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Research on black art and civil rights in US shouldn't forget Islam’s role, prof. argues

<p>Ellen McLarney, associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies and director of the Middle East Studies Center, studies the role of Islam in inspiring black activists, poets, playrights, dramatists and musicians.</p>

Ellen McLarney, associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies and director of the Middle East Studies Center, studies the role of Islam in inspiring black activists, poets, playrights, dramatists and musicians.

In a Wednesday talk, a Duke professor spoke about how new scholarship on black power and the black arts movement should explore more why Islam was a powerful force in racial justice challenges in the United States during the 1960s. 

Ellen McLarney, associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies and director of the Middle East Studies Center, studies the role of Islam in inspiring black activists, poets, playrights, dramatists and musicians. She addressed an audience at the John Hope Franklin Center Wednesday.

“People think of Muslims as against art and music and all that, and this project is partially an attempt to challenge all that,” McLarney said. 

The influence of Malcolm X—a prominent activist during the Civil Rights Movement—on black art has reverberated throughout time, McLarney said. She described the proliferation of work Malcolm X inspired as “the rise of a Malcolm X culture industry,” which was a phenomenon that expanded after his assassination in 1965. This led to an intensification in works of homage, she added.

She also discussed the work of Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka, two black Muslim artists who were inspired by their faith to contribute to the political movement and the political time in which they lived. 

“I think that a lot of this poetry talks about rebirth and about new life and about brotherhood and sisterhood,” McLarney said of Sanchez’s poetry. “And this Nation building is intended to protect the black nation from the constant onslaught of white violence against black lives.”

Sanchez, born Wilsonia Benita Driver, was criticized for abandoning her black feminist values after converting to Islam, she explained. However, Sanchez argued that the two were wholly compatible. Sanchez emphasized that Malcolm X treated women not as queens who sat on a throne to be adored but rather as queens who worked, led and fought, McLarney said. 

McLarney also quoted Sanchez on the intersection of the Nation of Islam and blackness. 

“‘The Nation respects blackness. It was the greatest moral place for people who are trying to be correct, or trying to be political, or trying to be involved in their blackness,’” she quoted.

McLarney’s then shifted her attention to poet, dramatist, and writer Amiri Baraka who was a prominent figure in the black arts movement. 

Pre-conversion to the Nation of Islam, Baraka was famous for writing ‘A Black Mass’, an allegorical play about a mad scientist who bred white men through genocide and scientific eugenics against black babies and black children. 

“It’s an allegory of what has happened. It’s an allegory of these eugenics campaigns against black populations in the United States,” McLarney said. 

The play is plainly talking about sterilization campaigns, the violence that happened against black women on plantations and the continued violence of Black Lives Matter. This play gets Amiri run out of Harlem, and he then plants himself in Newark.

McLarney went on to talk about how it was in Newark that Baraka spits “Allahu Akbar” into the face of the police, while resisting police violence. 

“‘This was it. The real America. The America of slavery and lynching. I could feel an absolute kinship with the suffering roots of African American life,’” McLarney quoted Baraka as he described his experience with the police.

This incident is referred to as the moment where ‘he is saved’, after which Baraka converts to the Nation of Islam, embracing an idea of racial and cosmic unity while remaining critical of white racism. 

McLarney also explained how Muslims are often incorrectly labelled as violent, misogynistic and anti-Semitic. 

“It’s very interesting that these accusations are consistently levied at Muslims and Islam whereas we live in an incredibly violent, misogynistic and anti-Semitic society,” McLarney said. “There’s a lot of this projecting of American realities onto this ‘other.’” 

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