In this episode of On The Square, Sapelo Square History Editor Zaheer Ali speaks with Sapelo Square Senior Editor and On The Square curator Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer about her latest work, Umi’s Archive. The multimedia research project digs deep into the life of Dr. Su’ad’s mother, Amina Amatul Haqq (neé Audrey Weeks), to explore the meanings of being Black in the world. Dr. Su’ad shares her reasons for assembling and sharing the archive, some of her surprising discoveries, and the importance of archives to telling fuller, more nuanced histories of Black Muslim women and their communities.
To the question, “If Black Islam had a theme song, what would it be?,” Dr. Su’ad chose Suad El-Amin’s “Shahadah.”
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, Sapelo Square’s founder and senior editor, is an associate professor of American Culture and Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan, and a scholar-artist-activist who uses anthropology and performance to explore the intersections of race and popular culture. Her book, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States (NYU Press 2016), is an ethnography on Islam and hip-hop that examines how intersecting ideas of Muslimness and Blackness challenge and reproduce the meanings of race in the U.S. You can learn more about her work at suadabdulkhabeer.com and follow her on Twitter @DrSuad or Instagram @doctasuad.
Opening contains audio from a video performance by Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, featured in “Why Umi’s Archive?”
This episode includes an excerpt from Suad El-Amin’s “Shahadah.”
On The Square theme music was created by Fanatik OnBeats.
Artwork for On The Square was created by Scheme of Things Graphics.
On the Square: Episode 3 – Umi’s Archive – TRANSCRIPT
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer 00:06
Welcome to On The Square, a special podcast brought to you by Sapelo Square in collaboration with the Maydan. I am Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, senior editor of Sapelo Square and curator-producer of this podcast, where every month we get on the square and into some real talk about race and Islam in the Americas.
So, I found this letter in my grandma’s basement. It’s from one of Umi’s best friends, Violet. It talks about a lot of things. Girlfriend things, like moving in with her boyfriend and a pregnancy scare and revolutionary things. This last part, which she titles “Appendix #2,” she talks about Dick Gregory’s lecture to her campus and I shaded DickGregory, who is hilarious in the third person and even 40 years after the fact.
Zaheer Ali 01:09
As-salamu alaykum, I am Zaheer Ali, Sapelo Squares’ history editor. What you’ve just heard is a brief excerpt from a performance piece that is part of Umi’s Archive by On the Square’s very own editor and curator-producer and Sapelo Square’s senior editor, Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer. She joins us on this episode to talk about Umi’s archive, the importance of Black Muslim women’s material culture, and the histories they tell. Dr. Su’ad is a scholar-artist-activist, the author of Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States and is currently an associate professor of American culture and Arab and Muslim American studies at the University of Michigan. Su’ad, welcome and thank you for joining us.
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer 01:52
Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be on the Square.
Zaheer Ali 01:55
Alright. Let’s get down to it. Tell us about Umi’s Archive and the inspiration behind it.
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer 02:01
For those who don’t know, Umi is Arabic for my mother and in a lot of Black Muslim communities, that’s how people refer to their mother, like an alternative for mommy. Umi is what I call my mother. My mother was Amina Amatul Haqq, born in Harlem, New York in 1950 and in October of 2017, she passed away suddenly. Before my mother had passed away, my mother was the kind of person who lived an interesting life, but she didn’t sit you down and say, “Hey, listen, here’s my story.” It’d be more like one time we’re just driving in the car or something and she’s just telling me how she took her shahada at a prison when she was an inmate and the person who gave her her shahada was one of Malcolm X’s right-hand men. Just randomly while driving in the car, that type of stuff would happen. I say that to say that before she passed away, I had started to talk to her a little bit. I did one of these oral-history videos and I had gotten a camera, but then after she passed, and she passed five months after my grandmother passed.
When that all happened, I’m the oldest of my mother’s children, so I found myself in a logistical situation where there’s a lot of stuff that has to be cleaned out and sorted through, just to deal with the aftermath of what death means. In the process of doing that, the stories my mother used to tell me, the things she would casually mention, I would begin to see connections through the things I was finding in her things, her parents’ things, and her brother’s things. She died on a Monday. On that Sunday, she went to her Arabic class. When I’m in the archive and going through her things, I found a receipt from 1977 for like $3 or $9 for an Arabic class that she was taking at 72nd street. Now they call it, I think they still call it 72nd street. There is a masjid on 72nd street in Manhattan and the sister, I think her name was Fatima Negi, had a receipt for her paying for her Arabic class in 1977 and she became Muslim in 1975. The connection was made, the way she was taking Arabic in 2017 and she was also taking Arabic in 1977. That for me was important to find for her own continuity, but also just what Arabic language, Arabic proficiency, learning how to speak Arabic, mean to us as Muslims and as Black people and even the institutions like 72nd street. If you’re from New York, it makes more sense to you.
