Mundus Totus Domus Est – All the World is a Home

“The only universally accepted dogma in the modern world is the rejection of tradition”—William Chittick.

Robert T. Tally Jr.’s article, “Mundus Totus Exilium Est.”, brings to the forefront a highly problematic issue facing the modern world: the dilemma of the false universal.  His essay attempts to convince the reader that the exile is not simply a vantage point amongst a great many vantage points, but is instead a “perfect” point of departure by which the exile can offer up privileged criticisms—literary, social, cultural, etc.—which “at home” observers simply cannot due.  Tally’s findings are couched not in empirical findings but are instead founded on the primacy of, borrowing from Edward Said, “originality of vision” (Tally).  It is this great assumption of Tally’s, backed by the likes of Said as well as other notable scholars of the literary tradition (Auerbach, Adorno, and Lukács to name three) that I wish to shed further light on regarding the problematic of defining exiles as superior to non-exiles, and how such false universalisms detract from the merits of their works.

To proceed, it will be necessary to draw out Tally’s arguments in order to reveal many of the unpacked suppositions his essay espouses.  This will allow me to illuminate on many of the articles points I find highly questionable.  That being said, it is not my goal to simply argue or refute Tally’s assertions for the sake of argumentation, but to show that by unpacking Tally’s arguments (as well as his sources)—many of them are hidden in the cultural assumptions of Western thought—we can make better use of his intellectual findings.

The major theme that underpins Tally’s work is the concept of exile as critic.  Tally asserts that the exile is best equipped to map out and comprehend social spaces—a process Tally refers to as cartography—due to the exile’s alienation.  According to Tally, familiarization is a process that disadvantages the local from insights into his reality due to a lack of originality, something which the exile is claimed to possess.  This alienation, also referred to as “transcendent homelessness” (4), a term borrowed from Lukács, serves as a lynch pin for Tally’s arguments for the exile as that “perfect individual” who “is better equipped to make sense of the world” (2).

Much of what I found erroneous about Tally’s hypothesis regarding “making sense of the world” has not been due to his methodological approach per se as it is with his scope.  Like so many Western writers, Tally projects his theories not as a set of particulars grounded in history, but as universals.  In Tally’s evoking of the great philologist, Eric Auerbach, he asserts commonly accepted Eurocentric rhetoric:

“The phrase [mundus totus exilim est] is quoted to make the point that the modern critic of literature and language must not be tied to any national ground, but must accept that that his or her ‘philological home is the earth; the nation it can no longer be’.” (1)

Tally’s quotation of Auerbach is representational of the kind of unpacked hubris many European thinkers have exhibited over the last two centuries (if not longer).  First amongst my objections here is the unwillingness for Tally (and perhaps even Auerbach) to examine the scope of his claims.  While Tally does make some small acknowledgement of World War II in its capacity to inform European decision-making, it is for the most part reduced to a backdrop.  Tally undervalues the contribution World War II (and by proxy, history) made to the anti-national sentiments we find in Auerbach (as well as Adorno and Lukács).  In doing so, the relationship between Tally’s theory of the exile as a collective motif remains shrouded in false universals.

Second is the issue of defining the very possibilities of modern criticism.  According to Auerbach, in order to be considered a modern critic, one must abandon all national ties in favor of a global (if not pseudo-transcendent) identity.  This act of laying claim to the earth itself further justifies my claims of a false universalist mentality so common amongst the rhetoric we find in European intellectuals, who often see themselves as “just human”, while other groups who fall outside this classification are doomed to their respective ethnic enclaves.

In contrast, upon examining Milan Kundera’s Ignorance, we find not a false universalist approach, but one that is grounded in a specific memory, a specific nostalgia and a particular experience (from the perspective of the implied author) as a Czech exile living in France.  In this light, Kundera is able to provide for the reader a realistic window into the life of an exile without having to abandon the very specificities of what it means to be Czech, both as exile in France as well as an exile “at home”.

When the character Josef returns to his native Czech Republic, he find that he is not simply an exile who has been living in Denmark, but that in fact, he is an exile in his own native Prague. Despite his best efforts to reconnect with those where left behind, Josef fails to do so.  When he visits his friend “N”, their conversation “never managed to get going” (Kundera 153).  Kundera is able to facilitate an alienation that is based on concrete realities, not on amorphous abstractions.  Josef migrated to Denmark where he established a new life.  At the novel’s end, he is more at home in Denmark than he is in Prague.  Kundera’s use of specifics makes the melancholy and alienation that Josef experiences all the more permeable by not drifting off into abstract universals.

Another area in which Kundera departs from Tally’s suggestion is the way in which Kundera resolves Ignorance.  By the novel’s end, neither Josef nor the implied author move towards a post-nation identity.  Being that Tally’s argument was poised on the position that the exile, for which “the nation it can no longer be” (1), must jettison his national identity in favor of a self-imposed defamiliarization, simply does not bear fruit.  In fact, Josef returns to Denmark, his home for some decades.  From this perspective, it would seem the Kundera is arguing for a different form of expatriation: instead of exilium est, Kundera proposes domus.  All the world is a potential home.

