Black Panther and the Power of Imagination

I was in the mountains at a training retreat when Black Panther (2018) was released in theaters. So I only glimpsed the initial reviews during intermittent breaks in my program. My consolation was that in the thin crisp mountain air,  I had time to work with brilliant leaders of color and reflect on my leadership strengths.  It was just a movie, I told myself. I could geek out on getting to root causes of social problems in the Inland Empire, drawing on the historical context of the rise of the nation state and white supremacy.  As an anti-racism educator I draw upon my strength of historical context, as well as my others strengths in strategy, learning, input, and connection to dream, plan, and build a multi faith multiracial world that could be.  I have done that since I was a child, first with a notebook and colored pencils, then with a typewriter, a word processor, a desktop, then a laptop.  I used those skills to dream, plan, and build imaginary worlds. Science fiction and fantasy writers often created worlds where someone like me would never exist. I  sketched and wrote to create my own stories with characters who were idealized versions of people who looked like my multi-hued family.  Watching Black Panther, felt like a long awaited home coming. It was an epic, a fantasy, an Afro-futuristic world that gave life to my unrealized dreams.  

Over the past two weeks, I had to swallow a lot of envy as I couldn’t get away from work or obligations to find time to watch the film. Meanwhile, my timeline lit up with my friends and associates  seated on Wakandan thrones, going in large groups and decked out in their finest traditional and African inspired clothing.  I too had been waiting for some time. My interest in Black Panther came largely through the first Black woman superhero, Storm. I came to know her through the X-men cartoons.  In the cartoon, she was beautiful, powerful, magical, cold, and aloof. She was also cut off from her culture. She was always alone. Who loved the gorgeous and powerful Storm? Who loves the magical black girls, the darkly hued warrior women? Over a decade ago, I walked into a comic book store and the cover art answered my question. It was Black Panther. I didn’t know much about him. But rendering of the marriage of Storm and Black Panther took my breath away. A decade later I became reacquainted as Prince T’Challa appeared with his female bodyguards in Marvel’s Civil War. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was on twitter at the time, announced that he was writing the series. Acclaimed author Roxanne Gay wrote the Worlds of Wakanda spin off series. Even though it was a big deal, I had no idea how big it would get.  

Chancellor Williams didn’t pull any punches

Nor did I realize how profound Black Panther would be for me. As a child, I was fed the National Geographic gaze of Africans and I was ashamed of my own history. It wasn’t until I went to high school, and began reading Black nationalist, Pan-African, and revolutionary writings that I started to gain a sense of self, my own history and pride in my roots. Some of the first books I read right after I graduated high school set my journey to become Muslim. The most significant books were Chancellor William’s The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race Between 4500 B.C. and 2000 A.D. and the FBI files of Malcolm X. Becoming Muslim at 18 was not just a leap to faith, it was a leap to embracing my full identity as a daughter of the African Diaspora.  My study of Muslims and the pre-modern world gave me a glimpse of what cosmopolitanism could look like outside of white supremacy. As a young person who newly became Muslim, I dove into medieval Arabic literature. I found texts and historical accounts that countered the egalitarian message that I embraced when I became Muslim. When I transferred to a four year college in 1998, I embarked on a long journey to understand racial formation in Muslim societies, Islam in Africa, and Black identities in the Middle East. Because they didn’t need written language, outside the Arabic literature in sub-Saharan Africa, we don’t have many written accounts of African societies without slave raiding or under threat from a foreign hegemony.

The Black Panther film  was so rich for me, as a child of Diaspora and a scholar of African history. Africanists often do thought experiments to imagine what could be.  Walter Rodney inspired us deeply to think about the underdevelopment. What if whole regions weren’t depopulated as sons and daughters weren’t carried off? What if the railways were built to connect African cities, rather than export raw resources to Europe, Asia, and the Americas? What if mass deaths didn’t occur and Africa was allowed to develop without the influence of colonialism and now neoliberal policies? What if toxic strains of foreign ideologies hadn’t bred internalized racism and dehumanization of other tribes, faiths, or nations?

