James Small started life in a staunchly Christian family in rural South Carolina. In his twenties he became an Imam working with Ella Collins, the sister of Malcolm X.
At 74, he’s a Pan-African activist, scholar and speaker and a Yoruba priest.
“God is God, whatever name you call it,” he said. “We learn to understand the essence of God within ourselves and recognise God’s efforts in another human being. All traditions have rituals and formalities.”
Yoruba religious beliefs come from the songs, histories, stories and other cultural concepts which make up their society ,which is largely found in southwestern Nigeria.
Developed for a 10th century rural Nigerian community, some of the practices don’t always go over well today, Mr Small admitted.
“So, you may have to alter those rituals or create new ones,” said the lecturer, who will speak in Bermuda about African spirituality this month.
“We will be talking about spirituality and reality. I taught comparative religion at CUNY College in New York City for 18 years. My view of spirituality is quite different from other people’s. I think spirituality should be your reality.”
He believes people of African heritage suffer from a critical lack of knowledge about their history and culture.
“This is not just in America, but across the world,” said Mr Small. “Bermuda is probably a lot like America, in that it hasn’t told the truth about itself.
“That’s why race is still an issue when it shouldn’t be.”
His family always had “a sense of who we were” thanks to his grandfather, who “came from Africa as a little boy”, and his great-grandmother who was born in Sierra Leone.
Mr Small was raised in Georgetown on the Arcadia Plantation, a rice-growing estate owned by the Vanderbilt family.
“We lived in a world that was the closest thing to paradise I’ve ever seen on earth,” he said.
While a student at Savannah State University in Georgia, he heard Malcolm X speak on television for the first time; he was intrigued by his message of black empowerment.
“My mother and father were living in New York then,” Mr Small said. “I called my mother and said I had to meet Malcolm X. So, she drove down and took me up to New York.”
He was able to gain an audience with the human rights activist who he remembers as a “very beautiful and kind man”.
“I was telling him I wanted to leave school and join them.
“He said, ‘No, education is going to be the greatest weapon our people have towards freedom.
“You need to stay in school and go to college’.”
Although he tried to follow that advice, he eventually left and joined the US Navy.
“By that time, I was very involved in the black movement,” he said. “We were picketing Woolworths and the theatres to have them integrate. When I got into the Navy, I continued that type of involvement with the racism we were confronted with there.”
He left the Navy in 1966, a year after Malcolm X was assassinated, and moved to New York City. By that time Malcolm X’s Organisation of Afro-American Unity and Muslim Mosque Inc were both closed.
“After Malcolm was killed, a lot of people ran away,” Mr Small said.
In trying to help rebuild his legacy, he asked the late activist’s sister, Ms Collins, to reopen the mosque. He had friends from the Navy who he had introduced to the teachings of Malcolm X, and felt they needed spiritual grounding.
Mr Small was asked three times if he would become Imam of the reopened and renamed Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood.
“I said ‘no’,” he said. “I grew up in a very strict church. When I left home I was done with religion. But I knew the Muslim religion very well. Ella asked if I would take it over for just one year, while they trained someone.”
He was there for 13 years, also working as Ms Collins’s chauffeur and security guard.
“We had to handle a lot of situations,” he said. “People were always trying to disrupt rallies and threatening her life. We had a very strong security force. Our job was to take care of her, and we did.”
In 1974, Mr Small travelled to Mecca for the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage.
Five years later, he became disenchanted with Islam. He felt the Arab world was just as racist as the white world.
“I began the process of breaking away from the religion,” he said. “I was never fully in it. I did funerals and weddings and all the things that a minister does. First of all, it was not African, it was not ours. So, I walked away. It didn’t make people happy. I had threats on my life.”
Mr Small is now working on two books: a collection of his lectures on Malcolm X and another on the topic of post slavery trauma syndrome.
He also conducts educational and cultural tours in the United States and Africa.
• James Small will speak with Melodye Micere Van Putten at Healing Thyself Through Knowing Thyself, a lecture at the Liberty Theatre from 10.30am until 12.30pm on September 22. A “chat and chew” will follow from 1pm until 5pm. Tickets, $75 for adults and $35 for students and seniors, are available at www.ptix.bm. For more information, call 595-4105