Sans Cilice

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White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

Feminism in Black American Islam: Intro

Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam

I’m currently reading Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam by Carolyn Moxley Rouse. I highly recommend it. Everything I had learned about Islam from grade school through college was situated in one of three very distinct settings: the Middle Ages, romanticized portrayals of the Black Nationalist movement, or the United States’ current war with the Middle East. Because of this, my understanding of the religion was neither cohesive nor flexible. Not only has this book taught me more about the “praxis” (in the Marxist sense as the conscious practice of belief or “synthesis of mental and manual labor”) of Islam in a context relevant to my own life, it has reinvigorated and broadened my engagement with feminism. I want to learn more about African American Islam because of its prevalence within the school where I work. As I learn I’ll post new thoughts on the subject. The next books I plan on reading are Black Routes to Islam edited by Manning Marabel and Hishaam Aidi, and Islam and Blackamerican by Sherman Jackson.

Though I’m sure that most of the families in my school are Christian (either in faith or culture), Islam is a very visible part of the community. It is literally visible, in that many of the kids’ mothers wear hijab and/or niqaab, some girls wear hijab and some fathers wear kurtas or dishadashas. I think that those in the community who practice Qu’ranic dress are practicing Sunni Muslims, although I’m not totally sure. I also have the sense that, especially in the realm of clothing, different individuals feel free to apply Qu’ranic advice as they see fit. For instance, I know one mother who wears a hijab but her daughter does not, and another mother who wears a long curly hairstyle but whose daughter wears a hijab.

5 out of the 40 kids I work with have at least one practicing Muslim parent. While I would be surprised if more than 20% of the school’s families are Muslim, the secular/cultural manifestations of Islam are far more prevalent and point to a great variety of degrees to which families are influenced by Muslim culture. 9 out of the 15 boys and 8 of the 25 girls I work with have first names that are etymologically Arabic or Aramaic with European last names. There are also some students in the school who have Arabic first and last names, some of whom I believe are practicing Muslims and others not. The religious lifestyle is even manifest in a secular form; “no pork” is by far the most frequently listed dietary restriction. I bet it is listed on 1/3 of our students’ medical forms.

A few years ago I encountered the idea that for some African Americans, converting to Islam presents an opportunity to adopt an ethnicity or ethnic culture distinct from mainstream African American culture. I’m sure that the religion appeals to converters for a variety of reasons, but Islam–as a religion and way of life– may have special appeal to blacks who seek to differentiate their personal history and identity from the African American identity which has been significantly influenced by white oppression. The trauma of slavery and the ensuing centuries of familial instability have made it incredibly difficult for many blacks to trace their geneology back to a city or country like most white Americans are able to do. And, although there are many sources of pride within the African American culture and history, I have sensed and heard that this culture and history can also be a source of shame. Though I do not blame the problems ascribed uniquely to the black American community, writ large, on individuals’ apathy or moral failures, I can understand why some blacks disavow the culture which produces the individuals who add to negative stereotypes.

Black people searching for a more specific personal history and/or new cultural identity may find conversion to Islam appealing as it can address both concerns. The US is skeptical and fearful of Islam. To most of America–even liberals– Islam is decidedly “Other.” Americans associate it with a totally different part of the world and frequently assume that, as a religion, it is in stark opposition to the “uniquely” Christian values on which the country was supposedly founded. These differences– real or perceived–make conversion to Islam much more than a change in faith or a spiritual re-awakening; the conversion becomes a process whereby one can choose to identify with a part and ethnically and culturally different part of the world while also eschewing the system of values which was imprecated in the construction of the country which racially oppressed black people for centuries.

By thinking about African American Islam in this way, I became more sympathetic to conversion as a legitimate and authentic act of individual agency whereas previously I had only thought about blacks’ conversion to Islam as a largely political statement following the Nationalist movement. Clearly, at that point I knew very little about Islam in America. Even after becoming comfortable with conversion as potentially empowering to the individual who chooses it, I still viewed such a conversion as lamentable (especially for women) and detrimental to feminism much in the same way I lament the existence of conservative feminism; I was glad that women were at least consciously asserting their identities and grappling with the meaning of womanhood (maybe they’ll come around!) but was not in support of breathing new life into traditional gender roles. Conservative Feminism, whose female supporters strive to be exemplars of the subordinate yet (re)productive American housewife, remains anathema to me because I am not convinced by its members’ desire for women’s empowerment (which I believe is the one definite goal of all feminisms) and am disgusted by the way their proud servility feeds (literally and figuratively) white male capitalism.

