Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation and Difference in African
American Islamic Thought. By Edward E. Curtis, IV. Albany, NY: State University
of New York Press, 2002. Pp. 174. $54.50, cloth; $17.95, paper.
The subtitle of Curtis's study, "Identity, Liberation and Difference in African American Islamic Thought," reveals the author's main intention and concern. Rewritten from his doctoral dissertation, the book is a fine reinterpretation from the point of view of post modern criticism of the thought of Edward Blyden, Noble Drew Ali, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Wallace Muhammad (Warith Deen Mohammed), and Louis Farrakhan. In his "Introduction," Curtis is concerned about viewing Islam in a broad, dynamic fashion as "Islamic tradition" and not as an "essentialist" version of "true Islam." This position allows him to include as part of the Islamic tradition what most Sunni Muslims have called heretical, namely, the movements of the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam. Using the paradigm of "universalism" and "particularism," he explores the various ways in which each of these leaders gave priority either to the particularism of black nationalism or the universalism of the Islamic tradition. The debate between the particularism of race and the universalism of religion is rooted in the efforts of Prophet Muhammad Ibn Abdullah to move beyond the tribalism of Arab clans to the universalism of monotheism. Curtis's study doesn't introduce any new historical material in regard to the figures named above but his main interest is to delineate their positions on religion and race, especially in regard to a strategy of "liberation" or social change.
Curtis concludes that Edward Blyden, Noble Drew Ali, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan were "essentialists" in their views of black nationalism or racial particularism. For example, Blyden had an essentialist view of race because he believed that "what made a person 'black' was his or her biological descent" (p. 34). Likewise, Malcolm X "also reaffirmed his essentialist view of black identity as a container for cultural and biological traits shared by all persons of African descent" (p. 101). According to Curtis, only Wallace or Imam Warith Deen Mohammed has properly navigated the tensions between religion and race in his attempt to construct an African American Islam.
Curtis's conclusions are somewhat troubling and problematic. I would like to use this book review as a place to raise some challenges to post modern views of race and to debate effective strategies of social change in regard to religion and race.
Much of post-modern criticism arose from the field of literary criticism. The attempts to "deconstruct" novels, characters, poems etc. were also based on the assumption that everything was "socially constructed" by human beings and thus could be "reconstructed." While there are other literary theorists, the major theoretical work underlying these views was Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality (1967). According to Berger and Luckmann, human beings in social relationships "externalize" themselves (i.e. create concepts, write novels or book reviews). These creations are "objectivated" or institutionalized in society, then in a final movement, they are "internalized" by human beings who are socialized by the larger society. The social construction of reality implies that everything (race, religion, gender, sexual orientation etc.) is socially constructed and subject to deconstruction and reconstruction.
The failure of most proponents of social construction theory, including post-modern literary critics, is to take seriously the second movement of objectivation or institutionalization. While it is easier for literary critics to deconstruct and reconstruct characters in novels, it is much more difficult to do that with the institutions of society. In regard to race in America, institutionalized racism is the most pernicious and persistent form.
Curtis's study does not adequately deal with the institutionalized racism that each of his figures was confronted with and their reactions to it by seeking solutions in various forms of black nationalism. For example, in his summary of Elijah Muhammad's life, Curtis does not mention the public lynching of a black man which Elijah witnessed as a teenager in Cordele, Georgia and became seared in his memory.1 Nor does he refer to the reasons why a bright and articulate young man like Malcolm X would be attracted to a movement that preached "the white man is the devil" or why that phrase became a theodicy for Malcolm in prison.
Before dealing with Curtis's critique of Malcolm's "biological" view of race, let me quote Malcolm:
You know yourselves that we have been a people who hated our African characteristics. We hated our head, we hated the shape of our nose-we wanted one of those long, dog-like noses, you know. Yeah, we hated the color of our skin. We hated the blood of Africa that was in our veins. And in hating our features and our skin and our blood, why, we had to end up hating ourselves .Our color became to us a chain. We felt that it was holding us back. Our color became to us like a prison which we felt was keeping us confined .and it became hateful to us. It made us feel inferior, it made us feel inadequate. It made us feel helpless. And when we fell victims to this feeling of inadequacy or inferiority or helplessness, we turned to somebody else to show us the way.2
While the concept of race is socially constructed, as are all other concepts or ideas, it is a fallacy to assume that racial categories just appear out of nothing and have no "biological basis" in fact. Why do Africans, Asians, Europeans, and Latinos look different on the basis of physical phenomenology? Why are certain racial features passed on from generation to generation? Are millions of African Americans wrong to assume that they are descendants of enslaved Africans and bear some physical characteristics from them? Finally, was Malcolm wrong to point out that these "African characteristics" conjured up feelings of self-hatred and inferiority in a racist society?
