Month: October 2018


How I Learned to Breathe

By Rashida James-Saadiya

What function do my scars have, when the world is madly in love with them.

                                                                                                                  – Tariq Touré

Storytellers are carriers of history, cultural memory, resilience and hope. Tariq Touré is a storyteller, who uses poetry to shed light on social injustice, anti-Blackness and the complexities of the Black Muslim identity in America. His sophomore collection 2 Parts Oxygen: How I Learned to Breathe is a vulnerable exploration on fatherhood, identity and the arduous task of finding your own voice. This new work offers a 118-free verse poems, including a series of paintings illustrating themes around self-worth and healing. Born and raised in West Baltimore, Touré garnered national attention in 2017 for his critically acclaimed poem, “For the Love of The Game,” which highlighted the controversy surrounding athletes engaged in protest against police brutality. We spoke with Touré about his new book and how he came to use poetry as a  medium to create discourse on self-care, culture and Black Muslim narratives.

Sapelo: How did you discover that poetry was the way you wanted to communicate?

TT: I’ve written since I was about 7 years old intentionally. From poetry, to raps, to prose I’ve been really intrigued with language. My mother is an English major and a retired third grade teacher. My father is a retired Imam and currently teaches classical Arabic. Language and its power has always magnetized me. I didn’t believe my words had significant power until I started to share my writing in college. It was during a Black History month event [in February] and I was asked to give a speech. I just wrote a poem because I wasn’t that comfortable yet speaking publicly. Alhamdlillah, when I was done, there was a charged silence, and then an eruption of emotional applause. Since then, I’ve accepted I might have something that connects with folks. I’m humbled by it.

Realizing that words could create change sparked something in me.

Sapelo: Growing up, what literary influences inspired you?

TT: Yo, my mother wasn’t the type to shove books down my throat, but she did make sure that literature was falling out of every corner of my house, centering Black authors (laughs). I remember reading Maya Angelou early on — just passing through her poems and being touched by her force and grace. Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and even the writings of Marcus Garvey introduced me to a spectrum of voices. I also read the clever quirky stuff like Shel Silverstein, which was also cool to me. A shift for me happened when I read [George Jackson’s] Soledad Brother. George Jackson captured the political energy of his time. His words, just his words and ideas, pushed his brother to attempt to free him at all costs. Realizing that words could create change sparked something in me.


Photo Credit: Devin Allen

I’m particularly intentional about how much space I allow racism and white supremacy to take up in my mind. There’s a material reality to it. I accept that, but my mind is my last safehouse

Sapelo: The world affects what and how we create. How has this particular social political landscape influenced your newest work?

TT: I’m particularly intentional about how much space I allow racism and white supremacy to take up in my mind. There’s a material reality to it. I accept that, but my mind is my last safehouse. 2 Parts Oxygen was a way for me to decentralize reactions to white supremacy. I think about Toni Morrison’s reflection on racism a lot when she says its function is to eat away at our minds at the most basic levels. With this political landscape attempting to choke the light out of so many marginalized people, I made a point to write about the light in my life, the things that helped me breathe through all [of] this chaos. The world in general was weighing heavily on me. I had to do something critical to become lighter. Maybe reading it will help others do the same, or at least add perspective.

 QiyamahOn the day all the Quran I memorized and forgot molds into a lion and gnaws my legs down to the bone. I will dress in my father’s kufi and Khamees, and scrub my hands until paragraphs begin to show. I am unsure of what verses testify against me. I am certain darkness, whenever I made time for it has blackened chambers in my heart. And despite our posture in prayer, or the position of the sun when we bow for asr, our bill is to be collected. If not for the marching army of supplications exhaled by our mothers, we spend eternity slaying beasts of no nation, cursing our hands for what they’ve touched [1]

Sapelo: The title of your book 2 Parts Oxygen: How I Learned to Breath  is a collection of prose exploring family, fatherhood and a deep desire for mental and spiritual wellness. The title alludes to the process of learning to heal.  How does the idea of healing or self-care play into this collection of free-verse poems?

TT: One of the things that was most important to me in developing this collection of poems was to let the art speak for what I was experiencing and digesting from the world around me. That being said, I realized that for a long time I was knowingly and willingly a participant in habits that were aiding in my own self-destruction. What I fear in this world that has put commodification above humanity is that the arduous process of walking through the fire of your own soul and mind has been reduced to conspicuous consumption. Basically, if you want to feel better society says, “Buy this. Take that. Look this way. And everything will be fine.” I believe language matters for marginalized and oppressed people, with this collection, I’m reminding myself to breathe. I am not whole or healed yet simply working to develop a better sense of self.

Sapelo: One of central themes in your sophomore book is family and the complexities and joy of being a Black father. What lessons have your children taught you?

