With Lori Tharps
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NAMED ONE OF TIME‘S 100 MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE
Growing up in New Jersey as the only African American Muslim at school, Ibtihaj Muhammad always had to find her own way. When she discovered fencing, a sport traditionally reserved for the wealthy, she had to defy expectations and make a place for herself in a sport she grew to love.
From winning state championships to three-time All-America selections at Duke University, Ibtihaj was poised for success, but the fencing community wasn’t ready to welcome her with open arms just yet. As the only woman of color and the only religious minority on Team USA’s saber fencing squad, Ibtihaj had to chart her own path to success and Olympic glory.
Proud is a moving coming-of-age story from one of the nation’s most influential athletes and illustrates how she rose above it all.
In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.
Come on, Ibtihaj,” my best friend, Amy, pleaded. She wanted me to come to her sleepover birthday party, but I knew the chances I would be able to go were slim to none. There was just no way it was going to happen. The rules were pretty clear in our house. No sleepovers. My father had already ruled them out before I even knew what sleepovers were. But I really wanted to go to Amy’s party. She was my best friend. Plus, all the girls at school were having slumber parties now, and I was convinced I was the only third grader at Seth Boyden Elementary School who wasn’t allowed to sleep over at someone else’s house. Usually, on Monday mornings when all the girls were talking about how much fun they’d had together at a party over the weekend, I’d be stuck standing on the sidelines with nothing to add to the conversation.
“Can’t you ask your dad? Maybe he’ll say yes this time,” Amy prodded as we sat on the picnic table bench in her backyard, resting after playing jump rope and riding bikes. Amy always had the best ideas and was so clever.
“You know my dad,” I said, sighing. “But I’ll ask him anyway.”
“Just try to butter him up,” Amy suggested. “Give him a hug.”
I knew I would find my dad in his room getting ready to go to his evening shift at the precinct. He had gotten promoted to detective at work, so he didn’t have to wear his regular police uniform like he used to. But he was still a cop through and through, and the strict expectations he had at work for his officers were the same ones he had for his children at home. He ran our household with military precision. We knew not to question his authority or bend the rules. But I still held out hope that I’d change Abu’s mind, because I really wanted to go to Amy’s birthday party. I knocked on the door. “Abu,” I called out quietly. “Can I come in?”
I opened the door to my parents’ room and found Abu sitting on the bed pulling on his socks. I put a big smile on my face to get him in the right mood. Remembering Amy’s advice, I walked right over and gave him a big hug, wrapping my skinny arms around his compact frame and taking care to avoid the prickly whiskers in his thick beard.
“Abu,” I said, pulling away to look into his eyes. “My best friend, Amy, across the street is having a sleepover party for her birthday and wants to know if I can go. Can I?” I rushed out the words like I’d been holding my breath.
Abu didn’t even pause before answering. “Ibtihaj, you know the rules. No sleepovers. You won’t be sleeping at anyone’s house except this one. It’s not safe.”
“But you let me sleep at Auntie and Uncle Bernard’s house,” I reasoned.
“That’s different. They’re family,” he insisted, walking past me to head out the bedroom door.
I followed him down the carpeted steps to the living room. My mom was there putting my little sister, Faizah, to sleep on her lap. She still had on her hijab and her work clothes, dark, long, loose pants and a brown cotton tunic top. As a special-education teacher, Mom often found herself having to get on the floor with her students for certain activities.
“What’s going on?” Mom asked, noting the frustrated look on my face. She saw that I was fast on Abu’s trail, my face a mask of determination.
“Amy wants me to sleep over at her house for her birthday, but Abu said no,” I whined, willing my mother to make my father change his mind.
She glanced up at my father and took in what was going on between us. The stoic look on Abu’s face made it clear he wasn’t going to change his mind. Even I could tell that.
“You know the rules, Ibtihaj,” my mother said, echoing my father’s words from just a moment earlier. My feelings of hope deflated. Sometimes she could help make Abu see things differently, like the time she convinced him to let us keep a stray cat that we had found in the garage, even though Abu claimed he didn’t like pets. The cat ran away after only a few days, but after Abu saw how well we took care of it, he surprised us and brought home a beautiful umbrella cockatoo named Koocah that he rescued while on duty from a group of kids who were abusing her. And even though he still pretended to hate Koocah, she was now a real member of our family. So I knew there was room for my dad to change his mind, and I had inherited his stubbornness.
“Abu, the kids who are coming to the party are just the girls from my class,” I said. “There won’t be any boys there.”
My father was shuffling around the carpeted living room in his socks, collecting his keys, his wallet, and his glasses like he did every time he left the house. He stopped moving and turned to face me. “Ibtihaj, no sleepovers means no sleepovers,” he said with firmness in his voice to signal to me that the discussion was over.
The tears started to form in my eyes, and my dad walked over to me. “Ibtihaj, you don’t need to cry about this,” Abu said, smoothing down the stray hairs that had escaped from my braids.
