by Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Most of my youth was spent between three places: my school’s publishing center (where, before I left second grade, I’d written, illustrated, and published over a dozen books), the local library (where I pursued self-designed research projects), and my dad’s desk (where I’d stand next to him while he was studying Quran and ask him as many questions as I could before he had to move on to memorizing the next verse). What unites all these experiences is an inquisitiveness that I imagine at times both delighted and frustrated my parents. I remember asking my father once, “If trees have bark which is like skin, does it mean that when I pull it off, it hurts like it would if I pulled off the skin of a human?” My father didn’t answer me directly, except to say that I shouldn’t go around picking bark off of trees for fun. The tree bark question was one of many matters that highlighted my almost encyclopedic engagement with the world. I needed to know everything, particularly about how things felt or why things happened. By high school, my questions shifted away from non-human life to human-life, and I wanted to know more about my parents, particularly why my dad’s last name was different from my aunts’ and uncles’, why we went to Masjid and they went to church, and why I could never have pepperoni pizza at school.
My first serious conversation with my dad about these things began late in high school by which time he could see that I was already quite comfortable traveling between religious communities: I was attending a Catholic high school as a practicing Muslim; One of my friends was Mormon and their dances were gender-segregated so my parents allowed me to attend; Another friend’s father was the pastor of a non-denomination Christian church where I would sometimes join them for services; And some Fridays I would go to Shabbat dinners at the home of another friend.
The first questions I had for my dad had nothing to do with Islam itself, but was, instead, about why he decided to become Muslim, how his family felt, and if he thought he made the right decision. “I felt like I was at a buffet,” my father recounted. “I was going from religious community to religious community, getting a bit of this and a bit of that, but never really feeling full.” Before my father converted to Sunni Islam under the leadership of Warith Deen Muhammad, he had grown up in a Protestant Christian home where he attended church until, at the age of twelve, he swapped out Sunday sermons for rounds of pool at the local Boys & Girls club. Throughout college, he explored Black Nationalist groups, was interested in Rastafarianism, and spoke to several members of the Nation of Islam. But, it was a specific community on 47th and Bond in Oakland, California where he and my mother decided to take their shahadah.
Five years ago, I found a burgundy binder on my father’s cluttered bookcase. Inside was his archive of religious notes composed of typewritten text, collaged photocopies, and handwritten marginal notes on the back of the his pharmacy school handout listing dosage limits. My dad’s notes were written in the immaculate print that came to characterize the precision of his thought process at the beginning of his conversion. He showed an interest in how to enjoy prayer (which was still evident later in the way he steadfastly met his prayer times even while in chemotherapy and while on bed rest following surgery). His notes also revealed how important it was to him to draw knowledge from the Qu’ran, hadith, and secondary sources. He literally collaged these pieces together to create a narrative, a syllabus of sorts to lead him throughthe early years of his practice.
My father’s binders of notes and our intermittent interviews piqued my interest in the religious lives of other Black people in the United States. Surely, my father was not the only Black person who transitioned in and out of communities. And surely, many of pre-1950s historical texts I’d read about Black religious life in America could not be right in assuming that most all Black people practice some form of Christianity with a spattering of the community absorbed in what was popularly called “cult” religions, otherwise known as practices other than Christianity. I decided to take this interest further, and, five years ago, I formally started Mapping the Spirit as a way to learn more about Black religious life. In its early iterations, this project was a series of interviews with my father, a sampling of photographs, and a few videos.
In 2015, I was able to expand the project when I was awarded a joint commission from New York Public Library Labs and Triple Canopy to do archival research on early 20th century Black religious communities. I chose to focus on the Moorish Science Temple of America because I’d learned about them from a teacher at my masjid when I was fifteen and a friend of mine had joined the community in 2010. Most of my research including piecing together photocopied fragments of an archive at the Schomburg Center for Research. What emerged from this work was a question around what the archive (and an archive in general) does and does not hold, what it reveals and what it conceals, and what it has the potential to illuminate. I was left wanting to know more about why people joined the Moorish Science Temple of America and why some people left. When I was awarded the Magnum Foundation grant in 2016, I decided to continue building from the archival work I was doing through this joint commission to create a new archive, one that presented the texture of everyday life amongst members of the Moorish Science Temple of America and other communities, one that could accommodate synchronic and diachronic assemblages of archives that live in binders as well as institutional archives whose interiorities are at times made through discovery and chance.
This project, Mapping the Spirit, thus emerged from my interests in exploring the texture and interiority of Blackness, particularly, Black religious and spiritual life. Archives that hold official texts, building deeds, and organizational history provide contextual background, but, I found, they do not provide much in the way of interiority. This interiority is what Edward Said calls “human density” in his essay “Islam through Western Eyes” what Kevin Quashie calls the “inner reservoir of thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, ambitions, that shape a human self” in The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black and what my mother affectionately calls, “the inside bits.” Essentially, I asked, what kind of discursive work are existing public archives of Black religious life doing and what more can be done? Beyond canon and a list of beliefs, what more did I think was worth knowing?
