Saturday, February 4, 2017

To Be Black and Muslim in the Trump Era: The Intersection of Islamophobia and Racism

When asked by the Emory Muslim Student Association to speak on what it means to be black and Muslim in these times, it didn’t take long for me to decide to begin my talk with the National Poetry Slam piece “Islamophobia.” This performance is so stunning that I won’t attempt to describe it. You must watch for yourself.


(The next video is a phone recording of the first part my Emory talk, what is written in this post up until the part that I mention Muhammad Ali.)



I started with the poetry selection because it does a phenomenal job attacking Islamophobia, and also because it is one example of the way in which Islam continues to be embraced and defended in black communities. The poets performing this piece--Rudy Francisco, Natasha Hooper, and Amen Ra--are not Muslim.


What these poets illustrate is the way in which a group of people, in this case black people, who have been stereotyped and demonized by white people, have an extraordinary capacity to empathize with another group of people, in this case Muslims, who are being stereotyped and demonized, largely by white people.


I intentionally highlight white people to bring race to the forefront as we discuss Islamophobia. We might think about Islamophobia as hate based on religious difference but for certain Islamophobia is a form of racism, it is anti-Muslim racism.


Racism must be understood as a function of privilege and power; and in the American context, it is the power and privilege that whites assert and enjoy over blacks and other people of color. It is for this reason that Beverly Tatum, sociologist and past president of Spelman College, asserts that “people of color are not racist because they do not systematically benefit from racism” even though they “can and do have racial prejudices.” When black and brown people do act out their prejudices, that is act as racists, or reproduce the lies of white supremacy, they do so to gain as much power, acceptance, and resources as a racist social order will permit them, always at the expense of their brother or sister of color.


In our context, racism represents the policies and propaganda that whites have historically used to maintain their power and privilege. When Europeans colonized African lands and Asian lands, many of which were Muslim lands, racial categories were constructed and given meaning, i.e., that white skin signified civilization, to rationalize the colonization of these lands.   


In this country, black people had to be dehumanized to rationalize the brutality inflicted against them. At the same time, in Muslim lands like Egypt, colonizers also had to make Muslims inferior to justify colonization. One strategy was to use the platform of white feminism to say that Muslim women needed to be saved from our backward, traditional practices, particularly the hijab. This means, that originally, white people saw and portrayed the hijab not as a symbol of our faith but as a symbol of our difference from them, our otherness, our diminished humanity, in their eyes at least, to justify their violence against us.


And this is precisely what Islamophobia is, policies and propaganda that seek to demonize, and most presently, ban a group of people who threaten white power and privilege. And this is why scholar-activist Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, founder of Sapelo Square, wrote earlier this week in Al Jazeera,


