The Politics of Religion and the Role of Black Faith: A CBFS Interview

May 02, 2023

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn C. Spencer-Antoine with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on “The Politics of Religion and the Role of Black faith,” scheduled for May 4th, we are highlighting the scholarship of two of the guests.

Su’ad is a scholar-artist-activist. Her current project, Umi's Archive, is an interdisciplinary research project that that engages everyday Black women’s thought to investigate key questions of archives and power. Drawing on her umi's (Black Arabic for mother) archive, Umi's Archive is an digital humanities exhibition series, an analytical space to engage the many facets of Blackness, and an imaginative space to remember the past in order to dream the future. Trained as an anthropologist, her first book Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States is a field defining study of race, religion, and popular culture in the 21st century. She has a deep commitment to public scholarship and reaches diverse audiences through her one-woman solo performance, Sampled: Beats of Muslim Life and in her leadership (2015-2022) of the award-winning Sapelo Square: An Online Resource on Black Muslims in the Untied States. In line with this commitment, Su'ad has also written for The Root, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, Ebony Magazine, the Huffington Post, Religious Dispatches and Trans/Missions, and has appeared on Al Jazeera English. Additionally, her poetry was featured in the anthology Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak.

Melissa Ford is an Associate Professor of History at Slippery Rock University. She is the author of A Brick and the Bible: Black Women’s Radical Activism in the Midwest during the Great Depression, published in 2022 with Southern Illinois University Press. (Link:

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies: How did you come to write about the politics of religion and Black liberation?

Su’ad Abdul Khabeer: My answer for this and the following question are related. I would say I came to write about the politics of religion and Black Liberation because I live it. What I mean by that is I was raised Black and Muslim in Brooklyn in communities led by women and men who came to Islam from movement work committed to Black Liberation, from the BPP to the NOI. It is something I was raised, principally to see Black Liberation as a political movement that has spiritual origins and consequences, to put it more plainly being Muslim requires working for Black Liberation. I have found however as I left my home communities that principle was not wide spread among Muslims and also systematically elided in mainstream media and academic discourse which has a profound impact on what the general public knows. So I began to write about what I know and what others taught me.

Melissa Ford: Originally, I had hoped to avoid religion- after all, I study communism! But, as I delved further into my research on the Communist Party, African American women, and the Great Depression, I found I could not avoid religion. Black women who participated in communist activities- protests, strikes, anti-eviction rallies, and union organizing-brought their religion and the traditions of the Black church with them. Their radical activism operated in a complex, public and private sphere of radicalism, informed by their lived experience as Black women. In Cleveland, African American women brought communist publications to church to spread information about the Party’s activities in organizing the unemployed. For them, church and communism were compatible. Those teachings of faith and moral convictions they heard every Sunday were mirrored in speeches of communist leaders they heard on street corners and in public parks. The Communist Party’s denunciations of class oppression, violence towards African Americans, economic inequality, political hypocrisy, and imperialism resounded in these Black communities because in essence, they had heard it before. As Chicago preacher J.C. Austin said, “if to want freedom is to be a Communist, then I am a Communist and will be until I die.”

CBFS: Please tell us about a person or organization you write about that shapes your understanding of the Black freedom movement.

SAK: I’m currently working with my mother’s archive which is full of material that underscores her Black Power movement commitments, and this work has led to other Black Muslim women of her generation who share her profile and discovering that an impoverished notion of revolution remains constant, where the flashier aspects of activism are all worth recounting, these women teaching me how critical the everyday work, that does make the headlines is, and how that is what needs to recounted in histories and present-day actions

MF: Carrie Smith is a wonderful example of how the faith and the religious traditions of the Black church complement Black radicalism. 42 years old and a migrant from Mississippi, Smith had lived in St. Louis, Missouri for 18 years. She went to Central Baptist Church every week and was an active member in her religious community. However, instead of this deterring her engagement with the Communist Party, she let it inform her actions. She emerged as a strike leader in a 1933 strike at a nut-picking factory. She brought a Bible to the picket lines and led strikers in prayer. She also was devoted to the Communist cause and very critical American capitalism: after she led the striking workers to victory, she continued her labor organizing and supported communist causes. Smith demonstrated how Black women could weave their personal faith into radical politics.

CBFS: What can the history of Black faith teach liberation movements today?

SAK: While i grew up with “being Muslim requires working for Black Liberation” as I mentioned that is not what’s “hot on the streets” right now. Moreover, because of the ways a number of Black faith communities are buying into these manufactured crisis around gender and sexuality, faith is not necessarily what is hot in activist circles either. But when you go back in the archive that’s literally what you see, and here Im speaking specifically about Islam, from Malcolm to Safiya Bukhari there is a clear lineage and relationship which teaches us it is the tradition of liberation movements to have room for Black faith and that activists will seek out faith to ground themselves and their work.

MF: The complex history of Black faith teaches us that the Black radical tradition and faith are not diametrically opposed, nor is faith opposed to communism. Radical Black activists throughout history, especially those who participated in communist activities during the Great Depression, have found ways to reconcile faith and radical political convictions.