Bebop, Islam and the Promise of a Dignified Existence in Jim Crow America

The following is a short paper that I wrote on the relation between Islam and Blackness and the draw between the two back in the early part of the 20th Century. I hope to have the time to post a few more ruminations, but at the moment, enjoy this small piece.

Much like the 1940’s, modern day America is taking a closer look at the religion of Islam, how America relates to it, and how Islam fits into the tapestry of the dominant culture. As it is today, so was it some seventy years ago that Islam was seen as a foreign and possibly even hostile entity. And yet, for Blackamericans, Islam not only held a mystique that called to them but also eventually offered an alternative modality of being both black and American. For many, this switch of religious identity was cemented in the social issues of the day, namely the racism that was prevalent in American society at the time towards Blackamericans. As we shall see, jazz, and more specifically, bebop, would play a major role in tying together disparate narratives into a holy protest against white supremacy.

The article I have chosen to discuss is a passage from Dizzy Gillespie’s memoir, To Be or Not to Bop. From the selected passed, Gillespie, as one of bebop’s founding fathers, illustrates a unique crossroads of black consciousness: religion, music and social justice that for many Blackamerican jazz musicians came in the form of Islam, bebop and intellectual/anti-establishment mindset that saw to either confront or subvert the laws and practices of a Jim Crow legacy.

In recent years there has been a tremendous amount of research conducted on Islam, including the phenomenon of Islam amongst Blackamericans. And while there has been enlightening findings that have shed more light on the nature of Africans and their decedents in antebellum American, it still stands that the chain that linked modern Blacks and those of their African ancestors that were Muslim, is a broken one. Instead, as Gillespie relates for us, the rise of Islam in the interest and imagination amongst many Blackamerican jazz musicians had primarily to do with the social/racial climate that these musicians found themselves in. As “colored” or “Negro”, such musicians were barred from playing and performing in jazz clubs, which were white-owned. Even the task of acquiring lodging for these traveling musicians was made near to impossible due to the color of their skin. But in what would be a puzzling discovery, Blackamerican musicians that changed their public identity to Muslim, would find they could pass under the radar of Jim Crow.

The turn of the 20th Century saw few improvements for Blackamericans. Indeed, one could say that things were worsening, with the state-condoned violence that was unleashed on many Blacks in America. And by the mid- and especially late-Forties, when Black service men were returning to America after having served in a war that was supposed to be about racism, they saw their social context in complete opposition to the values supposedly expressed by the dominant culture. It is here the seeds of discord would be sown and out of this collective discontent would rise a new sense of intellectual ownership over themselves, as yet unseen before in the history of the United States. For many Blackamericans who chose to adopt Islam as their faith, Islam represented something completely outside the jurisdiction of white authority. This sentiment would be proved even by the racist elements of white-American society that would permit access to services to Blackamerican Muslim converts, who were presumed to be of a non-American black origin. Gillespie relates one such occasion:

“He [Oliver Mesheux] went into this restaurant, and they said they didn’t serve colored in there. So he said, ‘I don’t blame you. But I don’t have to go under the rules of colored because my name is Mustafa Dalil.’”

This process, something as simple as changing one’s name to something that sounded Middle-Eastern, offered some Blackamerican musicians a expeditious means of overcoming Jim Crow racism. Though beyond the scope of this article, it would be this sentiment that would inform many other Blackamericans and their choice to embrace Islam.

To gain a more encompassing perspective of this phenomenon, we must also analyze the broader social context into which it came into, namely the liberalization of the American society. One must remember that though Blackamericans were indeed suffering at the hands of their white counterparts, they still saw themselves as American in one sense or another. And along with that traditional sense of American was a strong attachment of Blackamericans to Christianity. As we will see in the Civil Rights Movement, Black Christianity would play a key role in organizing and shaming the dominant culture in American into submission. To be certain, there were some amongst the black intelligentsia that were aware of the legacy of non-Christian religious traditions in their heritage, but by and large, Christianity remained the predominant if not exclusive religion of Blackamericans pre-1900’s. This would all change with the coming of alternative black intellectual endeavors (such figures as Garvey and DuBois were sympathetic to Islam, though certainly not practitioners of it) that saw to root themselves outside of the white-dominated constituency of American society.

