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.

 

Mapping the Intersections of Islamophobia & #BlackLivesMatter: Unearthing Black Muslim Life & Activism in the Policing Crisis

James Baldwin once said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage nearly almost all of the time.”

Last month, Baltimore erupted, and the rest of America got a glimpse into the ever-present but often hidden reality of black rage.

Tensions have been simmering in the city for a long time. Many of the city’s black residents live in terrible poverty—in neighborhoods marked by an abundance of abandoned houses, rampant violence, a lack of access to employment, adequate schools, and basic necessities. The death of Freddie Gray, a black Baltimore resident, at the hands of six city police officers last month proved to be a spark that eventually brought the situation to the boiling point.

America watched as once again a major American city became the venue for an urban uprising. Before it was all said and done, there was destruction of property, broken glass, fires, and eventually a declared state of emergency in the city. A curfew was put into effect, tear gas deployed on residents, there were supplemental police forces from at least three states, and of course there was the National Guard. To add insult to injury, in the immediate weeks following the unrest, the state of Maryland votes to allocate $30 million dollars—not to urban renwal, or to schools, housing, or jobs, but the construction of a brand new juvenile jail.

policeAt the same time, the Islamophobia industry in the United States is in full bloom, often with harmful, even deadly conseuqences. Pamela Geller recently brought her traveling circus of a public hate campaign to Philadelphia—after having made stops in recent years in other major American cities such as San Francisco and New York. When one of the city’s largest masjids held a press conference addressing the hateful ads that were to run on city buses, those unfamiliar with the face of Islam in the city may have been surprised to discover that nearly every Muslim in the room was black.

At first blush, it may seem that these two phenomenon are not intimately connected. Parallels can be drawn fairly easily, of course, between Islamophobia and anti-black racism as specific manifestations of a similar impulse, but making the leap to consider them intimate bedfellows may seem like an analytical stretch. In public discourse, we easily link anti-Muslim and anti-Arab discrimination as being nearly one and the same. Yet, in spite of the fact that a full one-third of the U.S. Muslim population is black, we rarely tend to think of issues of anti-black racism, poverty, mass incarceration, or police brutality as legitimate “Muslim” issues. This is because we rarely consider black Muslims.

Black Muslims exist right at the intersection of these two forms of racism. Baltimore and Philadelphia are two American cities where the commonly accepted narrative of who American Muslims are, where their concerns lie, and the specific cocktail of intersectional racisms that they live with is radically disrupted. Both cities have long and rich black Muslim histories—and diverse manifestations of Afro-Muslim religious expression that are as much a part of the landscape of their respective cities as crab cakes and water ice. “As salaam ‘alaykum” emanates from the mouths of Muslim and non-Muslim black residents in both places as naturally as any other greeting. Khimars, bow ties, and the iconic red fez are all items in an array of sartorial indicators of particular racial and religious life worlds.

fez

Given the entrenchment of black Muslimness within the broader context of black life in these particular cities, it should come as no surprise to find African American Muslims in the spectrum of activists and intellectuals working to combat these issues.

In December, a group of Philadelphia and NJ-based Muslims formed Muslims Make It Plain, an organization which draws upon the tradition of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam to organize and educate the Muslim community and the general public around issues of law enforcement excesss, including both police violence and invasive surveillance practices.

In the midst of the Baltimore uprisings, the work of the city’s Muslims to protect and care for black residents was truly amazing to witness.

fruitThe Fruit of Islam, from Baltimore’s Muhammad’s Mosque # 6 joined forces with community activists and gang members alike, using their bodies to shield community members from police armed in riot gear and to protect businesses from being destroyed. The women of the mosque, while not physically in the fray, manned phones, and watched the internet—providing intelligence and tactical support in real time to the brothers on the front lines as they attempted to keep the community safe.

Believers also distributed hot food in the neighborhood in the following days. Muslims from Masjid as Saffat, located less than a block away from the now iconic burned and looted CVS at North and Pennsylvania avenues in West Baltimore, have organized sustained distribution of essential hygiene and health products to senior citizens in the neighborhood—deemed to be the most vulnerable and among the hardest hit by the loss of one of the only pharmacies in the community.

Individual black Muslims of many varieties were present and vocal in the near daily protests that took place in the city in the weeks between Freddie Gray’s murder through the immediate aftermath of the unrest.

