Under Construction

Salaams and Dap is currently undergoing a redesign and overall revamp. Please bear with us through these changes. We look forward to your readership when we relaunch in the near future. Thank you for visiting.

Monday’s Music: Islam and Blues

I believe that sometimes, people don’t even know why they’re drawn to the things they are. It’s like something in their spirit is telling them to dance, write, cook or sing and they have no idea that the urge to do so came from deep within their ancestry. Maybe from a long-ago relative who was an exceptional dancer, writer, chef or singer who passed the talent down but kept it dormant for generations until the right person came along to claim it. Or maybe what they’re drawn to is ingrained in their people’s history, but a history that has remained hidden for too long.

Such is the case with Islam for some who choose to convert. Becoming Muslim, to them, is reclaiming a faith that had been stripped away many decades earlier when Muslim Africans who were brought to America as slaves were prevented from practicing their religion. This may also be the case with my brother, a twenty-something guitarist who seemingly overnight became a Blues musician. The Blues, of course, has deep roots in the African American tradition but generally, not with young people. To see him–in a graphic T-shirt and a pair of Vans–so comfortably strumming his pain away and humorously singing his heart out, makes me think that Blues music originates from further down in our people’s past than the Mississippi Delta.

Take a look at what I found out about African Muslims and American Blues in this piece written for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. And this video, Islam and Blues, is a must-see; particularly listen to the comparison between the adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) and a Blues song, “Levee Camp Holler,” starting at about the two-minute, fifty-five-second mark.

Our President is Black

It didn’t hit me until yesterday that our president is black. Of course I can see that he has brown skin; I followed all the news reports of his “historic election;” I even recognized the significance of his family’s 2009 trip to Ghana. What I didn’t recognize until turning on the news Wednesday and witnessing President Obama explain to reporters with frustration why he felt it necessary to release his long-form birth certificate was what it really means to be the nation’s first black president.

President Obama at Wednesday's press conference.

America’s history of racism is well-documented and needs no further rehashing from me. I will say, however, that I was mistakenly under the impression that our racist past was just that–largely in the past. When I saw Obama create an economic recovery plan, I saw the president do that, not a black man. When I watched him introduce a healthcare bill, again, it was the president, not a black man. And when he decided to involve U.S. forces in the situation in Libya, without asking Congress first, he was definitely the president then, not just a black man. I have been able–with almost no effort on my part–to accept Barack Hussein Obama, a black man, as my country’s president and respect or object to the decisions he makes based on a confidence that he deserves the job he has. I realize now, with no further delusions or self-deceptions, that a good part of the country does not, and will never, have that ability. And it’s simply because of the fact that President Obama is black.

The “silliness” that he has had to deal with is unprecedented: 2008 campaign T-shirts equating Obama with Curious George, the monkey; right wingers casting aspersions on his chosen faith; the GOP working hard to block, repeal or replace every one of his proposals; an e-mail depicting the White House lawn as a watermelon patch; another portraying Obama as a child chimpanzee; of course, the “birther” controversy; and now, challenges to his educational record. It’s ridiculous. More than half of this country was sophisticated enough to set conventions aside and vote for “Change” in 2008. The very vocal minority who did not, has proven to be more bitter, racist and simple-minded than I ever thought possible as they continuously work against efforts that would, in the future, be beneficial to the country (such as healthcare), just to undermine the black man they never wanted to be president.

Through it all, President Obama handles himself with grace, laughing off his frustrations but never releasing the outrage for the hate directed at him that must be pent up somewhere inside. Often, I think back with admiration about all that my slave ancestors had to suffer through and how they somehow managed to survive in order for me to be here. I’m beginning to look at Obama’s presidency with a similar sense of wonder and pride.

