Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist | By Thomas Peele | The Crown Publishing Group | 441 pages, $26.00
It’s said that the devil is in the details, and experienced writers would agree that the tiniest details can make or break a story. This may tempt authors to emphasize or embellish aspects of a story that reinforce a theme; to present the facts in a way that fits the frame.
One may receive impressions of this in the first 40 pages of Killing The Messenger, Thomas Peele’s new book about ideology, murder, and journalism, set primarily in Oakland, CA. For instance, one may wonder why the author, who in the first paragraph of the introduction describes Oakland as “little more than a place I passed through to get anywhere,” should choose to inform readers that Oakland’s Lake Merritt “had been created from a drained swamp in the 1860s,” or at low tide the area where the lake drains into the San Francisco Bay (actually the Oakland Estuary) “reeked of rotting mussels ripped open by hungry gulls.”
He might have said that Lake Merritt is the largest saltwater lake located within an urban area and is quite picturesque. And what could be more natural than seagulls feeding on mussels? But, of course, he was trying for gritty atmosphere; just as one could add grit to San Francisco’s image by mentioning that much of the riprap around its Aquatic Park is composed of old tombstones leftover when the city moved most of its graveyards to Colma in the early 20th century.
Likewise, the author repeatedly describes the neighborhood around the (former) Your Black Muslim Bakery on San Pablo Avenue, home base for the semi-legit organization that this book is about, as being the “North Oakland ghetto.” This reviewer, having frequented this bakery for fish sandwiches, and who still passes through the neighborhood at least once a week, can attest that while it’s not one of Oakland’s upscale communities, it’s far from a ghetto. Nor did this reviewer ever find the bakery’s staff anything less than pleasant, neat, clean, or observe the “compound” being guarded by “thugs in bow ties” or “the frenzied pit bull and mastiffs,” though that would have certainly been wise at night, and many area businesses take similar precautions.
None of which is to say that this reviewer admired the Black Muslims or agreed with their doctrine—though the sandwiches were killer—but rather to note that the deployment of superfluous details, especially when one already has an ironclad case, may undermine one’s credibility.
Earning readers’ trust is especially important when an author is writing about black people, who are so accustomed to being misrepresented and negatively portrayed that many automatically distrust or outrightly dismiss anything written about them, especially by a non-black author. It is therefore unfortunate that the first three chapters of Killing The Messenger appear as if Peele was trying too hard to set his stage.
While Part One of this book, opening with the August 2, 2007 gangstuh-style murder of Chauncey Bailey, an Oakland Post editor who was working on a story about Your Black Muslim Bakery, abounds with descriptions of thugs, thuggery, and Dashiell Hammett-meets-Boyz n the Hood atmosphere, one quickly forgives Peele when he settles down to solid journalistic writing, especially since Peele was a principal in the Chauncey Bailey Project, an ad hoc group of journalists dedicated to reporting the circumstances of Bailey’s death.
Though the hook is the murder of Bailey, an undistinguished journalist whose article, Peele notes, would probably not have been very good, Bailey is actually a minor character. The real story is about the Black Muslims, and particularly the Oakland-based Bey family. For decades, Peele reports, the Beys used their health-food bakery as a front for criminal activity, operating largely untouched by police. (The bakery’s founder, Yusuf Ali Bey, actually ran for mayor of Oakland in 1994.) It was only when the erratic, overmatched Yusuf Bey IV assumed control in 2005 that everything began to crumble.