Kunta, Toby and Bilal: Towards Forging A New Black Spirituality
As a young child, I didn’t question the fact that the majority of people in my ethnic community were Christians. The Black Church was an inseparable part of my identity. However as I grew and learned the full bloody history of the African Diaspora, the dominance of Christianity bothered me. Though I accepted what I was taught at church(to an extent), the knowledge of how we’d become Christians gnawed at me.
It wasn’t as if we had a choice. Missionaries didn’t just arrive in Africa and ask my ancestors if they would like to accept Jesus Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior”. No, instead they were captured as slaves and marched to the coast like animals. They were kept in pens for weeks at a time, waiting on the slave ships that would carry them to the New World. Christianity was only introduced after this point, with ministers(eye roll) baptizing slaves. Holding on to our own spiritual beliefs was not an option, as European Christians and their American counterparts had not reached a point of tolerance.
For the slaves that ended up in the continental United States, most vestiges of African spirituality and culture were brutally suppressed . As a Black American, this is one reason I have envied my kin in Latin America and the Caribbean. Though they were subjected to conditions just as miserable as what my ancestors faced in the Antebellum South, they were able to retain much more of Africa in their heritage.
Instead I inherited an interesting hybrid. While elements of our worship-the call and response, singing, drumming and spirit possession-echoed Africa, the fact remained that we were practicing a Western form of Christianity. Call it Stockholm Syndrome or whatever you want, but we accepted the religion of our master. It blew my mind to see pictures of a Northern European looking Jesus Christ at home and in our church. There seemed to be so much wrong with this picture and it made me ill at ease. I did my best to separate my belief in Christianity from what it had done to my ancestors in the name of God. However, I was never able to reconcile that history with my reality.
I’m far from being the only Black American to feel this way. Our history in this country makes questions of identity, culture and faith come up quite often. That said, Black America is still overwhelmingly Christian. No discussion of religion among Black Americans can be complete without mentioning Islam though. Depending on whose numbers you believe, Black Americans comprise anywhere from 20-33% of the American Muslim community. I do think there are a number of reasons why Black Americans are drawn to Islam(which I plan to elaborate on in a separate post). Right now I’d like to focus on Western and Christian Imperialism.
I don’t have the words to fully express what centuries of existence in the New World has done to the psyche and souls of Black folks. It’s easier for us to tell ourselves that the Civil Rights Movement fixed everything, that we are in the “post-racial era” and it’s time to move on. It is my opinion that this is wrong. Being told that our people were savages, that we came from nothing, that we were dirty naked “heathens” prior to slavery caused us deep mental trauma which we continue to suffer from. Some of us become filled with disgust for the culture and faith which did this to our people. Some of us go to an extreme of wanting to have no connection to the Eurocentric and Christian culture that incubated us.
We can’t go back to being Kunta. We loathe being Toby. So instead we create a new identity-Bilal. We convert to Islam. Islam is more authentic than Christianity. After all, some of the enslaved Africans were Muslim. The enemies that mistreated our people were Christians. It was the Christians that we shouldn’t trust, who had brutalized us and robbed us of our real heritage. In converting to Islam we could rebel against the master. We could reject his religion and the identity that was forced on us. Islam would give us a sense of pride. In Islam we would finally experience true brotherhood. In Islam Black women could finally be respected instead of being treated like sex objects and beasts of burden.For some Black Americans, Islam became the easy fix. If we followed it we’d be transformed and reach the true Promised Land.
In our desire to reach this utopia we’ve lost something that is priceless: ourselves. As a Black convert to Islam I became keenly aware that I was slowly and surely giving up my identity. I’d read books on being the “ideal Muslimah”. While reading such books I’d occasionally suck my teeth and think to myself:”But I’m a sista! This is not me!” The constant struggle to conform to a culture that was not my own wore me down. Looking at other Black American converts made me despondent. We’d take on “Muslim”, i.e., Arabic names. We’d wear thobes and abayas, as if we knew no other mode of dress. Eventually it became a comedy. In trying to escape one form of cultural imperialism, we’d surrendered to another. The Christianity that we’d left and the Islam that we ran to both devalued our humanity and our history.
The way that Black Americans cling to Christianity and Islam in 2011 makes me question how far we’ve come. Am I suggesting that all of my people become atheists and abandon faith altogether? Of course not. After all, when it comes down to it, belief or disbelief is up to the individual. Our predicament does bring a number of questions to mind though. Why do we have such a strong need to embrace beliefs and faiths that were forced upon or given to us by outsiders? How many of have even bothered to study indigenous African spirituality? Moving forward, I think it is necessary that we a find some middle ground. No more extremes. In the space between Kunta, Toby and Bilal, we must forge a healthier spirituality as a people.