When I watched I Am Not Your Negro and heard again the brilliant James Baldwin’s famous quote that “the history of America is the history of the Negro in America. And it’s not a pretty picture,” I understood that I had to deliver a message to my White and immigrant sisters and brothers, and their children whom I love dearly. And I must do it on the platform of Hagar, peace be upon her. As our Muslim sisters and brothers too often forget that the Muslim nation was built on the struggle and sacrifice of a Black woman, too often we forget that America was built on the struggle and sacrifice of Black women.
Black women have been forgotten and overlooked in Islam in the way that we have been forgotten and overlooked in America, and the concept that best describes how this happens is “intersectionality.”
Intersectionality refers to the way that overlapping identities intersect to make individuals and groups multiply disadvantaged. I am Black, I am woman, and I am Muslim. I make up three different groups, each marginalized and discriminated against in its own unique way. The black struggle, the women’s struggle, the Muslim struggle, each has its own resistance movement and strategy, but what about the individual who crosses all three struggles? Who speaks to her unique plight at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities?
We speak for ourselves. It was Black American women who theorized and further developed the concept of intersectionality because we were in the struggle for black liberation and yet treated as subordinates by our Black men, and we were in the struggle for women’s rights and yet treated as less of a woman and human being by our White sisters. So we have had to speak and stand up for ourselves, tell our stories and speak our truth, and fight multiple fights.
One of the implications of intersectionality is the invisibility of individuals and subgroups within a larger group. So for example, when it’s time to organize and bring people to the table, who will represent the black struggle at the pulpit and podium? Men. Who will become the face of women’s fight for equality? White women. Black women become invisible because we don’t represent the struggle and we become invisible twice and we become marginalized twice, and we become forgotten twice. And then we are called angry and bitter and militant because we speak up for ourselves, but who will speak up for us? Who will stand up for us?
And this is what happening in our Muslim communities. Black Muslims and Black Muslim women are made invisible. And don’t get defensive, and don’t deny it. It’s designed to be that way. It is how white supremacy and patriarchy work. White supremacy, which is really the party of shaytan (the devil), is sustained by pitting marginalized groups against each other so as to prevent us from standing together and rising up to dismantle systems of oppression. So don’t deny that we are all complicit because that’s how we have been programmed and brainwashed. And so the only way to resist is to be intentional about it, to prioritize it, to prioritize the fight for Black people and Black women because when you strategically fight the fight for Black women, you are prepared to fight any cause in this country. Because don’t forget: our foremothers, they were raped, then forced into the fields to labor, and then they nursed their own babies and the mistresses’ babies. This is what our country was built on.
And so if you claim this country, you have to claim this history, you have to claim this struggle. Anti-black racism is so systemic and part of who we are in this country that you either resist it or you become complicit in it. The first strategy of resistance is not rocket science but fundamental Qur’an. “We created you in nations and tribes to get to know one another.” Radical empathy. Try walking in my shoes. Read my history, read my literature, memorize my poetry, teach it to your children. Attend my mosque, attend my conference, invite me to yours, live in my neighborhood. This Black History Month, go see I Am Not Your Negroe and Hidden Figures. Watch the documentary 13th. Excuses for not caring and not knowing are no longer acceptable.
And don’t think that because you love Muhammad Ali and read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, it means that you are down with my people. Rather, it means that Allah has chosen White and immigrant Muslims to be leaders in recognizing what has been done to Black people in this country, that it is your moral duty to truly be brother and sister with Black people, and that God has given you an advantage in the fight for and with Black people by putting love for Ali and Malcolm in your hearts.
I speak on behalf of and with the thousands of Black Muslim women who claim the legacy of Hagar. As sister scholars and activists, our voices support and amplify one another’s. I end with the voice of one such sister, Joi Faison, who builds upon Baldwin to describe why Black women’s and men’s speaking for ourselves is a threat:
"Baldwin’s quote here perfectly explains the discomfort, because the change that our voices bring threatens white privilege, false realities, and the elevation of one person at the expense of another. Articulation gives voice to truth and it resounds with power. This is our prophetic legacy. This is our African American legacy. We must stand as our religious forefather, Muhammad, peace be upon him, stood on that mountaintop and call others to morality, to goodness, to God. We must stand as our activist forefathers Malcolm and Martin stood, having been to the mountaintop and seen victory on the other side of truth. It is our duty and we shall not fail our Rabb or our legacy." -Joi Faison