Another aspect of Tally’s argument is the theory of transcendent homelessness.  In essence, Tally suggests, by invoking Edward Said as well as Georg Lukács, that the experience of the exile is one in which the exile lives in a world abandoned by God.  How curious it is that Tally would invoke the name of Said, a Palestinian, whose people to this very day have neither abandoned the pursuit for statehood (a national identity) nor their very solid belief in God.  In fact, many Palestinians see it as a God-given duty to fight and oppose their own oppression in a manner that evokes the God-centered, holy protest of the Civil Rights era (Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican 3).  Again, Tally’s Eurocentirc thinking reveals his inability to fathom, let alone understand, how a people living in modern times could still very much be attached to a religious as well as national identity.  And while Said claims that the exile “makes possible originality of vision” (2), I am left to wonder, originality or otherwise, just how out of step Said was (and his intellectual legacy is today) with the struggles for the average Palestinian.

To revisit the quote at the beginning of this essay, I find William Chittick’s observation quite salient.  Jurgen Habermas rightly stated that “Postmodernity (of whom I would label Tally an adherent) definitely presents itself as Antimodernity” (Habermas and Ben-Habib 3); antimodernity in the sense that postmodernity is vehemntly oppossed to any system which proposes “to know anything.”  As per Chittick’s observation, I find postmodernity to be oppossed to tradition, be they beliefs, customs, or any form of information that results in a meaningful practice.  In Ignornace, Irena returns to Prague hoping to reunite with some of her old acquaintences.  She commits “an act of poor taste” (36) by offering her friends French wine instead of beer.  Having been away for so long, Irena has come to see herself as French and thus, has come to possess French proclivities:

“Her long absence from the country, her foreigner’s ways, her wealth … that was exactly her gamble: that they’d accept her as the person she is now, coming back.” (Kundera 36-37, emphasis mine)

Irena left to France as a young Czech girl, but she has returned something much more akin to a French woman.  She has not only adopted French tastes but she sees herself as having adopted French traditions (wine instead of beer) by asking herself the question, “can she live here, feel at home, have friends” (36).

Turning to Tally’s conception of the exile, I would like to focus for a moment on the privilege Tally foists upon the exile.  In summary, Tally claims the exile is best prepared to offer criticism through his originality of vision as well as his alienation.  No doubt that the exile offers a unique and original vision on social or cultural scenarios, however I also believe that local opinions can be just as germane to the topic of critical analysis.  Again, I am reminded of the Civil Rights era struggles in which African-Americans fought and struggled to have their side of the story heard.  One could label African-Americans exiles at home, yet their struggles were to grounded in a very local struggle to be accepted as bone fide American citizens, not an embracing of the earth as their home.  As James Baldwin once wrote, “Negores … do not exist anywhere else but America” (Baldwin 40).

To return to the subject of philology, it is here that the false universal manifests itself greatest.  Tally continues to evoke Auerbach, who has an unwillingness to reconcile transcendent lofty goals with the reality that all such goals are carried out in real time and real space.  Quoting Auerbach, “to the extent that one’s mind does remain fettered to its native land, the critic cannot ‘become truly effective’ as nationality may blunt one’s critical acumen” (3).  Circular reasoning aside, I find Auerbach’s assumptions unfounded when read through Ignorance.  In fact, it is just the opposite, for neither Josef nor Irena have given up their native tongues. It is through them that the implied author is able to effectively demonstrate just how alien they are in their own homelands (195).  In relation to this point, I must also cite an underemphasized component of the Civil Rights struggle: it was not simply American blacks who railed against a system of tyranny and oppression, but it was also American whites who engaged in deeply profound soul searching and soul changing.  In this manner, it was the local voices of American whites (essentially “natives”) who had a devastating effect on bringing down the legacy of Jim Crow and anti-black racism, not the transcendent homeless.

I also found, in reading Tally’s article, a tendency towards reductionism, particularly in relation to the cause of war.  Tally far too easily lays the blame for war at the doorstep of national identity.  No doubt that national identity played some role in how war was carried out, but it is simply too insufficient to explain in totality, why Europe went to war with itself.  Likewise, Kundera, while implicitly indicting Communism, is careful not to simply exonerate the Czech people (or the Germans or Russians for that matter) in why they adopted communism.  I am again left to wonder about the Palestinians (or other ethnic groups who struggle in this century for citizenship), if they would consider themselves to be “tender beginners” (3) or if they would be willing to consider “every soil” is their native soil.  Current political struggles on the ground would indicate otherwise.

