Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Black Is Beautiful, Uh-huh!

When given the opportunity to make my own images, they are black and Muslim!
These words make up the chorus of an audiobook that I play for my sons, ages 2 and 4.

When I received a vintage Fisher Price fire truck in the mail, before presenting the gift to my sons, I painted the firefighter's face brown.

Have I become my father, whose cry to his daughter sounds as vivid today as it did 25 years ago: "But Baby, your hair is beautiful!" His desperate words now echo softly through me. 

It is an understatement to say that we've come a long way since the shouts of Black Pride in the '60s, but even now, the books and toys I regale upon my boys are overwhelmingly shadowed by white faces. How then could I miss the chance to paint a white face brown?

I am a daughter of the Nation of Islam. I carry the legacy with gratitude and wisdom, thanks to my parents, Imam W. D. Mohammed, and my loving community.

The other day I had the opportunity to present my research on women in the Nation of Islam to a small crowd in Eugene, Oregon. After sharing with them how much racism made little girls like my mom feel--she would sit in the tub for hours after playing in the hot sun to wash away the sun's mark--my favorite part was to share how transformed my mother was by the message Black is Beautiful:

           It was one of the most beautiful and refreshing ideas that ever came to my mind.
           It was almost like my mind was being unshackled—

           To know that black was beautiful
           That I’m beautiful
           That brown was beautiful
           That kinky hair could be beautiful
           Thick lips could be beautiful
           And it was wonderful because this was me.

And while I think it's absolutely important to teach and remind about our history, our suffering, and our strength in unbearable times, I am always relieved to wrap things up with a spirit of love and growth. Thanks to Imam W.D. Mohammed, I was able to do that in one of my talks to the mostly white crowd.

I began the talk with a reading from Dreams from My Father. Already I love this book because it is indescribably relevant, discerning, and poetic, but I love it even more that it gave me an opportunity to make the case for why black nationalism and Islam are critical to the souls of black folk, and brown and white folk too: Barack Obama spoke about it, and considerably.

"Ever since the first time I'd picked up Malcolm X's autobiography, I had tried to untangle the twin strands of black nationalism, arguing that nationalism's affirming message--of solidarity and self-reliance, discipline and communal responsibility--need not depend on hatred of whites" (197).

Obama's cogent analysis of the appeal but ultimate ineffectiveness of Black nationalism evoked again and again the spirit and wisdom of Imam W.D. Mohammed. He was a man before his time. 

Twenty years before Imam Mohammed had begun the journey to teach and model Obama's gut belief, that one could adore kinky hair and love blue eyes too:   

"How are we going to hate this world? How are we going to hate America and hate America’s progress and hate the white man?  No! We should hate wrong whether it’s in a black man or a white man, or a red man or any man. Whether it’s in your family, or in your friend, or in your neighbor.  Hate wrong!  Hate evil!  But don’t hate people. That’s against Islam."

Imam W.D. Mohammed had the awesome task of introducing his community to the correct understanding of God while also addressing the yearning that brought them to a black nationalist version of Islam in the first place. With wisdom he connected the two: the inherent nature to seek the Divine and the soul’s demand for a beautiful, dignified human identity.

“You want to make a people superior to you?  Hold them back, and eventually they will be superior to you. Why?  Because they are going to have a superior motivation working for them, and that motivation is to measure up to the dignity that God created them for.”

The Muslim is “obligated by God’s expectations.  God expects me to do more.  God expects me to assume more responsibility.  God expects me to measure up or qualify for more responsibility…You know that a man struggling to get a grade “A” from God will definitely rise higher than a man striving to get an “A” from a white man.”

Imam W. D. Mohammed dedicated his life to nurturing the highest motivation for human excellence: the soul’s innate pursuit of God-given excellence.

"I am trying to get African Americans who still have the burden on them of [finding their] identity…to go back to your better identity.  The better identity that God gave us is not our racial identity…or our national identity.  The better identity for Muslims in Islam according to our Holy Book –[the identity that] God gave us—is our human identity, which is to be understood as the aim for excellence in the human nature….God created us for human excellence, and this is our common heritage.  We should care more about this common heritage than we do the color of our skin or the nations that we come from….The racial classifications are temporary.  They are not going to last forever.  The national classifications are not going to last forever.  What God will receive is our human soul and its excellence."

Focusing on this inherent, God-given potential, Imam W. D. Mohammed accomplished two things.  First, he empowered his followers to reclaim the nobility that was taken away from them.     

Second, Imam W. D. Mohammed instilled a motivation that, instead of reflecting a desire to achieve parity with another race, resonated with an inherent yearning to meet the standards that the Creator designed for all humanity.  “Black nationalism...[or] Black Muslimism is just a strategy to accomplish the real thing.”  The real thing is “answer[ing] the demands in my soul for respect to come for me and my people!” 

**He shaped you and then formed you beautifully (Qur'an, 40:64).


  1. Thank you for such a beautiful piece and helping me gain a better understanding of Imam W D Mohammed's contributions.

  2. Jamillah, I love reading your blog. I really need to learn more about Imam W. D. Mohammed, especially given my interest in Islam in America. He was, I believe, quite misunderstood and underestimated by immigrant/transnational Muslims and those who converted to Islam through avenues outside of the NOI/W.D. Mohammed community.

  3. ALHAMDULILLAH!!! "The better identity for Muslims in Islam according to our Holy Book –[the identity that] God gave us—is our human identity..."

  4. Found your blog...great stuff...it was good talking to you on Saturday