Killing the Messenger explores Black Muslim ideology and the cycles of brutality
We see Joseph Stephens (who would later become Yusuf Bey) growing up with tales of brutal lynchings in his hometown of Greenville, Texas, and later as a Santa Barbara hairdresser who discovered the Nation of Islam in 1962 after the Los Angeles Police Department had shot up its mosque and Stephens found his calling in the resolute words of Malcolm X and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
African American history made Bailey want to become a journalist focused on covering and empowering his community. And this same legacy — mixed with hopelessness, poverty, and broken homes during an upbringing in San Francisco and Richmond — animated Devaughndre Broussard, who fired three shotgun blasts into Bailey on a sunny morning in downtown Oakland.
"His life was no accident. Neither was his faith," Peele wrote of Fourth in the last chapter. "The society that now worked through its flawed laws and imperfect courts to put him in prison for life had only itself to blame for the terror that Fourth and his fellow believers had inflicted upon it. The backlash against centuries of enslavement of Africans and the subhuman treatment of their descendants had seen to that. The stick figure hanging from a loose that Elijah Muhammad had ordered displayed in all the Nation of Islam mosques, the symbol of the boyhood lynching of his friend Albert Hamilton, showed that some could never forget, or forgive. Neither could Yusef Bey forget the stories of cotton fields his parents brought west from East Texas along with the story of a Negro burned to death as white people gathered in the square of a horrible place called Greenville and cheered. Some wounds are too deep to heal."
But Americans have short memories for even our recent history, coupled with a growing sense that society's have-nots somehow deserve to be that way and a lack of understanding of the many ways that racism and its legacy still affects this country.
"I don't think white America understands it at all. White America has this attitude of: get over it," Peele told me when I asked about that "racism's backlash" theme. "How long can you oppress people and treat them like utter garbage before there is a rebellion?"
Gauged by poverty or incarceration rates, or by the poor quality of many of its schools, much of black America still faces tough struggles. It wrestles with a lack of opportunities and an understandable sense of hopelessness that can easily breed resentment or even violence. One example that Peele includes were the Death Angels (aka the "Zebra murders"), in which a small group of militant black ex-convicts randomly shot dozens of white people in San Francisco and Oakland in the early 1970s.
Peele closes the book with a chilling suggestion that Broussard, who is serving a fixed 25-year prison sentence because of his cooperation in the prosecution of Fourth and co-defendant Antoine Mackey, is studying to become a spiritual leader and may follow familiar patterns. "Look at where he came from? Have things changed that much?" Peele said of the lack of opportunities that Broussard faced growing up, and will face again when he gets out of prison in his mid-40s.
Peele has long been an award-winning investigative reporter rooted in deep research, which he combines with a colorful and dramatic narrative style. Yet he sometimes oversimplifies and harshly judges events and people, even Bailey, who Peele deems a lazy journalist and bad writer.