Tally’s reductionist viewpoints also take the form of myopia.  Quoting Tally, “The critic must work through personal and cultural attachments to the native soil, detaching him-or herself from local prejudices and comforts” (4). Tally fails to convince me of a methodology which is insistent on an ambiguous reality.  Tally’s transcendent homelessness has no form, quality or characteristic for one to grasp.  It is a formless concept, devoid of substance and having no platform to work on.  In Ignorance, it would not have served the implied author to tell the story through impersonal or acultural characters.  Their qualities as Czech, as Dannish or French were not incidental but quintessential to the story’s weight.  One could not simply swap out Czech for Bolivian or Dannish for Senegalese and retain the same effect.  In contrast, despite Tally’s claims of myopic distortions by “undue familiarity” (4), there is nothing more myopic than to reduce the particulars of culture and personality to a one-dimensional playing field.  If all the world is “strange”, as Tally proposes, then how can we come to know texture, scope or scale?  Without these, the world loses its three-dimensionality on a local and global level, where such qualities as tension and polarity, near or far, become flattened and lost.

Tally also reduces the complexities of pre-modern thought to simple short forms.  Citing Lukács, Tally suggests that because pre-modern epistemologies saw value innately in the world, then any adherents to such epistemologies were also irrevocably “grounded in fate and utterly changeless” (5).  Again, Tally’s argument is pregnant with postmodern philosophical presumptions.  Simply because one affirms value in the world in no way chains one to a fatalistic worldview.  In contradistinction, many pre-modern theological schools of thought were able to separate what God creates from what God wants (Jackson, Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering 210).

What Tally and company fail to do is unpack the methodologies which inform their concept of public reason.  Their unmitigated aversion to any system of thought which would value tradition and thus gave value and meaning to the world is looked at with heavy skepticism.  Sherman Jackson sums this stance up adequately,

“The modern mindset is deeply informed by two regimes of ‘public reason’ (science and philosophy) that have little regard for the role of authority and tradition in conveying, discovering, or preserving truth” (Jackson, Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering 7).

It is this notion, of conveying, discovering or preserving truth, that seems to unnerve Tally and his constituents.  And while I do not wish to label Kundera a Romantic, it is clear from his account in Ignorance that he wished to convey and preserve the truth regarding the devastating effects of communism, on himself (through his implied author) and on Czech society as a whole.

In conclusion, Tally’s arguments fall short of the mark of a secular transcendence.  His tendency towards reductionism and circular argumentation detract from the merits of this theory: that exiles have something valuable to offer.  However, unless Tally’s zeal for postmodern philosophy and dedication to a rampant individualism which sees itself as representing all of humanity, he will continue to overshoot his mark by projecting a scope that is untenable.  Perhaps by rooting his theories in local and historical realities, Tally can better convince us the role the exile cum poet can play in helping us make sense and discern meaning in the world.

References

  • Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Dell, 1963.
  • Chittick, William. Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul: The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World. Oxford: Oneworld, 2007.
  • Habermas, Jürgen Habermas and Seyla Ben-Habib. “Modernity versus Postmodernity.” New German Critique (1981): 3-14.
  • Jackson, Sherman. Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • —. Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • —. September 11 In History: A Watershed Moment? Ed. Mary L. Dudziak. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Kundera, Milan. Ignorance. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000.
  • Tally, Robert T. “Mundus Totus Exilium Est.” 2011. Transnational Literature. 12 November 2011 .
  • Wagner-Martin, Linda. A Historical Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Ziolkowski, Jan. “”What Is Philology”: Introduction.” Comparative Literature Studies (1990): 1-12.

Another Letter To My People

To say that we are living in difficult and troubled times would be an exercise in escapism itself.  Put aside economic depression and endless wars, for these are only symptoms of a greater social illness; an illness so perverse that it is killing us from the inside like cancer.  The culprit?  We are the culprits and the crime is a crime against Reality.  So far have we become detached from the true nature of Reality that we have had no other recourse than to foolishly attempt to make our own reality.  And man is a piss poor creator.

Less than twenty four hours from now, Americans will excuse themselves from work, class, and other obligations, to go and vote.  But vote for what, I ask?  And for whom?  These are not merely rhetorical questions, but real inquiries as to what it is we think we’re going to do?  Nor is this a clarion call to un-rock the vote.  It’s an honest-to-goodness petition to ask ourselves what it is we want and what it is we’re doing and is there any modicum of possibility that those choices will elicit the results we claim we so desperately want.  And yet if it is change we want, what kind of change?  Is it change for the better or for the worse?  2008 certainly did bring about change, but it hardly seems that things have gotten remotely better.  “Official” unemployment numbers threaten to crest the 10% mark (“the unemployment rate held at 9.6 percent”, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ web site, during the month of September).  However, anyone who’s spent a little time with numbers and statistics knows that data findings can be manipulated to almost any means.  Unofficial sentiment says that unemployment has gone beyond 10%, with some particularly hard-hit areas (like my native Detroit) are as high as 50%, as Mayor Dave Bing as attested (Melnick).  With staggering numbers such as these, how can we as a nation go the poles and elect officials from either side of the isle?  Finger pointing simply won’t do.  Quick glimpses at our social condition point to both political parties being equally guilty and equally incapable (let alone even having the interest to change the status quo) of making that change.  So again, who and what are we voting for and what do we think we’ll see?

