The Power of One

As grandma Sara’s memory fades, what remains are the stories she told us. My three other grandparents died by the time I was five and all I am left with are memories of the stories my mother told me about them. I was in graduate school when I gathered enough courage to ask grandma Sara what it was like when she was young in Jim Crow South. She recounted the fear she felt when encountering groups of white men on those country roads. She told me about her father, Carlos Hilton, the farmer who had the courage to stand up against white men who wanted to take what was his. “He didn’t take no mess,” she said proudly. He eventually migrated North because the threat of lynchings. Facing daily threats of violence and degradation, I wonder, how did my ancestors survive Jim Crow and slavery? What inner source of power gave them the fortitude to carry on? Reflecting on accounts of Bilal ibn Rabah’s life, I am finding my own strength in embracing struggle and in finding hope through unity.

My Great Grandfather Carlos Hilton

 

There are times when I have to dig deep to find meaning in Black suffering, in the broken lives of those who were forgotten. With the barrage of headlines, from African migrants enslaved in Libya, genocide against the Rohingya, and exploitation of farm workers, it’s tempting to spiral down into a dark place. Earlier this week, I tweeted:

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As I thought about the forgotten names, I also began to think about how could I reclaim my own history. Recently, I began searching through online records to trace my family’s genealogy. My great great grandfather was six years old, my daughter’s age, when slavery was abolished. She is now learning how to read, something that would have been forbidden to many of my enslaved ancestors. Could he have imagined me teaching college courses, my writings being used in high school textbooks? Could he have imagined that his descendant would stand below Lincoln’s portrait Presidents reside? What type of future did my great great grandfather dare to imagine?

The archive doesn’t reveal the dreams of the enslaved, the freed men and women, the day laborers, the domestics, and the farmers who made up much of my family.  But my paternal grandmother shows up in the archive, as an entry on a 1940s census as a border whose occupation is a maid.  Another entry, my step grandfather is listed as  a chauffeur. I called my mother and got enough information to locate my maternal grandfather,  a 9-year-old boy living with his uncle Simon Grant in Pensacola, Florida.  The census lists my grandfather as “M” for mulatto and his uncle’s family as “B” for Black. Some would later say that my grandfather was Native American. Better that myth than carrying the shame of sexual violence. Could that have been why he was sent to live with his uncle? From Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia, they migrated North from their place of birth in search of opportunity and safety. What was the one dream that kept members of my family going?

I ask these questions knowing that no matter what the circumstances, every person experiences the full range of emotions. Even without the indignities of racial oppression, we all experience sadness, alienation, disconnection, and at times despair. Our world is broken and many of us have few paths to make a difference. But through storytelling, we are uplifted by heroic stories that illustrate our highest potential. My family’s exodus from the South echoes that Biblical tales of freedom. Yet a Black hero or heroine is hardly ever farmed as a universal character.

So, a Hollywood Celebration of an enslaved man of African descent who lived 1400 years ago seemed like such an unlikely event.  But it did happen this past Tuesday.  I sat in an audience watching the #BilalMovie with a mixture of actors, entertainment leaders, Los Angeles activists, and creatives. For Black American Muslims whose cultural identity is tied to enslavement, Bilal ibn Rabah takes on deep meaning. He is such a dear figure to my faith community in general. Stories of the Sahabi often cause me to weep. I was moved to see people of all faiths and backgrounds being touched by Bilal’s struggle against persecution. That event spoke to the power of storytelling, connecting people from diverse backgrounds. All the forces that brought us together in that moment, all the efforts that put things in motion and there we were. It was the power of one word, the encouragement of one person, that one gesture, that one story which moved us in a new direction.  Things put in motion long before Bilal ibn Rabah was born and would continue long after. Slavery, genocide, and war are destroying lives today. And there is something we can do to ease the suffering of the most vulnerable. Whenever I feel weak and broken and that I can’t bear the burden any more, I imagine the prayers, hopes, and aspirations of my ancestors.  I find my strength in moving towards that vision by my belief in one humanity, one earth, and one God. For me, that is the #PowerOfOne.

This Black History Month 2018 Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC) and Muslim Matters are collaborating to host a Blog Carnival on #ThePowerOfOne. Please join us to share your personal reflections and thoughts, articles, videos, and art on Bilal Ibn Rabah. What does the Power of One mean to you?

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Beyond the Icons

Icon of Martin Luther King

Image source: Franciscan Icons by Robert Lentz

As a Muslim, we are taught to avoid icons or idols. I’ve taught various courses in Islamic history and  am deeply aware that this human tendency to create idols happened over and over again in Muslim societies. That is because of the human tendency to imbue objects with supernatural powers to intercede in human affairs on our behalf, rather than call upon an abstract,  and seemingly unknowable, Ultimate Reality. Similarly, we ascribe super human powers to movement leaders, rather than address the complex social systems. Thus we create icons of leaders like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and now Oprah Winfrey.

 

Oprah Winfrey speaking into a microphone will holding her Golden Globe award in her right hand.

Image source: Reuters

When we take leaders outside of their social context, and just focus on their rousing speeches, we do ourselves a disservice. The calls for Oprah Winfrey to run for president after given a powerful #TimesUp speech at the Golden Globes is the latest example of icon worship over personal work. Rousing speeches may inspire us, especially when we need to boost our morale for the hard work ahead. But the rousing speeches and public actions do not replace the transformative work of relationship building, of service to community, or sacrifice for the collective good. A powerful speech does not uproot longstanding norms, policies, and social practices that cause gendered vulnerabilities. No one woman, no matter how many Billions can change this society. Focusing on the icons prevents us from seeing how social change happens.

