The Years That Ask Questions: Epistemologies of Liberation and the Post-Charlottesville Imperative

White supremacy is deadly.

A black sign emblazoned with four bleak words in white block script perched atop a protestor’s shoulder played a dual role: it communicated the urgency of the spectacle to preoccupied shoppers and passing motorists on this busy avenue in the Bronx at the same time that it shielded her dark brown face from the intense heat of the August sun.  It was the one-year anniversary of the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, nearly a thousand miles away in Ferguson, Missouri.  In spite of the geographic distance, Brown’s death was unfortunately all too near, all too familiar—to so many who gathered that day to mourn and protest, including myself.

I covered the march that day ostensibly as an anthropologist—a scientist of sorts—collecting data for eventual syntheses into working hypotheses, and ultimately, into a set of conclusions about “the way things work” that are appropriate and digestible when offered up for professional consumption by students and colleagues in classrooms and academic journals.  Only it’s considerably more complicated than that: for this anthropologist, who is, among other things, a person of color, a woman, a Muslim, my knowledge of the deadly potential of white supremacy is primarily experiential, rather than theoretical.  Detangling a set of usable insights regarding the intricacies of race and protest in the era of Black Lives Matter, Trump, and the resurgence of the type of aggressive, explicit white supremacy on display in places like Charlottesville from the overwhelming cache of experiences “in the field” is an undertaking that does not permit me the luxury of paradigms of analytic detachment.  There was a time in my academic career when I worried about this a lot more—not because I believed my perspective was an invalid place from which to launch rigorous scholarly inquiry, but mainly because I knew that I would need to be prepared to convince many in the academy that the types of knowledge produced by the inhabitant of this body had every right to enter into conversation with centuries of academic discourse dominated by the perspectives and aspirations of white males.  It was ultimately the work of black scholars that reassured me, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, St. Clair Drake, and others—whose myriad disciplinary innovations were made possible precisely because they employed epistemologies of liberation—producing novel and profound academic knowledge that began with the radical postulation that full humanity existed outside of whiteness, too.

Knowledge production has always been, for better and for worse, intimately connected to its direct impacts on the life chances of actual human beings, a fact that becomes obvious to far too many of us only in times of “crisis.”  Anthropology’s checkered disciplinary history of racial, and often racist, epistemologies are sufficient evidence to bury the notion that the tentacles of white supremacy do not reach beyond the frightening chaos of the lynch mob.  Many of us will, in this historical moment wonder how it is that we might effectively adjust our teaching to speak to the resurrection of problematic ideologies many thought were long dead.  We will work hard to fashion strategies for unpacking the racism that exists out there—a necessary task to be sure.  But what is also required of us in this moment is an examination of the ways that racism operates inside academic institutions as well: including the ways that the epistemological constructs we use to think with so often reproduce systemic inequities and are therefore deeply complicit in the perpetuation of the same deadly ideologies.  What is imperative post-Charlottesville is more than perfunctory attention to the ways in which our institutions exclude, erase, and invalidate scholars of color as a matter of course. If we are serious about shifting gears at this critical juncture, everything ought to be up for grabs, including perpetuation of analytical frameworks built around the end game of replicating the status quo. This work needs to go beyond the moment of ‘crisis’—the perceived rupture of Charlottesville is possible precisely because white supremacy is a chronic, systemic ideology that operates in far less spectacular ways than Nazi salutes and tiki-torch lit gatherings.

(This article was originally published at American Anthropological Association ).

Black Muslim Qur’an Reflections: Juz 13 Ramadan 2016

We sent not a messenger except (to teach) in the language of his own people, in order to make (things) clear to them. —Surah Ibrahim: 4



Every race of people since time began who have attempted to describe God by words or painting, or by carvings, have conveyed their idea that the God who made them and shaped their destinies was symbolized in themselves.—Bishop Henry McNeal Turner


I took shahada right after jumu’ah, on the first Friday in Ramadan some 25 years ago. I was a high school senior, standing on the verge of adulthood and just coming into my very own political awareness, trying desperately to fuse the two of these things into something that would help me to navigate the world as a black woman.

