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Aïdah Aliyah Rasheed

The Personal is Political #BeingBlackandMuslim

Sept 7, 2018 at 2pm


Content warning Discussion of KKK, lynching, and white supremacist violence



AÏDAH: It’s always like I just have to let it out, that I have a little jitters. So let me just say that and name that. But I wanted to first off begin with acknowledging the divine creator, all of the creator’s systems of knowledge. I know it was mentioned yesterday that we are currently on land of Chinook and the upper Chinook [organizer note: the venue is on the unceded land of the Chinook and the Tillamook].

As I share a part of my story, I also want to recognize my privilege in this moment. I know that there are people who were on this land that we’re on who stories have not been shared. And so as I was preparing this talk, especially yesterday, thinking about how intentional this conference has been with so many details that I couldn't describe them all, but I'm sure you guys have all experienced what we've all been experiencing here. And I'm just grateful for this opportunity, so I wanted to start with that.

Bismillah. I also am gonna start with, this is an image of me when I was in the 1st grade—I believe I was in the 1st grade—and my close friend, Christine Peterson. Christine and I have a really unique connection. She was in Kindergarten with me. And growing up, we were kids who, our playtime, we would take her parents’ recycling from the garage and throw it on her front lawn and then make signs, “Save the earth. Recycle.” And then we would pick up the recycling and put it back in the garage, and that was our playtime. That's what we did growing up in northern California. Going to California public schools, we learned a lot about the environment, different things going on in social issues in the 90s. Say no to drugs, all those things. And I'm sharing a part of this because Christine and I are actually still close friends. We were pen pals when she moved to Tennessee in the 4th grade, and we stayed in touch through writing letters. And she has been an inspiration for me even though she probably doesn’t know this. But she has really helped me to feel comfortable in my own skin and learning more about my history, learning more about my story and always loving me with unconditional love and support. And so this talk is dedicated to her.

And I wanted to just share a little bit of background about me because I know we don't have that much time. But giving a little context of who I am, I think, might help understand why I'm passionate about the stories that I'm trying to tell today.

So this is an image of a flag being hung from a window in New York City in the 1940s. It says, “A man was lynched today.” And this was in the NAACP headquarters. And you know, there wasn’t social media back then. So in order for people to understand what was going on in society, there was things like this created so that people would be aware of the current condition, specifically around lynchings in America. And just for those who may not be familiar, lynchings were a tool to enforce racial subordination, in addition to kind of keeping a fear, a psychological tool, and also just an oppressive means of…keeping people enslaved, mentally, even though, at that time or supposedly, Black people were free in this society.

So this is an image, which the photo, it's unknown; the photographer's unknown. But this was around 1922, and this is an image of a photograph of Ku Klux Klan members sharing a stage with the Royal Riders of the Red Robe, a clan auxiliary for foreign‑born white Protestants. And this actually was here in Portland, Oregon, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to share this particular image and juxtapose it with the following image and the big sign on the wall that says, “Jesus Saves.” This also, in the 1920s, was the current climate of what was happening in our society. And so because of these types of meetings, because of the heightened racial tension within our society, I like to nerd out and think about how physics is kind of related to this. Which I wrote down in my notes: for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction.

This is an image of a group of men that are standing in rows in the same uniform, militarized style. This is the Nation of Islam, Fruit of Islam, the FOI. This image struck me when I saw it because once again, if I go back to the other image, thinking about: how were specifically Black people in America being treated, even in the churches in this country, how there was a reaction. But also, I would say survival mode kind of kicked in where something had to change. Something was going to happen, and so the Nation of Islam, which actually started in 19-late 40s, 50s—and then this was in its heightened time, which was in the 1960s and 70s—something like this type of imagery you would see based on the response of what was going on in our society.

The next image is an image of women who are also in the Nation of Islam, wearing all white, with their heads covered, and their bodies are fully covered in white garments. And this is in like a convention hall. I'm trying to be as descriptive as possible for those who are blind in the audience, and my presentation is extremely image-heavy. So please forgive me in advance if something may not be registering. You can talk with me after if you have any questions. But this also is a response, I would say, and a means of looking at how a group of people who’ve been oppressed, who've been figuring out how to survive in this society make a choice to move towards a different communal experience. And the Nation of Islam was, in its inception, focusing more on nationalism and focusing on empowerment, cleanliness, self-discipline. A lot of folks who were a part of the Nation of Islam in its inception were looking for a different alternative to community, I guess, in that particular time. And specifically my family, and I'll go into a little bit of that in a bit.

