Since I have been living in the United States, I have welcomed the celebrations and observance of Black History Month with mixed feelings. I believe, in principal, that dedicating a month in remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora in the West is a good thing. This month acknowledges the struggles with the troubling legacy of slavery, intentionally trying to come to terms with the shameful chapters of our own history vis-a-vis black Americans.
This month can potentially help us collectively hold honest and difficult conversations about our past as a nation, and it could potentially help us relearn the lessons of the past as we move forward. It can help—but only if these Black History Month celebrations and observances are done in a meaningful way, free from empty ceremonies and cheap lip services to the deeply painful history of black people in this part of the world.
A broad general assessment of the Black History Month celebrations that occur every February is beyond the scope of this column. I leave it to the moral imagination of every American to decide whether the conversations that these month-long remembrances spark are rewarding ones, or if they are adding insult to injury.
I would, however, like to briefly discuss what is to me one of the most puzzling and disturbing aspects of this Black History Month tradition—the not-so-subtle exclusion of the experiences of black Muslims from the overall history of black people in this country.
Every February comes with numerous events and activities that highlight the different aspects of black history, taking place through various academic and non-academic platforms with little to no mention of Islam and Muslims as part of that history. The few events that have been organized to highlight the story of black Muslims in America are often, if not always, organized by Muslims themselves, not by centers or departments, the civic and governmental organizations who usually organize all Black History Month events. If you think I exaggerate, please do a simple Google search and check out the last couple of years’ Black History Month events on college campuses, in public school systems, events in Washington, D.C. or state capitals and so on. The absence of the “Black Mosque’s voice” in those conversations is hard to go unnoticed, and to me is unacceptable.
It seems as if Islam was never really part of black history from day one. As if millions of black Americans today are not Muslims. As if black Muslims in America have not produced very many giants of “black religion” and voices of “black struggle” against slavery and white supremacy. It seems as if “black mosques” have not been a resource of comfort, healing and empowerment to very many daughters and sons of Africa and beyond in this country.
Islam and Muslims are far from being absent from black history. Both the religion and its African followers were an integral part of forced African emigration to the West. No one knows the exact number, but a significant portion of slaves brought to the Americas from West and Central Africa from the beginning to the end of slavery were Muslims. Even though many of them were literate and observant Muslims at different levels, Islam within African slaves did not survive and completely disappeared over time. In the Deep South, where most black Muslims were sold, their brutal enslavement, their shameful forced conversion to Christianity and other heart-wrenching obstacles to practicing their faith made it impossible for them to create and sustain any real Muslim community.
Even though the Islamic and African Muslim heritage of these slaves was completely wiped out within a few generations, the story of Islam among black Americans does not end there. Late 19th and early 20th century Islam once again resurrected itself among black Americans as they recovered from post-slavery trauma.
In their attempts to reconnect with their African roots, millions of black Americans found Islam. This resurrected Islam empowered many to claim their human dignity, pumping hope and inspiration into the hearts and minds of millions of black Americans and serving as a therapeutic healing power to their scarred souls.
Iconic figures of this black American Islam include Elijah Mohamed, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, W.D. Mohammed and many others, all of whom played and continue to play pivotal roles in various human rights struggles for black Americans of the past and present.
The point is this: “Black Mosque” is as black as it gets. It is as authentic, as African and as American as “Black Church” was, and is. The Muslim black American experience is an authentic and truly homegrown reality and an essential part of black history in this country. Therefore, a “Black Mosque” must not be considered a “Muslim thing,” independently existing from an overall black American reality in this country.
Therefore, the “Black Mosque” voice and story must be part of the overall narration of black history in this country. This month-long attempt to remember and honor black history cannot be complete and authentic if it continues to selectively highlight certain stories within “black history” and continues to exclude and disregard others.
In hopes of better Februaries together, God willing…
Abdullah Antepli is the Muslim chaplain and an adjunct faculty of Islamic Studies. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Abdullah a message on Twitter @aantepli.