All of this is some heady stuff for an action film. So many Black women intellectuals have written amazing pieces, such as “Black women ‘never freeze’” by Dara Mathis  there is even a #BlackPantherSyllabus and #WakandanSyllabus. During this cultural moment, while Black folks globally are having deep discussions and more petty debates about who has a right to wear daishikis, some of my co-religionists take umbrage to a 2 minute scene involving Boko Haram and called the film Islamophobic. It is akin to the derailing of the viral #BringBackOurGirls campaign, where some Middle East activists used the hashtag to critique Michelle Obama. Sadly, this week Boko Haram has kidnapped a dozen school girls. While I’m basking in Vanta Blackness, I don’t want my celebration to be derailed. So I’ll save my discourse analysis for another day. But I hope that the film raises awareness to drum up support for African led initiatives to combat Boko Haram. If only there was a Nakia to help bring those girls home. In the meantime, more of you can spend time learning about African history, reading African literature, and uprooting the anti-Black racism that your communities have been complicit in. We should also be more open to the deeper messages in the film and focus our energies on that.  A visionary place like Wakanda can show us that the Black imagination is key for collective liberation. 

 

Some Good Reads

Panther: an A-Z of African Nuggets

Is Black Panther Islamophobic? A Somali Canadian Perspective

 

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Progress

I got a chance to do a major update of the blog, adding a section of articles that I’ve written, as well as interviews. All in all When I first started blogging a decade ago I had some concerns about being so public. I was going through major changes, figuring things out, and working through spiritual, emotional, and financial challenges. Learning and growing in front of the world can be the most humbling thing. It also makes me very accessible in ways that many other folks aren’t. That accessibility means that people feel comfortable sharing their value judgments about me and my journey. I wish I could say that I didn’t care. Sometimes it hurts, but I push through that and try to live as authentic as I can. And in trying to find that place, I often question myself. I often feel like I forget more than I have learned and I am exposed to how little I know all too often.

Between my workload and traveling, I’m trying to stay on top of things. While this work has connected me to some amazing people, it also forces a schedule also isolates me. I have long hours, I’m often forced to declined invitations, and I have a hard time finding time to connect with family and loved ones. I owe a lot of people emails and writing. I’m slowly catching up, I’m making progress.

It’s not personal…

…but sometimes it is. There was a time when I was all about forging those bonds and finding a community of like-minded individuals online. When I was in my darkest times, I found support in a small community of bloggers.  I even became acquainted with my spouse and learned of our mutual interests through our writings.  For someone who has gained so much from my blog, why the trepidation of forging new friendships through it now? Life is a bit overwhelming for me to spend hours in chat or getting to know someone behind a screen name. I don’t sit behind a computer screen in an office job. Nor do I have hours of downtime like I did in Kuwait. But even more so, I have learned from past social missteps and heartaches that arose  out of connecting to strangers through social media.

Over time I retreated into a more personal world even as some people have reached out to me for support or friendship.  I guess I’m writing this because I feel guilty, however I have a greater need for privacy and real flesh and blood friendships. I am still “friends” with countless people who I have no personal contact with.  I often wonder why am I still connected and how to create greater degrees of separation in this monster called social media. I’m still sorting out the blurred lines between my public blogging, social media, and my personal life. We have just begun to understand the consequences and ramifications of social media. In some ways it makes people feel more isolated, even as they doing more and more to share their lives in the public. For the most part, social media does not forge what Malcolm Gladwell calls strong-ties, unless they already existed prior to social media. For example, my sister lives in Southern California and the rest of my immediate family members live in Northern California. I can see instant uploads of major milestones, such as graduations and baby pictures. While I have reconnected with long lost friends, it still isn’t like how it used to be. I rarely talk on the phone with friends from high school or college, we never get together, we don’t even send email or text. For most of us, we’d have a lot of catching up to do and getting to re-know each other before I could share the most intimate details of my life or feel part of their lives.

