Who Am I And How Did I Get Here? Reflections From An American Muslim

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Award-winning Californian based film maker and photographer, Mustafa Davis shares his personal identity crises when faced with trying to explain the phenomenon of the 'American Muslim'.

Mustafa Davis is founder of Cinemotion Media, and co-founder of the Ta'leef Collective. This post was originally published on MustafaDavis.com:


Recently, my Facebook posts about my American Muslim identity have caused a slight uproar from certain people who have taken it upon themselves to inform me who I am and who I am allowed to be. To inform me that it is either impossible for me to be an American Muslim or worse, that my loyalty to my religion is now somehow in question because of it. I've been referred to as an "Uncle Tom" that doesn't care about oppressed people and likened to the Right Wing bigots that push policies to harm the disenfranchised. And all of this was decided about me by the mere fact that I said I was an "American Muslim." I've decided to write this note so that there is no ambiguity about who I am and how I got here.
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I'm a decendant of Black Africans who came to this country as slaves (enslaved Africans). Who were stripped of everything they knew and everything they were (including names, identity, culture, and religion). They left them without a single trace of dignity or honor. Not only did they take everything away from my ancestors, they erased our entire history. For years I have tried to get people to understand what this means, how this feels and how it is a permanent part of who we are (whether we are conscious of it or not). If one doesn't know who they were, its nearly impossible to know who you are. I write this with tears in my eyes and with disbelief that the people who I have supposedly united with in GOD can be so crass and insensitive.
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I was born in the Bay Area, California. My parents divorced when I was two years old and I moved with my mother to Sacramento and we lived in an impoverished neighborhood called Lincoln Village. I have no memories of my two parents together. I've tried many times over the years to try and conjure up at least one memory of my family living happily together, but unfortunately no such memory exists. My mother is German with blond hair and blue eyes. I am the only child she had with my black father and she remarried a white man which means all of my siblings are full white, making me the only black child in my family. I remember being teased by my black friends because I lived with a white family. I was called "Webster" and "Arnold" growing up (in reference to television sitcoms which depicted black children being raised by white families). My mother used to bring my birth certificate with her to sign me up for school and sports because they didn't believe I was really her son.

I grew up poor as a latchkey child in a broken home. My mother worked as a waitress and my step-father worked for the local phone company. Arguments were the norm. Fists punching through walls, dishes breaking, yelling, and cursing were routine. My parents thought I was psychologically affected by being the only black child in a white family and so I saw my first psychiatrist at age 5. By the time I was 16 years old, I was on drugs, failing all my classes, and I was eventually kicked out of high school. My mother could no longer deal with me and sent me away to live with my biological father.
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My white friends used to talk about how the "niggers" acted and make fun of my hair. The trauma of identity struggle is something I've always known.

My father was an educated man but had recently lost his job. We spent the next two years living in different apartments and staying on couches at some of his friends houses. We were staying in a cockroach/rat infested halfway house and one day my father asked me to take a walk with him. We walked for about 4 hours (we didn't have a car) to the Greyhound bus depot in downtown San Jose. He bought me a one way ticket to Sacramento and said very clearly to me: "I've been poor all my life and I can handle it. But I can't watch as you go through it too. I'm sending you back to your mom until I can get on my feet again." And he put me on the bus back to Sacramento. My mother told me that I could not stay with her (as it wasn't possible for my step-father and I to be under the same roof). I had gotten so jacked up on drugs and other "less than favorable" activities that none of my friends wanted anything to do with me. I had nowhere to go. I was exhausted.

Tired of my lifestyle, tired of my family, but mostly I was tired of myself. I decided that I was done with the world and that it was time to check out. I took a bottle of muscle relaxants and a bottle of Tylenol, sat down on the kitchen floor and swallowed almost every single pill.

My sister came home from work early that day and and found me lying face down on the kitchen floor in a pool of saliva with a few pills scattered around me. She knew instantly what I had done and called my mother for help. My memories from this point on are blurred. Time was no longer linear. I remember my mother and sister dragging me to the bathroom and putting me in the bathtub filled with cold water and ice cubes to try and prevent me from falling asleep. My mother kept shoving her fingers down my throat to get me to vomit. It wasn't working and I was fading very quickly. My next memory is arriving at the hospital. I was put on a gurney and rushed into the emergency room. I remember pushing the nurses off of me because I didn't want them to help me. They eventually brought some nurses in to hold my arms and legs down as the doctor put a 1/2" tube up my nose and down into my throat. They pumped charcoal into my stomach to counter the effect of the drugs. (The doctors later told me I was about 3 to 5 minutes away from complete cardiac arrest.)

My next memory is waking up in excruciating pain laying on a bed in the ICU (the tube was still in my nose and down in my throat). My mother was in the corner of the room crying and my first thought was "Damn... it didn't work" (I was upset that I was still alive). By California law I was required to serve 3 months in Sutter Memorial Mental Institution and I hopped the fence and escaped on my first night. I was picked up about 3 hours later by the police, brought back and put in the maximum security unit. It was in this place that I saw people who were truly mentally disturbed. A girl who used to bang her head against the wall until she bled, a boy who would scratch the skin off of his cheeks, another who would pull off her own finger nails and sit with bloody hands. Others who walked around screaming at imaginary friends.

