Black is Beautiful

Black is beautiful  /ˈblak iz ˈbyü-ti-fəl/  phrase. – Black people are beautiful.  See also.   Black people, the 1960s Black is Beautiful movement

Interview with Aisha

Tell me about yourself. What’s your background?

I was originally born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. I have two parents and I have four brothers and sisters, I am the middle child of five. And I grew up there, studied English at Rhodes college and got a bachelor’s of arts in English. And then I moved on to Indiana University in Bloomington and I got my MFA in creative writing with a focus on poetry. And from there I taught English in St. Louis, Missouri. I have a lot of family there, extended family, my mother was born and raised in St. Louis — my father was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee — Lived in St. Louis for a few years and then on a trip to Kansas City to do a workshop on poetry, I met my future husband. Didn’t know he was my husband at the time…but moved to Kansas City once we got married…and I’ve been here for the past 10 years, since 2009. I have been teaching at various schools. Initially I started out teaching adjunct at Johnson County Community College, did some adjunct work at Park University, teaching English Composition. Now I’m a full time faculty member at Metropolitan Community College and I teach a little bit of everything — composition, creative writing American literature.

My first book of poetry, which is called “To Keep From Undressing”, was published around this time last year, in January 2019. It explores different ways of existing. Especially my narrative as an African American Muslim woman, growing up, and my experiences — with the intersectionality between race, gender, religion, and geography. It’s a collection of poems…And I’ve been traveling this past year to different colleges and literary festivals, giving workshops and readings for it. It’s been a really fabulous ride. And somewhere in there I was able to have two kids, one who’s five and one who is two.

How would you define beauty?

Immediately, I think of that phrase…that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I guess beauty could be anything that stimulates someone in a positive sense. Whether that beauty is physical beauty, spiritual beauty, beauty that evokes an emotional type of response. I guess the immediate thing that comes to mind is anyone’s connection with a stimulus that evokes a positive emotional or physical or spiritual response that gives ease and peace and happiness.

“You can’t be Black in our society and fully aware of your Blackness without being self reflective. And I think most Black art that tries to create a stimulus for people really forces people to engage with themselves.”

How would you define Black beauty? Black culture?

I would say, from that previous definition, it would be the positive stimulation and emotional response or physical response from seeing something connected to Black culture, Black identity.

So Black beauty…for example, seeing a beautiful painting of a Black person or a Black woman. If you were to be stimulated from that in a positive sense, where it make you feel good, then Black beauty would therefore be the stimulation that results in a positive feeling of ease or peace or happiness from seeing that beautiful Black body or reading a poem about Blackness or seeing a Black boy dance…maybe going to Alvin Ailey, seeing that performance, and having a positive stimulus from it.

When you think of Black fashion, Black music… lyrics, words, poetry, or anything else that’s Black culture, what’s the feeling that you get?

For me personally, I guess it’s a mix of pride, awe, and self-reflection. It makes me proud to see my culture reflected. Especially when historically Black culture has not been reflected in a lot of outlets, especially mainstream American outlets. So I’m proud to see it. And it gives me a sense of awe just to see how beautiful it is, going back to that understanding of Black beauty. And then the self-reflection…I think anytime you can see your culture reflected…either in your home or an art piece on the stage or on a wall…I think Black art is so unique because it forces you to examine yourself. Like, you can’t be Black in our society and fully aware of your Blackness without being self reflective. And I think most Black art that tries to create a stimulus for people really forces people to engage with themselves.

So like what it means for me is the pride, the sense of awe and amazement at just how wonderful we are. The pride point connects with the awe, but then also being pushed to examine ourselves — who we are, what we want, our history — that really critical self engagement.

How would you describe or define being a Black woman?

There’s a lot of diversity within Black women and that identity. We are a group of people who, again, have to deal with the intersectionality by being conscious of our race, but also being conscious of how gender informs our display of race. And even vice versa. How our racial consciousness and racism affect our ability to be women.

