The Test of the American Muslim

TheTestOfTheAmericanMuslimDear Daughter,

I have something I want to share with you, which I have never explained to you before.  When I was a young man, I made a decision that would change the course of my life and ultimately yours as well.  The skeleton in the closet of our lives is that as a wide-eyed, peach-fuzz lipped, knuckleheaded, eighteen-year-old, in the middle of one brisk March night, I said the following words that would change who I was forever: “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his last prophet.”

It was long before the frenzied age of rampant Islamophobia and nearly a decade before hijacked airplanes would slice into our hearts, like rusty blades that leave wounded tissue gangrenous with infection, claiming thousands of American lives along with our innocence, in a cacophony of death.  There was no Muslim “Kaiser Soze” (boogeyman) yet; Bin Laden was not in the public conscious and most people in our nation associated Islam with the eloquence and dignity of Muhammad Ali, and not the straggly bearded, turban clad foreign accents that terrorized us from faraway lands.

My two friends, the lanky and tall Abbas and the pudgy faced Osama, shouted “Allahu Akbar!” in unison to affirm the pledge I spoke that night that made me a Muslim, and the sound of their cry ricocheted through the air like a lost memory echoing in the back of my skull, for I too was a victim, spoon-fed imagery of explosive Middle Eastern tropes.  The hidden truth is that in the eyes of America, my brown skin and my unique heritage already categorized me as “other” in the eyes of xenophobic America.   America was already Islamophobic, it just hadn’t learned the vocabulary yet.  I grew up through the hostage crisis, embassy bombings, plane hijackings, and the Gulf War; I’d been the victim of school yard bullying and the default Iranian, Arab, Libyan, and Iraqi in all those instances, and ostensibly a Muslim, because of my brown skin.  The same lovely hued skin you have.

America had already considered me “the other” in many ways, long before I became one, and back then I always had a cowardly way to retreat from the otherness they asserted upon me.  I could say with conviction that I wasn’t Muslim or an Arab, or anything else other than what I was.  Or take it a step further, become strategic and grow to hate and then bully the Muslims around me. The venom inside me had burgeoned into racial and ethnic slurs that I found myself using under my breath, and eventually I’m loathe to admit, at the top of my lungs in order to distance myself from those who had distanced me from my identity as an American.

I became the bully that I despised by targeted the false-identity they ascribed to me, in others and challenging their othering with self-hate.  In that clouded time, Chuck D and Lord Jamar cut through my mental fog and spoke directly to me through cassette tapes stuffed in Walkman’s while the Poor Righteous Teachers taught me like no other teacher had in school and collectively, these Hip-Hop artists introduced me to a man named Malcolm X.  It was ultimately Malcolm who began the process of healing me, and by the time I met your uncle Abbas as an eighteen-year-old college kid, I was enamored with the discipline in the faith of Islam.

Abbas, now a successful surgeon, was the first practicing Muslim I had ever met, and in him, I saw a Muslim who was emblematic of what Islam taught, as manifest in the example set by Malcolm; in our friendship, I discovered the essence of Islam, is love. This was a far outcry from the Muslims I had met through Hollywood, showcased in the media, or those whom I’d previously interacted with. Our brotherhood helped introduce me to Islam, but my decision to become Muslim was a choice to become what the world already thought I was—it was ultimately a resolution to embrace my otherness.

From that day to this one, I have survived by living in the hyphen; as a Muslim-American, in a nation that devolved rapidly from President Bush making a distinction between American Muslims and those who committed the atrocities on 9/11, to a president calling for a Muslim registry and travel ban. The otherness I’d embraced in my youth now encircles me like the serpentine wrappings of the pariah I’ve become—but one I would have been regardless of my choice to become a Muslim or not. The Qur’an foresaw the test we’d face as Muslims in America when in Chapter 29, it states, “Do people think that they will be left alone on saying, ‘We believe,’ and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and God will certainly know those who are true from those who are false.”

