By Su’ad Abdul Khabeer
She ran her fingers over the letters on the small, flat headstone. She could feel her mother grimacing, as if she was still there, at the name the letters formed, CARLA WILLIAMS. But she had been afraid to use her mother’s Muslim name, Shahidah Abdullah–the grave might be desecrated once they were gone. And they were leaving. Where exactly? She and her son had yet to decide. There were no good choices. But staying was not an option. The CLJP had done its work and their town was about to fall.
Many had breathed a sigh of relief when Trump lost in 2016, and it was close. But his loss only made the vitriol more potent and non-white life that more precarious. The supremacists and their allies, named, with no sense of irony, the Citizens League for Justice and Peace, had grown by running a very good propaganda campaign. There had been a series of “terror attacks”: some were accidents, like the student who set fire to a classroom trying to bake a cake, some were due to negligence, like the pipeline that exploded in North Dakota because deregulation made cutting corners good economic policy and some were actual terrorist attacks (or at least that was the official story). Whatever the real causes for unexpected violence, destruction or death on American soil, it soon became irrelevant. With each incident the CLJP’s legions of social media warriors would use every platform available, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, FingerInk, to spread misinformation about the event–tying it either to ISIS or Black Lives Matter. Sometimes it was fake statistics or doctored headlines from fraudulent websites and other times it was photoshop or creative video editing. These “news” items would go viral, get picked up by local and national news and get passed around and around until they became fact. When the truth came out, not many noticed nor cared and many others, frankly, were never interested in the truth.
“Detroit. Jadda always said we should go to Detroit…and Jadda was always right” her son Tariq said as he smiled wryly.
She sighed and shook her head. Before the “ish” hit the fan, her mother had moved out to help her with Tariq, to “keep him Black” as she would say, in the sea of whiteness that was the small college town where they now live. Of course, the move and the job was all supposed to be temporary, just something to hold them over until she finished that book that was going to change everything; make some school back East make her an offer she could not refuse, so they could all return home. But “terror attacks” led to downturns and selective budget cuts and the jobs became even fewer. This seemed especially true for the work she did–20th century Black cinema–but in reality any research that did not have “security” in its title was not fundable. And then came the cancer and the cancer brought bills. So they ended up, Black and Muslim, in the middle of nowhere.
“What about Philly?” Philadelphia had had so many Muslims already, who were “armed and dangerous,” that it had turned into somewhat of a fortress. “But once we get in, that’s it,” she replied. “And they are always threatening to bomb it out of existence, so it might be THE END,” Tariq said half scared, half hopeful.
Initially, their neighbors were supportive. They knew she and her family were good people and so they protected them from those who were less sympathetic. But now the holdouts were no longer really holding out a helping hand. Like the adjacent towns, the local council was considering expulsion or internment. Although she already sort of felt interned, stuck in the town for fear of being picked up by bounty hunters. (On the road, the going price for an unregistered Muslim (alive) was $12,500, a Black woman in good health could go for almost as much and young Black men were $3,000 a body. She could only imagine how much she and her son would be worth). Besides, she wanted to leave on her own, with her own plan rather than be pushed out and unprepared.
Her cousins had chosen to blend in. They had the foresight not to give their kids too “foreign” or “ghetto” sounding names and they themselves went by abbreviations Jay (for Jamel) and [Kha]Dee[jah]. They shaved beards, cut locks and removed headscarves. They had become experts at perfecting the pumpkin spice latte–and how to use just the right amount of ‘hood to keep their neighbors interested and unafraid. “How Brooklyn has changed,” Dee whispered during their last visit. The CLJP had claimed that the rule taqiyya was rampant among Muslims. They were finally right. Sometimes, by acting in certain ways, you could pass for Black and not Muslim. Sometimes, that meant safety but that all depended–on where you were, what time of the day and whom the latest “act of terror” was attributed to.
“Detroit,” she murmured, spreading out a paper map of the country. They were only a little more than 300 miles away. She had been told that safe houses were marked by little statues of Our Lady of Fatima in their eastern windows. “You think we have enough gas to get to there” she asked Tariq, pointing to a red-ink dot on the map–it marked the closest known safe house going North. “I think so,” he replied, “and we still have our bikes and I finally fit Abu’s boots,” he grinned. “Detroit, then? I can almost taste Titi Hazel’s arroz!” Tariq grasped her hand “Ma, Detroit will be safe.” She held his hand tighter, “Dios te oiga, mi vida, Dios te oiga…”
Su’ad Abdul Khabeer is a scholar-artist-activist. She is Senior Editor of Sapelo Square and assistant professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at Purdue University.