Islam, as many African Americans remind me, is an important part of African American culture and there are many African American Muslims today who feel they have “reverted” to the religion of their ancestors
Last October, Mrs Cornelia Bailey, a leading member of a tiny community of African Americans living on Sapelo Island off the Georgia coast, passed away.This remarkable woman was aspokeswoman, storyteller, historian and preserver of her people’s unique culture known as Gullah-Geechee.
The community’s roots go back to the time of slavery, when the area was owned by Thomas Spalding, a planter and US congressman from Georgia who grew cotton, sugarcane and rice using African slave labor.
Following the abolishment of slavery after the US Civil War, the people of Sapelo remained, but their number steadily grew smaller.
What made Bailey and the community even more unique was their Muslim background. Bailey herself was a direct eleventh-generation descendant of Bilali Muhammad, a Muslim slave originally from West Africa who was taken first to the Caribbean and then to Sapelo in the early nineteenth century, where he became the head “enforcer” over the other slaves.
Bilali Muhammad left us a document known as the “Bilali Diary”, a manuscript he wrote entirely in Arabic characters, although the language he used is not standard Arabic. His manuscript reveals a scholarly, pious, and intelligent man who clung to his identity and dignity.
Fascinated by this background, I set out with my team of researchers to meet MrsBailey and stay with her community while conducting research for my book on Islam in America, Journey into America:The Challenge of Islam (2010).