On April 21, Muslims concluded Ramadan—a month of prayer, fasting, and introspection during which we reflect on the stories of our past and the lived realities of Muslim communities in the present. It’s necessary, especially for Black Muslims, to tell these stories as we continue to navigate an era when politicians are attempting to rewrite American history, erase its complexity and diversity, and suppress the roots that enable us to cultivate a new future in which Black people are safe and can thrive.

If anything, the growing list of banned books and continued debates over what aspects of history should be taught in schools are a stark reminder of long-standing stipulations that continue to determine whose truth and lived realities in America can be documented, taught, or amplified. It is a political act in this country to embody a sense of belonging and liberation that cannot be threatened by inequality or oppression.

Laws can restrict literature, but they can’t restrict the stories and dreams we carry.

In honestly retelling history, we deepen our understanding of collective liberation and shift our focus from solely combating the erasure of Black people, women, and other historically marginalized communities to envisioning a just and equitable future and how we get there together.

Much has been written about the various oppressions that Black, brown, and Indigenous communities have endured. Yet there have been far fewer efforts to illuminate the complex survival strategies and ways of being that have aided these communities in their unwavering commitment to joy, liberation, and future-making. The current Afrofuturism exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture is a perfect example of centering the experiences of Black people beyond survival by exploring Black identity without the constraints of structural racism. It highlights expressions of Black autonomy, alternatives to oppressive structures, and imagination as a vital tool for envisioning and creating a liberated future through the lens of art, collaborative care, and activism. Afrofuturism draws wisdom from the past, encouraging us to imagine a distant future and present in which systemic oppression and injustice are dismantled and humanity is restored.

Growing up, I was surrounded by stories detailing how various family members departed from the Deep South as soon as they were old enough to find safety or the means to support themselves and extended family. The South was a place to return to for family reunions or unfortunate gatherings like funerals—but never to live. I carried these narratives with me (along with everything I’ve read or taught about the history of the American South) and did what my folks instructed me never to do: I went back.

Unlike those before me who went up North, I did not return for safety, academic, or employment opportunities. Instead, my “reverse migration,” a return to Southern states that Black folks had once fled during the Great Migration in the 1940s and ’50s, was caused by the harsh impact of gentrification. I could not afford to live and teach at a local high school in Brooklyn, New York, and I knew that the same racial discrimination found in the American South was also alive and flourishing in so-called progressive states.

When I moved to Durham, North Carolina, I was unsure about how the fullness of my identity would fit into historical and present-day understandings of Blackness in the South. One month into my new life, I began walking or taking the bus to explore the many things and people I could easily miss when traveling in a car.

After a year, I wrote this in my journal: “I often feel othered due to my Blackness, possibly oppressed due to my hijab, or like the strange person who can’t eat pork at the BBQ. These definitions, often imprinted by others onto my body, fail to go beyond the surface, as the goal is not to adequately see me but to limit my existence.”

Most days, I wasn’t prepared for the hurdles that can appear when starting over in a new place. Still, I had what I needed—a collection of warning stories and the many ways my father reminded me that there is no place where I do not belong. However, over time, I grew a new muscle: the ability to think about, honor, and use the past (good and bad) as a tool to inform and reshape the present and possible future.

While searching for a place to exist in the fullness of my humanity, I attended a weekend-long, multifaith social justice retreat in 2009. At the time, I was an emerging cultural organizer juggling the challenges of seeking to address complex social issues while also being impacted by them. Upon arrival, I quickly noticed that I was the only visible Muslim, and I began looking around and internally mapping out where to sit.

A woman who would later introduce herself as Margaret Rose Murray patted her hand gently on the seat next to her, as if to say, “Not only do you belong here, but you should sit by me.” And so I did. Sister Margaret was a proud Muslim civil rights advocate, community worker, educator, and radio host born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1931. As I got to know her better, it became clear that she beautifully embodied a legacy of persistence, which can only be defined as an inward strength and an unshakable belief that goodness would prevail despite the trials and tribulations of our current social landscape.

As a young student, she was taught that Black history began with slavery, a notion that made her so uncomfortable that it planted a seed that would inspire her activism. A few years later, she married a jazz musician, Imam Kenneth Muhammad, whom she met in an ice cream parlor. In 1957, the young couple relocated to North Carolina to begin a new life, with $20 to their name and dreams of building the state’s first mosque.

Relocating came with challenges in the 1950s. Like most Southern states, North Carolina was racially segregated, resistant to integration efforts, and lacking in religious diversity. While working as a substitute teacher, Sister Margaret quickly discovered racial disparities. She decided to do something about them by opening a private school called Vital Link in Raleigh in 1964—starting with just six students. For fifty years, Sister Margaret nurtured and taught generations of Black children about Black history, brilliance, creativity, community, and life before the interruption of slavery.

My first job in North Carolina was teaching global Black history through art to children impacted by economic disparities and budget cuts in partnership with a local nonprofit. Education is a source of freedom and power. But access to education and resource distribution remain glaring issues. Black and brown students often attend schools that are statistically more likely to be underresourced, outdated, and, in many cases, structurally hazardous.

