I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Muslims use Bilal (rA)’s name to support their theories on why racism cannot or does not exist in the Ummah. As if the Ummah is monolithic, as if it were a small community or a classroom or a place that could be static, even for a moment. As if the act of tokenizing a man as a one size fits all patch to the “non racist” racism that “doesn’t exist” is somehow okay. As if they were capable of naming another black Sahaba and not have to resort to Malcolm X in a desperate attempt not to be labeled the “R word.” As if Twitter and other social media platforms weren’t littered with the word abeed, as if in the mad dash to advocate and mobilize for Syria and Palestine we didn’t forget Somalia, and the war on black men, women and children and non binary folks that is occurring right now in our towns, our cities, our homes.
As Muslims we like to knock ourselves in the head with the idea that we aren’t susceptible to racism, that somehow because we were warned by the Prophet (saws) to beware of oppression and to remember that racial hierarchies are bullshit, we are spared from the parasitic nature of anti-black racism. We give the Ummah this projected identity of a safe and equitable space, void of aunties who want lighter-skinned daughters for their sons; uncles who won’t let black men marry their daughters; and masjids that actively work to keep out “urban culture”, i.e., black culture. As if there aren’t brothers and sisters who forget what private naseeha looks like when they see the blackness of someone’s skin, as if there aren’t entire countries being crushed by the foot of neocolonialism that go unsupported because a significant portion of their populations are black.
A few months ago I went to a masjid that was predominately Pakistani. I stopped on my way home from work, it wasn’t my normal masjid, but it was the closest one to me, so I decided to pray there. I generally have no qualms about praying somewhere on the side of the bus stop or in a quiet place at the subway station, but this day I had a little more time, and so I thought I’d check out this masjid I’d never been to before.
Immediately after I walked in, the women were staring at me. As a black woman, I’m used to this. I was also wearing a merlot colour lipstick and big headphones so I wrote off their looks as inquisitive, or disapproving of my chosen aesthetic (I can see how it may be an acquired taste). Either way, their prying eyes were inconsequential, because as a black woman who has experienced being the only black woman in her class, or at her place of work, staring is something I can generally ignore.
Eds. Note: Trigger warning for mental illness, suicide, and self harm.
I would like to write plainly, with no pretence, no frills, no fancy language, but that would not be me, my style or my experience. I am a poet and a writer; if I am nothing else, I am that. I cannot shut words out to create clean lines or paint my experiences stark white, especially when they have always been a myriad of colours. My experience with mental illness has been perpetually horrible and beautiful simultaneously, a cacophony of experiences dancing together like water colours. But, despite the intricacies, the nuances and layers, I want this to be real. I want you to see the bones of it. Perhaps it may help you heal, or understand, or neither.
For me, mental illness has never been clinical. It has always been a lover, one that you despise but still let into your bed out of habit. One that you keep in secret because you know no one will understand. It has been intimate, it has been complex.
It was in 2009 that I first felt the black cloud of depression greeting me from above. I didn’t understand it then, I had just graduated high school, I was beginning university, I had a boyfriend who loved me deeply, I was young and, according to everyone else, this was the beginning of the time of my life. I was sad then, often so sad I contemplated suicide and in a desperate grab for control, I thought I might try cutting. I remember the night vividly sitting on the floor of my bathroom with a razor in my hand making little superficial cuts on my wrists and forearm. I remember it stinging and then abandoning it all together.
I didn’t know how to be sad. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I really didn’t. I thought there was some sort of formula that you had to follow when you felt like this, but I couldn’t bring myself to follow it. This sadness didn’t make me want to cut, or throw myself in front of a train, it just made me not want to exist. I didn’t want anything dramatic, I didn’t want anyone to suffer, I didn’t want to leave a note, or to seek revenge, I just wanted to disappear, to melt into the walls , to not exist.
“Brown girls don’t get to be sad,” she said, her face marked by disgust and disbelief.
I put my head head down, looking at my hands, too ashamed to make eye contact with her again. She was a woman who was beautiful, but not pretty: strong jaw, long, thick jet black hair falling loose over her shoulders, eyes so dark you wondered what might be lurking in them, skin deep and rich like sweet dates. She wasn’t a small woman by any means – tall and full, her delicate green and gold sari juxtaposed the boldness of her outlines.
When she got onto the southbound train heading for downtown, everyone stared at her. She was the kind of person you want to understand as soon as you see her, she draws you in simply by existing. You find yourself wondering where she is coming from and where she is going.
Eds. Note: Key is taking July off to get married, mA! We pray for deep blessings, contentment & joy in her union, and are re-posting her very first column with us from April 2014.
36 Flavours of Self Loathing
1. In 2nd grade a boy called me fat, there hasn’t been a day since then, when I loved my body
2. At 18 I found myself locked in a restaurant freezer with a boss who was trying to use his
hands to convince me that sex with him was part of the job.
3. There were nights after you left, when I filled my bed with everything that you touched,
hoping to fill it with something familiar.
4. The moon warned me not to come see you that night, it hung low trying to touch me. When I
left you, it asked me how could I hate myself so much.
5. When you didn’t call I had to delete every memory of you I had, but you still
lingered in the cracks of my walls.
6. Someone once told me that my body was a war zone. The day that I finally
understood what that meant, I was bleeding from my forearms trying to recreate the crucifixion.
7. West Indian women are known for having children but being too strong to have men.
I’ve never understood the fear some people have of women who expect as opposed to women who hope.
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Why do we shame our soft boys and our quiet ones?
The boys who stand with their mothers in kitchens instead of sitting with their fathers in front of the TV.
The ones who are gentle with their love and their hands. The ones who don’t care to throw a ball, or play swords with sticks. The boys who prefer to read, or chat, or none of the above.
The ones who can say “I feel” without cowering beneath the disapproving glare of masculinity.
Why do we yell, “Be a man!” at children who are barely out of diapers, forcing tears back into their eyes by telling them not to be babies, not to be little girls, not to be soft.
What are we afraid of when we ask a four-year-old if he has a girlfriend and he says “No” very definitively.
Why do we ask him again if he’s sure?
He said my name like a ghost.
A whisper from behind.
A quiet wind
hot and hollow.
He said it lazily and slack mouthed,
not parting his full lips wide enough to let every letter through.
He said it without the sigh of relief at the end
that it needed to sound familiar,
like it was not so sweet it could make his eyes water.
I should have known.
I should have known what kind of man he was
when he held his tongue between his teeth and let his eyes off their leash
to roam unapologetically the holy plains of my body.
Eyes that didn’t deserve a single follicle of my hair
let alone the entire garden of my being.
With his hungry eyes and half smile,
he took something from me.
I should have known then,
that he was dangerous.
But they don’t teach you how to recover from feeling powerless in school, how to spot a wolf in the skin of a man. They don’t give you a step-by-step guide to claiming or reclaiming your voice, a how-to on finding your agency when you are scared and your skin is crawling. So, like the sticky-fingered boys in elementary school, I ignored his disregard for the boundaries of my womanhood, my humanity.
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I am the kind of woman who looks at love from every angle.
Who writes about it, puts it in her mouth, holds it up to her nose and rolls it in her hands. I can tell you the way that parted lips feel against bare skin, or the way that the moon reaches out of the sky and highlights your breath as it leaves your mouth in the middle of the night in the middle of February. I can even write detailed accounts about the way the air smelt when I met you, but I cannot for the life of me fall victim to it.
I can write hundreds of poems about the dimple above your left cheek, about the scar above your right eye, about the way that your words melt together when you’re tired, but I cannot for the life of me fall victim to that either.