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I think a lot of times Black women feel like they have to be harder than perhaps they may want to be, because of wanting to fill in the gaps for Black men who may be absent in or may be broken down in the system of life and racism…and just these perpetual narratives of Black women as “mammies” who take care of and hold things down and they’re so strong. And that could very much be a valid experience for a lot of Black women.But there are also a Black women who are not affected or formed by that, which is also valid. So but I think for a lot of Black women, there is a hyper awareness of how their gender is seen in light of their race. And if they speak up in the same way that a White woman speaks up, the fact that they’re Black is seen as more of an aggressive speaking up. I think White women would say, Oh, if I’m a leader and I put someone in check, I’m seen as a bitch. But if a Black woman is a leader and she puts someone in check, she’s an aggressive Black bitch. So the aspect of race I think definitely makes Black women hyper-aware of how their womanhood is going to be perceived and how their womanhood is — this isn’t even a word, but– “angrified”. Not seen as womanly, not seen as sexy, not seen as beautiful, because this extra component of Blackness makes it almost dangerous, almost aggressive, or hostile. And so I think a lot of Black women have to battle that. Some women kind of embrace it even more, some women kind of shrink away from it. Even outside of that, there are a lot of displays of Black womanhood that I think needs to be accepted. I think Black women do a really great job — within themselves, amongst themselves — of accepting multiple ways of being Black. We as a group are a little bit more willing to accept the diversity within being a Black woman. I think we see what happens to Black men and how Black men are being denigrated so much…where it’s like, You know, we can’t do that to each other. We have to help Black men out. And we also have to help ourselves out so we can be putting each other down. We see other people do that to us.

Why do you think Black women often don’t get the mainstream representation that they deserve?

I think it kind of goes back to that point I was making about the mammy figure. I think Black women, dating back to slavery, have always been there in the shadows. I’m going to go out on a limb and say…that Black women were integrated into the master’s house, literally, more than Black men. And because of that they were always integrated as to help, more in the home. And I think when Black women have traditionally been viewed as the help and viewed as the mammy figure…there’s almost this expected invisibility. It’s almost a contradiction– to be expected to be there, but to also be invisible. To be relied upon, but not to be seen. If you are the help,then you are just there for somebody else, you’re not at the front. You’re meant to get that White woman ready so that she can be beautiful. And I think that mentality has stayed with us…that Black women help out, that we support, that we are the ones in the background saying, Girl, you need to be strong. You know, be strong figures that hold everybody down. And so when you’re always seen as this type of a figure, you’re never gonna be seen as beautiful. You’re never going to be pushed to the forefront, even as integral as you are in society.

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The idea that you could be beautiful, historically, has not been something that has been attached to Black women. And so that’s why it has taken so long for you to have like a Lizzo. Where, even before you had Lizzo, we kind of had like Adele…and she was the graceful full figured White woman. And so it’s taken a while for you to have Black women to be praised… and even when Black women were praised in the media, it was always in this type stoic sense, like with Cicely Tyson. It was never in a beautiful, sensual type of way. It was almost like the harlot-side-chick that you would never want permanently around you. So that’s the first point, being kind of a help but invisible.

And the second point was that like, the idea I don’t know if you’ve heard that comedian and he’s like, “everybody wants to be a n***a but nobody wants to be a n***a”….But this idea that people are infatuated with Black culture but don’t actually want to deal with Black people. And so back to the original question of like, why Black women are put to the forefront…

I think it’s because, nowadays, especially with the Kim Kardashians of the world, you can take on the appearance of being a woman of color without actually being a woman of color. By, you know, lip injection, butt implants, heck…marrying a Black dude…a Black basketball player, a football player. And you have these biracial children — And I’m not trying to say that these marriages are false and that you shouldn’t marry outside of your race — But what I am saying and speaking to you in the larger issue of this idea of how we’re fascinated with the Black woman. Even back to the Venus Hottentot and how her body was such on display, literally, in the museum for having this big ass. And so Black women have always been a thing of a fantasy to be infatuated with…you either had the mammy figure or you had the Venus Hottentot, the sultry Black woman that everyone was obsessed with, but no one wanted to admit it. So then going back to the idea of being seen as the help, but still being invisible…and now we can take those aspects of being a Black woman — the attitude, the hip hop-ness of her body and her beauty — without having to deal with actually her.

