|With the Name of the Gracious and Compassionate,
Creator of the Heavens and the Earth
|THE NAME CHANGE: ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
Abdulhakim Muhammad / Lester Allyson Knibbs
|From 1970 to 1973, I lived in a small town in Ohio named Yellow Springs. The population was, and still is I believe, approximately 4,500. For the first six months, I was terrified. In New York City (my home town), one's telephone number is not published in the local newspaper. ("Lester Knibbs of North College Street just got a telephone. His number is ...," or something like that.) In New York City, when you go to the store, you walk in, buy what you want, and walk out. In Yellow Springs, you cannot do that. They want to talk to you. They want to know all about you. My terror was not based on any personal matters I wanted to conceal. It was more primal than that. If you have never made the transition from the Big City to the Small Town, the Terror cannot be explained to you. It must be experienced. Every time you want the slightest item from the store, you are forced to anticipate a psychological strip search. A friendly, kind-hearted, generous and relentless probing. Once, when under such probing I carelessly revealed that my glasses frames had broken, the man behind the counter immediately offered me a spare pair of his own. I had to suppress the sudden urged to say, "Why don't you shut up and leave me alone!" Instead, I smiled and said, "No, thank you. I'll be fine." You have no idea how difficult that was.
After six months, I was cured. I began to wonder why anyone would want to live in the Big City. I have never recovered from this. If you love the Big City, please understand that I am not one of you anymore; I am one of Them: I love small town life.
I am currently living with my parents in Pinehurst, North Carolina. The population is slightly under 10,000. When my parents first moved here about 20 years ago, the population was under 3,000. (The population continues to explode here in the Sun Belt. Twenty five years ago, I lived in Fayetteville, 50 miles east of here. The population was a little over 50,000. I had friends -- fellow Muslims and African Americans -- who lived on a farm just outside of town. They considered Fayetteville "the Big City" and disliked having to go there. These are not hicks, I assure you. Today, the population of Fayetteville is over 120,000. Humongous shopping centers are replacing forests.)
A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Post Office. The clerk -- "Chuck", according to his name tag -- said to me that my brother and father had just come by a short while ago. In a town of under 10,000 with only two or three African American families, certainly we would be known, but here it is specifically personal. In the North, they would confuse us with each other. Here, they know that my brother Arte (legally blind) and my father Arthur Sr. (89 years old) are two of the best bowlers in the Senior leagues. I have no doubt that it is generally known that I recently arrived from the Bronx, that I have changed my name from Hakeem to Lester, that I am a Muslim, and that on occasional early mornings I walk to the Food Lion supermarket in neighboring Aberdeen (the nearest supermarket, a 40-minute walk each way, good exercise).
Yesterday (July 16), I went to the bank to deposit a "stale" (May 7th) duplicate refund check from New York State and a money order from the post office. Both were made out to "Abdulhakim Muhammad". I endorsed both as "Abdulhakim Muhammad" and then as "Lester Allyson Knibbs". I neglected to write my account number, but I was using my official imprinted deposit slip. The bank teller was on the phone. She glanced at me, glanced at the checks and processed them without looking at the endorsements and without interrupting her telephone conversation. In New York City, I would consider this carelessness. Here, I assume she knew who I was when she saw me walk into the bank, she saw me carefully sort out my papers and endorse each check, and she already knew that I was both "Abdulhakim Muhammad" and "Lester Allyson Knibbs". Actually processing the check was a formality.
I know from studying history, from reading about recent events in such places as Bosnia
and Rwanda, and from my own personal experiences (particularly in the Nation of Islam) that people can change from friendly neighbors to genocidal maniacs in an instant. But it is friendly here. I lived in Fayetteville as "Abdulhakim Muhammad" and experienced no problems. (I was even deliberately seated beside the Mayor at the opening night of a play. "I'm sitting next to the Mayor," I cried out. "And I'm sitting next to you," she replied.) I have visited my parents in Pinehurst year after year since they moved here (including 2002) and have never experienced any hostility related to my name or my faith.
All of which is to say that changing my name has nothing to do with the small-town North Carolina environment.
|July 17, 2003|
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