Zaheer Ali 04:41
72nd street was the first location of the Islamic center in New York City, which then opened up a subsequent more central and larger space on 96th and third and the 72nd was 72nd and Riverside, and this is a historic location. This is where Malcolm started getting his lessons before he made Hajj and it was the Islamic center for many years.
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer 05:12
Those are the kinds of things that started happening. There was this thing that I would find something that was very specific to my mother and her experience and her life trajectory, but it would immediately make me think of her peers and the histories that they’re embedded in and the histories that they created, that immediately happened all the time. Once that happened, I was like, “Okay! This is something that I need to figure out how to share with other people because other people are going to be connected to this.” They’re going to have their own receipt for my class. They’re going to have pieces that I don’t have, they are going to help me understand better and have a clearer picture, and there are going to be people who don’t know anything about this. That’s how I got inspired to start the project.
Zaheer Ali 06:01
That’s so amazing. I don’t want to be like, “You’re such a history, anthropology nerd.” There is a difference between a memento and an artifact and they could be the very same object, but it’s how we view the object and, looking at some of the objects that you have, I immediately thought back to Sapelo Squares’ Black History Month feature this year in 2021, where we highlighted, everyday, a different object from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture that helps tell the history of Muslims. Some of the stuff is what you would expect, like religious artifacts, but some of the stuff was like a flier or a music instrument or an egg carton box. When I saw some of the objects of Umi’s archive, I immediately began thinking about the importance of material culture and how material objects can be containers and signifiers of our histories, our culture, our politics, and you instinctively went there. I’m sure there was a period of time where you’re going through these objects and it’s a deep personal, emotional reaction. Then the intellectual side kicks in and it’s like, “These are stories that are connected to people and other histories.” So, what were some of the objects, if you can give people a sense of the range of objects that helped you reach that conclusion about their power?
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer 07:35
As an anthropologist, I do think that one of the things that defines anthropology as a form of study, or as a form of trying to learn a form of knowledge, is paying attention to the small and everyday things. Everyday life is very important. This qualitative research is you spending time with people and you’re just paying attention to the small things because the small things matter and the small things create the fullness. Oftentimes, we think of things that are big and extraordinary to matter and, in fact, that’s not the case. Extraordinary things obviously do happen, but they don’t happen without the ordinary things. They’re always connected. Even so, I don’t think it was like I was having an emotional feeling and then having the intellect kick in. I actually don’t think it was that kind of process. It’s more like my mother, myself and the way I was raised, I guess I already knew that our history is important and it matters because I know I can’t go to school and learn about it. I was raised to understand that there’s a concerted effort to keep us to not know who we are, not know what we’ve done, so that we can’t plan for the future and we can’t build new things. It wasn’t so much that I was like, I can do this too. I think those things were very much intertwined and I really can’t separate them out, which makes the project both exciting and challenging, because it is also very personal and it was my mother. Losing your mother is like the worst thing that could ever happen to you.
It’s not like that’s not there, but at the same time, who she was, where she came from, and that legacy is what sustained me in the first place. Those things come together. In terms of a range of items, you have me thinking about, just going back to the 72nd street example quickly, in that same pile of things that were sort of together was a calendar, a foldout calendar of the prayer times from 1977 from 72nd street. There’s also a cassette tape of the recording of a brother, they called him Dr. Dumyat Sulaiman who was from Egypt and a Maliki Fikh scholar who studied at al-Azhar and came to the United States. My mother’s really good friend and mentor Fahim Abdul-kareem, she was a little bit older than my mother. They were friends and as my mother was learning how to be Muslim. Abdul-karim, that’s what I call her, told Dr. Dumyat that we want a class, we want a sister’s class, and he ended up doing classes for the sisters. I have some recordings from that class from the late seventies. One of the recordings is him talking about Nisf Sha’ban, the middle of Sha’ban, and the merits of that and Ramadan. I, also, had the foldout of the prayer times for Ramadan and those two things are coming together. That’s important to me because having those two pieces of material culture, this paper calendar and this cassette tape, which has written on it the date and the time and also includes the actual audio of it, which helps me be able to imagine what it might’ve been like in 1976 to be a new Muslim and to be learning all these things.
