[This article is part of a six-person roundtable entitled “African American Muslims and the Black Freedom Struggle.” Click here for the introduction by Lindsey Stephenson and links to responses by Zareena Grewal, Abbas Barzegar, Mansa Bilal Mark King, Aminah B. McCloud, and Sohail Daulatzai. The initial question posed to the roundtable participants was: African American Muslims have been involved in the black freedom struggle for over a century, however their participation is often overlooked or generalized. How have they engaged with some of the important questions of the movement such as: the extent to which the black freedom struggle was a national or an international one; whether the struggle is ultimately about civil or human rights; and the means by which freedom was to be achieved? Is religion in fact a relevant cleavage within the black freedom struggle? Have African American Muslims represented a unified block? Finally, what African American Muslim experiences contribute to the ongoing debate about civil rights and human rights in the United States and abroad?]
The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently featured an awe-inspiring exhibit of the works of the African American visual artist and writer Barbara Chase-Riboud; at the center of the exhibit, which will now move to the Berkeley Art Museum, is a set of very large, abstract sculptures, titled “The Malcolm X Steles.” These unique and impressive sculptures are in homage to the life and legacy of Malcolm X (also known as Malik El-Shabazz) in the global and on-going struggle for human rights as well as the local, on-going struggle for black liberation in the United States.
Chase-Riboud chose not to represent the bodily figure of the man whose face, fist, and name have become icons and commodities since his tragic death, images frequently appropriated and de-contextualized and too often used in ways diametrically opposed to his politics. The most recent example is the photo of an armed Macolm X peering out his window after receiving death threats which became the confused cover art for Nicki Manaj’s single “Lookin’ Ass Nigga” which she later apologized for. In contrast, Chase-Riboud eschews the iconography in service of a faithful representation of the life and politics of Malcolm X. Combining cast bronze with wrapped skeins of silk and wool, Chase-Riboud fuses hard and soft, mineral and organic; her sculptures simultaneously evoke both the light, fleeting flutter of silk blown by the wind and the permanence and unmoving rigidity of mountains. By playing with scale in vertical and horizontal dimensions and evoking time and movement through the complex juxtaposition of light and heavy materials, the sculptures are monuments to Malcolm X’s self-transformation from a petty criminal to a world leader and the transformative effect of his thought on racial justice and religious movements in the US and around the world. In effect, by refusing the form of the figure, Chase-Riboud’s sculptures recuperate the intellectual, political, and spiritual work of Malcolm X as a historical force.
Although the exhibit has received a great deal of critical acclaim, Chase-Riboud’s sculptures have been the source of some controversy as well; from the debut of the first stele in 1969 to this day, she has been asked to defend her choice to memorialize Malcolm X rather than other African American leaders, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. Such misplaced questions belie larger tendencies to erase the more radical and internationalist elements of the black liberation movement within the US from public memory, including the critiques of US foreign policy and neo-imperialism articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. at the end of his life which were far less optimistic and patriotic than his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. African American Muslims have been central to the radical and internationalist traditions within the black liberation struggle in the US as exemplified by Malcolm X, who is arguably the most important American Muslim figure in the twentieth century and, by some accounts, the most important African American figure in the twentieth century. Yet even Malcolm X’s historical significance remains a point of contention for some and too often his voice is marginalized and silenced in the story of the American civil rights movement. Yet even Malcolm X’s historical significance remains a point of contention for some and too often his voice is marginalized and silenced in the story of the American civil rights movement. A few weeks ago, elementary school student in Queens, New York were explicitly discouraged to write papers on Malcolm X as a civil rights leader by their teachers.
