Daughters of the Dust: A Classic in American Cinema

By Aïdah Aliyah Rasheed, Arts & Culture Editor

Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust is one of the most visually brilliant films in American cinema. Shot with only natural light, the film feels almost like a documentary, along with having some qualities of ethnography film. Dash’s story beautifully weaves layers of a painful history juxtaposed with striking visuals of the landscape. A few characters hold special merits, representing unique historical and cultural traditions, religious practices, and contemporary customs, which serve as the foundation for some African American’s today.

The setting takes place in 1902 at St. Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia where the Gullah/Geechee People live. The story is centered around the Pazant family, whose lineage is from those who were captured and brought to American during the transatlantic slave trade. In the beginning of the film we are introduced to Viola Pazant, a Born-again Christian who is returning home from the “Mainland” [Northeast] with her personal photographer, Mr. Snead. Along with Viola’s cousin, Yellow Mary, and her traveling companion Trula.

Viola Pazant has returned to accompany her other family members that are preparing to make the trip North. She also stands in as an emblem of the Christian Church. Throughout the film she preaches the gospel and informs everyone to, “trust in Jesus.” Mr. Snead is curious, with an unbiased viewpoint. He wants to know more about the customs of everyone on the island, and goes out of his way to talk with everyone individually. Both Viola and Mr. Snead represent the philosophical age of W.E.B Du Bois, who emphasized the importance of a dignified personal appearance, even if that meant copying the conduct and dress of the European bourgeoisie.

The matriarch Nana Pazant is the rock of the family. She maintains many traditional customs that have been passed down from her ancestors. She refuses to leave the island, adopt a new religion, and move to an unfamiliar place with “free negros.” She is constantly in a state of remembrance of the past and holds on to what connects her to the ancestors. “There must be a bond,” she states, “we came here in chains.” Nana Pazant’s salvation appears to come from her complex connection to the land, her memories with her late husband, and her ancestral customs such as removing locks of hair to add to a “charm bag,” better known as a “hand,” to give away to Viola.

One of the quietest characters featured in the film, Bilal Muhammad, a devout Muslim, stands in as a symbol of the many slaves that brought with them religious conviction, piousness, and customs from West Africa and “the colonies in the French West Indies.” In one scene we see and hear Bilal reciting parts of the Adthan, in Arabic, translating, “prayer is better than sleep, God is the greatest, there is no God, but God.” Towards the end of the film Bilal and Mr. Snead have a conversation about leaving his home as a boy to come to the island “shackled in iron.” He talks about witnessing a mass suicide of the enslaved Igbo people. Throughout the film Bilal is called a “heathen,” “backwards,” and is disregarded because of his faith practices. Historically slaves that continued to observe Islamic traditions, including the five daily prayers and other customs helped maintain a psychological strength, which provided hope and peace despite the oppressive conditions.

One of the most visually stimulating scenes of the film is when the family gathers to eat a meal together. It’s the one common staple that everyone seems to easily come together around despite some of the differences on the island. Dash accurately chose to share the history of African American people in the United States with consistent attention to customs, clothing, language, history, memory and landscape. Although the film was first introduced to the American public over twenty years ago, there are many symbolic themes that are timeless throughout. Daughters of the Dust is an honest examination of what it means to honor and cherish family and community despite the ugliness and complexities of our ancestral history.


The Relevance of Black American Muslim Thought

By Margari Aziza

The Muslim American community is held together with the belief that there is no God but the One True God and that Muhammad is His prophet. Muslims share daily patterns of worship, rituals of birth, marriage, and death.

As one of the most diverse faith communities, Muslim Americans come from various ethnic, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds. Sometimes there are various articulations of Islam  due to different political, cultural, and religious orientations.

Some estimates go as far to say that there are 5 million Muslims in America. According to census data and information provided by mosques and community centers, Muslims in America make up .5% of the total population in America. Keeping it conservative, that equals just under two million. This still represents a significant number. CAIR reports that the ethnicities of mosque participants can be broken down to 33% South Asian, 30% Black American and 25% Arab, 3.4% sub-Saharan African, 2.1 European (i.e. Bosnia) 1.6% White American, 1.3% South-East Asian, 1.2% Caribbean, 1.1% Turkish, .7% Iranian, and .6% Latino/Hispanic. Other reports indicate the number of Black Americans may be even larger.

