Left of Black with Sylvia Chan-Malik

Left of Black with Sylvia Chan-Malik

Welcome to Left of Black. I’m your host
Mark Anthony Neal. We’re joined today by Professor Sylvia Chan-Malik, who is
associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University and
the author of “Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American
Islam” published by New York University in 2018. How are you doing? I’m doing
great. Thanks so much for having me. How did you come to this project? Oh it was a
long time in the making. So that’s a story. There’s a story of the actual book
and the writing and then there’s a story of how I came to the topic. So I don’t
know which one I should- both. I’ll try to weave them together. The book grew out of my
dissertation work. I was working at UC Berkeley in the Ethnics Studies
department. And I started grad school in August 2001 two weeks before
9/11. And prior to that I had been working as a journalist covering culture
and music in the Bay Area and also working as an activist. So doing a lot of
work in the West Oakland public schools and things like that. So I had been
involved in kind of thinking through how to connect different communities in that
area already. And so when I got into graduate school in the ethnic studies
department which is you know always has an emphasis on advocacy and activism as
part of its pedagogical practice I went in thinking I wanted to do work
connecting communities more. Primarily Asian American and African American
communities because it was still 2001. We were still very much thinking about the
post Los Angeles uprisings kind of communities and trying to connect
different groups together. But then like I said 9/11 happened. And it was in that
moment that as an activist and as an advocate for different communities we
jumped into action trying to organize events around Muslim communities in the
Bay Area at the time. And very quickly just doing that work I realized that
there were these very distinctive racial and ethnic
groupings within the Muslim community. So in Oakland, California where I’m from you
have the Nation of Islam, a very strong African-American Muslim community there. But then you have non-black Muslims. You have Yemeni shopkeepers. You have a lot
of South Asian immigrants. And none of them seem to be communicating or talking
or had really communicated prior to this event right. And on 9/11. And in that
moment what happens you know- they’re all forced together. Yeah it’s like the light that the
spotlight is shining. Who’s the muslims. Who’s going to speak for this community? And everyone’s looking at
each other like are you going are you going are you going. And what happens of
course in that moment is that a lot of the more you know people with more
access to resources and things like that come to rise to say “Oh I am the
spokesperson for the Muslim community.” And what happens in a lot of that is
that African-American Muslims who have been here and working and doing you know
the hard work of building community- for almost a century Oh more than that right. Get sidelined. So I noticed this you know right away. And so this is where you know I
started to think about my research. I had been trying to connect Black and Asian
communities and also Latinx communities in the area but I thought huh how do I
think about building conversations between the communities within this one
highly scrutinized religious community at this moment? And it kind of led me- it segued or it kind of coalesced with my own interest in Islam as a
religion. And so I kind of embarked on this new journey you know kind of
spiritually, intellectually, culturally kind of learning about all these things.
And as someone who had a background in race and ethnic studies, that piece was
always central to try to understand what this thing called Islam was and is
in the United States. I mean one of the things you argue in the book is that when we
think about the presence of Islam particularly historically in the U.S. is
almost always connected to a Black protest tradition. Absolutely right. And
and that’s what I had a term in the early stages of the
rotation that I’ve you know still wrestle with. You know I call it this
foundational blackness of Islam in America. Because I think about the
presence of Islam amongst enslaved Africans- so for example anywhere from
one-fifth to one-third of enslaved Africans came from predominantly Muslim
countries on the coast on in West Africa right. So that presence was there even
though they weren’t able to practice or organize as Muslims. They still
retained those practices and those belief systems and how they ate and how they
congregated and how they you know built kinship right. So that presence lives on
and I argue in the book and elsewhere that that continually emerges
and repeats itself in not only in how Muslim communities constitute themselves
in the United States but in how Islam is marginalized demonized othered. It’s not
just because it’s a foreign kind of exotic orientalized religion. It’s also
because it’s deeply rooted in anti blackness. I mean to your point there’s a
way in which Black American Muslims have been almost erased in the U.S.