With the relaxing of society’s grip on religious intolerance, an increasing (though still a minority to be sure) number of Blackamericans sought solace in the haven that Islam promised. Less rooted in religious or philosophical reasons than purely existential ones, Islam opened up to Blackamericans, of which the ripples of this are still seen to this very day. In short, a black man, for example, in the 1940’s could convert to Islam in what would amount a sort of racial swapping, if not apostasy. And like modern times, this did not escape the attention of the dominant culture, who were curious or even concerned that Islam amongst Blackamericans might be some sort of “anti-Christianity” movement. Gillespie himself, though not a Muslim, was at one point put to the question if he “planned to quit and forsake Christianity”. In a sense, what is being articulated here, is an invisible link that binds “blackness” and “Christianity”. Islam was a foreign enterprise and for many, represented a hostile (though not in the same meaning as hostile would mean today) threat, for this conversion was seen as linked to movements and ideologies that sought to circumvent the status quo of Jim Crow law and sentiment.

I believe that the movement and attraction of Islam within this minority of Blackamerican musicians is both intriguing and erudite to some of the similar issues we’re looking at today. It also sheds light on why Islam would be appealing to a minority group that simply looking for a method of living out a dignified existence in a social landscape that offered few choices and little room for improvement. Throughout its history and even up until today, Islam amongst Blackamericans cannot be separated from its history as a social commentary and vehicle of upliftment and expiation for Blackamericans. Indeed, as we would soon see from the likes of Malcolm X, Islam was a vehicle to combat the hostilities from their environment in a manner and method that differed quite distinctly from black Christians. It also allowed Blackamericans to re-created themselves with a new sense of autonomy not formerly allowed to them in the stifling social climate that they lived in. And yet, unlike Malcolm X, the black bebop jazz musicians that would embrace Islam sought to do so in a non-violent fashion. Contented to be social commentators and critics through their music, most simply just wanted to be able to play their music to a broader audience without discrimination. I find this again, strikingly similar to the times we live in today, where there is a very small number of Muslims who advocate violent resistance to perceived oppressions (valid or otherwise is besides the point here), and yet the vast majority of Muslims simply wish for the right to live with dignity and practice their religion with their humanity intact, and not called into question, as was the case for black folks living at the beginning of the 20th Century America. Perhaps here in history there’s a lesson for us all to learn (again).

Applying Rouge

 

“It is good to carry some powdered rouge in one’s sleeve. It may happen that when one is sobering up or waking from sleep, his complexion may be poor. At such time it is good to take out and apply some powdered rouge.” – Yamamoto Tsunetomo

The challenge of modernity is not met necessarily in the clash of civilizations, the clash of titans or anything quite as grandiose as we may be led to believe. Rather, it would be the clash of plurality; the attempt to make the many, one. In modern times, we often see the implacability of multiple notions on the same ideal. These neuroses have not escaped the Muslims here in America, where it is often more popular than not for self-appointed vanguards of personally conceived notions to coerce the masses into a mold other than that of their choosing. This is carried out by groups and individuals, that for lack of a better word and for dramatic effect, I will dub virtue bullies. The tactic is simple: bludgeon, batter and browbeat those who are perceived to differ in form and thus function of these bastions of moral rectitude. The results of these cultural-psychological attacks are the demonization of individuals and groups who can now easily be used as target practice – religious target practice in as far as this post is concerned. But in my opinion, these attacks are a rouse; a distraction, a cover-up. An applying of rouge to cover one’s blemishes.

What I am speaking about here, primarily, are the notions and concepts on manhood and vis-a-vie, Islam, that some bloggers have taken to attacking. These rants are not merely a waste of time – indeed, they are a fitnah, a trial and tribulation of the community in a time when we have bigger proverbial fish to fry. We live in a time when we need contributors, not detractors. Those who can strive intelligently and morally to say “yes”. Not to fall back on their shortcomings as a safety net to give us the all-too familiar, “no”. But we must get to the heart of these derisive comments. What is really being said here? What is the goal and what is it that these pundits of manhood are seeking to protect, or as I mentioned above, cover up?

