Joshua Blackwell finally visited his mother in North Carolina this summer and they talked about his conversion to Islam. The conversation didn’t go well.
Margaret Blackwell had returned at midnight from her factory job making surgical bandages. Joshua, a D.C. public school teacher, was still up. She pulled out her Bible. He opened his Koran. They tried to reach each other but ended up doing battle. It was 1 John and Surah 31, verses and ayats. It was only those washed in the blood of the risen Christ, and the Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him, until after 2 a.m.
And later that morning, they resumed.
“You ever had somebody die in your family?” Margaret Blackwell, 58, asked a reporter quietly. Her hair was pulled into a neat bun, and her face was smooth and unlined. She sat in a straight-backed armchair in the living room of her two-bedroom apartment and stared pensively toward the floor. Big Wheel Gospel — 1510 AM — played softly in the background. She tapped her foot quickly up and down. “That’s how it felt.”
Joshua had been getting his 2-year-old daughter something to eat in the kitchen, and listening to his mother talk. He converted in 2008 but only told his mother about it in a phone call six months ago. This was his first visit home since then. He stepped into the living room, his 6-foot-5 frame filling the space, and made a statement that was part longing for understanding.
“I just believe in religious tolerance, that we should respect each other,” he said. The Koran says to hold your mother in high honor, and he does, he said. “But I’m a man. I made this decision as a man, not as a boy, and I will live with my decision.”
They’ll always be family, but “decisions have consequences,” Margaret said quietly, without looking at her son. “I have one son in Atlanta already in that [Islam], and my hope was that Josh would bring him out.”
She tapped her foot faster.
The Blackwells love one another, but their differences stretch out like the arms of Jesus between them. As in many African American families, Islam is a source of tension. Not because of suspicions about terrorism or Sept. 11. Joshua’s family is worried about his soul.
In the living room of the Blackwells’ home outside Greensboro, filled with family memorabilia and artifacts of faith, there are no geopolitics and no clashes of civilizations.
Only resentment and pain.
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While much of America gets tied up in knots about Islam, African Americans have historically seen it differently. The number of black Muslims has always been relatively low, but the religion’s influence in the black community is long-standing and familiar.
Its roots trace back to slavery — scholars contend that 20 to 30 percent of those brought to America came from Muslim-dominated countries in West Africa — and Islamic-based movements of the early 20th century had self-definition and empowerment as core premises.
Founded in Detroit in 1930, the Nation of Islam combined economic determinism, religious nationalism and a politically tailored theology. The religion gained sway among the working class, the dispossessed and especially the imprisoned. In the early 1960s, Malcolm X became the Nation of Islam’s most dynamic and controversial leader, and historian Manning Marable estimated its membership surpassed the 100,000 mark, primarily in the urban north.
The sect’s ability to transform lives through its strict behavioral code became legendary. And its image of strong, independent black men (although rarely women) was attractive and sympathetic even if most blacks didn’t believe in the theology involved.
After the 1975 death of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, Islam in black America became simultaneously more traditional and more dispersed in the wider culture. His son Warith D. Muhammad embraced a more orthodox form of Islam. Other orthodox African American Islamic communities sprang up across the country. Alex Haley immortalized his Muslim ancestor, Kunta Kinte, in his 1977 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Roots.” Jazz and the black arts movement had Islamic tenets, aesthetics and converts at or near their core.
In the 1980s, with drugs and violence at historic levels in black communities, Louis Farrakhan reconstituted the Nation of Islam with a strident re-articulation of black nationalism (and frequent anti-Semitism).
Given that history — and blacks’ common experience of being suspect in a white society — terrorism is rarely part of the African American Muslim conversation.
Instead, being Muslim “has come to be regarded as the most authentic way of being black in America,” Columbia University researcher Zaheer Ali said. “It’s the blackest spot on your black card.”
Some of the biggest names in hip-hop — Rakim, Lauryn Hill, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West — are Muslims or have sampled Islamic themes in their music. That’s how they first reached young Joshua Blackwell, growing up in Reidsville, N.C., where his daddy preached the gospel of Jesus Christ.
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Joshua Blackwell’s family went to church when the church doors opened.
