This past Monday, Sylvia Chan-Malik was welcomed as the First Monday speaker for Block 3. Chan-Malik is a professor at Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department; her PhD is in ethnic studies. She came to CC to discuss her current research, which focuses on the history of Islam in the U.S.
Chan-Malik studies the intersections of race, gender, and religion, and how these categories interact in struggles for social justice. Her talk was initially titled “Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color and American Islam,” after her book, but she re-named her presentation “Four American Muslim Women,” after the image she used to tell a story.
Chan-Malik began by presenting an image of four Muslim women that was taken in 1922. She proceeded to focus on one woman in particular named Florence Watts, taking the audience back to the beginning of the spread of Islam in the U.S. Chan-Malik asserted that many Americans associate Islam coming to the U.S. with events such as 9/11 and other terrorist attacks, when actually Islam has existed in this country since long before. She sought to illustrate Islam as a religion that—in writing—stands for strong community and gender equality, and she discussed the way these ideals led to the spread of the religion in the U.S.
Chan-Malik drew ties between the emancipation from slavery and spread of Islam in black communities. She highlighted the history of blacks seeking freedom and communities, tracing large movements of black populations from the South. She focused on the migration of over 1.5 million blacks to Chicago between WWI and WWII and the movement of approximately 6 million black migrants from the South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1916 and 1970.
Chan-Malik talked about black migrants seeking Islam in an attempt to find community and a “universal brotherhood,” and she highlighted the way in which Islam may have been perceived as a better religion for black people due to the fact that it had not been used as a rationale for slavery. Islam, she said, became a means of re-naming oneself and gifting a new sense of humanity. Chan-Malik drew a comparison between the understanding of Islam at that time, and the perception of Buddhism by many today, as a means of a “spiritual escape” from Christianity. Chan-Malik eventually came back to the image of the four women, and tied together the ends of the story she had created, using Florence Watts as a kind of amalgam to illustrate the reality of many other women at that time—a time where she claimed, “no one really knew what it meant to be Muslim, or what Islam was really about.”