“The way anti-Muslim racism works is that Islam and Muslims are a bogeyman, hated and feared because of how they are 'different', i.e. by how they look and what they do. Muslims are bogeymen not solely because some Muslims are guilty of violent acts against Americans.
“As was reported not too long after white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black Americans in Charleston, white Americans cause the largest numbers of American deaths by terrorist acts on US soil. Yet unsurprisingly, Trump has not signed any executive orders specifically targeting white Americans. This is because Islam and Muslims have been 'othered' - made to be seen as distinctly and most despicably bad and evil in the popular imagination.”
African Americans like the National Poetry Slam poets defend Islam so seamlessly, to the point that they recite the Muslim greeting of peace perfectly as though they actually walk in our shoes and don our hijabs, because they know what it feels like to be criminalized, and as Abdul Khabeer has noted, and not solely because some of us are guilty of criminal acts. Indeed, as the documentary 13th proves, black people were criminalized the moment we were released from the shackles of slavery to move us to the shackles of incarceration.
To be black and Muslim in this time means that we are steadfast and constant in the fight against racism, for certainly it is not as though racism just happened to us. Without a doubt, we are alarmed by the current ban on seven Muslim-majority nations. And the old hate is coming at us in new ways; and in blatant forms less familiar to my generation, but commonly felt in the generations before us. (Though what can be more blatant than cops killing unarmed black men in the streets?) And precisely because of those who came before us and our long-standing spiritual and physical resistance to racism, we quickly draw conviction and courage from the legacy of our ancestors and the prophets and women exemplars of our faith. This is demonstrated in my my mother’s response to her Christian nephew who expressed his concern for her in these "hateful times." After expressing her gratitude to him, she said, “The Qur'an tells us ‘you can't say you believe and not be expected to be tested like those who came before us.’ We also say, ‘Sufficient is Allah for us.’ We continually persevere in patience and prayer.  We also resist the wrongdoers and defend ourselves.”  
To be black and Muslim means that African American Muslims are aware of and feel the historical and present day realities of racism. Not only do we navigate and resist anti-black racism in everyday acts like educating our children at home before sending them to the poor schools marking black and brown neighborhoods, but also we feel the impact of anti-Muslim racism every time we hear of the hate and misogyny committed against a woman in hijab, like our very own Asma Elhuni, at a coffee shop just minutes from my house, or the fatal terrorism against Muslims like that in the mosque in Quebec City. And though most of us would say that we feel the impact of anti-black racism far more than Islamophobia--which makes sense given that our country was built upon anti-black racism, which pervades every institution in our society, and explains why we call it systemic--we share a community with immigrants who do feel Islamophobia directly, and our relationships with them inspire some of us to fight as though we walk in their shoes.
We see this in the statement of NBA player Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, current Brooklyn Nets forward. I feel like more people should definitely speak up and act on it just because it’s BS at the end of the day...Me being Muslim, me knowing a lot of Muslims, it’s definitely, definitely heartbreaking to see. A lot of my college friends are Muslims, and their families are in some of those countries. Just seeing that, my heart goes out to them…”
It is said that it is courageous for professional athletes to speak on politics, but of course this is the legacy of our champ Muhammad Ali. I highlight Hollis-Jefferson and Ali also to note that being black and Muslim also means that Black Muslims are the celebrity Muslims responsible for popularizing Islam in our culture. Because they have a platform, many of them have used it to defend not only their faith but also immigrants.
And the mention of black celebrity Muslims also speaks to our media’s cognitive dissonance when it comes to portraying Muslims in the US. American Muslims are mostly portrayed as immigrant and foreign, not black and native born. To be black and Muslim, too, means being silenced even though we bring the boldest Muslim voices ever, voices like Malcolm’s and Ali’s. Scholar-activist Donna Auston speaks to this inconsistency in relation to the intersections of race and Islamophobia,
“Dominant narratives—in both media and scholarly literature tend to doubly efface the existence and voices of black American Muslims...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.”   
As Auston notes, when we don’t think of American Muslims as black, we don’t consider or address the ways in which black Muslims experience Islamophobia, or the way that being black and Muslim intersect to make Islamophobia doubly dangerous for black Muslims as we experience double the white supremacy.
At this present moment, no one experiences this as acutely as African Muslim immigrants. They find themselves at the intersection of criminalizing blacks and deporting immigrants. As journalist Tiziana Rinaldi noted, “Black people in America have a higher chance of coming in contact with the criminal justice system, which makes them more susceptible to police violence.” For African immigrants, “These encounters with police make them more deportable.”
And then on top of that consider what it means to be black, an immigrant Muslim from one of the seven banned countries, and a woman, subjected to a type of violence against the body endured through stop and frisk and other physical processes that include handcuffs and stir terror and, by the way, have been happening for a long time. When a black immigrant woman is pushed down and then pushed back when she attempts to resist, the assault is physical and emotional. She is left with shame when it is he who has done the despicable act. To be black and Muslim and woman means that I can’t help but associate my Somali sister, violated at the border, and who by the way looks like me, with my great foremother violated on the auction block.  
To be black and Muslim means embracing a prophetic legacy of profound trust in and submission to God, a legacy of beauty, love, compassion, and justice as lived by the Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace be upon him. And embracing the struggle to live that legacy as an African American woman in ways deeply meaningful to myself and others. In the rest of my talk, I share how that struggle has unfolded for me personally, to show that today, this intense moment to be black and Muslim is simply the newest chapter in an ongoing struggle for justice, freedom, and equality.
Talk Slide - My parents in the Nation of Islam
I called the second part of my talk “Fighting Words,” and described my parents’ journey to Islam via the Nation of Islam and my education at Sister Clara Muhammad School in Atlanta to show how I have inherited Islam as a liberating faith, a faith that came to America to fight white supremacy, to resist the lies that told black people that they were ugly, ignorant, and inferior.
I described how this inheritance led me to write a book, American Muslim Women, that addresses a question crafted out of my conviction that Islam is a liberating faith. Does Islam overcome racial divisions in America. Because racism is a reality in Muslim communities in America and abroad, my book has provided a platform for activism in the form of raising consciousness of the ways in which we are all complicit in racism.


