“Do I make you feel uncomfortable?” This question is posed by body positive model and style blogger Leah Vernon, during the introduction of her video Muslim Girl Dance #BodyProject. The video features Vernon confidently dancing down the streets of Detroit in hijab. Vernon utilizes her digital platform to creatively highlight the necessity of deconstructing perceived limitations of Blackness and religion within the framework of the feminine body. On her blog Beauty and the Muse, Vernon shares the inspiration behind the video. “I had this wild idea to make a solo dance video. I believed that a fat girl dancing, a Muslim girl dancing in the streets of Detroit would make for a powerful statement, a conversation on what an American Muslim looks like?” The video pushes us to consider the ways that the body and dance as an art form can be a tool to bring awareness to the complex politics of being a Black, Muslim woman in hijab.
Here, our new Arts and Culture co-editors Rashida James-Saadiya and Vanessa Taylor present two perspectives to unpack Vernon’s video by exploring the significance of art as a historic and contemporary instrument for social and spiritual liberation. James-Saadiya’s analysis of Vernon’s work emphasizes Black joy as a form of intentional resistance. Taylor’s viewpoint stresses the importance of Muslims utilizing digital space to create dialogue surrounding the intersections of being Black and Muslim.
The Joy of Resistance
By Rashida James-Saadiya
“When and where there is repression, what a woman does when she gets dressed in the morning may be considered political.” – Maxine Leeds Craig
The historical practice of objectifying, policing and sexualizing Black women’s bodies has created an unexpected space for the intentional cultivation of Black joy and radical self-love as a form of empowerment and spiritual liberation. Our current social climate demands creative forms of resistance to counter the constant barrage of discrimination and othering. A drastic political, economic and social realignment regarding how we view and honor “difference” in our society is desperately needed.
Until this occurs, Leah Vernon a 30-year-old Black Muslim woman, fashion blogger and stylist from Detroit, has creatively used humor, art and the resilience of Black Muslim women to reclaim her right to exist beyond western margins of beauty. Embodying rebellious joy, a playful smile, impeccable fashion taste and off-the-cuff choreography, Vernon uses self-produced videos to document Black bliss in motion, encouraging others to reclaim the power of joy and the innate beauty of Blackness.
Art is a catalyst that offers liberation, possibility and language — powerful and precise. Through art, we find tools to express outrage, confusion and fear; we embrace language that serves as a healing balm; we restore the soul and define a way forward. Joy in the face of social oppression is a political act! Rooted in the reclaiming of one’s humanity and the wisdom of those who labored from sun up to sun down and knew the importance of protecting the tender parts of themselves. The parts that inspired them to dance, love and remember their right to freedom. Black joy is intertwined with survival, linked to remembering, letting go, healing and standing firm against injustice. Black joy is unafraid of tears and loves the sound of laughter. It falls often and gets up again and again.
It is the kind of joy that dances on street corners just because, and reminds others to be true and gentle with themselves. Black joy is Leah Vernon, redefining resistance with the perfect shade of blue lipstick, a huge smile and a hijab that should make us all proud. She is unbothered and committed to telling her truth.
Despite monolithic representations that appear in television, advertisements and the imaginations of those who digest them, Black creatives have consistently worked to provide images that speak to the depth and expansiveness of our humanity. Vernon’s use of joy as an act of resistance is necessary and overwrites stereotypes that restrict the possibility of what it means to be Black, happy, woman, liberated and Muslim. Every moment of her joy creates an echo — a love note full of questions.
Were you born with gifts?
Have you faced challenges?
Have you noticed injustice in the world?
Do you want to be among those who make it right?
Vernon shows us that the path to freedom is…
-Loving yourself out loud
-Walking every street with your head held high
-Dancing with abandon
-Hugging your sisters
-Carrying black glitter in your pocket and reclaiming space
Finding strength, peace and bliss in the abundance that is Black joy.
How Islam Has Defined Black American Dance
by Vanessa Taylor
“Visibly Muslim. Hijabi. I’m fat, but don’t get it twisted. Are you afraid that if we could actually love, really love, our true selves, imperfections and all, that we’d be free?” Leah Vernon speaks with clarity, voice playing over clips of her walking down the streets of Detroit. Vernon’s two-minute video Muslim Girl Dance #BodyProject confronts the hyper-visibility Black Muslim women encounter in a unique way: through dance.
Black Muslims are using digital space to hold conversations about what it means to exist at these intersections, notably with hashtags such as #BeingBlackAndMuslim. These conversations have paid homage to the usual disciplines within arts, like music and literature, but Vernon’s video brings additional depth to conversations around visibility by using dance to confront how Black Muslim women are permitted to occupy space.
Through misogynoir both inside and outside of the religion, Black Muslim women’s bodies are hyper-policed and politicized. To be Black is to be immediately othered within gender; there is no construction of womanhood in which Blackness is the ideal. Instead, Black women are subjected to hyper-sexualization, which makes expectations of modesty difficult to navigate. Fatness and curves, in particular, are highlighted for punishment, showcasing the ways Black women are denied the right to occupy physical space.
In Black American culture, Islam has always played a key role in influencing the arts, including the development of entire musical genres, like hip hop and the blues. If you played a word association game, Islam is not likely to make most people immediately think of women dancing, but the reality is that dance is no exception.
Within the United States, the Gullah-Geechee culture developed the “Ring Shout.” It began as a traditional religious ritual performed by enslaved Africans within the United States and the Caribbean. Within it, people circled each other in a counterclockwise motion while shuffling their feet, clapping, and sometimes singing. Its origins are rooted within West African dance influence, with scholars suggesting that it actually originated among enslaved African Muslims. The counterclockwise circling mimics tawaf (circling) of the Kaaba in Mecca. And the “shout,” is not an homage to actual shouting, which is not required for the dance, but to the Arabic word “shawt” — a single run.
It’s important to note the Islamic influences behind the Ring Shout, because it served as a unifying element for Africans within the colonies. In his article, “Ring Shout! Literary Studies, Historical Studies, and Black Music Inquiry,” Samuel A. Floyd Jr. proposes that the stylistic elements in the Ring Shout laid the foundations for Black music styles and dance culture. Calls, cries and hollers led to the development of blue notes, call and response, and other rhythmic aspects. Before we had instruments, we had our bodies, and we danced.
“Do I make you feel uncomfortable,” Vernon asks as she finishes her brief monologue, looking directly into the camera. She smirks briefly before the music begins and, free and unrestrained, she dances.
At Sapelo Square, we believe in creating our own narrative. You can join our work by supporting our latest project: Preserving an American Muslim Legacy.
Vanessa Taylor is a freelance creative based out of Minneapolis. She’s interested in using a multi disciplinary approach to social justice, from on-the-grounds activism like co-founding the Black Liberation Project to finding accessible ways to educate community with writing as a way to make sense of it all. She is currently a fellow of Muslim Wellness’ Deeply Rooted Emerging Leadership inaugural class.
Rashida James-Saadiya is a visual artist, writer, and cultural educator, invested in transforming social perceptions through creative literature. Her work explores migration, identity and the transmission of spirituality through poetry and song amongst Muslim women in West Africa and the American South. In addition, she is the Creative Director of Crossing Limits, a multi-faith non-profit organization which utilizes poetry as an instrument for social change, highlighting the intersections of faith and social injustice.