The great secret that I have kept from you is that I didn’t choose this life for you—but that it was chosen for us, by the ignoramuses that have equated brownness with otherness and have hung hyphens around all of our necks.  The fact is whether you choose Islam or not, you will be inextricably related to it, and you can deny it at every turn, join the bullies, or choose to follow this path and thereby control the hyphen.  This is the test.

Whether you choose to wear a scarf on your head or not, you will be a default ambassador for Islam.  You will be forced to explain it and its practices at every turn and stupid people will question your nationality because of it; they will question your loyalty and they will typecast you into the role of other, so they can define themselves as civilized citizens while they demonize you. This is your test.

What may seem like a vice grip akin to a being trapped between a rock, or in this case Iraq, and a hard place, is truly a special place to be, because like the Quranic promise of a test of faith, there is a test of what it means to be American too.  Ostensibly America is just a promise.  It is a dream deferred until it is tested and realized for those collecting on its promissory notes.  For example, it takes a person like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to test the promise of the freedom of expression by sitting during the national anthem, just as it takes a conscientious objector like the late Muhammad Ali to test freedom of religion.  It will take someone like you embracing the otherness they cursed you with in order to litmus test the promise of America for yourself, by walking this path, donning a scarf, and ultimately living in the hyphen, until America accepts you for what you are and who you choose to be.  This is America’s test, not yours.

Love,

Dad

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I Have Insomnia, So I Cannot Dream

Minister Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching at an event

I Have Insomnia, So I Cannot Dream

A modern interpretation of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech” by artist and educator, Professor A.L.I.

I have seen and heard “I Have a Dream” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. countless times and yet it still gives me the same spine tingly chills that I had when I first heard his soulful voice as a snotty-nosed, wide-eyed youngster in the third grade. For the longest time I thought those involuntary goose bumps came each time his bass filled voice echoed in my skull because I knew that I was listening to a martyr speaking passionately not too long before his inevitable assassination. I even postulated that when the fine hairs on my skin bristled that it was surely due to his eloquent oratory and the way in which he delivered his words, from his pulsating heart into the chambers of mine. Perhaps, the historian in me wondered at times if my reaction was not due to the context of his era; one I knew from the grainy black and white images on fast-clicking filmstrips that captured the brutality of bombed churches, fire hosed marchers and the viciousness of Billy clubs and rabid police dogs. While all those things continue to make MLK’s speech one that enthralls every fiber of my being, I have found that I still shiver when I hear his words, because I know that MLK is dreaming, and that his dream is an aspiration for the future, but in the words of Langston Hughes, Dr. King’s dream today, remains a dream deferred.

A Dream Deferred

There are those who will read that last line and automatically respond in their minds with pseudo-intellectual arguments, which are textbook examples of deflection like “but Obama is president” or “look how much Lebron James makes” or “how about Beats by Dre or the financial success of Jay-Z?” or simply, “Oprah!” As much as I would like to believe that we have advanced towards MLK’s dream, these perceptions are far from the truth of our times. The numbers don’t lie; holistically the Black community is worse off than it was at the time the speech was given, as exemplified by facts like blacks are at a greater risk than whites to suffer due to poverty from homelessness, illness, malnutrition and disease and as recent as 2012, Black men and women still earned less than their White counterparts with the same education, and they are more likely to lose their jobs during economic downturns. Even when you consider improvements, like the prior emblematic examples of Obama, Lebron, Jay-Z and Oprah, you realize these are exceptions to the rule and that the disparity between Blacks and Whites has only grown in the United States since MLK’s dream, and that furthermore the statistics that enumerate the divide are nightmarish—the exact opposite of the dream. The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander outlines this nicely, outlining how amongst other policies the so-called “War on Drugs” was a direct war on the Black community—and systematically undermined the dream. When MLK spoke his words students in America were segregated by race, however soon thereafter, it seemed that with the passage of the Civil Rights Act students would soon be integrated. This certainly seemed like a step towards the dream, but even here re-districting, the aforementioned wealth disparity and school board politics nullified what should have been great gains, and is shown in the fact that in 1968, 76.6 percent of Black children attended segregated schools and in 2012, it was still 74 percent!