I weave together these seemingly disparate threads to draw attention to the fact that in this historic moment when we are presumably more attentive to the way that marginalization endangers the lives of the invisible, being cognizant of the ways that intersectional identities are easily erased is more important than ever. Just as much of the activism around police brutality has centered the experiences of black men while ignoring the deadly perils that black women also face from law endorcement, assumptions about who “American Muslims” are, and flattened represenations of who constitutes the “black community” place black American Muslim experiences and challenges out of perceptual range.

Dominant narratives—in both media and scholarly literature tend to doubly efface the existence and voices of black American Muslims—even in this moment when black bodies are at the very center of the unrest. Black Muslims do not come to this issue as bystanders or allies—even well meaning ones. Yet we are often erased—even from the narrative of our own struggle. That erasure renders our communities even more vulnerable—to Islamophobia, to anti-black racism (including from WITHIN the Muslim community), and to all of the attendant perils that accompany them.

Where the quintessential imagined American Muslim is a well-off, highly educated and professional Arab or South Asian struggling to bridge East and West, America and Islam—black Muslims have been living with the unique reality of both being completely inseparable from America since its foundations as a nation—yet literally dying for recognition and protection under the law as bonafide citizens of the land of our birth. We are active and present in these struggles because these are our lives, our communities, our issues, and our concerns.

We fight because we are profiled both on the street and at the airport—as existential threats to white, Christian America. Yet we refuse to answer to any of our given epithets—either “thug” or “terrorist.” We are unapologetically black. We are indisputably Muslim. For better and worse, we are fully and ambivalently American. And we are enough.

Prayer, Protest, & Police Brutality: Black Muslim Spiritual Resistance in the Ferguson Era

Abstract

This article is a localized ethnographic exploration of African American Muslims within the context of a broad and diverse national movement surrounding police violence and related issues of racial justice: “Black Lives Matter.” Through fieldwork conducted simultaneously in physical spaces in the Northeast and Mid‐Atlantic region of the United States and on social media platforms, this work explores some of the internal diversity of Black Lives Matter through a focus on the lived experiences of Black Muslims as they engage with the movement and their unique positioning in relationship with the issues it aims to address. Through attention to the ways that they are rendered doubly liminal and intersectionally impacted as a result of the prevalence of both anti‐Black racism and Islamophobia, police violence as well as faith‐based profiling and surveillance, I examine the fusion of spirituality and protest that informs the worship and activism of my interlocutors, the crafting of protest repertoires that draw upon the legacies of African American freedom struggles and Islamic mandates to social justice for the purposes of resisting, reimagining, and reshaping the marginalization that they experience.

The full article was published in Transforming Anthropology, Vol. 25, Issue 1, (April 2017) and can be accessed here:

Recalled to Life: On the Meaning and Power of a Die-In

Recalled to Life: On the Meaning and Power of a Die-In

Die-in at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Photo credit: Aries Dela Cruz

I have never died before.

In the beginning of December, at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, D.C., I made my way down to our hotel’s main lobby with a few of my friends, to join hundreds of my colleagues for a die-in, a powerful, symbolic protest against the continuing epidemic of extrajudicial killings of black citizens by police and vigilantes.  We gathered a few minutes before the scheduled time, as instructions for how to begin arranging our standing bodies around the rotunda were whispered from ear to ear.  “If you are planning to die, please make your way into the center of the circle, those who prefer to watch on the outside.”  People began to hold up signs hastily scribbled on poster board and plain old blank office paper: “Black Lives Matter”, “Justice for All”—while one of the main organizers—a caramel-colored sister-scholar-organizer dressed in all black stood up on the pedestal that held up the tall, dangerously pointed objet d’art which marks the exact center of the lobby.  Her muted signal came before I felt quite prepared. With a calm, direct, downward gesture of the hand we were informed that our time had come.  Ready or not, it was time to die.

