disciples can commit even the most heinous acts, as long as it’s in the name of their particular deity, began reviving my skepticism of temporal figures seeking religious devotion. That, coupled with my realization of the similarities between the NOI’s devotional “fatherland” nationalism and the mystical nationalism of Nazi ideology, helped speed my exit from the nation and its various offshoots” (Alexander, 209).
The post-NOI years saw Mr. Muwakkil further pursuing his commitment to journalistic writing. Still keeping his Nation of Islam name, Mr. Muwakkil first worked as a writer and editor for the U.S. Department of Housing and Development in Chicago, doing some freelance writing on the side. Articles with his byline appeared in newspapers such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago. This passion for investigative journalism propelled Mr. Muwakkil to once again become a full-time public writer, taking up the post of Senior Editor with In These Times in 1984 and serving in that position ever since. He also serves as the host of “The Salim Muwakkil” show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station and a means of furthering the conversation about modern racial issues in America.
It is no surprise that Mr. Muwakkil found his way to In These Times—a progressive publication that uses cultural critiques and political investigations as core elements of its focus—as the focus on maintaining an understanding of race in America drives Mr. Muwakkil’s journalism. His experiences have given him the credibility to cover issues that are intangibly related to his life, and Mr. Muwakkil frequently focuses on issues in his hometown of Chicago as a way of exploring a microcosm of race relations in the country. He recently began a series of in-depth articles for In These Times that focus on “The Other Chicago,” allowing him to bring to light the experiences of the black community that are often left unexplored or misunderstood by mainstream society. By bringing the issues of the black Chicago community to light, Mr. Muwakkil is using his national prominence and experiences to make society see what it could not see, understand what it could not understand, and explore the culturally unexplored: “Out of sight of mainstream media, divergent class interests have largely prevented any unified political attempt to wrest power from the city’s entrenched ethnic freedoms. Though tensions exist in black neighborhoods, the contrast between the poor West Side and the better-off South Side have become a crude geographical surrogate for black Chicago’s stark class divisions” (Muwakkil, “Black Chicago Divided”).
On other issues, Mr. Muwakkil has often used his position to bring the focus back to race when mainstream society blindly surges forward without any consideration. The election of President Barack Obama was a historic time for African-Americans, but Mr. Muwakkil was one of the critics who cautioned against the urge to label America a “post-racial” society and one that loses touch with understanding issues of race: “…[critics, including Salim Muwakkil in his article “The Squandering of Obama”] drew attention to the ways that Obama’s victory adds momentum to the rightward slide into racial silence, shrinking public space for race talk, cauterizing the racial present from the past, eviscerating old agendas and solidarities, and fanning an uncritical exuberance that sedates social action towards antiracist accountability” (Mukherjee, 221).
Mr. Muwakkil is able to represent the idealized version of a vernacular intellectual because of his aptitude for never fully accepting one perspective as doctrine, instead using them to formulate his own outlook, his own personal intellectual doctrine. From the Black Panther Party to the Nation of Islam to his respected journalistic career, Mr. Muwakkil has shown a propensity for embracing the vernacular: “Vernacularity represents the moment of a significant, palimpsestic transformation. Vernacularity signals the discursive turning away from the accepted, dominant intellectual modality and vocabulary and the adoption of a new positioning and idiomatic language” (Farred, 11). His experiences enabled him to serve as an effective critic of racial issues, allowing him to rise up in national prominence and become one of the leading contemporary voices on minority relations. This ability to rise up from the masses and achieve national recognition in a way that lends credence to his intellectual insight falls well in line with Farred’s definition of vernacular intellectualism: “Vernacular intellectuals are, as the process of bringing them to public prominence demonstrates, a complex representation of the voices from below or the margins speaking at once to, within, and against the hegemonic order” (Farred, 10).
Alexander, Amy., ed. The Farrakhan Factor. New York: Grove Press, 1998.
Farred, Grant. What’s My Name: Black Vernacular Intellectuals. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Joseph, Peniel E. Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006.
Mukherjee, Roopali.”Racial Politics (in the United States)” Social Text 27.3 (2009): 219-222.
Muwakkil, Salim. “The Squandering of Obama.” In These Times 26 July 2007. http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/3268/the_squandering_of_obama/
Muwakkil, Salim. “Black Chicago Divided” In These Times 20 July 2011. http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/11604/black_chicago_divided/
Terkel, Studs. Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession. New York: The New York Press, 1992.