By Anthony Hardy
“Remember – no matter what you achieve in life,” my mother told me when I was an eight-year-old child, “you will always be nothin’ but a nigger to them.” She looked at me with the piercing eyes only a mother has, the ones that see past your face and penetrate your soul. “When I brought you into this world, you already had three strikes against you: you’re Black, you’re a male, and you’re poor. You ain’t gonna get the same kinda leeway these White folks get.”
It’s the same admonishment all Black parents in America give their children at some point, though maybe not as candidly as my mother did. Above all else, she was a pragmatist and a martinet. Being a poor, single, Black woman in the American South will fashion a pragmatist; the desire to protect your three children from the negative influences of the environment will harden even the softest of hands. When my mother spoke these immortal words to me, the Civil Rights Act of 1965 had been the law of the land for some thirty-nine years; the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education had been so for forty-five years; and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 – deemed the Fair Housing Act – had been law for thirty-six. Adequate instruction was still a necessity for survival in an ostensibly “integrated” world, particularly for Black males.
My Sustainer saw it fit to fashion me Black and to place me in a poor, deeply rooted Black Catholic community located in a portion of the Bible Belt South. The cathedral serving the community was originally constructed in the late 1800s to serve the ecclesiastic needs of German, Italian and Irish immigrants. A group of nuns opened a school for Blacks and Creoles a few years after the completion of the cathedral. The descendants of emancipated slaves flocked to Roman Catholicism from Protestantism searching for education for their children, as back in those days, Catholics were known for their stellar parochial educational institution. My great grandfather, so my mother told me, was among those individuals who converted seeking something better for his progeny. I would like to think some of those Blacks even shared the pews with their fellow White Catholics.
If so, not for long: the ninety years of Jim Crow laws and the deceptive fallacy of “separate but equal” bifurcated the community. Many of the recent European immigrants who were maligned for being Catholic were able to purchase Whiteness at a fairly cheap price. And then there was the White Flight, the embodiment of discriminatory housing legislation, urban planning, government subsidies, social engineering, predatory economic exploitation, and even physical violence that gave genesis to the coveted suburbs and exurbs, the culmination of the illusionary confluence of separation and equality. These were Jim Crow at its finest—the holy grail of the ever-elusive American Dream, built off the backs of Blacks through savagery, thievery, and connivery.
Long before my mother came into the world in the early 1960s, only Blacks attended the church. Most of the Whites in the surrounding area had long disappeared. In their absence, the powers that be erected in the center of what would become the community of my birth a sewage and water treatment plant. The house of my grandmother, the house in which I was to be raised, was juxtaposed with the cesspool. The cathedral where I was to be baptized was a ten-minute walk down street from the plant; the elementary school where I was to be educated was a fifteen-minute walk from it. For decades, everyone in the vicinity woke up, worked, and laid down to the putrid stench of excrement and chemicals. Some people would even die with the fumes in their breast, said my grandmother.
The smell had not abated when I came into the picture. Sometimes, it was so bad I remember my mother and grandmother praying for God to command the winds to take the fumes. At times, those prayers were answered; other times, we just had to bear it. Allāh subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He), in His Infinite Wisdom, had coined for me a parable using my own childhood as to what I should expect from my existence as a Black man in America.
Said Moses to his people, “Seek help through Allah and be patient. Indeed, the earth belongs to Allah. He causes to inherit it whom He wills of His servants. And the [best] outcome is for the righteous,” (Qur’ān, 7:128).
“Ain’t much else you can do,” both my mother and grandmother would say, “but suffer it and go on.”
Muslims often ask me what brought me to Islam. By way of preamble, I inform people of the obvious – that I’m a Black man – and the not so obvious – that I hail from the South. I then ask them to couple these facts with their own imagination as to why a man in my position from this part of America would accept the message of the unlettered, gentile Prophet ﷺ. Most of my interlocutors, at this point, have inklings as to some of the reasons—a sign, I hope, that people at the very least comprehend the connection between the social and historical realities and the theological consequences of those realities.