There’s stuff like that. There’s things like buttons from when Jesse Jackson was running for president, that’s in the collection. There are lots of photos and, I say I’m not a historian by training, I don’t know if a lot is really a lot. Maybe it’s not a lot, but for me, it’s a lot. For example, in the very first exhibition, there’s a collection called service men. There’s about 50 photos in that collection, but that comes out of about almost 500 photos that my mother’s father <inaudible> took when he served in the military in World War II. He was in what they call the “forgotten theater of war,” which was China, India, Burma, and he spent time in Iran. He spent time in what was then the British Raj, but is now Pakistan and India as well as Burma. There are all these photos from that and, in his collection too, there are some other photos that will show up later, probably in the last exhibition from the late twenties and Harlem because he grew up in Harlem. He was born in Harlem, grew up in Harlem. So, there’s a lot of photos. There’s flyers. My mother, she was an educator and she was educated, so I found lots of books. One of the books that I found was Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class. I’m looking at the book and I open it and I’m like, “Who signed this book?” Oh, that’s Angela Davis. It’s a first edition copy dedicated to Amina. Those are the things from books, papers, some clothes too. It was a really wide range of stuff.
Zaheer Ali 12:50
In curating this stuff, this is a hard decision. How did you decide what to include in the presentation and what not? Did you go by like this is representative? Did you go by things that could speak to each other the way you talked about the cassette tape and the calendar? How does it come together because I want to dive into a particular object, but before we do that, since we’ve already got a breadth of the materials, tell us about your organization because you’ve thought about these in terms of themes. How did those themes come to you?
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer 13:28
There are two levels to this. There’s a logistic level. I have to clean out some places, I have to clean out some rooms and I have to make some decisions. It’s funny, I was reading a book called How We Get Free, which is the edited volume by Keeanga Taylor, and she interviewed Barbara Smith, who was part of the Combahee Collective. In the interview, they talked about how, when they would have these retreats, they would have these literature tables and they would just make copies of stuff because you couldn’t get it. It immediately took me to Umi’s Archive because my mother had duplicates of everything. That is the practice. You find something good and important, you get enough copies of it so she could share with other people, that is the way and that’s how you organize. That’s how you educate. It’s what you do. I say that to say that, on some level, if there were multiple duplicates of something, then I would just keep walking. That was one way to make the volume less in terms of the exhibition.
I have six themes and the themes for me, I chose them based on what I thought really spoke to my mother and her generation in the broad sense that could really touch on these different points as well as in relationship to what’s going on right now. We launched on April 4th, the first thing was why Umi’s archive? That was really thinking about the question of power in archives and in our stories. We’ll talk about the letter into Gregory with those talks about hope, but basically who gets the right to tell the story? Who becomes authoritative?
The second theme is Amatullah and this is focusing on the spiritual lives of Black Muslim women. My mother becoming a Muslim was significant. It was one of the most significant things that ever happened in her life. It was a choice that she made, so I wanted to focus on that and I wanted to focus on the world-building through spirituality that my mother and her friends, all these women that I was raised around, did, so I wanted to focus on that hope. I thought that was really central.
Likewise, there is the powerful, spiritual, intentional narrative of Black Muslim women. There is also an intimate and sometimes painful narrative of Black Muslim Women and that was significant to my mother’s life. That’s why I wanted to do the next thing, al-Mujadilah. al-Mujadilah is a chapter in the Qur’an, called the Woman pleads, and I wanted to use that to talk about love and motherhood, but also heartbreak, and sisterhood.
The next thing is Weusi! Tutashinda bila shaka, which is Swahili for Black people, we will win without doubt. I got the term because, during my mother’s college years, she was part of the black power movement. At the time, she was an activist and she had joined the Black Panther party. She was a Pan-African and she was learning Swahili. In her correspondances with people, she was using Swahili as the greeting and the closing. She also spent a lot of time doing West African dance. There I was focused on that and then Black August, August is Black August. I wanted to talk about Black power and its legacy in her life, both her time as an activist in college, but also post that and the ways her activism continued after that.
