Tuesday, August 27, 2013

From the Archives: Shallow Scholarship at Howard University Black Arts Movement Conference

Askia is not all wrong. I have heard many black intellectuals give revisionist black history talks, skipping from Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X, leaving out any mention of Elijah Muhammad. This is sick and reveals some black intellectuals are still grieving over Malcolm so much they can't think straight, their understanding of history is clouded by emotionalism. Who will deny Elijah took Marcus Garvey's work to another level and Malcolm took it even further, albeit under the guidance of Elijah Muhammad.--Marvin X, Editor, Black Bird Press News and Review

by Askia Muhammad

March 30, 2006

First, there are some sour grapes in these upcoming observations…might even be a case of Playa Hatin’. That said, I proceed in behalf of the countless others with similar experiences who never bother to footnote their experiences or keep a paper trail of their slanders…

I am sick and tired of the shallow prevailing Black intellectual view of the Nation of Islam. It’s not just the Neo-Cons and the White Evangelicals of the World who have problems with Muslims, our own Black intelligentsia have issues with the Islamic influence—particularly the Nation of Islam—on Black literature and culture in the United States and they refuse to admit it.

Black literature and academia lionizes Brother Malcolm X, highlighting only the 14 months or so of his life after he broke with the Nation of Islam, while trying to wipe out his 12 years of steadfast service and leadership within the Nation, his platform for earning national attention in the first place. We’ve done the same with Muhammad Ali.

Howard University’s English Department concluded an elaborately produced yet faintly publicized conference celebrating the Black Arts Movement March 24, and when I saw the program, I went bonkers! “They’ve done it again,” I thought. “They’ve kicked the Nation of Islam’s contribution to Black intellectual development to the curb.”

They had a truckload of Ph.D. candidates chaperoned by real professors, presenting papers and performances for two whole days at Howard, talking about the Black intellectual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s—the Black Arts Movement.

The topics genuinely reflected the prevailing mood of that period: “It’s Nation Time.”
The panels and paper topics ranged from “Black Fire” to “Nation Building,” to The Last Poets, to Sonia Sanchez, Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, Marvin X, Haki Madhubuti, to Women Writers, to “New Frontiers: Black Publications of the 1960s and 1970s,” to “Black Panther Party Contributions to the Revolutionary Aesthetic,” all the way to “Organic Intellectuality.”

Naturally the assembled educators referred anecdotally to the NOI or its products often, but they never really talked about the Nation’s impact, nor did they have any intellectuals from the Nation to talk about its role.

After the final speaker had spoken, I indelicately raised the subject and at the same time expressed my vexation over this omission. I was told that my friend Marvin X had spoken for Muslims. Now, I love Brother Marvin like a Play-Cousin, but with all due respect: his scholarship concerning the Nation of Islam is badly flawed and unreliable.

Prime example. In a July 2005 essay called “Marvin X: A Critical Look at the Father of Muslim American Literature,” El Muhajir (Marvin X) wrote that he was the “Foreign Editor” ofMuhammad Speaks in 1970, and: “Note: a few months later, Marvin X was selected to be editor of Muhammad Speaks until it was decided he was too militant. Askia Muhammad (Charles 37X [sic]) was selected instead.” That is pure bogus history, riddled with inaccuracies. That is also indicative of the shallow scholarship at the root of Howard’s English Department’s conference.*

I’m not angry at the panelists, they did not organize the event and call it an academic exercise. But I was so angry when I saw that someone had presented a paper: “Voice of the Black Arts Movement The Legacy of Negro Digest/Black World,” that I went and dug out copies of both Negro Digest and Black World, in which poems I had written were published, and one Fiction Edition which featured my picture on the cover and a short story I wrote inside. “Am I not a writer, thinker, poet, intellectual?” I wondered to myself.

Howard English Professor Eleanor Traylor even publicly commended a student for writing a paper about writer Leon Forrest. For many years Leon Forrest was the Associate Editor and then Editor of Muhammad Speaks. He in fact hired me in 1972 and prepared me to edit the newspaper after him in 1973. So, let me get this straight. Leon Forrest made a contribution to the Black Arts Movement that is worthy of scholastic attention (of course he did), but Muhammad Speaks did not? Excuse me! Something’s wrong with that picture!