“It’s almost a contradiction– to be expected to be there, but to also be invisible. To be relied upon, but not to be seen. If you are the help,then you are just there for somebody else, you’re not at the front. You’re meant to get that White woman ready so that she can be beautiful. And I think that mentality has stayed with us…that Black women help out, that we support, that we are the ones in the background.”

Women like Issa Rae, Viola Davis, Tracee, Ellis Ross have taken the limelight and have been able to be a powerful representation for Black women. Why do you think that representation is important and what more do you hope to see?

Of course we’re making strides that people are seeing Black women and Black people in general as being more than just the stereotype of rappers or that basketball players. And again, if you’re a rapper, a basketball player — kudos to you, that’s your gift. Even seeing people like Viola Davis and Issa Rae, showing that you can be a writer, you can be an actor…(Jamele Hill), she’s a sports commentator who was unfortunately kicked off of ESPN, but she’s still in the realm…being able to critique sports, like not only being able to play it, but also being able to critique it and analyze it. Movies like “Hidden Figures” where people were able to see Black women in these roles demonstrating women who were mathematicians. I think that shows how far we’ve come and I think it also reflects the diversity within Black women and Black people in general. And with Ava DuVernay, being a filmmaker and a director. So, I think it’s a positive move and I just look forward to seeing even more diversity. I hope that we can see even more women in politics too. You’re able to see Maxine Waters and Kamala Harris. I think that that moved too, the fact that she put herself out there like that…of course she was kind of vilified as being mean…but it’s opening a door to see that you could be a Black woman and run for political office, even president.

What societal pressures do you feel because of your race?

I feel that most of my pressures, when it comes to race, are affected by my religion. I was born and raised Muslim. My parents converted to Islam in the late seventies and early eighties. My mother was Catholic and my father was Episcopal. They were already married, had two children, and then they converted. I was the third child who was born, with this fully Muslim name, and so I’ve been Muslim my whole life.

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Growing up in Memphis, which is very much in the Bible Belt — it was once the home of the COGIC (Church of God in Christ) denomination, which is heavily Black-Baptist, very connected with the Baptist approach to service and worship–being Black and not Christian was very hard because as far as societal expectations…within that culture and even within America…most Black people here in America are Christian. So I did feel a pressure when it came to being Black that I needed to fit in with Black Christian culture, which is very, very deep within the Black community. And because I did not have a Christian identity I got made fun of, I got bullied. And I sometimes questioned whether I was Black enough because I wasn’t COGIC or just Christian in general. That affected who I was friends with. Many times in junior high and high school I hung out with the White kids because they were minorities at our school too. I went to a predominantly Black high school and so the Whites were the minorities and I almost felt more connected to them because I was a minority.. Even though I was of the dominant racial culture, I was still a minority because a lot of Blacks there didn’t see how I fit in. And in that sense — and to some degree, still as an adult — I felt a little societal pressure. And I explore some of that in my book…how you can be Black but not Christian and not fit this traditional notion of what it means to be Black in our society.

But then also having the double whammy…within the Muslim community and not being Arab. A lot of times people assume that most Muslims are Arab and to be Black and Muslim, within that community I felt racism because I wasn’t Arab, I couldn’t speak Arabic. And when I did speak Arabic, I spoke it with the Southern Black dialect or accent. And so that pressure…kind of, Are you gonna forego being Black in the Muslim culture so that you can fit in with these Arabs? That was also the pressure that I felt due to my race.

“They weren’t born and raised here, but once they came here they definitely took on and adopted much of the racist views about Black people that were already here. And so we saw a lot of discrimination, in that sense, within the Muslim community.”

Have you ever experienced racism or discrimination? If so, would you be willing to share any stories?

I’m going in to be really honest and say, I think I have a little bit of privilege in the sense that I have not experienced racism in that traditional, stereotypical form that we as Blacks consider the dominant narrative of racism…Like, this “White person” or non-Black person says something racist to you, they say the n-word. I’ve never experienced racism purely for being Black. It might also be my privilege of being fair skinned, too… just going to put that out there. But I think because I’m Muslim and I wear the hijab, a lot of the discrimination that I have felt has been due to that. And that has become such a dominant thing in our society, even before 9/11 when I was in high school and I was in college, I know that it happened, where I experienced discrimination based on my religion.