Occasionally, I will get a request from someone I never met, but they are a friend of a friend on facebook or they follow my blog.  Ignoring a request isn’t a personal thing, but in a way it is.  But not in the sense that I don’t like you or you’re a bad person, or you’re unimportant. I just don’t know you, even though some of  you may think you know me. You only know some of  my thoughts, personal reflections, and tendency towards typos and bad grammar. Maybe you get my humor or maybe you don’t.  Perhaps we have shared interests or similar views, but we don’t have a personal connection. Most of us haven’t had an extended exchange for me to feel much of resonance. I just don’t want you to think I’m giving you the cold shoulder. It’s nothing personal,  but following my blog isn’t enough for me to allow someone access to more details about my life, so that I can be known without a person truly knowing me. We have to have some type of professional, personal, or or academic relationship before I add you my facebook friends or give you my personal contact.

Getting by Within and Without Innercity Boundaries

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?

If You Don’t Know, Now You Know!!

Okay, I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. The internet is pretty vast and there are lots of interesting things on the net that I think my friends and readers would enjoy. Whether you are an avid procrastinator like myself, have a job where you can surf the web all day, or you can break away for a few minutes each day to scan the web, I think some blogs are worth reading on the regular.

Well, let’s get to it. First on my list is Rickshaw Diaries. This is a wonderful blog that explores one Muslim woman’s personal journey. She shares with us her personal struggles with Devic’s, her experiences as a South Asian Muslim woman, and her striving to be a complete human. Every time I read the blog I feel inspired. Those are the people we need to be around, people who inspire us to do better and be better.

So, if you don’t know, now you know. Check it out.

Half Empty

No, my cup does not “runneth over.” I’m looking at it half empty. I read a recent study that suggests that some people may be hard wired to be optimists. I don’t think I came equipped with that hard wiring. I’ve tried to reset my hard wiring. But I’m an over-achieving, constant worrier, sensitive, hyper-critical, driven person.

I know a lot about myself because I began my self exploration at a young age. Much of it was influenced by mom mom. She was always an avid reader. She had library of self-help books. I remember seeing expensive book and tape sets from Dianetics, the Silva Method, and Tony Robbins. She had books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, and dozens of titles from how to became a self made millionaire, to how to actualize your dreams. My mother read popular psychology books, relationship books, horoscope books, speed reading, and Mega-memory. She had a range of new agey books about positivity, meditation, relaxation, personal development, and spirituality. But growing up I just thought most of the stuff was rubbish. I mean, I respected her meditation. She’d come home from work and handle her business until around 10 when she’d listen to her relaxation CDs till she fell asleep. She’d then wake up at 4:30 and begin the next day. My mom did not have a lot of encouraging people around her. For her, these books offered keys into providing a better future for herself and children.But I grew up skeptical about the books. Mom was wasn’t positive all the time, nor did all her aspirations fall into place as her positive visualizations envisioned (at least that’s how I saw it at that time).

I developed a fatalistic attitude because contrary to what the books claimed a positive outlook didn’t always get you what you wanted in life. Then my intellectual proclivities added a hyper-critical aspect to my outlook. Sometimes I just lived in my head, trying to find overall patterns, the underlying logic to seeming absurdities. Everything I saw around me had to be picked apart. I developed insomnia thinking about ever interaction through the day, global issues, my own person conflicts. My life, itself was a battleground, a constant struggle to prove to myself and the world that I was a worthwhile. But how does one prove something that is inherent? How do you prove to people who wouldn’t be convinced no matter what evidence you brought forward? And why did I need to convince myself? Why do I still need to? My mom used to tell me that half the world will love you and the other half will hate you. Growing up I was obsessed with the half that hated me.