I then proceed to tell them this. In fifth grade, at a private Catholic school attended predominantly by White middle and upper class children, a fourth grader, a White kid, said, “All you Black people should still be slaves!” after I bested him in a game of basketball. Were it not for some childhood friends restraining me, I surely would have beaten him to Hell and back.
When I got home that evening, I started thinking about certain aspects of Christianity, at least as I understood them at the time. It possibly had something to do with the imagery often used in Catholic churches, chiefly pictures of a European Jesus and his equally European mother and disciples, and how inconsistent I thought it was for Blacks in America to be worshipping someone or something that so closely resembled our debasers. This kid and his parents believed that in accepting a certain theological interpretation of a historical event – the supposed crucifixion and resurrection of Christ – they were somehow absolved of their sins and thus would not have to answer for them. Yet I believed, even back then, people should be held accountable before God for their actions. I never told my mother what happened. She might have razed the school and maybe even the church.
Two years later, I found myself in an under-funded, dilapidated public middle school, an institution befitting of the low property taxes in its proximity, surrounded by teenagers who were more my peers, mostly poor Blacks and a few poor Whites. My mother withdrew me from the Catholic school because she could no longer afford the expensive tuition and because she was afraid I would “become White.” Back then I lacked the insight as to how one could “become White” and was unsure what that meant. I was sure, though, the strange white substance hanging exposed from the ceiling of the school was asbestos and that neighboring the school were a liquor store and a scrap metal yard. I was sure many of the teachers were not qualified for their positions, and those that were had to deal with sparse resources. I was sure many didn’t care at all: they were paid just to show up and leave.
The altercation with the fourth grader haunted me still, and because of it, I spent many nights wandering the streets of my neighborhood, agonizing over both social and theological issues as best I could. Although I believed in Him and although I was starting to challenge foundational Christian beliefs such as the Trinity and Vicarious Atonement, I also thought He was totally indifferent to our suffering or to the suffering of others. I never entertained the question of whether God existed; my concern was, rather, did God care? I wrestled with the wisdom of God putting my family in the position He did. I thought we denizens of ghettos and trailer parks were God’s bastard children, His “mistakes” in the way parents in our society often refer to their children, the ones He created by accident. Like our own derelict fathers, I figured He just left us to rot in the dirty armpits of America. I began to consider maybe there was something inherent to our nature that warranted our condition; or maybe we were guilty of some unknown transgression against Him that necessitated our status in society as just recompense. He seemed to prefer Whites, wealthy ones at that—they were made in His image after all. Why wouldn’t one want to “become White” in that case? Maybe, I reasoned, some element of their being was more favorable to the Almighty. Maybe He played favorites with His creation, the Whiter the better in His eyes. As such, I found myself wishing I looked more like them: wishing my skin color was just a little lighter, my hair was less coarse and kinky, my butt and legs were not as big. I was coming into tauhīd (belief in the oneness of God) in one sense but not in others.
I encountered my first Muslim a few months before I started college. She was a Black woman in her mid-fifties, a former member of the Nation of Islam in her youth who had embraced Sunni Islam later in life. She in many ways reminded of my mother, religious yet down-to-earth, profane yet wise. In fact, had my mother been Muslim, she would have resembled this woman. She elucidated the basic tenets of Islam, which I was eager to accept. I claim if one is predisposed to believing in God and prophets, the message of Islam will inevitably reverberate at a recognizable frequency; however, that being said, this woman, because of her background, possessed a manner of relaying the message that resonated with me on a personal level. Had someone else been placed in my path, I might not have been as receptive to the message. Allāhu `Alim (God is All-Knowing).
Muslims often do not ask what happened after my conversion. In my experience, this appears to be less concerning to them, seeing as how the question seldom surfaces, which is a sad turn of affairs since that response is I think more beneficial and instructive.
