by Sylvester A. Johnson and Edward E. Curtis IV from The Journal of Africana Religions, vol. 5, no. 1. Reposted with the permission of the editors.
This month we are reposting three articles written by Bayyinah Sharrieff, a remarkable convert to the Nation of Islam, for Muhammad Speaks newspaper. These articles represent a concise cross-section of the understanding of race, religion, and gender Sharrieff developed during her residence in Sudan. They are part of a wide number of provocative articles she published during the late 1960s that we would encourage readers to further explore. We have provided the articles with excerpts from the journal editors’ excellent biographical introduction of the author.
“Bayyinah Sharrieff is a significant, but largely unknown figure for the study of Africana religions in the twentieth century. Below we reprint [some] of her columns from Muhammad Speaks, the Nation of Islam newspaper whose circulation was at least seventy thousand and perhaps over one hundred thousand papers per week. These rare documents at once tell us about the experience of an African American female undergraduate dealing with culture shock in a foreign country and also illustrate the popular orientation of African Americans toward Islam and Islamic lands as resources in a postwar Afro-Asian struggle against racism and colonialism.
Sharrieff served as a captain of Muslim Girls Training, the women’s auxiliary of the Nation of Islam charged with religious education, home economics training, fundraising, self-defense, and group discipline. Beyond this, new research is needed to identify her background before joining the Nation of Islam and her activities after the period discussed in the columns below.
Sharrieff … spent significant time living with Muslims in a Muslim-majority country. As such, she is an important point of comparison to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, or Malcolm X. Both identified Sudan as an example of a fully Black and fully Arab society that established the complementary nature of Arab and Black identity. Sudan proved that anti-Black racism was not an uncontested phenomenon among Arabic-speaking people.
But Sharrieff’s journey to Muslim Africa led to a different religious affiliation than Shabazz’s sojourn abroad: for her, Muslim Africa was a necessary stop on the way toward, rather than away from, the Nation of Islam. Bayyinah Sharrieff became a member of the Nation of Islam only after having spent twenty-two months in Khartoum. Sharrieff’s example proves that some African American Muslims in the 1960s did not suddenly convert to Sunni Islam once they had been exposed to what Malcolm X referred to as ‘orthodox Islam.’ Her knowledge about Sunni Islam is abundantly clear in an explanation of salat, or prescribed prayers, and in her references to Islamic legal guidelines on the male-female relationships in Sudanese culture, among other places. Sharrieff illustrates the idea that Nation of Islam members considered themselves to be real Muslims who were following a legitimate Muslim prophet in the person of Elijah Muhammad.
Sharrieff’s writings also lend credence to the conclusions of several Nation of Islam scholars that, though the movement was patriarchal in nature, women’s intellectual life was valued and encouraged. Islam was seen as the socially conservative but politically radical vehicle of a specifically gendered liberation for both Black men and Black women. Like other female columnists in U.S. newspapers of the era, Sharief focused on women’s issues, which were interpreted through the lens of a middle-class respectability and the cult of domesticity.
Beyond the importance of these documents to the transnational study of Africana religions, especially African American religious engagements with Africa and the Muslim world during the 1960s, Bayyinah Sharrieff’s writings will be of interest to students of travel, higher education, and cultural exchange. Her analysis of the encounter with Sudanese culture through the lens of Elijah Muhammad’s theology may be unique–at the least, it is most certainly rare.”
“Black Woman Who Came Home To Islam Discovered Muhammad While Abroad,” Muhammad Speaks, May 19, 1967, 10-11.
My slave name is Christine Wilson. I have traveled widely in Europe including Greece, Italy, France, Denmark, and Sweden passing through Germany, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. I have spent 22 months in the Republic of Sudan, where I have been a student at the University of Khartoum for the same length of time. In Paris, France, I studied French six months at the Alliance-Francaise.
I have also traveled extensively in the United Arab Republic. I became acquainted with a Muslim family (followers of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad) in Paris. After hearing some of the teachings and reading The Message to the Black Man in America , I cancelled my plans (studying in France until June, 1967, then going to Tanzania, East Africa, where I have been offered a scholarship to study at the University College) and returned to America March 29, 1967.
I have returned to that point from which I came, only in a different plain. The only plain for the righteous, Islam, under the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. I was alone, proud, yet shocked, I seemed to be within a vacuum. I was not conscious of my breathing. Suddenly a fresh gust of air seemed to penetrate the existing vacuum, I inhaled a fresh breath of life, I felt a new birth. Power was gaining momentum from within, and a new strength was rising within me.
A devil had just left me after confessing the cruelties and injustices that his white people have committed to my Black brethren. With tears in his eyes he made his confession, apologized for his people, and asked for my forgiveness for their wrong deeds.
