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Back to Black: Are Black Muslims the new (old) face of American Islam?

Before the 1960s, the dominant images of U.S. Muslims highlighted in the media and popular culture were Black. Yet, today’s media portrayals overwhelmingly present Muslims as foreign to this land. We invite you to revisit a post written by Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer from August 7, 2017, titled “Back to Black: Are Black Muslims the new (old) face of American Islam?”

Dr. Khabeer discusses the use of media as a tool of erasure, upholding historic and contemporary forms of racial and religious marginalization, and calls for a more inclusive representation of Muslims.

by Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer

If you passed the magazine section at your local newsstand or grocery store recently you might have seen two Muslims, actor Mahershala Ali and model Halima Aden, gracing the covers of this month’s GQ and Allure magazines, respectively. This inclusion is notable in light of the Muslim Ban but also because the Muslims featured in these issues, which are dedicated to celebrating American diversity, are not “Brown“ but Black.

When it comes to Muslims in the media, the images are both plentiful and monolithic. Typically speaking, Muslims who make appearances in US media share two fundamental characteristics–they are “originally” from somewhere else and they are “brown” – in this case, either South Asian, Arab, or Middle Eastern. This is the case for negative portrayals, like your run-of-the-mill terrorist on primetime TV, and also in more complex depictions like Aziz Ansari’s character on Master of None. While it is true that many Muslims in the US are immigrants and people of color when depictions solely revolve around these two characteristics it helps to perpetuate the “foreign-ization“ of Americans who are Muslim and subsequently the mistaken idea that there is something intrinsically incompatible between Muslims and the United States. In a country where people who are anything other than white male Christians still have to prove their loyalty to flag and country, if Muslims are always non-white and not “originally” American then there is always the chance to tell them to “go home!”

Depictions of Muslims as “foreign” and “Brown” have not always dominated. Around 50 years ago, the dominant image of Muslims in US media was Black and native-born. Back then, they were called the “Black Muslims,” a term popularized by historian C. Eric Lincoln to refer to Black Americans who were members of the Nation of Islam. A precursor to the anti-Muslim racism of today, the Black Muslims were demonized in the media as a threat to American values because of their advocacy for Black American liberation. This was famously done in the five-part 1959 public television docuseries, “The Hate that Hate Produced” which depicted NOI parochial schools and small businesses as evidence of hate. The show’s host, Mike Wallace, also delegitimized the Muslim identity of the “Black Muslims” telling his audience that “Black Muslims” practice hate whereas orthodox [read “real”] Muslims (who weren’t, at that point, Americans) preach peace and reject the NOI. At the time, this was a common way to frame the Nation of Islam and so for these mid-century Muslims the “threat” they posed was not due to un-American beliefs and practices based on Islam but Black nationalism. The most of famous of these “Black Muslims” in the media were Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. Today, these figures still loom large in the US mainstream imagination but not as Muslims, or even as terribly threatening, but as symbols of a spirit of Black American protest that has morphed into proof of what makes America exceptional.

Nevertheless, the trope of the Black Muslim as protest figure does still make occasional cameos in US popular culture. For example, there was Regina King’s character, Aliyah Shaheed, in the first season of the TV drama American Crime and most recently, Kendrick Lamar reproduced some of Gordon Parks’ famous images of the NOI in the video for his song “Element.” Yet the GQ and Allure covers mark a departure from that as well. They give a picture of Black Muslim identity to goes beyond protest tropes. Both Black, American and Muslim, although the Allure piece never references Aden’s Blackness, they are also different in key ways: gender – Ali is male and Aden female, ethnicity – Ali is Black American and Aden has roots in Somalia, citizenship – Aden is a refugee turned citizen and Ali was born in California, and religion – Aden was born into a Muslim family and Ali converted to Islam.