To bring things a bit sharper into focus and to talk about this issue from a personal perspective, I want to highlight one aspect of our current illusory state: Black America.  There are so many points I want to touch on but one aspect that stands out from amongst the crowd is the damaging effect that liberalism has had on Black America.  In fact, I believe that the current brand of liberalism has had a detrimental effect on America as a whole, not because I am a conservative (which I do not adhere to, either), but because liberalism has been guilty of the very same crimes it accuses conservatism of.  Furthermore, in line with what Chris Hedges said in a recent article, I find liberals to be “a useless lot” (Hedges, Liberals Are Useless).  I know this language may sound unduly harsh, but it is how I feel nonetheless.  My truck with liberalism (perhaps neoliberalism works better here?) goes beyond Hedges’ critique, which includes a “bankrupt liberal intelligentsia” or the cynicism that is part and parcel of the attitudes many young people mistake today for being rebellious, and touches on something much more personal and insidious: the perpetuation of a post-slavery mentality amongst Blacks.

In order to help elucidate what I mean here, let me reference Tim Wise, author of a number of books on racism in the modern age such as Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, and Color Blind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, speaks to what I am aiming at here.  Wise manages to strike right at the center of liberal-based racism, which is no easy task being that (neo)liberalism struggles to maintain “a position of invisibility” (Dryer 39) as whiteness itself does.  Liberalism makes a very convincing argument based on supposed positions of equality and egalitarianism but in fact is one half of the coin that is American racism.  As Wise points out,

“many white liberal Obama supporters openly admitted that what they liked about the candidate was his ability to ‘transcend race’ (which implicitly meant to transcend his own blackness), to ‘make white people feel good about ourselves,’ and the fact that he ‘didn’t come with the baggage of the civil rights movement.'” (Wise)

Wise here lays bare the troubling and duplicitous nature of liberal race rhetoric: Blackness (and any other color or category for that matter) can be rendered harmless and acceptable so long as it is viewed as something to “get beyond”.  To be blunt, Obama appealed to the Change Generation not because he was a part of Black consciousness but because he seemed to be alienated from it.  His white heritage was seen as a means of finally moving beyond that troublesome social construct, race, and launching off into the realm of a post-race reality, something much more akin to how white Americans see themselves: “at once a sort of race and the human race, an individual and a universal subject” (Dryer 39).  This line of thinking has the same core values as tradition American conservative-base racism a la Jim Crow: Blackness is the problem, where here, instead of barring access to blackness as is the game play of American conservatism, liberalism only grants access so long as the black signifier is either left behind or is rendered irrelevant.

This modality of racism also bears the marks of a very subtle exceptionalism.  Barack Obama cannot be seen as part of the greater body of what is American blackness, but is seen as wholly exceptional.  This is part of the very same rhetoric of those would chastise Blacks on “not being happy with finally having a Black president” as if Obama has been the only qualifying candidate in the last four hundred years.  To see Obama as normal would run the risk of tainting him of the very same blackness that liberals are trying to strip him of.  The flip side to this is not only making Obama out to be exceptional but also to make the rest of Black America un-exceptional and thus un-qualified as an entire racial group for greatness.  Wise concludes that this process draws comparisons between Obama and The Cosby Show, a sitcom that was much beloved by white America which “despite [Bill Cosby’s] blackness”, it allowed white America the ability to “identify” with him (Wise).

As Wise further points out, the implications here go beyond personal biases and into the realm of social institutions.  Liberal attempts to create a colorblind society have been amongst the most debilitating to Blackamericans to acknowledge and wrestle with their own personal demons.  The outcome from this has been the enshrining and even “angelisizing” of Blacks, who as a result of their brutal history at the hands of whites, are deemed categorically noble despite any flaws they may have.  In doing so, Blacks have been nurtured and encourage to turn their intellectual and creative resources away from solving Black issues and instead into helping liberals maintain this status quo through actors such as the Reverend Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson.  I mention the two men here not because of their lack of commitment to the Black Cause (at least on first blush) but because their efforts have been solely directed at maintaining a social way of thinking amongst Blacks that perpetuates victimization.  The only time color is seen is when there is some overt racial bias, such as a police shooting of Black teens or race-based attacks or slurs.  In the absence of obtuse acts of racism, the two activists are woefully silent on the issues confronting Blackamericans on a social, existential, intellectual, and even cosmological level.