This week, we are celebrating Martin Luther King Day. The popular images of the Civil Rights Movement tend to focus on the March on Washington. We imagine the marches as a sign of mass mobilization. Our minds don’t shift to the organizing, the fundraising which was done by working class and poor Black folks who maintained the movement work. We don’t think about debates into the long hours, the marathon strategizing sessions, the rigorous training sessions to prepare Black youth to stare down white supremacist violence. Few of us think about Ella Baker or Fannie Lou Hamer who maintained that movement. No, we give the Civil Rights an icon and imagine that if we had one dope leader our world would be changed.

Fannie Lou Hamer, seated at left, at a meeting of the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, a union of black domestic workers and day laborers. Photograph courtesy The Tougaloo College Civil Rights Collection at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History

It may be a stretch to call this a form of shirk, but a case can be made that it short circuits the faith-full work of getting to know one another, of working with people from different social and economic backgrounds to get stuff done. That’s the kind of work that the Sahabi (Companions of the Prophet Muhammad) and taba’een (Righteous Predecessors) did in Medinah. The focus on the icons keeps us from the responsibility of living our morality, our duty of caring and loving each human being and promoting dignity for each other. Focusing on the icon allows us to focus on adoring the image powerful leaders and less on the collective love we need to sustain our work.  Anas ibn Malik reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “None of you will have faith until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 13, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 45) The focus on the icon keeps us from actualizing that love in tangible acts that help our brothers and sisters live the dignified lives that we hope for ourselves. Of wanting for their children what we want for our children. Of realizing that their children are our children. And that we are in this together.

Note: this article is not to disparage Easter Orthodox Traditions, which utilize icons in profoundly meaningful ways.

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Coates, West, Public Intellectuals and Black American Muslims

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Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

A major sticking point in the Coates-West feud was the discussion of Barack Obama and Malcolm X in We Were Eight Years in Power.  Given the chapter on Malcolm in Between the World and Me, I anticipated a thought experiment exploring what would Malcolm say about Barack Obama’s presidency.  While that didn’t happen, after Cornel West published his bombastic critique, many Black intellectuals weighed in. And there were a lot of Malcolm references to talk about Malcolm’s internationalism, his critique of power, and even critiquing West for hanging out with Malcolm’s rival, Louis Farrakhan. Yet, all of these references failed to explore Malcolm #BeingBlackandMuslim and what did that mean during the Obama years.  While valorizing Black Muslim heroes like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X in their death, mainstream Black civil rights leaders, public figures and even activists act as if we are historical footnotes. We’re still here. Black American Muslims in Detroit, Minneapolis, Boston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles were targeted by harmful policies during the Obama administration. We still are targeted, but our plight is often erased in Black spaces.  

How do we write a whole book about Executive Power without talking about how that power was weilded against Black and Brown bodies in the U.S. and abroad?  It’s a legit question that Muslim Americans had and one reason why aspects of West’s critique resonated with many us. During Obama’s administration there are segments of Black America that were subject to similar COINTELPRO policies that helped create the conditions for Malcolm’s assassination. It was during the Obama administration when imam  Luqman Abdullah  was killed by federal agents. Only the local Boston chapter of Black Lives Matter brought attention to Usaama Rahim’s  killing. Often, when high profile Black activists, even radical ones, talk about Muslims they imagine they are talking about people “over there” or immigrants. Yet, one third of American Muslims are Black and we are especially targeted by National Security system and criminal justice system.

Given that climate of entrapment, career damaging investigations,  and public drudging, many Black Muslims were highly critical of the Obama administration. Yet his symbolic victory was not lost on us. Nor was it lost on those of us who were invited to the first and likely last 2016 eid celebration at the White House that was hella Black. 

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#BlackOutEid

COINTELPRO is not a historical concept when you have informants in our spaces of worship, volunteering for your organization, and FBI agents showing up at your trainings.  Nor is it a that far off when you have your whole community fighting about a partnership with DHS to investigate your own community. Drones and bombings are not an abstract concept when you have to comfort a mentor whose families members were obliterated by US made missile. Nor is the no fly list a abstract issue, when your key participant is detained at an airport and misses their flight to your event. Rendition or secret detention is not just a political thriller when you’re at a baby shower hugging a wife whose husband was disappeared in a foreign prison. Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer reminds us, we Black Americans need to contend with our relationship with empire. She had a simple but powerful letter to deliver to Obama that day.

We have to look at the tools and tactics that the main beneficiaries of white supremacy use to maintain their advantaged position. Sometimes, we are its tools. Just as we suffer in this country, we cannot turn away from the collateral damage of white supremacy.  They are the undocumented laborers, the Black and Latino kids pipelined into prison, the indigenous people fighting for sovereignty and environmental sanctity. There are many who are getting crushed in the systemic mechanism, and  it is not accidental. Their sweat, tears, and blood are being used as a lubricant for the gears to work together. If we cannot find another social lubricant, other than suffering, for the gears to move, then we must build better social mechanism that renders white supremacy irrelevant.  

If Black public intellectuals are going truth tellers shining light  on White Supremacy to massive audiences, then their light needs to multipronged and not cast those of us at the intersections into the shadows. This is why much of my focus last year was in making the connections. I sought to explore the ways in which the criminal justice system, immigration system, and national security system targets Black Muslims by bringing together organizers from Undocublack Network, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Prison Education Project, Black Liberation Project, Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA), and more. I’m hoping that in 2018 Black kinfolk can work together more. I’ve been reaching out for the past few years, and I’m hoping that some of y’all respond to my call because we need our kinfolks now more than ever.

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