In Search of The Pedestal: How My Dissatisfaction with Gender in the Black Community Led Me to Islam
“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”-Malcolm X
Today marks the 49th anniversary of the assassination of slain Civil Rights leader Malcolm X. There is no leader I revere more than the man born as Malcolm Little. Even after all this time his words and his example give me hope. There are many reasons why I adore Malcolm X but his strong, unwavering defense of Black American womanhood is within the top three.
I live in a time where a week can’t pass without someone sending me a link to a video/article in which Black American women are publicly savaged by those of their own race under the guise of “truth-telling”. Indeed, it would seem that castigating Black women in general is a surefire way to gain applause and a following online. Railing on the inferiority of Black women is so common and accepted that those of us who push back and contest it are viewed as insane. So to hear Malcolm X’s defense and expression of love and loyalty to Black womanhood is a welcome relief, a brief reprieve from the toxicity that has become dominant.
Throughout my life I have desperately wanted my nation and my community to understand that I, too, am a woman and to respect me. I yearned to move beyond the narrow confines of the four classical stereotypes of Black American womanhood. My craving for the pedestal that I’d been denied of would eventually push me in a direction that my friends and family never expected: to the East and into the arms of Sunni Islam.
My conversion to Islam was the culmination of a fascination which began when I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X at the age of eleven. Malcolm X’s explanation of and reverence for his faith pulled at me, but I could not share such feelings with deeply religious Baptist family. I kept my attraction to Islam secret, but the knowledge that Malcolm X kicked continued to resonate with me. The mentality preached in regards to Black women was what I wanted and needed to hear. During my adolescence the old stereotypes of black women as Sapphire and Jezebels were reborn, with corporate hip-hop taking the main role in spreading this toxic gospel. I came of age in an era where Black urban girls like me were frequently called hoes, gold diggers, bitches, skanks and hood rats. And if you’ve read my “Shades of Blackness” series you’re aware of how girls like me were attacked for our very blackness as well-by the young men who shared it. Respect, dignity and deference from our counterparts were the exception. I needed to look no further than the lives of my own Mama and Grandma to see this. There was a vast difference between what I was told Black women deserved and what I actually saw them receive.
Fast forward to January 2010. I’m now in a predicament that is eerily similar to that of my Mama in the early 1980s: divorced and raising a little girl alone. Unlike my Mama, however, I did not have the same support system which helped her raise me. Both my Grandma and Mama were deceased, and my maternal side was permanently weakened in the wake of their deaths. My ex-husband, like my own father, may as well have been a ghost. He remarried three months after our divorce was final, focusing on his new life while I focused on busting my ass to make sure that our daughter wanted for nothing. And though my friends, relatives and associates frequently praised me as a single parent and lauded me for being a ‘strong black woman’ that was not what I wanted. Each time my strength was praised and I was told God would get me through it I bristled inside. On many occasions I held the following conversation with myself in my head:
Why do I have to be the one to be responsible? Why is it normal and expected that I carry the burden of providing and nurturing my child with no assistance from my ex-husband? Why does he get to move on and gallivant around while I drag my daughter in with me to the office to work overtime on Saturdays? And why the fuck does everyone tell me to stay strong? MAYBE I AM SICK OF BEING STRONG…
And so on and so on. Though I loved my daughter dearly I struggled with the ‘strong Black woman’ narrative that had defined the lives of the women in my family stretching back to our days of slavery in Mississippi. I disagreed when I was admonished to be nice to my ex. I sucked my teeth at discussions in which single black moms were chastised for expecting child support. My culture seemed to feel that struggle was my birthright as a Black woman. I disagreed vociferously.
In the months leading up to my conversion I knew something had to change. I was frustrated spiritually and socially. I had long lost the zeal for Christianity which drove my teen years. I briefly attended Mars Hill church here in Seattle but it just didn’t fit me. I had no desire to return to the Black Baptist church environment of my family either. It was time for me to search out Islam. My interest in Islam never disappeared. Back in the spring of 2006 I actually began studying the faith with a Cham woman and attending Islamic talks with her. My husband-the child of a Sunni Muslim himself-cautioned me to be careful, that if I converted I would enter an Arab centric culture vastly different from my own. I was soon too engulfed with marital strife to continue my study and it fell to the wayside. Soon after resuming my study in 2010 I already knew what the end would be: I was going to convert.
“ISLAM IS THE ANSWER”. These four simple words flowed easily from the lips of those who gave dawah in the West. I still have pamphlets that lay out the case for how Islam will fix social ills. I’ve often been asked how a woman as smart, strong and independent as myself could actually choose to follow such a “backwards” religion. The answer isn’t that complicated: I saw Islam as my solution. Islam would deliver me from the discomfort I felt with Christian doctrine. The Five Pillars didn’t offend my logic the way the Resurrection story did. I could hold onto my monotheism and remain part of an Abrahamic faith(I had yet to reach a point where I could entertain the idea that all of the Big Three were wrong). Yes Islam would be more rigorous in practice, but I felt I was ready for the challenge.
