Racism in America : Life as an Arab-American

“I have lived with hate but not in terror. We have had years of hostility directed toward us, not centuries.”

Magazine - Unbearable acts - Illustration 1
"Whenever Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech, we attended around that dining room table, his dreams ringing in our ears, shaping our ideals as new Americans" [Samar Zureik]

Over the last year, the number of unarmed African Americans killed both by citizens and police has topped 1,000, and the political inaction, as well as citizen-driven campaigns to support the police and people who have committed these acts, have heightened the race war climate and fuelled unbearable hostilities.

Some say social media has hyperbolised what was there all along. Others see the militarisation of the police force as over-arming already zealous law enforcement. Despite direct video of many of these killings, consequences are never felt, and many others then feel enabled to commit similar acts. Justification rather than justice.

Unbearable acts 

These unbearable acts, which we can dial up on Youtube with the right key words, transport me to the dining room of my childhood home. We had a television, like many families of the early 1960s, but ours was out of reach. It sat in the upper corner of the dining room, and even my father had to stand on a chair to reach it.


As children, we did not choose what we watched or when. My parents selected our programmes: half an hour to an hour of harmless family comedies – nice families, white families, who ate meat and potatoes and wore sneakers to school. Each story was a lesson about jealousy or greed or cheating. The kid always learned his lesson.

Any other programming was for my father – who, after being in his store for 12 hours, needed to relax. He loved Westerns: Gunsmoke and Bonanza . Most nights he watched the news – Walter Cronkite clearly guiding us through the Bay of Pigs, the death of JFK and the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of the president. 

We did our homework at the table during the news, catching the end of the Cold War and witnessing the beginning of another struggle – the fight for the Civil Rights Act. Nightly reports of marches, of speeches, of campaigns and negotiations mixed with the violent response of the police, the governors and of the white racist population of the South. Marchers were beaten, dogs were sent in to attack them; many were boldly executed. 

My parents, who protected us from thrillers and adult shows, did not shield us from seeing this piece of history. Whenever Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech, we attended around that dining room table, his dreams ringing in our ears, shaping our ideals as new Americans.

Small town segregation  

“As small as the community was, it was segregated – a handful of African Americans lived down the hill, and in every direction beyond us, there were whiter, more affluent residents”

At that time, we resided in a town in southwestern Pennsylvania – Masontown – where a handful of African Americans lived down the hill on Harvey Avenue. As small as the community was, it was segregated. Our house sat just up from the Avenue on Main Street, and in every direction beyond us, more affluent, whiter residents mirrored the characters of the family shows we watched on television.

Perhaps it was our position between these two worlds, or my father’s belief that no one was better than anyone else, that led him to hire African Americans to work in our store and in our large garden, to get to know their families and to let the children of Mr Herder play in our yard.

The children from Harvey Avenue passed by our house on the way to school and, at that moment, we did not recognise the small link that we had.

Our family was part of the immigrant community that was trying, in some ways, to assimilate, to be accepted into the tight-knit world of Masontown. What might work? Being a perfect student, always being well-dressed, changing my name to a more American one for school, dying my hair blond to appear more beautiful at a wedding?

My mother and father joined all the clubs, participated in town-wide events and parades and held card parties.

In turn, we tried to share our culture with our neighbours – my mother enthusiastic about understanding and sharing.

For all of the efforts, the nice clothes and good manners, the perfect English and exemplary grades, we did not escape being called ‘sand nigger’ or ‘camel-jockey’. Later, when we moved to an all-white community as my father was trying to grow his business, the prejudice was aggressive. And tiresome.

“We tried to share our culture with our neighbours – but we did not escape being called ‘camel-jockey'” 

The Dr King of my literary life   

One by one each of the six children escaped – our lives shaped by the early exposure to civil rights, by our own struggles to be accepted and by being Arab-American.

My path led to writing, but the road was bumpy. Poetry poured out of me. I was encouraged by my professors, but could not find my place. The literary canon burst with an Anglo-centric demeanour and it felt dispassionate to me – I could relate technically but not emotionally. The rise of the ‘ethnic’ writer was far off and, as a writer, I felt alone. If there were Arab-American writers, other than Gibran Khalil Gibran, they were not included in my education.