His father, Lenward, a truck driver and associate pastor, taught Sunday school, and the family attended Bible study, choir practice, children’s church and revivals that went for days. “Before he was a preacher, he was a wild dude,” Joshua said. A drink-moonshine, carry-a-shotgun kind of dude.
His father would study Scripture with him. “If he wanted me to know something, he’d have me read it” in the Bible and they’d talk it out for hours. Question God, his father urged him, so God can answer.
Their neighborhood was rough, said his older sister, Sheneka Jackson, 29, a divorced mother of six boys who is studying early child care at a local community college. Young guys “were drug dealers, they had felonies, they had children at an early age. Joshua was different.”
Margaret Blackwell had two sons from a previous marriage. When Joshua’s older brother Ron, now a barber and truck driver in Atlanta, went to prison on drug charges, he joined the Nation of Islam and later became a Sunni Muslim — and, in Joshua’s estimation, a better man. His oldest brother, Tyrone, is in prison on drug charges.
Margaret knew things would be different for her youngest son. “They didn’t have the Word in them like Josh did,” she said. “He was the family go-getter,” the first to go to college. Their best hope.
Joshua’s views of Islam were complicated. He was enormously moved by how his brother changed after he converted. The speeches of Malcolm X preaching black self-sufficiency that he watched over and over on YouTube helped make sense of the dysfunction he saw around him. “I used to say I’d be down with Muslims if they believed in Jesus,” Joshua said.
He recognized that Islam had become associated with terrorism after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but says he never married the two. He calls Jim Crow segregation and violence a form of terrorism but said, “I would never say there’s such a thing as a Christian terrorist.
“Besides, my brother was Muslim and you couldn’t tell me he was a terrorist.”
On breaks from Winston-Salem State University, where he studied business, Joshua would lie across the living room floor talking to his mother about his Bible group. In 2007, he met Danielle Matthews, a former Miss University of the District of Columbia, at a student leadership conference at Bowie State University. They became Facebook friends and he learned she’d been a Muslim since childhood. “He pretty much said if I didn’t accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior I would be going to hell,” Danielle recalled.
In January 2008, he started reading the Koran to formulate arguments to bring Danielle and Ron back to salvation. But that’s not what happened.
“I knew reading [the Koran] immediately that my life would have to change,” Joshua said. He found in Islam “a structure for better human life. It was almost like I was reading a plan for success.” Every ill that had plagued his community and his family came into focus. He’d questioned God, like his father taught him, and God answered.
Still, Islam “really looks like it’s calling you to something extreme,” he’d say to himself. He’d have to pray five times a day, prepare his food differently and become a more intentionally religious man.
He shared his feelings with Danielle, Ron and one of his closest friends, Brandon Smith. But not with his parents, who were, by this time, divorced. His mother felt rejected when his older brother converted, and they became estranged. And his dad, who taught him the word of God, who scraped and borrowed money to send him to college, was dying of lung cancer.
“He was sick,” Joshua said. There was nothing for it. And he didn’t want to upset his father at the end of his life. Though a newfound religious zeal was lighting him up, he ultimately didn’t tell the man he calls his “greatest inspiration in life.”
In July 2008, Lenward Blackwell died. A month later, Joshua formally converted to Islam.
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Two years ago, when Joshua told Sheneka Jackson that he was Muslim, the siblings pretty much stopped talking. As youngsters, his sister would cry when Joshua got whippings, and as they grew up, he was her confidant as she struggled and had baby after baby. But after he converted, she became “afraid that we won’t end up in the same place” in the afterlife, Jackson said. She wasn’t concerned about any political freight being Muslim in America can carry.
“I can’t worry about somebody blowing up the World Trade Center,” Jackson said. “I was worried about my mother’s reaction.”
Joshua’s godmother, the Rev. Alla Mitchell, talked to him after she learned of his conversion. “I know Jesus is more than a prophet — he’s God’s son. That’s how we were discussing it,” Mitchell said. “It was me trying to let him know that you can’t forsake that part of salvation, because that’s the main piece of us being able to make it into the kingdom.”
Joshua was respectful and told his godmother he valued her opinion, but Mitchell said, “I got off the phone and my heart was heavy, and I cried out to the Lord that he would show Joshua the truth.” And she prayed for his mother, who was so very hurt.
