Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer sat poised, legs crossed, at the front of the lecture hall. Even before she introduced herself, the audience thrummed, more lively than the hushed and severe crowds I usually confront at these things.
As Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Michigan, with a book and years of field research under her belt, Dr. Abdul Khabeer is an accomplished scholar. She studies intersections of Blackness and Muslimness in perceptions of race in America. Her book “Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip-Hop in the United States” is such an examination of race, religion and pop culture. She also presents her anthropological research through performance. On Thursday, Sept. 12, Dr. Khabeer ascended to the podium with song, assuming traditional lecture posture. Then she moved to center stage and asked us, “Can you hear our collective genius, and desperation?”
Alongside writing “Muslim Cool,” she produced “Sampled: Beats of Muslim Life,” a solo show that combines her ethnography research with poetry, theater and movement. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Africana Studies program at Vassar, Khabeer came to Taylor Hall to perform parts of “Sampled,” explaining her aesthetic choices and anthropological arguments in between—a refreshing take on the research presentation.
In “Sampled,” she sampled a series of “theatrical vignettes,” portraits confronting the complexities of being Black and/or Muslim in the United States. From her identity portion as a Black Latina Muslim, Khabeer put on a performance both personal and panoramic. The characters in her vignettes were as diverse as her choices in media (spoken word, video, dance). She confronted issues faced by African Americans, Muslims of all ethnic backgrounds, as well as working-class Americans—she affirmed that millions occupy more than one of these identities. These issues range from inequalities within the American Muslim community to its role in national racial dynamics.
Khabeer talked about Esperanza, a Latina multimedia artist and teacher, and her camouflage scarf. Esperanza wore a camo scarf partly because, out of financial necessity, her brother had to join the United States military. She recoiled when a more privileged Muslim girl complimented the scarf, ignorant of its significance to Esperanza. “[N]o matter how much Islam [they had] in common,” this scarf was riddled with meaning unknown to the admirer and revealed some much-overlooked inequalities in the Muslim community. This anecdote examined the privileges of being suburban and educated, as well as the idea that South Asian or Arab Muslims have more “cultural authenticity.” Still, the camo-loving girl also had to navigate a unique racialized and gendered identity.
Perched on a storyteller’s chair center stage, Khabeer narrated a video about a Muslim woman who wants to start wearing a hijab. It was reminiscent of a game show (as host she asked the audience, “What kind of hijabi will she be?”). Despite the protagonist’s suburban middle-class background, she chooses the “hoodjabi” type (a portmanteau of “hood” and “hijabi”) because she thinks it’s cool. Khabeer said sardonically, “At the end of the day, aren’t we all being screwed over anyway?” This vignette touched on Orientalism, class and the “static, monolithic perceptions of Muslim women” in the States.
In “Sampled,” Khabeer drew on hip-hop a product of Afro-diasporic culture and an art and attitude as multifaceted as her subject matter. Like Islam, hip-hop culture “transcends borders” of state, body and Black American identity. She describes “Muslim Cool,” then, as an aesthetic and epistemology at the crossroads of Blackness and American Islam, which are inextricably linked. Although anthropologists usually study performance rather than study through performance, she explained that “embodied knowledge” communicates breadth and complexity better than a paper or book.
Presenting research like this is risky. In the vignette “Fatima,” she knelt in prayer while a video of her dancing played overhead—there is no single way to be pious. Years ago she performed “Fatima” at a convention in the Netherlands, where an audience member perceived the spiritual as sensual. An American woman asked, “Is she allowed to move like that?”
Khabeer cherishes her unique position as scholar-artist, citing how Muslim audience members have told her they’re not used to seeing such complex representations of themselves in media. She’s also a cultural authority. When asked “What are some regional differences in hip-hop’s incorporation of Islam?,” she cited knowledge of self, the ethical and spiritual core of hip-hop culture in the Migos track “T-Shirt.” Other viewers have celebrated her inersectional approach, or her introducing them to Islamic and hip-hop culture. Professor of Religion Marc Epstein lauded, “This blew my mind. This is like a rich dessert.”
In 1969, 35 African American students occupied Main building, demanding that the school create the Black Studies Program. It is now known as the Africana Studies Program, a mainstay of the Vassar curriculum. Khabeer’s “Muslim Cool” performance was part of a series of events marking the 50th anniversary of the program’s creation. To further celebrate this transformation of Vassar academics, Abrianna Harris ’21 will consider her experience as an Africana Studies student at Vassar in “Radical Resistance, Radical Joy: A Reflection on the Legacy of Black Life at Vassar,” which will take place at 5:30 p.m. in the Class of 1951 Reading Room on Thursday, Sept. 19.
Khabeer’s performance resonates with “Radical Resistance, Radical Joy.” Not only did she show that Blackness is an integral part of American Islam, but she also chronicled the personal journey of a scholar. Her work is unique in argument and form, exploring overlooked cultural conundrums and the boundaries of academia and art. In this way, she is a shining sample of Black intellectual and artistic life. As Vassar’s Africana Studies Program grows, the school also envisions the future of academics and art in the United States.