TT: Having a family has given me a helicopter view of life. When I was young and slightly less stupid than I am now, I had no longitudinal perspective of life. Family sort of makes you [become] responsible for attempting to curate a future as best as possible. Being married to a phenomenal woman is a human reminder that our potential is nowhere near operating at its maximum level. My wife is one of the most ambitious people I’ve ever met. There’s a grounding element to it all. I guess the biggest impact my children have had on me is that I now have the patience to accept that no two days will be alike (laugh). Kids kind of push you to live in the now and cherish every moment. There’s two threads that I believe will stick out among many in this collection: one is time and the other is relationships. I hope people see the urgency of now and the urgency of pouring into the people you love.

I think about how our connection to Islam was interrupted by chattel slavery and how Allah decreed we’d find it again.

Sapelo: Cultural and spiritual imagery seems to be a recurring theme in this collection  — in your poem “I found God in a bean pie,” we find the lines: “ We have never had a home here. But lord knows we can turn a bando into paradise. Lord knows we can turn lemons into La Ilaha illallah.” Can you talk about this poems’ relationship to spirituality and the legacy of Black Muslims communities  in the United States?

TT: For many Black Muslims, Islam was/is a liberating force in their lives. As my mother and father would say Islam found so many Black people while they were searching. Many were searching for a way out from under oppression and the residue of subjugation.  It’s truly a beautiful thing to witness and be a part of this legacy. The bean pie is something you can literally taste that represents that triumph. I recently watched a video where my nephew who has an incredibly beautiful voice call the adhan during jumu’ah; afterwards, my father delivered the khutbah. It made me tear up.

I think about how our connection to Islam was interrupted by chattel slavery and how Allah decreed we’d find it again. Every part of that story is beyond fascinating and affirming for me. It’s built a resolve in myself and so many Black Muslims. There’s a pride you see in the eyes of  pioneering Muslim women and men, their walk is different, their talk is different. They’ve spent a lifetime reunited with a lost love and it shows in every aspect of their lives. Our legacy is one of rebellion in the pursuit of Allah’s light. We should celebrate every inch of our history.

[1] Toure, Tariq. 2 Parts Oxygen: How I Leared to Breathe. 2018, p. 33

Processed with VSCO with b5 presetRegarded by Hip Hop artist Black Thought as the “Amiri Baraka of our time” Tariq Touré is the soul stirring Baltimore born, Muslim griot, whose poetry carries ages wisdom in each letter. Touré’s debut collection of poems, Black Seeds, blitzed through the core of inequality, and proxy war on Black communities in America, winning Best Poetry book of Baltimore in 2016. His poems graced the pages of NAACP image award nominated book A Beautiful Ghetto by heralded photojournalist Devin Allen. In 2017, Touré summoned one of the most powerful oral depictions of the contradictions and conflicts surrounding NFL players and their right to free speech with his Al Jazeera produced poem, For the Love of The Game. The viral poem garnered the praise of civil rights icons such as Omar Suleiman.


On Prisoners’ Rights, Black Muslims and Imam Jamil Al-Amin

In celebration of Imam Jamil Al-Amin’s 75th birthday, and in recognition of almost two decades of imprisonment and the ongoing fight for his freedom, we are uplifting two recent works that highlight the work of Black Muslims in Prisoners’ Rights movements and Imam Jamil’s role as a political activist and religious leader. 

By Kamilah A. Pickett

On October 4, 2018, in a federal prison in Tuscon, Ariz., Imam Jamil Al-Amin (formerly known as H. Rap Brown) began his 75th revolution around the sun. For every iteration of his life, as a student leader, a targeted and tortured activist, a beloved Imam and as a political prisoner, he has been known as an unapologetic and fierce advocate for his community.  For me, he modeled Islamic liberation theology and how to navigate this world fearlessly as a Black Muslim. As one of the articles featured below notes, Imam Jamil “was someone who inspired others to act. He communicated political ideas in the language of the street.”

We are in a political moment that feels parallel to the struggles and activism of the 1960s. In August 2018, men and women incarcerated in prisons across the nation declared a nationwide strike in response to the riot in April 2018 at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina resulting with the death of seven people. State officials had reduced mental health and other programs aimed at rehabilitation and eliminated amenities and activities that allowed incarcerated individuals a sense of normalcy and humanity. The list of demands included improvements to conditions in prisons, an immediate end to prison slavery and the rescinding of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, allowing imprisoned individuals a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.

For every iteration of his life, as a student leader, a targeted and tortured activist, a beloved Imam and as a political prisoner, he has been known as an unapologetic and fierce advocate for his community.