Other Black Muslims have also made media splashes in the past year. There was bronze-medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad who was the first American to compete at the olympics in a headscarf and was later detained at the border and A Tribe Called Quest’s (Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad are Muslim) performance alongside Busta Rhymes and Consequence, also Muslims, at the Grammy Awards. And before Aziz Ansari, Dave Chappelle hosted the first Saturday Night Live after the 2016 US elections. Of course in the mainstream media, some of these Muslims are usually only talked about only in terms of their race. Yet each of them, like Ali and Aden, subvert the prevailing idea that Muslims are “foreign” and “brown” while also complicating stale notions of Black identity in the US.

Do these covers portend a major shift or a “back to Black” as the face of Islam? To be honest, in a media landscape that tends to skew simplistic and sensational, it’s not likely. Nor should it be since there are many faces of Islam, including Black Muslims. Yet even if they don’t shift the tide, the circulation of images of Black Muslims in media culture is useful. While today’s “Black Muslim” cannot be reduced to a protest trope they are not depoliticized. Writer Carvell Wallace’s profile on Mahershala Ali depicts a man who knows the struggle continues and meets it with grace. This is, perhaps, the hallmark of the Black Muslim experience. Since they live at the intersection of multiple forms of historic and contemporary marginalization, Black Muslims continue to have a keen sense of what’s wrong, which can help keep all us Americans more honest. They also continue to have a hopeful vision of what’s possible, which can help us all do much better. Black Muslims have a lot to offer, but the question remains: is America ready yet?


skhabeer Su’ad Abdul Khabeer is a scholar-artist-activist who uses anthropology and performance to explore the intersections of race and popular culture. Su’ad is currently an associate professor of American Culture and Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan. an assistant professor of anthropology and African American studies at Purdue University. She received her PhD in cultural anthropology from Princeton University and is a graduate from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and completed the Islamic Studies diploma program of the Institute at Abu Nour University (Damascus). Her latest work, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States (NYU Press 2016), is an ethnography on Islam and hip hop that examines how intersecting ideas of Muslimness and Blackness challenge and reproduce the meanings of race in the US.

BlogPolitics

Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline Webinar

By Kamilah A. Pickett

In June 1944, 11 years before the brutal murder of Emmett Till and the images of his broken body would jolt the nation, another 14-year-old Black boy George Junius Stinney Jr was murdered under equally horrific circumstances. The mob who attacked George

George Stinney

Image Source The Charleston Chronicle

Junius Stinney Jr. was state sanctioned; after a forced confession, a two-hour trial and a 10-minute jury deliberation, the state of South Carolina condemned George Stinney Jr. to death by electrocution for allegedly killing two young white girls. George Stinney Jr became the youngest person in modern times to be put to a state-sanctioned death. The story of Stinney’s murder has haunted me since I first learned of it as an undergraduate student. At the time, my own brother was not much older than George Stinney Jr had been. I looked at the last pictures of George, a mugshot of a child in prison clothes too large for his frail frame, with vacant, confused and terrified eyes, and it gutted me. It still does.

It took 70 years for South Carolina to vacate Stinney’s conviction, largely based on violations of his Constitutional rights. In those 70 years, a myriad of protections have been implemented to purportedly protect juveniles, poor people, and other marginalized peoples from being railroaded by an American justice system that favors wealth and whiteness. The bail bond system and the proliferation of money bail challenges the veracity of our current justice system, as does the school-to-prison pipeline.

Although we may no longer be a nation that imposes the death penalty on 14-year-old children, we are certainly still a nation that devalues Black childhood. And, we are a nation that begins criminalizing Black and Brown bodies at the moment of their first introduction to institution – schools.

Although we may no longer be a nation that imposes the death penalty on 14-year-old children, we are certainly still a nation that devalues Black childhood. And, we are a nation that begins criminalizing Black and Brown bodies at the moment of their first introduction to institution – schools.

As students across the United States begin a new school year, the believers_bail_out-logoBelievers Bail Out (BBO), a community-led effort to bail out Muslims in pretrial incarceration as a form of zakat, wanted to advance a conversation about one of the ways mass incarceration affects our children and what we can do to advocate for them and protect them.