To return to the political spectacle at hand, I must confess my own guilt involved.  I voted for Barack Obama in 2008.  I won’t delve into the details here but to summarize, it surely involved not only his great oratory skills, but also my own identity politics as well as the disillusionment I felt at the past eight years.  But there is one illuminating vision I have had come out of the last two years: This is no longer a nation by the people, nor for the people.  There is simply no way that the majority of Americans have asked to lose their jobs, have their homes taken from them, and driven into crushing debt.  And the actions of the current administration have revealed them to be an extension of a very evil and anti-human system that has and is, tearing the fabric of our society apart.  But the finger pointing can only go so far.  We must, as a nation, be willing to indict ourselves as being apathetic and greedy.  It is the apathy of liberalism again that I point to as half of the blame.  Despite all of its complex rhetoric, liberalism has proved to be toothless in the onslaught against the American public.  I was deeply saddened to see Yusuf Islam on stage with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  I believe I understand Yusuf’s intentions but as people of conscious, I believe American Muslims must stand up with the conviction and courage to see the playing field for what it is.  Allying ourselves with a party and a way of thinking, which at its heart, is no less despicable than the crass, overt racist conservatism we see amongst the Old South Resurrected (a.k.a., the Tea Party), is in my opinion a mistake and a disservice to the broader public.  If Muslims truly are people of the Middle Way, then both parties’ deceptions should stand out clear to us.  So long as we allow the senseless banter of a two-party rodeo show to continue without criticism, we may be a guilty third party.  The conservative party seeks to scare the populace to death with the threat of terrorism and immigration while the liberals turn serious issues of the day into mere entertainment, the gravity of the topics is drowned out from the laugh track.  Chris Hedges sums it up here:

The rally delivered a political message devoid of reality or content. The corruption of electoral politics by corporate funds and lobbyists, the naive belief that we can somehow vote ourselves back to democracy, was ignored for emotional catharsis. The right hates. The liberals laugh. And the country is taken hostage (Hedges, The Phantom Left).

Islam is first and foremost about Reality, about Truth, as these are the names of God, both capable of being distilled from the name, al-Haqq, one of God’s 99 names.  Islam sees reality itself contingent upon God and at once pointing towards the Truth.  When we are in the state we are in now, where reality—most properly here our understanding of reality—is based not on God, not even on scientific empiricism (which can be just as tyrannical) but rather on illusion and imagery.  “Reality itself has been converted into stagecraft”, as Hedges puts it (Hedges, Empire of Illusion 15).  All of pop culture bears this out.  At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, man is a piss poor creator.  Yet, in light of our social grip on reality being lost, what other recourse could we have taken?  As Daniel Boorstin warns us, “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them” (Boorstin 240).  Fingers on both sides of the liberal/conservative isle have pointed to the cultural media engine which churns out image after image, practically making slaves out of young people who are coerced into hopeless attempts to live up to these illusions; body image, wealth, prestige, beauty, self-worth.  The list goes on and yet neither side has been able to offer an effective countermand to the system that produces them which leaves me to think that if they’re not part of the solution, they’re part of the problem.  And yet, in order for Muslims to even having a chance of being part of the solution, we will have to finally answer the question as to whether or not we will get serious about America.  It has to go beyond slogans and flag waving (a recent picture showed an American Muslim woman with a sign that read, “I am a Veteran.  I am an American. I am a Muslim.”) and get down to a real, honest and committed conversation where American Muslims will offer up their human and economic capital for the salvation of the society.  Anything less will result as the victims of rabid conservatism or perhaps even worse, the perpetrators of liberal apathy.

So when you vote tomorrow, think about what you’re really doing.  Are you simply exercising your rights as an American, or are you acting as a God-conscious person.  A purveyor of truth or too afraid to bite the hand that’s feeding you (today).

“The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (Debord 12).

يريد الله ليبين لكم ويهديكم سنن الذين من قبلكم ويتوب عليكم والله عليم حكيم

God desires to make things clear to you and to guide you to the correct practices of those before you and to turn towards you. God is All-Knowing, All-Wise.

والله يريد أن يتوب عليكم و يريد الذين يتبعون الشهوت أن تميلوا ميلا عظيما

God desires to turn towards you, but those who pursue their lower appetites desire to make you deviate completely.

يريد الله أن يخفف عنكم و خلق الإنسن ضعيفا

God desires to make things lighter for you. Man was created weak.

يأيها الذين ءامنوا لا تاكلوا أمولكم بينكم بالباطل إلا أن تكون تجرة من تراض منكم ولا تقتلوا أنفسكم إن الله كان بكم رحيما

O’ you who profess belief in God!, do not consume one another’s property by false means, but only by means of mutually agreed trade. And do not kill yourselves. God is Most Merciful to you [Qur’an, 4: 26-29].

Sources & Links

Journey Into Islam – A Converts Tale Part I

The Ka'abah - Photographed by Marc Manley 2008

 One of the questions that is most often asked of me, both by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is how did I come to Islam. Often this query is framed around a supposed single instance, a distinct and defining event that overwhelmed my being and thus causing me to embrace Islam, as I have often heard it described by others. I have heard this very same rhetoric espoused by so-called Muslim converts (such as myself) who often characterize their own accounts of coming to Islam in the very same singular fashion. I am always stuck by the simplicity by which these voices engage such a diverse and often elusive subject, to speak nothing of how converts (or reverts, as some prefer) short change themselves in their abridged assessments of their own journey to Islam.