Then one professor assigned Langston Hughes in an American Modern Poetry class. A few years before, my parents had given me a poster for my bedroom that was supposed to inspire me. On it was a short poem called Dream by Hughes. I had it memorised and chanted it in my head: “Hold fast to dreams ….”

Not until this class, did I know that Hughes was African American, that his poetry was a plain-speaking, politically-based examination of the conditions of life as an African American. He became the Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. of my literary life – I adopted his ideals as a poet.

Before the internet, we had libraries, and the section where Hughes was housed introduced me to Gwendolyn Brooks, Etheridge Knight and Amiri Baraka. My poetry family formed on these shelves and my sense of belonging to literature convinced me I could continue. These writers taught me a poet could unmask with language to show truth, rather than mask reality to exalt life. 

Inherent in being a writer and a student of the poets of the Black Arts Movement and of African American literature was an understanding of the essentiality of my racial identity. Every immigrant group experiences some rugged beginnings, but political events often prolong the struggle. Japanese were interned in camps during World War II; Mexican Americans are detained in malicious environments along the border.

As an Arab-American, we have had warm and hot moments. They are paradoxical. The times when the anti-Arab-American sentiments are highest are also the times when the Arab-American writer’s presence is more in demand. One part of the population wants to kill you; the other part wants to hear from you. After 9/11, my invitations to be a reader, be on panels and present my work multiplied, even though I had been writing for 20 years and my major work was already 10 years old.

In reality, the publishing world was not all that interested in Arab-American writing when my first works were published. Despite my MFA from Columbia University, or the post-doctoral fellowship I won to work on my memoir, Children of the Roojme , under the guidance of Toni Morrison, my writing was relegated to a ‘special interest – ethnic’ category that stipulated if a publisher put out one Arab-American writer, they did not need another for quite a while – and that included cookbooks.

My successes as a writer are largely due to the vision of African American publishers and writers. Besides the enormous support of Morrison, both presses that published my poetry, Sufiwarrior Press and Willow Books, are African American-owned publishers. I was not confused when I found my family on the bookshelves in the library where Langston Hughes led me.

The intersectionality of my literary life and my political ideals hardened my loyalty to civil rights and racial equality. Not only because of my experiences, but also because my core beliefs dictate a loyalty to the words of Dr King, to that moment of communion with my family at the table, and to my father at his best: standing in the garden talking to Mr Herder when no one else would.

A statement and a symbol

We have witnessed multiple unbearable acts over the years. The massacre of the churchgoers by Dylan Roof on June 17 is but one. Each time the images of aggression and violence against unarmed African Americans; of assault against someone’s body, such as the pool party attack in McKinney, Texas; of the exoneration of the cop who killed seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones during a ‘no-knock’ raid in Akron, Ohio last year, a persistent question arises in me: What are our collective beliefs? And, if we have any at all, are all bets off when it comes to the lives of African Americans?

All of the acts of prejudice I have encountered do not amount to one of the unnecessary aggressions that are facing African Americans every day – not only to those who go out and march, who run the streets, or have joined gangs. It is babies on the couch, kids walking home, a man selling cigarettes, a girl at a pool party, a man buying a toy at Wal-Mart, and singing and praying congregational members in their church. Now parents are priming their children in how to walk the streets, what to do if a cop is around, how to survive – and after all that, they never stop worrying.

I have lived with hate but not in terror. We have had years of hostility directed toward us as Arab-Americans, not centuries. African Americans consider their daily lives differently from me, with a readiness to face kindness or anger; acceptance or prejudice; love or violence – as one alone in an environment and feeling targeted, or being one of many and feeling like a threat. Even in church.

Elmaz Abinader is an author and performer. Her most recent poetry collection, This House, My Bones, was The Editor’s Selection for 2014 from Willow Books/Aquarius. Her books include a memoir: Children of the Roojme, A Family’s Journey from Lebanon, and a book of poetry, In the Country of My Dreams…, which won the Oakland PEN, Josephine Miles Award. Her plays include Ramadan Moon, 32 Mohammeds, and Country of Origin. Elmaz is one of the co-founders of The Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA/Voices) a writing workshop for writers of colour.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy .

This article first appeared in a special edition of the Al Jazeera Magazine exploring race in the US. Download it for iPads and iPhones  here , and for Android devices  here .  

Source: Al Jazeera