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When I was very young, my Black Muslim parents moved us (me, them, my older brother) out of New York City and into Columbus, Ohio. Out of a city full of Muslims with diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds and into a city where the vast majority of the small Muslim population was mostly Arab and south Asian. I don’t regret growing up in Columbus. I spent the 1980s and 1990s surrounded by beautiful Black people and Midwestern earnestness. But, what was missing from my upbringing was other Black Muslims with whom I could share my particular experiences of being Black and being Muslim.
Anti-Blackness in non-Black Muslim cultures is real and palpable. I can vividly remember being young and sitting with my mother in houses with Arab Muslim women, being totally ignored. I viscerally recall the open stares we received. I remember that almost no one spoke English to us. I also remember my experiences with the Muslim Student Association at my college, and having to deal with Muslims from other countries who would talk about never wanting marry a Black person, for “cultural” reasons. Or having to deal with Muslims from other countries who would try to teach me about Islam because they assume that, since I’m Black, I hadn’t had exposure to “real Islam.”
Recently, the Huffington Post published an article about the contributions that Black Muslims have made to American Muslim culture. At the end of the article, the author asks if “America is ready” to accept all that Black Muslims have to offer in terms of broadening the US understanding of the intersections of Islam and race. Waiting for mainstream American culture (or mainstream non-Black Muslim cultures, for that matter) to understand Islam and Blackness might have me waiting forever, so I strive to elevate the contributions Black Muslims have made to Muslim life and history in the US. As a Black Muslim woman, this is the legacy and the power that I lay claim to everyday:
First Muslims in the US:
Current iterations of Islamophobia tend to present the “problem” of Islam as a foreign problem. As a problem that only fairly recently has come to America, through recent waves of immigration by Arabs and South Asians. But, African Muslims and Black Muslims have been in the US for centuries before current Muslim immigrants. The transatlantic slave trade brought African Muslims from the west coast of Africa into bondage in the US. Approximately one million of the Africans brought to America as slaves were Muslim. And today, over 25% of Muslims in the US are American-born Black Muslims.
Bad ass Black Muslim women:
The landscape of American Muslim life has sprinklings of #BlackGirlMagic all over it. There’s a long list of examples of Black women who have made significant impacts in both American Muslim communities and their broader communities. Women like scholar Amina Wadud and activist Ameena Matthews immediately come to mind. Amina Wadud has written several books on gender and Islam, but some of her most revolutionary work was in 1994, when she delivered a sermon and led a mixed congregation in a Friday prayer service. Ameena Matthews is an activist and a “violence interrupter” based out of Chicago. She and her fellow activists were featured in the 2011 film The Interrupters.
Black hip-hop artists:
There is a long history of Black hip-hop artists who openly identify as Muslim, and who express their faith in their music. From 1980s rapper Rakim (Eric B and Rakim) to Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (A Tribe Called Quest) to Lupe Fiasco, Black Muslim hip-hop artists have shouted out their faith in powerful ways. 1999 was an important year for my Black Muslim, hip hop loving self. It was the year Mos Def (now Yaasin Bey) released Black on Both Sides. I viscerally remember the way my heart swelled when I heard him whisper “Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim” at the beginning of the opening track, “Fear Not of Man.” This was not the first time I’d experienced hip hop artists infusing traditional Arabic phrases associated with Muslim life in their music, but it was the first time I’d experienced this opening being used in this meaningful and appropriate way. To this day, his track “Umi Says” – on the same album – fills me with a distinct sense of pride of being Black and Muslim. There’s something about the lines he repeats – “My Umi/Abi says shine your light on the world” and “I want Black people to be free, to be free, to be free” – that fully captures my upbringing and what I carry in the world with me.
The Nation of Islam:
The NOI was the political and religious movement that brought us Malcolm X. It is the movement that lifted up so many in Black communities, and encouraged Black people to love and embrace their Blackness, in the face of white supremacy.
The legacy that I’m claiming here isn’t without problems. The Nation of Islam is notorious for harboring misogynist views. They’re also notorious for mixing traditional Islamic beliefs with beliefs that would be unrecognizable to Muslims from other cultures. I want to claim them nevertheless because they ushered in new waves of Black Muslims who rejected Christianity as a tool of oppression and white supremacy. The Nation of Islam is one of the reasons that Islam is considered a part of Black life and Black Muslims are considered a part of the larger Black community.
I want to end on this man, this legend, even though I’m not even sure how to capture the impact his life, his words, and his persona have had on me and on other Black Muslims. It is a beautiful blessing that Black Muslims can lay claim to Muhammad Ali, a man of such power/strength; a man with so much principled conviction; and, later in life, a man full of humility and strong faith. I have always felt unending pride to be able to claim Ali as a member of my lineage, in the very broad sense. For much of my life, I thought that this attachment I had to Ali was unique to me and other Black Muslims. That changed when I met a white Muslim who credited Ali as the impetus for his conversion. At that moment, I realized that Ali played a crucial in shaping what it means to be an American Muslim, broadly speaking. In celebrating his influence, I hope that we always remember that his Islam was grounded in his Blackness, and that these two aspects of his being were inseparable. When he died, think pieces and videos in tribute to his legacy were everywhere. This article and video spoke to me the most.
Just a few weeks ago, I got to witness a dance performance paying tribute to Muhammad Ali. The Opulence of Integrity, choreographed by Christal Brown, placed (mostly male) Black bodies on the stage, imitating Ali’s boxing style, speaking his words, and putting into motion his inner struggles. I wept through half of the performance.
[Feature Image: A photo of a person holding a camera to their eye. They are wearing a pink printed scarf and a grey and white scare on their head. They are wearing a white long-sleeved shirt. Source: Wasi Daniju]