Islam would also give me what I yearned for socially. I wanted to be part of a tight-knit community. But more than that I wanted OUT of modern Black American womanhood. People around me thought I should be repulsed by Islam’s take on gender roles. But that’s what actually attracted me. I believed Islam would deliver that which America and my own community denied Black American women: The Pedestal. I wanted to be regarded as a woman and not a mammy. I wanted to be able to celebrate my femininity and not be defined by the word strength. I desperately wanted the adoration and protection that my Mama and Grandma never received, the adoration and protection that my father never gave me. In Islam it would be men who were required to lead, to provide, to be accountable and strong. Muslim men were REAL men-not like my maternal grandpa who sired fifteen children with multiple women and never helped my Grandma. Muslim men were real men, better than my dad who divorced my Mama and never looked back, so disrespectful of me that he gave his second daughter the same name as me. Muslim men were REAL men, better than my ex who couldn’t afford back to school clothes for our daughter but could afford a lavish wedding two months into the school year. Before I converted to Islam I’d been hurt deeply by the very Black men who should have embraced and loved me the most. I was always my Mama’s baby; I was never worthy of even a birthday card from my dad. My ex-husband’s abandonment of our child ripped that wound open and rent my heart asunder again. I wanted the pain to stop. I wanted to be told that I was worthy of love, adoration and respect. Islam and its’ apologists said I was, and for someone who comes from a background where that is not the norm such a message can be intoxicating.
I took shahadah on April 4th, 2010. The general reaction was that I had lost my mind, but I was quite happy. I removed my acrylic nails and put away my bright makeup without a word. I purchased a ton of khimars and adopted a conservative Islamic form of dress immediately. Within three months I’d be rocking black Saudi style abayas whenever I went out. Where others saw oppression I saw freedom. I liked my new dress code. In my mind it separated me from the Jezebel stereotype of Black women and her hyper sexual cousin the video vixen. No one could mistake me for a tip drill, and no one would berate me as a hood rat. I was now a muslimah, and that meant something. So though plenty around me questioned my sanity and my intellect I was pleased with my radical change. I went about my business, sprinting around with ease, head held high. People respect me now, I thought to myself, and men can’t hurt me as easily anymore.
But as the saying goes: all that glitters ain’t gold. I would soon discover that the Ummah has its’ flaws too. The catty, ‘mean girls’ behavior that I loathed in the church took place among Muslim women as well. And respect from men? Well in theory it happened; reality was different. There were brothers in the community who played musical beds, marrying and divorcing as soon as they tired of a woman. I knew of one sister whose husband told her he needed to take a second wife because it was time for him to feel another woman’s body! Muslims obviously had their issues as well but it wouldn’t be the social flaws that made me leave the faith. That honor goes to the hadiths.
My study of Islam which took place immediately prior to my conversion was not a thorough study. It was more of a case of confirmation bias. I sought out information which bolstered my view of Islam and wrote off criticism of the faith as Islamophobia. Once I was within the fold of Islam and bound to follow the Sunnah I found things which troubled me. I was soon faced with a dilemma: continue walking on a path I increasingly doubted or walk away from organized religion. Fully aware of the backlash and whispering campaign which would follow and cognizant that I’d have egg on my face, I chose to walk away. My sanity, sincerity and intellect were attacked once again but I endured it. Besides I had little time to feel sorry for myself. I was too busy getting back on my grind and cleaning up the mess left by my quest to become ‘the ideal muslimah’.
It is now 2014. I now know that there are no easy, quick and painless answers to the various issues I face as a Black American woman. Nor can I lazily expect a religion to make the hard choices for me. I must think critically and decide which path is best for me. As for The Pedestal? I’m convinced more than ever that my community will not place me on it. One hundred and fifty one years after the Emancipation Proclamation we remain captive to notions of Black American womanhood which stem from chattel slavery.
The Black American woman is to work herself to the bone. The Black American woman cannot have high expectations and demand respect without being deemed stuck up and accused of not knowing her place. The Black American woman is to glue a smile on her face regardless of her pain, for it has been decided that she can ‘take it’, much as her enslaved foremothers did. Most of all the Black American woman is to remain unyieldingly ‘strong’. I think it can be argued that the physical and emotional strength of the Black American woman is one the most exploited resources by both internal and external forces. However Black American womanhood is not an inexhaustible resource. We BEEN TIRED. Sisters express their weariness in different ways. There are those who see sisters adopting reactionary views and become alarmed and disgusted. I see sistas with reactionary views and see myself. I see a black woman who has been deeply hurt and betrayed and has now decided to cling to an idea/organization that promises to make her pain stop. I see a Black American woman who trembles at the eloquent words of Malcolm X in defense of her, and launches an unheeded call for a new generation of brothers to hold her down as fiercely as our ‘black shining prince’ did. I see a Black American woman who doesn’t want to believe the hype, who knows that in spite of the incessant attempt to convince her of her inferiority that it AIN’T TRUE and she’s worthy. To her I say; don’t wait for others. Don’t wait for anyone-even those who share your heritage- to erect that pedestal for you. Construct it yourself in your mind, occupy it and never step down.