Within several months, I began splitting my time between teaching and supporting a growing student-led movement focused on educational equity, lack of diversity among educators, the implications of race and gender in repeated school suspensions, and the need to reimagine what it means to provide equal access to education for all students.

Throughout generations, the act of imagining a world with racial justice and cultural equity has taken place on porches, in living rooms, at kitchen tables, in the barbershop, and—for Sister Margaret and me—at the mosque. It’s where I asked hard questions and she shared the wisdom she’d gathered over the years. During these chats, I found answers to questions that would define and shift my visions for the future, such as, “How can we collectively create sustainable change that supports the most vulnerable?”

This question anchors my work as the director of the Muslim Power Building Project, a national organization dedicated to addressing American Muslim communities’ political and social realities and building solidarity across religious lines as a vital part of our commitment to justice and equity.

Although American Muslims are relatively well integrated into US society, they face many of the same challenges people of color across all backgrounds experience, including poverty, racism, inadequate access to health care, gentrification, underresourced schools, and the impact of xenophobic rhetoric utilized to justify discrimination—resulting in unwarranted surveillance, increased anti-Muslim racism, exclusionary immigration policies, and gendered Islamophobia. The practice of Islam and the presence of Muslim communities are often defined as incompatible with Western democratic values, increasing public suspicions and anti-Muslim sentiment as a tool of division by electoral candidates. During Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, he endorsed requiring Muslims in the United States to register in a special database, a concept in alignment with his promise, if elected, to increase scrutiny of immigrants who might come to the United States to commit terrorist acts—especially Muslims. In this context, Islam is not a faith practice but a dangerous political ideology comprising a racial/ethnic group that must be prevented from becoming an integral part of America. This notion has erased the Muslim identity that existed among the many enslaved Africans during the founding of this nation. The tactic of highlighting Muslims as potentially violent can be easily linked to aggressive military action abroad, causing many Muslim families to migrate for safety and resources, as well as the oppression of American Muslims in the United States through invasive surveillance, religious and ethnic profiling, increased anti-Muslim hate crimes, and neglect of religious freedom.

Despite recent demographic shifts, the South is still very much a part of the Bible Belt, and the historical presence of Black Muslim women within its landscape is vast and complicated. To be a visible religious minority, a person of color, and a woman adds layers of vulnerability. In addition, Western media is used as a tool of erasure, flattening Muslim women, reducing their bodies to a particular type of oppression that occurs exclusively within the “Muslim world” and never outside of it.

One-third of the US Muslim population is Black, yet issues of anti-Black racism, poverty, mass incarceration, and police brutality are rarely considered legitimate Muslim issues—creating a liminal space where Black Muslim women who exist in a state of vulnerability are simultaneously perceived as inconspicuous and historically dangerous, due to multiple sites of marginalization.

The social and political realities of American Muslims living in Southern states are missing from national discussions, along with the many stories of how Black Muslim communities have historically been at the forefront of social critique, civic engagement, and grassroots community-based education. Early Black Muslim communities in the United States viewed Islam as a liberatory faith practice with the capacity to address their unique religious, spiritual, and political needs. In the early to mid-twentieth century, predominantly Black Muslims situated themselves in urban environments and positioned their mosques as spaces of refuge and healing for the surrounding community, irrespective of faith practice.

In this way, Black Muslims were simultaneously concerned with combating the effects of institutional racism and poverty and with establishing spaces that nurtured their faith. Organizations such as the Islamic Party in North America (IPNA) made it their mission to identify with and alleviate human suffering—their Feed the Hungry programs and Department of Oppressed People’s Affairs are examples of their efforts to incorporate political action and social justice into a form of religious observance. The Muslim Power Building Project seeks to continue this legacy by investing in emerging organizers, the power of community, and the understanding that our struggles, well-being, and future are intimately connected. 

We are consistently engaging with partial retellings of American history that justify inequality. These narratives are passed down, reshaped over time, and repeatedly used to reproduce racism and harm. These stories seek to tell us who we are, who belongs, who should be othered, who is violent, who should be cited, and who is intelligent and deserving. Dominant and inherited narratives continue to shape our thoughts on race, class, gender, and social justice.

Yet, at a young age, Sister Margaret rejected this notion, discovered her people’s history, and understood that the best way to solve an issue is always to place the needs of those most impacted at the center. That collective liberation is a practice that begins with investing in the power of community and working collaboratively in an effort to better understand the nuances of our experiences.

I’ve learned a lot from her since that day in 2009, and each day that followed. The most important piece of wisdom she imparted seems sacred since her passing in January—that telling our stories and continuing our ancestors’ efforts is blessed work. It’s vital for everybody, everywhere, to do the work of defining themselves. But there is an urgency for Black people and women to embrace the fullness of our beings and the reality that our lives must be crafted in our own handwriting. It is a firm yet loving reminder that change, or rather the discovery of one’s whole self, has never been linear or easy, but we must do it anyway.


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