Bit Parts

 

The recent ABC exposé on Islam in America has enraged many Blackamerican Muslims. Their anger is rooted in their legacy as American Muslims yet their story and participation in the community of American Muslims was categorically denied by the program and its participants. The blame, as I have observed in arenas such as Facebook and via private e-mail, seems to fall on either the media outlet, with claims of racial bias on the part of ABC, to the participating Muslim organization, CAIR, the Counsel on American Islamic Relations. As was expressed to me, much of the anger towards CAIR was rooted in a sense of betrayal. Several Blackamerican Muslims wrote comments relating to the program:

The immigrant leaders believe they own Islam in America and we the “African Americans” are just the poor of the religion.

We have to tell our own story and do our own documentaries. No one cares about us or our story and contributions to America and Islam, if we don’t. I am always disappointed at programs like that, but never surprised.

African Americans need 2 tell they own story we need 2 stop depending on these people 2 tell our story…we must do our own reports…documentaries..

Bottomline, you cannot do a documentary on Islam in American without interviewing the African American.

The the question need be asked what would the reaction be if we told the Story of America and omitted Christopher Columbus, George Washington or Thomas Jefferson??? It’s not about whining it’s about telling the truth and presenting it accurately. If ABC came to CAIR then CAIR had a responsibility to make sure they aired a fair an accurate depiction.

The majority of the world does not even know that we have been here…

So none of those “so-called” scholars said to to the ABC execs you must include African American Muslims in order to have a complete picture of Islam in America?

They (the Muslim consultants and don’t believe for one second there weren’t do…zens) didn’t see how by not doing so it perpetuates another falsehood about Muslims in America being immigrants or the children of immigrants?

Wasn’t the program’s intent to dispel falsehoods about Muslims in America? It’s frankly insulting!!!!!

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and all the rest should absolutely refuse to do these exposes on Islam when they delete African American Muslims the way ABC did! Shame on them & ABC.

As can be seen here, the anger and frustration runs the gamut. The question remains: how will CAIR address this issue and how will Blackamerican Muslims seek to engage, and if possible, reprimand CAIR for their systematic dismissal on the public stage?

But perhaps more important than all of this is the lesson to be learned here: it has been high time for Blackamerican Muslims to take their rightful place in leadership of Islam in America. I do not believe this to be the case out of some misguided sense of racial pride or nationalism, but in actuality, rooted in a form of pragmatism: Blackamericans are one of only two possible racial categories in the United States that are seen as unassailably American. And being that Blackamericans comprise the only racial/ethnic group in America that have embraced Islam in significant numbers, it only makes sense to help foster and develop Blackamerican Muslim leadership. To do otherwise or to work towards the opposite goal [which in many ways is precisely what CAIR helped to do in the program], resulting in a dereliction of duty and jeopardizing the future of indigenizing Islam in American.

Part of this maturation process will involve Blackamerican Muslims seeing themselves as key players, actors, and inheritors of God’s religion. Not unlike their Blackamerican Christian counterparts, Blackamerican Muslims are in desperate need to reevaluate precisely what Islam it is that they have been given, what Islam they are perpetuating and determining if its core trajectory is in line with what is most socially and religiously responsible. To make my point a bit clearer, let me quote the great history and religious scholar, Vincent Harding:

Every [sic] since the children of Africa were brought to this country and came in touch with the Christian religion, we had to figure out some way to come to terms with what white Christians were teaching about religion and what they were doing in their social, economic, and political lives. It was clear to many African Americans at the very outset that the Christianity they were being taught could not be accepted on the terms that slave owners were presenting it because slavery itself was a contradiction to Jesus’ call to love each other as we love ourselves.

The above quote, taken from an interview Harding gave earlier this year, Harding illustrates the need that Antebellum and post-Antebellum Blacks had when analyzing the brand of Christianity that the dominant power structure was preaching; its core values and preconceived notions ran contradictory to the existential realities of Blacks and their quest for a God-given, dignified existence. Similarly, Harding also spoke of historical romanticism, in his famous 1967 article, Black Power and the American Christ:

As is so often the case with reminiscences, the nostalgia may grow more out of a sense of frustration and powerlessness than out of any true appreciation of the meaning of the past.

Harding’s point here rings home with the plight of modern Blackamerican Muslims, who in my opinion, suffer from a case of historical and cultural romanticism: by proxy of Muslims who hailed from the historical Muslims world, Blackamerican Muslims uncritically accepted, and indeed perpetuated, the brand of Islam that foreign-born Muslims brought with them to America. And in this process, Blackamerican Muslims have romanticized the entire narrative of foreign-born Muslims as being quintessentially “good” [even if they happen to accidentally be “bad”]; romanticizing of both culture and temporality [the use of the term “Islamic” to describe anything and everything Muslims “over there” do; the past is presumed to be wholly better than the present, therefore all one can hope to achieve is a pantomiming of the past]. This modality of thinking has resulted in Blackamerican Muslims largely being cast in bit parts in the broader act that is Islam in America. And not unlike Black actors in Hollywood, Blackamerican Muslims have had little say over the kinds of parts they will play. Further, any rhetoric that is deemed “too black”, will be ridiculed, its critique dressed in religious garb, and passed off as religiously authentic. In this fashion, Blackamerican Muslims can only expect to continue to play bit parts in others plays so long as they continue to relinquish their creative rights – the rights to writing, publishing, and determination – as bona fide Muslims. I leave you with one final quote from Harding:

But as the reminiscences continue a veil seems to descend between then and now. The tellers of the old tales label the veil Black Power, and pronounce ritual curses on Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick and their followers.

