During one of my recent courtships, I was asked the ‘life’s ambition’ question. While the answer hasn’t really changed much, the method has changed slightly, and at least publicly, I’ve never acknowledged how much my religious background plays into my ‘lot in life.’ Since many of my readers come from outside my religious background, I’ll re-print my answer here for your reading pleasure. If I come off with a little more braggadocio than usual here, well friends, that’s the dating game. Enjoy.
There are usually four names that come up when people start talking about the history of American Muslims: Elijah Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali. Of course, there have been thousands more who have made their mark in ways that existed under the radar, and that continues to this day. I mean no disrespect to the brothers and sisters who are out there doing their thing right now; we all have to make our mark in the best way we know how. But in my mind the fact remains that there has been a void since Ali lost his voice, of that ‘American Muslim’ who through his or her talent and personality can stand center stage and show the world that we’re part of the solution and not the problem. Now I’m not billing myself as the new Malcolm or the new Ali, there will never be another version of either of those brothers. What I am saying is that I see myself as a ‘link in the chain’ that connects the past history of American Muslims to however we’re perceived in the future.
The link in the chain concept is something that all black people are familiar with, and most who know their history participate in it in one way or another. It’s fairly self explanatory: my life (as a black person) has been made easier because of those who came before me, now I have to do my part so the guys and girls who come up after me won’t have to put up with the shyt I put up with. Some links are bigger than others of course, but Dr. King didn’t do everything by himself, Rosa Parks didn’t do everything by herself, the Black Panthers didn’t do everything by themselves. But they all did something that had an overall positive effect. It seems to me most cultures do it; even professionally the concept is something that was stressed to me in grad school. Tying it back into our people, I feel that we are in the most desperate need of having someone step up and make themselves a ‘bigger link’. Our community’s natural tendency to keep to ourselves backfires on us a little I think; that’s not how America works. Americans respect privacy to a point; but you also have to be at least somewhat accessible. To completely keep to yourself here only makes people suspicious and makes people feel uncomfortable.
I have no interest in becoming a preacher. (Americans don’t like to be told what to do anyway.) I have friends who have dedicated themselves to theology; it’s a beautiful thing to be able to quote Scripture easily but it’s not my thing. Rather, the talents, the career and the personality that I’ve been blessed with have set me up to follow in the path of the ‘symbols’. Three of the artists I admired greatly when I was younger were Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, and Paul Newman. Each in their own way used their talents to garner fame or fortune, then in turn used whatever light was shining on them to bring attention to issues or people who might not otherwise ever get noticed. When you start to bring any political element to it, you’re setting yourself up so that for every person who is glad to see someone make a stand, you have someone else waiting right there to tear them down. The bigger you get, the more zeros you add to the number of people who love you and hate you. But that’s part of the price that has to be paid.
During his inaugural address, the President made reference to looking for more of an open dialogue with our people. Yes, he’s a politician first and foremost, but I also took that as a personal challenge. There’s an old parable that I’m sure you’re familiar with, since Spike Lee used it in his film about Malcolm. If you give people a dirty glass of water as their only option, then eventually they’ll drink from it when they get thirsty. But if you show them your clean glass, you don’t have to tell them to take it. They’ll recognize your glass is clean and want to drink from it.
What I’ve tried to be in my personal relationships with non-Muslims is that ‘clean glass of water’ that contradicts a lot of the negative imagery associated with our people. This is what I mean about not being a preacher. There are those of course who have nothing but disdain and disrespect for us; I don’t worry about them and I don’t waste time trying to prove myself to someone who I know will not be won over. But the vast majority of people (in my experience) will respect your right to do things your way if you extend them the same courtesy. So to answer your question, a major part of my life’s ambition is to take what I feel do now, and extend my reach to show the world (especially Americans) that we are as diverse, as patriotic, as human as everyone else. To paraphrase JFK, we all breathe the same air, we all want to provide a better tomorrow for our families and our children, and we are all mortal.