Category: Arts&Culture


To Muslims Who Do Not Say, Salaam

As the American Ummah continues to unpack the intersections of identity, otherness, and faith, it seems fitting to bring back Aisha Sharif’s interview and poem “To Muslims Who Do Not Say, Salaam.” 

To Muslims Who Do Not Say, Salaam

All your life, you’ve tried to muffle the sound
of your father trumpeting the adhan
in your ear every day, five times a day.
You’ve hung your mother in the closet
of your mind, ashamed of her habit. Yet, a hijabi
walking toward you raises your dead,
and you must look away. You’ve whitewashed
your name, turned Abdullah to Abe, Suhaylah to Haley.
But here is faith, that security checkpoint
you thought you had already passed.
Will it set off the prayers resting in your palms,
the Arabic on your tongue? You look away
and do not say, Peace. Because how can you wish
for your sister what you do not have yourself?

– – –

Aisha Sharif: I’m originally from Memphis Tennessee; my Father is from Memphis, he grew up there, and my Mom is from St. Louis, Missouri. Like a lot of African Americans, they converted, well my father converted [to Islam] in the 80’s and my mom converted shortly thereafter. My Mom was Catholic, and my Dad was Episcopal. All of my brothers and sisters were raised Muslim.

I went to Sister Clara Muhammad School from grades third through sixth, and that really helped shape my Muslim identity. After that I went to public school, I think that was around the time I started to write poems. I always approached writing as a cathartic experience; writing through a situation to reveal thoughts that perhaps I would never engage. It wasn’t until graduate school that I started writing poems about being African American and Muslim, and dealing with that identity. Once I got to grad school I had a bigger pool of Muslims that I was communicating with, but they were Arab and Turkish. That made me more conscious of being African American.

Sapelo Square: After graduate school is when you participated in the Cave Canem fellowship?

AS: I found out about Cave Canem when I was in graduate school. I was pursuing my MFA in poetry. I graduated, I went out and taught high school for a few years, I didn’t write much at all, and I needed to get back into the writing game. I just needed to have that connection with other poets, especially African American poets. I have met so many different writers, and I have learned a lot about myself as a writer and my craft too.

SS: There was a time in this country when it was illegal for African Americans to read and write. Do you feel that there is a need for more communal support to feel confident and empowered to keep writing?

AS: I would definitely say, yes. During the time I was in St. Louis I didn’t have a writing community at all. I was on my own, and I wasn’t writing. Even though there is great value in being able to motivate yourself, to be a self-starter, there is nothing that can replace having a community. Being a writer involves being aware of the audience. If you don’t have an audience looking at your work on a regular basis, whatever regular is, whether it’s once a week, twice a month, once a month, then I think you don’t get the full aspect of how your work can be strengthened and challenged. So once I started going to Cave Canem, I started to push my writing more because I had people who essentially would call me out on certain moves that I was making that were too safe in my poems.

SS: You mentioned the audience. We were introduced to your work through Rattle. Would you rather speak to a group of people that have no connection to your experience, so you can educate them or do you want to write for the people in the community you grew up in?

AS: That’s such a good question. I think initially I was writing for my academic peers because in graduate school that was the audience for my poetry. I just thought, maybe I’m going to be the person that introduces the African American Muslim life to these people. They seemed really interested and enjoyed reading my work. So, I didn’t give that a second thought. Soon after I started to rethink my audience, that maybe my work needed to be shared with the people around whom I’ve grown up. The poem in Rattle, “Why I Can Dance Down A Soul-Train Line In Public And Still Be Muslim”, is a very different type of poem. I wouldn’t say that it’s not representative of my work because it is, but I also write a lot of form poems.

I’m realizing, that there is so much diversity within a community, and as much as we are connected by religion, we all have different experiences. I would love to have Muslims be open more to talk about stuff that is uncomfortable. I feel that there is such a stigma, like a taboo about sex, marriage, therapy, which are all the things I talk about in my next book. I would love for this book to be a conversation starter for Muslim women because I know I’m not the only one that has thought about certain questions about going without hijab, even though I’ve worn hijab my whole life, those types of questions, and not wanting the stock answers either.

Literary Update: Aisha Sharif’s poetic manuscript “To Keep From Undressing”, was recently selected by Spark Wheel Press, for a winter 2018/2019 release. Spark Wheel produces five books of exceptional poetry per year. Congrats Aisha!

