Being Black and Muslim in the Post-9/11, Post-Ferguson Era

Being Black and Muslim in the Post-9/11, Post-Ferguson Era July 18, 2016
Photo is of public domain from pixabay.com
Photo is of public domain from pixabay.com

By Kameelah Rashad, MS, MRP, MEd

“The dead won’t let me sleep

The living won’t let me die in peace

My heart filled with the yesterday that never happened

My hands filled with my face

My long breaths bleeding between my fingers”

Amir Sulaiman, Come To The Hills (We Must Win)

On the last day of our holiest month, breaking news about a murder of a 37-year-old Black man in Baton Rouge begin to slowly bleed through the litany of cheerful, hopeful greetings of “Eid Mubarak”!

Alton Sterling, known as the “CD Man”, was gunned down outside a Louisiana convenience store. I’ll be honest. I wouldn’t click on those posted articles. I didn’t want to know. I was angry and feeling shamefully selfish. This is my HOLIDAY!!! Can’t I, can’t WE get a moment of peace? To live? To breathe? To celebrate? I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs. How DARE you KILL us like this?! AGAIN. And AGAIN. And AGAIN.

Throughout most of Eid day I remain outwardly calm, smiling with a tight jaw. I swallowed that lump in my throat, but I knew that this dark cloud would follow as more details emerged.

#AltonSterling

His name begin to forcefully break through the thin veneer of denial I had created to insulate me from the knowing.

#AltonSterling

“I Want My Daddy” 

The raw, gut wrenching despair heard in the voice of Alton Sterling’s 15-year-old son as he pleaded for his murdered father … Ya Rabb. This shattered my heart.

I made a promise to myself that I would not watch the video of Alton Sterling’s death. In contradiction to a popular adage, we DON’T always have to SEE to BELIEVE.

Nearly two weeks ago I was trying in vain to focus. I wanted to make a dent in my ever-growing to do lists of tasks and (overdue) work and school-related assignments. Yet, like the self-professed news junkie I am, I turned to CNN and put the TV on mute. I happened to look up from my laptop and accidentally saw the video of Alton Sterling tackled to the ground and shot five times at point blank rage. I was stunned. Enraged. Distraught.

Unable to sleep, I was still awake at midnight when another name begin to slowly emerge.

#PhilandoCastile.

“It’s ok Mommy, I’m right here with you”

In a matter of seconds, a 32-year-old beloved cafeteria supervisor from St. Paul, MN was brutally gunned down in his car after being pulled over for a busted tail light. His fiancée, Diamond Reynolds, live-streamed and narrated the horrifying last minutes of his death.

All while her four-year-old daughter Dae Dae sat in the back seat of the car. I thought, this must be a mistake. This can’t be. A nightmare unfolding before my eyes …

I admit still

Shookin’ up every time I see Emmett’s grill

Until my molars spark and I taste battery acid

Maybe that’s too drastic

Maybe I’m overreacting

Maybe seeing dead babies shouldn’t phase me

But it does

It does

It does

Are we not flesh and bone?

Are we not minds and souls?

Are eyes either blind or closed

As if we don’t see

As if we don’t know

They’ll kill you!

They’ll kill you

They’ll kill you like it’s no Biggie

No Diddy

— Amir Sulaiman, Come To The Hills (We Must Win)

#BeingBlackandMuslim in a Post-9/11, Post-Ferguson World

As we all struggle to cope with the onslaught of unexpected but incessant death and violence, I feel compelled to turn my care, my ministry, my love and comfort intentionally towards members of my community. Black Muslims. We, who are uniquely impacted by both anti-Black racism and anti-Muslim bigotry and violence.

Standing at this beautiful and complicated intersection, we are deeply wounded by the deaths of Black people. According to a policy brutality database created by The Guardian called The Counted, 137 Black people have been killed in 2016 as a result of deadly force. We cry silently as the name of yet another slain man, woman or child becomes a trending hashtag.

A man, woman or child who looks like someone we love dearly. (There but for the grace of God go I.)

This particular political cycle has ushered in a new and emboldened form of Islamophobic rhetoric and discrimination. According to a report by the Bridge Initiative titled When Islamophobia Turns Violent: The 2016 US Presidential Elections, in the last 16 months there have been approximately 180 reported incidents of anti-Muslim violence, including 12 murders, 34 physical assaults, 49 verbal assaults or threats against persons and institutions, 56 acts of vandalisms or destruction of property, nine arsons and eight shootings or bombings, among other incidents.

In the last 10 days alone, Muslims have been brutally attacked, stabbed, shot and injured in Brooklyn, NY, Houston, TX and Dinkytown, MN.

As a result of our experiences with racial bigotry and oppression, Black Muslims remain steadfast yet hypervigilant given the rise of hate crimes against Muslims across the country  (trust in Allah and tie your camel). This vigilance and strength in the face of these assaults take an emotional and psychological toll we don’t often acknowledge, recognize or know how to address.

Saudah Saleem, entrepreneur, blogger, wife and mother of 5 succinctly captures the unique overwhelming emotional challenge inherent in being Black and Muslim and living in a post-Ferguson, post 9/11 era:

We started our week so excited to celebrate the ending of our holy month and began Eid morning with our family tradition of getting dressed in our finest clothes, opening gifts and then hurrying to the park to join our community in prayer and celebration. However, literally amidst the celebrations that day a video began circulating.

