“I wanted to become this Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist before I wrote a book,” confesses Sonsyrea Tate, the 30-year-old author of the recently published memoir Little X. Tate didn’t achieve that goal, but she has won awards for her reporting and commentary for the Virginia Pilot and the Chicago Tribune; she has also worked for the Washington Times and the Washington Post. Author Patrice Gaines nudged Tate toward writing about her own life by telling her that “everybody has a story to tell.” So Tate has mined her experiences as a member of the Nation of Islam to offer an insider’s view of the religious organization that spawned Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan.
The young woman seated in a downtown restaurant, sporting leather pants, a short haircut, and wine-colored lipstick, is very different from the little girl who wore head-covering veils and ankle-length skirts. “I lived on the porch watching life go by,” says Tate of her early years spent as an acolyte of the Nation, which at one time considered white people devils and blacks the rightful heirs to and rulers of the world. She flashes a 1973 yearbook from Elijah Muhammad’s University of Islam. Rows and rows of girls in Level 2 sit and stand unsmiling; Tate, less than 4 feet tall, holds down the right side.
Her entry into the Nation came via her grandparents, who were among the first African-Americans in Washington to join the “radical” religious group; later, Tate’s mother and father joined. In fact, nearly everyone in her family appears at one time to have claimed membership. But even from the beginning Tate questioned some of the tenets of the organizationchildren’s separation from other kids in the community who were not Muslims, and women’s subservience to men, for example. Later, as a teen she began to see the organization’s contradictions and hypocrisy. Her disillusionment came around the time of Muhammad’s death, which led to a breakdown in the group’s leadership. (Warith Muhammad, Elijah’s son, founded the World Community of Islam in the West, which follows the teaching of orthodox Islam; Farrakhan galvanized those who wanted to continue the teachings of the original Nation of Islam.)
But readers coming to Little X hoping to find interesting tidbits about Farrakhan will be sorely disappointed; Tate sidesteps the politically charged issues associated with the controversial leader. She says only that the book is “my story.” As such, Little X isn’t merely a compelling tale of one young girl growing up Muslim in a world of non-Muslims, it’s an examination of the extended African-American family in the 1960s and ’70s. The result is that the reader is able to understand the devastation that has since visited black America, which makes Little X an important read.
Jonetta Rose Barras