The trouble with these meetings is that they are indeed becoming ritual, cultic acts of memory that blind us to creative possibilities. Because that “veil” may be a wall, not primarily for separating but for writing on – both sides of it. Or it may be a great sheet “let down from heaven”; or a curtain before the next act can begin. Most of us appear totally incapable of realizing that there may be more light in blackness than we have yet begun to glimpse.

And God knows best.

Further reading

  • The Black Power Revolt – A Collection of Essays. Ed. Floyd B. Barbour.
  • 20/20 – What Is Islam? Questions and Answers.
  • Overcoming Historical Romanticism.
  • Black Power and the American Christ, by Vincent Harding.

Jazz, Bebop, and Cultural Resistance

America’s Troubled Past

Stereotypes regarding blacks and those of African heritage predate the arrival of African slaves to the North American continent. For centuries, descendants of the Diaspora labored both literally and figuratively under the perpetuated myth that blacks were inferior to whites.


A 1738 clipping from an advertisement featured in a Philadelphia newspaper, American Weekly Mercury, offering slaves for sale.

And while there were remarkable figures down this track of history that resisted and gave lie to the prejudices that whites held against blacks but it would not be until the dawn of the 20th century that America and her dominant culture would be shook up. From the dance floor, to the band stand and finally to the radio waves, a new artistic movement was giving rise to a cultural movement that would resist these stereotyping. But it was not to settle solely for resistance; it clamored for change. A decisive change that would see Blackamericans as equals in their own land and it was jazz that would provide that vehicle. This new religion of cultural resistance would come to be known as bebop. It would have many priests and priestesses, but without a doubt, its pope would be known as Charles “Yardbird” Parker”.

From the Dance Floor to the Band Stand

Much of Charlie Parker’s early life remains shrouded in hearsay and mystery but without a doubt, he is the high priest of the bebop movement, at least in terms of its sound. Parker is solely responsible for taking the jazz sounded that preceded him and altering its sound such that it became undanceable. Parker, and many black musicians of his era, felt that their musical endeavors were not being taken seriously – mere entertainment for whites to dance to. By spreading up the tempo, introducing complex harmonic and melodic tendencies and even reworking classic show tunes [much to the chagrin of the original authors!], Parker formulated a new musical expression that would become known as bebop.

Bebop, like other artistic movements, was not conceived in a vacuum. World War II played an important backdrop that informed the mood of many musicians that came up around this time. When America was pledging herself abroad to fight racism, many blacks felt that she was double dealing under the table in the way blacks were treated by both her citizens as well as the government.

Dizzy Gillespie – Preaching the Gospel of Parker

If Charlie Parker was the high priest of bebop then Dizzy Gillespie would one of the early disciples that would spread its gospel. A musical genius in his own right, Gillespie would come to be seen as the movements leader as Parker’s drug dependencies would hamper his latter career and indeed lead to his early demise. And like many other black jazz musicians, much of Gillespie’s music would have an Afro-centric flair to it. One of his most famous compositions, A Night In Tunisia:

Bebop would provide a framework from which Blackamerican jazz musician could recreate themselves, both imaginatively at first, and later, in the avant-garde movements, physically as well. Many black jazz musicians saw bebop as a mode of expressing blackness – a modality that the dominant political, social and cultural climate would not allow.

Resisting the Dominant Culture

Like all power artistic movements, it is only a matter of time until the dominant society will seek to legitimize [deeming it “cool”, attending jazz clubs, etc.] the art as well as the artists, leading to justification. With the gradual acceptance of jazz by the dominant culture, many black jazz musicians sought to keep pace with the wave legitimization, moving into new areas of musical and artistic expression.

Bebop and Intellectualism – The Rise of Afro-Centric Music

Bebop also provided its artists modes of expression that could blend eccentrism, intellectualism, black pride and host of other ideas that would challenge popular consensus of what constituted blackness. Upon seeing the gradual acceptance of bebop, the music would change pace again, moving off in new directions, with the avant-garde being one of its most cerebral expressions.

If one of bebop’s initial contentions was to move the attention from the dance floor to the band stand, avant-garde sought to move the music entirely out of preconceived notions of harmony and structure. Highly cerebral in nature, the avant-garde movement could be compared to other European artistic movements that refused to be canonized as seen here in this 1969 performance of the Miles Davis Quintet from their Bitches Brew album:

Preaching To the Masses

Many bebop musicians saw their music as more than simple rebellion. They also saw within it a healing force and an educational one, as we see in this interview with Archie Shepp:

John Coltrane – Bebop’s Gnostic Saint

Religion and more specifically, spirituality, played a significant role in the growth and development of both the genre and the musicians. Through the medium of bebop and the explorations of black intellectualism, black jazz musicians appropriated and took from multiple religious and spiritual traditions from Islam to Hinduism. John Coltrane, one of the iconic masters of bebop, his best selling album remains A Love Supreme, which is infused with spiritual-like chants and whose liner notes contained translations from the Qur’an.

Bebop indelibly left its mark on the artistic landscape of not only the United States, but the world. This phenomenon of black music would eventually grow and prosper far beyond the borders of America. Its reception in Europe was hailed as genius by many, while it took America many years to finally realize this. In fact, many Blackamerican jazz artists moved abroad for either a time [Dexter Gordon and Bud Powell to name two] or permanently like such luminaries as Johnny Griffin. While largely forgotten in modern times, bebop has left behind a legacy of musical genius infused with cultural rebellion as well as fostering a safe haven for black intellectualism to grow and prosper.