Reading Rouse’s Engaged Surrender has completely changed my view of black women’s conversion to Islam. Although there are still some gender-related limitations which I think are morally wrong (homophobia in particular) I am very much in favor of the inherently feminist discourse which naturally emerges from the African American Sunni Muslim community. And, now that I have a better idea of the praxis of Sunni Muslims, I believe that feminist praxis has great potential to improve its local community and perhaps the black American community at large. In the next few posts in this thread I intend to examine the feminist discourses and attitudes facilitated by Islam as they have been written about by Rouse. I also intend to deal with other examinations of black Islam in different contexts. I am particularly interested to learn about the experience of black Muslims who were born into the religion and its way of life, as opposed to choosing it as an act of independence.

Please note that, as white atheist or not, I do NOT intend my attitude toward and individual understanding of African American Sunni Islam to be seen as advice to group of which I am not a part to convert to a religion of which I am not a part. Instead, I am working to understand how women in different communities create different routes to empowerment. Though some strains of feminism resonate more strongly with me personally, I believe that the development of a greater variety of effective feminisms will result in a greater variety of empowered women. I do not envision utopias, but I see no logical reason to disbelieve that if one half of our population is granted the same respect, support and validity as the other, much less distrust will hinder our progress and vastly more capable individuals will contribute to the greater good.

Filed under: education, Personal, Philosophy & Theory, Society, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Good Hair

I just watched  Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair.

Rock does a good job of exploring the aspects of black women’s hair choices that he finds problematic, especially the fact that most black American women’s styles emulate European hair. The meme that black styles emulate white hair has a legitimately problematic history. The racially fraught nature of the ‘straighter is better’ meme becomes more apparent when partnered with the colorist meme that blacks with lighter skin are more beautiful). At one point in the movie, a hair-stylist mentions that moms want their young daughters’ hair relaxed because its unmanageable. I’ve heard this defense before and it usually strikes me as disingenuous. Thinking about my own hair though, I think the manageability issue has a degree of salience.

I have super thick, coarse, curly, frizzy dark blond hair. It’s not nappy like black hair, but– to give you a sense of how far away it is from being straight and silky– if I brush out my hair (styled in a bob) it will stand on end in what can best be described as a Euro Afro. I’ve always worn my hair curly. I blow dry and iron it straight two or three times a year, but I’ve never had it chemically straightened and am sure that I never will. Though I think my curly hair is beautiful (even gorgeous!) when I wash, dry and style it properly, sleeping on it transforms it into crazy-person hair. It really annoys me that I can’t just comb it in order to make it look sane. I’m about 80% Irish, 5% Welsh, 5% English, 5% Dutch and 5% French and I too have occasional dreams of silky straight shiny locks that lay down.

Filed under: Movies, Personal, Society, , , , , , ,

On appreciating Africa

From Loveisntenough:

Do [you] acknowledge that there is no such thing as one African culture–that the continent is one of many nations and peoples with unique cultures? Do you, for instance, work to teach your son about his Ethiopian heritage rather than “generic Africa?”

Do you recognize modern-day Congolese, South Africans or Kenyans as real, living, breathing and nuanced people?

Earlier I posted about my reluctance to teach pre-schoolers to appreciate Africa as part of Black History Month at my school. I don’t like making generalizations about the continent and I don’t think it’s ok to host a project which makes assumptions about each student’s unique heritage and about their families’ attitude towards that heritage. I think the questions asked in the loveisntenough post address this issue quite well.

Filed under: education, Personal, Society, , , , , , , , ,

a great conversation

Just had a really productive transAtlantic g-chat conversation today with a friend living in Paris, whom I have dubbed Paris.
It’s a good follow up of previous posts about whites exploring race in a public setting, and about different attitudes towards white guilt, black comedy and discursive reappropriation in art. This part of the conversation was prompted by my earlier post about John Mayer.
———————————————————————————————————
Paris: i just dont really get why it kind of seems like [Mayer] gets away with stuff like that likes it charming or cool
me: ya, i don’t get it either. but, i guess he’s not really getting away with it
he’s had two ridiculous interviews and tabloids have gone nuts
fortunately i think he’s beginning to realize that he needs to shut up. his apology for using the n-word is better than many publicity-focused apologies about such things
also, have you seen Chris Rock’s Kill?
if not you must.
100% pure genius.
Paris: yes! athena and i actually watched it the other night
we were crying laughing
me: ah! so fun!I think I’d enjoy watching it like once a month
Paris: i started writing something about bamboozled
so i was watching it. but then i got all tangled up and confused and had to leave it. this was like, last week, but maybe ill give it another crack this week
me: what drew you in?
— i haven’t seen it
Paris: oh gosh! you should rent it
im not sure actually how it got started. i think because athena and i were talking about dave chappelle?
me: cool- i will. i haven’t read very good reviews, but i imagine it’s interesting regardlesss
Paris: i have no idea exactly how it got to bamboozled.
me: wow– haven’t thought about him in a while!
what happened to him. i guess his show had an expiration date. oh right–he went crazy too.
Paris: he did, yes. but i guess we got from dave chapelle to bamboozled bc we were talking about what it is for white people to like, participate in black comedy and what kind of issues it does or does not bring up Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Media & Culture, On TV, Personal, Philosophy & Theory, Pop Culture, Society, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , ,

