Obama’s Blackness, The Convert’s Muslimness Part 1

In the questions raised about Barack Obama’s blackness or his appeal to various segments of the electorate, I see a reflection of my own experience as a young black woman that was born and raised in a predominantly white college town suburb in upstate Western New York that later converted to Islam. I have faced and continue to encounter questions from various sources about what others perceive as my blackness, my Iboness my acting whiteness, my Muslimness.

Criticism of race is mostly subjective and prone to stereotypes, which negate the individuality of life experience and personal choices. Barack Obama is biracial, yet is seen by most people as a black man, and he himself identifies as black. His family background has traces of Muslim, Christian, and secular atheist beliefs yet he sees himself as a Christian and belonged to black church until it became politically unpalatable for his political ambition and aspirations.

In the children of the African immigrants that I grew up with and continue to be surrounded by, I saw three distinct patterns. Those who try to assimilate wholly into white culture and aspire to become honorary whites through imitation and a rejection of their background, those that try to assimilate wholly into black culture and aspire to become honorary blacks through imitation and a rejection of their background, and those that try to merge the disparate influences by trying to take the best of their experience and leaving off the worst.

I like to read, reading was always emphasized in my family, from books to newspapers to whatever, the process of reading, comprehending, and writing well formed a pivotal part of my upbringing. I was sometimes criticized by black students bussed in from a nearby city at school about my reading habits and my speech pattern, and my taking of Advanced Placement classes. I can remember the exclamations and surprised looks by more than one teacher when they realized that I read, that I had read many of the books they had read or were currently reading and could converse fluently with them about those books. On the phone, people sometimes think I am white until they hear my name and then they get confused.

I also love some of the speech patterns, mannerisms, and slang of the black city kids I grew up with and from listening to hip-hop back in the day, and the pidgin English spoken by Africans so I incorporated some of that into my speech, sometimes deliberately but mostly unconsciously. I could never stand the word “ask” mispronounced. And of course, the politics of who and what determines “correct” and “incorrect” speech is another discussion.

In the last five years or so, I started to enjoy talking and listening to older black folks, I learn so much from them about life and history and people and race. And working at Baltimore’s Thurgood Marshall airport, the blacks I met there many of them from Baltimore were an extraordinary group, I learned a lot from them as well and have a tremendous sense of respect for them. I don’t know if it is something particular to Baltimore or because it is a little further down south than New York but the blacks I met there were culturally not like the blacks I met in Rochester. It’s not that I thought there was some mythical singular black American culture as I am proof of that myself but the differences were startling and made me rethink a lot of issues.

In my younger days, mostly in middle school, I wanted to be seen as tough, not exactly a thug, just tough enough so no one even tried to mess with me (the movie Mi Vida Loca was one of my favorites), I wore the clothes and talked the talk with more authenticity then the white students, some of whom were afraid of me and all blacks by default until they got to know me. I never felt the need to lock the doors of the car while still driving as soon as we crossed into the city like some of my white and Asian friends did and I don’t clutch my bag tighter or cross over to the other side of the street when I see a group of black or latino guys hanging out on the sidewalk.

I like the idea of organic food. I grew up eating traditional Ibo dishes and typical American fare and disliked making Ibo food because it took so long and the ingredients had to be imported from Nigeria, or purchased at a local African store, or fresh from a farm or a farmers’ market. I remember well the live goats or chickens bought alive from the farm only to be slaughtered in the backyards of my family and Ibo family friends. I now appreciate how fresh that food made almost entirely from scratch was compared to the highly processed foods so readily available in grocery stores and restaurants. I buy organic food as much as I can and have had black coworkers look at me weird because they think that is “a little too white” as if I have to like Popeyes chicken  and collard greens (which, I don’t and never have) in order to be more fully black.