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So, there was an example when I was in junior high where this White boy pulled off my hijab, my head scarf, and he claimed that he didn’t know that it was such a big deal, but it was very traumatic to me. So that might not have been an example of racism, but it was definitely an example of discrimination. But it was based on religion, rather than race. So again, most of my examples of discrimination has been based on that.

But I do think that within the Muslim community, I have experienced racism. You know, certain people say certain things under their breath…like about how like we, as Black people, we couldn’t lead the prayer because we aren’t fluent in Arabic. Or, I remember this one time I lined up for prayer…Muslims, we pray in a line and we stand up, and there was a woman who when I got in line to stand next to her, she moved and went to a different part of the line and I knew it was because I was Black. This was when I was in my teenage years, like mid-’90s. And the mosque that we attended was heavily Indo-Pakistani and there were a lot of people there who were very distrustful of Black people, they didn’t consider us to be fully Muslim, they didn’t consider us to to be integrated into their Muslim world. A lot of them didn’t want to stand next to us during prayer, even though that type of discrimination is not meant to be allowed in Islam.

These were mostly immigrants, too. Which was so funny because they weren’t born and raised here, but once they came here they definitely took on and adopted much of the racist views about Black people that were already here. And so we saw a lot of discrimination, in that sense, within the Muslim community.

What do you feel you have accomplished in your life? What are you proud of?

I would say first and foremost, I’m very proud of my family. My two daughters and my husband. Having created a family on my own that I am really proud to mother, I’m proud to wife. I’m proud of…my parents and my siblings, even though I can’t take credit for my parents, you know.

When it comes to taking credit for something outside of family, I’m very proud of my work as a teacher. I enjoy teaching a lot, I’ve had the ability to teach a lot of different courses and impact a lot of different students. And I’m also proud of my poetic work because the poetic work that I publish and share speaks a lot to the intersectionality between race, religion, and gender. And I think those are issues that are really important to me and I think a lot of people are affected by racism, sexism, Islamophobia.. And I would like to believe that my work has been able to share a voice that is underrepresented and speaks to people who feel like they really need to get their ideas off their chest.

What are your personal dreams?

One of the biggest ones is to continue to explore my faith journey. Faith is really, really important to me. I love writing about faith. I want to eventually do a religious pilgrimage that most Muslims are asked to complete by going to Mecca, that’s a dream of mine on a spiritual level. Another one is to continue to write and publish. I’m really happy that one of the goals that I’ve had, which was to publish a full length collection or have a press publish for me, was fulfilled earlier this past year. And I just want to continue that dream of writing another book and having it be well received. And travel more. I think I really want to travel more. I don’t travel often, but I want to go to a few different countries that have always been places that I have been intrigued with.

“I think racism stems from people wanting power, or even having it, and being afraid of giving it up. And so we denigrate and create laws that will make it harder for other people to take our power.”

What is one major problem minorities face that you would like to bring awareness to?

Of course, I mean, it’s the obvious aspects of racism from the dominant culture, that’s almost nothing new. Not to say that we shouldn’t be affected by it because it definitely affects our self esteem, it affects our ability to get jobs at that time… But I think there’s smaller microaggressions that I think minorities are now having to face where the White dominant culture can easily say, Oh no, I’m not racist….Oh no, I wasn’t discriminating against you. And they can kind of play it off as if it is not, because it’s so subtle. Perhaps, Oh, I wasn’t singling you out for your name.

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I remember one day, my class roster…I sent it to the printer and before I could get it, a colleague of mine picked it up for me and gave it to me. And I was like, Oh, thanks. And like they briefly looked it over and they’re like, Oh, you’ve got some hard sounding names up in your classroom. And I looked at it and I mean they weren’t really hard. I mean, if you can say Arnold Schwartzenegger, you can say some of these people’s names. So these kinds of microaggressions are basically geared towards the people of color where like people can kind of play it off. And when Black people, or any other minority, call them out for it…we’re seen as the aggressor. We’re seen as being sensitive. Oh, why do you always have to bring up race? So I think one of the challenges that racial minorities are facing nowadays is almost this feeling like they have to convince other people that something is racist. This idea that now in order to be racist, you have to use the n-word and that’s the only time you could ever accuse someone of being racist. If they said the n-word. And even then, you would still have to prove that they said it with malice. So just it’s becoming harder now to convince people to actually self critique and be culpable in microaggressions.

