What It Means To Be American
MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, we'll talk about the legacy of author Harriet Beecher Stowe and her seminal work, "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
But before we go back 200 years, we wanted to have a conversation on this July 4th about what it means to be an American today. Now, that's always been a complicated question for some people. And at this point in our history, it might be especially complicated for American Muslims whose loyalty to this country is questioned by some of their fellow Americans.
Let's listen to a clip from an American-Muslim woman who wears a head covering. Her poem is called "Shockproof Rag."
HADIA MUBARAK: (Reading) I've never walked 10 steps behind a man. Nor have I hid behind a veil of oppression. I'm not ashamed of my body nor the thick, silky locks of hair concealed from your eyes. Rag head, camel jock, terrorist. I dodged your types like missiles fired from F16 jets that explode in my face, deafening my eyes, splattering thick blood like chunks of rot. Eyes glued to a piece of cloth on my head they gawk and shake their heads. Don't give me pity. I call this freedom of choice.
MARTIN: As we said, that's from a poem called "Shockproof Rag." And it was written by Hadia Mubarak. She's a doctoral student in Islamic studies at Georgetown University. And she's one of 40 women all born and raised in the U.S. who contributed to a new collection of essays called "I Speak for Myself." And she joins us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome, thanks for joining us.
MUBARAK: Thanks for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: We are also joined by another contributor to the book, Jameelah Xochitl Medina. She's a doctoral candidate in education at Claremont Graduate University in California. And she joins us now from the campus there. It's a little outgunned on the education department in the not having one. But hopefully you two will be kind to me. Welcome to you both.
JAMEELA XOCHITL MEDINA: Thanks so much for having us.
MUBARAK: Thank you.
MARTIN: Assalamu alaikum.
XOCHITL MEDINA: Alaikum salaam.
MUBARAK: You as well.
MARTIN: Hadia, I want to read a passage from your essay. You write: This country has witnessed by birth, shaped my perceptions and socialized my behavior. She knows me as well as I know myself, for my memories evoke her history and my dreams live in her future. I capture her history by writing my own. And you also say, I have fallen in love with her way of life, her personal freedom, her respect for individuality and her cultivation of diversity and tolerance.
Those are some beautiful words and it's also a bit of a contrast to the poem that we heard earlier. So I just wanted to ask you just for your reflections on this July 4th about - is it complicated having both those feelings at the same time about this country?
MUBARAK: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, my search for identity began at a very young age because of the fact that I have no other place to call home but America. But at the same time, despite those feelings, I feel like others don't look at me as if I'm American. I wore a head scarf at a very young age in the South, in the Panhandle, to be specific - northwest Florida.
And the first question people usually asked me when I was in public was where are you from? And so it took me a while to reconcile that experience growing up with what I felt inside because I did travel to my parents' native countries of Jordan and Syria frequently as a child to visit my grandparents and my uncles and aunt. And the more I traveled there the more I realized that I'm not Syrian, I'm not Jordanian. That these countries and experiences my cousins have had growing up is completely different than my own experience. And, you know, and every time we would come back to America, I would just feel, like, this sense of relief.
MARTIN: Jameelah Medina, your essay starts: The best gifts I have been given by God include being born Muslim, being born unto my parents and being born black in the United States of America. You are, do I have this right, a third generation Muslim-American?
XOCHITL MEDINA: That's right.
MARTIN: And one of the interesting things about your essay is you talk about how Hadia and a number of the other contributors talk about Americans not seeing them as American enough. You also talk about Muslims seeing you as not Muslim enough.
XOCHITL MEDINA: Exactly.
MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about that.
XOCHITL MEDINA: So it's really interesting. We have different Muslim communities and in mainstream Muslim communities, I've often had to prove or verify the fact that I'm calling myself a Muslim. And I talk about it in the essay, a woman I sat next to on a plane going to Morocco. And she asked if I were Muslim and I was wearing a head scarf. And she said, well, do you know Quran? And I said, yes, I do. And she said, OK. And she started reciting the first chapter, Suratul-Fatihah.
And I started reciting along with her as she's nodding her head expecting me to do so. And it kind of felt like I had to perform circus tricks for this woman to prove to her that I was Muslim enough in her eyes because she couldn't reconcile a black face, an American passport with being authentically, genuinely Muslim.
MARTIN: Jameelah, you know, there's - Hadia was talking about the sometimes the complexity of loving a country that you feel doesn't always love you back. This is a - or at least at this point in our history - there's, of course, a long literature in African-American history and literature around this very question. You know, the famous Tunis that WEB DuBois, you know, talked about.
XOCHITL MEDINA: Right.
MARTIN: Do you feel, in a way, as an African-American, that you can kind of show other people the ropes on this? Or do you feel you have something to contribute in how one navigates this?
XOCHITL MEDINA: Well, I think in the Muslim community there is some dialogue, but not as much as we could have between immigrant Muslims and African-American Muslims or Muslims who consider themselves indigenous Muslims born here. That's why I started my essay saying that I feel blessed to be black and Muslim and all those things because I felt all of the racism that I dealt with in the small town I grew up in, it really helped develop me and let me understand how ugly racism can be.
So by the time it became uncool or even an issue to be Muslim in America, I was already used to being treated as an outsider, in a way. So it really didn't come to me as a shock. I felt that I had already gone to boot camp for being hated.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
I S: American Women on Being Muslim." Our guests are Jameelah Medina. That's who you just heard. And Hadia Mubarak.
I'm interested in why each of you wanted to contribute to this book of essays, which is - there's some wonderful essays in there and one of the things that's interesting for me is none of these are women who have become famous as spokespersons for American-Muslims. And you are now. Of course you're famous now.
But there is some risk involved in a way, putting yourself out there as a public figure to make these declarations beyond your neighbors, your friends, your community. So I wanted to ask Hadia first, why did you want to contribute to this book of essays?
MUBARAK: Well, I really feel that there's a void in the American public in terms of what it means to be a Muslim-American. The thing about this book is it shows the diversity of American Islam. And that's a point that people often miss. That there is one monolith called American Islam. That it's very diverse and the choices that Muslim women have to make are very complicated.
MARTIN: Finally, before we let each of you go, and thank you so much for spending part of the Fourth of July holiday with us and thank you for your essays. And I encourage people who haven't read them to discover the book and also the other 38 essays in the book. How are you spending the Fourth? Hadia?
MUBARAK: Most likely with my husband and two children somewhere watching fireworks, hopefully.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Jameelah, what about you? How do you spend the Fourth?
XOCHITL MEDINA: Listen to fireworks in the distance.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: OK. I forget, though, you are pursuing your PhD. So probably running out of the library is enough. You're probably so deep into the book.
G: American Women on Being Muslim." Thank you both so much for joining us.
MUBARAK: Thanks so much, Michel.
XOCHITL MEDINA: Thank you for having us.
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