I was frustrated. We had a lot of rules in our house. There were things we couldn’t do, like watch television during the week or listen to music on the radio; things we had to do, like wear our hijabs to school twice a week and pray five times a day; and things we were supposed to do, like get good grades and respect our parents. Some of the rules, I knew, came from the Quran, but some, like the sleepover rule, were simply because Abu was a protective father. He was a cop, and he saw bad things happen to good people every day. And some of the rules we followed in our house were because of where Abu and Mommy came from, which was where they didn’t want any of their kids to end up.
My parents were both born and raised in Newark, New Jersey. In 1967, when my parents were teens, the Newark riots broke out, and the city burned with rage. Newark’s Black residents were protesting the racism and relentless police brutality endemic to the city. The riots ran unabated for four days straight, and when it was all over, twenty-six people were dead, more than seven hundred injured, and more than a thousand people had been arrested. Most of the victims caught in the crossfire were Black. In the aftermath of the riots, most business owners on Springfield Avenue, the key commercial thoroughfare, didn’t bother to rebuild and left their stores abandoned and boarded up. Most of the white people who had the means to do so fled the city, fearing more riots. A lot of people gave up on Newark, and the city became synonymous with urban decay, unemployment, and poverty. Drug abuse and crime were pervasive. When federal dollars poured into Newark to rebuild it in the 1970s, most of that financial capital went to the downtown business districts and did nothing to help the Black residents who still lived in Newark’s residential areas. In other words, even after the riots, Newark remained burdened by the dark shadow of its past.
My mother, Denise, watched Newark burn, and it only strengthened her resolve to break free. The violence she witnessed frightened her, but it wasn’t wholly unexpected. Violence was something my mother acknowledged as part of the landscape of her neighborhood. But she had a plan. Like her sister, Diana, who was eleven years older and had a good job and lived in New York City, my mom knew she had to do well in school and get out of Newark. She planned to follow in her sister’s footsteps.
Mom said her friends and family always called her a prude because she refused to party with them. They said she was too serious. But my mother wasn’t a prude; she was just afraid of what would happen if she let herself run loose, even for a day. She watched her own mother try to fight her demons with alcohol and lose the battle every time. She didn’t want that life. She was determined to do things differently. She didn’t want to get stuck like so many of the women she saw on porch steps and street corners looking like they’d been through a war of their own making. Rather than find out what temptation tasted like, my mother sought stability. When she felt the need to hang out, she’d walk just a few blocks to visit her cousin, Sharon.
Sharon was a cousin from her mother’s side of the family. She was only a few years older than my mom, but she was living a life my mother admired. Sharon lived with her husband, Karim, and they had a marriage that wasn’t punctuated by violent fights and lonely tears like the relationships she witnessed growing up. Inside their small apartment, it felt like an oasis from the chaos in the streets, and it was one of the only places my mother felt really safe. For one thing, Karim was always home by six p.m. Sharon never paced the living room wondering where he was, whom he was with, or when he’d be home. Karim had a good job as a mechanic, and Sharon said he didn’t drink or smoke or hang in the streets.
Sharon felt like a big sister to my mom. They’d just watch TV and talk. One night, while hanging out in the kitchen, she asked Sharon how she found a guy like Karim who was not caught up in the streets.
“Girl, Karim is a Muslim,” Sharon said. “You have to find yourself a Muslim man to marry. They will always do right by you.”
“Karim’s a Muslim?” Mom asked. “Like he’s part of the Nation of Islam?”
“No, he’s Muslim. Karim says those Nation brothas are trippin’. He says they’re more interested in starting a revolution than getting right with God.”
“Are you going to become a Muslim?” Mom asked.
Sharon shrugged. “I’m thinking about it. Karim wants me to, especially before we have children.”
Mom considered the way Karim treated Sharon, with such obvious respect and care, so unlike the way her own father treated her mother, and told her cousin, “Girl, you should think about it, considering what a good man Karim is. That has to mean something.”
And it was at that moment that the seed of Islam was planted in my mother’s brain. Was converting to another religion a possibility for her, too? She began to study the men and women around the neighborhood whom she knew were Muslim. The men who belonged to the Nation were easy to recognize, standing in front of their storefront mosques with their bow ties and bean pies. The women, too, wearing long dresses and head coverings. They all seemed so sure of themselves, so proud. The Nation of Islam is a religious organization based on Muslim principles, but it is also deeply rooted in Black nationalism. My mom wasn’t looking to be political; she was searching for religion.
She started to visit Sharon and Karim more often to talk about Islam. They kept a Quran on their coffee table, and every time she visited, Mom liked to flip through the pages, searching for a message. At the time, she didn’t understand much of the Quran’s writings; the poetic language went over her head, but still there were enough verses that jumped off the page and spoke to her:
“Islam is the religion of mercy.”
“And whoever holds firmly to Allah has [indeed] been guided a straight path.”
“Allah does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear.”
These simple lines filled my mother’s spirit. She fell in love with Islam and the peaceful guidance that it offered. She started thinking about God as Allah. She put her short skirts away and started rethinking what she wore. By wearing long pants and long skirts she was in control of how her body would be perceived. By the time my mom started college at Rutgers University, she knew enough about the religion to know she had found her salvation. She was reinventing her life, rewriting her story. She knew that she wanted Islam in her future and all the honor and beauty it brought. It lifted her soul and gave her more to believe in than what was in front of her. She liked the idea that there was more in the world than the eye could see, that Allah had put us here with purpose, and she was devoted to honoring her newfound relationship with Him. Her soul, her heart, her life was now Muslim.