I come from a family of activists, organizers and agitators for an array of social justice concerns, racial equality, labor rights, and education; my great-grandmother, who was doing activist work into her 80s, was widely known and decorated by governors and celebrities for her advocacy on behalf of elderly people in the state where we lived. I did not fully appreciate the significance at the time, but my activist relatives were also, without exception, deeply religious.

I found Islam through a mixture of mediums: in Public Enemy lyrics, in Baba Malcolm’s memoir, on the tongues of the white-thowbed urban Ansars who hawked perfumed oil and black salvation, brothers who assured me that Ibrahim and Yaqub were proud black patriarchs, who showed me how to make salat right out there on the concrete, who convinced me that giving up swine would elevate my spirit and my intellect. It did.

Once I knew that I could decolonize my spirituality, there remained nothing, in the name of liberation, that was not now possible.
In time, I moved on from their interpretation of Islam, and blackness; in fact they did too. But I never forgot the critical lesson that these believers taught me—a lesson contained in the epigraph that leads this essay. That the ethereal and abstract have to be grounded somewhere—that to know Allah I had to know myself, to know my people, and to have faith in the fact that Allah had given me the means of transforming myself and my surroundings by way of the gift brought by messengers who spoke my life and my language.

Believers who knew exactly what we had all been robbed of, and that we were all on the same journey to get it back. We would draw, step by step, ever closer to the Promised Land through devotion to Him, through arduous self-education in matters of our own history, literature, and political struggles, by working to control our impulses to stinginess and envy and impatience with fellow human beings, all at the same time that organized against anti-blackness and economic exploitation. Once I knew that I could decolonize my spirituality, there remained nothing, in the name of liberation, that was not now possible.

Donna Auston with Imamu Amiri Baraka at a protest in Newark, NJ right after the Zimmerman verdict during Ramadan of 2013.

My reflections on the themes of this juz bring me back to this nexus, the deep, abiding connection between spirituality and freedom struggles, where the quest to make the broader world a better place is always most effective when paired with the search for the Divine.

Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.


The pages of this portion of the Qur’an contain messages of oppression and bondage, separation and exile, depression and despair. Yet beyond all of that, there is hope, there is liberation, there is justice, there is healing and there is reconciliation, all of which are ultimate, if not immediate, rewards for sustained faith and—both in this life and in the next.

This juz also contains portions of the stories of some our major prophets: Yusuf, Yaqub, and their fractured family’s tale of betrayal and imprisonment, our father Ibrahim and Allah’s request for him to leave wife and child alone in a faraway desert for reasons, that at the time, were unexplained. And there is Musa, a man whose family and community had been terrorized by Pharaoh’s murderous regime, and yet having made it through the harrowing passage over water through the mercy of Allah, to subsequently find shelter, care, and eventually the strength to resist—right in Pharaoh’s own home.

Modeling Musa, we face our own past mistakes and internal demons, mustering our courage in preparation for our role as witnesses, as those who must stand in Pharaoh’s presence and speak.
We, Africa’s displaced children, see ourselves in Musa. The very land that engineered our captivity, received the stolen bodies of our ancestors, and continues to enact violence upon us, leaving scars we can see and many more that we cannot, is also our source of strength. It is our home. We are the parable of the goodly tree, the seed of Word and prayer planted by our foremothers and forefathers, a tree whose roots have been firmly fixed, in bitterness and toil, whose branches reach to the heavens (14:26). Through the hard work of cultivation in our individual selves, in the various collectives to which we belong, and faith in a hopeful future that we cannot always see, we are transformed.

Modeling Musa, we face our own past mistakes and internal demons, mustering our courage in preparation for our role as witnesses, as those who must stand in Pharaoh’s presence and speak. Our oppression must be named. James Cone tells us that testimony is an integral part of the black religious tradition; where we stand in front of the community to give account of the hope that we carry within each of us. We live to bear witness for ourselves, and more importantly, for those whose voices were taken from them.