conversations about Islam. And if you think about the erasure of black
American Islam what does that same thing mean for women within Islam, particularly
women of color and black women? And so so much of the focus of your book really is
on what the gender dynamics of this? So how do you get to the gender? Right so as I started looking at this history right so you
know scholarship kind of goes in phases. You can have to learn this big thing and
then you kind of say “oh I’m really interested in this.” And then you kind of “who hasn’t written about this?” Or “what stories need to be told?” and I
was trained as a cultural and literary studies scholar but as I did this
project I realized I had to become a historian. I had to become an
ethnographer. You know I had to be an oral historian. I do all of those things
because I could not just rely on text to do this work. And as I started to look at
the debates kind of the most animating contentious debates
both within Muslim communities and contemporary Muslim communities but also
historically the issue of women and women’s bodies was also always just
right there in the middle. Whether it was something that people took up or not you
know. And so for example in the first chapter of the book I have this picture
of four african-american Muslim women in 1920s Chicago. Yeah. On the southside of
Chicago. Right and that picture gets circulated
in so much of the existing scholarship on the history of Islam in
the United States but no one ever asked who those women are. Right and so as
someone who was very much engaged with you know black feminism and women of
color feminism and who was trained in an ethnic studies department where we’re
always asking like where’s the presence of the women where the women of color
you know the women doing the work what were they doing you know as someone who
was trained to think like that and look at things like that and who has worked
with the communities that was the first thing I started asking when I was
looking at this history. Like oh the women were clearly there. I mean look at
this picture. And you use this picture and you never ask who these women are
and why they were Muslim and how they figured out how to be Muslim. So someone
needs to do that right. And so the the reason I came to women kind of as
the story I wanted to tell was deeply personal again in one way you know. I
have daughters. My husband is a second generation African-American Muslim and I
wanted a story you know. I wanted to tell the story of my mother-in-law and his
aunties and his band you know. These people. And then at the same time wanted my daughters to have a story that they could you know look at and connect and
say this is our history. So that’s the personal piece. But on the other piece it
was just like it’s always infuriating when you’re like why doesn’t anybody
else care about who these women are? You mentioned a kind of domestic life of
black women within the Nation of Islam right. And so many times we’ll see photos
of Elijah Muhammad speeches, Malcolm X speeches, to some extent Farrakhan did
speeches. And of course they’re separated in the way that they’re seating. And you
see these beautiful black women dressed in white we’re hard pressed to
think of any Nation of Islam women ministers who have emerged to the fact
that we even know their names right. They’ve been some ways rendered hyper
visible in this imagery of the Nation in Islam but invisible and silent within
the same context. Right I mean they’re iconic right. That kind of photographic
Gordon Parks of the famous kind of sea of women in white habits at the
Savior’s Day Parade you know during the Nation of Islam gatherings. You know we
see that and that connotes something. And I think there’s so much so there’s so
many different types of desires that are attached to that picture. You know on the
part of black nationalist struggles yeah and kind of the gender politics the
often very problematic and fraught gender politics within national cultural
nationalist struggle. Black respectability. Right you know women needing to be pure. As Elijah Muhammad said, women needing to be the field for the nation you know to grow a
strong black nation right. And so this kind of sea of white absolutely connotes
that. And then at the same time again I wanted to connect those types of images
you know Gordon Parks images of women in the Nation with contemporary ideas and
notions and images of oppressed Muslim women right. This idea that Muslim women
are oppressed and it seems to me that for many scholars now they’ll kind of
connect that back- “Oh the women in the Nation of Islam were oppressed because
of Islam.” Right and so there’s so much more context and framing that’s
necessary to understand the ways in which- so I have this concept of
insurgent domesticity about the women in the Nation where they were kind of
actively practicing these domestic you know kind of ways of housekeeping and
cleaning as a way resistance right. To say you know we are part of the struggle
and this is what we’re doing and it’s very insurgent and it’s very rebellious.
I think about Ashley Farmer’s work. And we’re starting to see all this emergent work
now talking about within broadly black nationalism of the way
that black women cultivated a space to push about gender equality to assert
themselves. And at the same time not to destabilize you know what this looks
like publicly in terms of black nationalism. It makes me think of two
points in thinking about the NOI in particular. You quote it Ula Taylor right
of course who’s written a great book on the women in the Nation of Islam and folks
asking these questions just as you suggested. Why would women be compelled
to be drawn to Islam or the Nation of Islam given the fact that at least the
way that we popularly think about it it’s constraining you know the ability
for black women to assert themselves. And you make the point that it was always
about something more right. What attracted the black folks to say an
organization like Nation of Islam was never so much the religious aspect of it
but what it meant in a secular world. Yes. But I actually think it’s actually
both. There was that kind of religious desire for- to understand that there was
a greater purpose that there was a higher power there. Yeah a spiritual purpose.
And also I mean we also often talk about the Nation of Islam in
parochial terms. Kind of very domestic insular terms. But they were always a
transnational organization in terms of building connections with Africa in the
Middle East. The Asiatic black man right. Kind of thinking about the ways in
which black Americans themselves were transnational citizens. The way that Farrakhan tried to connect with Muammar Gaddafi in the 80s
and things of that nature. Exactly. So I think in in that piece you know the women also were
kind of thinking we have sisters you know in continents all over the world we
are part of a global community which is also going to part and parcel of other
early African American Muslim movements like the Moorish Science Temple or the
Ahmadiyya Movement. Kind of this idea that black Americans are not confined by the
nation. You know that they are exceeding and always kind of universal. Talk about
Sonia Sanchez. Okay yeah so one of the fascinating things that I got
this from Ula Taylor’s work was she asked this question in one of her early
essays looking at the Nation of Islam- like why
would anybody join the Nation after Malcolm X’s death.