I gave an example of how I use my words to inspire reflection and change through an excerpt from a talk that I originally gave to an audience of 4000 Muslim women in Toronto, Canada in 2015. Here’s how I ended my talk at Emory, first a paragraph from my Toronto talk, and then fresh concluding thoughts on what it means to be black and Muslim today.


The Emory MSA audience was much like my Toronto audience, mostly from Asian and African immigrant background
We need interracial solidarity to make the work against Islamophobia most effective and successful. We see this most clearly in the Muslim Lives Matter movement that occurred after the tragic death of our beloved brother Deah Barakat and our beloved sisters Yusor and Razan Abu Salha in Chapel Hill, NC. That movement stands on the shoulders of the Black Lives Matter Movement. This is a perfect example of the way in which different ethnic struggles, civil rights struggles, and liberation struggles have historically informed and borrowed from each other. We should desire and encourage this type of collaboration and alliance. The diversity of the American ummah provides us an advantage at building such alliances. But yet again, because of our internal racism, because immigrants were not moved to align themselves with African American Muslims as Rami laments, some African American Muslims and also second generation Arab and South American Muslims have criticized what they see as hypocrisy: that you never cared about black lives until Muslim lives had been savagely taken.


I’ll stop my sample talk here. Of course the Muslim Lives Matter hashtag was short lived, and I understand sentiments that any other lives matter hashtags take away from the point of Black Lives Matter. What’s interesting is that the response from some black Muslims to withhold support and solidarity with immigrant Muslims facing racism has come up again with the Muslim ban. To be black and Muslim also means “ambivalence at times,” as Kameelah Mu’min Rashad, founder and president of Muslim Wellness Foundation, has explained it, because, to use her words, “we are resentful of the fact that we consistently show up for people and they don’t show up for us.” Rashad urges against this ambivalence as she reminds African American Muslims to show up because Allah sees us, and if there is no reciprocity from immigrants, take solace in the fact that Allah will reward us with an “unimaginable” reward. She also encouraged African American Muslims “to model what Islam is supposed to be.”


Indeed, many African American Muslims not only see themselves as leaders in the fight against anti-Muslim racism because we have fought racism for generations, but also because we demonstrate solidarity and radical empathy, like that of the National Poetry Slam poets, in unparalleled ways. Margari Hill, co-founder of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, calls her fellow Black American Muslims toward “radical empathy”--radical because she knows firsthand the ways in which black Muslims have been regularly treated with racial disdain by their fellow immigrant Muslims. Despite that, she says, “Our work as Muslims is to uproot arrogance, indifference, and despair to build our ummah. We should take our rightful role as helpers (Ansar) in this country and help the immigrants (Muhajirun) and be examples for building a multiracial society.”

To be black and Muslim not only means to be subjected to both anti-black and anti-Muslim racism, but it also means that we make up a diverse community that includes both native-born Americans and immigrants, of the rich and the poor, of the black, white, brown, Asian, Arab, African, and indigenous American. As black people, God has already shaped us to stand up for downtrodden others. With Islam, He has given us a diverse community and a prophetic example to master solidarity and radical empathy, for certainly our beloved Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace be upon him, said that “your belief is not a complete belief until you love for your brother (or sister) what you love for yourself.” And that is radical but certainly possible and absolutely necessary.