And so, we strive for patience of the most beautiful kind, knowing that whether or not Allah allows us to witness the justice we seek for ourselves and for our fellow human beings, our job is to be relentless in seeking it. To quote from the book of Mama Sojourner’s eternal Truth: “It is hard for the old slave holding spirit to die. But die it must.”

This article was first posted on Sapelo Square.

Black Muslim Qur’an Reflections: Juz 15 Ramadan 2017

From the day of its birth, the anomaly of slavery plagued a nation which asserted the equality of all men, and sought to derive powers of government from the consent of the governed. Within sound of the voices of those who said this lived more than half a million black slaves, forming nearly one-fifth of the population of a new nation.

– W.E.B. Dubois

“And when We said to the angels, ‘Prostrate to Adam,’ and they prostrated, except Iblis. He said, ‘Should I prostrate to the one You created from clay?’” Surah al-Isra’: 61

It goes without saying that the wisdom of the Qur’an is directed toward all of humankind. And yet, one of the characteristics that contributes to the poignancy of its message lies in Allah’s ability to speak directly to each of us, or each group of us, as if we are the only human beings in the world. Repeatedly, throughout the Book, we are given guidance and instruction on how to navigate our lives in the present through examples from the past. These stories are not provided for our entertainment, rather they are tools for our edification. And though all peoples exist in the present with some link to the future and to the past, there is something distinctive about the relationship of Black American Muslims to memory and time. Our spiritual practice is both a celebration and a mourning. We rejoice in our particular expressions of connection to the Divine that have been painstakingly woven out of the shredded fabric of racial violence and cultural genocide and infused with the love of God and ourselves.

Juz’ 15 contains the whole of Surah al-Isra’ (The Night Journey) and nearly three quarters of Surah al-Kahf (The Cave). It begins with the miraculous journey of the Beloved, Allah bless him and give him peace, to the heavens — lifted in the night from his fraught life on earth, where he was leading a community under violent siege by the powerful regime that governed their homeland. On this night, Allah took His Prophet, prayers and peace be upon him, from Mecca to the sacred precinct of Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, where he led the other prophets in prayer. From there, he was raised to the heavens, where among the many wonders he was shown, he was gifted with the ultimate honor: Allah’s direct Presence. Surah al-Isra’ opens with a reference to this heavenly voyage, reminding us that it is a reflection of Allah’s Majesty, and immediately, in the very next ayat, plunges us into the instructive examples of the past. Here we are reminded of the contours of prior histories of oppression: the trials of Noah, Moses and Bani Isra’il, and the vicissitudes of victory and defeat.

Mirroring the example of our Beloved, Allah bless him and give him peace, our own journey to the heavens begins with history.

Black Islam in the U.S. has been inextricably rooted in our collective attempts to transform the racial violence of our past and present into a future of freedom. Black Islam seeks validation from the One, for its own sake, but also for its potency as the ultimate antidote to white supremacist epistemology that would rob us of our souls––even as it justified the violence that turned our flesh into a commodity. The lesson here is clear: in order for us to transcend, we must first do the painful work of reckoning with history. White America has found this out the hard way. Stubborn refusal to face the Original Sin upon which its very foundation is built — the cancer of racism currently threatens to bring the whole house down.

Throughout the remainder of the juz’, Allah reminds us of past tribulations, of civilizations brought to ruin through the relentless pursuit of iniquity, of the reliability of Divine Justice, and ultimately, of His protection of those among the righteous who strive to remain upright in an unjust world. Surah al-Kahf opens with an emphasis on Allah’s Singularity, and continues with the story of the Companions of the Cave — righteous young people fleeing the oppression of the society around them who were subsequently preserved in their cave retreat through the miracle of slumber and reawakened in a later era as a testimony to the power of the One. And so are we. Anthropologist Carolyn Rouse argued that “the history of the [Black] Muslim community in America is the history of consciousness” — a fact so basic to the way we have come to see the world that Black Muslim temporality — the way we see ourselves across time — is calculated in resurrections.