You know after his assassination and all the kind of controversies surrounding it.
And you know as all this criticism of it had come about in the
press and in popular culture. You know The Hate That Hate Produced right. So
Sonia Sanchez joins the Nation of Islam in 1972 right or something you know. The
height of the Black Arts Movement. Baraka and everybody there already moving on to
away from the Nation or away from black nationalism into Orthodox Sunni Islam. Right
and Baraka’s moving towards Marxism. Exactly. He’s moving towards Marx- but
Sonia Sister Sonya joins the Nation at that point because she says I have these
sons. And the Nation is the most viable place you know I see them being
the most proactive about helping kind of communities and people like me have
safety and protection for our families. Discipline right. And I had the wonderful
honor of being in fellowship with Sister Sonya at the Schomburg you know – I can’t even
remember. Two or three years ago right. And she talked about this right. That
they had the structure. They had the manpower literally manpower to have
these spaces of safety. Eventually she left because she said she you know she’s
an artist. She was wanting to do dance and do creative things and she felt
restricted. And ultimately she felt like it was not the right place for her. But
in that moment I mean that’s a really powerful thing that she said this was a
place of safety. And it was a place of validation. And it was a place in which
she said we as black women could find solidarity and sisterhood with one
another that was spiritual that was political
that was cultural. It was holistic right. It kind of spoke to
us as mothers. It spoke to us as political you know advocates. It spoke to
us as spiritual people. It spoke to every aspect. And I think that was always
Elijah Muhammad’s you know that was kind of the genius
the Nation of Islam in certain ways right. The appeal was that it spoke to
every- it was a lifestyle. It was an ideology. It was a political doctrine. And
it was economic. There was an economic structure. There was employment.
And then there was the religious and spiritual piece as well. It spoke to
every aspect of people’s lives in some way. And so for her it was absolutely
that and you know there were many women who joined who kept joining the nation
for those very reasons and you hear that when when I’ve done interviews and
things you know people will tell women will talk about you know we were able to
be leaders in the nation we did rise up we did have a voice it was and we
enjoyed not being in the spotlight yeah yeah you’re watching left of lack
we’re here with Professor Sylvia Qian Malik was associate professor of women’s
and gender studies in Rutgers University we’re talking about her new book TN
whistle one of the things that you talk about and you know it’s ambivalence is
probably too light of a term but the relationship that women of color in
Islam black women in Islam have to feminism and the ways that they push
back against and talk a little bit about that so the relationship I argue in the
book that women and in particular women of colors african-american women’s
engagements with Islam in the United States has always been impelled and
driven by a desire for gender justice whether you call that feminism feminism
or not and what we’ve come to call feminism you know when I asked my
students like what is feminism they’ll be like oh you know equal pay abortion
rights you know or sexual freedom things like that I mean we’re talking about
second wave to white mainstream ready for Dada 1960s 1970s feminism right so
they kind of take that and use that as the template for what feminism is and so
for Muslim women and black and non black these particular notions of Western
based feminist right have consistently been used to
dehumanize and marginalize the ways in which they are always desirous of
gendered agency through Islam right and so this dates back so there’s different
strains here this dates back to the colonial occupation of Egypt right you
see Leila Ahmed a wonderful scholar Leila Ahmed who’s at Harvard Divinity
School argues that you know it’s in her classic work women and gender and Islam
that this idea of the veil you know this colonial discourse and the
veil comes up during British occupation of Egypt in which British men who have
women you know who are wearing corsets and have no access to work you’re at
quote-unquote home are going into Egypt saying oh look at these poor women who
are secluded in their homes and wearing these scarves and the scarf becomes the
most visible a signifier right of this oppression that we must come in and now
save again same old thing save these poor brown women from their brown man
right so white men saving brown women from brown men right so you have that in
the colonial discourse of the veil in the engagement between Europe and you
know Islamic countries or Muslim majority countries okay so that’s one
strain of it and then on the other hand within the context of the u.s. of course
we have this very difficult and fraught relationship between black and women of
color feminists on the mainstream second wave white feminist movement right so
Audrey Lorde and you know all these critiques of the ways in which black
women are silenced marginalized in that discourse of mainstream feminism so that
also comes into play too and it’s interesting in this world because now
we’re starting to see interesting fissures around black and white
feminists around perceptions of anti-semitism so when is alice so
whether it’s the women’s March or Alice Walker and and you wonder you know what
kinds of things right will be needed to actually build around
you know at this stage you mentioned the way that for instance feminism has been
used to shame women in Islam about their relationship to Islam and the perceived
role that we would have within the religion right I mean there’s there’s
you know kind of example after example both in speaking with young with some
women that I have and in literature there’s a wonderful novel by a professor
of comparative literature at University of Arkansas named moja cough called the
