February 06, 2007

Family Memories?

These days I am fascinated by the workings of old, handed-down, memories. I was reading somewhere for a project on Sufism in America, how African American Islam and its "explosion" in the '70s had something to do with the fact that some of the founding fathers, Elijah Mohammad and Noble Drew Ali, all had family memories of Islam.

Family memories?

A personal example from my own family: My family is Bengali Muslim. But my maternal grandparents are from parts of what's today Bangladesh (Bikrampur/Vikrampura) where many Hindu kingdoms flourished. And we know that many of maternal ancestors were Hindus, not so long ago either.

I recall childhood memories of my grandmother's overwhelming knowledge of various Hindu rituals local to Vikrampura. She had memories of her mother (Jajabor's great grandmother), sticking leaves between pages of books to call upon the goddess Saraswati and her blessings, although she was Muslim. Of course, we all know about Bengal's syncretic Muslim past in which local Hindu-Buddhist and Muslim traditions intermingled freely.

My mother is also acutely aware of such aspects of our ancestral past. I, myself, will probably continue to hand down the baton of such family memories and conversations.

The idea that a conversation can survive four or five generations may ring true, what may appear less obvious is the idea that the proliferation of Islam among African Americans in the 1970s, had much to do with family memories of Muslim slaves brought over from the African continent by the British centuries earlier.

Both Elijah and Drew Ali's ancestors were slaves. But they worked in plantations on the sea-coast islands of Georgia and South Carolina. In these predominantly sugar and rice plantations, slaves outnumbered slave-masters by much, and a degree of cultural autonomy was possible, enabling the Islam that came from Africa to America to survive and its memories linger across generations.

Don't know how many of you ran into the story of Mayor Ellis recently. I was intrigued to see how this sort of reawakening of very old and inactive traditions still happens. Georgian Mayor , Jack Ellis, who converted to Islam, spoke of "family memories" as he explains his recent conversion to Islam.

1 comment:

anjali said...

I would posit, conversely, that the growth of Islam among Black Americans in the 1970s had less to do with "family memories" and more to do with the political climate of the time. Obviously this is not an original thought, but here it is: Christianity was perceived as White; Islam was not. Christianity was the religion of the Master; Islam was not. Christianity said "turn the other cheek"; after the 1960s (and after being repressed for 300 years), many Black Americans did not want to do that. The Nation of Islam was Islam as a political tool. Islam gave repressed peoples a voice - in fact it was a new language, a rejection of the language of Christianity (the language of white Americans, both the liberals that did not understand Black rage, and the blatant racists that would probably forever think of Blacks as the cursed children of Ham.) Note also that places like Chicago and Detroit, where the Nation of Islam really flourished, were populated mostly by Blacks with family ties to Mississippi and Alabama (versus the islands off of Georgia and South Carolina) who arrived during the Great Migration.