Black Mecca

 

In 1999, a media blitz covering the police killing of Amadou Diallo—an innocent victim mistaken for a Black serial rapist—revealed that he was a member of an emerging West African Islamic community. It was the first time New Yorkers were exposed to their West African neighbors. While early African migration to the US was primarily Christian and English-speaking, many of today’s immigrants from Africa are Muslim and French-speaking. But what does this shift mean?

Media reports state that a new influx of 100,000 West African immigrants is creating an enclave Harlem residents now call, “Little Africa.” Yet, most are unaware that religion plays a major role in this urban transformation. Because westerners view Islam as an Arab religion, many pay no attention to the Muslim identity of these Black immigrants. Yet few miss them wearing their wide-sleeve, boubou robes with tasseled hats, hawking items out of brief cases in Midtown Manhattan or just strolling Harlem streets.

Their integration into New York hasn’t been problem-free in other ways. Donald Trump and the Fifth Avenue Merchants Association ousted Senegalese street vendors from Midtown Manhattan in 1985. A decade later, Harlem storeowners forced them to move from 125th Street to a rundown section along West 116th. Today, West African Muslims own and operate most of the restaurants, variety stores, fashion boutiques, and religious shops in the area. As recent arrivals to a rapidly changing community, Black Mecca looks at how these new immigrants negotiate their Black, African, and Muslim identities and stake out a unique place for themselves in America.

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BOOK BLURBS

“Skillfully combining engaging narrative with insightful analysis, Zain Abdullah has given us a revelatory book, Black Mecca, which tells the compelling story of African Muslims in New York City. In Black Mecca the voices of African Americans and African Muslims are loud, clear, and passionate.

Abdullah chronicles the recent evolution of social life in Harlem, a fluid multicultural urban scene in which the proximity of African Muslims and African Americans has triggered both broad cross-cultural awareness and profound cultural misunderstanding, both bonding and resentment.

By capturing this ever-changing complexity, Black Mecca makes a major contribution to urban and religious studies, and powerfully illuminates the nuances of social and religious life in contemporary urban America.”

Paul Stoller, author of Money Has No Smell: The Africanization of New York City

“Intermingling ethnographic research with good storytelling and captivating interviews, Black Mecca is electrifying. Abdullah opens up the community and its individuals in ways I could not have imagined.

We visit their homes, dine with them, and stay up late into the night at celebrations. We become intimate with longing, tragedy, uncertainty, loss, and triumph. This is a must-read for students of immigration, anthropology, religion, and culture.”

Aminah Beverly McCloud, Director, Islamic World Studies, DePaul University

“Zain Abdullah’s Black Mecca is an innovative, first-rate ethnography. Its engaging narrative allows African Muslim immigrants in Harlem to speak for themselves, enabling readers to understand the nature and richness of their experience.

Abdullah’s writing style is accessible, and his analysis is both critical and sophisticated. At a time when Muslim Americans have come under scrutiny, Black Mecca offers a well-rounded argument for the significant contributions they make to American public life.”

Jacob K. Olupona, Professor of African Religious Traditions, Harvard Divinity School

“How do West African Muslim immigrants fit into the fabric of Harlem, and how have they challenged established notions of Islam, race, and cultural difference in one of the centers of black culture, thought, and politics? Abdullah (Temple Univ.) offers theoretically sophisticated and evocative answers to these questions in his ethnographic study of West African Muslims in Harlem.

Combining descriptions of ethnographic encounters and personal narratives with insight from existing literature, chapters address West African immigrants’ expectations of America before their migration, encounters between black and African identities, the challenges of mastering language(s), negotiating religious and cultural practices, and the changing notions of family and sexuality.

Abdullah weaves these topics into a dense, vivid portrait of what he describes as new “Blues people” immersed in narratives of suffering, survival, and hope. He skillfully avoids one-sided representations and allows himself to consider different angles for each encounter he describes.

Situated at the intersection of race studies, anthropology, and Islamic studies, this book is significant beyond its role as a study of American Muslims in advancing readers’ understanding of migration, religious identities, and globalization through the lives of people in this particular community. Highly recommended.”

Reviewed in April 2011 for CHOICE. American Library Association

 

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