What are you dreams for society?

I guess it would be…to get to where people are willing to give up and share in the power in the power that they have. I think racism stems from people wanting power, or even having it, and being afraid of giving it up. And so we denigrate and create laws that will make it harder for other people to take our power. And I believe that anyone can be racist as long as they have the power to be so. So my dreams for society, in regards to race, would be for people to be less focused and less afraid of not having power. And when they’re less afraid of having power and sharing it, then you’re less willing to step on someone else and keep them down at a precipice. So, again, my dream would be for people to be okay with sharing and to not necessarily have everything to be on top.

How do we make progress on your dreams for society?

I guess, you know, thinking a lot about like the big push for diversity, inclusion and equity. I guess when it comes to that question it would be to….to really start pushing equity and inclusion to where not only you have people of diverse backgrounds working at a job, or being represented in a commercial, but that they also be “at the table” helping to make the decisions for that job, for that commercial, for that program. And…this is a far reach…but people being willing to be okay with sharing that power structure cause they know, I’m usually the one in charge…and I’m willing to step back and allow this person to be in charge….And you know, This group usually gets most of the funding, but I’m willing to realign and reallocate that funding so that there is a more equitable share. That is really hard because it means that sometimes one group of people might not be able to get as much as they used to, which is very much hard for people to take because it involves a level of humility and “take one for the team”. But if we ask our students and youth to be willing to do that, “there’s no I in team”, then why can’t we do that as an adult? So, basically just being able to put in the diversity inclusion, equity planning and an approach to education, to art, to entertainment, where everyone has an equal say and people are willing to re-allot funding and, and power in these organizations.

“I would just stress there’s a lot of different ways that people can experience Blackness… You can have that Black “nerd” who isn’t into basketball or listening to rap music and they’re interested in anime. That’s okay. Embrace that and be comfortable with saying Blackness is more than just this traditional notion of what we see in the media.”

What advice would you give to other Black people?

The first thing that comes to mind relates back to what I was telling you earlier about the experiences that I’ve had with racism and realizing that a lot of the racism that I experienced — well, not racism– but the expectations as a Black person when I didn’t necessarily fit in with the traditional Black culture. So the biggest piece of my advice from my personal experience of being an outsider in a minority community: It’s okay to be different within your Blackness. Blackness doesn’t have to look like one thing. You know, I am Black but I’m not Christian. I don’t know a lot of the traditional Christian idioms and experiences when it comes to being in the church. There’s a lot of stuff that I had to deal with when it comes to being a Black Muslim that a lot of other people didn’t have to deal with, some of the tings I did have to deal with within this immigrant community.

I would just stress there’s a lot of different ways that people can experience Blackness. When I was writing in my book, I wanted to show and reflect on the page Black Muslim culture and how it was just as viable as other types of Black expression. There is a multiplicity within Blackness that can allow people to be okay. You can have that Black “nerd” who isn’t into basketball or listening to rap music and they’re interested in anime. That’s okay. Embrace that and be comfortable with saying Blackness is more than just this traditional notion of what we see in the media. That would be my biggest piece of advice for Black, especially young, Black people.

What advice would you give to non-Black individuals to help them understand the Black experiences?

I think it’s important for a lot of non Blacks, particularly White, but even some others, but mostly Whites, is to be okay with not having to give your opinion about what Black people need to do. I think in our society nowadays, where everybody has a platform to say how they feel, especially on social media….I think there is this push for people of all ages to want to respond. I got give my opinion on this. I gotta give my feelings on that. And even though people do have the right to give their opinion, I think particularly for White people, it’s important sometimes to just be okay with saying,You know what? I don’t know what it’s like to be Black. And I’m okay with that. I don’t necessarily need to have that all figured out. And even if I did think that I have it figured out, I still wouldn’t. So I’m not going to try and be an expert and try to do everything that Black people do.