While it is important to ensure that African American Muslims are given their due as an important part of the story of the on-going struggle for black liberation in the US, particularly in the context of these aggressive acts of erasure, I sympathize with Chase-Riboud’s impulse to claim a place in that national history but also to transcend the domestic account. The political, social, and religious influence of African American Muslims cannot and should not be explored only in the context of studies of African American history and culture or even studies of American history and culture. In my new book, Islam Is a Foreign Country (NYU Press, 2013), I write African American Muslims into a global intellectual history alongside a religious history of Islam in the US in the twentieth century. Such a history turns terms such as “political Islam” and the “Muslim world” on their head; “political Islam” is a term that is almost always used to refer, unselfconsciously, to Islamic movements that originate in the “heart” of the so-called “Muslim world” and travel out, including to the US. In the US, to be Muslim is to be political; this requires us to see communities like the Nation of Islam as no less political and no less Muslim than movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although I examine the pervasive influence of the political and religious thought of figures such as Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Warith Deen Muhammad beyond their immediate communities of African American Muslim followers, as an ethnographer, I am also invested in the profound influence—also global—of ordinary African American Muslim men and women whose names we do not know. There have been flows of ideas, writings, artwork, and people between African American Muslims in the US and Muslim communities around the world for a long time and those international circuits of exchange continue to have multiple directions. Too often, the story of the effect of such global encounters on African American Muslims, such as the impact of Malcolm X’s hajj trip and other travels abroad on his thinking, is stressed and even exaggerated at the expense of the story of how African American Muslims are shaping global debates about Islamic justice and piety all over the world.
Chase-Riboud’s work is a reminder that the choice between the global and local is a false choice for historians, and often east and West, a false boundary. African American Muslims are not just iconic figures in history books or on music charts; they have been and continue to be a force in the US and around the world, if we would only look and listen for the traces and the echoes, the imprints, those fleeting and lasting.
Rejoinder: Writing African American Muslim Intellectuals into American and Islamic Intellectual Histories
Our roundtable is in agreement on several major points: the importance of African American Muslims in liberation struggles in the United States and abroad, the links African American Muslims made and make between domestic and international struggles for social justice, the internal diversity of African American Muslims, and the marginalization of African Muslims from official and lay histories and national narratives. One of the common threads across the responses is how the very definition of fundamental concepts such as Islamic justice, liberation, race, human rights, family and nation have been and continue to be a source of intense debate among African American Muslims and their interlocutors; different definitions and different sets of priorities have yielded a diversity of African American Muslim political and religious practices across time and space, from revolutionary violence to the quietist withdrawal from formal politics and activism and the American cultural mainstream. At times, these differences lead to healthy debates and are a source of strength for African America Muslim communities in particular and Muslim communities in general, as Dr Barzegar and Dr King suggest, but such debates can also produce permanent fault lines, incoherence, and irreconcilable differences within communities, as Dr McCloud alludes to.
As scholars invested not only in the study of African American Muslim histories and communities but in transgressing the boundaries of what we refuse to reduce to a subfield within either Islamic Studies or (African) American Studies, we must guard against the parochial and, yes, ghettoizing, impulses which relegate African American Muslims to a nod in African American history, a footnote in American history, and an afterthought at best in accounts of global Islam and contemporary Muslim movements and debates. As scholars, how do we account for the internal diversity of African American Muslims as well as the diversity of their interlocutors? For example, like Dr Daulatzai, I am interested in the religious imagination of African American Muslims, specifically how black investments in the “Muslim world” or, to use his de-territorialized concept, the “Muslim International” have been and continue to be deployed in the struggle for black liberation. But do such Muslim geographies work in black radical political traditions in a consistent way? Clearly, they do not. On the one hand, the on-going dignity revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere have not captured the imagination of American black youth, including black Muslim youth, the way the Algerian revolution against the French did for an earlier generation of young black activists. On the other hand, the renewed, passionate, and growing interest of non-Muslim black activists in the US in the Palestinian cause, due in part to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement on college campuses, is very different than the sustained attention Palestinian oppression under Israel has received in African American Muslim communities for decades. While concepts such as the “Muslim International” are productive for recuperating radical internationalist traditions that are often erased in accounts of the struggle of black liberation, as scholars we need to continue to develop and improve the intellectual and conceptual tools we use to represent the diversity and particular manifestations of African Americans’ and African American Muslims’ political, religious, and imaginative investments. Narrating the stories of African American Muslim experiences will require us to retell not only the history of black liberation in the US, but to re-narrate and re-orient all of the stories that constitute the US and its relationship to the imagined geography of the “Muslim world” and to continue to re-tool the way we define terms and geographies in our scholarship.
[This article is part of a six-person roundtable entitled “African American Muslims and the Black Freedom Struggle.” Click here for the introduction by Lindsey Stephenson and links to responses by Zareena Grewal, Abbas Barzegar, Mansa Bilal Mark King, Aminah B. McCloud, and Sohail Daulatzai.]