Monday’s Music: Lauryn Hill

I know she’s no one’s favorite person right now but today’s Monday’s Music selection is from Lauryn Hill. Her 1998 song “Doo Wop (That Thing)” opens with part of a line from Al-Fatiha, which has to be the most often repeated surah in the Qur’an since Muslims utter it while praying several times a day. When I first heard the song with Lauryn–that was back when she still answered to “Lauryn”–speaking Arabic, I said to myself, “Hey, how does she know about that?” It was like she had breached a secret society and would finally succeed in bringing Islam into the mainstream. You have to remember, after the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released, she was the crossover success; she graced the cover of Time magazine, won five Grammy Awards and went multi-platinum. So hearing her say, “Don’t forget about the deen,” and then in Arabic, “guide us on the straight path,” was really something.

Monday’s Music: Mos Def

In honor of my ummi, who visited me in my new place this past weekend, I’m putting up Mos Def’s “Umi Says.” My ummi is the most selfless person I know. She always comes through in times of need and she didn’t disappoint this time. I wish I had an adequate way to repay her. I hope that when my son grows up (who’s on my lap watching me type this right now), I can be as good to him, insha’allah. For now I say, thank you, Ummi, and here’s to you!

Oh, a side note: When I was a teenager, I sort of met Mos Def. He came out to an underground hip-hop event called Da Cipha that my sister put on in New York City. My job was to get the attendees’ contact information. I have his signature, Dante Smith, on the sign-up sheet a few times.

On the Vernacular

There’s something dirty about the word “vernacular.” The dictionary says it’s “the native language of a locality.” OK. But it also says it’s “the common daily speech of the people, as opposed to the literary language.” Now wait a minute. Does that mean that if I write using the language that the people I’m writing about use themselves–“the vernacular”–my work cannot be considered literary? Because apparently, my writing is deep in vernacular territory. And if I don’t wrestle it back to Literary-Land, it may be lost to mainstream readers and publishers forever.

I discovered my dilemma while talking to one of my professors the other day. After reading a draft of a chapter that will likely be in my larger work, she pointed out that the language may not be understood by all readers, which could limit how accessible my potential book may be to a wider audience. I’m not buying that, or at least I refuse to accept the notion that people can’t stretch themselves to understand language that may be outside of their norm.

I read a couple of books recently written with language that could be considered types of vernacular. One is heavily scientific and the other deals a lot with the terminology of the Catholic Church. Both were difficult for me, someone with background in neither science nor the Catholic Church, to understand. But I didn’t give up on either book, claiming they were too far removed from the range of writing considered acceptable by the mainstream. And I’m sure no one told those authors that their language detracted from the possible literariness of their work.

It’s because my writing uses the black vernacular that a flag was raised noting that something could be wrong with it. For some reason, people think that the black vernacular comes naturally to black writers and they’re just lazily scribbling words on the page, hoping that someone will come along and think it’s good. Not so. The black vernacular as a writing voice is just as hard for black writers to realize as would be a scientific voice or one steeped in the Catholic Church. It takes actual work to get it right. And more so than other voices, getting it wrong is a huge faux pas that stands out worse than wearing black to a white party.

Furthermore, the black vernacular can be extremely literary. Take Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ memoir, “The Beautiful Struggle,” for example. He uses some black vernacular but really creates his own language and rhythm in writing that comes across beautifully when read. Not every word may be understood, but the sentiment in the words is what’s important. And he’s a writer and editor for The Atlantic. Can’t get much more literary than that. So, I urge those with preconceived notions to reconsider their views on “the vernacular.”

We’re Back!

My apologies to anyone who had been looking for new posts from Salaams and Dap over the past few months. In addition to time constraints, I’ve had to figure out a way to alter the focus of the blog so that it does not duplicate what I’m trying to produce for my graduate thesis, yet still maintains its solid concentration on the Muslim-born Black American.

The focus of my thesis project has changed slightly. Instead of writing solely about the experience of my own Black American Muslim family, I’m now writing about a few Black American Muslim families who began their relationships with Islam at a particular Harlem mosque in the early 1970s, and including my own. A large part of my thesis project will deal with the second generation of Black American Muslims–the very people I turn my attention to here. (The other part will deal with their parents, but, for now, that’s another story).

So in subsequent blog posts, expect to hear me talking about my concerns, triumphs and failures in my attempt to put this manuscript together. It’s a big undertaking. But one that I’m committed to completing so please, follow my journey.