The final theme, which I’m calling “Distant Relatives?” I’m interested in talking about the diaspora of Black ethnicity, Black freedom, because my mother is the granddaughter of Caribbean immigrants to the United States. I’ma pause and I’m going to go back over that really quickly because I want to say something about time. I chose the things based on time. Why is Umi’s Archive in April? April 4th is my mother’s birthday. Amatullah, we’re launching that on May 8th towards the end of Ramadan. Al-Mujadilah is on June 12th. I was born on June 10th. That’s where that story comes in. July 4th weekend, every year in Brooklyn, it’s an African street festival, we used to call it the East. That’s why I chose to do the theme on Black consciousness, Black dance, and Black identity. Like I said, August is Black August and Labor Day weekend is when, traditionally for many years, I had the West Indian Day parade. So, to talk about distant relatives for me is important because I think there is a way in which the relationship between Black people in this diaspora, and particularly in the United States, is being completely dehistoricized and the connections between Black people who were enslaved in different places and that are all together in the United States, I think it is not actually being told the way it should be. My mother’s story is of a granddaughter of these immigrants. She’s also someone who integrated into her junior high school. She’s also someone who fought for Black studies on her campus. There’s a way we think about who is Black and who’s not, that should just be lost completely alongside other people like Harry Belafonte or something.
Zaheer Ali 18:35
I just love the poetics of these themes and how they speak to both your mother’s chronology and the contemporary chronology. There’s this very wonderful interplay of time and themes, and you couldn’t have gotten it any better. I don’t know if it’s like serendipity, you left out and these spoke to you or you imposed it. However it happened, the poetics of it is just really amazing and in the kind of way that it helps you and the viewers or the audience or the people who’ll be engaging this material. It helps them wrap themselves around such a sprawling archive. Toward that end, let’s dive into a particular object. We opened this episode with an excerpt from a performance piece that you do built around a particular object. This is a letter that your mother wrote while in college to her friend, Violet. I wonder, for those who can just hear you, we’re going to do a deep dive into this archival object; describe the object and then we’ll get into its content. Then we’ll talk about its meaning, but let’s start with what is it?
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer 19:59
I think I should describe how I found it. I was in my grandmother’s house and my grandma lived in Queens. I’m in the basement cleaning out the house and I find a dresser drawer that’s broken. It was almost falling apart and it was full of correspondences, greeting cards, invitations, et cetera and there was a white envelope that had some folded pages in it and the folded pages are of small notebook size, the kind that you tear the page. It’s a little bit yellow now. It has blue lines and it’s written, some of the ink is black and some is blue because it’s maybe a nine page back and front letter. The first half is addressed to Violet. My mother had a boyfriend in college and they had moved in together, so she was talking about mundane things, like going to an auction for the first time or something because she’s from New York and she was living in the country in Ohio. Then it’s appendix #2, which she literally wrote, which to me is interesting. This idea that you have a letter that has an appendix. The first half, it’s not as politically charged, although there is a point where she talks about birth control and she warns her friend to watch out for birth control because basically we know these white folks are still on birth control. She’s like, “Watch which one you’re going to take?”
In the second half, like the clip we listened to, she describes Dick Gregory coming to her campus. Dick Gregory, I learned later when doing research, came to Ohio state a couple of times throughout the years, so he was a frequent visitor to Ohio state, but this one time he came in November of 1971 and she, in the appendix to her letter (I’m assuming it’s an appendix because this wasnt just a PS), writes, but her handwriting is not super clear so you have to do some deciphering I’m doing to try to see if that is a T, is that an I, or is that a B? It was written in cursive. She writes about his visit and then she goes on and those pages are blue ink. That’s pages five, six, and seven, and then by page eight, it’s in black ink and she’s basically giving a play by play: Kathleen Cleaver came to our campus, she talked about the split in the party, and this play by play of all these events is very timely. It’s like, in North Korea this is happening and in the Congo this is happening and in Vietnam this is happening. She’s laying out all the geopolitical things that are going on there and then she closed the letter with a “Tell everyone I said Hello! How are they doing?” Then she has her PS. I was completely drawn to the letter because it’s a complete document that has a beginning and it has an end and it covers a range of her personal experience, but also it’s rich with the time. You feel like you’re in 1971 by her word choices and the things that she’s concerned about.
