By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
When he was 15, his grandmother left to tend a sick relation. A relative was supposed to look out for the boys, but didn't, and before long, the phone and electricity had been cut off, they had been evicted from the house and the doors and windows had been boarded up.
With nowhere to go, Quanell and his brothers pried the board off the back door. They didn't want their plight to become known by Children's Protective Services, so they told few people. One of these was a neighbor who let them borrow water and run an electrical cord from her house. When her son didn't come home at night, she let them eat his dinner. Otherwise, Quanell said, he'd sometimes borrow a dollar at school and buy four packs of noodles with it. Or he'd do something else, perhaps steal something.
They didn't have their grandmother's phone number, he said, so they lived like this for 11 months. Because of his age, Quanell had been moved on to Worthing High School, and he said he played that year on the basketball team.
By this time, crack had come to the hood, and the whores had become even more desperate, and many had died. Crack had long ago dried up Quanell's pimp money, and so when he got the chance, he became a crack dealer.
"I got some rocks from a partner of mine," he said. "I spent $100. In 30 seconds, I had $300! Shee-it -- how in the hell you going to tell me to get a job?"
Money rushed over Quanell like a river through a desert. Some days he drove a Cherokee to school; other days, maybe a Jaguar. He had his hair straightened. He wore gold chains and had a gold tooth installed in his mouth. Every week, he'd buy a new pair of Nikes and new warm-up suits. After slipping a teacher some cash once, he got passes that allowed him to parade down the halls. Often, he'd march into the cafeteria and buy everyone lunch.
Yes, he had rivals, and how did he deal with them?
"Next question," said Quanell. "It's a black thing. You'll never understand."
On May 24, 1989, Quanell was selling crack in his front yard when he heard police cars racing down his street. He jumped into a BMW and raced the other way, but they cornered him and cuffed his hands, and as he lay on the ground, he remembers a white policeman grinding a .45 pistol into his ear and hissing, "I'm tired of you niggers selling dope!" Then the cop kicked Quanell in the ribs.
It was not treatment to which Quanell was accustomed. Except for a gang rape when he was 11 (consensual sex, he says), he had never been arrested before. He was not prepared for what he found in the jail. The minute he walked in the door, the guards began shouting at him, as though he had done something wrong.
"Take off your motherfucking shoes and get ass naked and bend down and cough!" the guard told him. "And if you don't cough, I'm going to boot you in your motherfucking ass, and make you cough!"
Quanell paused as he remembered this. When he spoke, his voice was sad: "This is the jail, man!"
The sentence was ten years' probation. Quanell was in jail only shortly, but he emerged "mentally, morally, spiritually and politically dead," he said. And a little angry, too, with uncertain career plans. It was in this state that Quanell wandered into a Farrakhan rally and found his roots.
"I said to myself, 'My God, this black man talking about white folks like that -- he's gotta be crazy! Folks will kill him!' I saw a man with unbelievable courage."
He was told to be proud, that he descends from the Tribe of Shabazz, the planet's original inhabitants who once ruled in dignity and splendor. He was told what happened to this noble race, and then he was told who did it to them. Finally, Quanell was told to stop selling poison to his people and to get off the ground and stand like a proud human being and fight the people who have been flogging his people for centuries.
"It let me know that no matter how bad I had been," said Quanell, "that if I took hold of the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, I could change and become someone respected, someone to admire."
Most new recruits are taught in a group, but Quanell was picked out by Minister Robert Muhammad and taught individually. At the mosque on Cullen Street, he said, he was the first to arrive and the last to leave. Without drug money, he was broke, but the Nation supported him and gave him suits to wear, and he was inspected every day to ensure that he was clean -- "very, very clean." He read and read. Afterward, Robert Muhammad would quiz him on his reading and correct him when he mispronounced words. Quanell followed Robert Muhammad wherever he went, "sucking off all the knowledge he could give me." Little by little, Quanell began to understand the world.