Night Catches Us

“There’s a distinct lack of content specific to what it is to be a black American, the variations in that experience, what life is like for people who are ordinary. Those are the stories I want to tell.” –Tanya Hamilton

It seems that I have something in common with Tanya Hamilton, director of the film “Night Catches Us” starring Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington. She, too, sees the void in real-life and artistic depictions of the black experience and wants to fill it. She makes a noble effort with her debut film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is now in select theaters and available on iTunes.

“Night Catches Us” is the story of two former Black Panthers who are trying to come to terms with their lives after the movement’s decline. Set in Philadelphia in 1976, the film centers around Marcus (Mackie), who apparently left town amid controversy and is now returning, and Patty (Washington), who decided to stay and raise her young daughter with knowledge of the Panther Party’s principles but secrets about her own family. The fact that the film deals with the aftermath of the Black Panthers’ downfall resonates with me because I’m also interested in the impact of an unfulfilled movement–my focus on the next generation of Black Muslims is just a bit more distant than Hamilton’s. For example, I’d be interested in what kind of a young woman the daughter of Kerry Washington’s character becomes having been raised with strong Panther ideals, yet so much pain and secrecy.

Although the film is not perfect, I find Hamilton’s drive and perseverance to get it to screen inspiring. It took 10 years. And she didn’t give up. Read more about her here. And Hamilton managed to squeeze a portrayal of a Black Muslim into “Night Catches Us;” Tariq Trotter, better known as Black Thought from The Roots, plays the brother of Mackie’s character. How’d he do? Let’s just say I don’t think there’ll be a “/actor” after “rapper” when referring to Black Thought.


Monday’s Music: The Last Poets

I discovered The Last Poets when I was a student at Howard University. I don’t remember exactly how I first came upon their poems or who introduced me to their recordings–it might’ve been a PBS special I saw–but I know that once I heard them, I felt like I’d found something special. These guys are spitting the truth, I thought. Of course it was the truth of the late 1960s and early ’70s, some 30 years prior, but their words seemed authentic to my time. Niggas were scared of revolution. That’s why we had to choose between Al Gore and George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, and when the courts determined that Bush won, we did nothing about it. That’s why when Howard tried to shut down funding of the school paper I worked for, only a handful of my cohorts backed me to storm the president’s office in order to save it. (Result: The most orderly storming I’d ever witnessed and elimination of our funding.) Anyway, I, like The Last Poets, surmised that when the revolution came, niggas wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Several of The Last Poets including Umar Bin Hassan, the featured poet on “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution!”, and Jalal Mansur Nuriddin are Muslim converts. My favorite Last Poet, Abiodun Ayewole, the featured poet on “When the Revolution Comes,” is not. It’s clear, though, that the group was influenced by the black nationalism and militancy popular among African American Muslims of that time. It’s also clear that “conscious hip-hop” has been influenced by them. Common, Nas and dead prez have featured the Poets on their albums. dead prez also sampled them on their song “Turn Off the Radio (Radio Freq).”

The Last Poets are good for stirring up righteous indignation. I just may have to go out and replace my copies of their CDs that I lost.

Eid Mubarak!

I have to apologize for my lateness and the fact that I’m not posting original material here. But since I didn’t have a chance to write anything about Eid al Adha, which occurred last week, I wanted to at least do a post with information about it. Here’s a cute article I found about a mother explaining the holiday to her young son. And here’s a brief description I found of the hajj pilgrimage. The mother’s story starts below. Enjoy!

Saima Sheikh of Allen: Why we give thanks
The Dallas Morning News
12:00 AM CST on Sunday, November 21, 2010

Saima Sheikh of Allen is a stay-at-home mom and volunteer. She is also a Community Voices volunteer columnist. Her e-mail address is

“Do you know what tomorrow is?” I recently asked my son. He answered with a wide grin, “Yes, Mom, tomorrow is Eid, and I don’t have to go to school.”

I smiled. “But what do you know about Eid?”

He replied, “Well, we get ready and go to our mosque. We pray, eat and then I get my presents. Will I get presents tomorrow?”

“Yes, you will, but do you know why we celebrate this Eid?” I asked him.

“I think I do, but can you tell me about it again, Mom?” …

Monday’s Music

There’s no doubt that Islam has had an impact on hip-hop music and artists, particularly in the early 1990s. Groups like Brand Nubian and A Tribe Called Quest put Arabic words into a hip-hop head’s vocabulary and brought some styles of Muslim dress to the fore. For a so-called conscious rapper not to know anything about Islam was just unheard of.

At the same time though, the early ’90s was one of hip-hop’s most hardcore times and some of the images put forth purportedly representing Islam were not, let’s say, peaceful. Exhibit A: Brand Nubian’s “Allah u Akbar.” This video would not have been made today–not this way. But it does say something about what being a Muslim–part of a religion outside of the American mainstream–meant to some Black men, particularly those who converted.