The letter appears in the first exhibit and is also going to appear in the Black August exhibit because she also talks about prison. This is before the prison industrial complex is in full steam, but she was doing some work in prisons as a college student in Ohio. She talks about racial inequity in sentencing and those kinds of things. Even in drugs, it’s interesting, she talks about people getting hemmed up for <inaudible> whereas the mob is not doing that. Now, here we are. We have marijuana legal, but you still have this question about all the pain and injustice that we have experienced. Part of the reason why I was drawn to this letter is because the things that she is talking about in 1971 are still extremely relevant in 2021. They’re not old, they’re not out of date. These are still issues today. The passion and her conviction around these things are something that I share and I think we also see that in our communities with people who are very much so organizing around, trying to educate around, these questions of inequality and justice. Reproductive justice, healthcare, these are things that we are still very much dealing with right now and I think that’s something that I was drawn to. It was like, that was a no brainer. This is something that folks definitely need to see.
Zaheer Ali 24:24
You get this letter that’s so rich in content. Tell us what kinds of things you do to contextualize it? You have a pretty good grasp of that time, but what were the steps you took to situate this letter, both in terms of your mother’s life (Did you know who Violet was? Did you wonder who Violet was? Did she show up anywhere else in the archive?) but also in terms of the broader stories that are told in the letter?
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer 24:51
I’ll say three things about that. One, Violet, I definitely knew who she was because Violet and my mother had been friends since they were 12. What’s interesting about this letter is that I sent a copy of it to Violet because my Mother had actually never mailed it. She wrote the letter, but it was never actually mailed, that’s right. That’s why I have it. They integrated in their junior high school together and stuff like that. I’ve known her my whole entire life, so I knew who she was. I knew they were very close, intimate friends. When I see the Dick Gregory piece, Dick Gregory is hilarious. It’s funny because I’m crying at the jokes. She’s retelling his jokes in the letter 47 years after the fact and he’s still funny. The first thing I do is, “Oh, maybe I can find newspaper clippings about him visiting the campus,” but really the first complete thing I find is the FBI file, which is now online. Dick Gregory had been under investigation through COINTELPRO. The counterintelligence program under J. Edgar Hoover for many years and so, because of that, they, the federal government and the FBI, were tracking and spying on him basically, following him around the country. His FBI file is like hundreds, almost thousands of pages long. I went and I found the thing on Columbus, Ohio, and I’m tripping because I’m like, “Okay, so she sent this and they said that,” and so there were places where these things match up, but then there are significant places where they don’t.
One of the ones I’ll just mention here is this idea around basically the FBI saying that Dick Gregory was calling for a Black economic boycott when, in fact, my mother says that he says that both White folks and Black folks should do it, which, if you know anything about Dick Gregory, makes much more sense in terms of who he was as an activist. What was important to me about that, and this is why it was in the first exhibit, was that my mother, a 21-year-old black female student from Queens, New York at school at Ohio state, would not be considered an authoritative source. The federal government would be, although they clearly have all kinds of biases and not for nothing, but there’s the student newspaper, The Lantern. When they report on his visit, they repeat what my mother said, he’s like, “You young people, you do X, Y, and Z,” and Ohio State ain’t a Black school. He’s clearly talking about a multi-racial coalition to end the Vietnam war, but because the federal government was intent on silencing Black resistance, Black rattled action, his work was interpreted as something that was a threat and it was dangerous.
I didn’t know all that when I read the letter. I mean, I knew about some of this about Dick Gregory and I knew about COINTELPRO, but I didn’t know how they all came together. One of the things that was really significant for me in that kind of discovery of sorts is how, when you think about your family and you think about a family archive, you think about things like a letter or photos, but the reality is that federal documents are also part of your family archive, right? I’m boying for my mother now, but that’s also part of it, which is kind of chilling, but also important to recognize. In terms of that, that’s how that all came together for me. I had, like you said, a history. I knew the broad outlines and I knew COINTELPRO and I knew who Dick Gregory was, things like that, so I went looking via Google and I got the FBI file, but then I visited Ohio State University. I emailed the librarian and I asked them some questions and they were like, “Oh, student newspapers are online. You can just look them up, you know?” It was kinda like I was investigating. You’re piecing things together.
Zaheer Ali 28:49
I love that it’s almost like an archeological search. You get these fragments and you have to put the bones together and recreate the body of the story. Thinking about a letter, I hadn’t realized the implicit question of how did you end up with the letter that your mother wrote, but the fact that she didn’t mail it. That raises a question of intended audience, which I think a lot of archivists or people who are archiving materials of individuals come across. That question is the question of how do you navigate the balance between privacy and public engagement of something that may have been intended for a specific person or a specific audience or sometimes the self? How do you balance that desire to tell the story while maintaining that agency of the original narrator? How did you weigh that in terms of what kinds of questions you asked yourself when you decided whether or not to include something?