Image uploaded from iOS (1)Aisha Sharif is a Cave Canem fellow who resides in Shawnee, Kansas, a suburb that borders Kansas City, Missouri.  And in many ways, much of her poetry and nonfiction addresses the politics of “bordering identities.” As an African American Muslim woman, her work explores how racial, gender and religious identities align, separate, and blend. Her poem, “Why I Can Dance Down a Soul Train Line…” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015. Aisha’s poetry has also appeared in journals like Rattle, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, and Calyx.  She currently teaches English at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Missouri.  

aarasheed-1Aïdah Aliyah Rasheed is an interdisciplinary artist and multi-media producer. She has worked with world-renowned artists, museums, and educational institutions. Additionally, she carries more than a decade of civic engagement and interfaith service, creating innovative solutions to the economic and racial injustices facing communities around the United States. Rasheed holds an MFA from the California College of the Arts and a BFA from Morgan State University.


Black Boy Poems: Legacy And Activism In Black Literature

By Rashida James-Saadiya

Our genetic inheritance is precious. It is not a badge of inferiority for us to be ashamed of, on the contrary, we carry the struggles of our ancestors with pride – Tyson Amir

In a 1968 essay, “The Black Arts Movement,” writer Larry Neal proclaimed that Black Arts is the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept” prominent in the 1960s and early 1970s[1]. The Black Arts Movement, or BAM, refers to a group of socially motivated artists, who emerged in the wake of political and social movements advocating racial pride, self-sufficiency, and social equality. Encouraging the development of Black-run publishing houses, theaters and exhibition spaces, BAM envisioned a new aesthetic that spoke directly to the aspirations of Black America. BAM deemed the primary role of the Black Artist as one seeking to elevate the spiritual and cultural needs of his people. By telling distinctly Black stories from the perspective of Black people they collectively forged a new literary aesthetic independent of western philosophies surrounding art and beauty. The late educator and poet Gwendolyn Brooks believed “Black poetry was the aesthetic chronicle of a race, struggling to ‘lift its face unashamed’ in an alien land[2].”

The late educator and poet Gwendolyn Brooks believed “Black poetry was the aesthetic chronicle of a race, struggling to ‘lift its face unashamed’ in an alien land[2].”

Tyson Amir, poet, emcee and community activist, continues BAM’s objectives by utilizing the power of language to craft stories that not only document the experience of Black America but also stand as active agents against the dehumanization of Black men and women. It is this natural reaction to an alien sensibility that encouraged Amir to use literature as a principal instrument towards social justice, remembrance, and cultural pride. Amir credits his social awareness, and use of language as a tool for liberation, to his upbringing his father was a Black Panther and his mother an avid reader and active participant in the Black Liberation struggle.

BAM’s legacy certainly inspired Amir’s debut of Black Boy Poems, on October 15, 2016, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. He is adamant in praising Black freedom fighters and creatives whose tireless efforts altered history, “I thank you for your sacrifices, dedication, and bravery. It was not in vain. The spirit of struggle has taken root in your offspring. We will carry it forward[3].” Amir embraces a long history of oral tradition within the framework of Black Muslim communities of the diaspora, where storytellers are necessary and skilled in the craft of speaking directly to the heart and moral compass of society.

In his poem Black Child, love opens and echoes throughout each stanza unraveling a deep desire to protect the physical and spiritual bodies of Black youth.

In his poem Black Child, love opens and echoes throughout each stanza unraveling a deep desire to protect the physical and spiritual bodies of Black youth.

“Many will attempt to change, corrupt, influence, steal, appropriate, confuse, challenge, humiliate, denigrate, judge, and hate you for being you. This is part of your sentence as a Black Child, but you must always know that you are greater than. You are the first. You are the fulcrum providing the balance the universe rests upon. The world is again waiting for you to assume your rightful position of leader in the cosmos. May we all live to see that day where you, black child again lead us safely home[4].” -Black Child

A combination of poetics, social analysis, and prose through the medium of hip-hop, Black Boy Poems is an intimate retelling of Amir’s efforts to transcend inherited forms of racial oppression imposed upon Black bodies. By highlighting state-sanctioned violence, in addition to systemic forms of social-political injustice that impact marginalized communities, this collection also speaks to unbendable faith and provides language for those committed to using every limb in reshaping this society into one of safety for the vulnerable.

While Amir’s creative expressions perform political functions, they also serve as a platform for the lived experience of a Black man using Islam and the power of the spoken word as a shield. His work is unapologetic, sincere and insistent in its efforts to envision collective freedom. Crafted with the same sense of urgency as Richard Wright’s Black Boy, a 1945 memoir that highlighted the difficulty of surviving as a young Black man in the American South, Amir cites Wright’s work as a form of sacred knowledge supporting his desire to use language as both a strategic guide and prayer for his people.

“I too am a Black boy, I too have inherited this short-sighted and racist culture of America. Wright taught me, that black men and women carry a magic; a power to conjure new realities and possibilities[5].”

“I too am a Black boy, I too have inherited this short-sighted and racist culture of America. Wright taught me, that black men and women carry a magic; a power to conjure new realities and possibilities[5].”

