It is Black History Month. For the past few years I have consciously worked to focus my efforts to use this month to seek out history, learn about, and be reflective of Black America, Black Islam, and issues intersecting People of Color. You may wonder why a South Asian immigrant child is so focused on Black – read race – issues.
Its not that I chose to be singularly focused on the Black community, rather, the way I see it, America’s history is profoundly and intimately tied up with the construction of race issues. The origin of this phenomenon is the founding fathers.
They espoused high values- freedom, equality, and liberty- yet, subjugated black bodies to the depravations of slavery. These white men chose the basis of race to divide the nations population. Then a group of other white men institutionalized second-class citizenship under Jim Crow laws. For well over two hundred years, this was the reality of Black people and Black communities. This racism by white men wasn’t limited to Blacks- it extended to indigenous peoples and to Asians, as well as, to an extent, Eastern Europeans and Jews. And that is the nexus for America’s historical development, and will be for the next century or more, because racism just doesn’t stop existing when a small group of people have so financially benefited from it.
I simply find myself existing in this reality. I cannot just ignore it, especially as I am affected by it. Therefore, with an established month commemorating Black History, it makes it convenient for me to pursue this education in a critical and thoughtful way. I am responsible for my own future and I wish for my place in that future to be one of dignity and agency.
This year I made it a point to focus my study around James Baldwin. I read, Go Tell it On the Mountain, which I couldn’t stop comparing to James Joyces’ Portrait of a Artist as a Young Man. Where Joyces’ narrative follows an expected coarse, Baldwin was the first author whose ending I so desperately wished could be changed. Yet, Baldwin also delved deeply into the epistemology of spirituality and belief within the Black Church.
Similar to reading Joyce, I learned significantly about Christian theological teaching practices and questioning its efficacy. I wonder if the relevance of Christianity is not so much the secular society around it has an alternative construct to offer but because of the individual spiritual relation to it is so flimsy or altogether lacking that individuals see past it for other places of succor?
These two semi-autobiographical works of fiction fit perfectly with a reading of The Walking Quran: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge and History in Wet Africa by Rudolph T. Ware III. His work focused on the teaching of the Quran in West Africa. The epistemological approach to the Quran contrasted well with the faith affirmation that confronted John, the protagonist in Baldwins’ novel. I could better understand the West African tradition of Quran schooling in light of the sense of loss and utter rejection of Christian faith John experienced through the novel.
Quran schooling is a conditioning process for building up children, removes the parents, and conditions them to face the harsh realities of the world they will go back to become part of; whereas, John, he lives apart from the larger Black community in Harlem because of his families Christian belief of sin and sinners being removed from the body of believers. John wants so badly to be part of the larger community, yet he struggles to remain faithful. Nor does it help John that his step father, the Churches pastor, is also a flawed man, who struggles with his own faith and therefore can not properly provide John with the role model and affirmation he so badly craves. In the Quran communities of West Africa, it was the communal duty to create an embodied role model and the practices of reverence for elders that instituted affirmation of ones achievements.
The other critical aspect I found in Ware’s work incorporated the historical developments and responses to the Atlantic slave trade, by Quran teachers and Quran communities, as Europeans cultivated the brutal regime of slavery there. I found this highly instructive because it tore down the passive construct of African enslavement being a product of African wars where the Europeans innocently stumbled on a two pronged solution- taking the slaves off these rulers hands and supplying forced labor to colonial plantations. It was not a win-win, in fact it was a conspiracy to sustain and impose an economic model beneficial to Europeans.
The public school Social Studies version tells us that African rulers sold into slavery men and women captured in war against other African kingdoms. Yet, this does not explain the enslavement of 13 million Africans (of which 10 million survived the Middle Passage, source PBS) over the course of 100 years because that presents a state of perpetual war.
While this was true of Europe, it was not the case in West Africa prior to the Atlantic slave trade. Europeans, the historical documents presents, worked to create an environment of perpetual war between kingdoms. And when possible burdened debt on rulers for guns, weapons, and rum; that the rulers would resort to enslaving their own people in order to meet the debt payment, or else face the possibility of being enslaved, was the conscious effort of European slavers. It was this external economic system that Quran teachers and Quran communities rose up against and fought to depose rulers who betrayed their own people.
Stepping away from history, and towards a reflective criticism, I also read an incredibly important short piece by Ahmad Mubarak and Dawud Walid, Centering Black Narrative: Black Muslim Nobles Among the Early Pious Muslims. They did a superb job of contextualizing the importance of the discussion around race and reminding readers of the Black bodies that surrounded the Prophet and are Sahabah’s (Noble companions of the Prophet).
This work is complimentary to Ware’s as both point out similar internal Muslim race issues as being motivations for their individual works. Only diverging on the scope of individual biographies presented, as Centering focused on the time of the Prophet and Ware was concerned about the West African religious scholarly community. I appreciate Walid and Mubaraks’ work in particular because I never gave these historical bodies skin color and only now realize that before Arabia ever accepted Islam, Africa was already converting to the religion and providing it a spiritual, as well as, physical home.
Finally to round off my readings, I picked up The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation by Jim Cullen as it had three chapters, out of six, dedicated to the national project and how the dream was shaped by the institution of slavery, post-reconstruction and post-World War II, with special focus on the Black middle class embrace of the concept even though it was legally and institutionally kept out of their reach.
The other aspect of this year’s focus was to incorporate Black history artistically and creatively. Because I am working on my photography skills, I felt the need to study the works of Black photographers. Since imitation is a form of flattery, and a huge step toward learning from the masters, I chose one photographer, Carrie Mae Weems, whose work I wished to directly imitate and reflect in my work.
Featured Image- Carrie Mae Weems, “An Anthropological Debate” from “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” 1995-1996. Weems was invited by the J. Paul Getty Museum to peruse through their photography collection. “She selected nineteenth- and twentieth- century photographs of black men and women, from the time they were forced into slavery in the United States to the present, then rephotographed the pictures, enlarged them, and toned them in red. Each photograph is framed under a sheet of glass inscribed with a text written by the artist, evoking the layers of prejudice imposed on the depicted men and women” as stated by MOMA. Image from OpenLab at City Tech ART2101 online course.