I wanted to— This is an image of Sister Clara Muhammad who played a pivotal role. In the back of the image, there's a photograph of her husband, who was imprisoned at the time I believe this photograph was taken. Elijah Muhammad was imprisoned for not going to the war. And so Sister Clara Muhammad ran the Nation of Islam in that particular time. She also had a extremely pivotal role in the homeschooling system in this country. She refused to send her children to schools that didn't really have her children's interests at heart, at the end of the day, which is why a lot of folks homeschool their children today, especially in the Black community.

I also wanna make a side note: there is a book that will be coming out by a woman that, a dear friend, teacher, mentor, Dr. Zakiyyah Muhammad, who has written a book about her life and her important role in the history of Islam in America.

So now I'm gonna share some family photographs and talk a little bit about how I'm connected to all of this. So this is an image of my great grandmother and my grandfather in San Francisco, circa late 1960s. They're eating in a hall. There's a plate of food and fake flower arrangement on the table.

So my great grandparents were in Detroit, Michigan in the 1940s. They had their own real estate agency. They were wealthy. They traveled to Chicago, to New York, and they were doing well. My great grandparents are the Jones family. And my grandfather found his father dead in a bathtub. I'm not sure. The newspapers say he committed suicide, but I have a feeling: I believe he was murdered from the things that I have found and discovered over the years. And so my great grandmother and my grandfather had, in addition to his brother, they moved to California, left Detroit.

There's a lot of pain and struggle and turmoil that my grandfather endured, I believe, since he found his father in that scene. And so the Nation of Islam, I believe, I haven’t— He passed before I could ask him questions about why he joined the Nation of Islam, but I have a feeling that he felt a sense of belonging and community. Also, there was an emphasis on education. My grandfather spoke German. He listened to classical music. And he tried to learn and understand and educate himself to feel connected to, I guess, something. And my family, education was a really important part of their family ethos.

This is of my grandmother, who married my grandfather. They met in California, and my mother is in the scarf. It's like a polka dot scarf. They’re sitting on the ground with other children from the neighborhood. This image was captured by my grandfather in West Oakland, and this is a depiction of Muslim family life. You know, mainly, I guess, all of these children—looks like mainly girls in the photo, but there's maybe one or two boys. But my family was—has been and continues to be—contributors of community, helping to make sense of everything going on in the world. Reading, listening to music, going to museums. Things of that nature, I think, have been a means of solace and comfort, even though sometimes we can't always make sense of what's going on in the world. And as Muslims, I guess there was an emphasis on education, and so that connected to my grandparents.

I wanted to share these two slides—these two images, excuse me—from JET magazine. Both of these both of these covers of JET Magazine, which is a popular news subscription or publication, excuse me, that is usually a small, little booklet that’s sent out and mailed out to people. And so it is very popular in the Black community. People read JET magazine all the time. They stopped printing them. I believe you can still read JET online now. But a very popular publication. And in 1975, a major event happened within the Muslim community, specifically the Nation of Islam. On the left, I guess, Honorable Elijah Muhammad, he passed in 1975. And this particular image was in March, this issue. And then the issue on the other side, that's his son, Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, this was printed in August of 1975.

I wanted to share these two images because I want the audience, all of you, to understand that being Muslim in the 60s and 70s, it wasn't something that was looked at as bad. [chuckles] Some people would respect Muslims or say, “Wow, I'm really…I respect you for making a choice to not do certain things. To,” I guess you would say, “clean yourself up,” which at that time, that's what they'd say. You stopped drinking alcohol. You focused on kind of spiritual enlightenment. But again, the Nation of Islam, I don't wanna over, you know, gloss over that it was very…there was an emphasis on nationalism. There was an emphasis on that there was a lot of allegorical language. So people would say, “White people are devils,” but it wasn’t so much the people were [the] devil. It was the things that they were doing were devilish, if that makes sense based on what we were looking at earlier and what I was describing earlier. And so this particular movement in this time, there was an emphasis on learning and studying and inculcating oneself about the teachings of Islam.

