...the Call is Heard.
By having no family,
I inherited the family of humanity.
By having no possessions,
I have possessed all.
By rejecting the love of one,
I received the love of all.
By surrendering my life to the revolution,
I found eternal life.
by Huey P. Newton
What do you live for and what do you die for?
These are the only two questions that have mattered to me. They rest beneath every other I have asked. They cannot be separated. When you know what you would live for, you know what you would die for. Through tumultuous transitions, I have grounded myself in this reality. I am alive. I will be dead. I live in light of this, for if I live and love knowing it will end, then I will meet my end having lived and loved.
Anyone that has spent time with me knows that I ask questions, whether to their enjoyment or their irritation. But more rewarding have been the questions I have dared to ask myself. Questions with answers that have killed. Killed personas I have worn. Killed friendships that have stifled me. Killed relationships my heart hasn’t been in. Killed my mediocrity. Killed my comfort zone. Killed the lies I have told myself. Killed my desire to conform. Killed my insecurities. Killed my fears.
* * *
I am 16. My knees dig into the bathroom floor. The door is locked behind me. My throat burns with the aftertaste of vomit. The air is thick with disappointment as I wallow in the aftermath of an attempted suicide. I was desperate to escape. To fly from what I feared could never change in my surroundings, or worse yet, in myself. I stayed awake the entire night, fearful of passing from death’s door to closed casket. I left for school when the sun rose, a sleepwalking zombie. I passed from classes to a choir performance later that night. My mom took a picture of me as I left. To this day, it troubles me. Cold stoicism. Stiff upper lip. Thousand-yard stare. Shoulders heavy with loss. Struggling to stay afloat in an abyss of nihilism. The shattered remains of sustenance drifting past as I reached through the wreckage for a question that could bear my weight. What life did I want to live?
Hope sustained a belief in an answer, yet experience with the depths of depression had hardened me. I allowed myself 10 years. Ten years to determine the life I wanted to be living. If I could not find something, then I would die knowing I had tried. The question became something to live for. I knew the consequences of not finding an answer, yet the slightest possibility of one made for a beautiful struggle. I had nothing to lose. No reason to settle. I had reached my bottom and could only build something better.
This was not a matter of raising my hand in class to answer a teacher. It was not about cramming for a test and forgetting everything after. It was not a GPA on my transcript. It was a pass/fail course. I would live or I would die. I could not relinquish responsibility to any other, for I alone would live my answer. Many could help—offer their guidance and direction, their love and support. It was an answer I had to determine for myself if I were to live it. With these consequences in mind, my curiosity turned to obsessive fervor.
Classes became a distraction, their questions too small and unimportant when my life was on the line. I spent lunches in the library, head tucked into books. Biographies and autobiographies sketched the possibilities of lives I could live. I learned by reading entire lives, watching as they unfolded over thousands of pages. Through their trials and tribulations, their struggles and triumphs, what wisdom they gained. The most defining of the books I encountered was “Revolutionary Suicide,” the autobiography of Huey P. Newton, the founder of The Black Panther Party. The title piqued my interest, but it was the cover that captured my attention. The stone eyed stare of a face more dangerous than the shotgun barrel digging into the back of his neck. He wore a black leather jacket, a black beret on his head and a bandolier strapped across his shoulder. The image seared into my imagination. A man who lived life so fully, for he knew death’s shadow would follow him through life.
I devoured the book. Huey put to words so much I had observed and even more I had not yet considered. During his time in prison, Huey read an article in, Ebony magazine. The article noted that “the suicide rate among Black men between the ages of 19 and 35 had doubled in the past 10 to 15 years, surpassing the rates for whites in the same age range.” I hadn’t considered my suicide attempt as something symptomatic of a larger problem. Huey probed further into the sociology of suicide, drawing upon Emile Durkheim’s influential text, “Suicide.” Durkheim concluded that “all types of suicide are related to social conditions…the primary cause of suicide is not individual temperament but forces in the social environment…external factors, not internal ones.” Huey recognized this truth because he had lived it, in neighborhoods plagued by nihilism, where choices carried costs of survival, where spiritual death reduced people to lives of quiet desperation.
