Black Muslim life honored in new online portrait exhibition

A new online exhibit featuring portraits of black Muslims was launched by Sapelo Square, a black Muslim education and media collective, on February 2. Captured in dramatic lighting and paired with audio clips of the subjects speaking, the portraits aim to highlight the beauty and diversity within the black Muslim experience.

“It’s really important that we hear the voices and see those who come from this strong and important lineage that doesn’t seem to be recognized and is often misunderstood,” said Aïdah Aliyah Rasheed, Special Projects Manager at Sapelo Square.

The project, titled “Preserving the Legacy: Portraits and Stories Capturing Black Muslim Life,” began with a conversation between Sapelo Square and New York photography duo Rog & Bee Walker in 2016. Since then, Rog & Bee have photographed more of 200 portraits of black Muslims with diverse professions, ages, geographical locations and spiritual approaches to Islam. This first iteration of the project will include approximately 50 portraits that will be posted weekly on the Preserving the Legacy website.

Rasheed, who oversaw “Preserving the Legacy,” noted that some of the participants have died since their portraits were captured, which she says makes the documented stories even more valuable. Most of the participants were also interviewed, and this audio allows viewers “to really hear the voices coming from the black Muslim community,” Rasheed told Religion News Service.

Sapelo Square was founded by Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer in May 2015. The volunteer-run organization publishes podcasts, publications, and other projects on topics ranging from anti-black racism in Muslim communities to hip -hop and to the black midwife. Their name honors a group of African Muslims who were enslaved on Sapelo Island off the Georgian coast in the early 1800s.

The “Preserving the Legacy” project and other Sapelo Square initiatives intend to center the stories of black Muslims that are often erased from American discourse. Abdul Khabeer told Religion News Service that black Muslims can be overlooked when it comes to conversations about being the “first Muslim” to do something in the United States. She pointed to Mona Haydar, a Syrian hijabi rapper whose debut caused a stir in 2017. The story of hops is the story of black Muslims,” said Abdul Khabeer, who said that many black hijabi women, such as Miss Undastood, preceded Haydar without notoriety.

Donna Auston, a cultural anthropologist who studies Islam in America, among others, noted that black Muslims are often absent from education about slavery or about American history and media in general. “It’s easy for the experiences of people who exist at that nexus to get lost,” Auston said. Where conversations include black Muslims like Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali, Auston said, their Muslim faith is often flattened or stereotyped.

However, Auston added that being black and Muslim is a “unique and beautiful experience” that can spark creativity in food, fashion, art and other cultural expressions.

At Sapelo Square, founder Abdul Khabeer hopes their offerings will ultimately celebrate the lives of black Muslims.

“While the marginalization or erasure of black Muslims from the mainstream narrative is something our work seeks to challenge, our work begins from a place of self-love,” Abdul Khabeer said. “[Sapelo Square] creates this virtual space that bleeds into real life, where black Muslims see each other. … In order to challenge what seems like a really intractable inequality that we face in this country, I think it starts in many ways with those most affected knowing that they have their own power.

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