Screenshot of the #BlackMuslimRamadan logo.

#BlackMuslimRamadan a way of making the hidden visible (COMMENTARY)

(RNS) There is a passage in James Baldwin’s “Nobody Knows My Name” where he reflects on an essential truth about life in the margins. “The world had prepared no place for you, and if the world had its way, no place would ever exist.” Baldwin had a special talent for illuminating the darkness -- making widely visible, with breathtaking detail and nuance -- the lives of those who are routinely rendered invisible by the long shadows of racism and discrimination.

It is in the spirit of Baldwin that I decided recently to launch the social media campaign #BlackMuslimRamadan. For in spite of the fact that the very first Muslims in the United States were black African slaves brought to these shores as captive laborers, and in spite of the fact that before 1965, “Muslim” in the U.S. was virtually synonymous with black people, representations of African-American Muslim life in popular media and scholarly literature are still relatively few and far between.


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American Muslims are frequently presumed to be mostly Arab or South Asian and to hail from somewhere in “the Muslim world.” Worldwide, Arabs are less than 20 percent of the total Muslim population, yet somehow the cultural folkways of Arab adherents to the faith are often presumed to be the most authentic expressions of Islamic practice. What rightly is imagined to constitute black American religiosity is very often limited to the black church and filtered through a Christianity-centered lens. Within that narrow framework, there is very little space to contemplate what it means to be both the descendant of slaves and a member of the worldwide ummah (or community) of Islam.

#BlackMuslimRamadan was designed to contest all of this. Launched a week ago, the main conversation took place on Twitter and was conceived as a crowd-sourced digital journey through black Muslim life during Islam’s most sacred month, which ends Thursday (July 15). During Ramadan, able-bodied Muslims abstained from food, drink and sexual activity during the daylight hours.

They also prayed and took time out to reflect on self-improvement. The month involved gatherings of family and friends, community and celebration. This campaign honored the particularities of an understudied, underrepresented segment of the Muslim world. Participants were asked to respond in various ways — in words, pictures or sound. The response was enthusiastic and surpassed expectations, with nearly 3,000 participants entering the conversation from every continent except Antarctica.

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The result was a wonderful gallery of photos depicting everything from devotions to family gatherings to food. The stories, poems and anecdotes expressed joy, hope, frustration, disappointment and sadness. Non-Muslims and non-black Muslims alike chimed in to ask questions and broaden their own horizons. A few, of course, contested the premise of the whole conversation and debated the utility of the whole enterprise. Fortunately, those voices were few.

The motivations behind the campaign were both celebratory and political. Celebratory, because while Ramadan may seem to be mostly about deprivation, it is in fact a very joyous occasion. We abstain, yes, but we also rejoice: We rejoice in the company of one another; we praise our Creator for the chance to once again seek His mercy; we celebrate the many blessings in our lives.

The campaign was also political because, in the exercise of dominance over and violence against black bodies, narratives of people who look like me have been erased.

In a world where blackness is very often attacked as the very antithesis of all that is beautiful, this newly formed digital community affirmed and uplifted an unapologetically black aesthetic as its own yardstick.

Donna Auston is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University. She researches race and religious practice in Muslim communities in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Donna Auston

Donna Auston is a doctoral candidate in the department of anthropology at Rutgers University. She researches race and religious practice in Muslim communities in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Donna Auston

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In the midst of a national upheaval over police violence, where we have traumatically learned the names of black victims of state-sanctioned brutality -- Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Rekia Boyd -- such celebration is necessarily political.

In the face of an all-out assault on black sacred life, including the deadly shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and arson attacks on black churches, showcasing the sacred traditions of the black diaspora -- in all of their diverse beauty and glory -- is a testament to our continuing struggle and to our resilience.

(Donna Auston is a doctoral candidate in the department of anthropology at Rutgers University. She researches race and religious practice in Muslim communities in the U.S.)