A NEW NORMAL (Entry #30)
It took not long for me to start feeling homesick for the Valley. This was more than a homesickness for that which was familiar. This was a homesickness for that which was “Home” with a capital “H.” Amherst wasn’t a place where I had simply lived for nearly four years; Amherst had been the embodiment of many of my ideals; it and cultivated and instilled new ones. I was transformed in Amherst.
From childhood, I had yearned to live in the country. Amherst gave me that. It provided me with an escape from life in Springfield, which I had been deeply dissatisfied with. Amherst wasn’t merely some little hick village, but rather, it was a college town where I could find plenty of interesting people and intellectual stimulation. Furthermore, Amherst had become a sort of refuge for former hippies. In addition to the health consciousness of the hippie culture, there was the political activism and sense that young people should be socially and politically active, and it was our duty to strive to make the world a better place. I embraced that.
The natural beauty of Amherst and the Valley was a major impetus to my incipient spiritual yearnings. My eyes could rove over the contours of the Valley and feast upon the beauty of the area. In nature, I had found ample pasturage for my mind. That, along with frequent journeys into solitude, had led to me ponder about the purpose of life, what happened after we died, and who or what is God. I think if i had gone to school in a big city and had the temptations of consumerism stuffed in my face day and night, that those thoughts probably would have never visited me. God knows best.
About a week into my stay in Philly, I had one of what would be for awhile periodic “Valley Dreams.” Those were dreams in which I would realize that I am back Home, and I would tell myself to either look up to the blue sky or to the wide vistas and try to absorb as much of the scenery as I could. When I did, my heart would swell and it would feel like it was going to jump out of my chest. I would then awake often upon saying, “Allaaaah!” In this dream, I was with someone, probably another one of the Valley Guys, and we were on the train trestle-recently converted to a bike path that spanned the Connecticut River. I told him: “Look at the beautiful scenery.” I look up and out; I am in awe; I feel reverence; and I am overwhelmed. Upon awaking, I reflect that I was saying “Good-bye with the eyes” just a few days prior to coming down to Philly. Life now was dramatically different. The scenery was dramatically different. I would write of the dream: “The Vision: the big sky, the hills, and the green-green-green.” Indeed, I was missing Home. I was suffering from a spiritual homesickness.
On the flip side, because I was so busy making adjustments to my new life in Philly, the homesickness did not get as acute as it could have. The local Brothers–the responsible and serious Brothers–began to school me about life in Philly and the da`wah (da`wah is what some might call Islamic missionary work) in the street. These Brothers were active, and it wasn’t long before they were taking me with them when they would go into the projects to knock on doors and talk to people about Islam. Maa-shaa’ Allah, a lot of people took their Shahadah (that is, said the Testification of Faith: There is nothing worthy of worship except Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah) to embrace Islam. We had a room in the community center where lessons were given; a few people were consistent in attending, but most of the new converts were sporadic at best. Allah knows what happened to most of those people.
“Grafitti on walls, bricks, and concrete:
Nothing is soft, when the city’s under your feet.”
One Brother was my primary mentor. He was a lot more learnt than I was Islamically, and he was also very widely read about various black activists and black nationalists movements. On our way to and from doing da`wah in the streets or in between lessons, we would kick it about Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and Pan-Africanism and what was needed to wake our people out of their mentally-dead state. Often his gambit with black folk who were still under the influence of Christianity would be: “If they didn’t treat you right, then they probably didn’t teach you right.” That is, given that since Christianity was imposed on black people during slavery by whites to keep black folks subjugated, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to think that Christianity would empower black people today. He said another thing that contributed to a shift in my thinking. I was talking to him one day about white racism, and then he said: “If they [i.e., many white people] are unjust to themselves [by rejecting the proper belief in the Creator], then it is not practical to expect them to be just to others.” This meant that if black folks wished to improve their condition, then they would largely have to rely upon themselves. This was one of the most sensible things I had heard about race and the black condition in America.
