Khalil went to P.S. 62 and Morris High School in the Bronx, but “I just got high and fooled around with the girls.” His “real education” began in the fall of 1958, on Hart Island. The locale was fitting, Khalil said. Then as now, Hart Island was home to Potter’s Field, where the city’s unclaimed bodies are buried.
“They call it the island of lost souls, and that was me,” says Khalil, sent to the now-shuttered Hart Island correctional facility after trying to boost a rifle from the backseat of a car.
“I was a junkie, that’s what I did,” says Khalil, who reckons he first became addicted to heroin “at around 12.” It was a life in what Muslims call “the dunya,” which Khalil defines as “the dead world, the devil’s playground.”
According to Khalil, Thomas Johnson, his given “slave name”—he now calls it his “government name”—had “a really beautiful childhood,” especially when he lived with his grandparents near Atlantic City. “It was country, I ran around in the woods. My grandfather played the slide trombone and tuba in the sideshow of the Barnum and Bailey circus. I got my love of music then.” But after moving to New York, he tried dope and knew, “right away, I’d be doing it every day. I loved it.”
Fifteen when his father threw him out of the house for his drug use, Khalil spent a decade in the streets. Along with his onetime wife Jo-Ann Jones, daughter of Jo Jones, the nonpareil drummer in the Basie band, Khalil passed time in jazz clubs, digging his bop favorites like Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk. He lived in a hotel on West 44th Street where Sugar Ray Robinson had the penthouse. Like most junkies, he remembers the precise location of every place he copped dope. Driving past a billiard parlor on 145th Street, Khalil said, “That was one of my spots. We’d walk down from the Bronx. Didn’t matter if it was raining, soaking wet, we’d go.” Nights in “dope holes” on 117th Street were spent clutching “wake-up bags,” packets of heroin needed “to get your ass out of bed so you could go into your daily flatfoot hustle.”
“The cops figured one Muslim was as good as another. The Nation didn’t help me.”
Arrested several times for possession, Khalil never had “a real bid” until the year’s sentence on Hart Island. In the upper bunk of his cell was Dave, a Times Square pickpocket, or “jostler,” so talented “he used to run classes, with a blackboard and everything.” Dave was in the NOI. “He was my first teacher. When he ran down these concepts, it turned me around like a top.”
It was Dave who told Khalil the planet’s “true knowledge” had been revealed to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad by Master W. Fard Muhammad, “the Supreme Ruler of the Universe,” who appeared on Earth as a door-to-door salesman in Detroit’s Paradise Valley section during the early years of the Great Depression.
Claiming to be “the one the world has been expecting for the past 2,000 years,” Fard (pronounced Fa-rad) told Elijah, then simply Elijah Poole, from Sandersville, Georgia, that it was the black man, so seemingly downtrodden and disregarded, who was the original, legitimate inhabitant of the planet. Blacks had been living on Earth for 66 trillion years, Fard said. On the other hand, whites were “grafted” into existence only 6,000 years ago by the evil “big head scientist,” Yakub, a spiteful Dr. Frankenstein–like eugenicist bent on creating a race of “blue-eyed devils.”
Dave helped Khalil “science up,” instructing him to memorize Master Fard’s “actual facts,” such seemingly miraculous calculations as the sun’s being 93 million miles from the Earth and Mount Everest’s rising precisely 29,035 feet above sea level. “Later on I found out all this was in The World Almanac, but then I was amazed one person knew so much,” Khalil recounts.