“As Muslims, when we see something wrong, we are required to remedy the situation,” says Education Co-Chair Hazel Gomez. “Either we change it with our hands, speak out against it or hate it with our heart.” On September 11, 2018, with technical assistance from MPower Change, BBO broadcasted the “Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline” webinar. We assembled a panel of policy advocates and activists to define the problem, discuss the contributing factors and offer strategies for pushing back. Gomez’s prayer is, “that with this webinar and speaking out against the injustices of the school-to-prison pipeline, it will lead to the sort of engagement where we can truly disrupt and dismantle the systems in place meant to criminalize our youth.”

Andrea Ortez of the Partnership for Resilience in Chicago moderated the webinar that featured Beatriz Beckford, Campaign Director at MomsRising, and Dr. Shantel Meek, Founding Director of the Children’s Equity Project.  Ms. Ortez began by defining the school-to-prison pipeline as, “the intentional, systemic and structural practice within schools that perpetuates notions that students, based on their socioeconomic, racial or religious identity, can be viewed as criminals and practices towards them can operate out of those notions. It is introducing into our schools a system of incarceration that mirrors what happens in our communities.

Ms. Ortez began by defining the school-to-prison pipeline as, “the intentional, systemic and structural practice within schools that perpetuates notions that students, based on their socioeconomic, racial or religious identity, can be viewed as criminals and practices towards them can operate out of those notions. It is introducing into our schools a system of incarceration that mirrors what happens in our communities. At the core it is a devaluing our young people and their potential. 

“In terms of contributing factors,” Dr. Meek continued, “ we should start by talking about what it’s not. There is a prevailing theory that income and socioeconomic status is the engine behind it, but that erases the racial component. Income doesn’t explain disparities in discipline. The race and ethnicity of kids is the determining factor. Systemic racism exists in all our systems and implicit biases exist in individuals. It should be no surprise that the education system, like every other system, is plagued as well.”

Dr. Meek highlighted findings from a recent report by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality noting that Black girls, compared with white girls of the same age (between 5 and 14 years), were perceived to need less nurturing and protection, be more independent and know more about adult topics. The findings of the study suggest that the perception of Black girls as less innocent may contribute to the disproportionate rates of punitive treatment in the education and juvenile justice systems for Black girls.

keisha-montfleury-672620-unsplash

Image Source Keisha Montfleury @makeishan

The report also highlighted that Black boys are often perceived as less innocent and more adult than their white male peers. As a result, Black boys are more likely to be given greater culpability for their actions, which increases their risk of contact with the juvenile justice system.

Ms. Beckford noted that Latinx students, LGBTQ students, Muslim students and students with disabilities also face increased discrimination in schools, often at the hands of administrators. “We need more counselors, not cops in our schools,” said Ms. Beckford. “With the increased criminalization of our youth, there is a regular police presence which leads to more arrests for nonviolent behavior that could have otherwise been handled by school personnel.” She urged parents to share their stories with each other and advised that mobilization against harmful school policies can begin with one parent who feels empowered.

The level of engagement during the webinar, with parent after parent sharing stories and asking for help, let us know how pertinent this topic is. “As the panelists shared facts and research, we had a live storytelling session happening simultaneously. It was powerful! We need to share our experiences with one another. That’s how we start to organize,” Gomez reflected.

BBO is committed to a movement toward abolition and as Education Co-Chairs Hazel and I are committed to increasing conversations in Muslim communities that reflect this goal. You can view the full webinar.

 

To continue learning and advocating with the BBO, follow us on Facebook and sign up for our mailing list.

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Kamilah pickett

Kamilah A. Pickett is the Education Co-Chair for the Believers Bail Out and Politics Editor for Sapelo Square. 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.

BlogReligion

Being Muslim and Not Belonging Anywhere

by Mikel Aki’lah Jones

(originally posted on HijabiChronicles.com)

After greeting me, or sometimes before, fellow Muslims usually ask: Where are you from? My response is always, here. That response must not be what they are looking for because they are always left confused or uninterested in further conversation. I guess there is a wrong answer to that question, Where are you from?

