From Harlem to Brixton: The extraordinary lives of Black Muslim women

From Harlem to Brixton: The extraordinary lives of Black Muslim women

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Islam News – It’s the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death and the commemoration of African Liberation Day (25 May) when I speak to Dr Su’ad Abdul Khabeer. It is particularly poignant, because it also marks a pivotal moment for her late mother, Amina Amatul Haqq, a Harlem native.

Abdul Khabeer mentions a conversation she had with her mother, who spoke of her participation in a protest movement in 1973, following the killing of 10-year-old African-American boy, Clifford Glover. He was shot in the back by a plainclothes police officer, Thomas Shea, in Queens, New York, on 28 April that same year. Amatul Haqq joined the African People’s Committee and a month later, on 25 May, she protested against apartheid and colonialism with the committee in Washington DC, near the US State Department, and the South African and Portugese embassies.

“She was a part of the generation that grew up under Martin Luther King, and when all those social movements were happening. In fact, King passed away on her 18th birthday which was 4 April 1968,” Abdul Khabeer tells Middle East Eye (MEE).

This is one of the many extraordinary stories that make up the life of Amatul Haqq (born Audrey Weeks), parts of which have been compiled into an online digital archive, sentimentally titled Umi’s Archive, referencing the Arabic word umi, which means “mother”.

A living legend
Abdul Khabeer officially started working on a web-based collection of digital artefacts related to her mother’s life in Autumn 2019. The project addresses Blackness, womanhood, and sisterhood within the Islamic community in the United States.

Storytelling and archiving have long been integral to her work as a scholar-activist and artist, whereby she uncovers how Black people relate to imperialism and how culture forms a part of Black resistance and liberation. This may be best exemplified by her latest book, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States (NYU Press, 2016), which explores race, religion, and popular culture through the lens of the relationship between Islam and hip hop culture.

She is also an editor of the online platform, Sapelo Square, which explores the experiences and trajectories of African-American Muslims. Abdul Khabeer says it felt natural for her to shine the spotlight on her own family history.

“Amina was my umi – my mother. My mother was an everyday person. She was a public-school teacher, community activist, and single parent who lived a remarkable life,” Abdul Khabeer says.

“Likewise, her personal collection and family archive, which includes thousands of items dating from the late twenties and spanning multiple continents, is full of the extraordinary and the everyday. Her papers and belongings speak to the stories of her life, but also the stories of many others, especially of the African diaspora.”

Amatul Haqq died suddenly at the age of 67 in October 2017. Her funeral was attended by at least 500 people, Abdul Khabeer tells me.

She recalls a conversation she had with her the day she died: “I talked to her because initially, I was hoping that I could go out to the United Arab Emirates to speak to Black Muslim expats and I wanted her to come with me,” she says.

“We were planning for that because she was retired. I had a friend helping me out to tell her about the plane ticket. My sister, who was staying with her, called me a couple of hours later and told me my mother wasn’t well. It was tragic and unexpected.”

But Abdul Khabeer had managed to celebrate her mother’s life while she was still alive. “Luckily in 2013, I threw a party for my mother and called it A Living Legend. Because if you were from New York or the Eastern Seaboard, you would know Amina Haqq,” she says. “People called her ‘the haqq’.”

Black love, Islam, and sisterhood
Archiving stems from the larger practice of genealogy which has grown in popularity in the Americas, and particularly the US, among peoples of African descent since the 1970s. But the process is often marred because of the disruption to family lineages that came with the practice of chattel slavery.

In addition to enslaved Africans being cut off from their families and communities in West and Central Africa, slave families were often split up and sold off to different plantations upon their arrival in the “New World”. A process that continued long after the transatlantic slave trade ended.

Storytelling, combined with Islam’s emphasis on maintaining family ties, compelled Abdul Khabeer and other Black Muslims to start compiling their family archives

The names and surnames of the enslaved were not registered in the US census until 1870 – five years after the country’s civil war brought a definitive end to plantation slavery in the country. And even then, those names were more often than not the identities given to them by European enslavers. Having lost their ancestral heritage, their core African identities were incalculably disrupted.

And yet one Africanism that did remain was storytelling. This, combined with Islam’s emphasis on maintaining family ties, are both reasons that compelled Abdul Khabeer and other Black Muslims to start compiling their family archives.

“People like myself who are from Generation X – the generation born between 1965 and 1980 – are getting older, and we are having to take care of parents – or losing parents – so being in that space is pushing people to do this,” says Abdul Khabeer.

When visitors first log onto UmisArchive.com, they will be greeted with a series of video sequences, which start by showing Amatul Haqq as a child, dancing and singing with other family members, and as a teenager, dressed up for her junior high school graduation. Then the sequence switches to Amatul Haqq in a head covering, smiling at the camera, both as a middle-aged woman and then in her later years.

The intention is to show Amatul Haqq as a lively, down-to-earth human being, and for online visitors to understand the human behind the pictures, notes, videos, and other artefacts that are on display.

The first part of the archive is a timeline of her parent’s marriage, her birth, and the activities she participated in as an accomplished pianist and drama student. We also learn of the lectures she gave after converting to Islam, and her relationships before and after becoming a Muslim.

Certificate awarding Umi her own day in the city of New York for ‘promoting women’s rights, social justice, and racial harmony’
Certificate awarding Umi her own day in the city of New York for ‘promoting women’s rights, social justice, and racial harmony’
The archive highlights Amatul Haqq’s work in the Muslim community as a founding member and chairperson of the Northeast Muslim Women’s Alliance, and her da’wah (the act of calling and inviting people to Islam) for the Muslim Educational Action and Resource Committee, where she lectured on the role of women in the faith.

Her work as an educator and activist against New York City’s homelessness crisis is worthy of note, such that she was awarded a day of commemoration in the city o

f New York for “promoting women’s rights, social justice, and racial harmony”, on 16 September 2008.

The second part of the archive includes a series of exhibitions that focus on key themes that Abdul Khabeer picked up about her mother’s personal life, from sisterhood to Black love, empowerment, and heartbreak.

Source: Middle East Eye