Photos courtesy of the author
There's a bookstore in Brooklyn called All Eyes on Egipt. From a distance, the place looks like a Fisher-Price version of Cleopatra's palace. Housed in a narrow brownstone on Bushwick Avenue, charcoal paint and gold accents coat the exterior.
Inside, there are just a few shelves of merchandise. The first, a modestly-appointed book collection of conspiracy theory superstars (David Icke, Alex Jones, Milton William Cooper) is propped against a wall. The rest, in the center of the room, carry an array of self-printed booklets.
I wander in one afternoon, curious after passing a group of people dressed in lavish, Egyptian-style tunics filtering out the front door. I pick up one of the booklets, and leaf through a long, science fiction-inspired stream of consciousness. On page 15, I read a paragraph that traces Caucasian genealogy to "Flugelrods," beings that now live in a cavern beneath the Arctic. On page 84, I learn that Caucasian women once mated with jackals, "ancestor of today's dogs," and on Page 87, that the "pale man" still has a vestige proving this union: a tail.
Keeping a watchful eye over the store are two paintings of a man with dark skin and shallow eyes. Sensing, perhaps, how deeply weirded-out I am, a heavyset cashier emerges from behind a card table. She tells me she is "Nuwaubian," a member of the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, and the row of booklets I'm thumbing through hold the scriptures of her people. I point to one of the paintings.
"That's Dr. Malachi York," she says. "He wrote every last one of these."
If you've lived in Brooklyn for more than a few decades, you may remember the Nuwaubians. Originally called the Ansaaru Allah Community, and operating under the guise of a fringe, all-black Muslim separatist group in the 70s and 80s, the group changed its name to the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors in the early 90s, and shifted focus to extraterrestrial origin stories that place African Americans at the top of the universal totem pole.
The Nuwaubian system of beliefs is too convoluted to sum up in a sentence, but the basic premise is that while some races share a common ancestor with modern apes, dark-skinned humans were born of an ancient, superior alien species. Also central to Nuwaubianism is an obsession with Ancient Egypt, which the group believes was an all-black race. Years of archeological debate have never settled on a definitive answer for the race of Ancient Egyptians, though the Egyptians' own portrayal of themselves—on tombs and other artifacts—was of a mixed race.
Still, like some Christians co-opted the image of a white Jesus, the Nuwaubians have claimed Ancient Egypt as their own. Today, they wear a menagerie of Egyptian-style robes and accessories, and when it suits them, speak "Nubic," a pseudo-Egyptian language created by their leader, Dwight "Dr. Malachi" York.
York cut his teeth in the business of spiritual deceit in the 1970s. (And it was a business: Bill Osinki, a journalist who covered the Nuwaubians for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reported in 2002 that prospective followers were forced to disclose their bank account information before gaining entry.) At the time, Bushwick Avenue was gutted by arson, theft, and gun crime. By 1980, the neighborhood—then comprised almost entirely of black and Puerto Rican families—had a median household income below $7,000, according to census data.
Like much of the country, racial divisiveness plagued New York in the 60s and 70s. A gifted manipulator, York understood the pain the city's African American community was facing, and capitalized on it. In lectures, he reworked religious texts to favor ideas of black supremacy, and claimed every prophet—from Jesus to Buddha and Muhammad—were all "dark skinned, wooly haired" people.
Like Fard Muhammad captivated poor blacks in 1920s Detroit, York's message was well-received. Robert Rohan, a former Nuwaubian and native of New York, told me this was York's main triumph: convincing his followers they weren't the crime-plagued people the media cast them as. They were Gods.
"There was a sense of pride," Rohan said. "York was teaching an Afrocentric approach to creation, opposed to what I was used to seeing; white Jesus, white apostles, white Moses. When you see a leader in your community portraying spiritual figures as black, it speaks to you."
At one point, York owned 20 apartment buildings in Bushwick, where he housed around 500 people, according to information from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The leader exercised total control over his followers, dictating where members lived, who they could date, and when they could have sex. Followers were expected to spend their days peddling York's literature, and were beaten if they failed to meet their daily quotas, an SPLC report reads.
Rohan, who joined the Nuwaubians as a teenager, told me that every male in the community was also expected to perform "security" duties, which mostly involved standing on Bushwick Avenue with a large stick to intimidate passersby, he said. Physical abuse inside the community was frequent, he added, and the quickest way to a beating was to doubt the leader.
"It would be slander to say something negative about Malachi York. He was the divine teacher no matter what he did, and the repercussions could be severe," Rohan said. "If you saw something that didn't make sense, and were vocal about it, you would be talked about, beaten, and sometimes thrown out of the community."
As he got older, Rohan began to sense that "certain things weren't right." York encouraged teenage recruits to drop out of school, Rohan said, and expected his followers to attend frequent Q&A sessions, though his own presence was waning. Still, he remained devoted to the leader for 15 years, Rohan said, because York promised the Nuwaubians a better life.
"I was made to feel like I was working toward building unity as an African American," Rohan said. "That made me want to stay."
In 1993, York uprooted the entire community, and moved the Nuwaubians to to "Tama-Re," an Egyptian temple compound in Putnam County, Georgia ( aerial photos of the area, taken before its demolition in 2005, show towering, cartoonish Pyramid and Sphinx monuments). After the relocation, the Nuwaubians declared themselves a sovereign nation, and beefed up intimidation efforts — trading in the large sticks used to guard Bushwick Avenue for machine guns, according to reports.
