Today is Part II of our interview with author Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow featuring her story "Eid Pictures" in the anthology Once Upon an Eid. You can read Part I here.
Part II - Eid Pictures
I love the contrast between current day Eid celebrations vs. twenty years ago and all the way back to slavery. What inspired you to capture generations of this holiday celebration?
I have a lot to say on this and I hope you’ll give me room to say it because I’m trying to undo gross erasure. African American stories of Eid (and being Muslim in general) are erased and have been for generations. It’s the reason behind the #BlackOutEid hashtag I mentioned. National news sources display photo spreads of American Muslims celebrating Eid without a single Black person. In fact, newspapers will claim to be doing a feature on Eid “all over the world” and skip over Africa and the diaspora completely.
African American Muslims make up one of the largest groups of American Muslims, making up about a third of them, with South Asian Americans making up another third, and Arab Americans making up a quarter. I get into the statistics because there is so much erasure, the assumption is that Black Muslims are a minority but Muslims are so diverse, it should be understood there really isn’t a majority. The erasure is political.
And then, as many as 30% of those of us who were enslaved and brought over here came from Muslim cultures in Africa. Those people largely lost that faith through the brutality of slavery. It was erasure of another kind. And there were African Americans converting to Islam in droves throughout the 20th century. Beyond academic texts and biographies of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, there aren’t many stories written about these people. I needed to write this poem to start undoing that erasure.
How has this celebration changed from your childhood to present day?
The groups of people celebrating are much larger. And there is more awareness around Eid. Last year in Philadelphia, hundreds (maybe thousands) of people celebrated a citywide Eid in a park and a children’s museum across the street opened its doors to us for free that day. We have schools throughout the country recognizing the day and giving kids the day off. I could have never imagined that as a kid. Eid felt like it was a secret. I took off school that day and didn’t really explain to anyone what I was taking off for.
I love this line that speaks of the ancestors, "I can almost hear their whispered wishes - duas spoken on the field each Eid."
What role does the ancestors and your faith play in your writings?
I try to write for them. I often pray I can honor their legacy. I feel like the African American Muslims of today are the descendants of those Africans forced from their faith. We are literal answers to their duas.
Do you prefer poetry or prose and why?
It’s hard for me to say. It depends on what my purpose is. I find both satisfying to write although I think most people find prose more accessible and it’s why I’ve felt compelled to write more prose professionally.
Tell us about your upcoming book?
My upcoming picture book, Your Name Is A Song, is about a little girl who is frustrated about her teacher and classmates mispronouncing her name during the first day of school. With her mom, she learns to celebrate the beauty and musicality of names--particularly African, African American, Arab, Asian, and Latinx names--so that she can take pride in her own name. It comes out in 2021.
If you missed Part I of Jamilah’s interview you can read all about it here.
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed, is an educator and children’s book author. Her books, which feature young Black Muslim protagonists, have been recognized and critically-praised by many trusted voices in literature, including American Library Association, School Library Journal, and NPR. She’s taught youth in traditional and alternative learning settings for 15 years and currently directs and develops writing programs for Philadelphia area youth. To learn more about Jamilah please follow her on social media.