As I’ve matured, I have had some deep conversations with my mom. You know when most kids would claim that their moms were the most beautiful mom in the world. My mom was always stunning, turning heads wherever she went. She was well read and articulate, dedicated, tough as nails, and vulnerable. She spent her life searching for answers. Much of her quest centered on overcoming the box that people tried to put her in. Considering my mother’s hardships, she is a very optimistic person. In one of the conversations I told her of all that she accomplished. So many people looking on the outside would be jealous. She was owned her own home in one of the most expensive regions in the country, she had a luxury car, she dressed nice, two of her daughters attend prestigious universities, her son has never been to jail and is an entreprenuer, she has traveled abroad. She grew up in New Jersey’s rural area in poverty, at times living in a house that had an out house. She picked vegetables in the field to earn money. Her family then moved to the city and experienced the struggle of urban life, where my grandmother raised 6 children by herself. My mother had her first baby at a young age. From her teen years, she was independent, working jobs from shoe shine girl to seamstress. She lost one of her babies, let her abusive husband, and flew all the way to California to start a new life. She pushed her other three giving whatever our fathers didn’t. She said that for years she didn’t feel accomplished. But when she looked at an old list of goals she had set, she had accomplished many of them. It was suprising to her.

I learned some important lessons before I left the States. There was a family reunion and I spent almost a week with my grandmother. My grandmother is one of thse old school tough as nails little black women. After listening to a week’s worth of my grandmother’s complaints and grievances against everyone, I was tired. I began to realize how much a struggle can wear you down. I rsaw how much of that was instilled in me. It is the reason why I left the question mark in the title of my blog. It is the reason why I explore issues that touch sore spots, especially for Black Muslim Women. We struggle. My people have struggled. There are triumphs, but many of the stories are heartbreaking. That collective memory, as well as my own struggles were becoming part of me. I began to feel like everything was a fight. Every injustice and every affront (real or imagined) was a battle ground. For some of my ancestors it was life or death, it was the flight or fight from the lynch mob. We had real grievances, real injustices that reverberated in our daily lives in sometimes small and other times profound ways.

I have shared much of my struggles. But it recently dawned on me what have I said that is wonderful or amazing about my journey. There are many things. Today, was a mostly positive day. I had someone tell me that something I find spiritually rewarding and beneficial was fundamentally wrong. I didn’t want to engage in an argument. My linguistic capabilities in Arabic are not up to par to spar with a native speaker. I recognize people differ on many things. The way people feel about their particular stances will make best friends go to blows. As I try to navigate the world of new friends, I recognize that large parts of me will not be accepted by others. But that doesn’t mean that I want to be only around people like me. But I want to find a common ground with people who have different experiences and world views. I could focus on the half that we disagree on. But, I am hoping to find a way to find that base where we can agree to meet half-way.

I drove and got lost following simple directions to a park. I was about 40 minutes late and stressed out. It was a relief to make it there. I sat outside enjoying company of three really nice women. Two American and one British, we couldn’t be more different, we couldn’t be more alike in many ways. I can say after the past few weeks of solitude, I can appreciate the warmth. It was a breath of fresh air. The rest of my day rolled out smoothly. I see today may have provided me some major openings.

Plus, I got inspired to keep moving forward in changing the direction of my writing. One of the things that struck me in the conversation this evening was the conversation about the blog world. One woman said it was just draining. Another pointed to endless debates, generalizations, and unsubstantiated claims that try to pass off as dialogue. As I ween myself from pointless debates (I know I still have work to do on breaking away), I am more reflective of the way my writing may reflect of skewed worldview. By skewed, I mean one that focuses on the ugly, the controversy, the negativity, the injustice, that jumps out in our minds. This skewed vision overlooks the beautiful, the harmony, positive things, the examples of heroism and selflessness that should inspire us. While I take a break from serious intellectual clashes, I am still going to explore complicated issues. But as one sister pointed out, I’m not going to make my point with generalizations. I will qualify my statements. I will humbly recant when proven wrong or if my underlying logic is flawed. The exhausation from struggling, fighting, and climbing over obstacles is not a negative thing. I may have gotten the wind knocked out of me. But a lot of people are in my corner cheering me on. My cup is still half full. I might be able to savor that cup, enjoying every drop. Plus I got enough juice in me to get some steam going. Insha’Allah once that steam builds to a critical mass, I am sure I will be able to do some meaningful work.