When you turn on the news today, often a segment is dedicated to headline: Islam or headline: Muslims in America. The reporter reports on some ill-explained concept in Islam that he hypothesizes as the reason for the current state of world wide Muslim unrest and then introduces the American Muslim "expert". The irony of the American Muslim expert is that nine times out of ten he speaks with a heavy accent, has a graduate degree, and is a first generation American. I'm often left pondering why was he (oh, and the guest speaker is also usually male) chosen? What qualifies him to speak about life as an American Muslim? Is it because he is bilingual? Or is it because he is an academic? Or is it because he hails from a country other than America where there is a Muslim majority? May be it is all of the above. Or may be it's because his Americaness can be contested by viewers? By who you ask? Everyone, non-Muslims and Muslims alike.
"I, too sing America. I am the darker brother..." ~ Langston Hughes
When you think about the face of Islam in America, for centuries that face has been that of Black American Muslims. African American Muslims make up a 1/3 of all Muslims in America. You'd be hard pressed to visit a small house mosque in Kansas or a store front mosque in New York City or an elaborate Islamic center built from the ground up in Michigan that doesn't have African American Muslim members. From the days before slavery until present times, Black American Muslims have endured and persisted in this country. African American Muslims have a rich history in America and have even permeated popular culture.
From Hip Hop to Hollywood, offering salaams - the Islamic greeting of peace, the wearing of knitted kufis, young men in raised pants and beards, to the popularity of names like Aisha, Aaliyyah, and Jameel all can be traced back to inner-city Black American Muslims. In public schools and on college campuses, many Americans are introcued to Islamic symbols like the hijab and jilbab by Black American Muslim girls and women. In the inner-city, where immigrant and first generation American Muslims own and operate countless gas stations, restaurants, and unfortunately even some liquor stores, often it was the Black American Muslims that initially helped them to establish themselves there by supporting them not only with alliances, but also through grassroot activism when Homeland Security were too difficult for them to deal with alone. Yet, there is another face of Black American Muslims that is often concealed from outsiders.
Black American Muslims are heavily affected by the same issues plaquing the larger African American community. From joblessness to divorce to drugs and acholism to domestic violence; social problems abound. Yet, little to no public attention is given to these issues. Furthermore, many American Muslim leaders, especially those in charge of predominately Pakistanian, Indian, or Arab Muslim communities where resources are greater fail to address and establish programs and services to cater to Black American Muslims members.
In a recent article that appeared on BET.com, it stated that: “Only 23 percent of Black Muslims completed a college degree or higher, which is comparable to 24 percent of Black Americans but significantly different from Asian Muslims at 57 percent and white Muslims at 51 percent."
"They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes..." ~ Langston Hughes
Given the disparity in the social and economical statues amongst Black American Muslims with the rest of the American Muslim population, there is a clear reason for why the mass media is content with painting the face of American Muslims as a check in the box for "other". There is a clear reason why immigrant and first generation American Muslims feel comfortable stepping forward to project their views, issues, and culture as standard. There is a reason for why Black American Muslims are being hidden from the masses. Yet, it doesn't make it right. Even with all of the problems that the Black American Muslim community is afflicted with, there still remains shinning examples of successful families, religious leaders, educators, athletes, and professionals who are putting in the hard work to help the community do better. They deserved to be seen amd heard, but then their Americanness couldn't be questioned! Black American Muslims share so many connections with non-Muslim American minorities; from every day struggles to family relations, it would shock most. But more importantly, the connection would change the face of Islam in America from that scary, spooky other category to a category that everyone knows and understands: family!