In an effort to help Americans understand the history of Islam in America, Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and the Newseum Institute held an event, “Pioneers of Presence: The Legacies and Contributions of African American Muslims,” on February 27, 2014.
“There is a lot of misinformation which contributes to intolerance and hate and only way to counter that is education,” stated First Amendment scholar Charles Haynes, Director of Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum as he opened the event.
Dr. Ajile Rahman, Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), and husband and wife performers called the ReMINDers, Antoine BigSamir Zamundu and Aja Black, explored the role of African American Muslims in the development of American Muslim identity and the shaping of the American nation.
Rep John Lewis (D-Ga) was scheduled to speak, but could not attend.
Haris Tarin, Director of MPAC, welcomed everyone and thanked the Newseum for hosting this special celebration of Black History Month and moderated the panel. He emphasized the global impact that American civil rights leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King have over people fighting for their rights, pricking the conscience of the world even after their deaths.
Dr. Rahman, the Department Chair at Fulton County Board of Education in Atlanta, GA, is a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, Fulbright Scholar and part of Harvard University's Pluralism Project. A Sunni Muslim, her Ph. D. thesis was on the life and legacy of Clara Muhammad, who was the first Black woman to lead a national Black organization.
Dr. Rahman has also studied the schools started in Detroit by Clara Muhammad, the oldest and largest chain of private Black schools in America, which produced world-class scholars and leaders of the African American Muslim community.
She spoke about Clara Muhammad’s contribution to the schools and her tremendous influence on her son, Imam W D Muhammad. Rahman’s own eldest sons attended a Clara Muhammad School and one is a Hafidh of the Quran; she checked the curriculum to verify what was being taught. She said that the sense of empowerment and self drove the students to excellence.
Discipline, racial, social, and economic upliftment of the African American people were contributions of African American leaders in the Nation of Islam said the panelists, which came from that tradition of empowerment and civil rights; many of whom bridged over to mainstream Islam.
She mentioned that it was the Muslims who came through the Nation of Islam into orthodoxy in her community who built the institutes, business and schools since the Nation had trained them.
“I thought that the first two people elected to Congress would be South Asian or Arab,” Carson said. “We also don’t have ‘Muslim sounding’ names, come from the MidWest. It shows our deeps roots in this country and community.”
The panelists discussed how the Hip-hop movement bridged the gap for many young men and women who came to Islam, as the words in songs normalized Islam for them. Black said that Hip-hop was a huge movement for fatherless sons and daughters and gave a place to come to. Personally, she said, it gave her a strong sense of being a Black Muslim woman.
Unearthing bigotry in the Muslim community is also a topic that needs to be discussed, said Andre Carson.
He reminded the audience that more than a quarter of the slaves brought to the nation were Muslims. Muslims have been contributing since the beginning and the indigenous expression of Islam is missing from the debate.
Carson further elucidated that is not enough for the Muslim community to be happy that elected officials come to their gatherings and leave with money and votes, but they have to hold them accountable when they fail to speak out against policies that solidify bigotry, such as stop and frisk and anti-shariah laws. The Democratic Party needs to come to recruit from our communities. He believes that there is enough money, resources, talent and intellectual capital to leverage political sophistication in the Muslim communities.
“I have been big on living authentically; I study regularly, but I am not an imam,” said Carson. He has a diverse staff and he said he tries to do the best job and let his work speak for itself. He emphasized that he represents his constituents first and foremost.
Carson said African American masajid need models and systems in place and need to make use of social media. Since the community does not have much generational wealth and many in the community are unemployed, they need to pool resources.
Dr. Rahman said that the community did not need to reinvent, instead give existing structures an Islamic slant as African Americans had the tradition in making institutes, such as the Tuskegee Institute.
Answering an audience question about the recent turn of Black activists towards atheism, she said that spirituality is part of the civil right leaders. “The best person in the community was the leader and in Islamic culture the political leader was spiritual one as well. You are leaving your culture if you leave faith.“
An enlightening evening of mature discussion that celebrated the contribution and legacy of this important Muslim community and the movements that it produced ended with a networking session for the participants.