To cut to the quick, many of these attacks have centered around the theme of a “hard working man”. The kind of man who earns his keep and, if possible, with his hands. Work that may not involve physical labor while not outright disdained, is certainly mistrustful. Vocations of an intellectual nature are cast with aspersions. After all, how can one really embody all that is right and manly, if you’re providing for your family while dressed in an ascot sweater, wearing suede shoes. Of course, we must not forget the affinity that such men may also have for coffee beverages, such as lattes, cappuccinos, and the like.

While the examples I am giving here are for dramaturgical effect, they are nonetheless, part and parcel with this scornful outlook on those who do not fit their predetermined profile. But in essence, these attacks are highly reminiscent of nativist sentiments towards immigration. Like the attitudes of many lower-class working whites at the turn of the 20th century who saw themselves as the defenders of a way of life, so to do these unsubstantiated claims smack of the same song ilk. Manhood, in the eyes of this self-selected few deem those who exist outside their socio-economic class as lacking in manhood. I say these notions are folly and instead, it would appear that their mascara is running at this point.

To say that Islam is a religion that is broad and wide enough to emcompass many modalities of manhood goes without saying. I would prefer to move beyond this Islam 101 narrative and instead seek to broaden the circle of enclosure. We must endeavor to find ways to include, not exclude. To state that the only acceptable form of dress is for men to dress as these pundits due is outright idiocy and completely outside their jurisdiction. Many such pundits have had the audacity to call for reforms in the community that will promote marriage, strong families and yet, many of them have been the participants of multiple marriages, leaving a wake of divocees, uncared for children and worse in their wake. How can someone who has little to no formal education, no formidable job skills, and makes a questionable contribution to community or society have the gumption to leer at persons who have a well-paying jobs, provide for their families in comfortable means, and even have the disposable income to potentially give to charity [something most of these individuals are hardly in the position to do, let alone reliably provide for their families in safe neighborhoods, provide quality educational opportunities for their children, etc.]? But instead of pointing the looking glass at themselves, they reach up their sleeves for some powdered rouge. Again, the mascara is really starting to run at this point. Only upon becoming spiritually sober, to awaken from the slumber of half-baked misconceptions of manhood whose substance is that of papier-mâché, will they have the chance to contribute something to themselves, their families and their communities and perhaps even society. I continue to be baffled at the state of some Muslims’ minds. With the serious future we face, that intellectual capital would be spent on something as asinine as this truly boggles the mind. Assuredly, manhood in Islam can be broad enough to accommodate a cup of coffee.

Of course, I am a tea drinker so I dare not ask what may be said of me.

Imam W. D. Mohammed and The Third Resurrection by Dr. Sherman Jackson

It is my pleasure to present a most erudite article regarding not only the passing of Imam WD Mohammed [may Allah grant him Paradise] but a clarion call to the entire America Muslim community as to the milestone we’ve reached and where we ought to be heading. Enjoy.

Imam W. D. Mohammed and The Third Resurrection
by Sherman Abd al-Hakim Jackson

The passing of Imam W.D. Mohammed, may God have mercy upon him and grant him Paradise, has brought the Blackamerican Muslim community face to face with a reality that it has been more comfortable with ignoring than coming to terms with. Imam Mohammed’s death has signaled the end of the era of charismatic leadership in which the rank and file can look to a single leader to settle all major questions and chart the Community’s course for the future. Rather than being decided by a single voice, that future will have to be negotiated by the collective understandings and perspectives of the Community’s learned. This implies, of course, general agreement on who is learned and what the rules of engagement are. If the criterion is set too high, it will marginalize valuable voices and confirm an already widespread distrust of religious knowledge and those who claim to represent it. If it is set too low, it will open the Community to the ravages and abuses of those who think that the role of religion is to sanction their and or the dominant culture’s every undisciplined whim and passion.

In the years leading up to his death, Imam Mohammed strove mightily and with great farsightedness to empower his Community to carve out a dignified existence for themselves, to transition to what I have referred to as the “Third Resurrection,” whereby, individually and collectively, the Community is able to negotiate American reality in light of the Qur’an and Sunna. For the most part, however, the Imam had to go it alone, with few contributions from Blackamerican Muslim scholars outside his own movement.