At exactly 12:28 P.M. we lay down on the immaculate marble floor in unison.  Immediately, I felt my throat close and the rush of tears that I fought to hold back.  “Dead women don’t cry,” I thought to myself, as I immediately became aware of my breath.  Almost against my will, it felt—for dead women don’t breathe either—my lungs insisted on continuing to fill with air.  As my lungs expanded so forcefully, I shed more tears as I thought of the violence and brutality with which Daniel Pantaleo literally squeezed the life out of Eric Garner.  Garner, an asthmatic, was placed in an illegal chokehold and gradually robbed of air while he screamed repeatedly—over and over and over again—“I can’t breathe.”

I wondered about the placement of my limbs—whether they were arranged convincingly enough for me to stand-in for a corpse.  I lamented the fact that I hadn’t had time to shove my phone out of sight before I died.  Always the fieldworker in every single moment, I had taken it out to snap some quick shots of the assembly—and now it lay limp in my hand as the rest of my body lay in a not-so-random sprawl on the floor.  My regret about the phone quickly faded, for as it lay across my palm it reminded me powerfully of Amadou Diallo–shot 41 times by NYPD officers as he clutched a wallet in his hand.  In spite of my best efforts, both the tears and the breath were relentless—the harder I fought the more determined they each seemed to become.  With each exhale there was a release—a bizarre mix of carbon dioxide and toxic emotion leaving my nostrils and dangerously swirling up into the surrounding air.  We lay there for four and a half minutes, symbolizing the four and a half hours that Michael Brown’s corpse lay on that Ferguson street in a morbid display of state power deployed with lethal force against black bodies.  State power backed by centuries of similar displays of strange fruit swinging in the breeze; state power which attacked our very senses–assaulting our vision with a powerful and intimate reminder that the past is not prologue, for it is in fact not even past.

As an African American, the precariousness and overwhelming vulnerability of black life are all too familiar to me.  It would not be an exaggeration to state that every single black person I know has at least one story of police brutality—whether they are victims or witnesses.  There are too many names that as a collective–we can recite painfully and accurately from traumatized memory: Eleanor Bumpurs, Sean Bell, Kathryn Johnston, Johnny Gammage, Rodney King, Abner Louima, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Leon Ford, Jr., Mike Brown, John Crawford, Vonderrit Myers, Tamir Rice, Tanesha Anderson, and way too many more.   We know that whether we are young or old, rich or poor, male, or female, tall, fat, thin, handsome, educated, saintly, slightly unladylike or rough-around-the-edges, whether we are petty criminals or church-going grannies—that we are always, in every single moment—deeply vulnerable and profoundly unsafe.

Ever since the most recent wave of police killings of unarmed black civilians, beginning with the murder of Michael Brown on August 9 I have been struggling with the dead weight of silence.  A few status updates and some tweets, but even though I make words for a living, none seemed to be adequate.  I have monitored social media feverishly for updates and documentation of the initial act of violence and then, in horror, I watched the outsized and brutal repression unfold:  right in Middle America there was tear gas, rubber bullets, tanks, assault rifles—trained and deployed on protesters, journalists, and bystanders alike.  I was both caught off guard and completely unsurprised, for as Freud would say, there is knowing and then there is Knowing;1 no matter how painfully ordinary such brutality has become there is no escaping the paralysis that results from such a profound state of dread when you actually watch it unfold in real time before your very eyes.  Nothing in your life could have prepared you to witness what they are now seeing.  Carol Kidron reminds us of the tremendous potency of silence as a conduit for trauma, emotion, and memory.2  I was now helpless before that power.  Silence covered all—even as the outside world continued to rage and burn.

Dying, it turns out, changed everything.  I died in that hotel so that we might be able to live.  As I lay on that polished floor feigning death I heard off in the distance the voice of a Dickens character recalling me to life.  Dying in that lobby staunched the bleeding in my heart, patched it hastily and returned it to me.  Dying put me back in touch with the sheer physicality of my body, and enabled me to reach both hands through the numbness and feel my emotions as they moved between my fingers. Empowered by my renewed sensuality,for the first time in I don’t know how long, I just felt. Instead of attempting to stop the intake of air I inhaled slowly, deeply, and dedicated every single breath to Eric Garner.  I relished in the heat of the tears that now welled up behind my still-closed eyelids and offered each of them to Mamie Till and Lesley McSpadden. In death, I rediscovered life—and emerged with a renewed sense of the urgency to resist.  And upon my resurrection, still at a loss for words, I sought expression in physical contact.  I found the eyes of my sister-friend in the still awakening crowd, and instinctively—compulsively even—sought the only release that seemed powerful enough to carry the sheer enormity of my emotional state in that moment.  In silence, we picked our way toward one another and embraced.