And though heaven and earth, akhirah and dunya, are pairs of conceptual opposites, they are by definition inextricable. Our road to the hereafter travels through the earthly realm. Our attempts, therefore, to understand the Almighty and to seek His pleasure are tethered to the stories of Creation. Any attempt to reach the heavens that aspires to gloss over the messy business of lived history and its consequences in the present is doomed to land wide of the mark. Black Muslims in the U.S. have long sought salvation in the fight against oppression as a spiritual practice, developing liberation theologies and paradigms of praxis that simultaneously sought to unchain bodies and souls. By taking history seriously, and using its lessons to fashion our spiritual repertoires, we gain Knowledge of Self, the will to resist injustice, and above all, intimate recognition of the Divine. Whosoever knows herself knows her Lord.

This article was originally posted on Sapelo Square.

Black Muslim Qur’an Reflections: Juz 27 Ramadan 2018

If our vaunted rule of the people does not breed nobler men and women than monarchies have done, it must and will inevitably give place to something better. – Anna Julia Cooper

During the month of Ramadan, many Muslims understand that the heavens are open — that through increased worship and adherence to a set of moral dictates (restraint of the tongue or corralling of physical desires, for example) that we are given the opportunity to approach the Divine. In this blessed season, we take advantage of a unique opportunity to seek nearness to Allah through heightened attention to acts of piety, hoping that through our fasting and prayer that we might be granted clemency when we are faced with the inevitable reckoning with the One to whom we all must return. This season is often approached as a much-needed space for personal introspection, an increase in personal worship, all of which are essential spiritual practices. But what happens when we allow for the possibilities that come with the acknowledgement that morality is constituted in relationship with the social — that our understanding and subsequent interface with the Divine presence is only possible through the filter of our particular on-the-ground reality? That our conceptions and perceptions of God, our relationship with our Creator, and what we ultimately understand about what we are expected to do in response to the Divine summons are all shaped to some extent by our experiences in the world?

Since becoming Muslim over 25 years ago, I have heard Muslims repeatedly make the attempt to disavow the role of culture in the implementation of Islam, to proclaim that “Islam is relevant in all times and places”— these proclamations serving to assure believers that they are adhering to the Will that exists above all petty human entanglements and nafsi aspirations. While it is undoubtedly true that Allah is Timeless, not subject to the constraints of space and place and His message to humankind is relevant and necessary across the spans of history and geography, human beings are never  free of such things. Therefore, every attempt to understand and approach the Divine is subject to our limitations. Our choices here are but two — we live in denial of this fact to detrimental effect; or we acknowledge it, attempt to manage it, and most important, make the necessary adjustments to it when we realize that it has begun to interfere with our attempts to connect with Allah.

The surahs contained in Juz’ 27 (51:31–57:29), with one exception (i.e., Surah Hadid), emerge out of the particular social context of the early Makkan portion of the prophetic mission. It is a social context that many of us living as a racial and religious minority can relate to: we are few in number, our spiritual expressions are not necessarily mainstream and interactions with representatives of the status quo can run the gamut from friendly to violently hostile. Given that reality, many of the themes contained in this section focus on the absolute essentials: the importance of tawhid, or the Oneness of God as the foundation for all spiritual works, reminders about the hereafter that render those often abstract realities into matters of tangible concern, reminders about the long history of prophetic engagement with their respective societies — the expansion of notions of morality from the realm of the private to being matters of public and social concern.

Here “worship” does not simply indicate a regimen of individual prayer or reflection, but it also encompasses the implementation of public justice: where people are able to live in safety and security, where people are not marginalized or treated as less than human on the basis of personal or social identity, where everyone has access to adequate food, shelter, and other necessary resources they need to survive and thrive, where there is clean drinking water and the earth is not subject to abuse. None of these realities are a given. Instead, they require deliberate intention, continued work and sustained vigilance to be effected — a spiritual orientation that recognizes these matters as moral imperatives, and therefore incorporates a holistic approach to worship that does not compromise with social injustice under the guise of preserving a limited and narrow conception of personal morality: “Verily, human beings will have nothing save that which they strive for” (53:39).