Here we come to an embarrassingly sad fact about the state of Blackamerican Islam. For decades, Blackamerican Muslims have been venturing abroad to learn Arabic and the Islamic religious sciences. Yet, this has translated into little benefit and even less interfacing with the Community of Imam W.D. Mohammed – despite that community’s historically unique role in indigenizing Islam among Blackamericans. When we think across the spectrum of the most noted Blackamerican Muslim scholars – from myself to Zaid Shakir, from Aminah Wadud to Aminah McCloud – what we see is a veritable brain-drain out of the Blackamerican community into discourses and activities whose primary beneficiaries are not Blackamerican Muslims and or whose primary focus is not Blackamerican Muslim problems or concerns. Of course, there are exceptions, both in terms of individuals who contradict this description and in terms of some of the activities of the scholars named. But the fact that these are exceptions points to the reality that I am trying to describe: Blackamerican Muslim scholars have a closer relationship with the immigrant community than they have with the community of Imam W.D. Mohammed.

To be fair, there are understandable reasons for this: 1) it is easier (and safer) to direct the Islamic sciences to the realities of the Muslim world and by extension the perspective of Muslim immigrants; 2) Muslim immigrants have more financial wherewithal to support such activities as lecturing, teaching and writing; 3) the immigrant community has a greater ability to validate scholars as scholars; and 4) the media (which plays an enormous role in setting the Muslim agenda in America) tends overwhelmingly to focus on immigrant issues. Beyond all of this, however, there lurks a far more subtle, sadder and less talked about reality that has for decades plagued the relationship between the followers of Imam W.D. Mohammed and the rest of the Blackamerican Sunni community.

I remember Philadelphia in the late 70s and early 80s, when Imam Mohammed was in this midst of his history-making transition. Those of us converts who had been blessed with greater access to (what we thought was) traditional learning would deride the way members of the World Community of Al-Islam in the West recited al-Fatihah, joke about how they gave salaams and relish their inability to keep up with us on all of the irrelevant minutia on which we so self-righteously prided ourselves. We were better than them; for we were real Sunnis, not half-baptist wannabes. For all our – knowledge, however, we were completely devoid of wisdom and even more ignorant of the Sunna of Muhammad (SAWS). Of course, our high-handed arrogance would produce over time an understandable counter-arrogance. To the Imam’s community, we were confused, self-hating Negroes, wannabe Arabs, fresh off the back of the bus onto the back of the camel. If what we displayed was what the so-called Islamic sciences were supposed to be about, they would have little use for them. Ultimately, this would lead to a quiet resentment, mistrust and even hostility, not only towards us but also towards the so-called Islamic tradition that we so dismally (mis)represented. Of course, there were those from Imam Mohammed’s community who managed to transcend some of this alienation. But this was far more the exception than it was the rule.

I may be wrong, but I suspect that Philadelphia was no anomaly in this regard, that this was a fairly widespread phenomenon across the country. The death of Imam Mohammed, however, has now forced us all to take collective responsibility for this toxic state of affairs. Imam Mohammed may be succeeded by another leader; but he is not likely to be replaced; for who could fill his shoes? The new leadership, therefore – not unlike Blackamerican Muslim leadership in general — will have to find ways to spread greater Islamic literacy among the rank and file, to empower them to engage the religion on their own, in order to enable them to sustain their commitment to it. As for the rest of the Blackamerican Sunni community – especially the scholars – I pray that Allah will inspire us and show us the way to mend this relationship. And I ask Allah (and the followers of Imam Mohammed) to forgive me for whatever I may have contributed to our mutual estrangement.

This is not time for a blame game; there is enough blame to go around – on all sides. The time now is for us to put all our “hidden differences” aside and come together to work for the glory of God. In concrete terms, perhaps this year’s MANA conference in Philadelphia could be the starting point of a broad-based dialogue. And if not the MANA conference, perhaps the conference held by Imam Mohammed’s community next year could be the forum. The important point is that we find a way to move beyond where we are now, that we come together in safe space where we can air our differences, establish bonds of mutual respect, identify our common objectives and strengths and renew our commitment to upholding the truth, as Allah says, “even if against ourselves.”

In the meantime, may Allah shower his mercy upon our beloved Imam W. D. Mohammed. May He keep him firm in the grave and raise him among those who have earned His pleasure. May He reward him richly for all that he has done and sacrificed for Islam in this land. And may He bless and guide us to overcome our insecurities through strengthening our bond with Him. May He empower us to conquer the evil whisperings of our souls and grant us the resolve to resist the temptations of Satan. And may He gift us the wisdom to prepare ourselves for a Day on which neither wealth nor progeny will avail, and none shall be spared save those who come to God with a purified heart.

