Talking about the long history of Muslims in America

A few famous black Muslims: Malcolm X, Ibtihaj Muhammad, and Muhammad Ali.
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February 20, 2016 - 6:45am

The story of black Muslims in the U.S. is as old as the story of its founding. But much of it is forgotten – a lapse that can make room for falsehoods and fear. Some in Omaha are working to weave the stories together again and spark discussion.

Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and The Nation of Islam. Those are the names and voices we think of when we combine the words “black” and “Muslim” in America. But the real story of Muslims in the U.S. goes back much farther than Muhammad Ali’s butterfly dance. Some of the earliest history is recorded in an autobiography by Nicholas Said written in 1873. He was a Muslim from Sudan (then spelled Soudan), who wrote about his home country and chronicled his capture and enslavement.

“Oftentimes enslaved African Americans aren't thought of as being educated people,” said Dr. Edward Curtis, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. “But in fact some of these enslaved Muslims were more highly educated than the people who owned them. They could read and write, generally in Arabic, and they could speak several different languages.”

Dr. Curtis gave a presentation on the contributions of black Muslims at the University of Nebraska at Omaha recently. He began with Said and continued through today. He showed a 1920s photograph of four black women wearing flowery Sunday church hats and Muslim hijab. He talked about influential jazz musicians like Art Blakey and Yusef Lateef and ended with Ibtihaj Muhammad, who won a gold medal for the U.S. at the 2014 World Fencing Championships and is the first woman to represent the U.S. in a headscarf.

“It challenges the idea that Muslims and Islam are foreign to the United States,” Dr. Curtis said, “and that they're somehow newly arrived. Because the history of African American Muslims says instead they've always been a part of us.”

Dr. Curtis’s presentation was part of an ongoing dialogue series with Muslim communities held by UNO and Humanities Nebraska. About a hundred people were there, and they sat around their tables afterward to talk about what they’d heard. Samantha Brannagan, a recent graduate with a degree in political science, said she was surprised to hear Muslim history in America dating back to the slaves. “It seems like we always talk about it like they had maybe like indigenous beliefs and then they switched to Christianity,” she told a table of students, “we never talk about them being Muslim.”

“For many, their idea of Islam, and especially black Muslims in the United States, starts with the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X timeframe,” said Sharif Liwaru, who heads the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, which also sponsored the discussion. “This was not the beginning of Islam in America by far.”

“There wasn't even just a minor presence of Islam before that,” Liwaru said, “but a major presence of Islam and in a variety of different ways.”

Liwaru said people need in-person conversations to understand each other, particularly when the political conversation includes the voices of campaigners like Donald Trump who has called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

Charchelle Sudan, a black Muslim mother of a two-year-old daughter who attended the discussion, said she wants to be able to tell her daughter about the contributions of people like her, but it’s difficult when the narrative can be so negative. She said her friends with elementary school-age children have shared stories about their kids coming home crying because someone at school said they’re going to be banned from the country. “It’s unfortunate that we have to let them know that this isn't going to happen to you,” she said, “that you are safe in this country.”

Dr. Curtis said anti-Muslim sentiment has grown rapidly in the U.S. since the attacks of September 11, and those views have not declined. “I do think that it's a very worrying moment,” he said, “so that's why reclaiming our past, our multicultural, multi-religious past is more important than ever.”

More events to keep the conversation going are hoped for, but no firm plans yet. 



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