Insomnia

I find it hard to sleep in these times, and my sister and fellow educator Dr. Heidi Mirza knows why, as she lamented last year in a piece on how MLK’s dream of a world free from “discrimination, intolerance, prejudice and extremism” has been replaced with one that is seriously considering candidates like Donald Trump, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen in the so-called-West while remaining silent on genocides perpetrated by extremism and carried out in Burma, Bahrain and Yemen, to name a few places in the ‘Orientalist’ East. How can I sleep, let alone dream in this reality as a global Black man or a Muslim, or even a conscious human being? Shall I give into the fear that fuels ignorance or try to fight an ever-inclining uphill battle? I’ve diagnosed myself of having some form of spiritual insomnia—I am incredulous as I watch the news media unquestioningly giving airtime rhetoric that seems to echo Mein Kampf verbatim, save for Tavis Smiley who was lampooned by Trumpites on Twitter for his recent attempt to challenge their apathetic ranting, which seems to increasingly pass as normal reporting amongst the sheeple. I look to my brothers Deray Mckesson and Ameer aka Left of the University Of Left, who have become more authentic voices for the happenings of our time and try to make sense of it, as our cognizance of MLK’s dream continues to unravel. The dream seems dead. The dreamers lay bleeding on the concrete, their last act in life is usually raising their hands in the air, and when those that notice and care, like Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza and state that these innocent lives had value, and try to create a movement to highlight this fact, the naysayers come forth and mis-hear a phrase like Black Lives Matter as “Only Black Lives Matter” and thereby impugn attempts for solidarity and ultimately change. If only these dream-killers would’ve championed “All Lives Matter” when they heard of the countless extra-judicial murders in this country carried out by police officers—then perhaps little White and Black children could be found playing together as in the hopeful imaginings of Dr. King, but instead we are living in a nightmare in which teenagers are murdered in cold-blood and people seem to be able to stomach the justification given for their murders. It is a world where even the dream is slaughtered—where bullets can snuff out the life of a sleeping seven-year old girl (Aiyana Jones) by officers during a police search and there is no (official) national outcry.

Nas postulated on NY State of Mind off of his Illmatic album that “sleep is the cousin of death.” Yet we find the converse to be true, for in order to dream in the literal sense, one must sleep—however I find myself unable to sleep these days, with a deluge of death on ones newsfeed, hence my play on Dr. King’s words, “I Have Insomnia, So I Cannot Dream.”

martin-luther-king-jr

I Have Insomnia, So I Cannot Dream

I’m a light sleeper to begin with, so even a mere gasp–

A last breath, by one being choked upon the asphalt,

For selling cigarettes illegally, keeps me awake; let alone,

News of twelve year olds, shot dead, playing with toy guns.

The firearms echo inside the memory folds of my brain.

They awaken screams of Louima, and even Diallo’s pain!

Gone are sounds of chains, replaced by the din of skittles,

As they bounce off the concrete. Black life is now riddled,

With bullets from pistols (legal for white privilege to wield).

The NRA sponsored the Mulford Act, just ask Bobby Seale.

Dr. King, its hard to dream when one cannot fall asleep.

For even sleeping fauns like Aiyana Jones are targeted when they dream.

Hard to scream with broken neck, the sky seems Freddie Gray;

Will I dream in a Walmart coffin like John Crawford one day?

If I fake like I’m asleep, they’d Grant me an Oscar in fact,

Which I’d refuse, and instead ask for justice for Oscar Grant!

#BlackLivesMatter is a phrase for the nightmare to which we wake;

Does the dream of children holding hands involve a police state?