While I was looking through my files, I discovered my original manuscript—sent by Western Union Telegram—of the article I wrote for Muhammad Speaks when Angela Davis was acquitted in San Jose California, June 4, 1972. I found my manuscripts from the funeral of Jonathan Jackson in 1970 and the murder of George Jackson in 1971.

By the time I had reminded myself of my own role in the struggle, and of my own fitness to recount it for a new generation of thinkers and writers, I was not just intellectually perturbed, I was personally offended. “What am I supposed to be? Some kind of Fake Writer?” I thought again to myself.
Granted I wrote using the names Charles K. Moreland Jr. in poetry anthologies and magazines, and Charles 20X and Charles 67X before I was named Askia Muhammad. But we translated LeRoi Jones into Amiri Baraka, didn’t we? We know that Haki Madhubuti was Don L. Lee, don’t we? The contradiction is, that the Black—just like the White—intellectual establishment does not want to know about Muslim writers, accept when they go against the Nation of Islam.

Maybe I should recognize that the Nation of Islam was simply a “change agent,” a catalyst like the War in Vietnam, like the Civil Rights movement—a completely unstudied change agent, I would complain—which helped make the climate in the Black community receptive to the Black Arts Movement and its new way of thinking. Maybe, I should concede that the Nation of Islam was a change agent and not the object of the change.

No. The object remains the same, and it is independent of a religious label. It is to change the minds of Black people to realize that the six most important words for us in the English language today are: “Accept your own and be yourself.”

That is intellectually and artistically distinct. Name. Culture. Religion. Language. Diet. That is the new paradigm injected into our culture by the Nation of Islam. That is the thinking which the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s reflects. That is the 800 lb gorilla in the Black intellectual meeting room, which most scholars, even Black scholars, overlook, or try to ignore.
* Contrary to Askia Muhammad, Marvin X did  indeed serve as Foreign Editor of Muhammad Speaks, appointed by Herbert Muhammad, while exiled in Mexico City and Belize during 1970. Marvin met and befriended Herbert's sons in Mexico City, Sultan and Elijah. Marvin provided them with copies of Muhammad Speaks.

One need only go to the editions of MS during that time to see his articles on Afro-Mexicans, including artist Elizabeth Catlett Mora, also he covered the trial in Belize of Black Power Movement brothers Evan X. Hyde and Ishmael Shabazz, for which he was ultimately deported back to the USA.

Marvin X was indeed offered and accepted the position of Muhammad Speaks editor. He was told to go home to pack, but later was told Askia Muhammad got the position. Most people consider Marvin X a loose cannon with an uncontrollable pen, Askia was definitely a more passive personality but a good journalist.

As per the conference, Marvin X spoke on the role of the NOI in the Black Arts Movement on both days of the conference. Although Askia is a DC journalist, he did not arrive at the conference until the afternoon of the last day. His remarks seemed out of place since the audience was aware that Marvin X had discussed the NOI for two days.

For the role of the NOI in BAM, see the paper below by Dr. Mohja Kahf who refers to Marvin X as the father of Muslim American literature. She gives credit to the NOI for being the foundation of Muslim American literature and influencing the Black Arts Movement poets such as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Askia Muhammad Toure (Roland Snellings), Marvin X, et al. My brother Askia Muhammad was himself guilty of shallow scholarship and pettiness. His remarks upset the audience and he was booed for being disruptive. Askia is still my brother!

Teaching Diaspora Literature: Muslim American Literature as an Emerging Field

Dr. Mohja Kahf∗

Is there such a thing as Muslim American literature (MAL)? I argue that there is: It begins with the Muslims of the Black Arts Movement (1965–75). The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of its iconic texts; it includes American Sufi writing, secular ethnic novels, writing by immigrant and second-generation Muslims, and religious American Muslim literature. Many of the works I would put into this category can and do also get read in other categories, such as African American, Arab American, and South Asian literature, “Third World” women’s writing, diasporic Muslim literature in English, and so forth. While the place of these works in other categories cannot be denied, something is gained in reading them together as part of an American Muslim cultural landscape. Like Jewish American literature by the 1930s, Muslim American literature is in a formative stage. It will be interesting to see how it develops (and who will be its Philip Roth!)