    



Thursday, September 22, 2016

Terence Crutcher, May God grant him the highest level of Paradise


Yesterday morning, I cried as I prepared my body, mind, and soul for the dawn prayer. My tears were for Terence Crutcher. I admit, I do not always cry when innocent lives are taken, not even every time a black man’s last breath is snatched away by a bullet. But this time, I could not stop.


I felt the urgent need to write to the women with whom I regularly share my life struggles. They are Muslim women, except for one Christian. They are mostly African American women, except a third of them are the daughters of Muslim immigrants, of South Asian and Arab descent.


But this urgency to share my burning feelings and to call us to some form of action was tempered by the fact that it was time to turn to God, literally. The dawn prayer, and the remembrances of the Divine that I carry out every morning, could not be put on hold. It was a keen reminder that there is no help, no assistance, no mercy, no justice, no truth, no peace except by God, through God, and with God.


Once I completed that which I owed God, I wrote this letter to my circle of women, women like me--prayerful women, educated women, mothers, wives, aunties, activists. Women who are shaping the world, starting with our own children. It is within this context that I wrote these words:


The night before last I read to my sons the story of the first man who died a martyr in the Battle of Badr. Later that night, I read the news of Terence Crutcher. Anger overcame me: “How is it that they manage to keep alive an armed man whom they suspect set off bombs to kill people but shoot down an innocent, unarmed black man?”  


Then I remembered what I read to my sons. My anger quickly turned into hope, the only possible bright side at that moment, that Terence Crutcher died a martyr.


Turning to God and active protest against injustice and inhumanity have always characterized my people's fight in this country.


At ISNA, I talked to the mostly immigrant and second-generation American Muslim audience about Black Lives Matter and how it related to our unique struggles and hopes in this country. Tariq Ramadan spoke after me and referred to my talk more than once. He reminded us that as Muslims, who carry the prophetic legacy to improve our own character and to bring good to the world, to be spiritual requires that we be political. We have no choice except to be a part of the movement for black lives.


It meant a lot for me to hear a distinguished leader in our community say this because years ago I complained that immigrants and their children did not see African American struggle as “a Muslim cause.” My Muslim peers focused on struggles abroad, I wrote in my first book, “believing that Muslims in the United States needed to support Muslims suffering in Palestine, Bosnia, and Kashmir. I accepted these as legitimate struggles for which I should show some concern. But I also found that many of my peers were not willing to see the African American cause as a Muslim cause.”


Much has changed since my research conducted in 2002. Nonblack Muslims have taken on social justice issues in ways that continue to surprise and impress me given my early observations and have been at the forefront of Muslim involvement in Black Lives Matter.


Still, the reminders that Dr. Ramadan and I gave are needed as we grow into seeing the Black cause as a Muslim cause. Many of us, black and nonblack, struggle with answers and strategies to address the violence and injustice against African Americans in this country.


Oprah likes to say, “Start where you are”:  A prayer for African American people, Black men, women, and children, our ancestors, our progeny; a prayer that we remove from our hearts our prejudice and hate against black people and blackness; believing that the legacy of slavery continues to impact us in profound ways and reading history and literature about that legacy; making sure that our children love themselves and love black people; inundating our shelves with beautiful children’s books with African American characters.

(Personally, though, I have not introduced literature highlighting slavery and segregation to my children under 9 years old as I believe, as do many experts, that children should be able to live freely as children; at an early age, their hearts should not have to struggle with the hate that others have inflicted upon their people as introduced in books addressing the heavy aspects of black life; I choose to build their hearts and minds with books on African culture and history and everyday African American children’s experiences; award-winning titles that come to mind are The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey and The Talking Eggs by Robert D. San Souci, and even Muslim literature like Cinderella: An Islamic Tale and Bismillah Soup; and of course Uncle Remus and the Tales of Brer Rabbit, based on the folktales told by enslaved Africans.)    


As did our ancestors, resist and build in your own way. For me, that means joining the homeschooling movement and not placing my children in an institution that has become for too many black boys a pipeline to prison. That's my way, not necessarily your way, but find your way while you first ensure that you keep yourself, your family, and community well and sound.