My answer to the question “What more can be done?” emerged not as an effort to digitize existing archives or to write more robust finding aids, rather, I was compelled to talk to and collaborate with current Moorish Science Temple community members in order to create an archive that held long-form interviews, photographs, ephemera, and other uncategorizable items.
An answer to the question of “What more do I want to know?” emerged not as a desire to identify the origins of a particular verse, but a yearning to know what these community members were thinking the first time they read a holy text in their faith. Understanding black spiritual experiences involves several moving pieces and a recognition that this capacious and sprawling inquiry requires me to be comfortable with itinerancy and movement: movement between archives (Schomburg, my father’s binders, Mapping the Spirit), movement through temporalities (my childhood, conversions with my father, religious conversions, and the project’s own evolution), and movement through multiple religious communities.
The “Mapping” in the name of the project exposes this productive movement through locations, institutions, concepts, and communities. But more than that, it asserts that spirituality is not the arrival at a destination, but a series of movements. Mapping the Spirit seeks to document, in some way, that movement through a series interrelated chapters that focus on specific communities and their layered narratives.
Thus, the first chapter of the project centers the stories of members of the Moorish Science Temple of America. This chapter begins with my friend Robert Webb-Bey. I first met Webb-Bey in 2006. At that time, he was traveling between Sunni Muslim communities and exploring the work of Sufi philosopher Bawa Muhaiyaddeen while simultaneously completing a Masters Degree in African-American/Black Studies with a focus on African spiritual traditions. We often had conversations about his own spiritual pathway. Raised as a Jehovah Witness in Camden, Arkansas, he was constantly working to understand his own movement within and away from communities as well as what spirituality meant to people of African descent in America. While visiting him and his wife in Memphis, TN in October of 2016, I asked him to draw a map of his spiritual journey. After a few iterations, he sent me the above image. This image bears the marks of an attempt at linearity, then betrays itself through a series of branching lines, carrots that signal the insertion of a later remembered thought, and a title (“Journey: The Neverending Story”) that reminds us that there will always be more to add to this map.
Mapping the Spirit was created with support from the Magnum Foundation‘s “On Religion” project. Kameelah Janan Rasheed designed the project website which was built by Corey Tegeler and which you can explore here.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed is a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist, former high school public school teacher, and writer working in installation, photography, printmaking, publications, and performance. In addition to her full-time work as a social studies curriculum developer for New York public schools, she is currently an artist-in-residence at Smack Mellon and on the faculty in the MFA Fine Arts program at the School of Visual Arts. She has exhibited her work at Jack Shainman Gallery, Studio Museum in Harlem, Bronx Museum, Queens Museum, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 2017 Venice Biennial, among others. Rasheed has forthcoming solo and group shows in Philadelphia, Portland, and New York City for 2017 as well as 2018. Recently selected as a finalist for the Future Generation Art Prize, she is the recipient of several other awards and honors including Denniston Hill A-I-R (2017), Alumni Alumni Award for Art in Community-The Laundromat Project (2017), Harpo Foundation Grant (2016), Magnum Foundation Grant (2016), Creative Exchange Lab at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (2016), Keyholder Residency at LES Print Studio (2015), Triple Canopy Commission at New York Public Library Labs (2015), Artadia Grant (2015), Queens Museum Jerome Emerging Artist Fellowship (2015) Art Matters Grant (2014), Rema Hort Mann Foundation Grant (2014), among others. She has spoken and facilitated discursive programming at a number of institutions such as the ICP-Bard, New Museum, Montclair Art Museum , Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, Queens Museum, The Museum of the City of New York, the Center for Book Arts, Creative Time, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Interference Archive, Northwestern University (forthcoming), Maryland Institute of College of Art, Hampshire College, School of Visual Arts, Parsons, The New School, NYU, Columbia University, Barnard, and the University of Illinois. Her writing has been published in The New Inquiry, Gawker, The Guardian, Creative Time Reports, Hyperallergic, MoMA Blog, Walker Art Center Blog, among others. A 2006 Amy Biehl U.S. Fulbright Scholar to South Africa, she earned her B.A. in public policy at Pomona College and her Ed.M at Stanford University in Secondary Education. Learn more about her at www.kameelahr.com
Corey Tegeler is a creative technologist who designs and programs sites and platforms on the web. He often collaborates with large cultural and academic institutions, as well as with individual researchers and artists. His creative practice aims to tell stories and disseminate information to the public.