While the world watched the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama in Washington D.C., I was far away on Sapelo Island, off the coast of Georgia.
I was on Sapelo -- near the more famous Jekyll Island -- as part of a project called "Journey into America," an American University study of Islam in the US led by the university's Chair of Islamic Studies, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed. Our blog can be accessed at www.journeyintoamerica.wordpress.com. We were on Sapelo to investigate links between the US and Islam going back centuries to the Africans brought to this country as slaves.
The island is inaccessible by car so we had had to take a rickety motorboat to meet our host, Ms. Cornelia Walker Bailey. Ms. Bailey is a tenth-generation direct descendant of Bilali Muhammed, a West African slave brought to Sapelo in the early 19th century. She is a writer and preservationist of the island's unique culture and is proud of her Muslim heritage. Attempting to ignore it, she said, would be like "chopping off an arm."
Although Bilali's descendants converted to Christianity, the isolation of the island meant that certain Islamic practices remained. We were surprised to discover that men and women commonly sit on opposite sides of the church during services as in a mosque, and all shoes had to be removed in services until recently. The churches face Mecca and people are buried facing Mecca. Today only around 50 slave descendants live on the island. History is all around, from the old plantation house bought by tobacco titan R. J. Reynolds to a slave cemetery we visited with graves dating back well into the 19th century.
As the morning sun shone through the cemetery's Spanish moss covered oak trees, I reflected on what an incredible experience it was spending both Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the inauguration with Sapelo's inhabitants. They were thrilled to see Obama sworn in, and Obama shirts and posters were all the rage. The legacy of slavery wears upon them heavily -- it is not in the past but continues to permeate life. One can still feel the ghosts of that age.
The first American president of African descent is enough of a change in itself, but to have a president with a Muslim name -- like Bilali's -- is doubly significant. In some ways, the journey of these African-Americans has come full circle. Despite this feeling, Ms. Bailey cautioned that there is still much work to do both in creating opportunities for African-Americans and accepting Islam as an American religion equal to any other.
The case of Sapelo illustrates some of the deep links between Islam and America going back to the founding of the country itself. Here are Americans talking with pride about their Muslim roots which stretch back many years before the immigration booms of the late 19th century. As President Obama gears up for his major address to the Muslim world, he would be wise to consider Sapelo's example and what it means for a country which many Muslims believe to be at war with their religion. At a time when some in the United States have dismissed Islam as foreign, dangerous, and "un-American," it is a story and legacy worth remembering.
You can find a video shot by team member Craig Considine on CNN's iReport here. It features an interview with Ms. Cornelia Walker Bailey.