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.

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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

10 thoughts on “Kunta, Toby and Bilal: Towards Forging A New Black Spirituality

  1. There can be no discussion of why blacks in the US accepted Islam without discussing the man who successfully presented Islam (however heterodox) as an authentic expression of blackness: Elijah Muhammad.

    He presented it as “the black man’s religion”. Many blacks accepted islam thinking that not only was there was no Muslim hand in the slave trade, but that Muslims were actively fighting AGAINST slavery! Imagine the surprise when many found out that the Muslim lands were dragged kicking and screaming in the mid 20th century (by the West) into emancipation of slaves. Truth matters little when you are seeking naive new converts.

    Upon finding out Muslims endorsed slavery, the goal posts were moved back when they started to say that Islamic slavery is somehow “better” (history shows that is nonsense) and furthermore who in their right mind would WANT to be a slave of any type???? (i.e., if Islamic slavery is so “just” then would YOU want to live under it???)

    Sunni Islam benefited from Elijah’s framing of Islam as “black man’s religion” and many converts wanted to be “real Muslims” and part of the (false) utopian universal brotherhood.

    In the meantime, as you mentioned, Islam – because of the inherent and built in Arab superiority – slowly makes you into something that you are not. (Ever notice how many different Muslim people around the world wear the Arabic dress?)

    Finally, not only is Islam NOT “the black man’s religion” but it is HOSTILE to blackness (or anything that is not Arab for that matter). All one has to do is see all the bad things written about blacks in hadith and by extension written into the culture about blacks. In many Arabic countries the word used to describe blacks is “abd” which means “slave”.

  2. Excellent points Gaius! Thank you for bringing up Elijah Muhammad and the NOI. Indeed Elijah Muhammad laid a strong foundation for Black Americans to eventually accept Sunni Islam. And don’t even get me started to on how Black American Muslims are treated by non-Black Muslims. In my short time as a Sunni Muslim I was exposed to a hostility that I had rarely encountered prior. I got to a point where I no longer gave salaams to Arab and/or South Asian Muslims and avoided being around them altogether. Their disdain for converts, especially Black ones, was made very clear.

  3. In past times, I too took pride in the fact that black Muslims were somehow returning to their birthright by accepting Islam. Kind of the idea of reverting to the fitra but with an added air of some type of historical justice or a coming around full circle. As a white convert, I’ve also entertained the disillusion that I’m somehow freed from the burden of “white guilt” by being Muslim. While my Chrisitian ancestors enslaved and pillaged, the buck stopped with me as if I threw off the garment of the oppressors.

    Another thing that I’ve been pondering lately is the idea that many converts (and I’m speaking from my anglosaxon perspective) actually suffer from a self inflicted form of Orientalism. I know for me, Islam and Muslims and even Arab culture itself was something exotic and intriquing. I jumped into it with a very foggy, romanticized conception of it.

  4. @ Stephanie

    I think that you are correct on both accounts. I knew many white converts that were ashamed of being white and considered accepting Islam as kind of a passport “out of whiteness”. Even resented being called “white”

  5. I really appreciate this post. And while I want to say ‘I know what you’re going through’ I probably don’t – I am a ‘white’ woman. Although during my entire intellectual career I’ve been immersed in African and African-American history, and been fascinated by it. So may be I can understand you ‘a little.’

    And since I have also struggled with my own identity, as a ‘white’ woman who was never ‘white enough’ – I’ve often found solace in the black struggle and its hopes and aspirations in America.

    Can I just say that Elijah Mohammad had a very distorted vision of Islam. He presented himself as a ‘prophet’ to the black people (also people who were members of the NOI thought of him as such), and he brought into the religion many things that were never part of traditional Sunni Islam. So what he practiced wasn’t actually Sunni Islam. And if you just look at Malcolm X’s own observations, you’ll find that this is true. This is one of the main reasons why Malcolm left the NOI.

    And what’s more, Elijah wasn’t even ‘black’ (of African descent), and most Black nationalists consider him to be one of the early champions of black pride. He was of South Asian descent.

    Furthermore, I feel very sorry that you had to go through these bad experiences with non-black Muslims. But just to be clear, it is not Sunni Islam that teaches racism, it’s their respective cultures that have developed this superiority-complex over ‘darker people’ — not much different from White supremacy — and that is a shame. But not everyone is the same, and I hope you realize that Islam does not endorse this behavior.

    With regards to one of the comments above, I wrote a lengthy post on this issue of racism in Islam on my own blog. Please take a look and let me know what you think: http://theidealmuslimah.blogspot.com/2010/03/was-muhammad-peace-be-upon-him-racist.html


    1. Hi Nida,

      I think you may be getting some aspects of WD Fard’s life mixed up with Elijah Muhammad. WD Fard was not of African descent and originally hailed from South Asia. Elijah Muhammad, on the other hand WAS a Black American born to sharecroppers in rural Georgia.

      It is certainly true that the movement founded by WD Fard and built up by Elijah Muhammad(and later Malcolm X) is far removed from Orthodox Sunni Islam. WITH THAT SAID, the NOI certainly laid the foundation for many Black Americans to accept Sunni Islam. Gaius elaborated in this in his post and I agree with him 100%. Had there been no Elijah Muhammad,no Malcolm X and no NOI, I strongly doubt that Sunni Islam would have garnered such appeal within the Black community. Let’s also keep in mind that the largest Muslim conversion in American HISTORY occurred when Wallace Dean Muhammad dissolved the NOI and led his followers to embrace Sunni Islam.

      While there is much to criticize about NOI doctrine and history, it has always galled me to see their role in American Islam downplayed by other Muslims. Yasir Qadhi discusses this matter in his lecture on the history of Islam in America. I strongly recommend this lecture for anyone interested in the unique history of American Muslims.

  6. Yes, you are right; I was getting the two confused – Fard and Elijah Muhammad. Sorry about that. Nevertheless, both preached the same doctrine, and as you said it is unrepresentative of traditional Islam.

    I do see your point, and I don’t get how anyone can deny their significant contribution to the development of an ‘American Islam.’ Although the NOI is still functional, albeit not as popular, its message should never be confused with what Islam is truly about. Yes the NOI introduced some form of ‘Islam’ to the African-Americans, but not the actual Islam that is believed by billions of people world wide. I guess my problem is with the usage of ‘sunni Islam’ to define the NOI’s objectives.

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