February is the National African American History month, and many college campuses and communities are honoring this month with a series of lectures, performances, discussions.
Included in many of these commemorations are a wide set of performances ranging from commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the impact of black scientists and musicians to that of the NAACP.
The National African American History Month has developed in face of great resistance, and done so in an incremental fashion. Yet even today’s celebration leaves out significant aspects of the overall African American experience, and it is worth thinking about why:
*The Muslim African American experience
We tend to treat the history of Islam in America as a separate category from African American history. Often the presence of American Muslims is linked back to the demographic changes brought after the 1965 immigration laws which opened up immigration to South Asians, Arabs, Iranians, Turks, and other Muslims. Yet the truth of the matter is that depending on the time period, between 15-20% of all African slaves stolen and brought to America were of Muslim background. They were systematically robbed and dispossessed of their Muslim heritage, as they were of their linguistic and cultural heritages, yet no overview of African American history is complete without engaging this Muslim heritage.
One such example of the remembering of the African American Muslim legacy is that of the Senegalese Muslim scholar who was stolen and brought to American, Omar ibn Said. Omar left behind a copy of the Qur’an in his own handwriting. There is a mosque named after him in North Carolina
A great essay by Abdullah Antepli raises this same point with great clarity. Antepli states:
“The few events that have been organized to highlight the story of black Muslims in America are often, if not always, organized by Muslims themselves, not by centers or departments, the civic and governmental organizations who usually organize all Black History Month events.
If you think I exaggerate, please do a simple Google search and check out the last couple of years’ Black History Month events on college campuses, in public school systems, events in Washington, D.C. or state capitals and so on.
The absence of the ‘Black Mosque’s voice’ in those conversations is hard to go unnoticed, and to me is unacceptable.”
*The Radical Black experience
Somewhat linked to the above, and also distinct from it, is the large absence of the radical black experience from the African American History Month celebration. Where are the Black Panthers? Where is Stokely Carmichael? Where is Malcolm X? Where is the late Martin Luther King? Where is the prophet tradition calling out America’s racism, poverty, colonialism, and sexism?
On some college campuses this radical black tradition of critique is presence, but all too often the African American History month is reduced to a mantra of “integration” and “co-existence” rather than one of liberation. All are important strands in the American experience, but they have existed side by side, and should not be used to obliterate one another.
[One notable exception is this lecture series in NYC.]