A brand new year, another February drawing to a close. We all know this month is Black History Month, and the overall impression I’ve got from people who are not black is that nobody truly cares about black history except for African Americans. Granted, PBS airs some specials, and our kids learn about important African American figures in school, mostly the high-profile ones such as Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and a few other prominent black activists. for the average American, that’s the extent of our understanding of or participation in Black History Month. Other than that, we defer to the African American community and allow them to claim this “celebration” as their own.
This to me is a serious problem, because black history is also American history, and as Americans we should be moderately knowledgeable of our own “collective” history. Although some adults are still not convinced of the need to revisit history, for the most part we understand that reading and analyzing our past can help tremendously in ensuring a better future. It also serves another, lesser accepted purpose: to recognize the contributions of people or groups we may not otherwise feel represent our historical narrative. African Americans are one such group, but even within this group, the Black Muslim group gets even less airtime.
So I’ve decided this year to focus on Black Muslims for Black History Month, because until we accept and acknowledge this subset’s contributions to our nation’s history we will continue the popular rhetoric of Islam as a recent, unwelcome entry into the American, Judeo-Christian culture. If you’ve seen the hateful graffiti on American mosques that read “Muslims go home!” you will understand what I’m referring to. The popular Islamophobic understanding of the American Muslim is that we are all immigrants who have come here to the United States to take advantage of this nation’s freedoms and laws and make this country a haven for terrorists and misogynists.
The reality couldn’t be further from this picture. The reality is that Muslims have been some of the first arrivals on this continent when it was still the colonies, and it was Muslims who helped form and shape this nation along with the other immigrants who came here seeking freedom and new opportunities. The only difference was that these Muslims were slaves; experts estimate that more than 10% of all African slaves were Muslims, and despite the suppression of indigenous religions on the plantation, were able to retain much of their Muslim identity and faith in secret. Slaves such as Abdul Rahman Ibrahim, Omar Ibn Said and Ayuba Suleiman Diallo were popular in the history of those times as well as today. Their religion made them stand out, become more than ordinary slaves, help tremendously in establishing infrastructure and commerce for the South that we take for granted today. And all of it wasn’t accomplished by force. Some decades later, Muslims fought with their American brothers in the revolutionary war, including soldiers like Salem Poor, Yusuf Ben Ali, Bampett Muhamed, Francis Saba and Joseph Saba.
Fast forward to more recent times. Islam continued to grow with the first wave of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, but the largest ethnic group of Muslims continued during those times to be the African American Muslims. From controversial figures such as Louis Farrakhan and Elijah Muhammad came a nationalistic yet strongly religious frame of reference that allowed black Muslims to free themselves of spiritual and mental slavery. Although the Nation of Islam has its detractors, the fact remains that this organization (as well as the subsequent American Muslim Missions movement that branched off and became more mainstream in terms of orthodoxy in practice and belief) was instrumental in enabling the rise of African Americans from their state of lethargy, low self-esteem and poverty after the 1960s. The Nation of Islam framed its viewpoints about whites in reference to the experiences of African Americans during slavery and beyond, and therefore were able to relate to the latter in a way that brought them away from crime and drugs and towards prosperity and industry.
Today, African American Muslims make up a large part of the Muslim community in the United States, and form all aspects of public life from academia to politics and entertainment. Some of the more recognizable African American Muslim names in popular American culture who have remained Muslim despite the controversy that inevitably follows include Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Mike Tyson, Rasheed Wallace and of course the great Muhammad Ali (sports); Dave Chappelle, Ice Cube, Germaine Jackson, Lupe Fiasco and rapper Freeway (entertainment); and Keith Ellison and Andre Carson (politics). And no, President Barack Obama is not a Muslim.
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, editor of Interfaith Houston and trainer of American Muslim issues. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi.