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BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Exclusive interview with Imam Khalid Fattah Griggs

Imam Khalid Fattah Griggs accepted Islam in 1972. He is the Imam of The Community Mosque of Winston-Salem in North Carolina. This is a position he has held since 1984. He is also co-chairman of the North Carolina-based Black Leadership Roundtable of Winston-Salem-Forsyth County.

A Political Science and English graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., Griggs has been active in the Muslim and African-American communities. He was part of the anti-Vietnam war movement in the late 1960s and was also involved with the Islamic Party in North America in the 1970s after his conversion. This group, composed of predominantly Muslim African-Americans, was active in Dawa to the African-American community.

Griggs co-founded the Institute for Islamic Involvement in the early 1980s and edited its journal, Vision, for six years. More recently, he served as editor of The Message magazine.

In this interview with Sound Vision, Griggs shares his views on Black History Month and the current state of Islam, recent trends and major concerns of African-American Muslims.

Sound Vision [SV]: As a Muslim of African-American descent, what is your perspective on Black History Month?

Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments and input of people of African descent in the United States. The history of African-American people has been grossly distorted and if not distorted, omitted from historical record.

As a Muslim of African-American descent, Black History Month affords me and other African-American Muslims the opportunity to share with the nation one of the least known pages of African-American history and that is the history of Islam amongst African people from the preslavery period to the present.

It [Black History Month] tends to focus attention on African-American and African history. If this is the only period in which there is an attempt to understand and to document or share the documentation of this history then it would still not be a complete waste of time because of the overwhelming presence of racism, or more accurately the role that racism continues to play in every facet of public life in the United States.

A designated month to focus on African-Americans' or Latinos' or women's history is a necessary and valuable start of a process of inclusion of the accomplishments of people other than white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Black History Month started as Black History Week in 1926 and it was started by the African-American historian Carter D. Woodson. Since that time of course, it has evolved into a one-month recognition or celebration of the accomplishments of African-American people.

While one month is actually a disservice to the profound impact African-Americans have had on the history of this nation, it nevertheless is a very necessary beginning. It should not be the responsibility of a holiday or a designated month like Black History Month to provide the total information about African history.

But it should only serve as a catalyst for those who desire to know some of the accomplishments of people of African descent in this part of the world.

SV: What do you think Muslims should be doing this month?

Black History Month affords Muslims the opportunity to connect with persons who already have a social consciousness or are trying to gain a social consciousness.

Through just their presence at events even if they're not sponsored by Muslims, Muslims have an opportunity to educate themselves about a part of history that [...] has been omitted so much from the pages of history.

It's also an opportunity for Muslims to educate themselves about African-American history and in the process, rid themselves of any negative stereotypes they may have about African people.

There's a dual problem as it relates to African-American history amongst the Muslims.

The first is the problem from African-American Muslims themselves and that is that many [of them] attempt to strip themselves of a historical and social linkage to their history after accepting Islam.

Primarily, I would say that this is done by those African-American Muslims who are not aware of the richness of African history itself, and therefore have adopted this mentality or image of themselves as being purely the descendants of slaves who had nothing to offer to the world other than their slave labor.

When one's frame of reference about African history starts with slavery or if it omits the accomplishments or the triumphs of the spirit and/or the bodies of African slaves, then there's the tendency to attempt to strip oneself of their African identity and become a universal hodge podge of various cultures and identities.

The second group of Muslims who could benefit from involvement in the Black History Month exercise are those immigrant Muslims who, because of the residue of colonialism in their own backgrounds, come to this country with negative stereotypes about African people.

Muslims should attend Black History Month events and even sponsor events that highlight the accomplishments of African Muslims during the Antebellum period here in the United States up until today.

SV: In 1993, The Minaret [a Muslim publication based in the U.S.] reported that African-Americans represent 42 percent of the Muslim community in America. Is this figure still accurate today? Do you feel this percentage has gone down or up?

I believe that the figure has probably gone down somewhat, [but] not significantly.

Because of the immigration practices of the U.S. government in recent years, the number of immigrant Muslims has increased and so I would think because of [this], the percentage of African-American Muslims may be slightly lower but not significantly different.

I can call to mind people who have left the faith but for the most part, the practice of African-Americans [of Islam] may not be as intense as it was at one point.

There was a very clear social agenda on the minds of many African-Americans who embraced Islam during the 1960s and 1970s. This was because of a seemingly heightened spirituality amongst African people.

Given the social dynamics of African people during this century and in this country, and all of these kinds of racist, terrorist acts against African people [i.e. with lynchings and race riots] as a social backdrop, African people turned to the worship of God as a means for survival because the federal state and local governments often times could not be looked to for any form of assistance or protection.

So the illusion that the American dream applied to African people during the twentieth century did not fool the majority of African-American people.

Hence, there was the [backdrop of the] worship of God and the practice of religion [as] a survival technique during slavery.

During the 1960s and 1970s, when the African-American community was in a social upheaval much like the rest of the country, Islam, probably due to the influence of Malcolm X, was placed on the social palate of African-American people as a viable and workable option to rid our community of racism and oppression.

During that era, the Muslims who embraced Islam from the African-American community did so more with a spirit of changing society as they changed themselves. It was not an attitude at that time of assimilating and integrating into what was clearly understood to be a corrupt and often evil society [American society] as it related to African people.

As a result, the Masjids that were formed in the African-American community reached out aggressively and actively in Dawa to [this] community.

But today the same community-based Masjids have been, for the most part, absorbed into the larger Islamic centers that proliferate America today. I sincerely believe that the lack of focus on Dawa to the inner-cities of America coming out of these Islamic centers and Masjids all over the country contribute to the slower flow of Muslims embracing Islam from the African-American community.

SV: What are some of the major religious trends in the African-American community today? Is there still a Nation of Islam stronghold, for example, or have other groups started to gain more of an influence? If so, why?

The Nation Of Islam has lost much of the momentum that it should have gotten from the Million Man March [in Washington, D.C.] in October of 1995.

This was a mammoth gathering of African-American men and the attention of the world was focused on Washington D.C. because of the presence of these African-American men of all religions: Christians, Muslims and others.

Since the March, the Nation [of Islam] has not capitalized on the event as it possibly could have.

It was an opportunity to provide, from the standpoint of the Nation Of Islam, specific organizational initiatives, to help form an agenda for Black Americans. It [the march] was a very feel-good experience. [There is no] doubt it had a positive impact on the crime statistics amongst African-American people.

It was after this [march] that the homicide rate amongst African-American teens went down and a number of black adoptions went up. Black membership in community-based organizations went up.

Undeniably, it had a positive impact on the life of the African-American community, but because no other specific organizational initiatives were outlined by the organizers of the Million Man March, the black community since that time has somewhat floundered, for want of leadership.

The African-American church has historically played a very important role in the life of [this] community. It's the largest single institution in [it].

But according to research done by persons like Dr. C. Eric Lincoln (an African-American professor of religion at Duke University), Dr. Larry Mumiya (a professor at Vassar college) and Jawanza Kunjufu (a noted African-American author and educational researcher), currently 75 percent of the congregates in the African-American church nationwide are women.

As a result of that phenomena, the church is not taking some of the aggressive stands against social inequities [it used to], because of their concentration on issues more related to serve their congregates like child care [and] single parent family issues, as opposed to what at one time may have been issues focusing more on social justice.

They're [the researchers] saying the African-American church right now is almost devoid of African-American men.

[This] is an opportunity for Dawa since there are so many churches but the men are not in the churches. So the question has to be raised by Muslims, where are they?

I contend they are not all in jail and they are not all on drugs. It would behoove the Muslim community in North America to once again pay serious attention to reaching out to this population with the Dawa because of the historical track record of African-Americans accepting Islam.

There is no group in North America that has a history of conversion to Islam like the African-American community. If concentrated on and given attention the way that it was done through the decades of the 1960s and 1970s in the post -Malcolm X period [Malcolm X was martyred in 1965], I believe a similar influx of African-Americans into Islam will occur today.

It [the African-American community] is fertile soil, and unless and until concentrated efforts like the 1960s and 1970s are made to reach out to the African-American community with Dawa, the trickle of African-Americans into Islam [as opposed to a wave] will continue.