Here, we are reminded of the missions of the Prophets Ibrahim, Nuh, Salih and others, peace be upon them, and their interactions with their respective peoples. We are also instructed concerning some of the early dialogue between the Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and give him peace, with the leaders of the Quraysh. There are many lessons in these exchanges — one worth highlighting brings us back to the epigraph that began this reflection and the importance of recognizing the influence of the social on human understandings of the nature and will of the Divine. In Surah Najm, Allah challenges the polytheists of the Quraysh about their theology,:

Have you considered (the vernacular deities) Al-Lat, and Al-‘Uzza, and the third, Manat? Do you ascribe sons to yourselves, and for (Allah), daughters? This is indeed an unjust division. — 53:19–22

This is not, as it may seem superficially, a statement from the Divine sanctioning the inferior position of girls; for we believe as a matter of creed that Allah has no gender — period. Rather, we have here a direct challenge to a misogynistic status quo, whereby women and girls were not valued in the everyday realm of the social — by (male) human beings who prized male children for themselves as the ultimate status symbol and subsequently projected this disdain for and devaluation of women onto their theological and cosmological frameworks. This exchange is also not here simply so that Muslims can pat ourselves on the back and acquit ourselves of such shortcomings — for if we do not take social justice seriously as an essential moral concern — our interpretations of scripture will consequently be infected with these virulent, debilitating ideologies. “Islam,” then, is in danger of becoming a repository for all manner of social injustice. Our holy men (for they are, more often than not, men), our shaykhs, our religious leaders will become instruments of hegemony rather than healing, and we will all suffer the consequences. According to Dr. Cooper, our “vaunted rule of the people will not produce human beings any nobler than the monarchies” and dictatorships have done — words of insight and wisdom gleaned from someone whose social location as a Black woman born into U.S. enslavement shaped the stubborn perception that she was by virtue of her “natural” constitution incapable of delivering either. (Dr. Cooper proved everyone wrong in 1924 by becoming only the fourth African American woman to earn a Ph.D.)

If this seems far-fetched, if we stubbornly cling to the notion that “Islam” is immune to the nitty-gritty, street-level influences of everyday sociopolitics, we need look no further than much of the contemporary discourse in American Muslim communities that, because of its own sociopolitical investments, is slow to forbid the evil of racism, sluggish and lethargic in enjoining the good of gender justice, or that dismisses the efforts of Muslim social justice activists (many of whom, not coincidentally, are Black women) as inherently secular endeavors that have no grounding in an “Islamic” moral framework. Fourteen hundred years later, the anti-Blackness that Sayyiduna Bilal sometimes encountered is still alive and well, we still do not value women, and many in our communities are still behaving like the leaders of the Thamud people described in Surah al-Qamar: 24 (whose hallmark crime was cruelty and violence to non-human life), where the basis for not heeding the message had everything to do with the socially ingrained biases against the person of the messenger.

Verily we have sent our messengers with clear arguments, and sent down with them the Book and the Balance, so that human beings may conduct themselves with equity. — 57:25


This article was originally posted at Sapelo Square

Finding Black Death on a Quiet Hilltop: Reflections on Death, Dying, and Fieldwork in the Era of Black Lives Matter

I pulled my car up to a parking spot on a steep hill, deployed my emergency brake and made to step out of the car.  As I did so, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a picture of a young black man printed on a sheet of white paper.  The photograph was taped to the front of a milk crate sitting in the grass, forming the focal point of a makeshift memorial erected right next to the sidewalk. I say makeshift though that’s not exactly what I mean—the materials out of which it was constructed were humble yet chosen and arranged with obvious love and care: boulders placed carefully on either side of the photograph provided a sense of symmetry, glass candles placed neatly inside of the crate, and dark green wine bottles artfully forming the outermost border.


