The Debt We all Owe to African-American Muslims
Posted on Feb 22, 2019
Editorial Note: This post was submitted by Mariam Nakyobe in response to our call out for stories for Black History Month.
It’s well known that African-American Muslims face discrimination from both within and outside Muslim communities. But, not many people address the discrimination African-American Muslims face from Africans Muslims. I feel it’s time that the damage caused by my own community - Muslims of African origin - is confronted head on, so we can start recovering from it.
When I moved from Uganda to the United States for university, I had absolutely no knowledge of the African-American story, nothing about their history, the barriers and injustices they faced or their incredible resilience. Over time, I learned - slowly and uncomfortably, I learned.
At university, I repeatedly saw how the biases we each carried kept the divide between us alive. Too often Africans judged African-Americans as lazy, uncultured and loud; African-Americans judged Africans as snobbish and classist.
Consider the tension between T’Challa & Erik Killmonger (N’Jadaka) played by Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan in the Marvel hit movie, “Black Panther.” Both men were the products of their respective upbringings, which served as the lenses through which they saw each other and the world. T’challa, born in a privileged environment and raised as a crown prince destined to serve as king, swore his first and only allegiance to his country and the people within its borders.
Meanwhile Killmonger, who grew up as an orphan having to look out for himself in the hoods of L.A. and away from the land that should’ve been his home, was hateful/resentful of T’Challa and the Wakandans for leaving him - and the rest of his brothers and sisters - to suffer at the hands of different oppressors throughout history while not making any effort to help. Instead, Wakanda choose to thrive in secrecy. (P.S. That movie deserves ALL the awards and accolades if only for the conversations it started in our communities. #BestMovieEVER)
When I started joining different mosque communities and widening my circle of friends in the summer of 2014, first in California and later in the Midwest, I was fortunate enough to make connections across the racial spectrum.
But I’ve since learned that not everyone is as lucky.
One of my dearest friends is a very special African-American sister, may Allah grant her and her family all the good and ease one could hope for in this life and the next. One weekend, we got to chatting about how we fit in and are treated by the Muslim community we both belong to. She remarked how ironic it was that I, who had just recently joined the community, seemed to be more enthusiastically welcomed by the sisters there compared to her and her family, who had been members of the same community for years before me.
This, honestly, was a shock to me. Every sister I met had been so incredibly kind and welcoming to me, and I assumed they were the same with everyone. In fact, on my first day at the masjid, I got invited to a brunch, a dinner and a sleepover by three different people!
Then my friend shared with me a bit of her experience.
When my friend lived in Chicago, she faced the same issue; she’d meet other Africans and initially feel so excited to see someone from this place she grew up with such a yearning for, only to be rejected as unworthy.
As she put it, “You can’t imagine the pain of finally meeting people who you spent so much time dreaming will be your family, will finally accept you for who you are, only to find they want nothing to do with you.”
It was heartbreaking to hear.
I don’t think most of us are bad people. Many of us are naïve, yes, but not innately bad; we just live our lives based on what we know. But once we know better, I fully believe it’s our responsibility to do better.
The African (and greater Muslim) community owes African-American communities an unpayable debt, which Dr. Sherman A. Jackson summarized brilliantly in the foreword of “Revelation: The Story of Muhammad:”
…Blackamericans continued to see Blackamerican Muslims as an integral part of the black community united in the struggle against America’s most intractable disease. Now, anyone who is familiar with the life of Muhammad knows that his very survival in the early period was due to the support he received from his blood-clan of Banu Hashim, the majority of whom had not converted to Islam but still refused to abandon him as one of their own … It should not take much to recognize that the Blackamerican community in America has functioned in many ways as America Muslims’ Banu Hashim.
From slavery to Jim Crow to segregation, African-Americans suffered inhumane atrocities for the liberties we enjoy now. When Islam - initially under the banner of the Nation of Islam and later as orthodox Islam - gained traction in this country, African-Americans were the first to protect Muslims and set the stage for us to be able to plant roots and flourish here.
For all they’ve done, the very least we can do is make our communities more inclusive by acknowledging everything native Black Muslims have done to establish Islam and Muslim communities in the United States. We need to do a better job of appreciating our African-American brethren and demanding inclusivity as the mainstay of all our Muslim communities. And, we have to confront the racist biases in family members and friends. The time is now.
Mariam Nakyobi is a serial klutz simply trying to make it through life without breaking too much glassware. A Ugandan currently living in the American Midwest, she’s an enthusiastic reader, photographer and diversity advocate. Find her on Instagram here: @mariamtheugandan