The African-American church is rooted in the African tradition of call and response.

In other words, it's an interactive church experience. Unlike in most white American congregations where the ministers preach and the congregates listen, there's a lot of emotionalism that is displayed in most of the denominations in the African-American community.

So some, including myself, have speculated that the emotionalism itself of the service is something that meets the emotional needs of women and may not meet the same need of the men. This is one of the thing Kunjufu and these guys were saying as well.

In the African-American community, you find a different phenomena amongst African-Americans as it relates to Islam. You don't find the disproportionate balance of men and women accepting Islam as you find in the churches. This was in the 1960s and 1970s and today.

SV: What are some of the social trends (i.e. family, community, etc.) among African-Americans today?

The unfortunate reality is that whatever social maladies plague the non-Muslim African- American community can be found amongst the Muslim African-Americans.

To a large degree, this phenomena speaks loudly to the fact that the issues affecting the general community [are] issues that Muslims must address, understand and commit resources, human and financial, to bring about solutions.

When we Muslims isolate ourselves from involvement in social issues of what we consider the general community and we think that these problems affect only non-Muslims, then it's only a matter of time before we are plagued with the same problems.

That goes anywhere from involvement in the use and sale of drugs, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, it just runs the gamut. There is no social ill that affects the non-Muslim community that has not or will not impact on the Muslim community if we don't address those issues. We're going to be overrun with the same illnesses.

In the larger African-American community, there's' a big issue about teenage pregnancy, and there's a big issue about kids being born out-of-wedlock.

Throughout America today, Muslim teenage girls are getting pregnant by non-Muslim boys.

Muslim males are using and selling drugs, to the point that in some major urban areas, African-American Muslim boys come to Salatul Juma [Friday prayer] with the intention of selling and delivering drugs. Not to non-Muslims but to Muslims.

I think there is growing awareness amongst African-American Muslims that they must address the issues and problems confronting African-Americans.

By that I don't' mean that they have recognized the need to champion every cause. [Rather], there's a growing awareness that the immigrant [Muslim] community does not understand the history and the social dynamics that have brought the African-American community to the point where it is now.

There's this growing consciousness and awareness amongst the leadership of the African-American Muslims and the so-called rank and file, that this phenomena has to be changed and addressed. We have to be the ones to address these issues. We can't delegate this responsibility to anyone else.

SV: Within the Muslim African-American community, what would you say are the top five areas of concern on an individual, social and community level at the present time?

1. Economics

One would be financial resources or the lack of such because typically, unless you're talking about African-American professional athletes, businessmen or [other] professionals, the African-American Muslim community is not a resource-heavy one.

This is not to say that there are not African-American Muslim professionals, athletes and businessmen who have tremendous resources. But I would dare say the majority of African-American Muslims are not in the upper income bracket. So the direction of resources to projects that are considered important for Dawa, particularly in the African-American community, becomes difficult.

[This lack of resources] perpetuates the social division that exists between the haves and the have-nots in the non-Muslim [and Muslim] community. For example, not only the housing patterns but for the most part, the Masjids and Islamic centers are built not anywhere remotely resembling inner-city areas.

[They] are built in the deep suburbs, and so it sends a message to those who don't live out in those areas that this is not for you. I'm certain that would not be the intent, but this is the effect of those centers being built away from where the majority of African-Americans live or have easier access to. And this creates tensions between the [Muslim] immigrant community and the [Muslim] African-American community.

2. Education

The education concern dovetails into the allocation of resources issue because the process of educating Muslim children is a resource-intensive process. If you don't have the resources to develop the schools, it just makes it more difficult.

3. Marriage

The rate of divorce in the Muslim community in general [and] in the African-American community is unacceptably high.

One factor that contributes to this is that many African-American Muslims do not register their marriage with the civil authorities. As a result, often times the men feel it's too easy to terminate a marriage. If you don't like something just divorce the sister. [Lacking in] the strong Muslim infrastructure in our local areas, this kind of practice just continues.

As an Imam, I have unfortunately witnessed and attempted to avert this kind of activity. It's a very sad phenomena.

4. The Muslim Youth

[There are] youth who have left the practice of Islam. They identify themselves as Muslims, but their practice is other than that of Muslims.