It was a late summer Sunday, one of those days where all you want to do is grasp the lingering sunshine and carelessness in your hands. I had spent the morning on some participant observation at a nearby mosque, and Imade plans to catch up with an old friend afterward.  On this day, I was working and playing in northern NJ—though my observations of #BlackLivesMatter protests and related activities have taken me up and down the east coast between New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and D.C.Black death is ubiquitous, and nothing, not even the pretense of “being done with fieldwork for the day,” is a protection against the constant possibility of its interrupting presence.


Fieldwork in the year following Ferguson has often felt like a never-ending emotional rollercoaster ride: uprisings in Baltimore and the overnight transformation of an American city into a militarized zone, a seemingly endless parade of hashtag obituaries, violent and graphic videos of black citizens being shot, strangled, and beaten by police, increasingly virulent and violent backlash against black bodies by private citizens in Charleston and other places.  Protests and vigils in response to these tragedies have been near continuous as well—and though most public discourse around these events seems to measure their utility andeffectiveness exclusively in terms of policy outcomes, my fieldwork has taught me a great deal about the power of these gatherings as conduits of collective emotion.  Paul Tilich argued that “protest is a form of communion,” and there is a lot of truth to that. In these spaces the demons of rage and grief are let loose and transformed (on a good day) into something akin to solidarity and hope.  On other days, they are let loose and stubbornly refuse to budge, festering as compounded, sublimated rage, grief, and despair.


Later that afternoon, my friend drew my attention to the memorial that I had hastily passed, and proceeded to tell me the story behind it. I listened as he recounted the tragedy: he had been at home when it happened.  The victim died right outside, killed by an off-duty police officer who struck the young man with his car in the spot where the memorial stood, and then fled the scene.   The case is still winding its way through the legal system, but it’s unlikely that the officer will face any charges. As horrifying as this case is—as each of these cases are—the greater tragedy is the paradox that the horror is so deeply commonplace, so much the status quo that these incidents have become, in some ways, profoundly quotidian.  There is a stubborn relentlessness in the repetition of death, to the ways in which the legal system predictably contorts logic to justify the constant stream of black victims. He was resisting. She was threatening. He severed his own spine.  She shot herself while handcuffed.   He was…there. I listened to the gruesome tale, attentive to the emotional contours that are by now familiar elements in these narratives: the ebb and flow of anger and heartbreak as the details of the victim’s life and death are recounted, followed by the all too familiar anticipation of the predictable, hopelessly frustrating, no-resolution end of no justice to be had.


On this quiet New Jersey street, another black victim lost his life anonymously, unknown and unnoticed by most of the outside world. I was stuck by the profound quietness of his death—there was not even a hashtag. Though I live less than an hour away and research these cases I did not know of his name or death.  I could not help but contrast it to my fieldwork at the other extreme—the tense, emotionally charged, adrenaline filled, hypervisible experience that marked my first days in Baltimore.  I arrived to Charm City fairly soon after Freddie Gray’s murder, on the first day thatprotests escalated into standoffs with police. The eyes of the world were fixed on the city for the next couple of weeks, watching but in many ways unable to see.  As America mourned the death of a CVS, police presence in the city doubled and trebled, American soldiers in assault vehicles roamed the streets, tear gas and babies were placed in close proximity to one another.  There was a profoundsurrealness to it all, but underneath everything was the familiar yearning for justice, accountability, and protection from everyday, lethal violence meted out to black citizens by the state. In moments of chaos and quiet alike, justiceand safety remain equally elusive.


Black victims of state violence are everywhere, in every region of the country.  Police have killed black women, men, children and grandmothers.  Victims have met brutal deaths in street encounters gone wrong, in their homes, on college campuses, in libraries, in shopping centers and in jail cells. And in spite of how abruptly the eruption of what we are now calling the Black Lives Matter movement may seem to some, neither the problem of state violence against black bodies nor organized resistance against it is new.  The American state’s consistent disregard for the sanctity of black life and the communities that must learn to live with their fundamental lack of sanctuary is a dance that has been going on for centuries. The struggle continues.