I suggest the following typology of MAL only as a foothold, a means of bringing a tentative order to the many texts, one that should be challenged, and maybe ultimately dropped altogether. My first grouping, the “Prophets of Dissent,” suggests that Muslim works in the Black Arts Movement (BAM) are the first set of writings in American literature to voice a cultural position identifiable as Muslim. 

Contemporary Muslim writing that takes the achievements of the BAM as an important literary influence also belongs here, and is characterized similarly by its “outsider” status, moral critique of mainstream American values, and often prophetic, visionary tone. In contrast, the writers of what I call “the Multi-Ethnic Multitudes” tend to enjoy “insider” status in American letters, often entering through MFA programs and the literary establishment, getting published through trade and university book industries, garnering reviews in the mainstream press. They do not share an overall aesthetic but are individual writers of various ethnicities and a wide range of secularisms and spiritualities, and indeed I question my placing them all in one group, and do so temporarily only for the sake of convenience.

On the other hand, my third group, the “New American Transcendentalists,” appears to cohere, in aesthetic terms, as writers who share a broad Sufi cultural foundation undergirding their literary work. Their writings often show familiarity with the Sufi poets of several classical Muslim literatures (e.g., in Turkish, Farsi, Arabic, Urdu), as well as with American Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century, and that which tends toward the spiritual and the ecstatic in modern American poetry. Finally, the “New Pilgrims” is my term for a loose grouping of writers for whom Islam is not merely a mode of dissent, cultural background, or spiritual foundation for their writing, but its aim and explicit topic. Of the four groups, the New Pilgrims are the ones who write in an overtly religious mode and motivation, like Ann Bradstreet, Cotton Mather, and the Puritans of early American history. This does not prevent them from being capable of producing great literature, any more than it prevented the great Puritan writers.
Here is an example of just a few writers in each category, by no means a comprehensive list: 

Prophets of Dissent
From the Black Arts Movement:

  • Marvin X, whose Fly to Allah (1969) is possibly the first book of poems published in English by a Muslim American author.
  • Sonia Sanchez, whose A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974) is the work of her Muslim period.
  • Amiri Baraka, whose A Black Mass (2002) renders the Nation of Islam’s Yacoub genesis theology into drama. As with Sanchez, the author was Muslim only briefly but the influence of the Islamic period stretches over a significant part of his overall production.

    Later Prophets of Dissent include:
  • Calligraphy of Thought, the Bay area poetry venue for young “Generation M” Muslim American spoken word artists who today continue in the visionary and dissenting mode of the BAM.
  • Suheir Hammad, Palestinian New Yorker, diva of Def Poetry Jam (on Broadway and HBO), whose tribute to June Jordan in her first book of poetry, Born Palestinian, Born Black

(1996), establishes her line of descent from the BAM, at least as one (major) influence on her work.

El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X) is an iconic figure for this mode of Muslim American writing and, indeed, for many writers in all four categories.
Multi-Ethnic Multitudes
  • Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali, an influential figure in the mainstream American poetry scene, with a literary prize named after him at the University of Utah, brought the ghazal into fashion in English so that it is now taught among other forms in MFA programs.
  • Naomi Shihab Nye, Palestinian American, likewise a “crossover” poet whose work enjoys prominence in American letters, takes on Muslim content in a significant amount of her work.
  • Sam Hamod, an Arab midwesterner who was publishing poetry in journals at the same time as Marvin X.
  • Nahid Rachlin’s fiction has been published since well before the recent wave of literature by others who, like her, are Iranian immigrants.
  • Mustafa Mutabaruka, an African American Muslim, debut novel Seed (2002).
  • Samina Ali, midwesterner of Indian parentage, debut novel Madras on Rainy Days (2004),
    was featured on the June 2004 cover of Poets & Writers.
  • Khaled Hosseini, debut novel The Kite Runner (2003).
    •Michael Muhammad Knight, a Muslim of New York Irish Catholic background, whose punk rock novel The Taqwacores (2004) delves deeply into Muslim identity issues.
    There are a number of journals where Muslim American literature of various ethnicities can be found today, among them Chowrangi, a Pakistani American magazine out of New Jersey, and Mizna, an Arab American poetry magazine out of Minneapolis.
    New American Transcendentalists