Regardless of the numbers, there is no clear ethnic majority in American Islam. But these numbers raise some important issues: Who has the right to speak for American Muslims? Who are the real Muslims? Who will define the agenda for American Muslims? These questions have often been central to a debate that has emerged about the Black American/immigrant divide.

Over the years, many Black American Muslims have been at the forefront of articulating Islamic thought for the growing American Muslim community. But this seems to have changed as a dominant narrative has taken over.

In America, there is fierce competition over resources which has led to some voices getting silenced in deciding the agenda for American Muslims. Within mainstream media, the Muslim American experience is about the immigration and assimilation experience. There is little press coverage or interest shown in the media on converts or the multi-generational Black American Muslim families.

Sylvia Chan-Malik uses the term, “foundational blackness” to describe how contemporary Islam in America can best be understood by transnational affiliations that link gender, class, and religion, but also with its relationship with blackness. However, Black American Muslim foundations go back further, with memories of African Muslims enslaved in the America, even predating the formation of the United States.

There are also Sunni communities dating back to the 60s, such as Dar al-Islam movement. Some communities have origins much earlier, such as Quba Institute with roots in the 1930s Izideen village in New Jersey. Yet, consistently, there continues to be a portrayal of Islam as a foreign religion, with only internationalist interests. For over a century, some Black Americans have looked to African cultural legacies, addressed local issues, and have maintained transnational networks and ties, to articulate religious thought that is African, Islamic, and uniquely American.

While it is true that Black American Muslims were often drawn to Islam in an attempt to articulate their own cultural identity outside of the dehumanizing ascribed identity of Black inferiority, Black American Islam is thoroughly embedded in the American tradition. From the proto-Islam movements of the early 20th century, to the Black separatist movements of the 1960s, heterodox communities, and orthodox communities with leaders from or trained abroad, many Muslim communities sought to address social ills in America and globally. In particular, racism, economic and social inequality, economic exploitation, and family instability are on the main agenda of many Black American Muslim leaders.

Before 9/11, some of the most prominent voices in American Islam were African Americans, including Warith Deen Muhammad and Siraaj Wahaj. Their status as citizens afforded them the privilege to critique American society and foreign policy, without compromising their Americaness.

The protest tradition of many leaders helped forge a space for the next generation of immigrant and descendant of immigrant Muslims Americans to assert themselves in the public sphere. Following the events of 9/11, there has been an increasing silencing of Black American Muslim voices: a combination of little to no media acknowledgment of BAM’s as well as a systemic neglect on the part of immigrant Muslims.

Over time, Black American spokespeople were gradually eclipsed as national Muslim organizations with strong immigrant interests sought to assert their agendas and provide the dominant narrative of immigrants assimilating to American values.

In contrast to the hegemonic narrative that has rendered them invisible, Black American Muslims are vital to the health of this diverse Muslim community.  They have also continued to make great strides politically, socially, and culturally. This includes two Black Congressmen, Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, the growing prominence of intellectuals and scholars, most notably feminist scholar, Amina Wadud, and Aminah Beverly McCloud, who wrote African American Islam,  Sherman Abdul-Hakeem Jackson, and Zaid Shakir.

There are also many young scholars, such as Jamilah Karim, Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, and Intisar Rabb. There is a large wave of Black American Muslim leaders who have demonstrated mastery of Islamic sciences and have graduated from Muslim institutions of higher learning, including Abdullah Ali, who earned a degree from  Al-Qarawiyin University of Fes.

Black American Muslims have made cultural gains including a feature-length film, “Mooz-lum,” and prominent Hip Hop artists, including but not limited to Lupe Fiasco, and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def).  The Abdullah brothers shared their story of taking time off from the NFL to perform the annual Muslim pilgrimage (Hajj). The fencer,  Ibtihaj Muhammad, was the first Muslim woman to compete for the United States in an international competition and win a medal.

Black American Muslims are very much part of the fabric of America and often play a daily role in interfaith dialogue, as many of them have family and loved ones who are non-Muslim.

Black American Muslims are vital to the health of this diverse Muslim community.

Black American Muslims have used their social capital to critique American foreign policy, Islamophobia, and erosion of American civil liberties. As a group, Black American Muslims are far from nativists, as many identify with and relate to  numerous international and transnational Muslim communities. They are much more likely to attend a mosque in which another group dominates, showing their willingness to assimilate into an immigrant dominant mosque.

