By Kamilah A. Pickett
“Tell me, who I have to be, to get some reciprocity.” — “Ex-Factor” by Lauryn Hill
Lauryn’s lamentations were woven like golden throated thread through more than one ill-advised crush and heartache; I suppose it’s only fitting that her mournful refrains stitch together my feelings on the current political discourse and my place in it as a Black Muslim woman. Two months into 2019, in the midst of a Black History Month that should be put in rice, participating in anything remotely political feels like…like the six-foot-tall doctor with caramel-colored skin and hazel eyes. Tempting, with a hint of fevered urgency, but ultimately exhausting and often, completely one-sided. A charm-induced haze I can shake off, but when everything about your existence is political, what is there to shed? I can snatch moments of silence and take the occasional unencumbered deep breath, but I can’t opt-out of being Kamilah anymore than I can wish away every time I’ve been reckless with my heart. I haven’t ever desired to be anything other than exactly who I am. I mean, what is doper than a Black Muslim woman? [Answer: two!]
But for all the dopeness and love we pour into our communities, where is our reciprocity? Who pours love into us? Who champions our rights? Who prioritizes our needs?
“Listen to Black women.” “Follow Black women.” “Trust Black women.” In the last few years, these have become kitschy progressive mantras. Bumper stickers and tote bags and protest posters and T-shirts all extol the wisdom that Black women are apparently supposed to dole out like tissues or peppermints from our pocketbooks. The subtext of these refrains seemed to be that Black women could, should and would want to, shoulder these burdens. Yet, very little of this has translated into improved outcomes for Black women. The non-Black Muslims who jumped on this bandwagon were equally suspect and trafficked in the same tired tropes they gave lip service to upsetting in the name of supposed POC and religious solidarity. In reality, Black women are only listened to as long as what we say does not challenge misogynoir; we are trusted as long as we parrot the right voices and exclude the undesirable ones; we are followed only so far as it is expedient and never if it leads to the dismantling of ego and power. And even then, Black Muslim women still end up losing in a swirl of misogynoir, anti-Blackness and anti-Black Islamophobia.
Photo courtesy of Howard University Muslim Students Association, by Mansur K. Rashid
“See no one loves you more than me. And no one ever will.”
For my mother, and many in her generation, embracing Islam was both an answer to a spiritual call and a political act. Embracing Islam as Black people in the United States was an act of self-determination — defining the ways in which they chose to move through the world and how they would engage it. It meant establishing families and communities firmly rooted in an ancient faith and a hybrid culture created along the way. Long before homeschooling became the wave and Islamic schools were abundant, Black Muslim kids in Atlanta filled the halls of the Mohammed Schools, and converged in small community school houses and even smaller family homes learning math, science, Qur’an and tafsir largely from Black Muslim women. These women took it upon themselves to shape the culture of our communities, without fanfare, many times without just compensation and certainly without praise. They created spaces that did not merely tolerate their Blackness and their Muslimness, but also nurtured and celebrated it, all of it.
As our communities grow in size and prominence, how do we protect those spaces and create new ones? Now that we have these foundations, what is next? Black Muslim women are on the frontlines fighting for education, affordable housing and anti-poverty measures, and domestic abuse survivors. We put in work. On every pressing social issue that we as an ummah claim to care about, you don’t need to look hard to find Black Muslim women – not because any one group has ceded a crown of leadership, but because we rarely wait for one. Women like
Mariame Kaba (criminal justice reform and prison abolition)
Saleemah Abdul Ghaffur (voting rights protection)
Khadija Gurnah (immigration and healthcare reform)
Clockwise from top left – Mariame Kaba (photo credit here ), Saleemah Abdul Ghaffar (courtesy of Ms. Abdul Ghaffar), and Khadija Gurnah (courtesy of Ms. Gurnah)
Angelica Lindsey-Ali (sexual health)
Kameelah Rashad (mental health and wellness)
Margari Hill (anti-racism education)
Clockwise from left – Angelica Lindsey-Ali (photo credit here) , Kameelah Rashad (photo credit here) , and Margari Hill (photo credit here)
We organize, we advocate and we agitate!… and we still suffer disproportionately. Unfortunately, our priorities never become the priorities.
“But Kamilah,” I hear you thinking, “what about Ilhan Omar?” Uh huh…
“No matter how I think we grow, you always seem to let me know – it ain’t workin’. It ain’t workin’.”
During the 2018 midterm elections, at least two Black Muslim women ran for Congressional office — Tahirah Amatul-Wadud launched a campaign to represent the 1st Congressional District in Massachusetts and Ilhan Omar campaigned for and won the Congressional seat in Minnesota’s 5th District. Like every “first,” Congresswoman Omar was met with the requisite fawning adulation, snarky disinterest, criticism and vitriol. Suddenly, a first-term Congresswoman from Minnesota was a liberal darling — a jackpot of diversity in one person, and the shoulders onto which an entire Muslim community could place its expectations. Her time in the Minnesota state legislature and her stance on countering violent extremism-related issues dulled some of her shine for progressives, but for the most part she was on a roll. Until a pair of pithy tweets landed wrong. Until she voiced an opinion that questioned and challenged the status quo. Then Congressman Omar became an example of how misogynoir, anti-Blackness and anti-Black Islamophobia works. And Black Muslim women, even those who did not support her candidacy, were called on to explain why the targeted attacks were particularly vicious, and how the well-intentioned defenses by progressives, non-Black Muslims, and non-Muslim Black folks missed the mark or added fuel to the flames. Because in the end, it seems we all we got.
All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk, and our co-religionists do not always recognize our struggles as valid. Representation is not enough. Diversity is not inclusion. Similarly, inclusion without a focus on dismantling structural and institutional systems of oppression is not equity.
Our community is large enough that no one person has to tackle all the issues. But it sure would be nice to have our entire community, our ummah, recognize that the concerns of Black Muslim women should be a priority. What is good for the most marginalized will have positive impacts on everyone else. If we cannot find that solidarity among our non-Black co-religionists, it’s imperative we have it with Black Muslim men.
Photo courtesy of Howard University Muslim Students Association, by Mansur K. Rashid
“Tell me, who I have to be, to get some reciprocity.”
If Black Muslim women tire of searching for reciprocity (if we have not already reached that point) and we are left to champion our needs by ourselves, we will. We prove our love and dedication each time we exhaust ourselves in the name of community while neglecting our personal needs. But that is neither healthy nor wise. You, dear community, will overestimate your appeal and greedily hoard our attention when you need help or an ego boost. We will recognize your attention as fleeting and fickle, and we will move on. And it will be you, not us, left to lament.
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.
Muhammad U. Abdullah | March 22, 2019
Wow, that is a well written article. Loved it. Subhan Allah. As Salaamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullah Wa Barakatuh to you, Kamilah, and all the sisters in this article.
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