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The Misidentification of Black Muslims

We’ve become a stand-in for any “unidentifiable” Black religious group — and a source of persistent anxiety for white America

Vanessa Taylor
Jan 25, 2019 · 4 min read
Black nationalist leader Malcolm X (left) with black muslim leader Louis Farrakhan (right) among the group at a rally in New York, 1963. Photo: Robert L. Haggins/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Black Muslims have generated fear in white America for almost 400 years. The root of that fear, and the history behind it, are worth exploring — especially today.

Recently, a video captured Native American activist and Omaha people elder Nathan Philips performing the American Indian Movement song (known as the “AIM song”) as students from Covington Catholic High School stood smirking in and around his path.

After the video went viral, a mother of one student — not the mother of the student shown facing Phillips — emailed Heavy to express dismay at the media’s initial coverage of the event:

Shame on you. Were you there? Did you hear the names the people were calling these boys? It was shameful. Did you witness the black Muslims yelling profanities and video taping trying to get something to further (sic) your narrative of hatred??

Although the group was later identified as the Black Hebrew Israelites, the mother’s words cannot be disregarded as a simple case of mistaken identity. In an attempt to redirect attention, the mother called upon an old fear of the Black Muslim.

During the transatlantic slave trade, enslaved African Muslims were brought to the Americas, where they became known for uprisings. Charles V of Spain once tried to exclude “slaves suspected of Islamic learnings” from the Americas after the earliest recorded rebellion on Christmas Day, 1522. He blamed their behavior on “radical ideology.” However, the decree was not effective and enslaved African Muslims continued to foment revolution. In Haiti, pre-Revolution maroon leader Francois Macandal organized slaves to make poison, which was used to kill slaveholders and those assisting them. He was so notorious that poison was briefly dubbed “Macandal.”

During Ramadan of 1835, enslaved African Muslims in Brazil organized one of the best-recorded slave rebellions in the Americas. These uprisings directly led to today’s fears of Black Muslims. Then, as now, enslaved African Muslims were seen as posing a direct threat to individual slaveholders and the entire system of racial capitalism. The colonies made continuous attempts to stop enslaved African Muslim rebellion, providing the framework for America’s Islamophobia — but they could not rid themselves of Black Muslims.

The greater American public was introduced to Black Muslimhood as a mysterious political and religious identity — and an overall threat.

The state’s lingering anxieties shape not only the experience, but the public perception, of Black Muslims. In the mid-20th century, The FBI notably surveilled two prominent Black Muslim institutions: the Moorish Science Temple of America — described as a “very dangerous” and “fast moving colored movement” — and the Nation of Islam (NOI). In FBI documents, the United States Countering Intelligence Program (COINTELPro) described the NOI as “dedicated to the propagation of hated against the white race.” The NOI’s politics were inspired by Black nationalism, a movement that would gain popularity in the 1960s and 1970s.

Black nationalism called for Black people to acquire economic power, develop community, and establish a separate Black nation. In 1959, the NOI were subjects of The Hate That Hate Produced, a documentary focusing on Black nationalism. The greater American public was introduced to Black Muslimhood as a mysterious political and religious identity — and an overall threat. Organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center reproduce this narrative today when they regard Black nationalism as racist, bigoted, and violent, conflating it with hate groups.

The Covington Catholic mother’s email stems from this context, and perhaps it should not be called a “misidentification” at all. Black Muslims have become a stand-in for any “unidentifiable” Black religious group. Mentioning them triggers generations-old anxieties embedded in this nation. We must not ignore the mother’s anger toward Black Muslims; they are a placeholder for a persistent undercurrent of racial anxiety. This anxiety gives way to the persecution we see today, such as a recent plot to attack a primarily Black Muslim community and the Obama administration’s entrapment program, “Countering Violent Extremism.”

Since the West began, Black Muslims have existed as a thorn in its side. Nowhere is this clearer than in the U.S. Because although U.S. citizens know of us, we are not theirs. Our religion is not theirs, our identity is not theirs, our Black Muslimness is not theirs. And so, as they are forced to know us, we are their fear.

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