Black American Muslims participate anti-war protests, critique extra-judicial killings through drone strikes in Chad, Mali, Yemen, and Pakistan, raise money for war refugees in Syria and alleviate suffering in natural disasters in Somalia and Pakistan. Yet  pressing social issues in their home communities, such as economic inequality, street violence, and family instability, play a large role in their everyday lives. Crime, poverty, and marriage are common issues raised in the Black American Muslim discourse from the minbar to the lecture hall. These issues also shape their outlook, which in turn causes them to be empathetic to the plight of others at home and abroad.

Perhaps the flexibility of thought can be tied to the Black American  Muslim identity, which is comprised of multiple intersections.  They are connected to many faiths and ethnic groups as part of this nation building project that we call United States of America. They are connected to many faiths and people who were either forcibly or willingly migrated to other lands  as part of the African Diaspora. They find connections with people on the African continent, and Black communities in South America and the Caribbean. They are also connected to people all over the world in  a multi-ethnic global community, ummah. These connections have given Black American Muslims a unique juncture to relate to and speak on various issues and causes. Black American thinkers continue to be influential in defining American Muslim thought, as they connect their day-to-day lives with Muslims globally.

It seems to be willful ignorance on the part of the media, scholars, and some organizations to overlook these important contributions and connections. The occlusion of Black Americans despite the continual relevancy of Black American Muslim thought makes it especially important to document this  intellectual heritage. Indeed, we must go beyond documenting the life histories of major Muslim leaders and begin to study transformations in Muslim American thought.

I look forward to the next wave of scholars who study Black American Muslims, such as Donna AustonZaheer Ali, and others who will shed light on roots of Black American Islam. These scholars can help us look at the ways in which Black American Muslims drew upon their intersecting identities in their interpretations of textual traditions in ways that address their global and local issues. I look forward to future studies of our rich intellectual traditions and the insights  that these brilliant scholars can bring to the discussion about American Islam.

Margari Aziza Hill is co-founder and acting programming director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and Muslims Make it Plain. She is a volunteer at ICIE, an adjunct professor, blogger, editor and freelance writer with articles published in SISTERS, Islamic Monthly, and Spice Digest.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Margari’s blog.


A View from the ‘Hood: On the Roots of the Baltimore Uprising

By Siddeeqah Sharif Fichman

When protests began in our city several weeks ago over the death of Freddie Gray – a young man from my neighborhood who swept my street weekly, I hoped that all would go smoothly. “Baltimore’s population is not one that you would want to anger,” I recall telling several friends from abroad. Then after several weeks of peaceful protests went largely ignored by the media, police and politicians alike, my neighborhood erupted. But, I was not surprised. I’m actually quite surprised that it hadn’t happened sooner.

Photo By Siddeeqah Sharif

Baltimore is one of the most racially and economically segregated cities that I’ve ever spent time in; and I’m pretty well traveled having lived in 5 different countries. The rich never have to encounter the poor. Whites and blacks have very few opportunities to engage one another. Blacks may frequent predominantly white areas like Fells Point, Canton and Federal Hill for night life – but blacks and whites never have to actually interact there. And, the areas mentioned previously are almost purely salt with a few shakes of pepper sprinkled in for good measure, but they are not by any stretch of the imagination mixed. I personally never attended school with any white children until I went to high school. There are absolutely no wealthy, upscale, predominantly black areas in the city that could rival those areas that I mentioned previously comparable to U Street in DC or 125 St. in Harlem. Baltimore has an apartheid feel. The kind of feeling that Steven Biko described by saying “ Smart or dumb, if you are black in South Africa you are born into this (speaking of the situation of blacks in Soweto), and smart or dumb you will die in it.” I relocated back to Baltimore after living ten years in the Netherlands and 1 year in Israel. In all of my travels I have never encountered a city quite like Baltimore. I was born in the house that I live in now, which is located in a part of the city called Sandtown, the area that exploded during the riots.

My father was born in this house as well, and now my youngest daughter was born here as well.  My father grew up in a very different Sandtown than I did. He grew up in an affluent-ish black middle class area with families that consisted of a working mother and father. Grandparents lived with their children and grandchildren. People dressed incredibly well. Stores were owned by mostly Jewish people who sold their businesses to blacks after the riots of 1968. Residents scrubbed their marble steps every Saturday as  I did growing up. My father was one of the very few educated, industrious men who stayed in the area after drugs hit Baltimore hard in the 90’s. He was dedicated to the community, providing employment and a sense of family for the youth in the area. He frequently took neighborhood boys, who had largely never left the city, on camping trips with our family. He’s still known and loved in my neighborhood.

