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HOW AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSLIMS PAVED THE WAY TO JUNETEENTH

President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act this June 17th. This makes Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the emancipation of the last enslaved African Americans in Texas on June 19, 1865, a federal holiday. 

While Juneteenth marks “footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation,” and while it is a reminder of Nance Legins-Costley, the very first Black woman to be freed by Lincoln before the Proclamation, it doesn’t bring to attention the struggles of earlier enslaved African groups — specifically the African Muslims who were captured in the 18th and 19th centuries and taken to the United States when it was still called the “New World.”

WHY IT MATTERS

Enslaved African Muslims have deconstructed the negative stereotypes about enslaved Africans, such as that they were illiterate and ignorant.

In his book, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South, Michael Gomez argued, “the early Muslim community contributed significantly to the development of the African American identity.”

In fact, in the 18th century, long before the liberation of Nance, Ayyub bin Suleiman, who was enslaved in Maryland, became the first enslaved African Muslim in antebellum America “known to have gained freedom because of his literacy.”

Because of their knowledge, enslaved African Muslims were “de-negrofied” so that they would fit into the “racial order” of colonizers, who were too racist to acknowledge that Black people can also be educated. 

“It was more acceptable to deny any Africanness to the distinguished Muslims than to recognize that a ‘true’ African could be intelligent and cultured but enslaved nonetheless,” Sylviane Diouf explained in her book Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas.

Also, this African Muslim community played a pivotal role in the creating the Black American culture. Blues, for example, emerged amongst enslaved Muslim Africans as a secret mechanism to practice Islam, as they were forced to convert to Christianity. If anything, the call to prayer, Adhan, used to be subtly sung as a Blues song.

In fact, in the 18th century, long before the liberation of Nance, Ayyub bin Suleiman, who was enslaved in Maryland, became the first enslaved African Muslim in antebellum America “known to have gained freedom because of his literacy.”

In 1854, Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua, an enslaved African Muslim, said about the racism his community faced: “Some persons suppose that the African has none of the finer feelings of humanity within his breast, and that the milk of human kindness runs not through his composition; this is an error, an error of the grossest kind; the feelings which animated the whole human race, lives within the sable creatures of the torrid zone, as well as the inhabitants of the temperate and frigid; the same impulses drive them to action […] the same maternal and paternal affections are there, the same hopes and fears, griefs and joys, indeed all is there as in the rest of mankind; the only difference is their color.”

HOW ABOUT NOW?

The intersectionality between Islam and Blackness still constitutes a major problem amongst the Black community. According to Pew Research Center, “about nine-in-ten black Muslims (92%) say there is a lot of discrimination against black people, compared with 78% of black Christians.”

Such problematic intersectionality between Islam and Blackness was depicted during the 19th century when Southern newspapers knew that Abdul Rahman, an ex-enslaved African Muslim who claimed to have converted to Christianity and was freed by President John Adams, died a Muslim once he went back to Africa. 

“Abdul Rahman had become a tool, Southern papers sought to vilify Abdul Rahman by re-islamizing him, just as they negrofied him. That is, they associated him once again with the negative stereotypes of Islam: ‘The said negro was […] educated in Arabic literature and bro’tup in the Mahometan Faith, a faith which he has never relinquished…. Such is the bloodthirsty, tyrannical Mahometan negro, who is now travelling himself and suite, up and down through the free states in pomp, with the President’s passport in his pocket’,” Kambiz GhaneaBassiri demonstrated in his book A History of Islam in America: From the New World to the New World Order

Although not getting the media attention, Black Muslim community in America have been subjected to police brutality because of the qualified immunity doctrine that enables police officers to be let off after breaking the law.

Yassin Mohamed, a 47-year-old Sudanese-American Muslim, suspected to have been in the midst of a mental health crisis, was shot and killed in May 2020. 

Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old Black American Muslim, and a father of two children, was shot 20 times by Sacramento police in March 2018 in his grandmother’s backyard.

Shukri Ali Said, a 36-year-old Somali-American Muslim, was shot five times by the police in April 2018, who were supposed to help get her to a hospital. 

Muhammad Muhaymin Jr., a 40-year-old Black American Muslim, died in January 2017, as police officers put their legs on his back and placed their knees on his neck telling him that Allah wouldn’t help him at that point as he was crying out for help, “I can’t breathe. Please, Allah. Please help me.” 

THE BOTTOM LINE

As Juneteenth has been celebrated this year as a national holiday, and as it reflects a step toward taking actions to provide reparations and end the qualified immunity, it is more crucial than ever not to forget Black American Muslims who have been subject to inter- and intra-racism. It’s important more than ever before that we pay tribute to Muslim Africans who largely contributed to the development of not just the U.S., but also the Black culture.

Juneteenth doesn’t just mark the end of slavery; it marks the redemption of the rights of Black people, and as much as it is pivotal to support our Black non-Muslim communities, our non-Black Muslim communities have to support their fellow Black Muslims instead of practicing microaggressions and double standards with them.