When I am in the masjid and hear people refer to “back home” I sit there blankly. Sure, I’m West Indian, but that identity does seem to give me any standing in those settings. Unlike others, my relationship to the island of my family is not, in my mind, fundamentally tied up with my Islam.  I began to feel that I was missing out on a part of being Muslim because I didn’t have a “home” in the way other Muslims spoke of home. For them, home provided them with legitimacy, authority, and community. My “back home”—if I had one—did not have the same kind of power.

This feeling of homelessness has upset me ever since I was a child. My sense of belonging felt deeply threatened. I would ask myself, Why is it that I don’t have this “home” everyone talks about? What did I do wrong to be denied a home? Every Muslim community I found myself in was a house without a home for me. Each one was so reliant on this idea of “back home.” My sense of being foreign and somehow less worthy in those spaces was something I could not bear. So I distanced myself because I knew when they spoke they weren’t talking to me or about me.

For them, home provided them with legitimacy, authority, and community. My “back home”—if I had one—did not have the same kind of power.

Rather, they spoke in a way that only those with a shared home could relate to. In their minds– and increasingly in mine– their closest thing to home was Islam, and I wondered if I could compete with that kind of “authentic” connection to religion. Around Eid especially I felt incredibly alone, watching from Facebook the fuller Muslims celebrate Eid with their large families and communities, all of whom shared the same “back home.”

For some people, they find Islam through their “homes”. They have a place to go back to, and a language for that place, that is familiar, but for those of us that don’t have this, we don’t know where to go when trying to revive our iman or when trying to get back in touch with our practice. The masjids I enter don’t seem like they belong to me, and “community” events make me feel even more excluded. I’ll admit that sometimes there’s a blessing in this because I get to experience Islam organically.

I see people talk about words like “community”, “sisterhood” and “ummah” but they all seem so foreign, like another part of Islam or even the world I can’t access with having the proper home.

There’s no particular opinion dictating my experience besides my own, and there’s room to explore. But there are moments when you want to share these discoveries, I see people talk about words like “community”, “sisterhood” and “ummah” but they all seem so foreign, like another part of Islam or even the world I can’t access with having the proper home. When I would explain this feeling of loneliness, people would tell me to go to mosques or certain programs but it didn’t work. Those spaces only accentuated my feeling of otherness.

I didn’t have much community support when I started wearing hijab because no one saw me in them, there was no language or background to connect us besides the fact that we were both Muslim. My personal evolution felt less valuable, less weighty than others. I’m not saying forget about your home for the convenience of those of us who don’t have one, but be sensitive towards us. We exist and a lot of us are hurting. For some of us Islam is all we have, and this feeling of homelessness doesn’t help us in our faith or in our social development as Muslims.

 

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Mikel Aki’lahJones (Twitter: @kindofmeem | Instagram: @meemlah) is a poet from Brooklyn, NY. She has been writing since the age of eight and uses her work as a way to share her story as a Black Muslim woman in the west. She has been published in the Poet Linc Youth Anthology 2-12-2014 created by the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts as part of their annual Target Thursdays. Aki’lah has shared her work at the Nuyorican Poets Café, Lincoln Center, and the Brooklyn Public Library. She is a foodie, bibliophile and is currently living and studying in Lyon, France.
Blog

Sapelo is on Vacation!

At Sapelo Square, we strive to continually serve as an expert resource on the Black Muslim narrative in the United States. As a result, we take time out once a year to come together from various locations across the world to strategically plan our goals for the coming year.

Having just recently wrapped up an amazing 2018 Sapelo Square Retreat, we’re excited to move forward with some new ideas and to improve upon our position. As we prepare to take things to the next level in the weeks and months to come, we have decided it necessary to take a short amount of time for the squad to refocus and direct our energy for what is to come. We’re on vacation! As a result, the publishing of new posts will be temporarily on hold until September 4th, 2018.

While we are away, we encourage you to take this time to get re-acquainted with some of our favorite posts from the past year such as:

 

We look forward to seeing you back on September the 4th, and may Allah bless you!

With warm regards,

The Sapelo Squad