The Sandtown I grew up in however, was full of old people and single parent homes. Many children lived with either just their mother or their grandparents. No one knew this part of the city until “The Wire” started showing on HBO, but no one in Baltimore actually wanted to know it.  Mom and Pop grocers were owned by blacks and Koreans owned the carry outs. Children still played outside and scrubbed their steps on Saturday. Still, in my Sandtown police acted with impunity, knocking men and women’s head into walls, smashing their faces into the ground, cursing and humiliating them. Helicopters circled overhead with search lights illuminating my third floor bedroom at night. Drug usage and trade took over the area. Violence followed. My youth was punctuated by the deaths of friends, acquaintances, and family members resulting from the violence of drug culture. That experience still very much shapes who I have chosen to be as an adult.

My children’s Sandtown is the one that the world saw erupt on television two weeks ago. It is the Sandtown that was born out of decades of drugs, violence, poverty and neglect. The youth here are the children of my generation and younger. They are raising themselves. Their parents are often on drugs, in jail, or so stressed out from trying to make the American dream work for them that they lash out on the ones that they are working so hard for. Our youth are resourceful, tenacious, brave, and brilliant but they are also ruthless, misguided, angry and devoid of hope.

Photo by Author

The world saw the aftermath of the riots and indicted our youth for “destroying their own neighborhood”. They saw block after block of boarded up houses, trash strewn all over the street, and made the assumption that the residents of Baltimore were destroying the city. Sandtown has definitely been destroyed, along with many other poor black areas of Baltimore City. But Sandtown was not destroyed by the residents two weeks ago in “riots” where people stole toilet paper and baby formula. Sandtown was destroyed slowly over decades by neglectful opportunist politicians who ignored the needs of our existing residents while creating campaigns to bring new residents to Baltimore, and slum lords who have amassed a great deal of wealth and property by  allowing half of the city to remain vacant and fall into ruin because they purchased properties solely for tax breaks without any intention of developing viable housing. Nearly every block in Sandtown has at least one or two boarded up houses, and it’s not uncommon to see entire blocks boarded up with one or two occupied houses sandwiched between the vacants.

Sandtown has been destroyed, make no mistake, but not by those few hours of rioting. Sandtown looks the same now as it did the day before the riots. If I hadn’t personally known which three or four stores had been broken into, I would have assumed that those looted stores were just another vacant store front adding to the ugliness of our neighborhood.

Photo2bySideeqahSharifThe ugliness here is not lost on its  residents, especially the youth. Why else would we be so angry? We have watched our city dump hundreds of millions of dollars into Canton, Hampden, Pigtown, Highlandtown, and Federal Hill all formerly poor and working class white areas, transforming them into gleaming models of the new migration of whites back into cities all across America. We have seen their formerly vacant houses all shined up and outfitted with granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and exposed brick walls while our vacants grow trees inside them and crumble to dust. Business developers are given a welcome mat to invest in white areas creating walkable communities with outdoor eating areas, bike lanes, retail shopping, cafes and night-life while our areas are given a shabby looking CVS and Burger Kings neither of which are ever fully staffed.

It is very easy to see the disparities here in Baltimore, both racial and economic. 90% of the children who attend the elementary school zoned for my area receive breakfast and lunch subsidies because they cannot afford to eat otherwise. There is absolutely nothing to look forward to in our area. There is nothing beautiful  to look at here; and there is no one here who has “made it” to give lessons on how it’s  done. Our youth feel a hopelessness and a justifiable sense of anger that bubbled over into a riot because no one was listening.  Our youth are asking: why should everyone else eat while I go hungry? Why should anyone feel safe when I feel unsafe (here) every day?

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” ~Frederick Douglass

Siddeeqah SharifSiddeeqah Sharif Fichman is a recent returnee to Baltimore after living 10 years in Europe and the Middle East. She currently lives in West Baltimore. Siddeeqah is a Coordinator for the Holistic Life Foundation where she runs a Mindfulness Program teaching yoga and meditation as a positive intervention at a public high school in an underserved area of Baltimore City.