Some people have questioned the utility of our action.  “What’s the point of a bunch of elite academics laying down on the floor of the bourgeois hotel where they are gathering, with pretenses to ‘disrupting’ their own conference?”  After all, there were “real” protests just a short distance away out on the streets of D.C.   Leaving aside for the moment the fact that many of us, especially anthropologists who are adjuncts or graduate students could hardly lay claim to being elite, or that many of us have been engaged in direct action in our home communities (this was, I think, my third protest in a week)—this space was, in fact, the perfect place to die.  For me at least, a black anthropologist who grapples every single day with her discipline’s sordid racial past and often, at best—ambivalent racial present—dying there, in that space enabled me to think and feel with renewed energy about the reasons why I’m even bothering to be there.  There I died, and there I was recalled to life because there is still plenty of work that I have to do.

I died that day because I am determined to live.

 

References

Sigmund Freud. (1933). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. New York: Norton. (Translated by W.J.H. Sprott)

Carol A. Kidron. “Toward and Ethnograpy of Silence: The Lived Presence of the Past in the Everyday Life of Holocaust Trauma Survivors and their Descendants in Israel.” Current Anthropology. Vol. 50, No.1 (February 2009).

When Silence Says it All: Reflections on American Muslim Leadership and the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. –Martin Luther King, Jr.

I love my community, deeply. And my definition of love always requires complete honesty to the best of my ability: this is how I approach the full range of my intimate relationships with everyone—my children, my family, and my friends. So it is with a heavy heart that I write the following, hoping for dialogue, engagement, and ultimately, a better set of answers.

Like many Americans, I have been keeping a close eye on the developments in the Trayvon Martin case ever since the news broke a little more than a year ago. From the moment I heard about his tragic death, and the unconventional manner in which it was handled by law enforcement authorities, I have been unable to look away. The case is compelling: an innocent child is dead as a result of a senseless and unnecessary chain of events fueled by individual and societal paranoia around black bodies. A young man lay lifeless on the ground in the rain, armed with candy and a bottle of tea, while his family waited in vain for him to return home. I was actually in Florida when I first heard the news. It was just a week or two since it had happened. On my way to enjoy a much-needed day of sun and relaxation at the beach, I listened in horror to the car radio. What I heard connected me immediately to a long and tragic past of utter disregard for black life in the country we call home. As an African American, that past is both distant and all too near—as a post civil-rights era baby, I am not quite old enough to remember the barbaric murders of Emmitt Till and the countless other lynchings that took place throughout the U.S. I am, however, just one short generation removed from those events, and at the age of 12 I had my own tragic introduction to the ease with which black life could be taken. Anthony Agurs, a childhood friend, was struck dead by Pittsburgh police at the tender age of 13. No one was held accountable for his death.  And so Trayvon’s death opened up a deep and painful can of worms for me–it was a reminder of how vulnerable and unsafe being black in America always is. In the era of proclaimed post-raciality and color-blindness, the putrid stench of racial violence was once again discernible in the air, reminding all of us that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva had it right: the claim that race no longer plays a role in shaping our social world is just the same old perfume in new bottles.

I became a Muslim at the age of 17, fueled largely by what I perceived to be a commitment to equality and diversity as an organizing principle, profound and deep concern for the rights of the oppressed and most importantly, the fusion of these ideals into everyday spiritual practice. My faith journey was guided and informed by an eclectic mix of conscious hip-hop and the example of the Prophet of Islam, Allah bless him and give him peace, who reminded us that whoever sees wrong should change it with her hands, and if she can’t do that then she should change it with her speech, and failing either of those two she should hate it in her heart, with the last being the weakest manifestation of faith. From his blessed lips we learned that we should want for humanity what we want for ourselves, and that one is ultimately not a true believer if she eats her fill while her neighbor goes hungry. At the end of the day, Islam is a profoundly phenomenological orientation to the world—it is about being, acting, and doing. Belief fuels this being, and provides the foundation for all action, but you cannot have one without the other. As I have been reminded in countless Friday sermons and religious lectures over the last 20 years, Allah couples these two pillars together countless times throughout the Qur’an. “Those who believe and do righteous works…” is a constant refrain.  In other words, belief in God should ultimately propel us to act in the world. Righteous deeds are not limited to fasting and prayer—we should do these things in abundance but when you get up off that prayer mat and return to the world of the profane, you had best be leaving it better than how you found it.

