In an article on the Trayvon Martin tragedy, Melissa Harris-Perry cites WEB Dubois' searing question: "How does it feel to be a problem?" Taking his question into the present day, she lists a series of conditions in which certain Americans are made to feel as if they are a "problem." These include the devaluation of black life and delegitimization of black citizenship during Hurricane Katrina and the false equivalencies of Muslim and terrorist, and Latin@ and "illegal." These descriptions may be interpreted as distinct experiences: black, Muslim, Latin@. Yet, all those types could easily be found in the same body. The sons I might have one day will have unambiguously black bodies, be Muslim, marked in name and (hopefully) practice, and may also speak the Spanish tongue of their grandfather.
What kind of world will they inhabit?
Will they be stopped and frisked by the police on a street corner? Will they be gunned down on their way home because their wallet was, unbelievably, mistaken for a gun? Will their swagger, be it in a hoodie, their gait or some other form of indomitable blackness, put a target on their backs for the civilian-vigilante? Will their names make them suspects to be detained at the airport and placed on no-fly lists? Will their beards make alarms go off in the narrow minds of fellow passengers? Will they be trailed by the FBI because they have a deep spiritual devotion that pushes them to give charity, fast during Ramadan and pray with their Muslim Students' Association? If they choose to follow the Prophetic imperative to seek knowledge any where they can find it, will they end up in the bull's-eye of U.S. foreign policy and die by drone strike?
If the parallel criminalization and pathologization of black identity and Muslim identity continues unabated, then the answer to these questions will be a resounding "yes." This means that my husband and I must prepare to give our sons Levar Burton's guide to interacting with local police. Yet because we live in the intersection of racial and racialized religious profiling, we must also prepare an additional set of instructions. We will have to teach them what to do when detained at an airport and to be prepared for the possibility of rendition, no matter how illegitimate. We will have to instruct them on their legal rights when the FBI comes to the door to inquire about their religious belief and practice or that of other Muslims. We must train them to be alert to the fact that they are being monitored by the state, whether through local police harassment, wiretapping or by informants and agent provocateurs that have been sent into their Muslim community.
Of course, these were lessons that my mother, a former Black Panther, now veteran Muslim, taught me. However, a part of me was vaguely unprepared to deliver the same instructions. This is a part of me I don't quite yet understand; perhaps it is the byproduct of youthful rebellion from your parents' righteous radicalism. Yet, whatever the source of this delusion, as usual Umi (mother) knows best.
As many have eloquently articulated, the Trayvon Martin tragedy reiterates the trenchant devaluation of black life in the United States. To quote Du Bois again, "A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect." The political system, the judicial system, and the systems of representation in news media and popular culture continue to operate under the rubric of slavery. This is a framework in which black bodies are only useful when they uphold a status quo of white privilege and power. This fundamental belief that black life is expendable can be traced from enslavement to the present day, in, for example, policies of policing, surveillance and imprisonment, redistricting and voter ID laws, neoliberal privatization and the widely regurgitated rhetoric that refashions black suffering into black pathology.
Likewise, the rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry in a post 9/11 America is grounded in the criminalization of Muslims based on a myth of Muslim pathology -- Muslims are prone to violence, intolerant and opposed to freedom. Muslims are already and always suspicious because fairly benign facts, such as national origin and activities like prayer, are recast as reasonable evidence of imminent threat. As a threat to the nation, Muslim rights and lives are also expendable. We see this in revelations regarding the surveillance of U.S. Muslims, force-feeding in Guantanamo and the killing of another American teenager, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, though this time by drone strike.
The devaluation of black and Muslim life is a deep-rooted contagion. And so, as I prepare to give my sons instructions passed on to me from my mother, I must include the most fundamental lesson she ever taught: to expect and protect myself from the violence of state power while never internalizing its logics. Thus, I will teach my sons to be vigilant in their self-love, love of blackness and Latinidad, love of community and love of the Creator. I will teach my sons that they come from greatness and should aspire to the heights of the ancestors. I will teach my sons to have the audacity to be unashamedly black and Muslim and to believe that this not only makes them as valuable and human as anyone else but makes them beautifully so. And, I will teach my sons that a better world is possible and that they must have a hand in its birth.