girl in the tangerine scarf where she has an example of the protagonist who at
some point in her life you know is engaging with these very woke feminists
and she’s constantly being told that if she wants to still be Muslim she can’t
be woke or conscious right right how can you subscribe to this patriarchal
ideology you know and so there’s that aspect of it where Muslim women
themselves are like this religion is vast right
just like with any religion there are extremely kind of progressive and
radical and revolutionary teachings and you again are kind of practicing the
same type of coloniality upon me in my trying to constructs my identity then
you know that that that patriarchal kind of forces have done over time so that
there’s that antagonism there’s this constant like Muslim women saying I’m
choosing to wear this scarf I’m choosing to practice my religion and you’re
trying to tell me that I’m oppressed right it doesn’t do see and it doesn’t
simply dictate the religion is bigger than what you’ve received is absolutely
exactly and and again this is rooted and I talked about this in Chapter four of
the book there’s a particular moment in the United States where you see in 1979
in March right before the Iranian hostage crisis in December that year
there’s an Orion there’s a women’s revolution in Iran and this is the first
time the US media really seizes on this kind of image of the black veil as a
symbol of women’s oppression and you see white feminists kind of rising to the
cause of thing oh we have to go save these poor women you know let’s go there
and it becomes this opportunity for white feminists like Kate Millett and
even Gloria Steinem you know writes this long passage about it in MS magazine
talked about we need to go global we need to take this movement global right
and so you see all these kind of convergences of the ways in which Muslim
women are produced as a cause celeb for you know white Western feminists in a
particular moment in time that coalescence with oil politics with
changing relationships between the US and the Middle East and with racial
politics in a moment in which black feminists and other women of color
feminists are being sidelined right exactly you have to combine exact
exactly so all this is happening too and that kind of persists to this day these
all these different things are happening when you see the ways in particular
african-american Muslim women are sidelined from the conversation around
Muslim women all these things are happening kind of the history of anti
blackness within the feminist movement the history of anti-muslim sentiment in
kind of colonial mentalities you know so all of this is coming together and
producing these these these ways that politicians and you know Trump you know
oh you know she’s not talking she must be oppressed by her husband these kinds
of things that get said the final chapter in the book you go in a
different direction talking about Maya bow and this kind of interesting move of
women in Islam and environmentalism in urban farming tell a little bit about
that story yeah that’s actually really where my my head in my heart is that
right now too and thinking about this topic because we live in this moment of
intense ecological crisis and I think so many of us scholars and activists and
otherwise are thinking about ideas of healing and regeneration and regrowth
and emergence as kind of ways of figuring out how to move forward on a
number of fronts and one of the central arguments in the
book is that being Muslim it has never been a static thing it’s never been the
same across time and space has always been circumscribed by the political
context at hand and Muslim women throughout what I call this effective
insurgency have always lived their identities as Muslims in a way that is
an absolute kind of engagement with the societal context around them so in this
moment you know in this moment of environmental you know catastrophe in
crisis and we see in or hurricanes and floods like every single day and we
actually can see what’s happening because of you know late capitalism’s
destruction on our earth I see Muslim women like Maya blow in California and
otherwise all over and and again I kind of even want to extend it beyond Muslim
communities kind of people of faith people who are involved in progressive
religious movements really engaging with the idea that reconnecting with the
earth regenerating the soil trying to grow and and and find food sources that
are outside of the market right a critical not only to our own survival
and regeneration as a species as humans but also is an integral part of
practicing justice in our everyday lives and so for people like Maya blow on this
farm called soul flower farm in the Bay Area I see this what I call this
insurgent tradition of women of color and Islam in which she and others like
her are once again responding to the political moment at hand and taking a
lead in creating these types of spaces not only again not only for themselves
or their families but for their communities and always having a larger
purpose like how we talked about with the Nation of Islam like they were doing
this domestic work but they always thought they were doing it in a way that
would bring about kind of strength for their communities or a future like a
future and that’s what I think people like Maya and
they’re Muslim women and people of faith are doing right now kind of thinking
about how to reconnect with the earth to try to build those spaces for us to
survive we’ve been joined today by Professor Sylvia Chan Warlick who talked
about her wonderful new book being Muslim published by New York University
Press thank you for joining us thank you so much for having me

One thought on “Left of Black with Sylvia Chan-Malik

  1. Excellent conversation between Sis. Sylvia Chan-Malik and Bro. Mark Anthony Neal. As a Duke Black Alumni and active member of the Nation of Islam with Minister Farrakhan, I can appreciate the wholistic approach that Prof. Chan-Malik has toward the subject matter she references in her book, "Being Muslim". Looking forward to getting my copy!

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