Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles and reflections for Black History month.
By Margari Aziza Hill
Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go. — James Baldwin
I was in sixth grade when first learned of Black History month. My teacher turned to me, the only identifiably Black student in class, and asked, “Margari, were any of your ancestors slaves?” I shrunk in my seat.
Throughout the school year, two white boys in my class would shout “slave!” One girl’s voice shook with anger as she exclaimed that her great-great-great grandfather died to free my people. I asked my mother, “Why is it that all we were good for was slaves?” All I knew was that I was from a people without history. Without knowledge of my roots, I had no direction, because I could not imagine a future where I was free.
When we studied geography, those same boys who would call me slave would happily mispronounce “N*gger-ia” and the country of “N*gger” in our geography unit on Africa. Sometimes, on bus rides home, I would spot “Go back to Africa” carved into windows. I knew the message was for me.
On PBS and documentaries, the only image of Africa I had was wild animals of the Serengeti and nomadic tribes with topless black women. Growing up, I was ashamed to embrace my African identity. As Malcolm X points out:
In hating Africa and in hating the Africans, we ended up hating ourselves, without even realizing it. Because you can’t hate the roots of a tree, and not hate the tree. You can’t hate your origin and not end up hating yourself. You can’t hate Africa and not hate yourself.
As a young Black girl, I constantly sought escape from the self-hatred. In the fantasy novels I read, I would disappear. But in reality, the authors imagined a world where someone like me didn’t exist.
My mother was a hoarder of old books, and scientific racism reached me there. I remember reading an old book where it claimed that Negroes had lower IQs. My mother once admitted to me that she also internalized this myth after a teacher exclaimed colored girls were intellectually inferior. But my placement in the gifted and talented program in fourth grade, my graduation from Santa Clara and Stanford and my sister from UCLA in biochemistry shattered her internalized inferiority.
Still I struggled as one of the only Black students in the honors classes.
After moving to the East side in junior high, I learned from teachers who believed in the importance of Black History. They opened my eyes to the liberation struggle of my people. Watching Eyes on the Prize in high school lit a fire inside of me. I became angry, but I also became proud by the acts of resistance. I learned about Black intellectuals and inventors, people who contributed to this society despite tremendous obstacles. I learned from teachers who highlighted my history and taught us with fierce passion, many of them who looked like me.
In high school, I went to a field trip to watch the Malcolm X (1992) and learned about the Black Panthers’ food programs. I even chose Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It” as the song to choreograph a routine for our step team.
Through high school, I struggled with my identity, but the seeds of consciousness were planted with Brand Nubian, Sister Souljah and Poor Righteous Teachers on my mix tapes. In my effort to redefine myself after I turned 18, I began reading books about African history and Black Nationalism. That journey led me to the path of Islam.
For me, embracing Islam meant cherishing the parts of me that society taught me to hate about myself. Embracing Islam meant honoring the wombs that bore me. I was Black. I was African. I was the descendant of slaves. It meant a deep understanding of the difficult journey my ancestors took and being in communion and dialogue with Africans, who recently migrated to the Americas.
In the diversity of Black Muslim communities, I have made so many connections. At the same time, I have witnessed the tensions. I have sadly seen colorism creep in Black Muslim communities, as well as internalized anti-Black and anti-African sentiment. Muslim communities must challenge the model minority narratives, the marginalization of African refugees, and erasure of undocumented immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. We can better support each other in our shared struggles when we appreciate our histories and reject dominant narratives that dehumanize us.
My Islam has helped me appreciate articulations of diasporic identities in the Black Atlantic, as well as the descendants of the trans-Saharan slave trade and Red Sea slave trade in North Africa and in the Gulf. It has helped me forge a space by which I can love my blackness and resist White supremacy through my work at MuslimARC. My Islam connects me to people of all races whose history runs deep, from the Filipino sisters who taught me wudhu (prayer abulations) to the Albanian sisters, whose pride in their Muslim identity inspired me during my darkest times.
As I meet Muslims, whose family histories were affected by displacement, genocide and colonial violence, I appreciate their legacies. Islam has been a vehicle for me to learn from others, to share parts of myself and connect with my African heritage. Learning the history of Africa and its diaspora has helped me envision possible futures where we all are free.
Margari Aziza Hill is co-founder and Programming Director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC), assistant editor at AltM, columnist at Muslim Matters. An educator and independent researcher, she has given talks and lectures at various universities and Muslim community organizations across the country. Find her on Twitter @margari_aziza and on her blog here.