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A lot of times in my own experience –I went to a predominantly White college,both colleges but especially for undergrad — I always felt like there were White people who they were really well meaning and they really wanted to understand Black culture and get rid of their biases. But what would end up happening is that they would educate themselves and then find themselves to be like an expert on Black culture and they would end up almost kind of either romanticizing Black culture or trivializing it in this aspect of talking Black and dressing Black and thinking they were cool and hip because they had Black friends and they could get away with saying the n-word and all that kind of stuff.

So the advice I would have for White people would just be be you, be White, be comfortable in your own culture. You don’t have to necessarily be Black or be an expert on Black culture in order to be an ally of Black people or other racial minorities. There is a balance of being willing to self critique, being willing to investigate your own biases, to investigate your own privileges, but not take that personally as an offense to who you are. To be willing to stand and critique on the side, but not get your heart broken when you find out all the issues that are facing racial minorities.

What are some misconceptions of Muslims?

The obvious one is that a lot of people would say that all Muslims are Arab. Especially nowadays, in this society that these Muslims or these Arabs who live “over there”…Actually the majority of Muslims are not Arab. They actually live in Asia when it comes to continental geography. You have a ton of Muslims in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, so the majority of Muslims don’t even live on the Arab peninsula, they live in Asia. And as far as America, another misconception is that, Oh, you’re Black and Muslim? What’s up with that? Many of the Africans who were enslaved hundreds of years ago were Muslim. And they unfortunately were forced to convert and leave off their Muslim identity and it Muslim names and their original languages due to slave masters’ pressures. So, many of them reconverted back between the years of the ‘40s and the 80s. And so Black Muslims have been in America since its founding. It’s not a new concept to be Black and Muslim because we’ve been here forever. So again, the misconception that Muslims are all Arab.

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The second big one is that Muslims hate Christians and that we don’t believe in God. I remember growing up people saying, Oh, you don’t believe in God. I’m like, Yes I do. And their like, You don’t believe in Jesus. Actually we do. And Jesus is actually mentioned by name in the Quoran more than the prophet Muhammad. You know, people think that we pray to Muhammad…We don’t think that he’s God. We don’t think that he’s divine. He is simply a man who was a prophet and in order to be Muslim you have to accept the prophets that came before Muhammad. Muslims actually accept the old Testament as a Holy book and sections of the New Testament….And so we accept the prophethood of a lot of prophets that Jews and Christians hold. So Moses, Joseph, Noah, Jesus, these are all revered people in Islam. So the misconception that we hate Christians, that we don’t care about Jews, we don’t believe in God are just myths that are perpetuated due to lack of understanding of our actual faith. Those would be the two biggest misconceptions.

Muhammad Ali is one of the most prominent Muslim celebrities that I know… What was it like growing up knowing that there was a Muslim individual on television and known as the greatest?

I think it instills a lot of pride… That goes back to the aspect of like Black beauty that you asked about…How would you define Black beauty? and I had that response of being proud to see that reflection. Again, based upon a lot of the discrimination that I felt as a Black person who was Muslim within the Muslim community…to see, Okay, here’s this Black man that people revere who’s also Muslim. He can have that intersectionality. So, Muhammad Ali was an important figure. But even more important than him…I remember in the ‘90s…Hakeem Olajuwon he was a basketball player, played for the Houston Rockets. He was popular during my adolescence and so to see, Okay, he’s African and he was Muslim. And so the ability to see that, too.

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But, I think even more than these prominent famous people, what was also instilling a lot of pride in me was seeing people within my own everyday community. So I went to a mosque, eventually, that was predominantly African American. And to see my mother and her friends wrapping their heads up in turbans and seeing other Black men giving a could buy in English, but then also learning Arabic. And I went to an Islamic school at that same mosque that was predominantly African American and it was taught by Black people who were teaching Arabic. And we would have the pledge of allegiance, which is very much American, and then we’d have Black history lessons and then we’d have Arabic lessons and then Islamic studies lessons. So, I think even more than people like Muhammed Ali and Hakeem Olajuwon, that reflection on a daily basis that we had our own institution that showed that you could be Black and Muslim and that those two identities were perfectly fine, that instilled even more pride in me to say, Okay, I’m normal and this is normal too.