And once Elijah Muhammad passed, his son, who had formally studied the religion, was actually studying the Quran, studying Arabic. When he became the leader of the community, which my family was a part of, he was very much emphasizing and empowering Black people to learn Arabic and study the Arabic from the Quran to learn scripture and to make connections to the various scriptures that exist. Muslims believe in all the books, and so there's a connection to all of the books. And so there's this—this is my own interpretation of all of this—but the idea is that if God has given people, have given mankind solutions to living on earth, wouldn't you wanna know, and be empowered, by being able to read those scriptures?

Now, as we all know that religion is, it can be very problematic, and I'm aware of the space that I'm in and that many people have felt excluded from churches, from masjids, from different religious institutions based on patriarchy, misogyny. I mean there’s, I could talk about all of the problems, but one of the reasons why my family was interested in this path, I believe it was about love and about light and finding, again, joy through all of the pain that, and suffering and trauma, that my family has experienced over the–and ancestors—have experienced over the years.

This particular image that I'm sharing with all of you is my mother with her siblings. She's the eldest of seven, and there's one in the corner that was looks like he's fresh out of the womb. [audience chuckling]

But this is my mom. She is an educator now, an education administrator. She has been through a lot of trauma herself in addition to all of her siblings. But when I look back at these images, I'm reminded that…you know, the importance of focusing on joy, on love, on compassion, on empathy. And I'll go to the next slide of my father with one of his closest friends, Abdul Rauf. This was taken in Mecca on Hajj, which in 1982–

And by the way, as I share all these things, I'm digesting these things with you all. There's a community organizer by the name of Saul Alinsky. I actually did write the quote down. He made a comment in his book Rules for Radicals about, “Most people don't accumulate a body of experience. Most people go through life undergoing a series of happenings, which pass through their systems undigested. Happenings become experiences when they're digested, when they're reflected on, related to general patterns and synthesized.” So as I'm going through this presentation, and as I share these images, I have formally took a lot of notes that I was gonna say, but I'm trying to speak from the heart. And I'm hoping that you guys are connecting and resonating with what I'm sharing with you right now. ‘Cause this has been an emotional journey for me to actually be able to speak on my family's connection to Islam in America and the complications of all of it.

So this is an image of my family, when I was– This is the early 90s. We were actually, I think J.C. Penney's had our family portrait up in their store. And so, you know, when I look back at this image and of the Muslim family in the early 90s— And also, just to mention, my father identifies as African American. He’s extremely light, and when people see him, they don’t know. You know, he could pass for white; he could pass for Latino. He could— So that's always been a struggle growing up. Also, thinking about, you know, how does one identify with a particular group, both within, culturally and also spiritually? That's another talk. But this image is difficult to share because my parents divorced actually not too long after this photo was taken. And I wanted to share the image because I also want to acknowledge that even though my family was working towards this ideal American dream, like most families, there's still pain and heartache. And there’s something I recently learned about called spiritual bypassing, which is when people embrace a religion, but they may not understand all of the religion. And they still have struggles in their life based on trauma that occur. And so I've been processing what that is within my own family.

This is an image of my brother, my older sister, and my younger sister, and I'm kind of squeezed in the middle between all of them. And so my family, my siblings have been a saving grace and a mercy for me. I'm really grateful, despite some of our struggles of understanding who we are and our identity. They keep me grounded, and they've also really helped me to understand what faith in action really looks like. When people see them, they may not identifiably see them and look at them and s— I'm the only one in the image that has my hair covered. So maybe someone might think I'm Muslim or not; they may not know. But anyway, I just think a lot of people in this society don't understand Islam fully. It's something that I don’t even, as myself, like, I'm still a young, small student learning and understanding it myself.