Even after I declared shahadah (the declaration of faith in Islam), it took me many years of thinking, soul searching, reading the Qur’ān, considering the life of the Prophet (s), along with a hefty dose of Malcolm X, to reach conclusions about God that were more in line with Islam. I gave much thought to Allāh and how He relates to the suffering and downtrodden in societies, particularly Blacks in America: certain ideas about Blackness in the American context had to be challenged within my own being; ideas about Whiteness had to be jettisoned; old worldviews needed to be dismantled and new ones assembled. The psycho-spiritual furniture and psychological hardwiring in my mind and in my heart needed to be rearranged. The existential angst all humans experience borne of the paradox of infinite potential and mortal finitude needed to be directed towards a different qibla (direction Muslims face in prayer). It’s taken for granted that conversion is a process, not an event.
Not too much time elapsed following my conversion before I became acquainted with how the Muslim community actually functions in terms of race, color, class, and culture. Growing up in ghettos and trailer parks grants one amazing powers of perception. In addition to seeking God, I suppose I was also longing for a haven in the houses of Allāh against the monumental tribulation of being Black in America, a place of brief reprieve. I figured if anyone could understand us Blacks it would be the Muslims, who not only possessed a sizeable Black contingency, but who also by this point, post 9/11, were just as much the objects of unjust scrutiny as we were. I was, as it turned out, quickly disabused of this naïve notion: I went from Whites calling me “slave” to Arabs calling me ‘abd (literally, Arabic for “slave”, sometimes used in a derogatory manner to refer to Black individuals), I went from getting leery looks from Whites to getting them from South Asians, I went from Whites calling me “nigger” to Turks calling me zenci (Adopted from the Arabic “zanji”, meaning “one from the land of the Blacks”; more colloquially, the term means “nigger”), I went from hearing from Whites say, “You people can’t marry our children,” to hearing this from Africans, and I went from Whites saying, “You’re scary and uncivilized” to hearing this from non-Black Muslims in general. Not even the fanes of God were exempt, churches and mosques alike.
I remember, some time after my initial run-ins with the Muslim community, I visited my grandfather who was then eighty-two years old. He is from rustic regions of southern Alabama and had survived Jim Crow, portions of World War II, the Korean War, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Civil Rights Movement. On a whim, I asked my grandfather what he thought about race and if he thought the issue was ameliorating. Given his life experience, I figured his perspective would be valuable.
He gave me this response: “Nowadays, if someone wants to call you ‘nigger,’ they won’t do it your face. There ain’t no more ‘Whites Only’ drinking fountains and pools, ya see. There ain’t no more ‘Whites Only’ neighborhood. But what they do is they say make it so you can’t get a house or a job or they cheat you. They don’t say ‘You can’t live here!’ no mo’ but they make it hard to get a house! The Klan don’t do the lynchings. The police do it now. Ain’t no mo’ poll taxes but they still don’t want us voting! They call you ‘nigger’ but they hide it better. Don’t let them fool ‘bout what they say ‘bout progress. Things is really just the same as they always was.”
When I had this conservation with him, Trayvon Martin hadn’t been killed yet, nor had Jordan Davis, or Oscar Grant or Renisha McBride or John Crawford or Mike Brown. Richard Sherman, I imagine, was probably still in high school, so he wasn’t yet the brash “thug” he would become. And no one was asking for Barack Obama’s birth certificate or questioning his American citizenship.
At least not yet, anyway. I guess the old adage is true: the more things change, the more they remain the same. There is as much literal and figurative ‘nigger’ calling amongst the Muslims in America today as there is in American society at large. Like my great-grandfather before me, I sought something better. As my mother would say though, six in one hand, half a dozen in the other.
I’m looking for a house
In the world
Where the white shadows
Will not fall.
There is no such house,
No such house
—Langston Hughes, “House in the World”