Written By: Renea ‘Ayah’ Thompson
I have been avoiding writing this for some time because it hurts to think about really. I’m happy as a Muslim. Alhamdulilah (Thanks be to God). I can say this with certainty, but my experience as a black Muslim deserves its own separate narrative. It’s one of tears and self-doubt that has always been present in my life, even before my conversion, but I expected the Muslim community to be one of togetherness—void of simple-mindedness. It’s a story that Muslims of other races and ethnic backgrounds struggle to understand or simply ignore altogether, but it is one that should be told and acknowledged despite how warped it further makes the Muslim community look to non-Muslims. This is my black Muslim experience.
I grew up in Mississippi, a place with a turbulent history, due to it’s role in black slavery and Jim Crow, thereafter. Whenever I tell someone that I am from there, I always get the same questions. Isn’t it a racist place? Are you afraid for your life? No, I am not. Surely, there is racism, but the entire foundation of the United States of America is based upon racism and bigotry; it exists in every state. I got my first real taste of what it’s like to be black upon becoming Muslim and marrying a pale-skinned Arab from Syria.
In 2007, shortly after my conversion, I married my now ex-husband only 12 days after my 20th birthday. Before marrying, I was always made to think that I would one day get to live with his family and get the Muslim experience of which I had dreamed. After some months had passed, I had come to realize that this was a lie. His mother and father knew nothing about me, and he wasn’t going to tell them. He had finally told me after I kept asking to speak with his mother to get some Middle Eastern recipes. Not only was she not the atypical Arab mother, cooking and cleaning at home, but she wasn’t fond of the idea of him being married to a black woman, regardless of my Muslim beliefs. To appease me, he had run the idea by her a few times to see if he’d be able to ease into the conversation of telling her about us. Her response was, “You can f*ck her, but you cannot marry her. I am not racist. I just think that black people should be with black people, and white people should be with white people. You’ll never see a dove with a crow”. It was fine for him to marry a Muslim who matched his skin color. He could even marry a non-Muslim just as long as she was fair-skinned. His mom had basically given him the okay to do me whichever way, except the right way. It goes without saying that this is probably one of the main reasons why our marriage didn’t survive. Those words set the tone for our entire relationship and became the cause of many disputes over the years. Experiences within the Muslim community mirrored my experiences at home although my experiences were home were the most tragic and still affect me now in my everyday life.
But there is something I love about being Muslim and that is that our places of worship are attended by various ethnic groups. Converting to Islam colored my world; before, I only knew white and black. I became all the more interested in learning other languages and the histories of other peoples. My interest grew in immigrant issues—something I honestly didn’t think about previously. I became invested in people other than myself and not just the people who looked like me or came from where I had. However, it has become difficult to advocate for the causes of a people who don’t reciprocate that same vigor for justice and compassion when it comes to black Muslims. The Qur’an clearly states that Allah did not create us from different colors and tribes so that we may be divided but for us to join together and learn from one another. Therefore, where is the justification in separating us? Why do some mosques only cater to certain ethnic groups? I’ve been to predominantly Arab, Pakistani, and black American mosques. Strangely enough, I always find myself most comfortable in the Arab mosques as opposed to the black American ones or Pakistani, not because of how I’m treated necessarily but because our religious beliefs and the ways in which we deal with others usually match up more than the other two types I mentioned. Regardless, I still have to wade my way through silly questions and insulting behavior.
“My family would never let me marry a black person!” That’s what a Palestinian girl said to me after finding out I was married to an Arab. She kept going on about how strange it was and how she couldn’t believe we were married. Other Arab girls agreed with her and giggled about it, and I could feel my face becoming hot. I asked them what the big deal was, and they assured me that it wasn’t but that it just wasn’t accepted. I kept asking why, and the reason I kept asking was simply to get them to think about why they continue the tradition of racism and bigotry. If they know that it is wrong to think and behave this way towards black Muslims, it is up to them to do what’s right. A question that is often posed in classrooms of philosophy and physics alike is this, “If a tree were to fall, and no one was around to hear it, would it make a sound?” In other words, if this generation stopped right now and married and befriended whoever they wanted based purely upon the religion and not upon racism, would the idea and practice be able to continue? Would it continue being a topic? Would non-black Muslims be able to accuse black Muslims of “pulling the race card” if there were no racial epithets thrown and racial discrimination exhibited? You know the answer. Our beautiful religion of Islam is too forward-thinking for its followers to be so far behind. Let that sink in a moment.
I’m so tired of non-black Muslims (strictly referring to ‘born’ Muslims who aren’t black, not reverts) having a hard time fathoming how I am Muslim as if this religion is reserved for a certain ethnic group. “Where are you from?” I always say that I’m American, that all my family is American and that we know nothing but the United States, but I MUST be from somewhere else to be Muslim, right? Sometimes I just make something up to stop the questioning, and it’s always accepted over my just converting by the will of Allah. Saying I married an Arab, or my family is from Sudan is always more believable. Yes, this beautiful deen came to the Arabs, but it is for the world. Stop asking me to recite the Qur’an for you as if you’re testing my legitimacy as a Muslim. Stop okaying the bigotry. Yes, not saying anything about it says everything. Start acting like we’re all one under this beautiful religion of Allah. Non-black Muslim brothers, stop fetishizing my blackness as if black Muslim women are not worthy of good Muslim husbands—as if we are only good for quenching your sexual thirsts. If she’s good enough for you to have sex with, she should be good enough to marry. Fear Allah. Even more importantly, mothers teach your sons to respect ALL women, not just those who look like you.