When one’s hands are up in the air, how can they join other hands?

Its hard to sleep, to dream when the days are Sandra Bland.

How can freedom ring, when injustice is protected by false justice?

And Dr. King, how can it be just when its set prey upon just us”

How can the imprisoned sing “free at last!?”—I cannot fall asleep.

This is why I have insomnia and have lost the opportunity to dream.

The dreamers are dead, and the dream is a nightmare, so I how can I sleep—even as I find myself tossing and turning, wondering as a law-abiding educator, who will try to break in and steal me away? It is a provocative thought, and yet, it’s so rooted in the reality of our time that it doesn’t seem like something unlikely for one of my faith or complexion. Guantanamo is just one notable example and while it is an ugly one, the ugliest is our domestic prison industrial complex. MLK spent time behind bars—many freedom fighters have, but fifty years later even his dream is imprisoned. When Dr. King dreamed back then, I don’t believe he could’ve fathomed that the incarceration rate amongst Black folk would be three times higher when I would write these words.

<Click for free download>

The Pen or the Pen(itentiary)

I wrote and recorded “The Pen” to introduce my audience and students of Hip-Hop in general to the concept of the double entendre and coded language in our (Hip-Hop) culture, while at the same time provide them with a critique of ignorance, which I believe to be the antithesis of Hip-Hop, which is defined by our community as “intelligent movement”, because one must be “Hip” or “in the know” to understand it and “hop” or move in order to live it, and ignorance is unintelligent and unmoving, and as a Hip-Hop artist and cultivator of this culture, I see ignorance as a tangible prison that diminishes our humanity and snuffs out our light as potential learned beings of this universe.

“The Pen” is a piece that asks the listener to stand in-between a sense of hope and a cloud of cynicism, hinging on how one perceives the word “pen”; it can either be a writing instrument representing knowledge or a slang-abbreviation for penitentiary, which is a prison. So the pen respectively represents the freedom of speech on one hand, and on the other it is confinement to a cage, which hinders both movement and speech.

I wrote this piece lamenting the existence of this very fork in the road for youth in America, and as an educator and artist I have seen too many young people from amongst my own peers in public schools situated in gang infested ‘hoods to my own students attempting to navigate this fork, two decades later, only to choose the path of the pen that is clouded by cynicism, which ends with them in prison as opposed to the path of the pen, which leads to wisdom and knowledge; at the same time the piece represents a larger historical conversation and a clash that our world is experiencing right now—an actual battle of survival between the people of knowledge and the people of ignorance.

Those who know me know that I abhor violence and increasingly as of late senseless violence born of ignorance have besieged my newsfeeds and timelines, filling them with egregious, gory examples of sick depravity. This plague has a common thread and it is that violence is constantly being aimed at sources of knowledge or legitimacy, whether it be those who hold the narrative truths or those that pose questions, and that these acts are carried out by the ignorant, willfully or otherwise.

Ironically, those that escape the actual prison, make it out of confinement through knowledge and those that avoid it altogether are those that embrace/ed the pen as a tool for wisdom. Old cliché’s inform us that this pen is mightier than the sword, but it is the sword that is being used as a blunt instrument throughout the world to write a modern narrative using innocent blood, seemingly pitting East against West, but in reality its inviting all the “crazies” or extremists to sully forth and use it to write their own narrative, and as the hemoglobin of innocence flows, so does our own faith in each other, polarizing our world into an endless clash of the “uncivilized”.

The Pen performed Live with Jazz Horizons in Oakland, California

In the end to paraphrase the words of Assata Shakur, the only difference between those in prison and those on the outside is that those inside can see the bars, while we operate under the illusion that we are free, as evidence by our inability to dream. We are not free to dream—but like Dr. King I do long for a day where I can say, at the top of my lungs, with my children that we are indeed free at last—and until then, I’ll remain awake.

With Peace & Love.

professoralimlk