The crack epidemic had done a lot of damage to black people in Philadelphia. On one occasion i was sitting on the curb in the projects talking with some of the Brothers. I kept hearing a “pinging” sound behind me. I’d look around and see nothing. After this happened several more times, i looked down (instead of around) and the ground was covered with empty crack vials (or “viles,” if you prefer)–I then looked up and saw someone was pushing crack vials out of a broken window of one of the apartments. I was up and close to my first confirmed crack house.
It is now starting to sink in that the problems here are massive. Some people had the notion that if African-Americans simply learn traditional Islamic knowledge, then their problems would, by and large, go away. In the back of my mind, i knew this wasn’t going to be the case. The immigrant Brothers might fall into sins because of ignorance of specific religious judgments; some were just crooked and did crooked things; nonetheless, more often than not, they came from relatively stable families and from societies where general Islamic values prevailed.
This was not the case with African-American Muslim converts coming from the inner city. Not only were they coming into Islam with A LOT of unresolved psychological race baggage–middle class, high functioning African-Americans often have this problem–many African-American converts were coming from circumstances where depravity (by any standard) was the norm. Imagine, for instance, growing up in a home where the mother prostitutes herself for crack. A child four, five, six, twelve years old watches her mother turn tricks to get high. Or imagine the father, when does happen to be home from jail and chooses to show up, sticking heroin syringes into his arm, and prostituting his daughter so he doesn’t have to “jones.” This isn’t just one or two outcasts in a neighborhood of dozens of families and hundreds of people. Drugs, and the felony crimes related to drugs, and violence were commonplace and inescapable.
“You’ll admire all the number-book takers
Thugs, pimps and pushers and the big money-makers
Drivin’ big cars, spendin’ twenties and tens
And you’ll wanna grow up to be just like them, huh
Smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers
Pickpocket peddlers, even panhandlers….”
(Melle Mel, “The Message”)
It would be one thing if it were the case that you just happened to have a deeply dysfunctional and pathological family. You could possibly dismiss it as being just you (and your family). It’s another when that is all you see around you. And even if your family was stable but just happened to be poor and living in government housing, you are living under the constant threat of theft and robbery (after all, hardcore drug addicts usually can’t hold down jobs and need money for to support their habit), and random or drug related violence. Then there are the neighborhood gangs, the substandard schools, the general ignorance of the people you encounter, the goons and hoodrats, a lot of open immorality, a police and legal system that doesn’t have your best interests in mind, and you can sense that this isn’t all “by accident,” but rather more like by design. You have little to counter this–you may have never been exposed an alternative way of living—or thinking. And then this is all exacerbated by you not liking yourself very much, and you feel a strong sense of inferiority to other people because of the color of your skin. It became clear to me that simply teachings people about Islam without tending to the pain and misery that many of the converts suffered from would necessarily be an inadequate da`wah for African-Americans.
Although the mosque was fortress of knowledge and a refuge for the most part from the life in the street, life at the mosque was busy and chaotic. A lot of renovation was being done–many of the local Brothers were contractors with different trades, so they’d spend the day doing the plumbing, roofing, dry wall etc. Everyone was contributing, and this gave the mosque a sense of community and a sense that everyone had a vested interest in a common and lofty cause.
For myself, I didn’t have such skills, and I didn’t intend on being in Philadelphia long enough to consider it the best use of my time to spend learning them. Furthermore, I was longing to quiet and solitude. It wasn’t long before I discovered the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania (UPENN). Originally the plan when going to Philly was that I would work at the Islamic school at the mosque. Because the enrollment was less than expected, however, I wasn’t needed as a teacher; hence, my plan was revamped. I would be (so I thought) in Philly for 6-9 months. I would load up as best I could on Islamic knowledge and then go to graduate school, either in the Philadelphia area or elsewhere. I wanted to keep my academic skills sharp, so during the day, i would go to the UPENN library, research, write in my Journal, and read; and to the best of my ability, I would try to cross reference what I was learning in the Islamic studies lessons I was taking in the evening at the mosque.
