Being Black, Being Muslim: Intersections and Contradictions
Being Black and Being Muslim is a double-bind. You have to face the Islamophobia of the general public, but particularly other Blacks, who seem to perceive Islam as an inauthentically Black religious option. Some of this comes from Islamophobia that is deeply rooted in the various forms of Christianity Blacks adhere to, but some of it comes from a dislike of Islam because of its associations with the Trans Atlantic, Trans Saharan, and Indian Ocean slave trades. As understanding of the history of slavery in Africa by both Black Muslims and Black non-Muslims is sadly biased, inadequate and ill-informed, it is hard to engage Black people on this topic constructively.
You then have to face the anti-Black racism of Muslims themselves. I have to admit that since becoming a Muslim there are times when I have felt that I have been transported to the America of the 1950s and accidently crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. All this said the reality of how all these communities interact with each other in a city like Ottawa cannot be understood by simply saying there is racism. Black Muslims and other Muslim communities attend mosques together, study together, and intermarry at a striking rate, particularly among the younger generations (although it is more common to see Arab and South Asian Muslim women marry Black Muslim men than Black Muslim women marrying into Arab and South Asian Muslim communities. But this is true for all communities; women always seem to have more courage in crossing the colour line than men do.) I myself am very close to Arab, Afghan, Iranian, and various South Asian and South East Asian Muslim community members. I don’t face racism from these people although I am often told and warned about the racism that does exist in their respective communities.
Here in Ottawa, there are various groups that members of the Muslim communities are involved in whose intent is interreligious dialogue. Unfortunately, most of the Christian denominations involved are Anglophone and “Mainline”, meaning that there are not many Black Christians involved as Black Christians often are involved in non-Mainline denominations or, if Roman Catholic are Francophones. So, much of the interreligious dialogue that I feel needs to be happening between Black Christians and Muslims isn’t happening. Blacks belong to probably almost every incarnation of Christianity from Ethiopian Orthodox, to Roman Catholic, to Baptist, to Reformed Calvinist, to Seventh Day Adventist, to Jehovah’s Witness, as well as an amazing array of Pentecostal, Evangelical and independent Churches. Unfortunately, this poses a serious problem for interreligious dialogue, as there is as much need to encourage dialogue and understanding across these Christian denominations as there is to encourage dialogue and understanding between these Christian denominations and other religious communities. I believe that the situation is probably better in the US, at least between Black Muslims and Black Christians but I am not sure and need to explore this more.
There is also the added challenge of recognizing and respecting indigenous African religious traditions. This is something that both Black Muslims and Black Christians need to work on. I consider myself lucky to actually know something about the indigenous religious traditions of my father’s ethnic group, the Ijaw, including their pantheon of deities, such as the Supreme Creative Being, Woyingi, after whom this blog is named. Again, having a blog focused on my Black and African identity as opposed to simply my Muslim identity opens up the possibility of exploring all the religious traditions of Black peoples, including those that do not fall under the Abrahamic Tradition (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).
Black communities in Ottawa strike me as incredibly insular, sometimes not even taking the time to explore the culture, history, and challenges of other Christian Black communities. An advantage of being of mixed race and not raised in one particular Black community (ie Jamaican, Somali, Haitian, Congolese, Nigerian-Yoruba, etc..) is that I feel free to learn about them all and see all of their experiences as part and parcel of my own experience as a Black Canadian.
There are Muslim communities all over the world and one of the few benefits of being a minority religion in North America is that Muslims emigrating from such diverse parts of the world are forced, so to speak, to worship together. If I wasn’t a Muslim, I probably would not be able to move so easily through such a variety of ethno-culturally diverse communities as I do in Ottawa. Again, I feel that being a convert Muslim is what helps me, as I was not raised with any preconceived notions about Muslims from particular countries, ethnicities, religious sects or class backgrounds as many born Muslims are.
I feel grateful for being both Black and Muslim because both identities connect me to such diverse communities whose histories are often inaccessible, even to their own community members, and are understudied and deeply misunderstood. There is so much wisdom to be gained from exploring the Black experience in the world as there is in exploring the Muslim experience; however, the bigotry that exists in both communities limits our ability to truly harness this wisdom for our benefit.