During a speaking event, in which I was asked to give an autobiographic account of my own experience as an American Muslim, one questioner in the audience asked, “what was it about Islam that made you want to become a Muslim?” Apparently I had delivered such an intriguing talk, that upon being asked this bold question, the crowd fell into a hush, awaiting a thunderclap. I believe I duly disappointed them when I replied, “perhaps the more important question is not why I became Muslim, but why I choose to remain Muslim.” The disappointment and confusion that befell their faces was apparent. I attempted to recover by telling them that it was everything; everything in the nineteen years proceeding my choice to become a Muslim had an effect, be it profound or not. It was a mixture of my parenting, my childhood experiences, encounters with people—good and bad—and of course, those innate aspects of my personality that the Muslim tradition calls “fitra”. While I had answered his question, I left that day with the feeling that most of the attendees were not satisfied with the answer I had given them. It is mainly my belief because the experience is much more epic than it is dynamic, evolutionary versus epiphany. It is still my hunch that for those converts/reverts who assert that they did have any epiphany, there’s still quite a bit of back story that’s not being told. And in cutting out all of that back story, they do a disservice to the story that is unfolding before them at this very moment.

Detroit race riots of 1967 I was born in was Detroit, Michigan, in 1973, seven years after the 1967 Race Riots. Though in reality the decline of Detroit proceeded the race riots by as much as ten years, my family, a working-class family of five, was thoroughly effectd by the repercussions of a city poisoned by the disease of racism (we were forced to abandon our home). In fact, I have often contemplated the Qur’ānic verse, by which God compensated me through the trial of living in desolate Detroit:

ونريد أن نمن على الذين استضعفوا في الأرض ونجعلهم أئمة ونجعلهم الورثين

“We desired to show kindness to those who were oppressed in the land and to make them leaders and make them inheritors.” [Qur’ān 28: 5]

In time, the ravages of drugs and crime had certainly come to oppress my family. The neighborhood had become so unsafe that our father would sit on the porch with a loaded gun so we could play in the yard. Ultimately, after having our house shot at and fire bombed, we were forced to abandon ship and move to the suburbs.  The economic impact on our family was devastating.  Our time in Detroit would play such a defining role that its specter still haunts some of my family members to this day.

Despite the urban hostilities, there remained one single hindrance that would go on to define my family and my youth: race. Race more than anything else dogged my family’s footsteps—maternal and paternal sides alike. This dilemma was due to the remnants of Jim Crow America and the psychological deficiency that many of my family members struggled with. My family had most certainly imbibed the value system of white supremacy and its byproduct of self-loathing. In one conversation with another Blackamerican friend of mine, he asked if my family had tried to “pass”. I pondered this question at length. “No”, I replied. “Our experience was more akin that that of Anne Frank: we hid in the attic of white suburban America and prayed no one would discover we were black.” So powerful was the ghost of Jim Crowism that my family didn’t even attempt to pass; white values and aesthetics were admired, but from afar. So deep had the inferiority complex of white supremacy penetrated the psyche of my family that to go all the way and “pass” was still viewed as off limits. Instead, my family shrank into a more insidious despair by attempting to deny any trace of blackness entirely. The consequences of this were devastating, both internally and externally for family dynamics, for we had now ostracized ourselves from the rest of the extended family. The rest of my childhood and early adult years would bear witness to the humiliating and heartbreaking effects that self-loathing had on my family members and myself, as it corrupted us from the inside.

You are reading Part I of this post. Stay tuned for the second installment. The banner image above was photographed by yours truly at the Haram in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in 2008, while on ‘Umrah with the Medinah Institute.

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).

Social Origins of Bebop

It was no coincidence that jazz’s rise to prominence was at the juncture of World War II and the increasing demands for social equality from Blackamericans, many of whom including those that were jazz musicians, participated in the war and wanted their public and political due. These were the tumultuous times that would give birth to jazz, or more correctly, bebop. And from this unique American musical form would come a art form that would challenge and resist the status quo of dominant white thought regarding the inferiority of blacks as well as incubate new a consciousness of black intellectualism.

To appreciate bebop’s stance in history, one must observe the history that precedes jazz; specifically, the history of Blackamericans and their ascendance out of slavery and a culture that, as of the 1940’s, was still pro-Jim Crow, either de jure in the North or de facto in the South. For many black musicians, bebop was a means of both insulating and protesting against a cultural system that produced signs and signifiers of black inferiority. These sentiments were gelled in the minds of Blackamerican musicians after returning from World War II, a war that was supposed to have been fought against the notion of racism. And yet, many blacks felt that hypocritically, that same government that sent them off to war still perpetrated state-sanctioned discrimination against Blackamericans, and turned a blind eye to public hostility; both physical and psychological. Thus, it was no coincidence that bebop took musical form with high tempos and hard driving polyrhythms, characteristics that would define its sound, struck back against the ideology of the dominant white culture just as percussively and psychologically as they perceived themselves to be attacked.

