I was eight years old the first time I encountered a Black Muslim character on television. On a Sunday night in 1990, I sat down to watch the sketch comedy show In Living Color, which introduced me to the character of Oswald Bates played by Damon Wayans, gesticulating in a blue shirt with a colorful kufi atop his head.
“First of all,” he began, “we must internalize the flatulation of the matter, by transmitting the effervescence of the Indonesian proximity in order to further segregate the crux of my venereal infection…”
I burst into laughter. As Bates carried on ranting, the camera panned out to reveal him behind the bars of a prison cell. Before the skit ended, we learned it was a United Negro College Fund ad encouraging us to stay in school. “A mind,” the voiceover implored, “is a terrible thing to develop without help.”
Many years later, I still laugh at the performance, but I also understand the show highlights the public’s perception of Black Muslims like me. At the time, Americans were still exhausted from upheavals of the Civil Rights movement. The release of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X biopic X in 1992 did little to shake the sense of a widespread cultural condescension toward Black Muslims, and we faced widespread mockery for our beliefs.
When it came to Muslim representation in American literature, Black Muslims were only there in the shadows.
Many Americans assumed Black Muslims were hateful and anti-Semitic. We were seen as unworthy inheritors of Malcolm X’s legacy, with our attempts to emulate his intellect or eloquence resulting in us creating laughable caricatures of the man and fools of ourselves.
Whether or not In Living Color’s Bates was explicitly conceived as Muslim, he was a stand-in for all Americans connected to Black nationalism in general and the Nation of Islam in particular. Today, Black Muslims number just under one million across the U.S. and the Nation of Islam is a small subset of it — a movement that emerged in Detroit in the 1930s to empower an economically depressed Black population with a doctrine inverting the racial hierarchy. Although Bates’ performance encourages Black Muslim dismissal, my feelings are ambivalent. Part of me knows the laughter he generates is directed at people like me, yet another part of me acknowledges threads of truth in the depiction.
As the show demonstrated, Black Muslims are indeed overrepresented in American prisons. Today, Muslims make up 1% of the U.S. population, yet they constitute 6% of the prison population, with large numbers converting to Islam during or after incarceration. While I’ve had regular interactions with formerly incarcerated Muslims, I see this as just a small part of the Black American Muslim experience. It seemed to me like no one was getting close to telling the truth in three-dimensions.
I began to take questions of representation seriously when I started to notice how absent I felt in American culture. When it came to Muslim representation in American literature, Black Muslims were only there in the shadows. Even today, we’re often reduced to punch lines or depicted in ways that undermine our dignity.
An Unusual American Upbringing
My grandparents joined the Nation of Islam in the late 1950s. As my grandfather tells it, the move was triggered by my grandparents’ disagreements with the Black church and the violence perpetrated by anti-integrationist Whites against Black Americans. After the lynching of Emmett Till and the emergence of White supremacist organizations like the White Citizen’s Council, my grandparents had met their limit. By the end of the decade, they’d become members of the Black Muslim movement.
Like many Black Muslims, my grandparents later became Sunni Muslims, joining the mainstream fold. My memories of growing up in an African-American Sunni Orthodox community are mostly positive: it was a warm, loving space, where academic learning was emphasized and racial antipathies were nonexistent.
It only became clear just how unusual an American upbringing I had when I entered adulthood and took up representation of Black Muslims as a personal cause. I developed an idea that American perceptions of Black Muslims revolve around a few major constructs. The first, personified by Oswald Bates, is the pseudo-intellectual buffoon, which is regularly recycled in our storytelling. Another example is found in Paul Beatty’s novel Tuff about a young Black man from New York City who decides to run for mayor. He has a Muslim sidekick named Fariq from East Harlem, who carries physical disabilities that seemingly mirror his intellectual frailty. He offers half-baked ideas and ridiculous quips that go beyond caricature and drive contempt.
This is how ordinary Black Muslims are often depicted in our media, but our leaders and other prominent Black Muslims also have their own category: the hero.
Our culture readily consumes stories of larger-than-life Black Muslim figures like boxer Muhammad Ali. Ali was the heavyweight champion of the world, and Islam was front-and-center in his life, even though religion is almost incidental in the construction of Muhammad Ali, the public figure. Protagonists constructed as heroes often possess unique traits that stand alongside their most celebrated powers. People like these tower above us all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. We can see this pattern replicated in our reception of sports stars, jazz musicians, hip-hop artists, and cultural figures such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Busta Rhymes, and Dave Chappelle, among many others. Islam in their stories functions like a golden arrow in the quiver, like sprouting wings or a command of lightning bolts — less threatening than symbolic of their exceptionalism.
There is another tendency that appears in the culture, where Black Muslim characters are drawn as instruments in other people’s stories, creating the third construct: the foil.
When the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash aired on PBS, I remembered being captivated by images of Bilal Muhammad, a character who lives his life alongside the Pezant family. He doesn’t appear often in the film, though his depiction is my favorite construction of a Black Muslim, owing to the beauty of his portrayal. We see him in the opening scene, performing fajr prayer on one of the beaches of Saint Helena, South Carolina. This is an important reference to the survival of Islamic traditions among enslaved Africans in the Sea Island. Elsewhere, we see him discussing the fates of Ibo slaves who were reputed in the lore of Saint Helena to have walked across the water back to West Africa. He tells the photographer that the story was false. One hundred Ibo men and women walked into the water together, though they never came out of it.
The story centers on the Pezant family as they prepare to leave the Island and settle in the North. It’s hard to quarrel with the construction of Muhammad when the narrative focus is elsewhere. In other depictions of Black Muslims, writers shy away from exploring the interior of Black Muslim identity. They take a Black body, adorn it with Islamic symbols, fill its mouth with an occasional flow of Arabic words and voila, you have a Black Muslim. Take Michael Potts’ Brother Mouzone in The Wire— a cold-blooded killer in a suit and bowtie is meant to indicate he’s a member of the Nation of Islam. If we were not a culture so fascinated with sociopaths, he would be completely flat on the screen. Somehow things like this pass for representation, despite the fact that so little is done to excavate an interior life. Characters like these show up as sidekicks, talismans, or mere scenery as they are not filled out enough to carry substantial stories on their own.
We who work in other genres have more work to do imagining Black Muslim lives. I put the charge upon myself more than anyone else, as I try to render this experience, so that those growing up Black and Muslim will be spared limited or inadequate representations that make us feel small and unseen in a country that is ours as much as anyone else’s.
Aaliyah Bilal is the author of Temple Folk. She was born and raised in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Her stories and essays have been published in the Michigan Quarterly Review and The Rumpus. Instagram: @aaliyah.muneerah.bilal