These ideals inspired untold numbers of African Americans like myself to convert to Islam—believing (rightfully so, I think) that we had found a powerful tool that was equally useful in the war against personal spiritual afflictions such as greed, envy, and selfishness as well as in our never-ending battle with the devastating oppression brought on by the regime of white supremacy. For many of us, Islam offered us both a critique and a set of practical solutions to transform ourselves and the society that we live in.

None of that has been obvious in the last few days. In the immediate aftermath of George Zimmerman being declared not guilty by a jury of his peers, reactions poured in from a wide range of quarters—reactions expressing the spectrum of emotions that could be found in the public: shock, sadness, grief, anger, and fear (or conversely, elation, and relief, peppered with racist epithets just for good measure). Wading through the myriad opinion pieces, blog posts, op-eds, and social media posts, I, and many other Muslims that I know kept asking, “Where are the Muslim voices?” Why aren’t American Muslim “leaders” weighing in on a major American crisis? How on earth can a faith community which has produced human rights icons such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali fail to offer any insight or comfort to its neighbors or even its own constituency when an innocent black child is dead and his killer has gone free? More to the point, when did we become so impotent?  (Yes, I know that many of us have been speaking up, using our voices and our bodies to talk about this tragedy.  Some imams have given sermons, Muslim artists have written poems and songs for Trayvon, many of us have organized and marched in peaceful demonstrations around the country and will continue to do so.  But taken as a whole, the response from Muslim leadership has been spotty and tepid at best–and in many cases the silence has been deafening.)

It certainly isn’t that we aren’t media savvy. Muslims may not control major media outlets but we have taken full advantage of the more democratic means available to us to make our voices heard. We have websites, blogs, and Facebook pages; we know how to write press releases, and so forth, and have availed ourselves of those outlets in the past to call attention to issues that mattered to us. The next time there is a random terrorist attack, you will be able to witness the truth of my assertion—Muslim “leaders” and organizations will issue direct, forceful, and immediate statements making it clear in no uncertain terms that our religious tradition does not condone violence against innocents and that we stand with the victims. We will be the loudest voices against racial profiling when (and only when, it seems) a Muslim is dragged off a plane for saying ‘Allah’ within earshot of a jittery passenger or TSA employee, or attempting to board a plane in a headscarf. So what happened here?

We have a dirty secret. Muslims have a terrible and cancerous race problem. Many Muslims will tell you with straight faces, mostly because they really do believe it, that “Islam” is even more post-racial than America is supposed to be. They will tell you that we believe in universal brotherhood and point you to Qur’anic verses that instruct us to take human diversity as a sign of the majesty of the Creator and point out to you that Bilal the Abyssinian is one of the most revered figures in the history of Islam. And for the record, this is all perfectly true (except that I don’t believe there is such a thing as post-raciality, at least not in America, but that’s a topic for another day). It is also true that “Islam” is as much a product of flawed human beings as it is lofty principles, and while analytically one can separate the two, experientially they are deeply entangled, for better or worse. Trayvon was a black male victim in a system that in Foucaultian fashion molded him into a particular type of subject from the moment of his birth—and the ugly truth is that many Muslims, even some black and brown ones, have internalized these world views and we allow them to shape our relations with other human beings, both Muslim and not. Put simply, his death does not move many of us because we only care about injustice when it occurs to someone that “matters”–and for far too many of us, black bodies, especially non-Muslim black bodies–don’t matter nearly enough.

