Shackled, beaten, and starved. This was how my ancestors were ripped from their homes, crammed onto vessels, and transported like goods to a life of tribulation and bondage. What is left of their bodies lay at the bottom of the ocean, or on land that is not home, but I pray that their souls have found peace.
The transatlantic slave trade spanned a length of over 300 years, where between 10 million to 12 million Africans were carted across the Atlantic Ocean. For over 300 years, the lives of innocent men, women, and children were bought and sold, because their blackness made them less than. What many people are not aware of, is the fact that the transatlantic slave trade was the second phase of the triangular trade. The triangular trade consisted of three stages: the transportation of arms, textiles, and wine from Europe to Africa, followed by the transport of slaves from Africa to the Americas, and ending with the trade of sugar and coffee from the Americas to Europe. Learning this piece of information left an acrimonious taste on my tongue; it seemed that being black made one nugatory, reduced to be associated with merchandise.
The slave trade was one that was global and remunerative. The blood, sweat, tears, and pain of enslaved African people equated to the wealth of white slave owners. African women were only valued for their wombs, for the child of a slave was the property of the slave owners, and that meant an inexhaustible supply of labour. The rape of African women by white slave owners became commonplace, and children were born into slavery by the thousands, destined to a life of servitude from their very first breath, never tasting freedom. They were brought into this world enslaved, and they died enslaved. Family after family were wrenched apart, brutalized, their lives a perpetual cycle of pain and fear. The African people subjected to slavery had their lives, freedom, and names stolen from them. This was consequently followed by the theft of their humanity, when they were referred to as “black cattle” by white slave owners, the terminology reducing them to animals. The transatlantic slave trade may have been outlawed, yet the recent revelation of the selling and buying of African migrants in Libya – amongst other forms of human trafficking – are proof that slavery is not yet a thing of the past, regardless of how badly some wish it were.
The effects of the slave trade are still felt today, rooted deeply within our societies. Racism used to be defined by acts of violence; physical assault, sexual assault, hate crimes. Racism is fueled by a hate so strong, that with time it has evolved into something exceedingly structural, and is no longer restricted to hate speech and vicious attacks. Today’s racism is institutional; it’s within schools, employment, politics, class distinctions, healthcare, society, income, wealth, housing, criminal justice, the system.
Structural racism is cunning; it creeps up behind those who suffer at its hands, is entrenched within the foundations of institutions, and fuels endless white privilege. Structural racism is when the black man is wrongly accused, and the black woman is repeatedly turned down from job after job. It’s when our blackness becomes a valid excuse for police brutality, and the black teenager who spent nights deprived of sleep is rejected from their dream school. It’s when the black girl fails her driving test, while the white girl passes even though they made the same mistakes. It’s when minding your own business becomes a reason to call the police, and is the motive for biased customer service at stores or restaurants. It’s when those in positions of power abuse their power at the expense of minorities. Structural racism is omnipresent; unseen but always there.
This brings me to the question of how institutional racism affects the black, Muslim community. The discrimination faced by black Muslims is two-fold; if it’s not racism, it’s Islamophobic attitudes. Moreover, what is more upsetting is the fact that racism remains prevalent within Muslim communities as well. Islam expresses the importance of treating everyone with respect and equity, notwithstanding race, and that no human being is superior over another. However, I have personally had the unfortunate experience of witnessing racial discrimination amongst Muslims.
The forms of racial discrimination include the occasional belittling attitudes and stares of aversion towards black people, the adoption of supercilious gestures by non-black Muslims when they find themselves in the presence of fellow black Muslims, and even the nonsensical belief that Africans are less knowledgeable when it comes to Islam and its teachings. I find it ironic that there are Muslims out there who like to believe that one’s race determines the depth of their Islamic knowledge, when they themselves fail to adhere to Islam’s rudimentary teaching of equity of treatment towards all human beings. Hypocrisy at its finest, ladies and gentlemen.
Speaking of racism within the Muslim community, it was brought to my attention through social media some months ago, that there are non-black Arabs who use the term Abd/Abeed to refer to black people. Now, anyone who is familiar with the Arabic language will know that Abd translates to slave in English. I was seething. To refer to another human being with such disparaging language only proves how obnoxious one truly is, and reflects on their egocentric character. It’s occurrences like these that black Muslims have to deal with, sometimes on a daily basis. And while I do believe that Muslim communities have begun to be more aware of racial prejudice, racism and colorism remain pervasive in Arab countries as well as Asian countries. This is why it is imperative we continue initiating conversations regarding colorism and racism in Muslim communities, even when some express indignation and state that such is a form of reverse discrimination.
Despite the sociocultural obstacles duplicitously placed in their paths, black Muslimah’s have risen above their oppressors, unapologetically exceeding society’s expectations and incandescently shattering the glass ceiling, embracing the stereotype of the “angry black girl.”
Being a black, Muslim woman, one would say that the odds are almost always never in your favor. Discrimination on the basis of sex is ubiquitous and experienced by all women, however women of color are confronted with double discrimination throughout their lifetime. Despite the sociocultural obstacles duplicitously placed in their paths, black Muslimah’s have risen above their oppressors, unapologetically exceeding society’s expectations and incandescently shattering the glass ceiling, embracing the stereotype of the “angry black girl.”
From the UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J Mohammed to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. From model Halima Aden, to athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad. The aforementioned are but a few out of the many black, Muslim women who have become trailblazers and role models to the millions of black Muslim girls within the world who have hopes and dreams. We hear the phrase “representation matters” time and time again, because representation does matter. It matters so that kids can see someone who looks like them bulldozing right through barriers and inequity and emerge on the other side with their head held high. The power of representation is enough to instill unwavering belief in the hearts of children who come from minority communities, that they can make their dreams a reality.
Black history is American history. It’s British history. It’s Arab history. Black history is global history, and it’s about time we see that reflected in educational systems. Conversations on race are ones that need to be instigated, especially within educational institutions. That way, the younger generations can approach society with an awareness, understanding, and open-mindedness that the previous generations never had. Some see my blackness as a crime, some see it as a flaw, some see it as a weapon, and others see it as a source of shame. My blackness is my pride, my strength, and my beauty. And if my black girl magic bothers you, then that is proof of how powerful it is.
I have come to the realization that perhaps racism is infinite. There will always be those who harbor the belief that something as natural and innate as skin color is a measure of worth. There will always be white privilege. There will always be traces of institutional racism in everything that we do. Racism is ingrained in the way the world operates. I first came across the expression “there’s no justice, there’s just us” in a book written by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Black people have had to fight for their fundamental, human rights. We’ve had to fight for our freedom, we’ve had to fight for a seat at the table, we’ve had to fight against social injustice and police brutality, we’ve had to fight against discrimination, and our ancestors who carried the weight of enslavement on their backs had to fight for their lives. Yet, after decades and centuries, we continue to fight for justice that is not always served. But that is what we do and who we are; we fight and we rise.
“Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise. Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise. I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide, welling and swelling I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise. Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise. Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise.” – Maya Angelou, Still I Rise.