“The Face of Islam in America” and How that Face Will Never Look like Mine

I’m blessed to work at a top Higher Ed. institution. One where departments have enough money to bring in big name people visit often. I was leaving a meeting with colleagues talking about one such Muslim super star who had come to our campus. We began discussing what and who were working in our community to be the “Face of Islam in America”. The conversation continued and we began talking about others we knew who were working toward this obscure goal. As the conversation swirled around me I realized that of all the names brought up none of the faces looked like mine. Meaning they were all names of people who were either Arab, South Asian, or White. The one Black name that did finally get brought up was Ibtihaj Muhammed; and she got brought up near the end of the name dropping. I stayed silent and wondered to myself why she got brought up so late; and why she was the only black name that could be thought of.
That’s not to take anything away from Ibtihaj. Ibtihaj has done wonderful things for our hijab wearing sisters. Especially those who want to play sports on any level. Being the first American Olympian to wear hijab, she has brought attention to the plight of those who wear hijab and are often told, directly or indirectly by rules or policies that that cannot compete with others. My issue is not with her. I stan for her. I know what it has to take to be a Black Muslim woman on the national stage.  My issue is that when talking about what this obscure “Face of Islam” will look like in this country, that a face like that of Ibtihaj or myself, won’t even be in serious consideration.
My face, the face of people brought on ships to the Americas and forced to work on plantations, whether they be sugar or cotton, have been here. But somehow people who would represent my face are missing from the list. Black Muslims have been in this country since the days of those ships. The majority of Muslims in this country are Black Muslims. If you break this group down further it is made up of  Black Africans, African Americans and Black West Indians. These Black Muslims are those who have been generationally Muslim and converts/reverts. Then how is it that in a conversation about the face of Islam in America not a single Black person’s name gets raised until the very end? Their names should be all over the conversation. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for people who are not Black. But the absence of Blackness in these conversations when Black people are the majority of Muslims in America says something. It says what you hear from young Black Muslims at universities. And older Black Muslims in the masjid. It’s what you hear from the African American Muslims, who make up the largest part of the Black Muslim community, and the entire American Muslim community as a whole.  It’s what you hear from the members of the Nation of Islam.  Our Blackness invalidates our Muslimness, our Islam, to all those who aren’t Black.

I often wonder when I hear activist Linda Sarsour speak, if she looked like me, would she have made it as far in the public eye as she has. She sounds like women and men I know. Both my parents and their families are from Brooklyn. I still have cousins, uncles and aunts in the area. I was raised by that accent. Loved by it. Part of her charm is that she is “just a regular girl from the hood”. That same charm however, that makes her real and authentic, and make her words ring true. Makes me ghetto and harsh. It would silence and choke me. Just like it does so many other black women and girls. How often are we told to lose our accents and street slangs. That they will hinder us and keep us from making it? Never any disrespect to Linda. But whenever I hear someone say how real she is. I can feel myself tensing.

I focus back on the conversation my colleagues are having around me when one of them says to me, “ Hey! You should be the face of Islam in America. You would really tell them how it is.” In my mind I say, “Girl, exactly.” I just smile.

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