How Black Muslimas are transforming our communities and futures
In the retelling of Black Muslim history and the ways that members supported community-led actions, the women are often left out.
Contrary to their portrayal in the media, Black Muslim women (also referred to as Muslimas), are powerful and active change agents in our communities. They are fierce advocates who regularly contribute their time, energy and service towards a more equitable world.
New Jersey Muslimas, in particular, have a unique experience that rests at the intersection of three historical events: The Great Migration, The Civil Rights Movement and the rise of the Black Power Movement.
The second wave of The Great Migration resulted in the Black population of Newark increasing from 45,760 to 74,965. Southern Blacks arrived in Newark with hopes of economic prosperity and community. While some found opportunities that allowed them to enter the Black middle and working-class, many did not. They were excluded from meaningful political representation, subjected to police brutality and redlined.
Globally Black folks have practiced and been exposed to Islam throughout history. It wasn’t until 1930 when the Nation of Islam was founded as a response to community organizing, however that the faith became more visible in the United States. Folks were drawn to a religion that was committed to the spiritual lives of individuals and the self-determination of Black communities.
With the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, the Newark Riots in 1967 and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, things changed. In order to advance Black liberation struggles, a shift from national to local leadership became necessary.
But in the retelling of Black Muslim history and the ways that members supported community-led actions, the women are often left out.
Black Muslimas filled in the gaps left in the wake of injustice and catastrophe. They moved in and actualized our liberation dreams by building sustainable models of care that centered all community members, regardless of faith. They connected folks to food, shelter, educational and domestic safety resources. And they organized in house, holding community iftars, observing Ramadan as an opportunity for reflection, growth, prayer, and fasting.
In speaking to Black Muslimas in Newark, I was awed by their ability to see the neighborhood as an extension of the home. They regularly ask themselves, “How can I make a difference here?” And that simple inquiry is attributed to decades of social change and long standing connection.
Kalenah Witcher was born and raised in Newark, NJ. Although she comes from a lineage of Newark activists, she’s clear that her Islamic faith defines her path in public service. Her daily prayer practice as a Sunni Muslim is to trust in Allah as her anchor. As a young person, Kalenah remembers the discrimination and anti-Blackness she faced in job settings by being asked to remove her hijab. Through those experiences, she made a commitment to only work in spaces that considered her faith (and others’) a non-issue.
Amina Bey was born and raised in the Nation. Her family transitioned to Sunni in 1975 after the death of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Leader of the Nation of Islam. Amina is the Executive Director at Newark Emergency Services for Families in Newark, New Jersey. Their mission is “to stabilize families and individuals in crisis” is personal and aligns with her values as a Muslim woman. For Amina, one of the most beautiful aspects of her faith is “the sisterhood”, a group of Black Muslimas across generations who serve the community.
For Quinna Billups, her journey to Islam is still developing. She initially had difficulty adhering to some of the instructions because she comes from a Christian background. “I wanted to ensure that my purpose, actions, and speech were aligned with the will of God. God instructs women for their protection to dress modestly and cover their heads.” As Quinna transitioned towards modest clothing, however, she found that it pushed her to become more creative with personal expression.
Dawn Haynes’ identity as a Black Muslim Woman from Newark is inseparable. The holiday season remains one of the most inviting and significant community service times because it’s a culmination of what Muslims have been doing all year. Dawn’s work with the Anti Violence Coalition and Domestic Violence Suna Social Services is close to her heart and faith. She believes women need safe spaces to thrive and seeks to represent Allah in all of her works.
Today in Newark, Muslim women and girls continue to create space for organizing through their faith. Muslim women are taking up the task of improving conditions for all community members, developing organizational leadership opportunities and community planning. Muslim women seem to intrinsically understand the importance of building long term liberation for all Black people and their contributions are proof.
Let us remember and give thanks to them.
Jamara Wakefield is an art and culture writer. She currently writes for publication and stage.