Dr. Sherman Abd al-Hakim Jackson is the author of Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection. He is a co-founder, Trustee, and Core Scholar of the American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM). ALIM is an institution dedicated to empowering Muslims through the development of Islamic Literacy; the application of critical thinking to the building blocks of Islamic Knowledge, Thought, and Character. ALIM currently provides intensive instructional programs targeted at those desiring a critical understanding of their faith and the place of that faith in modern world. Dr. Sherman Jackson is the King Faisal Chair in Islamic Thought and Culture and Professor of Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity .

Bricolage – Blackamerican Islam and Synthesizing the Future

There has been much air and debate tossed around about the future of Islam, especially in America. For me, the primary community of interest has and continues to be the Blackamerican community. For many reasons, one that I’ll give here, it remains a key ingredient in my book, regarding the success of Islam as a genuine entity in the American social space. One of the biggest reasons is that Blackamerican Muslims remain to this day, the only indigenous Western community/racial group that have experienced a large, mass conversion. I have read the numbers on conversion rates and populations. I am not here to debate or inflate the numbers but as the facts stand, Blackamericans are the only group that have had a significant number of their population embrace Islam. This cannot be said of Latinos or whites. And while the number of second and third generation Muslims continues to grow, they are still very much seen as a foreign enterprise. And for the growing number of whites who are choosing to embrace Islam, they still face a tough road of skepticism, cynicism and out right bewilderment from their fellow white Americans, who see their religious choice as some sort of racial apostasy or abandonment. Indeed, Blackamerican Muslim enjoy a special kind of insulation in that blacks can convert, change their names, even where foreign regalia and still be seen as authentically black. This should not be under appreciated or go with out significant notice.

So aside from acceptance, what else does this mean? What significance should this have for us as Blackamerican Muslims? Have we even acknowledged this fact and taken advantage of it. From my day to day run-ins with various Blackamerican Muslims around Philadelphia, I must give a cautious “no”. By no means do I think that some of the Muslims I’ve met in Philadelphia represent all Muslims elsewhere but I will nonetheless use them as a test case. For in my sixteen years of having embraced Islam, many of the sentiments I’ve heard echoed by some of Philadelphia’s Blackamerican Muslims have been echoed elsewhere. It is my hope that some of this short post will provide a bit of food for thought on the subject.

It may be a cliché that to want change one must recognize that one needs to change. Status quo can be a dangerous and comfortable set of chains. Bound by our thoughts, we have forgotten that we constrained and when time, circumstance or situation demands action, we just keep singin’ that same ol’ song. Much of the tension that I see between younger Blackamerican Muslims and the Old Guard is the lack of vision or clairvoyance to see that a change is needed. But change for the sake of change’s sake won’t cut the bill. Serious thought and soul searching must be engaged to see what it is that needs to be changed and in what manner. If there’s one community that has suffered so terribly from the baby-and-the-bath-water syndrome, it’s the Blackamerican Muslim community. So desperate were we to escape the confines of “black life” in America, many of us donned costume and script from some one else’s play and we played the part [at times better than they did themselves]. What I’m getting at is what I heard from a colleague lately, who criticized Black Muslims for out Arabing the Arabs. What many don’t realize, is that the hidden impetus behind this shift, this searching, had a great deal to do with the pain that many of us felt. Stifled by the glass veil of white values [not the KKK, per se], we were eager for an outlet. An outlet that would allow us not only to express out blackness in a valid way, but our very humanity. Our souls. And while I will fault no one for those feelings, it has not proven to be a successful operation. In my opinion, one of the stumbling blocks was due to what I’d call the eclecticism of Blackamerican Islam in the wake of the Nation of Islam. I shall try to elaborate.

It may seem short sighted or even harsh to label post-Nation Islam as an eclectic movement. It should be understood that this is not a value judgment on those persons who participated in the movement, but rather an observation. By eclectic, I mean in the dictionary sense of the word, but transplanted in a social context: selecting or choosing from various sources. Let me further ground my statement in what Ebrahim Moosa [see Ghazali & The Poetics of Imagination – Chapel Hill Press] describes as eclecticism:

“Lacking coherence, it [eclecticism] sits uncomfortably in its new habitat as if it had been mechanically inserted into the new setting.”