Huey describes two types of suicide, reactionary and revolutionary. The reactionary feels powerless as they look upon their society. They are unable to determine their destiny. They are robbed of their self-respect, denied their dignity as human beings, immobilized by fear and driven to self-destruction; a final act of agency in a world they have been denied. Their bodies are discarded. Their names forgotten. Their life reduced to a statistic. Revolutionary suicide is the fundamental recognition that life will not “change for the better without an assault on the Establishment which goes on exploiting the wretched of the earth.” It is the belief that it is better to die fighting the forces that drive you to kill yourself rather than enduring them in silent compliance. It is a wish to live. To live as a human being or to die fighting for one’s humanity.
Revolutionary suicide is not a glorification of suicide or death. It is not a romantic ideal. It is not empty rhetoric. The first lesson a revolutionary learns is that they are doomed. For death is the reality, but victory is the dream. There are no old revolutionaries. They are jailed, killed, or they stop being revolutionary. If you choose to live, then death must be accepted, for the machinery of murder cannot allow this. It is a system built upon death and acceptance of what is, rather than the radical imagination of what could be. The choice to live is radical. The oppressed are not meant to be alive, let alone thrive; they must merely survive in silent patience, thankful for scraps. When the choice is made to live, you no longer sit idly as life is stripped from you.
* * *
I am an Indian and Pakistani male named Mohammad. The assumption that I am Muslim is assured, irrespective of my personal relationship to the Islamic religion. Names are incredibly important in Islam. They are chosen with great deliberation upon the aspirations and character a family hopes their child will embody.
I was born on the day of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). I was the first male child. My grandfather hoped I would become an imam and have the memory to become a hafiz, one who has memorized the Quran. He hoped I would bring blessings to my family. My dad made it clear from a young age the responsibility my name carried. It is the name of the Prophet. It means “praiseworthy,” while my middle name means “noble.” It carries the responsibility of constantly strengthening and examining my ethical standards and morals. This name has shaped so many of my experiences, the understandings I have struggled to arrive at, the example I hope to set.
Earlier this semester, two white students suggested I change my name. Their advice came following a conversation about the presidential campaign. One favored Bernie but didn’t consider him feasible. She expected Hillary to win, which disappointed her. She didn’t think Hillary could change a broken system. That only Trump would bring the change necessary for the political system to fix itself. Her friend agreed, though he admitted he did not know much about politics. This didn’t stop him from speaking. The conversation continued. I sat in silence observing how they spoke about the radical changes Trump would bring if he were elected. As long as he doesn’t destroy the world first, they joked. I shared that carrying a name like Mohammad makes me fearful of having Trump as a president. They suggested I change it. That I could go by John or Moe. He laughed and said I could pass as a John. Why should I change my name to feel safe? Why should my name sound white to feel safe? Why did they feel so comfortable erasing me?
I cannot relax with database registration rhetoric. I cannot relax knowing that the books I read, the questions I ask, and the topics I write about are radical with my name and my body. I cannot relax knowing that soon I wont be writing from the safety of a liberal college campus, where the greatest consequences are an anonymous Yik-Yak, a response piece in the Cipher, or a white student upset by what I’ve said.
Recently, a professor sent me a Facebook message. Do you have an exit strategy? I answered with my plans for after graduation. That wasn’t what she was asking. She clarified. Do you have an exit strategy if Trump is elected as president? The question didn’t surprise me. I thought about it in eighth grade after learning about World War II. Nazi concentration camps, Japanese-American concentration camps. What prevented a concentration camp of American Muslims? I thought about it in high school when I learned our mosque had been, and possibly still is, under surveillance. I thought about it when my dad raised suspicions about a plainclothes officer infiltrating the mosque. I thought about it last Eid when thousands of Muslims gathered in Reliant Stadium, and I eyed everyone with suspicion in the wake of Dylann Roof.