To add insult to injury, in spite of the fact that millions of Muslims call America home, and at least half of that number have never known any other home, the U.S. is not considered—even by many Muslims—to be a part of “the Muslim world.” And sad to say, in spite of our Prophet’s heavy emphasis on caring for one’s neighbors—many of us routinely turn a blind eye to the plight of non-Muslims. Don’t get me wrong, wherever we are on the earth, injustice and suffering in Syria, Palestine, Pakistan, etc. etc. all should be on our radar. But racial injustice in America needs to be front and center on our agenda as well. I am Muslim, I am black, I am a woman, and I am American, all at once. I am a part of the ummah and what hurts me should hurt my brothers and sisters in faith too, but most often, it simply does not even register. I don’t mean to suggest that this is about me. As I am processing my own pain, I am listening to the voices of other Muslims, especially the African American ones. I listened as a brother told me yesterday about his own harrowing experiences (and those of his father) with racial violence and profiling. I’ve watched my newsfeed and witnessed the expressions of powerful emotions in status updates. I’ve listened as many of us continued to wonder where the majority of our leaders are. What are they thinking? What advice are they offering us?  How can I use Islam to help me process the pain and trauma that so many of us are feeling? What are we supposed to do?  How do we make this better?

There are earnest conversations in Muslim communities across the nation and a number of very valiant efforts afoot to “make Islam more at home” here and to bring together those two unreconciled strivings, to invoke the mighty DuBois—to make Islam “relevant” in this particular cultural context. Many of us, our “leaders,” included, have spoken at length about the need to move American Muslims out of the liminal, in-between spaces in which we tend to live—simultaneously not quite Muslim enough because of our Americanness and not quite American because of our Muslimness. That is all well and good, but it’s going to take more than wearing blue jeans with a kufi or celebrating the culinary virtues of bean pie in order to do so. If our leadership cannot or will not offer comfort and guidance on issues of paramount and critical concern to those of us living here, then our search for a truly “American Islam” will continue to be elusive. We might have better luck finding a unicorn.

The Ground on Which I Stand: Foundations for a Righteous Masculinity

The foundation for a righteous masculinity cannot be built upon the domination of women.

Reflecting upon my experiences as a Muslim woman for the last twenty something years, who for much of that time has muddled through the enormity of trying to guide three daughters into Black Muslim womanhood in a world that rarely values any of those things.

Much of that process has been characterized by the push and pull of unreconciled strivings. On the one hand, there has been the overwhelming sense of general frustration with a world that seems to have very little conceptual space for fathoming models of dynamic (Black) Muslim womanhood, therefore fighting for the simple right to breathe, and to be is an everyday struggle with tooth and nail. Surely there is refuge at home to be had, or so the rhetoric goes. Muslim women are a beloved treasure in the ummah, honored with a unique status in life and the cosmic order. Except when we are not.

What life has demonstrated as often as not is that there is an inherent tension that arises when heavenly mandates meet earthly limitations. Scripture and divine lessons are necessarily filtered through human shortcomings, and we struggle mightily with the predilection to interpreting revelation through lenses obscured by unjust power relations and a compulsion to replicate the status quo. As a result, we have the unfortunate tendency to place words in the mouth of the Most Just—words that validate misogyny, reinforce racism, erect uneven power relations between human beings and reinforce them with corrupted pretentions to godliness. As a result, we have become a community that has essentialized male domination as natural and necessary—idealized it as a requisite condition for being properly and righteously masculine, and in the process encoded and infused injustice into so many of our collective endeavors.

We see the results in our approaches to sexuality, physical and emotional intimacy, we see it in our families, it shows up in our mosques (even our architecture betrays us). When male domination is a foundational, fundamental organizing principle in our individual and collective identities, the fruits of this poisoned tree subsequently taint our other, would-be noble struggles for social justice.

For how can we rightly decry racism, Islamophobia, or economic oppression from the outside while upholding internal models of gender-based domination as divinely inspired, and therefore right? How can we not understand the pathological need for aspirations to domination as rooted most immediately in the trauma of colonialism and slavery, and more fundamentally in the unfortunate but persistent tendency of human beings to enact oppression on one another that is as old as we are. If we are serious about social justice, our efforts must begin at home. There is too much at stake.

My ancestors were the very definition of unfree; bought and sold alongside cattle and sugar, exploited and violated every day of their lives. Subsequent generations until the present have struggled and strived for the Promised Land for as long as any of us can remember.

And among our sages were men like Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany, co-editors of the nineteenth century abolitionist publication entitled the North Star, whose masthead declared, “Right has no sex, truth has no color.” These men understood the power of intersectional thinking, knew that race and gender oppression were co-constituted, and that a masculinity fashioned from the materials of male domination would always be of the most shoddy construction.