But exchanging eclecticism for Blackamerican Islam [post-Nation], one can see it has sat uncomfortably and even further, dysfunctionally, in its new habitat. What I see is a call for bricolage, a term coined by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who, in his definition as explained by Moosa, points out the difference between a bricoleur and an architect:

“An engineer always attempts to go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular moment in civilization. A bricoleur, on the other hand, is always inclined to remain within those limitations and constraints.”

Moosa further elaborates on Strauss’ term in two facets:

“…first, the appropriation of cultural elements from the dominant culture; and second the transformation of meanings through ironic juxtaposition and innovative use in order to challenge and subvert existing meanings.”

For me, Strauss’ bricolage elegantly describes much of the process of the Nation of Islam. That to a great degree, Elijah Muhammad appropriated certain elements of Islam from dominant Muslim theology and transformed them into new objects that were meaningful for to him/blacks in his time and place, and they very much did challenge and attempt to subvert existing meanings on what constituted blackness and the limits that white values had placed on black human beings at that time. So when we look at the religious doctrine of the Nation, it is very much out of touch with traditional/orthodox/main stream Islam. But it did breathe new life into the dignity of many black folks who wanted to shrug off the confines of the injustices they faced in their time. If not in practice, then in spirit, this is the very same need that I see Blackamerican Muslims in need to do. This bricolage, this struggle, will encompass a serious grappling with the past/Tradition of Islam without becoming slave to it. Self martyrdom [“…it’s a black thang…”] will simply not suffice.

So how does this bricolage take flight? In what manner is it carried out such that it will be seen as genuine and not another fish out of water enterprise. The answer laid in Moosa’s description as to the difference between eclecticism and bricolage:

“The crucial difference is [that] in order for any performance or idea to be deemed eclectic, the provenance of the borrowed artifact must still be very much visible to the observer in the composite product. In fact, the borrowed idea does not develop a life of its own within the new setting.”

“By contrast, a bricoleur relocates artifacts in such a way that they form an integral part of the new environment. A bricoleur demands originality in the process of refinement and adaptation, making the borrowed artifact synthetically fit in with the new surroundings as if it had been there all the time and belonged there in the first place.”

Moosa’s last statement, about belonging, again points to a critical difference between the indigenous Blackamerican population and other foreign or ethnic populations. They simply are not seen as belonging in America. That their very essence is anti-Western and can never fit or be accommodated. In contrast, Blackamericans can move from Christianity to Islam without shedding their sense of belonging [unless they choose to do so!]. One should not think that for a moment this position is without envy from the foreign/ethnic population.

As it stands, much of the Islam I have witnessed coming out of the Blackamerican population has been one of eclecticism. That the process to becoming Muslim required replicating a previous or “other” version of Islam such that when it was donned by Blackamericans it still resembled its old form or context. By this I mean things such as wardrobe, diet, and societal norms. Suits and pants became thobes and turbans. Falafel and hummus became more authentic than steak and fried chicken. And holding down a 9-5 and supporting one’s family was bucked in favor of checking out against the kafir-led regime that oppressed the Palestinians. But instead, if we were to fashion an Islam that spoke to our time, our condition and our history, this bricolage would speak far greater to us than any masquerading could.

Part of this process of bricolage will entail revisiting the past and the Tradition of Islam. The Tradition of Islam cannot simply be ignored, as is attempted by authors like Irshad Manji or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wish to jettison all of the past in favor of a new utopist, Western-values dictated Islam. This type of rhetoric is equally guilty of the hegemony that they claim the Traditionalists hold over them. A new, fresh and honest rereading of the past can allow for a blending of tradition with circumstance. As Michel de Certeau says,

“The same words and the same ideas are often reused but they no longer have the same meaning [and] they are no longer thought and organized in the same way. It is upon this “fact” that the project of an all-encompassing and unitary interpretation runs aground.”

So instead of tossing that same old baby out with the bathwater, perhaps we should learn from our past errors and sit, with humility and calmness, and readdress our past and take from it what will give us a sense of knowing, a sense of dignity and a sense of pride without being held hostage by it.

And God knows best.