Among of the differences between the Western academic approach and the traditional Islamic approach is that much of the traditional learning is centered around memorization; whereas, the in the academic model, one tries to consume (and somewhat) retain as much information as possible. Another difference was that the academic approach to Islam is more “date and historically oriented.” Timelines and maps were laid out on the Islamic dynasties, various factions, migrations, major battles, and the likes. In the traditional Islamic way, one often learns about history by way of stories that are interspersed in lessons on other topics and not necessarily in a chronological manner. Also, in the academic approach, the events in Islamic history are understood vis a vis events in other parts of the world. And this is one of the things I wanted to gain a greater understanding of: I wanted to be able to see myself, as an American convert Muslim, in the greater scope of the expansive history and geography of Islam. (This not to say that Muslim chroniclers and historians didn’t record events; they did so meticulously; it’s just that this isn’t the focus for a beginning student of traditional knowledge.)
What was woefully missing from the academic perspective was a sense of “truth.” The credo of the Academy was and is moral relativism. Many academics don’t learn so that they can apply their knowledge and become a better human beings. They learn so that he can show off what they know and attain high positions in their field of choice. I was reminded of this when I attended a class at UPENN during that fall semester.
It was one of those synchronicities (by the Will of Allah, of course) that my dorm neighbor in Drew House was living two blocks down the street from the mosque in Philly. He came into Amherst as the angry radical black nationalist type–as much as you could be at Amherst. It took a year at Amherst for me to adopt that persona. He turned me on to Louis Farrakhan with the box full of tapes that he loaned me. He also had a book about the impressive achievements of the (so-called) Nation of Islam, which i have never seen since. He was one of the main factors in my black consciousness awakening at The College.
The dorm mate was a diligent student and had graduated at the upper end of his class as a triple major. UPENN had given him a free ride, and that was where he was for graduate school. I got in contact with him (or perhaps, bumped into him), and he invited me to class. It was a graduate level course on African-American historiography. Some of the same books we had used at Amherst were used by the students in this class–Blasingame and Genovese come to mind. It was standard what I call “Academic Negro history stuff.” In the course of class discussion, the teacher threw out the phrase, “A benevolent patriarchy,” and an apparently “gender-challenged” angry black female intellectual muttered: “That sounds like a contradiction in terms.” I was then jarred into remembering how in the universe of academia there is (allegedly) no truth; no one has the right to say something is right or wrong; everything, as they present it, is “relative.”
I could see in my former dorm mate that he was disillusioned with this attitude in graduate school. He wanted, like i did, knowledge that would help empower black people–not mere intellectual self-gratification. I saw him a couple of times thereafter. He even came to the mosque once with me for a lesson. But at some point, it seems he just kind of fell of the radar screen. As for me, I still wanted to go to graduate school, become a professor, and bring the truth of Islam to academia and present the creed of Ahuls-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah to the general public. That was my plan… but Allah does not always enable us to execute our plans.
After about a month into my Philly experience, the former Brittany Manor roommate and I return to the Valley. He had some business to take care of, and I could go and visit my family in Springfield and see friends up in the Valley. As we get closer the the Connecticut-Massachusetts border, the contour of the land changes; hills start to roll, the foliage begins to dazzle the eye, and the sights become increasingly familiar–I am back Home. We spent nine days in the area, and I would write in my Journal: “Amherst was a blast. I could ‘ceiling-out’ with the sky over head.”
Upon returning to the Center, I come to find that there has been an “invasion.” The Shaykh was in town, and he was giving a multi-week intensive of Islamic lessons. Brothers, mostly Lebanese Brothers, had come from all over the US and Canada and some from overseas to acquire the knowledge. And although I was happy for the opportunity to learn, what little semblance of structure and order that I did have in my life was beginning to dissolve. The life I had envisioned for myself while living in the Happy Valley was starting to seem (in my best imitation Axl Rose voice): “So far away… so faaaaar away.” I was now entering a “new normal” in which many of my previous plans and dreams would start to disintegrate, and I would have to try to make adjustments to my new circumstances.