I’ve been in a number of conversations about Black identities, Islam, and the broader society. Not all Muslims are amenable to these conversations, others seek to define the limits of the discourse on race and Muslim identity. As sister Safia from Safiyya Outlines noted in a recent comment:
Whenever a Black Muslim mentions Blackness or the Black community in a positive way, a non-Black Muslim will swiftly chastise them for it and usually drop the ‘k’ word while they’re at it.
Just another train that is never late
There are non-Black Muslims who feel entitled to speak as authorities in their critiques of Black culture despite their lack of scholarly credentials or understanding of Black intellectual and cultural traditions. Some take many liberties in their efforts to weigh in on every issue that effects Black American Muslims. There are some who have the audacity to even try to define what is and who is truly Black, even though their exposure to Black culture is within a limited segment of the community. I suppose they feel entitled to define terms of the discourse. In an effort to create boundaries, I will not engage in nonsensical debates. Nor do I feel that I must respond to every misrepresentation that floats around in the blogosphere. Instead, I have decided to try to be proactive in my writings rather than my earlier reactive writings.
Some of the conversations I’ve recently engaged in have explored the challenges Black American Muslims face in innercity Muslim communities compared to those they may experience in suburbia (Let us not forget the situation of those Muslims who live in isolated rural areas). There seems to be two major models for masajid in America: the innercity masjid and the suburban masjid. The innercity model is predominantly Black American, and is usually cash strapped with a large portion of working poor brothers and sisters. The suburban model is predominantly first and second generation immigrant and a bit less cash strapped because a large portion of its members are middle class or affluent. In the innercity Masjid, a professional Black American Muslim may get frustrated because there are no funds to enact certain initiatives, members may have ambivalent attitudes towards intellectuals, or the programing board may be more interested in re-integrating ex-cons than providing scholarships for college age kids, or any number of issues. Within an immigrant run community, an educated professional Black American Muslim may feel invisible. They may exhaust themselves at rallies and fundraisers that support overseas causes, but find no support for things of immediate concern to them such as a trying to buy a car without going into serious riba debt, student loans, or even scholarships for their kids to attend the expensive Islamic school. Looking at the pros and cons of each choice, Black American Muslims can either cast their lot with the innercity community, the suburban community , or to opt out of community life and be a down-low-Muslim.
Black American Muslims like myself are often obsessed with these questions because we have the precedent of integration following the civil rights movement. While we all enjoy the freedom to live where we want to live, many of us look back at the ghettos of the 1950s with some sense of nostalgia. When Black Americans were no longer restricted by discriminatory housing policies upwardly mobile Blacks assimilated into broader society. We see the erosion of vibrant communities and growing underclass and zones of urban abandonment. Integration meant the loss of a viable Black communities, where lawyers and doctors lived next door to carpenters and mechanics, shop owners lived down the block from teachers and artists. Integration created opportunities and losses. It can lead to tensions and conflicts like in my high school and neighborhood in East San Jose, an occasional race riot or shooting.
Of course, the integration of Muslim communities will lead to different dynamics and (a’oothu billah, no shooting). But I have often wondered how my kids (insha’Allah) will see themselves in a Muslim community. I have also worried that my children would be subjected demeaning treatment by children of less than enlightened parents, or that the school administration ill equipped and uninformed by diversity training will contribute to a racially hostile environment (like the one that I grew up in Santa Clara). While I have argued against the development of ethnic enclaves, I still hope that my children will have a healthy sense of their Black identity. I still hope that they can be a bridge continue to care about issues in the Black community, as well as the broader society. In a so-called-post-racial world, would they be just-muslim-kids?
I cannot predict the future, but the decisions Black American Muslim families make will have some serious consequences on second generation Muslims (the children of converts). One of my friends noted that finding an 18-25 Black American who was born Muslim is like finding Waldo. I’ve often worried about the ability of the Black American Muslims’ ability to reproduce itself, as opposed to an entire generation of folks with Arabic names. Could it be that they come from parents exhausted by the social pathologies, some failed movement, or the non-stop fitnah (discord and mischief) our communities seem to be embroiled in? Like all Muslims everywhere, they try as best as they can to chart a course that would give their children a healthy balance of religious and ethnic identity.
I know of a number of Black American Muslims who have divorced themselves from the Muslim community. They are tired of the social and cultural pathologies that run rampant in both immigrant and Black American communities. Many of the Black American Muslims who have left active community life, and often open identification with Muslims, are upwardly mobile professionals. Their issues and concerns aren’t addressed by innercity masajid, nor immigrant run masajid. They often feel like they are in a quagmire. So they opt out.
I don’t have all the answers, but I believe that educated and professional Black Muslim Americans who opt out do themselves and the entire community a disservice. I am not saying that they have to change the entire world, but by doing nothing they will not only fail to create a space for their own healthy community and spiritual development, but they will fail to open doors for others as well. We have to look at our past successes and failures in our history to draw important lessons. I see professional and educated Muslims who can operate in multiple contexts, whether on the streets or in academia, as being able to bridge between the innercity and suburbia. If the city and its suburban outlying areas are linked in the real world, why are they disconnected in the American Muslim community?