The impetus for relocating more than 800 miles from the Nuwaubian headquarters is a mystery that has spanned decades, but it's been suggested that mounting pressure from authorities, instigated by possible arson that allowed the group to scoop up the properties that housed its members, may have led to the move.
In her book, The Nuwaubian Nation: Black Spirituality and State Control, Canadian journalist Susan J. Palmer writes that, at the time of the Georgia move, police were also investigating the murder of Horace Green, a Bushwick resident who made waves about the group's "takeover" of the neighborhood, and who was shot and killed near Bushwick Avenue in 1979. Green's murder was never solved.
The Nuwaubian's story gets even more bizarre. For nearly a decade, the group operated in relative harmony with Putnam County authorities. That changed in the late 90s when, according to Palmer's book, the Sheriff's office began to receive anonymous calls and letters claiming York was molesting children. In 2002, the FBI raided the 500 acre compound and arrested York and his "main wife" Kathy Johnson on suspicion of child abuse. At a hearing, witnesses testified that dozens of children, some as young as six, were forced to perform sex acts with both York (56) and Johnson (33). Johnson was given a two-year sentence, and York—indicted by a grand jury on 74 counts of child molestation and one count of rape, according to SPL Center—was sentenced to 135 years in a maximum-security prison. Another federal case charged York with racketeering and transporting children across state lines for sex.
After York's arrest, experts predicted his empire would quickly crumble. In reality, hundreds remain devoted to York today, convinced his imprisonment—as York has dutifully cried—is a consequence of white patriarchy run amok. Likewise, a handful of bookstores, all bearing the All Eyes on Egipt name, have popped up across the globe, with locations in Indianapolis, Williamston, North Carolina; Monticello, Georgia; Washington, D.C., Chicago; Detroit; London; Toronto; and elsewhere. The group even has a cyber presence, with an "official online bookstore" and an array of Malachi York fan sites.
I asked Rick Alan Ross, a cult expert who founded the Cult Education Institute, how York continues to influence his followers. For starters, Ross said, there is evidence that York (now 66 or 69—he has a false birth certificate) communicates with the Nuwaubians through letters and monitored prison visits. Likewise, he said, many Nuwaubians have spent their entire lives worshiping York and are convinced he is a martyr for their cause.
"York fed on racial feelings of the time, and for that matter, he still [does]," Ross said. "Black pride, black identity, 'we are chosen.' It's a very appealing message."
Rohan agrees. "A lot of the members, they're not bad people, they're just confused," he said. "Malachi York always taught that he was a sacrificial lamb. To them, he sacrificed himself for the congregation."
It's worth mentioning that while the original All Eyes on Egipt still stands, Bushwick Avenue is almost unrecognizable from York's heyday. Crime rates have plummeted, but a different battle has emerged: one of rising rents and big-time investors. It's a neighborhood where homes sell for over $1 million and warehouses for over $30 million. And it's a neighborhood that is pricing out long-time residents at a head-spinning rate.
This isn't news. Brooklyn's gentrification is one of the most talked-about phenomenons in the country. But for the Nuwaubians, who have for decades been duped into believing that white people are inherently evil, it's a sign of the end times. Other contentious issues like stop-and-frisk, racial profiling, and an out-of-touch police force—though not Brooklyn-specific—only deepen this narrative.
In some of the All Eyes On Egipt outposts, members participate in weekly Q&A sessions about the man they call "Baba," "Dad," "Pops," "Master Explainer," and "Savior," and discuss how his teachings can be applied to current events. In Brooklyn, those meetings are held in a giant shed attached to the bookstore. In Georgia, they are videotaped and posted on YouTube. Like much of Nuwaubian literature, the talks broadcast extraordinary theories about the origins of man, the nature of reality and the apocalypse — in which the Nuwaubians' alien creators will come "pick up their children" and "wipe out" every Caucasian on the planet.
It's a message that, like Nuwaubianism's first incarnation, appeals to the racially disenfranchised. After all these years, it still has an audience.
The second time I visit All Eyes on Egipt, I come with questions. When I tell the cashier at All Eyes on Egipt that I'm a journalist, she raises her hand to wave me away. As I turn to leave, another woman—dressed in a black, too-big t-shirt with the words "God in the Flesh" in gold lettering—walks through the door.
I point to a book I purchased on my first visit, The Melanin-ite Children, which describes, among other things, how people with blonde hair and blue eyes descended from "Flugelrods": beings that now live in a cavern beneath the Antarctic. I ask if we can discuss the concepts in the book. The cashier chuckles, "That's a good one."
But before I can ask my first question, I am interrupted. Media is "one of the biggest forms of the devil," the woman tells me. "People of color get short changed so much." She mentions Reyhaneh Jabbari, the 26-year-old Iranian woman who was hanged in October for killing her alleged rapist.
"That's your sister!" the woman says. "You say you're a journalist, why aren't you writing about that?"
She leads me to the sidewalk outside, and we speak briefly about the state of the world. Reality, she says, is not what they teach you in school. And conventional religion? It only muddles reality. I agree, and attempt to draw parallels to Buddhism. But Buddhists, I explain, are taught to question everything. Even the Buddha himself. I ask if York allows his followers to question him. She ends the conversation, refusing to shake my hand.
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