Where was I . . . Bjorko, Southern Sweden. Why was I there? . . . to attend an International Students study-work camp on Race Relations. This conference was one of a number of such student conferences held in Europe, Asia, and Africa by the World University Service, in collaboration with a local student organization of similar purposes.
We were students of ten countries: England, Germany, Finland, France, Italy, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Sweden and the U.S.A. We lived in the midst of an Emmus camp. The thirty-some Emmus members collected and packaged clothes for shipping to Tanzania, Africa and Peru, South America. Part of our time was devoted to assisting the Emmus camp, but the majority of our time was for the study and discussion of, the conference.
I was the Black representative. After defining terms related to our subject, a brief synopsis was given by each representative of the types of racial discrimination existing in their countries. I was surprised to learn that white discriminate white.
Up until that time I had not singled out one caucasian from another caucasian, they were all white. I learned that Germans discriminate against the Italians, the Swiss discriminate against the Italians. (In both cases the Italians migrated to the north for employment which falls in the categories of construction and menial labor.)
The French discriminate the Spanish, the Algerians, and the Italians. The Dutch discriminate the Germans. Regardless of the discriminations lying within their bleached societies, the conference focused its attention on the Black-white “problem” within the U.S. and South Africa. Of these two countries more time was devoted to the U.S. for this country has the largest number of minority protest groups in the world.
“I told them that they could not criticize a person who wished to clean his people and to have them to detach themselves from the devil.”
One evening when the agenda contained groups listed under “Black Power,” a student asked me to state briefly what the Muslim movement in America wanted and why was their leader the Honorable Elijah Muhammad taking the approach he was by declaring all white men to be devils, and by nature evil. At that time I did not know that we Blacks are by nature Muslims, nor was I a follower of our Dear Apostle the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. But I have always tried to be a rational person.
I had had 22 months of exposure to an Islamic society in the Sudan, and had seen some issues of Muhammad Speaks, and had read some reviews of what critics had to say of the Honorable Messenger. So I gave a brief outline of the Messenger’s publicized program . . . joining on to own kind, recognizing one another as brothers, and throwing off the indecencies of the white devil’s society . . . such as drinking alcoholic beverages, smoking and committing adultery, to work for self, and kind to be clean, and eat the proper [diet.]
I told them that they could not criticize a person who wished to clean his people and to have them to detach themselves from the devil. I had gotten angry because these ill-informed students tried to point out to me that Rev. Martin L. King was doing all this for Black people in a peaceful way, not advocating violence. I informed them that the “Muslims” weren’t advocating violence either, and then I was attacked about the term “white devil,” how could the Muslims use this term?
By this time I had them all flared up so I asked them to define a devil, what are the characteristics attributed to the devil? How does one recognize the Devil? After they had defined the devil, they realized that they had defined their own kind. We were enslaved by the White Man, forced to work by them for them, kicked, cheated, and abused and led astray by them for 400 years.
Who else could we define as the evil agents? Who else has committed all of the crimes of injustices upon our Black people, but the white man? and I did not limit my comments to the U.S.A. alone, but cited incidents in England, Africa, and India. They were silent, they had confessed their own guilts. They seemed sick to their stomachs, and I rejoiced in causing them discomfort. Our discussion for that evening was over. They did not defy me again.
The University of Khartoum
“Says Messenger’s Teaching Can Correct Confusion of Identity for Black Women,” Muhammad Speaks, September 1, 1967, 17-18.
Through the spread and influence of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s teachings of the black man’s history, pride of the black man’s color and features has grown largely, within the past seven years, among our Black people.
I have noticed upon my return to America the large lumber of black women wearing the so-called natural hair style, (hair which is not straightened and is left naturally curly) cut short, in a style similar to that of Miriam Makeba.
These black women, I believe, want to be proud of their color and African heritage. Perhaps it is the fact that the trend among the black nationalist, and so-called black intelligentsia here in America, that she wears her hair in this style.
It is quite obvious that the black woman is searching for her identity, but it seems as if Africa is not enough with which to identify herself. If we look at her we see her hair and skin color is that of the black continent, Africa. The short-”mini jubes”-skirts, net stockings (which only used to be worn by prostitutes, loose women, and show girls), and often blue and or green eye shadow, are of France.
Her sandals are Italian. Her bangle bracelets, of Eastern fashion. Sometimes she may be seen in a long dress (modest) with long slits on the sides exposing her legs just as if she was wearing shorts. Often one may find her in a tent dress, resembling a pregnant woman.
Her fingernails have grown out, resembling claws (of the devil-Bible). I am sure that a person, let’s say a foreign visitor casting an eye at the so-called American Negro woman and seeing the confusion of two, three or more styles, standards and countries, may think her to be a bad mental case.
Do the Black women here in America, think that they are identifying themselves with Africa–modern Africa?
All African women do not wear their hair cut short. Yes, in South Africa and in some parts of East Africa one will find this style quite popular among the women, but not the modern women. In western Africa one will find that the women wrap cord around sections of their hair, parting and dividing the hair to make various designs and styles.