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer 29:54
To take this letter as an example, there’s a first half and a second half.I haven’t talked a lot about the first half. That’s intentional. Knowing my mother and who she was, she was a very open person, and particularly as she got older. She was not someone who was afraid to share even very personal things about her life. On one level, knowing who she was and knowing how she lived, I have very few apprehensions about sharing something from the archive because I feel like she would definitely also share it. However, in the more personal part of the letter, I decided not to focus on that per se, because I felt like it was personal. I’m not really sure yet what I want to do. I mentioned the pregnancy scare. I mentioned that because I think there are things that have to have a purchase and a value outside of just her experience with them, but that are important because we need to know about those things to make those connections. There are some things that are very personal that it’s like, “Okay, well, I’m not sure.” If I have questions that I’m not sure about, I don’t. I wait until I have certainty. When I have certainty, everything is super transparent. That’s how I’ve been doing it. It’s been around who my mother was, what I think she would have been open to. Even the first half of the letter, to be honest, I think she probably would have been okay with, to be quite frank.
At the same time, I do feel like there needs to be some ethical, measured way of dealing with those kinds of things. With al-Mujadilah in particular, that’s the space where I’m most challenged with that, but looking to do that because the thing about al-Mujadilah is that my mother experienced a lot of heartbreak in her relationships with men as an adult. To me, that’s important to talk about because I think Black women in general experience a lot of heartbreak in our society. Both Black society and broader society is super dismissive of it, like it doesn’t matter, it’s inconsequential, and maybe it was your fault. I think it’s really important to honor Black women’s hearts and what they experience and to honor stories of love, heartbreak, and sisterhood, and to honor all the women who also have broken hearts, but who helped each other and continue to build a world. My mother had these relationships that didn’t work out, but she also was a part of 28,000 organizations. She raised two kids. She educated I don’t know how many kids. She kept going and I think that’s really important. There are things in there that are very personal, but again, knowing my mother, I don’t think she would have any problems with people knowing about them, but there has to be a certain level of care that you do in sharing that stuff.
Zaheer Ali 32:40
One of the things I hear you saying is about the framing, how to frame certain stories so that they are interpreted in a way that you think is in the spirit of who your mother was. That makes me think of what a lot of people who do museum work or work with archivists or work with archives, or for me like as an oral historian, a concept we call shared authority, which is this idea of, once you start engaging a source, some scholars take ownership of the source and it’s theirs to do whatever they want with it, to tell whatever story they want to tell. What I hear you saying is more in the spirit of shared authority, where you are treating your mother’s archive, not just as a source of history, but as an interpretation of that history and you are sitting with your, and her interpretation, and engaging each other. There’s a dialogic process here where you are in conversation, not just with the content of your mother’s story, but with her telling of that story because there’s an implicit telling that comes out of the saving. When someone saved something, that’s a storytelling act. Well, first of all, when they create the thing. The creation can be the saving of an object, like I’m keeping this flier, or it could be actual production, like I’m taking this photograph and I’m writing this letter. Those are acts of storytelling. It’s so fascinating to hear you try to access or disclose the world that served as the reference point for all of these objects. And so that brings me to the question of–
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer 34:34
Can I say one other thing? I appreciate what you’re saying and that’s really helpful for me to hear as well in terms of a shared authority and also choices being made because it’s interpreting my mother’s story, but in the sense of knowing that her sources are connected to other sources. It’s also like the people who are still alive, who show up in this stuff, who can also be considered in terms of what’s happening and how it’s being shared and then conferred to. Like, I didn’t know my mother’s college boyfriend. That was all before she became Muslim, all before I was born, but I found him. I’ve looked him up and I found him and I’ve talked to him and we’ve had conversations and he shared things with me. Her friend, Auntie Kareema, whom I also interviewed. I’ve known Auntie Karema my entire life. You get these pieces of things that you’re trying to figure out what to do with or what it means. There are people who are still around, who also can contribute. I’ve talked to Violet as well and that was also part of the process for me.
