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Black Mecca The African Muslims of Harlem pdf

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 Black Mecca The African Muslims Of Harlem
  • Book Author:
zain abdullah
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A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600–1960



In 1983, the intersection at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem was officially named African Square.1 A sign was immediately hung on the corner post, placing it between the ones for Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Martin Luther King Jr. This posting signifies that Harlem is a Black space—a cultural center where people of African descent live deeply, love passionately, and labor intensely.

But the people who conceived of an “African Square” could not have anticipated a massive influx of 100,000 Africans into New York City by the early 1990s, not to mention the continued arrival of approximately 50,000 each year.2 And, unlike in the past, when Africans migrating to the United States were Christian and English speakers, a great many today are Muslim from French-speaking countries.

But since the Black saga in America is undoubtedly characterized by rupture and reinvention, the story of Africans in Harlem is a blues story. In his review of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Ralph Ellison speaks of the Black experience as an inner tale “filled with blues-tempered echoes of . . . Southern towns and cities, estrangements, fights and flights, deaths and disappointments, charged with physical and spiritual hungers and pain.”3

So, Africans migrating to New York are a new blues people, with their own song to sing and drama to act out. This, too, is Harlem. Their bodies clad in loose boubou robes and tasseled hats, they stroll up and down Harlem streets, their costuming proclaiming loudly, in the words of one Senegalese intellectual in New York, “We are here!” But they are more than merely present.

Africans have arrived with divergent views of the borough and its people. Some were exposed to American movies, which depicted Harlem as a neighborhood rife with crime and chaos. Others consumed Black popular culture or read the words of civil rights leaders. In other words, while some have already internalized negative images of Harlem before they arrived, many others consider it their very own “Black Mecca.” They are attracted not only to its glorious past but also to its Black soul, its blues impulse. Because they are emigrating from African countries, they find that Black neighborhoods imbued with this sensibility can feel like home. Of course, the reality is often quite different, especially when class conflicts and cultural misfires go unresolved.

Just like African Americans, however, Africans have a stake in making a place for themselves in Harlem, and this claim will force them to tell their own stories. Sometimes their narratives will overlap with African American accounts, and at other times they will be wholly unique and original.

Besides the ancestral links African Americans share with continental Africans, scholars are recognizing the extent to which Muslims were a significant segment of the enslaved population in North America. In fact, historians such as Michael

Gomez argue that thousands of African Muslims were bound and brought to the American mainland.4 This research has led to scholarly questions about the kinds of Africanisms or African customs that have survived slavery and been retained by Black Americans, especially naming and musical traditions. Indeed, some have investigated how the surname Bailey was conceivably an aberration of the West African Muslim name Bilali, a claim implicating the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whose original family name was Bailey.5

Others speculate that because the given name of Harriet Tubman, another African American abolitionist, was Araminta, which is strikingly similar to the common West African Muslim name Aminata6 (or perhaps a hybrid or shortened version of it in the case of Arame, a female name in Senegal), West African Muslim culture might have shaped the life of this historic figure in some way. There also appears to be sufficient evidence to demonstrate the impact of West African musical forms on the blues, and scholars have explored the ways West African Islam has contributed to its formation.

While research on Islam’s role in Black culture is ongoing, it is reasonable to consider how musical elements in the liturgies of West African Muslims might influence, even tangentially, the harmony, melody, or rhythm of Black music.7 Still, the aim of this prologue is not so ambitious. Despite these fascinating attempts to ascertain artistic connections between enslaved African Muslims and Black musical forms, I am interested in how Muslim immigrants from West Africa emerge as a new blues people in Harlem.

LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) titled his now-classic 1963 book Blues People, in which he explored the development of blues and jazz as a way to talk about the epic journey of Blacks in America. For him, Black music embodies African American history. “The music was the score, the actually expressed creative orchestration, reflection, of Afro-American life, our words, the libretto, to those . . . lived lives.”8 For me, the blues is a metaphor. It is a way to begin a conversation about the sensibilities of a people—their dreams, fears, and hopes.

This is not to say, then, that as the blues might imply, this is a story about the woes of another im- migrant group. In many ways, it is about their resilience. “What is distinctive about using blues and jazz as a source of intellectual inspiration,” says the African American philosopher and activist Cornel West, “is the ability to be flexible, fluid, improvisational, and multi-dimensional—finding one’s own voice, but using that voice in a variety of different ways.”9

Seeing it through this lens, we can under- stand West African Muslim life in Harlem in terms of its elasticity, its defiance to be characterized in one way or another, and move beyond old immigration models in which immigrants were seen as isolated, bounded within their own enclaves, not connected to the world around them.

But obviously, Harlem, too, must change to accommodate these newcomers. Churches have reworked their “No Loitering” signs to include French translations, and African American masjids (mosques) have likewise added French wording to their announcements, especially on signs instructing newly arrived Africans about where to pay their donations. And the Islamic practices of West African Muslims have been modified somewhat.

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