Every year, January 12 is observed in the US as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. President Donald Trump honoured MLK Jr. for standing up “for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear, that no matter the color of your skin, or the place of your birth we are all created equal by God.” Meanwhile, social media was abuzz with comments that Trump had made the day before in a meeting in the Oval Office, in which he referred to Haiti and African nations as “sh--hole countries.” This entire episode is a microcosm of the resurgence of anti-black racism in “the land of the free” even as it pretends to have moved on to become a post-racial society.
In the “True North, strong and free,” a black mother was called into her six-year-old daughter’s Mississauga, Ontario elementary school in September 2016 only to find that police officers had handcuffed the unruly 48-pound child at the wrists and ankles like a “dog,” supposedly for “the safety of other students.”
More recently, the case surfaced of a person who came to Canada as a refugee in 2000 but was forcibly separated from his family at the age of seven, tossed around to 31 different foster homes, denied Canadian citizenship, and sent to jail for crimes committed as a youth. Abdoul Abdi now faces deportation to Somalia.
Numerous such “isolated incidents” and even a 2017 UN Human Rights Commission report have raised the alarm that anti-black racism is deeply entrenched in many Canadian institutions, policies, and practices.
In the midst of all this, February 2018 was, as usual, observed as “Black History Month” in both the United States and Canada. This month is dedicated to celebrating (some) cultural, social, political, and economic contributions of (some) people of African descent to these nations and, more broadly, to the world. Though this seems to be a good cause, in practice it is highly constrained so that only the establishment-friendly black contributions really get the spotlight.
The public is taught about Nobel Prize laureate MLK Jr. or the Montreal-born jazz musician Oscar Peterson, but not so much about defiant black slaves like Ayuba Sulayman Diallo or unapologetic activists like al-Haj Malik Shabaz (aka Malcolm X). The lesson for those facing anti-black racism today seems to focus on “fitting in” as opposed to actually improving their condition.
Incidentally, this means that celebrating historic black Muslims is often left off the agenda completely, as historians such as Michael Conniff, Thomas Davis, and Sylviane Diouf assert that they were especially relentless in their fight for justice and freedom.
One such example is that of Estevanico, one of the earliest Muslim slaves to reach the US. He arrived as part of a Spanish expedition that was shipwrecked off the coast of Florida in 1528. Over the next eight years, the expedition suffered from famine, disease, attacks by Native Americans, and an ill-fated effort to cross the Gulf of Mexico on rafts. Estevanico emerged as the leader of the dwindling group as they trekked across Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, hoping to meet another Spanish party.
Estevanico and his band of only three other survivors (out of the original force of 300) finally met other Spaniards in Mexico City. He was then employed by the Spanish to further explore the American South, in the course of which he was killed. However, despite having been enslaved for virtually his entire life, he never stopped trying to break free of his shackles and improve his condition by any means available to him.
Another early example is that of the African Muslim labourers who built the oldest non-aboriginal city in the United States: St. Augustine, Florida, established in 1565. Some of these slaves found their own way to resist slavery by routinely running away and seeking refuge in Native American settlements. This led to cultural exchanges that the Spanish greatly feared. In particular, they feared the spread of Islam among Native American communities, an indication that to some extent this may have actually happened. As a result, on four separate occasions―in 1526, 1532, 1543, and 1550―legislation was passed by Spain to ban the import of African Muslim slaves into Spanish colonies, though the greed to make profit meant that this was generally ignored.
Very few of the enslaved were ever able to return to their home and family in Africa, but Ayuba Sulayman Diallo was an exception. Enslaved in February 1731, he was taken to the United States and sold to a farmer in Maryland. After some abusive incidents, including one where a young boy found him praying in the woods and kicked dirt into his face, Diallo decided to run away. He was caught in Kent County, Pennsylvania and put in jail. When asked to identify himself, he responded in a potentially dangerous situation with two words, “Allah. Muhammad.”
Diallo was eventually returned to his owner. However, he ardently kept up his Islamic practices, and managed to send a letter to his father in Senegal. The letter ended up in the UK, where the quality of his writing caught the attention of an influential philanthropist, who bought Diallo out of slavery. He went to London, where he became something of a celebrity during his stay, and from there to his home in Senegal, where he lived for the next 40 years, passing away in 1773.
Fast forward to the Civil Rights Movement and to Malcolm X, one of its most remarkable leaders. Though he lived decades after slavery was abolished, the racist culture that had been cultivated in that period affected him throughout his life. There are too many important details of his life to describe here. He was unapologetic, outspoken, and an advocate of striving for justice “by any means necessary.” He was juxtaposed with Martin Luther King, Jr., but scholars have noted that “by the time each met his death, there was practically no difference between them.” However, only MLK Jr. Day is celebrated nationwide and during Black History Month, but the more anti-establishment Malcolm X, who was martyred on February 21, 1965, gets scant attention.
Space limitation prevents a look at the Muslim-led slave rebellions in Brazil and the Caribbean, or the Muslim contribution to the Haitian Revolution and the post-emancipation struggle against white supremacy. However, we can take note that though slavery was not as widespread in British North America (later known as Canada) as it was elsewhere in the New World, it was still practiced for more than 200 years before being abolished in the 1830s.
In the words of the Jamaican-Canadian historian Afua Cooper, slavery is “Canada’s best-kept secret.” Thus, in Canada there is even more erasure of the historic roots of today’s anti-black racism, and of the resistance to it. Richard Pierpoint, who was possibly a Muslim and who attempted to establish a black community in today’s St. Catherines, Ontario in the 1790s, is virtually unknown.
Black history in the United States and Canada has been sabotaged by the same powers that have allowed anti-black racism to not only continue but resurge in recent years. It is time to revisit history and for the discussion in Black History Month to extend beyond hero-worship of a select, establishment-approved cast of black personalities.