MLFA on Juneteenth

by Jeannine Sherman
Friday June 17, 2022

1. “America needs to understand Islam because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem”

– Malcolm X

When I read your autobiography, Malcolm, everything changed for me. I admire most your ruthless, fearless, ferocious commitment to the truth above all.

You spoke up in a way that made a LOT of people uncomfortable and probably got you killed. Like that famous moment when you came back from Hajj and said simply, “I was wrong about that. This is the truth.” The truth is usually pretty simple. But for most of us, if we’ve spent our whole lives saying one thing and even being famous for one thing, we won’t recant immediately. We’ll take some time and re-brand and make some kind of transition.

You didn’t take the time to protect your ego or your image or worry about what others thought. Whenever you understood the truth, you went for it, immediately and wholeheartedly.

How can I be more like that?

Again from your autobiography, I understand that you never expected to live to your old age. You were always waiting for death and acted like you were living on borrowed time. Your father died young, so maybe that’s where the fearlessness started. I know that Islam helped it grow.

America needs Islam… Lately it seems like America barely tolerates Islam, adding policy after policy to keep Muslims afraid. A lot of Muslims keep their heads down, and mostly I don’t blame them. I wonder what you’d say about that. I wonder how your khutbah would go if you were still here today.

You believed that Islam is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. You were in Mecca when you realized this, experiencing the brotherhood and kindness of Muslims of all colors. I’m so glad you had that experience, and I’m so grateful that you brought your Hajj light back across the Atlantic Ocean.

I believe you, that Islam is the only answer. It certainly has been for me, too. To say that it can solve the race problem in America – that’s harder to say. I want to believe that. So how do we put that into practice? How do we show America that she needs Islam?

2. “Origin stories matter, for individuals, groups of people, and for nations. They inform our sense of self; telling us what kind of people we believe we are, what kind of nation we believe we live in. They usually carry, at least, a hope that where we started might hold the key to where we are in the present”

– Annette Gordon-Reed, On Juneteenth

Ms. Gordon-Reed, you’re from Texas. You say that you were surprised when Juneteenth became a national holiday, since you’d always know it to be a Texas thing.

In your book, you talk about the history of Juneteenth: on June 19, 1865, federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to ensure that the enslaved people would be freed. This was two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

You talk about how people certainly celebrated but may have also been wary of how exactly that “freedom” would go. Some of the freed slaves ended up as agricultural workers or sharecroppers on the exact same land working for the exact same people. As we know from others’ experience in the South, there was also a backlash of violence against the freed slaves. It was complicated.

I’ve been thinking a lot about origin stories, researching the history of Muslims in the U.S. For our Memorial Day blog post, I spoke to a Br. Mustafa, an army chaplain in Fayetteville, North Carolina. There they have a masjid called Omar ibn Said.

Omar ibn Said became famous in part because as an enslaved Muslim from West Africa, he wrote his autobiography in Arabic. He was thirty-seven years old when he was captured and brought to the United States. Many West Africans at that time were known to be very well-educated. Islam in particular was associated with a high degree of scholarship and respectability at that time.

Omar escaped from South Carolina after he was treated very badly. He was recaptured and put in jail in Fayetteville, North Carolina. While he was in jail, he found a piece of charcoal in his cell and wrote all over the walls in Arabic, pleading to be set free.

No one around him could read Arabic, and his writing became a curiosity for people in that area. He was purchased by a visitor to the prison named Mr. Owen who, according to Omar’s autobiography, treated him well.

Mr. Owen and others also asked Omar to write documents in Arabic, as a novelty but also in some cases as talismans that free and enslaved people believed could protect them. It’s strange that slave owners seem to have held a kind of reverence for written Arabic, perhaps because it was something inaccessible to them or maybe just because it’s beautiful.

Omar’s story is amazing because it resembles so little what I learned about slavery in American history classes. It’s likely that the majority of enslaved West Africans who were brought here were Muslim.

So what about our origin story, as Muslims in the United States of America?

I think some of us feel a pull or even a conflict between being American and being Muslim. Part of this is a story of immigration, and part of it comes from being asked to prove our Americanness to others.

Islam was here before this land was called a country. The Spanish coming to the New World passed laws trying to limit the number of Muslim slaves brought to the U.S. because they feared the power and unity large numbers of Muslims would have. (Spain had experienced the ferocity of the Muslims in Al-Andalus.) In spite of Spain’s objections, the most conservative estimates say there were at minimum hundreds of thousands of Muslim slaves brought here. (And they did organize revolts across the Americas, in lots of cases.)

Juneteenth is also about how knowing our history can change us.

Let’s connect these dots and take our rightful place here, in a land of many contradictions, in a land in which we may have always belonged.

3. “In the aftershock of 9/11, against all expectations, an authentic interest in Islam and Muslims manifested itself… scholarship on Islam, Muslims, American Muslims, and Muslims in America became an integral part of this process, especially as it made clear that Islam and Muslims were not recent arrivals but had been part of the American fabric from its very beginning…

 Islam was indeed a diasporic religion whose expressions were widespread, distinctive, visible, and recognizable enough to be recorded in a variety of written sources and commented on by colonists and travelers throughout the Americas”

– Sylviane Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas

Reader, what do you think? Do you see yourself in this history? Does it bring you relief the way it brings me relief?

Br. Mustafa and I talked about the dreaded question people like to ask: “Where are you from?”

He explained that as an army chaplain, he uses the question in an inclusive way. If someone joining his base is from Ghana, he may connect them with others from Ghana and so on.

Sometimes I find ways not to answer this question. When asked by other Muslims, sometimes it seems like what they’re really asking me is, “What kind of Muslim are you?”

If I say Palestine, they make assumptions about my beliefs, my politics, and my religious practice. If I say Illinois, they might assume I’m a convert and make different assumptions.

I don’t want people to decide what kind of Muslim I am the moment they meet me. I don’t always know what kind of Muslim I am, so please don’t decide that for me.

I do know that I’m an American Muslim or a Muslim American or both.

But sometimes I, too, fall into the trap of thinking that Islam is somehow located in the Middle East, or that’s it’s most authentic there. That’s confusing, and that assumption makes me feel distant from what most matters to me.

Understanding the truth, that this country has always been multireligious and multilingual – understanding that Islam has been a religion of the diaspora for a very, very long time – knowing these things about our history brings me peace.

I am thirsty for histories and some of the peace they bring. I want to draft and redraft our origin stories as we go and certainly not allow others to draft them for us.

Juneteenth is just one day. Black History Month is just one month. We have histories that fill years of reflections, so let’s not be limited by calendars. Let’s keep asking questions and keep wondering where we come from.

Malcolm X tells us that America needs to understand Islam. Maybe in fully showing up as American and as Muslim, we can make that happen insha Allah.

Sources

Alryyes, Ala. A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said. Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography, 2011.

Diouf, Sylviane. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. NYU Press, 1998.

Nix, Elizabeth. “What is Juneteenth?” History.com, June 17, 2021. https://www.history.com/news/what-is-juneteenth

X, Malcolm. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Grove Press, 1965