Jazz’s musical roots come primarily from the blues, a form of folk music that has its roots in Africa, and secondarily, swing, big band and ragtime music, coming out of the early decades of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Much like its musical forefather, jazz lamented over its existential crisis of being subjugated by a dominant white power. Unlike the blues, however, bebop was not to remain a catharsis, sung in waiting for the hope of salvation through the benevolence of God. Rather, rather jazz sought to beseech the wrath of God, its music being fueled with the anger and rage of a people’s mistreatment for some three hundred-plus years. This anger was so prevalent in the music, that by the latter part of the 20th century, bebop and its alternate forms, such as post-bop and avant-garde, were perceived as “the angry black man’s music”. This collective anger is evident in the recounting of how jazz was perceived even as late as the 1970’s, by Ed Michel, a music produced for one of jazz’s most prestigious labels, Impulse!:

By the seventies “it seemed as though Impulse became the label characterized by the angry black tenor man,”.

Not content to site on the sidelines, jazz throughout its history would comment time and time again on social justice topics ranging from the plight of Blackamericans in the prison-complex system (such as Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, an album in direct reference to the 1971 Attica Prison riots) to such lamentations of the past as John Coltrane’s Song For The Underground Railroad.

At the transition point between jazz and swing/big band music, was a desire on the part of these musicians to be taken seriously. Many felt that as members of swing bands, they were forced to take a back seat to the audience — a predominantly white audience at that. Their music was reduced to a sort of ambiance, where particularity of the musician was inconsequential. Billy Ekstine, who led one of the most famous jazz ensembles during the 40’s and 50’s, commented that many popular songs were re-arranged with fast tempos where the audience could not dance to them, forcing them to pay attention to the band as the primary focus.

As jazz musicians sought to stake out their territory as concert-style performers, with a captive audience, they encountered many forms of social resistance along the way. In the 1940’s, many jazz musicians (primarily Blackamerican) were not allowed to perform in white-owned clubs in the South. One way of circumventing the problem was by embracing Islam as a sidecar expression of their jazz identities. Through becoming Muslim, and taking Muslim names, many Blackamerican jazz musicians found they could enter white-owned establishments, play there, eat there, etc. Such incidents were not confined solely to the South. In Delaware, Oliver Mesheux, a trumpeter, was initially detained from entering a white club but when presenting his race identification card, which was marked “W” for white and with his newly assumed name, Mustafa Dalil, he was allowed to enter .

Striving for a more genuine reception did not come without its backlashes from the dominant white constituency. Many whites saw bebop as an illegitimate musical expression. It was castigated as a jumble of sounds, too unintelligible for the human ear. In her 1921 article, Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation, Anne Shaw Faulkner describes jazz as evil and that it was the natural expression of bizarre Negro dances; a voodoo accompaniment to “half-crazed” barbarisms . The allegations about bebop were consistent to popular conceptions about blacks during this period: that Blackamericans were linked to barbaric practices, were intellectually degraded and morally abject. Some even took it so far to allege that jazz and bebop could have a morally toxic affect on the more scrupulous Anglo-Saxons, converting them to the “savage” tendencies of blacks and other minorities. To hear that bebop was anti-Christian or even anti-civilizational was not unheard of.

But it was not simply the dominant cultures perceptions that bebop sought to combat. It was also the system of exploitation that many if not most black musicians had to deal with in the early 20th century. Socially, Blackamericans had few rights and musicians even fewer. Many were forced to play without contracts and had little legal power if their rights were infringed upon. Economics proved to be one of the crucial points that younger musicians in the bebop movement sought to countermand. They also criticized their older Blackamerican counterparts as being complacent to accepting these terms from the white-dominated music industry. Younger musicians saw musicians who came out of the established system as acquiescing to white dominance, giving up their rights to control their own musical destinies. The importance of economics cannot be over emphasized and was one of the many reasons younger black jazz musicians jumped ship from the swing bands to the small combo bebop ensembles. Feeling less restriction, both socially and artistically, many felt they had a greater influence on how they were to be compensated economically as well as their artistic endeavors taken more seriously.

As much as post World War II sentiments played a role in the development of bebop, it cannot be reduced as nothing more than a reaction to it. Rather, it was itself symbolic of the changes that abounded at this time. With increasing numbers of Blackamericans moving north in search of better socio-economic prospects, this newer generation was exposed to bourgeoisie culture and the various intellectual and artistic movements, especially in Harlem, the birthplace of bebop. This flux created new potentialities for alternate modes of expression of blackness in America, modes that would not be housed in the dominant white and black middle-class cultural values.

The list of bebop’s influential musicians would be beyond the scope of this paper, but it would be prudent to name a few important names. On any list, Dizzy Gillespie would rank quite high. Gillespie was the primary musician who, while not inventing the style (that would Charlie Parker), made it famous and known to the greater world. Gillespie, who grew up in the South, was confronted with the realities of a white supremacist construct. He saw bebop as a form that could transcend the racist system he was subject to: “We refused to accept racism, poverty, or economic exploitation, nor would we live out uncreative humdrum lives merely for the sake of survival”. Other musicians, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, and Joe Henderson to name a few, would continue to champion the ideal of bebop as a means of resisting dominant values and asserting their own political voice according to their own proclivities.