Talib Shareef, the imam at Masjid Muhammad in the District, has talked with Joshua about his family’s reaction to his conversion. “A lot of Muslims go through it,” he said. “I’ve seen converts to Islam who have had detrimental lifestyles — on drugs, they partied all the time, they only looked to drink,” but they converted and cleaned up and their families still couldn’t accept them. “It’s a contradiction.”
Pictures of her four children line the shelves in Margaret Blackwell’s well-ordered apartment. A televangelist preaches wordlessly from a muted television set, and a plaque with other names for Christ — Lion of Judah, Only Begotten Son, Wonderful Counselor — line the walls. She got it from Ron — proof, she said, that he is not too far gone in Islam.
Joshua said his dad would have respected his decision, but his mother disagrees.
“He would have cussed him slam-out even though he was a preacher,” she said.
“I’m not bashing anybody’s religion,” she is careful to add. “Like the pastor says, we’re not trying to be judgmental.” It’s just that when Joshua starts talking about Islam, her head throbs, because the Bible is so clear about salvation. That morning at Cathedral of His Glory, she watched ecstatics lie in front of the altar. The air quivered with drum beats and shaking tambourines.
The pastor cited Matthew 3:7: “Every tree not of good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire.”
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It’s the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and Danielle, a substitute teacher for D.C. public schools, is cooking chicken and asparagus to break their day-long fast. Her hair is pulled back and tucked into a stylish beret. As she talked, the couple’s 2-year-old, Gianna, ran in and out of the living room, past a large toy box with cartoon videos, and a toy kitchen. Joshua was teaching her to read, and labels — “door,” “chair,” “pillow” — are taped all over the small apartment.
After college, Joshua joined Teach for America and became a math teacher at Hart Middle School in Southeast Washington. (This summer, he was one of 200 teachers laid off because of budget cuts.) They had already been thinking about getting married when Danielle got pregnant, and her former imam performed the ceremony in the apartment.
Danielle’s mother-in-law has always treated her kindly, although she’s pretty sure Margaret thinks she influenced Joshua’s conversion. “He’s a grown man, he can make his own decisions,” and he could have made far worse ones, she said. Still, “he’s devastated” by his family’s reaction. “I know he feels bad and wishes he could just go back to the way things used to be before he made the big announcement.”
My mother has a good heart, Joshua said. “I know she loves me.” It just comes out like “you’re going to hell and taking your wife and daughter with you.”
But not everyone in his life feels that way.
In June, Joshua and his best friend, Karega Bailey, 25, dean of students at Maya Angelou Public Charter School, traveled to Atlanta for a conference on Muslim life, listening to Sam Cooke and Lupe Fiasco, swapping lyrics and freestyling on the long drive south. Both men aspire to use music in their careers. Bailey calls Joshua “Yusha Assad,” the Muslim name given to him by Danielle’s mother.
In the early-morning darkness, Joshua turns down the music, and Bailey’s rap about those calling themselves good Christians fills the cabin of his Saturn sport-utility vehicle:
You can burn a Koran if you want to
But while you’re at it burn a cross on the lawn, too
Or draw swastikas on synagogues to offend all Jews.
And Joshua rhymes about ways people dismiss Islam:
What if I told you the Koran is a light for you
Would you tell me that Islam isn’t right for you
Man you gotta pray too many times a day
What like talking to God isn’t nice to do.
The two met at a Teach for America social in 2009 and began to have long conversations about music and faith.
“I was telling him how I’ve used my music to restore the character and hope of my students as well, and it was a powerful moment. At that point, I realized we might be more alike than anyone else I’ve ever known,” Bailey said.
Bailey is Christian. But a few months ago, after he joined Zion Church in Landover, a woman called Joshua to tell him “your Muslim friend” had joined the church. Bailey had become Muslim by association.
But, alhamdulillah, that’s exactly as it should be, Joshua said. “A true Muslim and a true Christian walking in their beliefs, you shouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It’s about simply acknowledging the Creator, and going to the Creator for yourself.”
There’s work people of all faiths could do together if they “could just get past labels and media portrayals,” Joshua said.
He sounded frustrated and weary. It’s the contrast between the acceptance he gets from his best friend and everything he wishes he had from his family.
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IView more images of the Blackwell family by photographer Marvin Joseph.