I like the outdoors, going on hikes on nature trails, walking by a lake, riding my bike, watching a lunar eclipse, taking care of my bonsai and other house plants, fresh flowers, can’t stand plastic or fake plants, and would prefer to enjoy the scenic beauty of Allah’s creation to almost any other form of outdoor recreation, although I like playing sports, too. Last year, when I went to Washington state, which has extraordinarily beautiful places, I tried to explain my joy for nature to some of my family and coworkers and some of them got it but a number of them teased me, did the imaginary flip of the hair, questioned whether I had any black friends, or brushed it off as something they did not have time for or as being a “white thing”.

I was talking about books to one of my former housemates and somehow we got on the topic of The Color Purple, both of us are black and neither one of us had read the book or seen the movie, although I had seen enough snippets of it to know that Oprah was in it. Both of us had been criticized or mocked for not reading or seeing it as in “you’re not black unless or until”, as if The Color Purple is a seminal work necessary for membership in the black American community.

So finally this year, I gave in and ordered the film on Netflix (another white thing) and forced myself to watch it. The story is awful (in the archaic sense), awful things happen, rape, incest, infidelity, racism, wife beating, although it has its good points, love, humor, history, the post-slavery black experience, jazz, strong familial bonds, redemption, a little back-to-Africaness, but certainly if you miss reading the book or seeing the movie you can most assuredly still be considered black by me. I give the film four stars and will probably read the book by Alice Walker. However, I think anyone interested in the black experience would do better to read The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B DuBois, it’s nonfiction and touches on many of the themes mentioned in The Color Purple in a much more objective and methodical way.

To be continued in sha Allah…Muslimness and why I’d vote for Obama

From the Storehouse:

Thinking About Race & Class

Obama’s Blackness, The Convert’s Muslimness Part 2

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Author: Ify Okoye

Muslim woman, RN, & rebel with a cause.

18 thoughts on “Obama’s Blackness, The Convert’s Muslimness Part 1”

  1. You’re scaring me, MA. Are you really saying that there are people, and not just a few, who think that you can’t be black and like the outdoors, music, poetry? Are you saying that there are black-only pleasures and white-only pleasures? Because I would find that very hard to accept. That there are pleasures that usually only black people like, I can accept (I don’t know what they’d be, but I can accept that it might exist). Similarly, the reverse. But that to cross that line would somehow invalidate you, make you less of a person, less of what you value, that you’d have to prove yourself to be black, or white, or Irish, or whatever, because of something you like thats usually liked by some other kind of person — thats scary. I find that very scary. It sounds like some of the bad old days in the sixties. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember them, but part of them was that you had to be one way — if you were white, you couldn’t hang out with black people unless you were a doper or a loser; if you were black, you couldn’t hang out with white people unless you were a Tom or an Oreo. I know, probably not as well as you, but I know, that we’re nowhere near being past that. But what you’re saying makes be wonder if we (by which I mean: me) have been kidding ourselves about how far we are past it. I sure hope not. I really do.

  2. Bill, my dad came to the U.S. in the sixties (I was not yet born) to finish his Ph.D and was and has been very involved in the civil rights movement and he teaches, has written articles and a book, and has made it his life mission to educate people about African and African American history and race relations and he says that before he used to be quite optimistic that things were getting better and indeed many things have gotten better but he says he is now much less optimistic and believes the latent racism particularly institutional racism is as insidious as ever but just less visible especially as people believe that so much progress has been made.

    I think the concepts many people have of race are skewed even if there is truth in some stereotypes. I have heard from white Muslim converts that their conversion to Islam and hence their transition to become a minority within the Muslim community sometimes elicits a negative reaction from other whites that see conversion to Islam as taking them out of the fold of whiteness.

    And in the same way, even though I could sit at the black table or any other table in the lunch room with no problem there were definite racial issues that would come to the fore and I knew what was expected of me in terms of my racial classification. For example, I remember clearly one day, I was sitting with some white kids and one student that I grew up with and lived in my neighborhood called some black kid a nigger and then I objected and he looked at me shocked because in that setting I wasn’t considered black, I was, I guess, an honorary white. Or in class some poser white kids would often ask me if I could rap, dance, or play basketball as if all black people can do these things. And I remember one really bright girl bussed in from the city, I encouraged her to take AP classes because she was smart but she dropped it quickly because the black kids got on her for acting white.