Bebop also championed a new era in black intellectualism. A musical form that required the technical mastery of a musicians chosen instrument, it also placed demands on the musician to have advanced knowledge of music theory. Bebop was a musical form that borrowed not only from its past, namely the blues and ragtime music, but also from European classical music. Bebop musicians were free to study and interpret the musical works of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, to name a few, and many were classically trained musicians.

Beyond all of the prerequisites that a bebop musician had to master was the relation of bebop to the newly-conceived mode of blackness. Bebop musicians saw themselves embarking on a new modality of blackness that would incorporate an intellectual astuteness with a sophisticated urban sensibility. Kenny Clarke, a prominent bebop drummer, was of the opinion as to how he saw the relationship between bebop and blackness: “Whatever you go into, go into it intelligently.” Bebop helped in swear in a new era of black intellectual consciousness and many of the prominent poets and writers of its time, such as Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, were both affected by and contributed to it. Ellison saw bebop as a cultural revolution, where the world was opening and up and society could now present a whole new set of circumstances and opportunities.

This intellectual rebellion manifested in both the music and the mode in which the musicians carried themselves. Along with the idea of shattering preconceived white ideas on the supposed mental inferiority of blacks to white, bebop musicians fostered an environment where there music and their fans tackled intellectual matters. From the choice of songs titles to the style of dress (horned-rimmed glasses, goatees, suits and the like), all this constituted a new way of the bebop musician carrying his or herself, a direct affront to white-held beliefs on the nature of blackness.

Bebop’s rebellion against social norms did not come without a darker side. Along with the sophisticated musical styles also came a lifestyle that was never able to successfully detach itself from alcohol and drug use. In fact, some practitioners of the art even embraced drug abuse as part and parcel of being a bebop musician. Sadly, many prominent young musicians spent the better part of the careers behind bars due to drug charges (Dexter Gordon missed most of the 50’s and Frank Morgan most of the 60’s). In fact, Charlie Parker, the founded of the bebop sound, died due to complications of drug use. But for better or worse, all of these social attitudes cemented bebop as being wholly against the status quo of early and mid- 20th century America.

As is the case with many art forms, bebop ran the risk of appropriation from the dominant culture. Initially an underground movement, eventually bebop won itself a wider audience. Whites would travel uptown to Harlem to hear the performances of the masters of the form by the 1950’s came about. By the 1960’s, bebop was fully appropriated by whites as a “hip” and “cool” aesthetic, interwoven into a the lifestyle of urban whites. In reaction to this, bebop would shift its gears again and seek to recreate itself in the form of post-bop and the avant-garde jazz movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. Just as bebop had done away with ragtime sensibilities, so had free jazz, avant-grade and post-bop done away some the canon that bebop had forged in the 1940’s. New structures of music were introduced such as modal forms, heavily tinged with eastern sounds and rhythms, as well as the free jazz and avant-garde movements which contained little of the harmonic and melodic structures of bebop. It was also to these movements that many of the pro-black and culturally-resistant bebop musicians would migrate to. Initially trained in the bebop form, they felt that bebop had been compromised with its ascendancy to white acceptance.

Much of bebop’s sensibilities can be understood as the resistance of blacks to the labeling of the dominant culture. As has been mentioned, whites had many preconceived notions of blackness that did not sit well with this new crop of young musicians. Bebop sought to break those stereotypes. And even after bebop itself had begun its assimilation and appropriation by whites, many of these musicians moved to new musical expressions such as the alt-bop movements of free jazz and avant-garde in an attempt to avoid being labeled. Gone was the tradition of reinterpreting old show tunes. Instead, much of the music became quite conceptual and cerebral; so abstract, that in fact, a clash ensued between the old and new guard. The likes of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, their musical efforts were criticized as sacrilegious to the tradition of bebop. This sentiment only fueled the alt-bop movements to continue in their vain. Only with breaking ties completely with the past, with a tradition that had sold itself off to the dominant culture, could they remain to jazz’s roots.

In its current form, jazz today resembles little of the insurrection of its formidable years. This is due in part that society itself has changed in some ways. With the passing of various civil rights acts, changes in social mores and overall improvement of life for many Blackamericans, jazz and more specifically, bebop, drifted from the limelight. Even at the height of bebop’s popularity, bebop commanded the attention of only a percentage of Blackamerican imagination. In fact, while bebop was enjoying its largest number of patrons, most Blackamericans were turning their attention to rhythm and blues. And yet, as we see today, black youth culture will always seem to find a voice. As many Blackamerican families continued to suffer from economic deprivation and social neglect, it would be black youth that would grab the world’s attention; only this time it would be hip-hop as the musical form. Of which the relation between the two “bops” can only hoped to be explored in another paper.

Citations and further readings:

  • Kahn, Ashley. The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. London: Granta Publications, 2006.
  • Gillespie, Dizzy, and Al Fraser. To Be Or Not To Bop. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1979.
  • Faulkner, Anne Shaw. “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation.” Ladies Home Journal. August 1921: 16-34.
  • Porter, Eric. “Dizzy Atmosphere: The Challenge of Bebop.” American Music Vol 17, No. 4 (1999): 423-27.