Last week, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, in partnership with the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute in Washington, DC, hosted a groundbreaking forum celebrating Black History Month -- “Pioneers of Presence: The Legacies and Contributions of African American Muslims.”
Four distinguished panelists, teacher and Fulbright scholar Dr. Ajile Rahman
, Aja Black and Big Samir of the hip-hop duo The ReMINDers
and Rep. Andre Carson
(D-IN), came together for a candid discussion that ranged from cultural and religious influences to the struggles of the African American Muslim community to their contributions to the making of America.
SEE: Photos of “Pioneers of Presence: The Legacies and Contributions of African American Muslims”
“Muslims need to be more inclusive,” Black said. “It’s sad that for black Muslims, we are seen as being black first and Muslim second, and in the media, black Muslims are not the Muslims they want to talk about.”
The program kicked off with a soulful performance by The ReMINDers, who sang about life, family and developing a strong sense of self. During the panel discussion that followed, they spoke openly about how their identities were forged through their love of hip-hop. Carson added that rap and Islam raised and challenged his consciousness in ways that school did not.
In addition, the panel also discussed the legacies of the Nation of Islam (NOI), Sister Clara Muhammad, who was the wife of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and the etiquettes and discipline of African American Islamic movements. Each of the speakers shared how these movements led them to Islam in their younger years.
“We all have collectively crossed bridges, whether it was the bridges of MLK, Malcolm X or Imam Warith Deen Muhammad,” said Tarin. “Today we stand on the shoulders of giants who have made our nation a better place, who have been the conscience of our nation at times when we collectively erred and chose not to follow the values and principles of our founding documents.”
Rahman spoke about the great, yet relatively unknown, influence of Sister Clara Muhammad on her husband and son, Imam W.D. Muhammad. She highlighted three of her achievements on the NOI and America at large: Sister Clara Muhammad took over the NOI when her husband was jailed, making her the first African American woman to lead a national organization; she was a scholar at the University of Islam; and she started a chain of schools that has become the largest chain of black private schools in the world.
Carson also pointed out that black Muslims historically did not have the resources and generational wealth to create structured communities, which was why the NOI was a triumph.
“It’s very telling that the first two people elected to Congress were black Muslims, not someone who is South Asian or Arab,” Carson said. “We also don’t have ‘Muslim sounding’ names. It shows our deeps roots in this country and community.”
The panelists’ expertise and insights helped to dispel the myth of the singular American Muslim community and pointed out the significance of diversity. It would be intellectually dishonest for the African American experience to be left out of the narrative of Islam in America, and last week’s panel proved just that.