Imagine for a moment that you’re a highly educated African-American living in the segregated Washington, DC of 1895. Modern distractions like radio and television haven’t been invented yet, and most other avenues for culturally rich and intellectually stimulating entertainment have been racially proscribed. What do you do? This was the predicament facing the elite members of the race at the close of the 19th, and beginning of 20th centuries. In those days, education meant a heavy dosage of Latin, Greek, or French, great familiarity with the classics of western civilization – like Shakespeare and Plato – and usually the ability to perform a difficult piece of music on either piano or violin.
In learning to cope with the injustices of segregation, these educated Blacks turned inward and developed their own avenues for cultural and intellectual expression. They formed debate clubs and literary societies, attended plays (held usually in churches), and wrote books and papers. However, one of the more important outlets they turned to – one which we are attempting to rediscover in the Washington D.C. of 2007 – consisted in holding lively and engaging programs in each others homes.
So often we hear that our masjids maintain an atmosphere inhibiting free discussion and thoughtful debate, a lamentable state of affairs. Most masjids, whether African American or immigrant, usually follow some type of “line” (some ideological “Kool-Aid” they want you to drink), and all topics not sanctioned by the administration are strictly prohibited. But the home “salon” can be the perfect remedy to combat the intellectual and cultural stagnation that so many Muslims are experiencing today.
Here in the nation’s capital, Muslims are beginning to meet not only in homes, but in little coffee shops as well. Some attend to hear the short lectures, enjoy the good (American) food and the discussions that follow, while others go simply to find a mate, and that’s o.k. too.
Recently, the home of a young sister, Bathsheba Philpott, has become the epicenter of this new salon movement. Last night she hosted the Family Halaqah Group, comprised of brothers and sisters eager to be involved in wholesome discussion and activism. We were treated to a very erudite commentary by Dr. Fatimah Jackson, anthropologist at the University of Md., on the wonderful new film Prince of Slaves. Also part of the discussion was another anthropologist, Dr. S.O.Y. Keita, along with writer Tariq Nelson. Of the close to twenty or so people in attendance, at least half were sisters, and everyone had an opportunity to share their insights and analysis. Leading the discussion was D.C. based attorney Talib Karim.
Perhaps this salon idea is something that will catch on in other cities. (more later)