We cannot afford to be silent; we must pray; we must act.

#BlackLivesMatterToGod


* Act now by joining the National Muslim Call to Action for Black Lives.





Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Our Black Mothers Wrote, Fought, and Died for Us


I once explained to an Arab Canadian Muslim friend, "The black freedom struggle is spiritual for me." I am reminded of this as I prepare for a conversation at Duke on "Islam as Black History" and listen to the words of Black women scholars like Nikki Giovanni. 

Their words kindle emotions and aspirations to be a part of something higher akin to the way reading the Qur'an and listening to the lovers and friends of God leave me in yearning for the Beloved and His beloved, the Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace be upon him.

Here is the parallel: My yearning for God comforts every part of me as it grants certainty of why I am here and where I want to go. Similarly, the words of the great African American women and men before me touch every part of me, assuring me that their words were written for me to claim and make my own, infused with the sweetness of my faith and struggle. I am here to continue their thoughts. I am humbled. I am flowing with joy.

So much so that I post on fb:

The defining concept in black feminism/womanism that has shaped my work, expressed cogently by Nikki Giovanni:

“When we look at the history of slavery, we have a whole situation where no one cared if you were woman or not; you had to get out into the field. After freedom, no one cared if you were woman or not, you had to work to support your family. So for black women--that’s one of the problems with women’s lib in relation to the black woman; they look at themselves as woman but we’ve had to look at ourselves as black.”

And here are my words; I shared them Sunday at Northeastern University as I've shared them with you before:

"During slavery, our foremothers worked alongside men in the fields sun up to sun down, even as they endured the critical phases of motherhood. Their babies kicked in their wombs as they were forced upon, beaten, and hung.

By leaving work, I saw myself inheriting the legacy of women who were forced to do it all and, therefore, I embraced the privilege of not having to do it all."

I now see it. I am claiming and declaring my womanhood. I am a woman, a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a teacher, and a scholar. And I seek to experience all of it profoundly.


Our mothers prayed for us to be seen and treated as women. They fought for us. They died or were ready to die. We inherit their words, we inherit their work. We ask God for our success. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My HuffPost Piece: Why I Expect African American Families to Stand Against Islamophobia

My sister, Ayisha Karim, and my cousin, Mareisha Reese
In the fight against Islamophobia and racism, I collaborated with my aunt Mary-Frances Winters, owner of diversity and inclusion firm The Winters Group, to contribute companion pieces to HuffPost Religion Blog.

Mine: "My Cousin Is a Muslim/Why I expect black families to stand against Islamophobia":  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jamillah-karim/my-cousin-is-a-muslim_b_8908934.html

Aunt Mary's: "My Muslim Family Taught Me That Love Is the Foundation of All Faiths": http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maryfrances-winters-/my-muslim-family-taught-m_b_8908252.html



Friday, April 10, 2015

Civil Rights before Women’s Rights, Revisiting Malcolm X and women at Howard University

Speaking at Howard University for the first time, I revisited the legacy of Malcolm X. A month ago at Duke University, when I spoke on the legacy of Malcolm X and Muslim women, I strategically prioritized the struggle for civil rights over the struggle for women’s rights, though I honored both.

Malcolm X did not play a direct role in advancing women’s status in the Nation of Islam. Worse, Malcolm X made chauvinistic comments in his autobiography. Despite these problems, Malcolm X had a profound impact on women as he raised the race consciousness of both women and men and led thousands to Islam through his autobiography.

My challenge, therefore, was to show the way in which Malcolm’s legacy elevated women at the same time that I recognized that gender justice was not Malcolm X’s legacy. Reconstructing what his legacy has done for women without carrying out a feminist critique of Malcolm X, I strategically prioritized the race struggle over the gender struggle. At the same time, I constructed a narrative of gender liberation and demonstrated Muslim women’s leadership and resistance.

As I revisited Malcolm in preparation for my Howard talk and picked up the book Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement by Lynne Olson, I realized that through my approach to Malcolm, I was following in the legacy of black women civil rights activists who helped to inspire the women’s rights movements through their leadership but, at the same time, saw alliance with black men, even when they were sexist, an important strategy for race liberation.