Sans Hood Pass: Daniel Tosh

Daniel Tosh

Prick or Not a Prick? Who cares. He's funny.

To continue today’s previous train of thought:

If you haven’t watched Tosh.O yet, get to it! I’m a little embarrassed by how much I look forward to the Wednesday at 10:30 on Comedy Central television event. Daniel Tosh is definitely a prick on the show, and probably is in real life, but it’s just so funny. In a nutshell, he finds the funniest clips since Grape Stomp and multiplies their comedic value 10x by pushing the envelope of all social mores regarding race, gender, sexuality, obesity, poverty, drugs, everything. Also, there are a lot of clips of people falling. Annnnnyways, back to the point…

Tosh is white–as is most of his audience. If you watch the show a few times, you’ll gather from his asides about privilege/money that he had a fairly privileged upbringing which has not earned him a ‘hood pass.’ Instead of joking about race under the pretense that he has earned some sort of right or has a unique credibility, Tosh uses the audience’s cultural memory of race issues and their subsequent discomfort with white people making comedy involving black people to great comedic effect. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: On TV, Personal, Pop Culture, Uncategorized, , , , , , ,

Sans Hood Pass: John Mayer

Has difficulty closing his mouth.

I’m interested in the way some young white people on TV and mass media have started to talk casually about racial stuff– and black people in particular–without eschewing their own whiteness. Obviously white political commentators and culture critics have always had the go-ahead to  talk about race in the context of news and art, but I think the phenomenon of whites talking about race and black people in a more personal context with less titration is much newer. I think John Mayer (in his couple of startlingly unfiltered interviews) and Daniel Tosh (of Comedy Central’s hilarious Tosh.0) are the best examples of this. Perhaps Stephen Colbert is a predecessor to this newly emerging casual racial discourse, though I think the fact that his show is thoroughly contrived satire makes his media impact considerably different.

Mayer’s blissfully frank, nearly manic sex-obsessed comments have been a hot topic on celebrity blogs for weeks now. Upon first read, all of his comments rub me the wrong way. It’s gross how sex-obsessed his interviews have been (but then again one of them was in Playboy). Hearing about his quest for “the Joshua Tree of vaginas,” one on which he might “pitch a tent on and just camp out on for, like, a weekend,” and his eternal love of Jennifer Aniston despite their (unremarkable) age difference makes me even less likely to give his make-out session blues a second listen. But, aside from his downright racist comment about Kerry Washington and his use of the n-word while discussing his ‘hood pass’, I can’t say that I am offended by the content of his personal statements. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Current Events, Media & Culture, Pop Culture, , , , ,

Such a perfect re-iteration

Breeze Harper at Sistah Vegan quotes from an essay by Sarah Ahmed who characterizes many Whiteness studies as being “non-performative” in that “they do not do what they say.” Ahmed writes that many of these declarations of whiteness are ‘admissions’ of ‘bad practice’ [which] are taken up as signs of ‘good practice’.

Ahmed’s full paper here at Borderlands

Filed under: Philosophy & Theory, Society, Uncategorized, , , , , ,

Mumia’s 2008 ‘win’ reversed by Supreme Court

From Huffington Post

Having lived in Philadelphia all my life, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to take an objective stance on this case. Any thoughts on Mumia’s case being compared to the precedent neo-Nazi killer case mentioned in the article? I’ll post more later, but have to go to work!!

Filed under: News, Philadelphia News, Politics, , , , , , , ,

Rappers+Black Keys=Blakroc: Sounds like regular rap to me and I dig it!

Ben (my husband, and the bottomless source of all new music I listen to) introduced me to Blakroc tonight. After listening to a few minutes and exclaiming how much I liked it Ben told me that it was a collaboration between the Black Keys and various rappers. Awesome! I’m always excited for Ben to discover a new album for me. (His music finding skills are far superior to mine, so I don’t even bother to look anymore) Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Media & Culture, Personal, , , , ,