When I started writing about Plainfield in the early 1980s, one of the tasks I set for myself was to learn about what was important to the city's many populations. As I went from a weekly to a daily newspaper and then to a blog after retiring, I retained that goal.
The spectrum was wide, and I was not always welcome in some places. Marshall Brown ordered me out of an event at the Plainfield Public Library and Mayor Richard L. Taylor regularly complained that only a black reporter should cover Plainfield. Nevertheless, I persisted.
Coming from a bucolic township bordering the Great Swamp, I had a lot to learn about the region's only urban center. In just one aspect, gradually I understood the difference between Masjidullah and Mosque No. 80, the Muslim Journal and The Final Call. When I was assigned to visit Meadowbrook Village after the tragic killing of Police Officer Abigail Powell, I knew NOI brothers were voluntarily patrolling the troubled complex. Assigned with another reporter to cover Minister Louis Farrakhan's visit to Plainfield High School, I knew enough to carry a small purse to expedite the mandatory search, while my colleague lugged the typical catch-all bag and took a lot longer to pass through the sisters' pat-down. We both sat in the front row and took some "blue-eyed devil" verbal abuse while reporting.
I also learned about all the many other affiliations in Plainfield, the synagogues now gone, the broad range of houses of worship, the cultural and social spheres that run side by side and seldom mingle and of course the political and racial divides. When it was proposed to give Farrakhan a key to the city on another visit, the reactions went every which way.
Minister Farrakhan gave Mustapha Muhammad his name in a Park Avenue venue. Others went to Saviours' Day events and came back with the surname "Muhammad." City folks knew their birth names. For some, a new name marked a new life after prison and a new intention to "do for self" and leave crime behind. Having heard that Plainfield received as many as 400 parolees a year, I had to acknowledge the discipline of NOI followers despite strong condemnations of the organization.
Most people know how Malcolm X changed his mind about the Nation of Islam and came to embrace the Muslim religion after making a pilgrimage to Mecca. In 2008, a Plaintalker post acknowledged the passing of W. Deen Mohammed, who had a similar change of heart. By degrees, more and more people have learned about Ramadan and major Muslim observances worldwide. In 2011, a blog post detailed my own evolution in understanding Ramadan.
I am among the many Plainfielders who find the city's diversity appealing. The downside of diversity, however, can be dissension - over beliefs, behaviors or background of fellow residents. We see it in the social media and in our daily interactions. Some call it crabs in a barrel, some just say, "That's Plainfield for you."
It's easy to see that we're headed for much confrontation over the November election. Can we hold our own views without trashing those of others? I'm hoping.