by Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, Founding Director and Senior Editor
One year ago today my colleagues and I launched Sapelo Square. We, the “Sapelo Squad” chose to inaugurate this website on an auspicious day: the birth date of Malcolm X, also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. We did so because Malcolm X is a Black Muslim who embodies the highest values of excellence, critical thinking and integrity alongside an unwavering commitment to universal justice and Black liberation. Of course, Malcolm X is not a singular figure but a beacon of the communities that raised him, those he worked with and those he lead, and those he continues to inspire. As part of the latter group, we draw on this legacy to guide the work of Sapelo Square.
How We Got Here:
Sapelo Square began as a kernel of an idea. I had recently moved to the “Heartland” of the United States and found myself far removed from my “people” i.e. the communities that built within me and fortified my strong sense of self, Black and Muslim. In this context, the desire to see myself reflected in my surroundings surfaced as a very real need. I felt this need on personal, and professional levels as well, and began to ponder if the Internet might be place where this need could be partially, yet meaningfully, met. So in the fall of 2011 I sent the following message to some of the smartest Black Muslim folks I knew:
I am really exhausted by the marginalization of African American Islam in the “mainstream.” I know the “mainstream” isn’t everything and that we, as Black people and Black Muslims, have our own public squares. I, like you, also know that African American Muslims have a strong do-for-self ethic, and I am interested in tapping into that in new media platforms. My interest comes from my exhaustion, but it comes from a craving to see representations of African American Islam, in all its contradictions and complexities. And as an educator and scholar it comes from wanting to be able to point individuals and groups to high quality multimedia resources that fill in the blanks on African American Muslims. So, I am writing to each of you to see if you’d be interested in working on a project like this.
The response was a unanimous YES! Zaheer Ali, Nisaa Ali, Nsenga Knight and Kauthar Umar specifically stepped up to the plate and together we designed the initial scaffolding of the website. Schedules, priorities and commitments shifted so it took some time to move from concept to something more concrete. In early 2015 I reached out to the current Sapelo Squad members; we regrouped and Sapelo Square became a dream realized.
Who We Are Today:
Since our launch we published over 80 articles covering topics from police brutality and Black Lives Matter to the Mawlid (Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday) and the Bean Pie. We published and curated poetry and film and produced a Ramadan mixtape as well as an online photo and audio exhibit on Malcolm X. We engaged the work of scholars, leaders and community members from within and outside Black Muslim communities. The results proved fruitful!
Sapelo Square has reached audiences in the United States and beyond including readers from across Latin America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. SapeloSquare.com has received 43 thousand page visits by over 20 thousand visitors. Through social media, Sapelo Square has reached and engaged over 210 thousand people and generated a loyal following of nearly 1,700.
These numbers tell us that Sapelo Square is successful at producing unique, relevant, engaging, and timely content that not only performs well, but rightfully champions ahead as the primary resource raising critical awareness and appreciation for the voice and narrative of Black Muslim communities.
During a weekend in late March of this year, with the financial support of a grant from the College of Liberal Arts at Purdue University, the Sapelo Squad held a strategic planning retreat. We met—for the first time in the flesh!—to reframe, refine and renew our commitment to the work of Sapelo Square. Our planning was assisted by expertise of one of Sapelo’s original visionaries, the historian and scholar Zaheer Ali, and Professor Kim Gallon, also a historian, digital scholar and visionary in her own right. Under the excellent facilitation of Makkah Ali, we went through a planning process that helped us further clarify the mission and vision of Sapelo Square. Some of those changes will be reflected in the site throughout the rest of 2016. Toward the conclusion of the retreat we identified some qualities, present and aspirational, that define our collective vision for Sapelo Square:
Expertise: Our vision is for Sapelo Square is to be a source of expert content on Black Muslims in the United States.
Black Muslims: Black Muslims will always be at the center of our work—their histories, experiences, challenges and contributions. We are well aware of the historic associations with the phrase “Black Muslims” in the US. However, our use of the phrase is much more inclusive because we understand the term “Black” to have a deeper resonance with the idea of the African Diaspora and the ongoing goal of liberation. Accordingly, this means that on Sapelo Square BlackMuslims includes all African-descended Muslims who live or are rooted in the US, be they native-born or immigrants. Black Muslims are diverse which makes “naming”—what we are called and call ourselves—a contested process and we embrace the challenge of providing content on such a diverse population.
Rooted: Our geographic anchor is the United States and we ground the work of Sapelo Square in the histories of the Black Muslim experience in the United States. This means that our content is always attentive to the specific ways being in or from the United States shapes what it means to be Black and Muslim at home, in the US, and abroad.
Communal: We pair our quest for expertise with a parallel commitment to accessibility and relevance. We believe that content about Black Muslims should be accessible to Black Muslims and the broader public and should also be relevant to their experiences.
Catalyst: We aspire to share, curate and produce content that pushes our audience to think in imaginative ways and be subsequently motivated to act in imaginative and innovative ways that bring the world that much closer universal justice and liberation.
In this work we build upon the legacy of those who came before us and with this work we seek to make a meaningful contribution that is rooted in this history, critically attuned to the shifts in our current terrain and is a catalyst for transformative thought and action.
We have a big and bold vision and it is with this energy and spirit that we move forward collectively and invite you to join us.
Sapelo Squad (left to right): Faatimah Knight, Religion Editor; Nsenga Knight, Managing Editor; Ikhlas Saleem, Website Design; Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, Senior Editor; Zaheer Ali, honorary member; Rasul Miller, History Editor; Narjis Nichole Abdul-Majid, History Editor; Aïdah Aliyah Rasheed, Arts & Culture Editor; Bashirah Mack, Social Media Manager and Nisa Muhammad, Politics Editor (not pictured).