“Have you heard? Have you seen this yet?” as cell phones were passed around. Not AGAIN. I tried not to let the news permeate my joyful mood. After all, we’d been waiting 30 days to celebrate. But the next morning, we awoke to ANOTHER video of gruesome murder at the hands of law enforcement and I began to feel sick…and tired. The range of emotions I’ve felt over the past few days is overwhelming.

I was raised to be proud of who and I am and firm in what I believe. I raise my children in the same manner in which I was raised. To be Black, to be a Muslim in America at this time is not for the faint of heart but it is who I, unapologetically, am.

Strength & Perseverance

In the Black community, there exists a cultural imperative to be strong, stoic and resilient in the face of unimaginable horrors. This has kept us living, loving and thriving for hundreds of years. The poise and courage of Diamond Reynolds as she witnessed her loved one die in front of her exemplifies this almost incomprehensible fortitude.

The emphasis on patience and perseverance from an Islamic perspective resonates strongly with the cultural image/stereotype of indominable Black strength. Verses from the Holy Quran related to suffering and trials are often used as a form of religious coping and to frame emotional issues:

Oh you who believe! Seek help with patient perseverance and prayer, for God is with those who patiently persevere. — Holy Quran (Chapter 2: Verse 153)

While this spiritual understanding of suffering may provide solace, many still struggle silently with feelings of grief, anxiety and sadness or depression. We can no longer deny that this call to be strong and persevere comes at a cost. We are asked to be gracious, forgiving respectful, polite and calm while being terrorized.

Our Black pain, suffering and grief in these moments is not validated or acknowledged. In fact, many turn away from the inconvenient and uncomfortable reality of the pain and degradation Black people continue to endure. This unspoken pain may manifest itself in other ways: Poor eating/over eating and diet, abuse of drugs or alcohol, extreme stress, high blood pressure and heart disease.

On the boat with Jesus’ name

Lucifer came

And then proof of our name went poof, David Blaine

Disappeared between the noose and the chains

Euthanasia introducing the youth to the cane

So we singing

We rapping

Attempts to reducing the pain

We don’t know what else to do with the pain

We don’t know what else to do with the pain

— Amir Sulaiman, Come To The Hills (We Must Win)

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. — Audre Lorde

The Way Through Begins with Self-Care

It is time that we address the unresolved trauma, pain, fear and despair that is keenly and uniquely felt by Black Muslims in these moments of crisis and upheaval. Engaging in a fierce and dedicated practice of self-care is one way in which we can begin to heal.

Self-care is defined as a set of actions, practices or rituals that help an individual restore balance in one’s life and improve physical, mental and emotional health. In other words, self-care is: “one’s ability to pay attention to, take responsibility for, and engage in practices that nurture one’s body, mind and spirit in order to manage stress and live happier, more effective lives.”

The sky is ours

Heaven’s fallen

We either fly or die

We

Must

Win

We have died so many times

They have killed us so many times

We have died so many deaths

We have died for everyone

We have died for everything

We have died for nothing

We are done with death

We are done with death

We will not die another day

We are the true and living and

We

Must

Win

— Amir Sulaiman, Come To The Hills (We Must Win)

Despite the challenges that Black people generally and Black Muslims specifically face, we are also a resilient and vibrant community with limitless potential. Donna Auston, scholar, activist and PhD candidate in Anthropology, offered this brilliant Ramadan reflection on Sapelo Square (an online resource on African American Islam):

We, Africa’s displaced children, see ourselves in Musa. The very land that engineered our captivity, received the stolen bodies of our ancestors, and continues to enact violence upon us, leaving scars we can see and many more that we cannot, is also our source of strength. It is our home. We are the parable of the goodly tree, the seed of Word and prayer planted by our foremothers and forefathers, a tree whose roots have been firmly fixed, in bitterness and toil, whose branches reach to the heavens (14:26). Through the hard work of cultivation in our individual selves, in the various collectives to which we belong, and faith in a hopeful future that we cannot always see, we are transformed.

Kameelah and her baby Izzy. Photo courtesy of the author.
Kameelah and her baby Izzy. Photo courtesy of the author.

Inshallah (God willing) we have the power and potential to not only survive, but thrive through the challenges that confront us. Black Muslims can experience what is called post-traumatic growth: A positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.

This crisis can help us as individuals and community members develop a sense that new opportunities have emerged from the struggle, opening up possibilities that were not present before. It can lead to an increased sense of connection to others, a renewed understanding of our own strength, a greater appreciation for the life that we have been given and a deeper commitment to our deen (way of life).

We must be unwavering in our dedication to self-care and emotional well-being. Caring for our holistic health is an act of resistance and commitment to a vision of a healthy and flourishing community.

This Black Muslim Self-Care Primer will cover the following (click on any link to go directly to that page):

Watch Amir Sulaiman’s gripping performance of this poem: Come To The Hills (We Must Win) here.

Kameelah Rashad is the founder and president of Muslim Wellness Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing stigma associated with mental illness, addiction and trauma. She is a mother, wife, doctoral student, chaplain, therapist, avid reader and cupcake and Talenti ice cream connoisseur. Find her on Twitter @KameelahRashad

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