I began the Howard talk highlighting my appearance on WUNC’s “The State of Things,” and describing how my interest in contextualizing Malcolm X’s powerful but patriarchal words instead of critiquing them demonstrated one of the ways in which I negotiate race and gender struggles as did the countless black women activists before me.  

Here’s the beginning of my Howard talk:

February 21, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. That Friday, I was a guest on WUNC’s “The State of Things,” alongside two other Islamic Studies scholars, discussing the legacy of Malcolm X. The host, Frank Stacio, broadcasted this audio clip by Malcolm X: (It's always better to hear Malcolm X in his own voice; the start of quote highlighted by Stacio begins at the 2:15 mark of youtube video.)


"The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman. And as Muslims the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us to respect our women and to protect our women and the only time a Muslim really gets real violent is when someone goes to molest his woman.

We will kill you for our woman.

I’m making it plain, yes. We will kill you for our woman. We believe that if the white man will do whatever is necessary to see that his woman gets respect and protection, then you and I will never be recognized as men until we stand up like men and place the same penalty over the head of anyone who puts his filthy hands out to put in the direction of our women."

Addressing me after the clip, Frank Stacio noted that Malcolm’s words "do not sound terribly progressive from a feminist point of view, [this idea of] women needing protection, a kind of infantilization; you can read it that way in that context. Also,” Stacio continued, “it rings of the very provocation for lynching which began around the turn of the twentieth century: this idea that we white men must protect our women.”

Stacio’s comments echoed the black feminist critiques of the Nation of Islam and other black power groups, particularly SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. From a feminist perspective, the problem with Malcolm X’s words is that they present men as the ones who control women. Men must control and protect women; and men’s manhood is defined by their ability to do so. Women and their bodies are objectified. They are the symbol of a race’s honor; and the protection of women serves as the justification for violence against men who violate the race. 

As Stacio suggests, the idea that men must protect women provided white men the rationale to lynch African American men for the “protection” of white women, and ultimately, the white race. Not only does Malcolm X borrow from the ideology of the white oppressor, he unapologetically brings attention to white men’s violence in the name of protecting women when he says, “We believe that if the white man will do whatever is necessary to see that his woman gets respect and protection then you and I will never be recognized as men until we stand up like men and place the same penalty over the head of anyone who puts his filthy hands out to put in the direction of our women."

Indeed, this idea that black men can only be men if they stand up to white men speaks to what visionary civil rights and women’s rights activist Pauli Murray wrote in her 1970 article “The Liberation of Black Women.” 

“For all the rhetoric about self-determination,” she wrote, “the main thrust of black militancy is a bid of black males to share power with white males in a continuing patriarchal society in which both black and white females are relegated to a secondary status.”

But of course, I did not outline the problems with Malcolm’s words when I responded to Stacio because I was not interested in carrying out a feminist critique of Malcolm X. And Stacio did not ask me to. After suggesting the problems with Malcolm X' s words, he asked, "Heard with this historical distance, how do you place that in context?"

I answered that Malcolm X’s words must be understood in the context of his goal, and that was to highlight the systematic sexual violence against black women. After giving this issue more thought, I would further answer that Malcolm X was not trying to be a feminist. He was a man of his time, when the women’s rights movement had not yet gained the momentum and raised the consciousness that it would in the late 1960s and beyond. The goal of the black freedom movement was to dismantle racism. Given this objective, Malcolm X’s words are remarkable and effective. They profoundly resonated with black women and men, which is clearly demonstrated in the applause of Malcolm’s audience. 

His words are brilliant because they immediately evoke the brutality of white racism and bring attention to two of its devastating practices: 1) the systematic rape of black women during and post slavery, and 2) the lynching of black men.

