by Ryan Hilliard
I advise you to be conscious of Allāh and not to pursue this world, even if it comes towards you. Do not cry over something that is kept away from you. Speak the truth, show mercy to orphans, help those who are lost, do deeds that will benefit you in the Hereafter. Oppose the oppressor, help the oppressed, and practice what is in the Book of Allāh. Do not fear the attacks of critics in matters concerning Allāh […] O my son(s), I advise you to fear Allāh, to establish the prayer at its appointed time, to give the alms-due in the appropriate place, and to perform excellent ablution because no prayer is accepted without purity. I advise you to forgive sins [committed against you], subdue your anger, maintain ties of kinship, be forbearing towards the ignorant, gain a deep understanding of religion, do not be hasty in taking decisions without giving them due deliberation, remain attached to the Qur’ān, maintain good neighborly ties, enjoin good and forbid evil, and abstain from immoral acts. —Imām ᶜAlī b. Abī Ṭālib
In this climate of refreshed violence against black bodies and souls, I’ve been re-visiting the idea of “slow death” and how to recognize it in myself and those around me. Kiese Laymon defines this concept in his 2013 essay collection How To Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America, which explores the complicated, dark realities that are exposed when aspects of humanity, specifically within the scope of blackness in America, are removed by choice and/or by force in order to survive the lethal symptoms of fear and racism. The “slow death” could be interpreted as a series of decisions and actions that black people take, and sometimes inherit, in this country that erode the human spirit for the sake of “getting by”.
As a new father, I’ve been increasingly inspired by black parents who love their children more than themselves, and kill themselves slowly to make sure that they live. The guarantee of the childrens’ living is volatile at best, and all the more endangered nowadays by the systematic killings of black babies. Even if the children dodge the bullets and escape out of the back doors of their mothers’ homes as the police ram their way into the only safe spaces they have known, the “living” that becomes their adulthood is more so survival than anything else, a type of fugitive status, continually making decisions to evade a fatal punishment, for a black existence that is deemed criminal. I guess this makes me a fugitive, too; and as one, anything I teach or pass on to my child becomes a lesson in survival rather than an experience in living.
Imām ᶜAlī, may his face and progeny be ennobled by the Most High ﷻ, advised his sons, even up to the last breath before his return, to be ever-conscious of God ﷻ and to safeguard the realities of creation with unreasonable love. I choked while reading his loving exhortations; not simply because of the wisdom and faith his words were saturated in, but because of the look I imagined on the faces his sons al-Ḥasan, al-Ḥusayn, and Muḥammad al-Akbar al-Ḥanafiyya. There is something about the intensity of being on the verge of tears that makes one clutch at every word that comes from the source of one’s heartbreak. Perhaps the heat rushing to one’s pained face and the stinging pricks behind bloodshot eyes empower the head and heart to listen with acute and painful clarity. When I envision their faces, I see them listening. And then they wash and bury him, actualizing all the love that they inherited from their father, and knowing that their survival hangs on his every word.
My father is still in this world, and it is hard to say how I’ll be when he passes. Whether he jokes about some thing that went down at his job or silently reads his Bible while Mom watches “Frozen”, possibly judging her for still watching cartoons, I listen to him. He’s here for me to listen to, and has something for me worth listening to. I will keep my ears, visible and hidden, attuned to his mannerisms and inflections, altruism and forbearance, weakness and humility, presence and absence, and the emanations of love that emit from his slow death. I’ll still listen when he’s gone, but it will be different. There won’t be booming voices in the sky nor still murmurs in the annals of my mind to echo his words. It will be in my limbs and my own words that my father will be heeded, as if he never left.
I pray that God ﷻ preserves and loves my father for his being and efforts, and converts his mistakes and shortcomings to good deeds. I want to say that my black father is unique from the others that die slowly as he does, but then I would be lying about him. He inherited a quiet violence from his father that looked like selfish disdain for my lack of athleticism, long military tours to pay for a home he wanted to escape from anyway, and acknowledging his pride in his marriage while still leaving a door open for some people to violate it. He always told me that he is not perfect and to never put him on a pedestal, probably because things placed on pedestals can be seen all the way around.
And even my mother, how much of her am I? I ask God ﷻ for me to taste the Garden in this life at her feet, even when she kicks me. Those swift kicks serve as a reminder that the ones you love the most will hurt you the most, not because that person is ill-intended, but because you made the assumption that they wouldn’t. Her slow death comes in the form of watching the news to make sure that my brother and I aren’t on there, using her work breaks to write lists of baby names that are full of meaning and cultural relevance but will still get her grandbaby hired, and crocheting to keep her mother alive in her hands. She knows she is alive and did not make it on her own, but also knows that her children are not her and may not make it on their own. But she tries, pauses for a brow wipe, and tries anyway. Gardeners are like that.
I wonder if I’ll love my children in the same way they do, and how my slow death will play out for and because of them. I want them to have their mother’s eyes and her anomalous womanism. I hope they have my lips and the eloquence of tongue that cuts through the illiteracy and suppression that America tries to swaddle every colored child in. I dream that they will inherit the need to protect their hearts from the ulterior motives of others from their grandfathers. I pray that they are gifted with the consistency of their steps toward God ﷻ that only their grandmothers can bestow.
Above all, I just want them to know that God ﷻ loves them and will try them by that love, just as Imām ᶜAlī alluded to in his final counsel to his sons. My parents were the greatest test for me, and I do not doubt that I will be to mine, too. Just like Imām ᶜAlī, in loving my children more than myself, I will be giving my self to them and probably hurting them in the process while I kill myself slowly for their survival. Whether they go on to survive depends on how much God’s love they can unselfishly give in return, and wield to swing back at the forces that hunt them.
Be grateful to Me and to your parents; to Me is the destination. | Qur’ān 31:14
Ryan B. Hilliard serves as the Youth Director for the Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano, Texas, and Religion Editor for Sapelo Square. He also is the Chief Curator for FloodPlains, an online resource for West African Islamic textual heritage.