Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Glimpse into a Day of Raising a Black Boy: I See the Moonlight Where Some Only See Darkness

By Ayisha Karim
Kids 3 yrs ago: "Frozen" on the Green
Let’s just say that the lives my kids lead are drastically different from my own childhood, especially up until now. For example, my daughter traveled to four towns in Italy at the age of five months: She witnessed the Trevi Fountain, Michelangelo’s art at the Basilica in Rome, and sat adorably in a gondola as we crossed the canal in Venice. Also at five months, my son had his first trip to Disney World, yet it was Mommy’s first time. He even went a second time on a plane to accompany me at the fancy Disney Wedding complex to witness one of my best friends from Brazil and her husband renew their wedding vows of ten years. That was a luxury which neither me nor any of my siblings had ever had, and I bet you none of my three siblings have made the trip yet, even though we’ve all lived in Georgia pretty much all of our lives.

Bottom:Vatican, Rome, Italy; top: Disney World, Orlando

I’ll give you another example of this vast difference in childhood experiences. Last week, as my daughter had a meltdown the minute I was trying to get out of the door to get us to school, where I teach, and she attends Kindergarten, just to get her a few feet away into our fairly new Honda sedan, I had flashbacks of my own mother. In this memory,

My mother was rushing us across a busy street to catch the bus—she, dressed for work, was leading three children behind her (her eldest son walked or caught a ride to the neighborhood public high school). But, I, elementary school age, wasn’t running fast enough that particular morning. And my mother, who had already made it to the other side with my older siblings, noticed with her third eye that I was in the path of the car quickly approaching. Being the superhero that she was, she turned around, focused her eyes and energy on me, ran and grabbed me like a running back, and carried me to safety. The thing is, she and we went through all of that before even starting our school and her work day.

A few years later, my mother got her first car as an adult: a used, clean, long station wagon that she’d carry as many people in at one time as possible, especially single mothers with children, who were in a similar situation to the one she once found herself. God bless every single bone in that woman’s body. 

Probably the biggest difference between the lives me and my siblings led and that of my children (4 and 6  years old) is the nature of their education and school environment, which gets to the heart of my storytelling here. After a couple of admissions seasons, my daughter has begun her first year at a wealthy, non-Muslim private school, which happens to be where I have a teaching career. I work in the high school in the next building. Well, last week, her baby brother attended a student observation, as he did last year. I apply both of them each year to hold a spot just in case we choose the private school option for the Fall. Last weekend, I sat in on the parent panel again and listened to four White moms and one Black dad share why this school is the absolute best bet for their own kids and all the kids applying in that room. Again, I felt confident about my decision to sacrifice and send my daughter there and fortunate that they welcomed her in. And with the one Black father sharing success stories of his Black children, and hearing the concerns of the only other Black perspective parent in the audience, I was beginning to feel secure in my inclination to do my best to send my four year old Black son as well.

Daughter (far left) and classmates @ school's Open House

After the parent panel discussion, I went up to the moms, introduced myself and thanked them, spoke intimately with the Black mom about her comments, trying to reassure her that she was doing the right thing by looking at our school. This time, I didn’t mention to them that I also taught at the school, or maybe not even that I already had a child enrolled. Still, as I normally do in these environments, I still feel like a bit of an outsider – a feeling not at all new to me. I continued on to the playground, where my two kids were with their dad, who made it to one of these events for the first time, and chatted with other perspective kids and their parents. I even met one who was at Duke the same time I was there and whose cousin was a student at another prestigious private school when I began my teaching career a little over 15 years ago. I thought, yes, this is where I’m supposed to be in this moment: here with my children. Even though it’s not the Islamic school that I attended or the progressive charter (free) school with more children of color, this is where we’re supposed to be, due to the life choices and advancements that their father and I have made. We both attended some of the best colleges and grad schools in the country, worked for leading institutions, and served on school and community boards. Our parents and grandparents had sacrificed in major ways as well. We’re setting our kids up for ultimate success in this rapidly changing society.

But just as I was growing more and more confident about the steps I was taking for my son’s future education, I had a reality check around what it means to be not only Black in this country, but in particular, also what it means to be a Black male, whether grown or just a baby:

We walked back to our car, the three of us. My two kids were jolly, singing loudly, as I asked that they keep their voices down. We were parked just across the street from the school in front of the park and golf course, where many take their daily jogs. My son was picking up sticks and wood chips along the way, maybe even throwing them. By the time we made it to the car, there was a tall, fit White woman approaching with a baby stroller.  Hasan, in his love of strangers phase, decides to move close to her and flick a small piece of wood or tiny matter on her. It really was more of a gesture than anything. I seriously told Hasan that behavior wasn’t appropriate…And when I looked back at the woman to show her that I’d noticed what he’d done and followed through with the appropriate parental duty of reprimanding, I was shocked by what I saw: a look of disdain on her face. Not a smile to be detected in the least. Where I, and many other parents of all backgrounds, would have smiled it off knowing it was typical four year old boy behavior, this grown woman’s face reflected a sentiment that should only be reserved for criminals, heathens, or a person much older; not a preschooler. The scary thing is, I wasn’t really all that surprised.

In that brief, painful moment, I remembered that my baby is not a baby to everyone here. My sweet, four year old Hasan (whose name means "good") is to some in this country, first and foremost, a Black man, to be controlled, feared, seen as innately guilty, and worthy of less from the start. In that moment, I remembered who our current president was, the rich neighborhood I was in, and the relevance of having the entire month of February reserved for Black history.

Monica Thompson said it best in her piece “Considering Motherood and Murdered Black Children”:

What is it to be a Black woman in this country and to contemplate being a parent?  It is having so many hopes and dreams, but also nightmares fueled by the daily reminder of the fact that hate and a criminal justice system warped by racism would put my child at risk. 

I imagine my child growing up.  He would run and ride bikes.  He would like to play outside with his friends like Tamir Rice  who was shot on an Ohio playground or Nicholas Heyward who was killed while playing games with his friends in New York.   So when I think about becoming a mom, I think about Tamir and Nicholas’ mothers, Samaria Rice and Angela Heyward. (Ebony Magazine)

So, as with many things that come along with parenthood, I’ll have to consider more deeply the path of my Black son’s educational journey. Where I look at him now and see moonlight, many others out there only see darkness.

Son under the "Super Moon," Nov. 2016

* My reference to "moonlight" is inspired by a quote from the highly acclaimed film Moonlight stated by the character Juan, played by Mahershala Ali:

"I was a wild little shortie, man. Just like you. Running around with no shoes on, the moon was out. This one time, I run by this old... this old lady. I was running, howling. Kinda of a fool, boy. This old lady, she stopped me. She said, "Running around, catching a lot of light. In moonlight, black boys look blue. You're blue. That's what I'm gonna call you: 'Blue.'"


Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Black History Month Message to My White and Immigrant Sisters and Brothers

By Jamillah Karim, with Joi Faison

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

**For an important comprehensive list of articles by Black Muslims that speak to intersectionality, invisibility, and resistance to anti-black racism and anti-Muslim racism, see