Malcolm X’s lack of gender consciousness is characteristic of the black freedom fighters of the 1950s and 1960s. Sexism existed in almost all of the civil rights organizations as they denied women formal leadership positions. Johnnie Carr, a member of the Montgomery Improvement Association, remarked: 

"Now of course when you spoke out against things like that, a lot of times you were even criticized by other women that felt like...this is not what we ought to be doing. I think we just accepted the servant role and ...[did] what we could because we felt like togetherness was the point.” 

White women civil rights activists, on the other hand, finding themselves increasingly alienated from the movement, created alternative spheres to protest sexism, which eventually led to the women’s rights movement of the 1960s.

Unlike Pauli Murray, who firmly resisted the idea that black women take the backseat so that black men could reclaim the manhood stolen from them, most black women activists did not concern themselves with the question of women’s rights. Eleanor Holmes Norton, another prominent black woman civil rights activist noted, 

“Pauli resonated with feminism at a time when any young black woman who was in the movement would have been far deeper into civil rights…Black women were fully included in the civil rights movement, so that talk of feminism, in the way Pauli was absorbed in it, seemed remote to where one’s energy and attention had to be.” 

This observation points to two reasons why the emerging feminist movement did not resonate with most black women activists: 1) civil rights was their greater concern and 2) black women did not experience gender discrimination in the same ways as white women.

White women in the movement saw this difference, notes Lynne Olson, author of Freedom’s Daughters. White women, Olson wrote, “Saw that the [black] women in the..movement did not take a backseat to anybody. They were out front, leading with a boldness that [white activists] had rarely seen before in women.” One white SNCC activist noted that “the views of [black women activists]. . .were heeded. ‘Maybe not as much as they should have been, but they were listened to. It was more of an equal society.’”

As white women left SNCC as it grew militant, they turned to organizing for women’s rights. At the same time, the black women of SNCC grew more willing to surrender women’s leadership and let their men lead as they subscribed to the popular belief that black communities could not thrive without the restoration of the black family, and particularly the restoration of the black man’s manhood. 

Marian Wright Edelman, one of the founding members of SNCC, provides an interesting case of women determined to push “black men to the forefront.” After starting the Children’s Defense Fund in the early 1970s, Edelman offered to step down and let a male colleague run it. Her rationale, in her words, was: “Among other things our children need, they need the image of a strong black man running things, changing the course of events.” Her male associate declined, and, as we know, she went on to lead the organization herself.

African American Muslim women too had subscribed to this idea of pushing black men to the forefront as the Nation of Islam focused on reforming the black family through embracing traditional gender roles. But also, like the women of the civil rights movement, Muslim women accepted the ideal of men’s leadership in a context in which black women were always working, organizing, leading, and making sure that they were heard.

It was Janet Saboor, a former Nation woman in Atlanta, whose strong spirit and fighting words made me realize how much alike were the women of the Nation of Islam and the women of the civil rights movement. In an interview with Janet for my new book, when I asked if she found the Nation of Islam oppressive, she answered, “I was not oppressed. And the reason why I wasn’t was because first of all I came into the Nation of Islam when I was 23 so I had pretty much formulated on some level or another who I was, what I was about. And then the training that I got from my mother. My mother was a very strong woman and she raised three children. She was the breadwinner. She took care of us, she nurtured us, [and she taught me to be] my own person. So when I came into the Nation of Islam…if [something they told us to do]...didn’t feel right, I didn’t do it. If it didn’t make sense, I didn’t do it.”

The life experiences that nurtured Janet’s assertive spirit were the same that nurtured the black women activists of the broader black freedom movement. Quite literally, Nation women once were the women of SNCC, of the NAACP, of the Urban League, before converting. And most telling, almost all Nation women had membership or affiliation with the black church, the institution that gave birth to the civil rights movement.

So when black feminist Pauli Murray wrote that “many black women have been led to believe that the restoration of the black male to his lost manhood must take precedence over the claims of black women to equalitarian status,” it was an observation that applied to both Christian and Muslim women who felt that they could afford to continue their focus on race consciousness over gender consciousness.