Photo credit – Google Images

Writer Livia Gershon highlights the battles imprisoned Black Muslims fought and won and how those fights changed prisoners’ relationships with the legal system in “What the Prisoners’ Rights Movement Owes to the Black Muslims of the 1960s.”

Photo credit – Wikimedia Commons

Professor and author Akinyele Umoja and author Arun Kundnani discuss Imam Jamil as both political activist and religious leader in “Rethinking H. Rap Brown and Black Power.”

Photo credit – Marion S. Trikosko, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Happy belated birthday, Imam Jamil. May Allah (swt) increase your faith, count you among those who patiently persevere and are steadfast in this life and may you be rewarded with the best of the hereafter.

Free them all.

 Kamilah A. Pickett is Politics Editor for Sapelo Square and Education Co-Chair for the Believers Bail Out. Ms. Pickett holds a Master of Public Health degree from Morehouse School of Medicine and a juris doctor from Georgetown University Law Center. She has been a passionate advocate operating at the intersections of health and justice for more than a decade.


Sekou Odinga: A Black Muslim Former Political Prisoner in the United States

Today’s post features a short talk by Sekou Odinga about the need to free political prisoners held in the United States. This FRED Talk (Facing Race, Elevating Democracy) was part of a series organized by Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. Sekou Odinga is a Black power activist who served over 30 years in prison after taking part in the liberation of Assata Shakur from prison in 1979. Odinga’s story provides a compelling example of Muslims’ participation in the radical activism of the Black Power movement beginning in the 1960s. Muslims like Sekou Odinga, Saafiya Bukhari and Dhoruba Bin Wahad were members of the Black Liberation Army, while others like Dr. Muhammad Ahmad and Sterling X participated in organizations like the Revolutionary Action Movement and the Republic of New Afrika. Often these organizations collaborated, and their membership overlapped. Odinga, like many Black radical activists, was inspired by the life and legacy of Malcolm X during his youth. He joined the Organization of Afro-American Unity, the revolutionary Pan-African organization that Malcolm X founded, which also attracted other influential Muslim activists like Sallahudin and Lumumba Shakur who inspired many participants in the Black Liberation movement to adopt the Shakur family name. Odinga later served as a founding member of the Bronx chapter of the Black Panther Party and was invited to travel to Algeria in 1970 to help organize the international section of the Party.


A picture of Sekou Odinga in his younger days, prior to his 33 year incarceration.

In this FRED Talk, Odinga dispels the myth that America has no political prisoners by speaking on the circumstances surrounding his own imprisonment and the imprisonment of several other activists. He remarks that,

“All freedom struggles against oppressive governments produce political prisoners. This is a historical fact. We can go back as far as Jesus Christ, Peace be upon him, who was himself a political prisoner of the Roman empire, just as Leonard Peltier, Aafia Siddiqui, and 13 members of the Black Panther Party are political prisoners of the U.S. empire.”

Elsewhere, Odinga has recounted facing torture when initially captured by police in 1981, describing how he was burned by cigars, brutally beaten and had his head flushed down toilets in an attempt to pressure him to provide information about other activists. In this talk, he describes some of the horrors associated with the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program, and links this history to the disturbing recent Black Identity Extremist (BIE) categorization used to justify the surveillance and criminalization of Black Lives Matter activists.

sekou-imprisoned-concrete_wall-350x400pxAlhamdulillah, Sekou Odinga was released from prison on November 25, 2014. Since his release, he has continued speaking on behalf of the many political prisoners still incarcerated in the United States for their involvement in radical Black activism during the era of COINTELPRO and has been an active member of the Muslim community in New York City. Odinga’s personal history reminds us that Black Muslims were once at the forefront of radical activism and helped to pioneer power building strategies for aggrieved communities in America. Perhaps his life and work will inspire us to rediscover the potential for our faith to spark liberatory transformation for both individuals and communities.  

Click the link here to watch his entire talk:



Definitions and the Divine Experience

This month, we invite you to listen to an episode from the  Identity Politics podcast as hosts Ikhlas Saleem and Makkah Ali interview Imam Muhammad Mendes. Imam Mendes touches on several interesting points. In particular, he discusses how the Muslim community defines the terms imam and shaykh (23-minute mark), which are commonly used interchangeably among Muslims. Imam Mendes explains the etymology of the imam and shaykh and how the words are used today,

“These terms are often misunderstood and the community that’s using them whether it’s the scholarly community or your muslim community in general or if its the media. They all have different connotations. What a shaykh is in each of those communities means different things.”

At the 33:33 mark, Imam Mendes discusses why he chose to study Islam in West Africa and how the Black experience can be a unique Islamic experience. As you listen to the podcast, reflect on the terms imam and shaykh and what Blackness and the divine experience means to you.

Click on the link to hear the full interview,