” think even more than people like Muhammed Ali and Hakeem Olajuwon, that reflection on a daily basis that we had our own institution that showed that you could be Black and Muslim and that those two identities were perfectly fine, that instilled even more pride in me.”

I want to talk to you about your poetry and your writing. What writers inspired you growing up?

I’m going to seem like a walking contradiction… As much as I enjoy the Blackness of being Muslim….Once I got into like public school and started really engaging in my English courses, I love a lot of the traditional poets that we all had to read in high school, specifically Shakespeare. I think his ability to integrate poetic rhyme and verse with these fabulous stories of tragedy and romance and comedy. So he was a big one.

But then also as I grew older in my writing career in undergrad I would say the author Yusef Komunyakaa, one of his books, “Magic City” was the first book that really inspired me to be a poet. So his work was very important. Rita Dove, another African American poet. Anne Carson, she’s not Black, she’s White, but that’s okay, but her ability to integrate myth and in these unique forms was very engaging for me. Those are just a few.

Tell me about your book and your process of bringing that together…

It was a very, very long process. Meaning that I never sat down and said, I’m going to write a book and I’m going to crank it out in the next few months. Maybe because I’m a slow decision maker, I wrote all these poems in undergrad and in graduate school and it really wasn’t until I graduated and left graduate school that I realized that I really needed to push those poems into a cohesive collection and get them published. Even though that’s the goal of graduate school, for you to end up with an actual manuscript for your thesis, it never really clicked with me. I guess I was just kind of in the ether about my ability. As an introvert it took me a while to get that in my mind…that I needed to really sit down and collect them all. So by the time that I realized that it had been four or five years since I had written any of the poems…then it took another four or five years for me to actually get the manuscript where I wanted it to go. It was almost like a 10 year process from actually writing the first poem, the oldest one, that was actually in the manuscript to it actually having been accepted for publication. It was very long. It could have happened sooner than that in less time, it just was me personally and a lot of the things that I was going through. But I’m glad that it took that long, because in those last three or four years, I added more poems that reflected my growth. Poems that talked more about motherhood. A lot of the poems that had been written earlier on were mostly dealing with issues with my relationship with hijab, the headscarf, racism within the Muslim community, and so later on I started to add more poems about my motherhood, my marriage, in light of religion and race.

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Kind of going off topic, but the advice I would give other writers is: Don’t feel like you have to meet a specific timetable for publishing and getting out your work. Especially if the work is demanding that you go back to it and revise it. I think one of the reasons why my book had not been picked up — the last three or four years, I was constantly submitting it and it was getting rejected — And it was because it wasn’t ready and I needed to add more poems. I needed to rearrange some things. And so my last push was in 2017 and I took the advice of a friend and I submitted it to this press called Spark Wheel Press. And they called me and said, Hey, we’re going to pick it up. And I was just overjoyed. It came out in the beginning of 2019. So, that was a long, long process to publication that took awhile.

Why do you think poetry is so important, specifically to Black culture?

I think, in my mind poetry is a reflection of the mind. It is a unit of logic in many ways. People think that when you sit down and write poetry, you just like spurt something on the page. But I think a good poem is one that really functions as a unit of logic. Meaning that one line of the poem presents an idea that is furthered to the next line. And so you’re working through a problem or you’re working through the presentation of an image or a concept or feeling. Even if that feeling is happy, the poem came present this moment or this idea. And I think that approach is very much needed and can be really helpful to Black people in our community nowadays. I think a lot of times Black people don’t feel like they can express themselves or that they should express themselves. There’s this kind of ultra-stoicness among Black people when it comes to expression where you express it in the church and then that’s it. You don’t go to therapy cause that’s not Black. You know, that’s what White people do. Or, if you’ve got to express yourself, you play sports. And I think poetry is a really great opportunity — and I’m not trying to say that poetry can replace therapy — but it can be a type of expression that I think a lot of Black people, especially young Black people, are not encouraged to do enough. And it can be a form of logic where you like, Hey, I’m wrestling with this aspect of my identity. I’m wrestling with this aspect of racism and I don’t really know how to put it into words…And I think poetry can allow young people, specifically young Black people, the feeling that they can’t express something without having to write it in a freaking paper. You know? That’s what you do all the time at school. You’re write a paper, you write a paper, you answer some questions…and poetry can be a creative outlet that can also be very introspective. Which is what I think a lot of Black people, young, Black people need. They need the freedom and the space to express themselves creatively without the pressure, but then also expressing it in a way that is still taken seriously. And I think poetry is a form that can down both of those.