I am one of the daughters of the black power movement. Both of my parents joined the Nation of Islam in the 1970s. My family or community did not raise me with a feminist consciousness but certainly a race consciousness guided by God consciousness. At the same time, however, my community provided me women role models who were leaders, organizers, and activists, viewed and treated as the equals of men. In my personal life, I saw women generally surpassing men in spirituality and level of education. With this sense of pride and advantage as a black Muslim woman, I can understand why women found the idea of prioritizing men’s leadership important as a race issue that would collectively improve the lives of African American men, women, and children.

My response to Frank Stacio, in which I justified Malcolm X’s words instead of rendering a feminist critique, exemplifies a moment of prioritizing solidarity with male leadership in the movement over feminist consciousness. Following in the legacy of Freedom’s Daughters, I’ve made this choice in my broader reflection on Malcolm X. 

****

It was at this point in my Howard talk that I explained that upon my invitation to speak on the legacy of Malcolm X at Duke and UNC, I felt compelled to speak on his legacy and women, but without rendering a feminist critique.  

"I strategically prioritized the race struggle over the gender struggle," I said.  "At the same time, I constructed a narrative of gender liberation, similar to the way in which the black women race activist before me raised gender consciousness through their everyday acts of leadership, even though they were not trying to be feminist. The angle from which I argued that Malcolm X provided a platform for women’s leadership and resistance is through Malcolm’s Muhammad Speaks legacy."

I provide a glimpse into my paper describing Muslim women building upon the Muhammad Speaks legacy in an earlier blog postMy ability to align myself with Malcolm X and at the same time highlight and encourage women’s leadership is an example of scholar miriam cooke’s concept "multiple critique," inspired by the negotiations of black feminist scholars. Multiple critique sees women fighting various struggles—race, gender, class, and religion—that often overlap and intersect. At times, they fight in the name of multiple causes, but there are moments in which they strategically prioritize one cause over another, without entirely abandoning any one cause.

I ended both my Howard and Duke talks with a sentimental touch as I highlighted the way in which the late Tayyibah Taylor walked in the Muhammad Speaks legacy. In fact, when what I describe below occurred, it felt like a divine moment, a moment of gratitude for the Muslim men who led during the civil rights era and for the Muslim women who lead today. But first, I share my paper's abstract for a better appreciation of my ending:

Two key factors made Muhammad Speaks thrive from the beginning: 1) the high journalistic quality of the newspaper led by editors who were not members of the organization, and 2) the NOI’s requirement that male members sell a quota of newspapers every week. This paper will consider the ways in which the Muhammad Speaks legacy of quality journalism and men’s dedication to Nation building provided an unexpected platform for women’s leadership, agency, and resistance in the Nation of Islam, especially during women’s transformation to Sunni Islam under the leadership of Imam W.D. Mohammed.

And here's my ending, a very special moment for me:


From the beginning of my consideration of women and the legacy of Malcolm X--before I learned of Malcolm X’s and the Nation of Islam’s role in advancing the black press--I intuitively imagined Tayyibah Taylor and her creation Azizah as following in Malcolm’s Muhammad Speaks Legacy. And then, three weeks ago, as I was casually flipping through the latest Azizah issue, I read this letter to the editor:

"I must say that looking at Azizah Magazine is like looking at the night sky from atop a mountain. It is stunning and hypnotic, or is that just me? Thank you a thousand times, alhamdulillah. May Allah continue to bless you and your staff for going beyond the call of duty. Azizah Magazine is a top quality production done by Muslim women for Allah’s Flowers. Sometimes my mind is stuck on the days when I would stand in the cold for hours just to sell one Muhammad Speaks newspaper. I was so proud of that publication because it was done by us for the benefit of those whom we considered lost and rejected. Now, I am elated with joy. Allah is truly tayyib to His Creation. Thank you." Signed, Muhammad AbdurRahim.

As you can imagine, this former Fruit of Islam’s comments to “Allah’s Flowers” delighted me as they confirmed the connection between Azizah and Muhammad Speaks, both “top quality” productions. During the black freedom era, men were in the forefront doing the early work to present Islam to the American public for the first time. Now to see Muslim women present Islam to the world via their own quality creation, AbduRahim says he is elated. We are too, as women take the lead with grace, wisdom, and beauty.