What do you get when you cross the Black Panthers, the Hare Krishnas, and little rave kids with alien head T-shirts? Why, the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, of course.
The group's spiritual leader, Malachi York, has evidently claimed to be an extraterrestrial being from the phat-sounding galaxy of Illyuwn. He's promised that ships will descend from the sky in the year 2003 to pick up 144,000 people chosen for rebirth as supreme beings. The Nuwaubian's quirky theology offers an enticing, aromatic blend of ancient Egyptian polytheism, UFO-ology, and plain, old-fashioned mystical tweakiness.
Since moving to Putnam County, Georgia in 1993, the Nuwaubians have erected obelisks, statues, and a 40-foot pyramid on their 476-acre tract of land. An estimated 200 people live on the property, which is protected by armed guards.
They might sound like Just Another Crop of Crackpots, but the Nuwaubians are hardly garden-variety. If nothing else, the way race issues play out at Nuwaubian Camp offers an interesting contrast to the usual separatist jam. The stereotype of cult followers, whether super-fundie Christians or guru-drooling Krishna types, is predominantly pale. The Nuwaubians weave their African roots deeply into their doctrine, citing sociological reasons for the vitality of their creed, and biological justifications for the alien ships' choice of "chosen ones."
On his website, Aten 2000, Nuwaubian Iemhetep Si Ptah shows why darker-skinned people have wisdom unavailable to lighter folks: "The significance of the melanin distribution throughout the body is that it captures light and sound energy … and facilitates spiritual experiences."
This unusual theory didn't just spring overnight from Ra's forehead, however; the United Nation of Moors' evolution was a long, slow process. The Nuwaubians -- originally called the Ansaar Pure Sufis -- began as a part of the Black Muslim movement in the late 1960s, and slowly disengaged themselves from Islam through the early '70s. The Nuwaubian scripture, "The Holy Tablets," minces no words about the divisive split: "Islam is a 1400-year-old religion the way [many African-Americans] practiced it. And was doing absolutely nothing to change the condition of the [person of color] in the Western Hemisphere."
In many ways, Islam has become the Communism of the 1990s -- Serbians aside, Muslims and Islamic nations are the scapegoats for all the world's evils. Just about every military operation that America has engaged in since Vietnam has been against a Muslim country. The New York Times has run at least one story about Islam -- usually related to fundamentalism, oppressed women, or terrorist attacks -- in its front section every day for the last 20 years. It's not surprising that some folks might be ambivalent about professing allegiance to the Black Muslim movement in such a touchy political climate -- especially since controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is hardly what one could call a media darling.
Furthermore, Black America's got a long relationship to Egypt -- remember the Afrocentric debates of the early '90s? Countless public figures, from Sun Ra and KRS-One to Nina Simone, have seen Egypt as a sophisticated civilization to which African-Americans can lay ancestral claim. So perhaps the Nuwaubian Nation isn't so much millennial frenzy as a response to America's deep-seated racism and oppression -- especially since the Nuwaubian's choice of 2003 as the magic year of Alien Return is notably unremarkable. (All our computers will be fixed by then, for fuck's sake.)
Of course, York, the Nuwaubians' leader, does seem to possess that familiar mix of calculated corruption and genuine insanity you look for in a cult leader. He served three years in prison for assault and possession of a dangerous weapon, and a 1993 FBI report connects this Nuwaubian's operations in New York to charming practices such as welfare fraud. Yet the only legal messes the group has encountered since moving to Georgia are a few zoning law disputes -- child's play, as cults go.
These days, they appear to be relatively peaceful and nonviolent -- in contrast to other recent cultic and separatist fracases. There are no mass-suicide threats evoking Heaven's Gate, no glimmers of the 1996 Montana Freemen's 81-day armed standoff with FBI agents, no evident stockpiling of weapons that would lead to another Waco.
The white man's cult seems to turn inward to a place of profoundly explosive anger. The Nuwaubians on the other hand appear, for now, perfectly content to turn away from the violence of the world into a more peaceful vision of reality. As one visitor to the compound's annual Savior Day Festival commented, the group impressed because "you don't see no drugs, you don't see no alcohol, you don't see no … fighting, [and] you don't see guns." Well, except for those armed guards at the gate ...
Don't forget, though -- they may be a kinder, gentler batch of kooks, but the Nuwaubians still believe salvation's gonna come in a UFO. Black or white, if you're gonna sign on, you better be down with the green men.
D. R. is a San Francisco-based writer whose work has appeared in Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, Sojourner, and on the occasional public bathroom wall. She also fights crime in the subway.