  • Daniel (Abd al-Hayy) Moore is an excellent example of this mode of Muslim American writing. California-born, he published as a Beat poet in the early sixties, became a Sufi Muslim, renounced poetry for a decade, then renounced his renouncement and began publishing again, prolifically and with a rare talent. His Ramadan Sonnets (City Lights, 1986) is a marriage of content and form that exemplifies the “Muslim/American” simultaneity of Muslim American art.
  • The Rumi phenomenon: apparently the most read poet in America is a Muslim. He merits mention for that, although technically I am not including literature in translation. Then again, why not? As with so many other of my limits, this is arbitrary and only awaits someone to make a case against it.
  • Journals publishing poetry in this mode include The American Muslim, Sufi, Qalbi, and others.
    New American Pilgrims
    •Pamela Taylor writes Muslim American science fiction. Iman Yusuf writes “Islamic romance.” This group of writers is not limited to genre writers, however. Dasham Brookins writes and performs poetry and maintains a website, MuslimPoet.com, where poets such as Samantha Sanchez post. Umm Zakiyya (pseud.) has written a novel, If I Should Speak (2001), about a young Muslim American and her roommates in college. Writers in this group also come from many ethnicities but, unlike those in my second category, come together around a more or less coherent, more or less conservative Muslim identity. Websites tend to ban erotica and blasphemy, for example. The Islamic Writers Alliance, a group formed by Muslim American women, has just put out its first anthology. Major published authors have yet to emerge in this grouping, but there is no reason to think they will not eventually do so.
    My criteria for Muslim American literature are a flexible combination of three factors:
    Muslim authorship. Including this factor, however vague or tenuous, prevents widening the scope to the point of meaninglessness, rather than simply including any work about Muslims by an author with no biographical connection to the slightest sliver of Muslim identity (such as Robert Ferrigno with his recent dystopian novel about a fanatical Muslim takeover of America). It is a cultural, not religious, notion of Muslim that is relevant. A “lapsed Muslim” author, as one poet on my roster called himself, is still a Muslim author for my purposes. I am not interested in levels of commitment or practice, but in literary Muslimness.
Language and aesthetic of the writing. In a few cases, there is a deliberate espousal of an aesthetic that has Islamic roots, such as the Afrocentric Islamic aesthetic of the Muslim authors in the Black Arts Movement.

Relevance of themes or content. If the Muslim identity of the author is vague or not explicitly professed, which is often the case with authors in the “Multi-Ethnic Multitudes,” but the content itself is relevant to Muslim American experience, I take that as a signal that the text is choosing to enter the conversation of Muslim American literature and ought to be included.
In defining boundaries for research that could become impossibly diffuse, I choose to look mainly at fiction and poetry, with autobiography and memoir writings selectively included. I have not included writings in languages other than English, although there are Muslims in America who write in Arabic, Urdu, and other languages. I have looked at the twentieth century onward, and there is archival digging to be done in earlier periods: the Spanish colonial era may yield Muslim writing, and we already know that some enslaved Muslims in the nineteenth century have left narratives. More research is needed. If one expands the field from “literature” to “Muslim American culture,” one can also include Motown, rap, and hip-hop lyrics by Muslim artists, screenplays such as the Muslim American classic The Message by the late Syrian American producer Mustapha Aqqad, books written for children, sermons, essays, and other genres.
There are pleasures and patterns that emerge from reading this profusion of disparate texts under the rubric of Muslim American cultural narrative. It is time! I hope, as this field emerges, that others will do work in areas I have left aside in this brief initial exploration. 

∗ Mohja Kahf (Comparative Literature, University of Arkansas) is the author of Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque (1999), E-mails from Scheherazad (poetry, 2003), and The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (novel, 2006).

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