Exit is a choice that costs. I’ve been running my entire life. From my name and its responsibility. From my calling and the sacrifices it requires of me. From who I have always known myself to be. It was why I ran cross-country. It was why I’ve held my tongue. It was why I tried to be an Economics major as a freshman, in search of material wealth rather than authentic purpose. It is why I can pack everything I own into one suitcase in less than an hour. It is why I want to run from a bed when I realize I’m falling in love. My professor told me of her Jewish friends who held dual citizenship and international bank accounts in case of this. Who knew history well enough to never be fooled by the false sense of safety patriotism lulls us into. Vigilance is survival. It’s hard to forget that your people have been exterminated before.
Systematically selected, destroyed and discarded, efficiently exterminated. They knew their history. They knew the power of charismatic leaders who spoke of making countries great again. They knew the cost of greatness would be paid with their lives and many more marginalized groups. It would begin with database registries, but it would not end there. Many would believe the safety of their lives would be ensured if they complied. If they registered. If they wore a star. If they took different jobs. If they moved to ghettos. If they got on the train. If they lived in a camp. If they helped camp wardens. If they stepped into the showers. What else could they do? What else could they choose? Fight and be killed? Resist and be executed? Sabotage and be destroyed? They fell victim to the inertia of idealism. Believing compliance would be rewarded. Believing death was not already promised. Believing their life had ever been safe. Her words flash through my mind from time to time. Do you have an escape plan? I don’t intend to escape. I don’t intend to change my name. I intend to stay. I intend to fight. I intend to choose life. Will you live with me? Would you die with me?
* * *
It is April 4, 1967, and Martin Luther King is about to deliver his most important speech. He had kept silent for years out of fear of voicing what his conscience compelled him to say. Silent while those closest to him recognized the consequences of his calling. The division he will create within the movement, the allies that will be lost, the funding that will be pulled, the progress that will be undone. He knows this speech will cost him.
Today, rarely any attention is devoted to this speech, for it does not align with the pacified persona that Whiteness has made of King’s revolutionary spirit and fire. “A time comes when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.” He was killed a year to the day after it was given.
174 newspapers denounce King’s words the next day. They tell him that he had become too confident in his power as a leader and spoke only for his personal gain. That a civil rights leader should not be speak on foreign policy. That he should stick to talking about issues affecting Black Americans.
Black leaders denounce him for losing focus on the domestic struggle for civil rights. Those within the movement believe King has lost his way as a leader and no longer shares the interests of Black people. Lyndon B. Johnson rescinds his invitation to theWhite House. His congregation dwindles. King finds himself struggling in the depths of loneliness as crowds turn their backs upon him. Yet he understood that no amount of strategic action and rhetoric could excuse the need for courageous action. His calling came not from popular consensus, but a higher power that he could not ignore.
King found his Dream shattered when he met with residents of Watts in the aftermath of its riots. He began to see what Malcolm had seen his entire life. The nightmare of America that King’s middle class background had shielded him from. The terrorism it inflicted upon its people, chains of capitalism that made objects of subjects, the tentacles of imperialism that laid waste to non-White bodies the world over. He could no longer tell the Black youths of Chicago and Watts not to riot and resort to violence when his own country was the greatest purveyor of violence. When his country was built upon the slaughter of indigenous people, the enslavement and degradation of Black individuals, sustained through continued criminality. America had extended the long arm of its imperialistic rule by sending Black and Brown bodies to kill the Vietnamese in an immoral war.
He understood what it meant to speak out against America. He had seen Malcolm killed a year earlier as he shifted his focus to human rights and the international issue of the United States’ criminality. He had known that to speak out against capitalism would engender the rage of those who profited from war and its misery. He knew the costs of his calling, but he knew he could never be free if he was held by fear.
