I entered the gas station, prepared to fill my car’s tank and my two little ones’ bellies. The attendant’s gaze fell upon me, and he looked puzzled. I recognized the expression on his face as the one I typically get from many of my fellow Muslims who see my black skin and dress and begin to wonder what I am supposed to be. Consequently, I prepared for the typical barrage of questions that accompany such quizzical faces. The gas station attendant did not disappoint my anticipation.
The attendant shyly inquired, “Where are you from?”
I responded, “America.” I knew my answer would not be satisfactory, but I was more concerned about getting back to the car, the road, and my life.
The attendant inquired further.
“I mean, before that? Where are your parents from,” he asked with more urgency.
I answered, “America. I am African-American.”
The well-intentioned man became more confused. I spent the rest of the conversation trying to explain to him that I am part of a heritage wounded and broken by slavery, and my Islamic identity extends from African-Americans embracing the faith around eighty years ago. It took a few minutes, but he seemed to grasp my explanation and we each parted a little more culturally enlightened.
In a similar interaction decades ago, black activist and author James Baldwin received the same question – “Where are you from?” Like me, Baldwin tried to explain the disconnect African-Americans have in their heritages resulting from the country’s slave system. He finally informed his questioner that he did not know because his, “entry into America was a Bill of Sale, and that stops you from going any further” (Baldwin’s Nigger).
Many African-Americans are descendants of slaves. Like Baldwin, we have interrupted lineages, with only bills of sale and livestock books to mark our ancestry. That is because instead of human beings, black bodies were like chattel and traded as components of white husbandry, which robbed them and their descendants of the cultural ties that could make them fully aware of who they were and are. Thus, blemishes of ambiguity stain the histories of millions of African-Americans, confusing people from other cultures. Hence, the puzzled look on the gas attendant’s face. Inquiries about the generational connections that African-Americans are supposed to have are fruitless because there are unbridgeable chasms that swallowed up their traditions and help dehumanize and disconnect them from the rest of the global civilization. As a result, African-Americans continue to struggle to frame a heritage that is consistently derided for the absence of legacies long stolen from them and tossed over the sides of slave ships.
The gas attendant helped me realize that for many Muslims, the idea that someone is unable to identify to one’s heritage is completely alien, which makes understanding the African-American and African-American Muslim cultural experience a challenge. However, in order to develop a cohesive American Muslim Ummah, Muslims must engage in understanding the cultural nuances contained in our varying backgrounds, which is essential to valuing each other as human beings. Once that is accomplished, the ways that slavery and colonialism continue to affect our social experiences can be appreciated and the work to end the oppression stemming from them effectively combatted.