Malcolm recognized that the effects of institutionalized racism in the larger society had led to levels of depersonalization among many African Americans, including himself. It was that deep sense of depersonalization, which Curtis does not acknowledge, that the Nation of Islam and black nationalism was attacking in its twin messages of "know yourself" and "do for self." Furthermore, he also doesn't address the important question of why the Nation of Islam, presently under Louis Farrakhan's leadership, has succeeded in becoming the longest lasting black militant movement in American history? That message still attracts thousands of black men and women who are trapped in the most racist institution created by American society, its prisons. Using labels like "essentialism" tends to hinder a deeper understanding of movements like the Nation of Islam.
Finally, let me raise the question about the politics and liberation strategy of post modern criticism in regard to race and religion since this is Curtis's major concern. What kind of politics does a post-modern view of race lead to?
According to Curtis, the best or most optimal strategy is an Islamic universalism coupled with African American concerns that is found in the views of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, leader of the Muslim Society of North America. Mohammed lifted up Bilal, the former Ethiopian slave who became the first muezzin or caller to prayer in the first Islamic community in Medina, as a role model and to show that black Africans were part of the heritage of Islam. Likewise, he emphasized the Qur'an and Sunna as essential to the theological views of his community. In contrast, Curtis criticizes Malcolm for bifurcating his Islam from his politics of Pan Africanism. Before he died, Malcolm had founded two institutions: the Muslim Mosque, Inc. which was open to all Muslims and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, patterned after the Organization of African Unity, and open only to people of African descent. Curtis raises the critical question of why Malcolm did not merge these two concerns.
While Malcolm did not live to fully explain his strategy, one can only surmise that he did not see the effectiveness of universal Islam in the American society of his time. Immigrant Muslims and Sunni Muslim organizations did not take an active part in the fight against racism either in the civil rights movement or in police brutality cases at the local level. An example is the Darul Islam movement, which Curtis does not examine, that arose in 1961 when the young African American Sunni Muslim members left the State Street Mosque in Brooklyn to establish their own Ya-Sinn masjid. They left because they felt that the members and imam of State Street were not doing anything for the black community in which they were located. Two other African American Sunni movements also formed in the late 1960's for similar reasons---the Islamic Party in Washington, D.C. and the Mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood in central Harlem. Islamic universalism does not guarantee that all Muslims around the world will come to the aid and support of African American Muslims in their times of crises, as black Christians found out several centuries earlier in regard to Christian universalism.
In fact, I would argue that African Americans made more progress in bringing about social change in American society in periods of black nationalism or heightened racial concerns than at other times-slave revolts; formation of black churches and denominations; Garvey's movement and the Harlem Renaissance; the civil rights movement and the period of black consciousness in the late 1960's that produced Black Theology and Black Studies programs; revisionist history that examines history from the point of view of the oppressed. Racial appeals are a means of providing racial unity. The collective power of American institutions needs to be met by an equally collective force. Until Islamic universalists, Christian universalists, or secular humanists can show by their concrete actions that they are relevant to the everyday lives of oppressed black people, black nationalism will continue to have the edge.
Finally, I want to thank Edward Curtis, IV for providing an opportunity for an extended dialogue about the uses of post-modern criticism, its flaws, and its relationship to race, religion, and social change. His well-argued book will continue to stimulate provocative debates about these topics.
1. See Claude Andrew Clegg III, An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).
2. Malcolm X, "Africa and Self Hate," excerpt of speech delivered in the Audubon Ballroom, December 1964 in Malcolm X on Afro-American History (New York: Pathfinder, 1970), 74.
Lawrence H. Mamiya, Vassar College