What is one of your favorite poetry lines that you’ve written and why?

The poem that comes to mind immediately…It was published in a journal called Rattle, the poem is called a “Why I Can Dance Down a Soul Train Line in Public and Still be Muslim”. And the lines that I’d want to share…would be the the first two lines: “My Islam be Black / Not that/ “Don’t-like-White-folks” / kind of Black.”

So those lines…they opened the poem, but I think they’re very much representative of the book because it’s the first poem in the book. But also representative of what it means to be Black and Muslim. Like a lot of times when you hear the phrase “Black Muslim” people automatically think, Oh, Nation of Islam, militant, you don’t don’t like White people…And that might be an assumption that I have, but I would garner that that phrase is tied to an anger type of thing. Oh, you a Black Muslim…in a different category, so to speak, than other Muslims. For some reason, I think once people hear you talk about Blackness in any way…when it’s tied to your religion, when it’s tied to your gender, when it’s tied to your art….automatically it puts you into separate categories, of not actually being a real artist, you’re just a Black artist.

So that line, “My Islam be Black / Not that / “Don’t-like-White-folks” / kind of Black. I mean my Islam be / who I am—Black”. Those are lines that are really important to me. It’s like, Hey, I’m just being who I am. Like Blackness is not necessarily a decision. Although some people might say it is, it’s just who we are. Just like you’re White, just like you’re Mexican. I’m Black and that’s my identity and I embrace it and I don’t know how to be anything else but this. It’s not necessarily a calculated maneuver, where I’m trying so hard to be this waym, it’s just who we are. And so what the poem is trying to say is like, I’m not trying to be Black. I just am Black.


by Aisha Sharif

My Islam be black.
kind of black. I mean my Islam be
who I am—black, born and raised
Muslim in Memphis, Tennessee,
by parents who converted
black. It be my 2 brothers
and 2 sisters Muslim too
black, praying at Masjid Al-Muminun,
formally Temple #55,
located at 4412 South Third Street
in between the Strip Club
and the Save-A-Lot black.
My Islam be bean pie black,
sisters cooking fish dinners
after Friday prayer black,
brothers selling them newspapers
on the front steps black, everybody
struggling to pay the mortgage back

My Islam be Sister Clara Muhammad School
black, starting each day
with the pledge of allegiance
then prayer & black history
black. It be blue jumpers
over blue pants, girls pulling bangs out
of their hijabs to look cute
black. My Islam be black & Somali
boys and girls, grades 2 through 8,
learning Arabic in the same classroom
cuz we only had one classroom
black. It be everybody wearing a coat inside
cuz the building ain’t got no heat

My Islam be the only Muslim girl
at a public high school
where everybody COGIC asking sidewise,
What church you go to?
black. It be me trying to explain hijab
black, No, I don’t have cancer. No,
I’m not a nun. No, I don’t take showers
with my scarf on. No, I’m not
going to hell cuz I haven’t accepted
Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior
black. My Islam be riding on the city bus
next to crackheads and dope boys
black, be them whispering black,
be me praying they don’t follow me home

My Islam don’t hate Christians
cuz all my aunts, cousins,
and grandparents be Christian
black. It be joining them for Easter
brunch cuz family still family
black. My Islam be Mus-Diva
black, head wrapped up,
feathered and jeweled black. It be me
two-stepping in hijab and four-inch heels
cuz dancing be in my bones

My Islam be just as good as any Arab’s.
It be me saying, No, I ain’t gonna pray
in a separate room cuz I’m a woman
black. And, Don’t think I can’t recite Quran too.
Now pray on that black!

My Islam be universal
cuz black be universal.
It be Morocco and Senegal,
India and Egypt. My Islam
don’t need to be Salafi
or Sufi. It don’t have to be
blacker than yours black.
My Islam just has to be.

Additional Information

Interview Date: January 4, 2020

Day 17 — Story posted on February 16, 2020

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