In the Sudan, Chad, and in parts of Ethiopia the women wear their hair in fine strands of braids, which are made closely to the head. The hair is braided or balled at the back of the head in Northern and Northeastern Africa. There are many styles of the African women’s hair, but braids and clasping the hair at the back of the head are the most common.
While I was in the Sudan I met one American black girl who was touring North East Africa. She came wearing the Afro hair style, with short dresses, high heeled shoes (which the women do not wear there) and a confused appearance much like the one I have described above.
This woman thought that she would feel and look at home in her natural hair style. In reality she would have looked more at home and natural, in the eyes of the Sudanese, if she had worn braids, or her hair twisted in a bun, or clasped in a ponytail. Braids would have been the best style, if she was seeking identity with the inhabitants of North-east Africa.
One should review the history and customs of a country before visiting it. This woman expected to see the loose life that she had seen the African students living in America. She felt very much out of place. It is not wrong to identify ourselves with Africa. We know that we were brought to America by our African grandparents. We are brothers to the Blacks in Africa. But we should not take on the appearance of that which we do not understand, and that which might represent an underdeveloped culture.
It is quite evident that the lip service, “Black is best,” is not sufficient for our women, if it were they would not mix its representation with another. If our women would only come to us at Muhammad’s Mosque of Islam and hear the Truth as taught by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, they will learn why “Black is Best.” They will no longer just be saying it, and still searching for an identity.
The dress and appearance of a person reflects the character and habitudes of that person. When I look out on our people, especially our women, and see their confused dress, I pity them. Once they come into the Nation of Islam, they will no longer have to search for their true identity, they will know who they are.
Elijah Muhammad with his wife, Clara, and sons
“Says Devil’s Education System Prepares Blacks to Spread ‘White Superiority,’” Muhammad Speaks, March 22, 1968, 13, 19.
The old white English house mother at the University of Khartoum, Sudan, had installed in my mind that I was different from my black Sudanese sisters; that I was from a superior order of civilization, and that it would hinder and disgrace my intelligence to befriend the Sudanese.
This is, as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us, the successful pattern of the devil since he has been on our planet Earth: dividing brother against brother by the use of deceiving falsehoods.
Through the white man’s system of education, the Blacks of Africa and Asia are taught that they are of a superior stock of black than the Blacks in America. The white man teaches them that they never have been subjected to slavery as the Blacks of America. They are shown only pictures of American Blacks who are poor, dirty and happy in servitude.
I recall a motion picture that was shown in the Sudan in which there was a scene of a funeral for a Black woman. This funeral included a brass band, with people dancing and jumping about singing as if they were rejoicing. Some were moaning and crying.
The Blacks in the film wore bright colors. The women wore extremely short sleeveless dresses with low necklines. The Sudanese students came in large numbers questioning me about this scene. The action of the Blacks in the film contradicted the general code of ethics of Sudanese society.
My explanation was that in times of slavery, when our people were subjected to very cruel treatment by the white man, our people looked forward to dying, hoping to go to heaven and find peace of mind.
This is an example of the type of movies that the white man is showing in Africa.
All over the world the Black man who receives a university education, is educated the way the white man wants him educated.
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us that Africa was not known by that name prior to the time of Alexander the Great. Before the time of Alexander, the continent was known by the name of Asia.
The educated Blacks of Africa and Asia are educated to the way of the devil and are blind to the knowledge of themselves, much as we, the Blacks in America, were prior to the coming of Allah, in the Person of Master Fard Muhammad, to whom praises due forever.
We in America were brain-washed into believing that Africans were cannibals, wild, savage people dancing only to drum beats and practicing strange mystic ways an uncivilized people, who had to be civilized by the white man before we could consider speaking to one of them.
All over the world the Black man who receives a university education, is educated the way the white man wants him educated. Even today, the white man takes the Black man away from his natural environment, Africa, and places him on foreign soil, surrounding him with alien people of opposite color and cultures–teaching him the civilization of the white man for a period of four to five years, at which time he is considered degreed in the way of the devil.
The African then returns to his people and country with the habits of the devil’s civilization, which do not fit into his own country. He seeks Europeans in his own country with whom he feels more harmony, for he has now become addicted to the way of the devil. This is the idea of the white man who educates the African.
The so-called educated African is a made product, grafted by the devil into the European culture and is planted among his own people, to act as an agent to spread and make known the way of the white man. The Black man with the white heart is able to gather information about Blacks the white-skinned man is unable to obtain.
The Black agent, educated by the devil, spread the knowledge which he learned in Europe to his people, stressing the superiority of the European civilization.
He even helps to establish institutions to spread the teachings of the Europeans among his people. He also helps to assist and aid the Europeans to move in his country and to make his country comfortable for the European.