Zaheer Ali 35:40
You said something, when you were talking about the letter about your mother, here’s this college student who would not typically be considered as the authoritative interpreter of Dick Gregory’s visits versus say the FBI or even the college newspaper. I wonder if you can talk about what Umi’s archive means as an intervention in creating a space of agency for a storyteller or a history teller like your mother specifically, or even more broadly? One of the things that I’ve encountered, I think many people I’ve encountered who studied the history of Muslims in the United States, and certainly the history of Muslims of African descent in the United States, is that so many of those histories are leader centered. They’re male centered. We could probably run through the list of men who served as the containers for a whole community’s stories. When the question is asked, “Well, what about women’s experiences?” And one of the responses, some of which is coming from a place of good faith and genuineness, is, “Well, the archive is not there.” So tell us, what do you think work, like yours in Umi’s Archive, means for our understanding of Black women’s histories, our understanding of Black Muslim women’s histories, our understanding of Muslim women’s histories? However you want to situate those circles.
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer 37:11
In the project, I’ve defined an archive as a reclaimed space where we remember and dream and I did so because the Archive, with a capital A, that’s the kind of place where everyday people interact with what we know about the past. That place has not concerned itself with or valued a lot of people’s experiences and most particularly, which is significant to me, is people of African descent. That is something that needs to be rectified and we rectify that by remembering. I think people sometimes say, “Well, there is no archive,” and that’s just not true. There is. It’s about where you’re looking and what you’re looking for and whether or not you’re able to identify the story embedded in things, like a receipt for an Arabic class, but it’s also a place where we dream. There’s some people like Cynthia Hartman in particular, whose work I’ve been acquainted with, who is speaking about archives in speculative ways. There are things that we don’t know. For example, in the archive in the first exhibit, there are these two photos from my grandfather’s time in World War II in Iran in Ahvaz, which is a city. What I’ve learned is that most Black men who served in World War II did not see combat and they did supply work. He was a part of a regiment that built supply roads to Ally positions. One of the places that they worked was the Persian corridor. That’s why he’s in Ahvaz, Iran in 1944. He has the same picture twice with two different inscriptions. One inscription says, “Trouble in the land,” and the other says, “Social gathering.” I don’t know the sequence of this, but I’m imagining that perhaps his first evaluation of what happened at that moment was something that was potentially prejudiced, he’s there for war and there must be some commotion. After some time and some nuances of intimacy and relationships, because he has other photos where he talks about his friends and people who are local to the parts of Iran that he was in, it becomes a social gathering. It’s not some dangerous thing. That’s speculation, that’s my imagination, but I’m also imagining what we learned, the knowledge that is in this family archive, the knowledge that we are in the things that my mother chose to save, that her father chose to notate and that her mother told her to save, that knowledge is embedded in those things and they’re also resources for us to dream and to imagine and to build a better future because they were all committed to that, my mother in particular, I didn’t know my grandfather. Obviously, he raised her so he had some impact on our growing up, but my mother in particular was very much committed to building a better world. This is the intervention that I’m trying to make. I’m trying to say that that thing on your grandma’s shelf, you need to talk to her about it and find out what’s going on with it because it has knowledge. It has things we need to know that can help us now and into the future. That’s the intervention I’m trying to make.
Zaheer Ali 40:25
I love that. Thank you so much for this wonderful conversation. Before we go, we like to include in all of our episodes a fun question. This is our On The Square question. What is your black Muslim theme song? Or if Black Islam had a theme song, what would it be?
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer 40:45
Since we’re in Ramadan, I think the first song that comes to mind for me as my Black Muslim theme song is Shahadah by Suad El-Amin and the reason why I’m choosing it is because Suad El-Amin is a pioneer in the community and she has the song that I grew up listening to called Shahada. It’s like this R&B bluesy song that is all about being Muslim, like Shahada, and there’s a point in the song, like towards the end, where she’s like, “Stand up and be counted among the righteous.” Every time I hear that, it gives me chills. I love the song because culturally, it’s mine. It’s a good song. It’s not one of these whack Muslim songs, but also stand up and be counted is something that people would say all the time growing up. Shahadah is being a witness, so stand up and be counted. So Ramadan edition, my Black Muslim theme song is Shahada by Suad El-Amin.
Zaheer Ali 41:56
Thank you so much Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer for joining us. Thank you all for tuning in to this episode of On The Square, real talk on race and Islam in the Americas, a special podcast series brought to you by Sapelo Square and the Maydan. Thanks to our guest again, Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer. You can find more information about what we discussed, including links and more by visiting sapelosquare.com/onthesquare or themaydan.com/podcast. Our theme music was created by Fanatic On Beats.