Juan Williams: Worried, Nervous and Fired

Just wanted to open up dialog over the whole Juan Williams situation. After NPR fired the news analyst over comments he made about self-identifying Muslims on airplanes making him nervous, do you have any thoughts on the situation? Check out The Washington Post‘s article on the fallout.

The Melting Pot of Assimilation

Twice last week, I heard a couple of politicians from opposite sides of the aisle say that America is about assimilation. First was former Maryland governor, Bob Ehrlich, who is running for governor again in the state. “We are about assimilation; that’s what this culture’s about,” he said during a televised debate last Thursday in answer to a question about illegal immigration. “We talk about multiculturalism—we are a multi-ethnic society but we are a singular American culture, premised on English, democracy, capitalism, equal opportunity, living the American Dream.”

The very next day, President Obama reflected a similar sentiment at his televised town hall meeting with young voters. “Each wave of immigrants that have come in have been able to assimilate, integrate and then rise up and become part of this great American Dream,” he said in answer to a question about the Dream Act, which would allow young undocumented immigrants to get a college education.

A Conversation With President Obama

While I should have expected such comments from the conservative Ehrlich, I was slightly shocked to hear Barack “Dreams from My Father” Obama tout assimilation. Assimilation. It’s always been a dirty word to me. Reminiscent of the forced acculturation that African slaves—my ancestors—were subject to upon being brought to this country. Assimilating to a certain extent was, of course, inevitable, but it was something to resist giving in to completely; a process to approach with the utmost caution. For holding onto one’s native culture and customs, in my mind, is necessary to maintaining an authentic identity.

It’s an idea I’m thinking about more now that I have a son to raise and instill with information about who he is and where he comes from. Already, people want to take the culturally significant, three-syllable name his father and I gave him and Americanize it into something just three letters long. It’s fine—I understand the desire for nicknames (I have a bunch myself). I just don’t want my son to ever feel like he has to eradicate his African American-ness, his Trinidadian roots or his Muslim heritage in order to homogenize—to assimilate—with people pursuing “this great American Dream.”

Individuals’ differences are what make this country interesting. I have long been more fond of the idea of a stew pot, that maintains individual flavors and allows each ingredient to contribute to the taste of the total dish, than “the melting pot.” I thought that this view would have caught on by now. After hearing from Ehrlich and President Obama, I’m beginning to wonder, though, if post-racialism—the state this country’s supposed to be in—is simply the end result of decades of assimilation.

Something to Protest

I tried to ignore the controversy. It seemed so silly to me—people up in arms over a mosque proposed to be built two blocks from Ground Zero. As if New York City Muslims didn’t have the right to worship on Friday afternoons near their jobs, or shouldn’t be allowed to pray in lower Manhattan at all. People are smarter than that, aren’t they? I asked myself. This issue will soon go away.

But it didn’t. For four months already, from May until now, the disagreement over the project has continued to grab headlines and rile the public. As time goes on, it becomes more and more evident that while most people won’t be standing outside the planned Park51 community center with picket signs screaming “Hell no, mosque gotta go,” lots of folks don’t think that a mosque near the site of a terrorist attack perpetrated by so-called Muslims is a good idea. According to a Quinnipiac poll released at the end of August, 63 percent of New York City voters said the mosque should be built somewhere else.

The intolerance that people are displaying saddens me, especially because it seems based on ignorance. Surely, people must know that Muslims also died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They must recognize that Muslims were among those police officers, firefighters and EMTs who responded to the tragedy. They must understand that there already was a Muslim prayer room inside at least one of the World Trade Center towers. That’s why when I heard that U.S. Muslim organizations were planning a summit—which was held in New York City on Sunday—to discuss plans for the new center and the increased anti-Islamic sentiment that has subsequently surfaced, I was glad. American Muslims, particularly African American Muslims—myself included—stay quiet on these issues too often. We don’t want to expose ourselves to the bigotry, don’t want to get caught up in controversy that may or may not concern us.

Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid of the Muslim Alliance in North America and Harlem's Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood.

But by doing that, we allow the ignorance and the intolerance to persist. Only by standing up and standing together, as the collection of imams and other American Muslim leaders did at their Monday press conference, can we begin to combat the misplaced anti-Muslim sentiment. So let me say, unequivocally, there’s no reason to protest a mosque being built near Ground Zero. Now, a shrine to Mohammed Atta on that site—that would be something to protest. A visitors and welcome center for Osama bin Laden—that would be something to protest. A continuing education course for would-be hijackers—definitely something to protest. But a place to worship God should not be opposed.