This generation of young people are inundated with negative images unlike any other generation of Muslims that have every lived.

There has never ever been a generation of Muslims that have had to contend with the transmission of negative images through the internet, through the 24-hour television stations, MTV, rap videos and these things.

Not very long ago in the United States [young people] could not watch lewd images on movies and T.V. videos 24 hours a day (see Sound Vision's unTV guide)

But now because of the internet, the T.V. and all these things, the culture that's promoted through these international corporations is just overwhelming. I think that we have not been thoughtful enough in how to counter and establish alternative interests for our children.

Another phenomena is that the needs of African-American teens in particular, are not, for the most part, being met in these deep suburban Islamic centers.

Islam has to be part of a problem-solving tool for young folks and adults. As it relates to young people, we have to help them devise Islamic solutions to the realities they face. If they're not going to an Islamic school, we have to help them [respond to that] so they won't get consumed [by the issues they are] confronted with.

They need a little more bridge-building. Show me from the Quran how this relates to the person who is trying to sell me crack [for example]. We are incapable of addressing their needs and they think we are irrelevant.

The youth need leadership that understands their issues. The complaint I get from a lot of young people [is] that we have an Imam, he's Hafiz al Quran, he has so many Islamic degrees, but he has no clue what is going on in this environment. So if they want to even bring some of their non-Muslim friends to the Masjid for the purpose of Dawa, the environment [is usually] not conducive for Dawa. (Read about how one Imam changed a Muslim youth's life)

5. Dawa

The African-American community has been stereotyped by the media as a community of criminals, of druggies, of violent soulless people.

Because there is little physical contact with African-Americans on the part of many of our immigrant [Muslim] brothers and sisters, there's a tendency to accept these stereotypes.

So if you believe that a group of people are hopeless, pathetic criminals [and] that you may be endangering your life by getting on an elevator with one of them, you have less or no inclination to give Dawa to these people.

Unless that's through some telecommunications satellite, you're not going to use direct contact with them.

I see a hopeful trend that has been simmering for the last couple of years but is now coming more to the surface amongst African-Americans and particularly amongst African-Americans in leadership positions.

That trend is to establish a brain trust of critical thinkers to address this area of Dawa amongst African-Americans. There are some folks who have been given a lot of Dawa. That's a very hopeful sign to me.

SV: Is the Muslim community in North America doing enough for Muslim African-Americans?

No I don't think so. But I think part of that responsibility has to lie with African-American Muslims themselves.

Not the ones who are recently embracing Islam but those who have sacrificed the agenda of African people and African-American Muslims for a global agenda.

I think it's the [environmental] group Greenpeace that has the slogan ‘think globally act locally'. If there ever was a mantra for the African-American community to just repeat again and again it would be this.

In our relations with the global Ummah, we must think globally and act locally.

It is, as I understand, a Sunnah of the Prophet [Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him] that you start locally and that you move from there . The African-American Muslims have failed to appreciate this Sunnah.

We have this tendency to neglect the local needs for the larger global needs. I would dare say we are probably one of the few Muslim people on earth that are guilty of that, putting every other people's interest above our own.

For the most part, African-American Muslims will put themselves in a position to be cannon fodder for any cause other than what would naturally be their own, which is those issues that affect the community here.

SV: How do Muslim African-Americans position themselves vis-a-vis the non-Muslim African-American community?

For the most part, too separate and apart .

There are, for some reason, African-American Muslims who involve themselves in social justice issues involving the general [Muslim community]. But they are too often looked at as Muslim nationalists [those who exclusively support Muslim causes]. I think many African-American Muslims don't want that label attached to them.

Then there are others like myself, who are more concerned about what we perceive as our duty to Allah to stand up and stand out firmly for justice, as opposed to standing out firmly for justice except if it involves African-American people.

 

BLACK HISTORY MONTH:
11 Ideas for Black History Month
A Select Bibliography about Africa and Africans
Africa, the first refuge for Muslims
Umm Ayman, May Allah be pleased with her
Black History Month: Links You Can Use
Exclusive interview with Imam Khalid Fattah Griggs
Mali: Muslim Country Profile

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