James Baldwin once said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage nearly almost all of the time.”
Last month, Baltimore erupted, and the rest of America got a glimpse into the ever-present but often hidden reality of black rage.
Tensions have been simmering in the city for a long time. Many of the city’s black residents live in terrible poverty—in neighborhoods marked by an abundance of abandoned houses, rampant violence, a lack of access to employment, adequate schools, and basic necessities. The death of Freddie Gray, a black Baltimore resident, at the hands of six city police officers last month proved to be a spark that eventually brought the situation to the boiling point.
America watched as once again a major American city became the venue for an urban uprising. Before it was all said and done, there was destruction of property, broken glass, fires, and eventually a declared state of emergency in the city. A curfew was put into effect, tear gas deployed on residents, there were supplemental police forces from at least three states, and of course there was the National Guard. To add insult to injury, in the immediate weeks following the unrest, the state of Maryland voted to allocate $30 million—not to urban renewal, or to schools, housing, or jobs, but to the construction of a brand new juvenile jail.
At the same time, the Islamophobia industry in the United States is in full bloom, often with harmful, even deadly conseuqences. Pamela Geller recently brought her traveling circus of a public hate campaign to Philadelphia—after having made stops in recent years in other major American cities such as San Francisco and New York. When one of the city’s largest masjids held a press conference addressing the hateful ads that were to run on city buses, those unfamiliar with the face of Islam in the city may have been surprised to discover that nearly every Muslim in the room was black.
At first blush, it may seem that these two phenomenon are not intimately connected. Parallels can be drawn fairly easily, of course, between Islamophobia and anti-black racism as specific manifestations of a similar impulse, but making the leap to consider them intimate bedfellows may seem like an analytical stretch. In public discourse, we easily link anti-Muslim and anti-Arab discrimination as being nearly one and the same. Yet, in spite of the fact that a full one-third of the U.S. Muslim population is black, we rarely tend to think of issues of anti-black racism, poverty, mass incarceration, or police brutality as legitimate “Muslim” issues. This is because we rarely consider black Muslims.
Black Muslims exist right at the intersection of these two forms of racism. Baltimore and Philadelphia are two American cities where the commonly accepted narrative of who American Muslims are, where their concerns lie, and the specific cocktail of intersectional racisms that they live with is radically disrupted. Both cities have long and rich black Muslim histories—and diverse manifestations of Afro-Muslim religious expression that are as much a part of the landscape of their respective cities as crab cakes and water ice. “As salaam ‘alaykum” emanates from the mouths of Muslim and non-Muslim black residents in both places as naturally as any other greeting. Khimars, bow ties, and the iconic red fez are all items in an array of sartorial indicators of particular racial and religious life worlds.
Given the entrenchment of black Muslimness within the broader context of black life in these particular cities, it should come as no surprise to find African American Muslims in the spectrum of activists and intellectuals working to combat these issues.
In December, a group of Philadelphia and NJ-based Muslims formed Muslims Make It Plain, an organization that draws upon the tradition of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam to organize and educate the Muslim community and the general public around issues of law enforcement excess, including both police violence and invasive surveillance practices.
In the midst of the Baltimore uprisings, the work of the city’s Muslims to protect and care for black residents was truly amazing to witness.
The Fruit of Islam, from Baltimore’s Muhammad’s Mosque # 6 joined forces with community activists and gang members alike, using their bodies to shield community members from police armed in riot gear and to protect businesses from being destroyed. The women of the mosque, while not physically in the fray, manned phones, and watched the internet—providing intelligence and tactical support in real time to the brothers on the front lines as they attempted to keep the community safe.
Believers also distributed hot food in the neighborhood in the following days. Muslims from Masjid as Saffat, located less than a block away from the now iconic burned and looted CVS at North and Pennsylvania avenues in West Baltimore, have organized sustained distribution of essential hygiene and health products to senior citizens in the neighborhood—deemed to be the most vulnerable and among the hardest hit by the loss of one of the only pharmacies in the community.
Individual black Muslims of many varieties were present and vocal in the near daily protests that took place in the city in the weeks between Freddie Gray’s murder through the immediate aftermath of the unrest.
I weave together these seemingly disparate threads to draw attention to the fact that in this historic moment when we are presumably more attentive to the way that marginalization endangers the lives of the invisible, being cognizant of the ways that intersectional identities are easily erased is more important than ever. Just as much of the activism around police brutality has centered the experiences of black men while ignoring the deadly perils that black women also face from law endorcement, assumptions about who “American Muslims” are, and flattened represenations of who constitutes the “black community” place black American Muslim experiences and challenges out of perceptual range.
Dominant narratives—in both media and scholarly literature tend to doubly efface the existence and voices of black American Muslims—even in this moment when black bodies are at the very center of the unrest. Black Muslims do not come to this issue as bystanders or allies—even well meaning ones. Yet we are often erased—even from the narrative of our own struggle. That erasure renders our communities even more vulnerable—to Islamophobia, to anti-black racism (including from WITHIN the Muslim community), and to all of the attendant perils that accompany them.
Where the quintessential imagined American Muslim is a well-off, highly educated and professional Arab or South Asian struggling to bridge East and West, America and Islam—black Muslims have been living with the unique reality of both being completely inseparable from America since its foundations as a nation—yet literally dying for recognition and protection under the law as bonafide citizens of the land of our birth. We are active and present in these struggles because these are our lives, our communities, our issues, and our concerns.
We fight because we are profiled both on the street and at the airport—as existential threats to white, Christian America. Yet we refuse to answer to any of our given epithets—either “thug” or “terrorist.” We are unapologetically black. We are indisputably Muslim. For better and worse, we are fully and ambivalently American. And we are enough.