Within a couple weeks I decided that if I got out of that place that I would dedicate my life to helping people. It was the very first time in my life that I called on God for assistance. There were many things that led up to me wanting to end my life. But now as an adult looking back, I can admit that identity struggle played a major role.

Fast forward to age 24 when I converted to Islam. I thought that converting to Islam would help me with my search for identity but instead it execerbated the problem. I was told that I couldn't be American because America was the land of disbelievers and Muslims could not emulate disbelievers. In fact, I was told that if I emulated them, I would be one of them and that the place for a "disbeliever" was in the hell-fire. So, I left America and made Hijra (migration) to Mauritania. I spent the next 11 years traveling the Muslim world in search of a culture that I could relate to and make my own so I could leave my "Americanness" behind and have a chance at getting to Paradise. It didn't work.

It took me a long to realize that the very people who were telling (and continue to tell me) that I cannot be American, hail from Muslim majority countries that have very beautiful, rich cultures. They know who they are (regardless if they want to be it). They know who their ancestors were, what they did, how they lived. I've never had that luxury. I don't know who my ancestors are. I don't know if they were kings and queens or criminals. My history was erased. Other Muslims get to say "I am Afghani, Pakistani, Malaysian, Sudanese, Egyptian, Nigerian, Palestinian, Bosnian, Moroccan, Indian, Algerian, etc." I will never be able to say that. "American" is not an ethnicity. It is a cultural identity. Black Americans have no cultural ties to our homeland. We cannot go back to Africa. We have no idea where in Africa to go? Are we from Nigeria? Senegal? Niger? Chad? Ivory Coast? Etc. We have no idea.

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Black Americans don't have any home other than America. We have no other place to go. America is the ONLY home we know. We were stripped of everything else. I most certainly do not praise American politics or its treatment of minorities and/or impoverished, disenfranchised communities. That would mean I agree with the enslavement of my own people. But when Muslims tell us that we cannot be American because that means we support ALL things America, it means they are telling us we cannot exist. I will say that again: it means they are telling us that WE CANNOT EXIST. They can always fall back on their rich cultural heritages (that are often mistakenly called Islamic cultures. They are not, they are merely cultures where the majority of the inhabitants are Muslims). But I don't have that luxury or ability. America is the only culture I have to identify with. Telling me it's not possible is pushing me into nonexistence. I don't think people with such rich cultures and heritages fully understand what its like to not have that to fall back on.

My only recourse is either to reject American culture altogether and adopt some other culture (which all have nationalistic nuances just like America) or accept the elements of this society that do speak to my people while rejecting those that don't. Now put Islam in the picture and the very real cultural imperialism that exists within the Muslim community, and you have a lost people.

You have a people who are already down and doing all they can to pick themselves up - yet continually getting kicked back down by people who claim to be their brothers and sisters.

It's easier for people who have such rich cultures to shun American culture entirely. In fact, I do not blame them. If I had some other culture that I could adhere to, I most probably would. I travelled the world for 12 years looking for that culture but instead what I found were different manifestations of the same problems (obviously not as grand) as I found in America. So I was then left with a choice. If all cultures have both positives and negatives then it would make sense to accept the fact that I am American now by design from God and take the good aspects of it and leave the bad.

I'm not an "Uncle Tom". I'm a man that believes in fighting for my people. And a major issue plaguing my people is that of having no real cultural identity and the self hate that comes along with that. I tried to commit suicide when I was 18 years old because of identity issues.

We of all people understand the systematic oppression that certain aspects of the government impose on all people (at home and abroad). But all we can do is take what's good and then work hard to fix the ills that we are also victims of. I want social justice just as much as everyone else. I just don't want to have to not exist to get it. I don't want America to disappear, I want to make it a better place. I don't want my children to go through the same identity issues that I went through. I don't want them to feel the pain I feel. I want them to be strong, confident, Muslims that fight for social change.

I am an American Muslim and no amount of arguing how that is an impossible dichotomy will change that. I don't have a choice. I am who I am, regardless if people would prefer that I was something else. My story is not over and it is certainly not unique. There are many people from many different backgrounds who are struggling in one way or another. They don't need to be told who they are or who they can't be, especially by people who haven't cared enough to take the time to find out the slightest thing about them first before passing judgement. My father once told me: "You influence every person you come in contact with. It is up to you whether or not that will be a positive influence or a negative one." May we all be of benefit to ourselves and others and may we all realize the potential for greatness that lies within each one of us.

For more photography and art work visit
{Mustafa Davis}

More art activism:
American Muslim Youth And The Tar Sands
Art Feature: Rachid Lamrabat's 'Evolution Prayer'
Muslims In The West, Cool Photo Journal
British Photographer: The Art Of Integration by Peter Sanders
UK's First Ever Kuwaiti Pop Art Exhibition

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