The Pretender Speaks

The cult of Prester John was still going strong in 1985. A man would rise up with the sacred jewel of kingship around his neck and restore Mother Africa to her glory. Contenders were everywhere; they rushed to keep up with every controversy, like a flock of rooks, crying in the air currents, trailing gulls to a dump site. If you fired a bullet into space, you’d bring down a black leader.

I went to the Felt Forum, where the Pretender was to speak. Toward Thirty-third Street the crowd thickened and I had the dizzy sensation of being a child again, lost among legs. Surprisingly, there were few representatives from the lunatic fringe: lonely figures in quasi-military gear holding up charts showing the twelve tribes of Israel. The police shouted instructions—“Keep them off the barricades”—and their anger added to the crowd’s excitement.

Scalping began in earnest. More wanted to buy than to sell. One guy hugged his ticket and said he just had to hang on to this one. Filing into the arena, I saw the lines split up: men were directed to one side, women to the other, and for a crazy moment I thought some Islamic segregation of the sexes was to be imposed.

Instead, we were searched. Young men dressed in tight-fitting suits and bow ties, like middleweight champions at press conferences, told us to raise our arms and keep moving. Hands tapped lightly up and down every body. The mass frisking demonstrated the scale and discipline of the organization and announced to everyone that we had been transferred from police jurisdiction.

Supermarket music came over loudspeakers. I worried that my fake press pass would be challenged during a scene between one of the Pretender’s security guards and two white journalists who had settled on the steps. The guard told them they were a fire hazard and would have to move. They pretended they hadn’t heard. He made a show of getting angry, but that could not disguise his pleasure in telling them what to do. His stance said it was his turn to do some bossing around.

The two journalists gestured helplessly at the press section. All the seats were claimed. The guard told them to look for seats in the balcony. They said it was important that they be able to see. He told them it would go hard on them if he had to tell them twice. “Would you talk that way if a white man asked you to move?”

They picked up their cameras and surveyed the rows. The concrete walls were streaked with rust. One of the journalists suggested that they forget the assignment. A black woman testing her tape recorder said, “Stick around. This could be as much fun as Purim.” She obviously liked the look on their faces. “Not to worry. I’m not halakhically Jewish.”

At 7:20 PM it was announced that there were 25,000 people waiting outside. “All brothers seated …

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