Thus, this contemporary collection from another Black Boy perspective works forwards and backward, reminding us of our history and the possibility of tomorrow. Perhaps this is the thread that reconnects today’s vibrant voices with those of the past — a dedication to using the resilience of language to reclaim freedom and our right to dream.

[1] Neal, Larry. “The black arts movement.” The Drama Review: TDR (1968): 29-39.
[2] Gabbin, Joanne V., ed. The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry. Rutgers University Press, 1999.
[3] Amir, Tyson. Black Boy Poems. Freedom Soul Media: 2016, p.7.
[4] Amir, Tyson. Black Boy Poems. Freedom Soul Media: 2016, p. 207.
[5] Amir, Tyson. Black Boy Poems. Freedom Soul Media: 2016, p. 11.


Rashida James-­Saadiya @RSaadiya (Arts and Culture Editor) 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 utilizing poetry as an instrument to combat social injustice.


Muslim Girl Dance – Two Perspectives

“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
-Being fly
-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.
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vanessaVanessa 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.



Image uploaded from iOSRashida 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. 


Black, Muslim, and Other

*With the the news of Disney acquiring tv and film assets from 20th Century Fox, Black Panther being released in February and Yahya Abdul-Mateen being casted as Black Manta opposite Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, there has been more attention placed on characters of color. Below, our Arts & Culture editor Malikah A. Shabazz talks about the increase of Black comic heroes and where Muslim comic heroes fall into the equation.*

by Malikah A. Shabazz

With the growth of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, spaces for Black nerds, geeks, weirdos and all those who identify as different have grown and begun to flourish. The “Blerds” have come out to play and it’s a beautiful sight. Being seen as “different” has always been about self expression and uniqueness, which is something that not only Black people have struggled with, but so have Black Muslims. Having pre conceived notions projected on you by others based on your religious and cultural background has been a constant issue for Black Muslims. Iman Seeraj – Blanche, writer of the blog NerdGeekNinja, knows this all too well. “As a young Muslim teen woman growing up I was always the odd person out no matter what group I was in.” Seeraj-Blanche says. “If I was around Muslims, I was weird because of the things I liked. Even around other nerds I was weird because I was Muslim.”


The infamous 1978 comic Superman vs. Ali

Within the last 5 – 10 years we have seen Black artists and characters pushed to the forefront as old and new fans alike call for better representation within art. While we have seen Muslim characters such as Marvel’s new Ms. Marvel and Dust (whose power is turning into sand, but nonetheless, she exists), we haven’t seen a major Black Muslim superhero get it’s own series. Black Muslims have made cameos in various comic strips as supporting characters. Wise Son was introduced to us in Blood Syndicate in 1993 which was created in part by the legendary Dwayne McDuffie. Blood Syndicate itself is a dark story and Wise Son’s story arc and anger issues definitely fit in. Thankfully, it wasn’t a characterization of him as a Black Muslim man as all the characters in the series had colorful pasts. Wise Son was granted his own miniseries which only spawned 4 issues but gave a more in depth look into the circumstances surrounding him and the community he lived in as well as his battle with White Supremacists groups.

While being a Black Muslim may have not directly impacted Wise Son’s story arc (he was known to wear a hat with a crescent on it), it was a badge of honor for Muhammad X. Although he never explicitly said “I’m Muslim” or talked about his religion, his choice of name and community concern bares a stark resemblance to the influence and presence the Black Muslim community historically had in Harlem.  Only appearing (thus far) in 2002’s Superman v2 #179, Muhammad X was a self-proclaimed protector of Harlem (not associated with Luke Cage). Muhammad X was used to address racial tensions, as he was very vocal about the state of his community and him accusing Superman of ignoring Harlem. Taking his name from Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, Muhammad X was a direct manifestation of the history of Islam in the Black community and the pride and responsibility that Harlemites feel to their community. His brief but memorable cameo in Superman was a great juxtaposition between the ideas of saving the world (Superman’s idea of everyone being seen as equal) vs. saving the hood (Muhammad X’s wanting Black people to be seen as equal). Their dialogue is an earlier version of today’s “All Lives Matter” vs. “Black Lives Matter” arguments.

And then there was that time in 1978 when the legendary Muhammad Ali battled the son of Kyrpton himself…and won.


Muhammad X meets Superman

The existence of these characters draws a correlation between Black and Muslim via culture. Historically, characters that are Muslim typically come from Arabia, and have names rooted in the Arabic language. However, with “Muhammad X” clearly being an ode to the Nation of Islam, and “Wise Son” bearing a stark resemblance to names from the Nations of Gods and Earths, Black Muslims characters are used as representation for communities often glanced over in the comic book world.

The comic and arts worlds are forever growing. New characters are created every day. It is only a matter of time before a Black Muslim Superhero rises to the occasion and comes to save to day. Until then we will continue to support the few Black Muslim characters that exist and those artists create them and the universes for them to exist in.