* * *
Whiteness is dead to me. It has been dying for some time. My intensity and seriousness has sharpened all the more, and I do not have time for those who aren’t bold in their commitment and courageous in the face of consequences. For whom diversity and inclusion are conversation pieces rather than lived deeds. For whom diversity is a college interest abandoned after graduation. For safe activists creating spectacles of showmanship at no risk to their well being, physical or otherwise. I have respected those with the courage to speak to me. Not about their appreciation for my writing, but for what they had to reexamine about themselves as white allies and accomplices. I have noted the cowardice of those who have spoken behind my back rather than approach me and ask questions they are not prepared to hear answers to. Is Mohammad done being friends with white people? Does he not want me to approach him at all? Does he hate white people? How am I supposed to feel as a white person reading this? Where is love in Mohammad’s philosophy if he says Whiteness is dead? What does he even mean when he says that?
It means I no longer care how white individuals perceive me. It means I’ve been code-switching for 14 years to make friends and I don’t want to perform. It means my white friends know not to ask me to compromise my intensity, my seriousness, or the questions that ask them to critically examine themselves. It means that when a white person asks me a question, I stop thinking about how to tell them what they want to hear. It means I warn them that honesty is my most important principle when I sense they are unready for what I will say. It means that if they persist in asking I will not restrain myself for fear of the fragility of their emotions. It means do not ask questions if you’re not ready for the answer. It means writing beautifully about ugly things that make you feel uncomfortable, because they are about you, but they have never been for you.
It means I do not exert effort to be likable by Whiteness. It means I’m not changing myself to be liked by anyone. It means I don’t want to be liked by people who don’t like themselves. It means I love the parts of myself Whiteness has taught me to hate because there is no space for love in Whiteness. It is a system that knows only hatred, greed, fear, envy, and destruction. It is because Whiteness is dead to me that I can love. That I can feel again. That I can open myself to the full experience of being human that Whiteness seeks to deny me. My love is for those whom Whiteness cannot love. It is for the students of color struggling to survive this campus who call me on late nights speaking of depression and suicide attempts. It is for the young men of color who see me as a role model for the qualities Whiteness has long denied them. It is for Facebook messages from students of color thanking me for writing what I did. For helping them find the words to say what they’ve felt but didn’t have the courage to say. It is for those that feel invisible on this campus. It is for my father who shouldn’t have to work two jobs until he dies. It is for my brother who was bullied throughout middle school for being Muslim and attempted suicide recently. It is for my sister whose mind is too similar to mine. I fear for the day she sees all that we’ve had to. It is for the marginalized and silenced, the invisible and ignored, the oppressed and targeted.
It means not wearing a button down shirt to class everyday in order to be respected by the professor. It means I’ve stopped thinking twice whenever I throw a hoodie on. It mean sitting in the Enclave with Future blasting, discussing colonialism and Fanon, playing a game of chess and drinking tea. It means people of color are my priority. It means I no longer associate with people who will not embrace me in my humanity. It means I’d rather be alone with my conscience than to keep the company of those that cannot accept me for my seriousness and intensity, my silliness and curiosity, my anger and rage, my doubt and fears, my confidence and my insecurities. It means I no longer cater to White values of objectivity, comfort, individualism, defensiveness and denial of responsibility.
To understand my calling means to have enough mental space to think about what can help students of color thrive. It means I can think about what the problem really is instead of being distracted by racist Yik-Yaks. It means I can imagine something beyond Whiteness. It means I can have the courage to live what I don’t yet see and what others may not yet understand. It means I have the courage to ask questions, the strength to live answers, and the humility to revise and revisit as I grow. It means I’ve accepted my calling. The consequences of the choices. The vulnerability of not running and the responsibility it entails. The moments of deep loneliness that test my commitment. Yet I also embrace its moments of fulfillment. The joy and meaning it has brought to my life. Feeling the intense beauty of living that transforms the mundane into the magical. The healing and laughter it brings. The love of those who truly see me for who I am. The knowing that I lived long enough to find my answer to what I live and die for.