So I'm gonna just jump right in to Sapelo Square. This is a project— Just to back up, it was mentioned that I'm the lead of special projects for Sapelo Square. And to share a little bit about why I'm involved with Sapelo, this online resource, Sapelo Square, has been healing for me to begin sharing and unfolding all the layers, complications of what it means to be Black and Muslim in America. Sapelo Square is an online resource on Black Muslims in the United States. The name Sapelo Square comes from the first communities of African Muslims in the U.S., located on Sapelo Island, which is off the coast of Georgia, where enslaved African Muslims struggled to hold onto their Islamic roots amidst the dehumanization of slavery, the institution of slavery, excuse me. And so this collaborative photo documentation project is something that I began to be a lead on, to help create some new imagery and some new perspectives of Muslims in America, specifically coming from the African American experience, and also those coming from the African diaspora.

So Paper Monday is a visual…. Sorry. Let me make sure. I don't wanna butcher their…. So Paper Monday is a visual research project by Rog and Bee Walker. Rog and Bee Walker are pretty well-known photographers in the photography community. For those of you that, just a cultural reference, Rog photographed Beyoncé’s sister, Solange’s, wedding photographs if anyone cares to know about that. [audience chuckles] Just make a reference of– Anyway, Rog and Bee are a married couple that have also agreed to work with Sapelo to do this photo documentation project. And they believe entire stories are important, especially through this visual research project, to kinda complete a global narrative. And so these portraits that we began to capture in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, they'll be traveling to New Medina, Mississippi, Chicago, and a few other cities around the country to do this project. This slide here is of an image of a woman who, her family's from Somalia. And that's Bee holding up a white balance card and Rog, who's taking a reference photo with his iPhone. And they're in their studio in the Bronx in New York City.

So the portrait project is capturing imagery and also interviewing the Muslims in various communities around the country to gather more stories, to hopefully exhibit these stories so that more people will know and learn more about Muslims, especially in the times that we’re living in. Because there has been an emphasis to–specifically from the media—to not focus on the historical connections of Muslims in America, really look–especially since September 11th, to see the religion as foreign…Middle Eastern…terrorist religion, you know. There's a lot of different adjectives I could use. And so our goal is to begin this project to really look at creating some new imagery, and again, sharing more stories about Muslims in all of our complications. Because we're not a monolith.

And also, I should note that when we say Black Muslims, we're aware of the historic associations of the word “Black Muslims” in the United States; however, our use of the phrase is much more inclusive, and we understand that the term “Black” to have a deeper resonance with the idea of the African diaspora and the ongoing goal of liberation. Accordingly, Black Muslims include all African-descendant Muslims who live, or are rooted, in the United States, be they native-born or immigrants. And we are a diverse group, which is why naming what we call ourselves a contestant process.

This is Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, who's our Senior Editor of Sapelo Square, with her mother and her sister and nephew. And one of the reasons why I wanted to share this image is because her mother actually passed shortly after this photograph was taken. Also, her mother was featured in the first image. I forgot to explain it when I first transitioned into the work I'm doing with Sapelo Square. Her mother has been the...face, I guess, of this project since we launched our crowdfunding page that we started last year.

This is Dr. Marcus Lambert and his sons in New York, his twin sons. The image shows them– The images are very, honest, I would say. But there's a black background, and they're lit in a way that they come from the foreground but also kind of blend into the black background. But there…there's just an honesty, I really appreciate, of the imagery. And Rog and Bee are, I don't know if they would call themselves traditionalists, but they use film and still print their own work. And so there's a process of creating the photos themselves. It's not a very quick process, which is similar to how photos were taken when photography was in its inception. And this is myself and my husband, Stephen Jamal Leeper. And I was actually pregnant in this photograph with our daughter, Solène, who, some of you’ve seen her during these last couple days.

So yeah, that’s…. I encourage all of you guys to go visit to learn more about the work that we're doing, to explore some of the stories and the nuances of what it means to be Black Muslim in America. And please forgive me for any awkwardness or anything that I may have said that didn't resonate with you in your heart. If you have any questions, I please encourage you to speak with me after my presentation.

But thank you guys, again, for listening. I’m really grateful to be here, and I appreciate this space. Thank you.


Aïdah Aliyah Rasheed

Photo of Aidah Aliyah Rasheed facing to the right with a neutral expression

Aïdah Aliyah Rasheed recognizes the power of art and culture as means of cultivating communal awareness and connectivity. She is an interdisciplinary artist and multi-media producer. She carries more than a decade of civic engagement and interfaith service, creating innovative solutions to the economic and racial injustices facing communities around the United States.