    I think one of the most telling studies is the doll test, where black kids have internalized the negative stereotypes associated with blackness and prefer and believe that all things white are better. Here’s the doll test if you haven’t seen it: Doll Test

    Personally, I find criticism of a person’s perceived blackness or whatever race to be highly offensive because it diminishes the humanity of that individual as if personal identity is something handed down as a set framework and anything outside of that framework is a betrayal of racial identity. I don’t believe in race-only activities or recreation or likes or dislikes, yet ideas about race do inform the opinions of many in those areas.

  3. AsSalaamu Alaikum,

    Alhamdulillah!

    It’s very interesting this blog. One time, at band camp (a place I wouldn’t catch myself in now adays), told by an acquaintance of mine I was “the whitest black person” he’s ever met. Another assoicate said my voicemail was the “whitest”.
    It hurts a bit sometimes but I believe I have a better understanding of the unconscious discourse about such comments. Allahu Allum.
    I suggest a book called “Black Skins, White Masks” written by Frantz Fanon
    Another good book on the matter of the unconscious discourse of the directly affect of the African Diaspora is a book called “Black Orpheus”, at this moment the author’s name escapes me.

    It’s a very interesting topic to be sure.
    In my opinion, the fact that blacks can criticize or have audacity to question another black person’s so called blackness shows the struggle for identity within the black community. I use the word black because I realize that such occurences do not only happen to African Americans. In black communities dating back to slavery, you’ll find a ceiling in which once pierced through becomes a sort of point of no return. That ceiling creates what I call the crab system. We all know the saying such and such people are like crabs, when one tries to get out the other pulls it back down. In many ways becoming too much of intellectual in the black community makes one an outcast.
    “Oh you’re smarty arty so you think you better son!”
    ” You think because you talk like that you better than me? you still a ….”
    And all of that I’ve witnessed and been through in some shape or form. It’s comes with the territory.
    In fact, this is not isolated only to blacks. This problem is very human in nature and a huge problem in the community.

    Dubois and the men of the Harlem Renaissance wrote this unconscious discourse as well. I believe it’s time for us as their successors to bridge a gap within our communities, going to perdition in a hand basket,to educate our people, all people.
    hmm. Too much to write about.
    Very good dialogue can be produced from this .

    JazakAllahu Khairun for the post. I may write a similar blog in discussing this.

    P.S.

    Good decision on the new look of the blog ukhti.

    AsSalaamu Alaikum

  4. Asalamu alaykum,

    I know of the Fanon book, in sha Allah I’ll check out the other one. At some point, I hope to touch briefly on the lack of diversity in the standard accepted notions of blackness.

    The voices of blacks that are educated and not from the inner city or the South seem to be lost or are silenced as not being authentically black. Or that if you live in the projects or talk a certain way or listen to hip-hop that is somehow more “real” than growing up in the suburbs reading the International Herald Tribune, Achebe, and Dostoyevsky.

    I believe Barack Obama has successfully navigated the American social and racial milieu to lay claim forcefully to his identity as black and the skills and experience gained in that struggle as he went from Barry to Barack will be invaluable in the political arena and along with other factors make him uniquely qualified to be President.

  5. AsSalaamu Alaikum,

    I wrote a blog about the unconscious discourse and inshaAllah will plan on explaining more about it in future blogs. It’s a very complex matter.
    I do believe that Obama has definitely laid his claim to being black.He does not seem to be made of sternerstuff. Unfortunately, it may be that he will compromise some key values and issues, as politicians do, to win this race to the Presidency. You do what you have to do. Ultimately I believe the people of the U.S. especially the ones backing Obama have the serious responsibility of supporting him in being the best President he and Presidential candidate he can be. We can’t leave it up to him alone, that wouldn’t be fair to him.

    AsSalaamu Alaikum

    P.S.
    I would give you a link to my blog but I don’t know how to do that yet lol.

