“This election season has bore no surprises for me. I’ve scrolled through Twitter and Facebook, looked at texts from family without bothering to reply, scanned panicked emails. “Trump’s going to come after women,” people would say in horrified whispers while I gestured at the worn cloak of subjugated Black womanhood they had forced on me my entire life. “He’s coming for Muslims,” they would add, while extending sympathy only towards Muslims who had come close to achieving whiteness in this country. The whispers and the frantic urgency that took over everyone’s spirit was a restless animal that I had been born with the knowledge to trap. The constant inquiries from those who expected me to be in a panic were met with disillusioned stares and small shrugs while I turned back to the strategies of resistance that are legacies of my people.
In her speech, Sarsour clearly intended to represent the Muslim demographic, but looking at her didn’t bring me any connection. “Many of our communities, including mine, the Muslim community, have been suffering in silence for the past 15 years,” Sarsour said. She continued on to speak of the Muslim registry and Islamophobia as if it had only existed within the past two decades, lauded by the Bush and Obama administration.
Did you know the first Muslims in America were Black?
Do you understand what I mean by telling you the first Muslims in America were Black?
It’s not a controversial statement. Within the population of enslaved Africans who were brought to North America, historians estimate between 20 — 30% of them were Muslim. It’s important to repeat and understand that as more than an abstract statistic that happened a long time ago. The fact that such a sizable percentage of enslaved Africans were Muslim should warrant pause and make people uncomfortable with their current praxis. But, as showcased by the Women’s March, even people aware of this fact remain comfortable in their dissonance. When they are reminded, they smile and nod, assuming their own comprehension where it doesn’t exist.
Within the current political climate, they operate as if American Islam has two distinct starting points. The first begins with the arrival of enslaved Africans and ends at the point where Islam was assumed to be removed completely. The second, marking the beginning of an American Muslim identity, begins with the arrival of Arab immigrant Muslims. This understanding relies on a simplification of history. Not only is there an assumption of total religious conversion, but it ignores how customs and philosophies of faith influence people’s lives, regardless of whether they are able to practice. It credits Arab Muslims with revitalizing the faith after it was lost by Black people and assumes those first Muslims existed in a vacuum. They’re assumed incapable of leaving behind ancestors who carried on part of the tradition or who were Muslim themselves.
Dangerously, it leaves a gap of history where anything that took place has no weight in the creation of an American Muslim identity. Despite the fact that total religious conversion did not occur within enslaved African Muslim populations, this understanding dismisses the existence of Sunni Black American Muslim communities and the proto-Islamic institutions (such as the Moorish Science Temple of America founded in 1913 and the Nation of Islam founded in 1930) they existed beside. It assumes every Black American is new to Islam, ignoring how our legacies are tangled within it. Understanding American Islam as beginning with Arab immigrants ignores the reality of an indigenous Black perspective that rebuilt Islam separated from outside influence. It allows for previous, systemic attacks against whoever the government interpreted as Black and Muslim to be ignored and for Islamophobia’s antiblack roots to be hidden.
The reality of the first Muslims in America being Black isn’t brought up to stake a claim, but to serve as a reminder. When focusing discourse surrounding Islamophobia within non-black communities and speaking only of individual encounters, we ignore the targeting of Black “radical” Muslims within liberation movements and federally funded surveillance projects that the government is mimicking today. When Muslims are spoken as if they have always been racialized as brown, we ignore the history that describes when American media moved from their fear of Black American Muslims and why that switch was made. When political quietism is promoted to silence Black Muslims, we blame an entire community for a long history of their own oppression while ignoring Blackness’ roots as a political identity and the ways Black Americans have built it into their theology.
The current construct of an American Muslim identity relies heavily on dissonance and leaves all Black Muslims vulnerable to systemic Islamophobia. With Trump’s recent inauguration, we see people pledging to register themselves as Muslim in solidarity, ignoring that Muslim registries existed within the Obama administration. In Minneapolis, the government entrapment program targeting Somali-Muslims, Countering Violent Extremism, echoes the work of COINTELPro in Black (Muslim) communities. And, yet, there is no registry set up in solidarity; no mass protest or national cries. Instead, national solidarity is only extended to non-black Muslims while supporting a constant separation of Islam from Blackness.”
Because it is DIRECTLY responsible for today’s current state of political apathy among Black youth. During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s even the most “non-political” Black teen played at least somerole in ORGANIZED political activity to advance the station and standing of Black people in America. Look at those Black protest photos closely; many of the people you see in them are teenagers.
If you weren’t inclined to support the NAACP you could join the Urban League. If not the UL, then perhaps CORE. If not CORE, then SNCC. If not SNCC then the BPP. If not the BPP then BLA. Or perhaps, like your parents, you were UNIA members. If not the UNIA then the NOI. Or the MST. Or the KOY. Or the SCLC. Or the RNA. Or the AIM. Or the Young Lords…
THE FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) disrupted destroyed or totally diluted ALL of the those pro-Black and pro-Brown political organizations, leaving a dearth of uncompromising dedicated field-tested Black leadership in their wake, which most of Black America generally and Black youth in particular suffer from today.
A lack of visionary uncompromising Black leadership. The lack of experience of working VOLUNTARILY with and for OTHER BLACK PEOPLE from different walks of life, on a cause bigger than ourselves and greater than a paycheck. The total foreignness of the concept of a Black unity independent of the politics of either the Democrat or Republican parties.
So many of the ORGANIZATIONS that Black people had created to help them combat white supremacy and Black disunity were destroyed by COINTELPRO.
Not all Black people’s ideas about God come from white people. Not all Black people lack knowledge of self. Not all Black people lack vision. Not all Black people lack unity. Not all Black people believe in integration. Not all Black people accepted Jim Crow treatment. Not all Black people fear the KKK. Not all Black people fear the police. Not all Black people wait on white people to finally become just. Not all Black people worship the ghost of Martin Luther King, Jr.