    AsSalaamu Alaikum

  6. I think I need to think about this a bit more. Thanks for your response — thoughtful and valuable to me. Take care.

  7. Salaam, Wonderful article! I got the whole “acting white” thing growing up as well. I even got it from the white kids. I still do sometimes as an adult. It does not bother me anymore because I value who I am now. I value the differences even though so many people would like me to stay in my box and act like a stereotype.

  8. Bill, best wishes always, this post has stirred me to reread my dad’s book.

    Curious: Asalamu alaykum, it’s so true, becoming comfortable in my own skin and making my own box as I’ve grown over the years, takes a lot of the sting out of criticism of my racial identity, thanks for stopping by the blog.

  9. assalam alaikum ya ukhti,

    how you dey my sista? you sef, you no dey reply email abi? so tay i don tire leave am for long time! lol.

    inni uhibbuki fillah!

  10. As a native American man who loves showtunes, especially the phantom of the Opera, I find the arguments of what is white or black all absurd, everyone is an indivdual, and the more we divide among racial lines, we’re all forgetting that we’re one species, all descendend from one Man, and We can all races reproduce fully functioning offspirng, a horse and A donkey or Zebra can’t even do that.

    the seperatism that I hear from so many really bothers me.

    Honourary Whites through immitation and rejection of their background. Please explain what background you mean? The american experience being very diverse and unique. and Honourary Whites is an aparthied statement, we have no segregation in the USA, unless you choose to segregate yourself to your own detriment, join the melting pot, everyone is welcome 🙂

    Washtai Kola, Hoka hey

  11. Are there not blacks from America and Nato countries killing Muslim in Afghanistan and Iraq. Killing their babies?

    We should focus on Islam not colour. All Muslims felt great sympathy towards the black people in west of how they were treated. Yet it is the same people who are killing Muslims, helping take over Muslim lands.

    Even ive heard on the bus black non Muslim women say racist comments against African Muslims ( a somali Brother).

    If this is their behaviour towards the Muslims and their show of gratitude. Then we should not be concerned about their affairs.

    Let the non Muslim black person and the non Muslim white person deal with their own affairs

    Let us Muslims asians, arabs, blacks , whites, etc etc concern our self with our affairs

  12. That is simply not true. All Muslims do not feel a great sympathy for black people in the west much less their own countries. We can be concerned with issues in other countries and amongst people different from ourselves without losing that which makes us unique.

  13. AsSalaamu Alaikum

    I am in total agreement with Muslim Apple. Many Muslims don’t even know about the plight of black people in the west or on the Western Coast of the African Continent.

    Bro is right when he says we should be concerned with Islam and not color. Very true. Within Islam we don’t abandon what we are, our culture, race, or lineage. We abandon Kufr and Jahiliyyah inshaAllah. And recognize that Allah (S.W.T) made us of all different colors,etc and we are equally all slaves of Allah. And what separates us is our eman and taqwa.
    As Muslims we should know the conditions of our people, mentally and physically.
    We must remember within our affairs as Muslims are our brethren who have not awakened to the Truth as of yet.
    May Allah bless them to see and accept Islam inshaAllah.
    And just as one cannot generalize what All muslisms feel, one cannot generalize what all non-muslims feel. Generalization is like Nationalism, at times, and Nationalism is Jahilliyah, when it is used to bring oppression or prejudice to others.

    so let’s come and get ourselves as muslims together, and also lets stand out for justice as the Qur’an reminds us to do. Not just for muslims but for everyone. Be kind to the creation of Allah (S.W.T). The Prophet (S.A.W) preached to non-muslims too, and many of those non-muslims became muslim. I think that says it all.

    AsSalaamu Alaikum

  14. oh and by the way, don’t forget there are muslims killing muslims all around the world. The Taliban is shooting at soldiers of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,

    The turkish are fighting the kurds
    Sunni’s against shia in Iraq
    And right here in America, Muslims won’t even congregate if there not of the same ethnicity. And that is something to be dealt with, and all of this has to do with who we are and how we live with that and Islam. And we can. The Prophet (S.A.W.) did, and He is our example. So we can do it inshaAllah.

    AsSalaamu Alaikum.

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