Unlike my mother, my father, Eugene, discovered Islam from his family members. He didn’t have to seek out a new religion on his own; he simply had to follow in his brothers’ footsteps. One of twelve children raised by a single mother, my father was the third eldest of the eight boys. All of his older brothers had joined the Nation of Islam before my father hit his teen years. The Nation of Islam appealed to many Black men in Newark because it offered spiritual guidance in the midst of all the city’s recklessness, and it came gift-wrapped in a Black nationalist agenda that uplifted Black men in a world determined to break their spirits. But as Abu matured, he found himself attracted not to the nationalist rhetoric used by certain factions of the Nation of Islam, but by the spiritual guidance and the irrefutable guidelines on how to live a God-conscious life.
Because Abu’s parents separated when he was five, my father was attracted to Islam’s emphasis on the family and the important role of the father in the family hierarchy. So, along with a group of other friends, Abu founded a new mosque in East Orange, New Jersey, where traditional Islamic precepts would be observed. It was there that he first saw my mother, who coincidentally had come to my father’s mosque to officially take her shahaadah, or declaration of faith. She seemed so earnest in her love of the religion and so dedicated to learning everything she could in the class for new converts, my father was immediately attracted to her. Sometimes he would peek into the classroom where she was studying and he would just watch her studying as she pored over the verses from the Quran, her glasses sliding down her nose.
My father acted quickly, as he knew a woman as beautiful as my mom with such a naked love of the faith wouldn’t be on the market for long. He asked some of his friends to find out all they could about this new convert, and he soon found out her name was Denise, but she had chosen the name Inayah when she converted. Following Muslim tradition, members of the mosque formally introduced my parents, and they went on only a handful of dates to see if they made a good match. They did, on both sides. My mother liked my father’s quiet sense of humor and that he had an entrepreneurial spirit. In addition to running the mosque, he also owned two small restaurants in Newark. Complementary to her understated beauty, my father fell in love with my mother’s enthusiasm for life and her love of children. She was an obvious nurturer and immediately made my father feel comfortable in his own skin. My father didn’t hesitate to make his intentions known, first to my mother’s parents and then to her. They were married a short time later, first signing their Islamic marriage contract in a traditional nikah ceremony, and then later they celebrated with a more formal occasion.
As part of their new life, my parents now went by their chosen names Inayah and Shamsiddin. Their new names symbolized their dedication to Allah, and that dedication extended to all aspects of their lives. They were not going to be Muslims in name only. In contrast to the way they were raised, my parents mutually agreed to raise their children following Muslim traditions. It was their gift to us. All meals would be halal, prayer would be observed five times a day, and hijab would be observed for the girls when they came of age. No matter what, family and faith would always come first. My mother vowed her children would never end up victims of the streets. My father vowed his children would always have a father in their lives. And so they found a spacious second-floor apartment in a quiet residential section of Newark and a private Islamic academy for the children to attend. Even though it was a struggle to send three children to a private school, my parents were both willing to sacrifice for their children’s spiritual education. Both of my parents wanted more for their children than what Newark—a city still licking the wounds from its past—would be able to provide, more than what Newark had given to them. So they started saving their money, and in just a few years they had saved enough to buy a cozy four-bedroom home in Maplewood, New Jersey.
The picturesque suburban township of Maplewood felt about as far away from urban decay as one can imagine. I was five years old when we drove into town, passing block after block of colonial-style brick homes with tidy lawns and manicured gardens. When Abu stopped in front of our new house, the first thing I noticed was the forest-green front door. The compact three-story home was painted a stark white with frosty mint–colored shutters draping the second-story windows. I wondered if there was a yard in back, because the small, square front yard didn’t look big enough for a good game of tag. Abu told us kids—my older sister, Brandilyn; my brother, Qareeb; me; and my little sister, Asiya—to get out of the car so he could show us something special. The four of us scrambled out of the back seat and followed my dad down the long driveway to the back of the house. There in front of us was a huge in-ground swimming pool. The pool took up a large portion of the backyard space, but I wasn’t going to complain. I wanted to jump in the water right then and there.
“Can we go swimming, Abu?” I begged.
“Ibtihaj, you don’t know how to swim,” my father said and laughed.
“I know, but I can do a cannonball, can’t I, Qareeb?” I said, trying to get my older brother to vouch for me.
“I don’t want any one of you kids even near this pool without me or your mother next to you,” my father said. “But I’m going to teach you all how to swim. That’s one of the reasons why we bought this house. My children aren’t going to be statistics, another Black kid drowning because no one ever taught them how to swim, no way.” And that was Abu—strong, focused, determined in his moves.
I didn’t know anyone who had a swimming pool in their backyard. In fact, most of my friends lived in apartments like we did, so no one even had a backyard. If we wanted to play outside, our moms usually took us to the park, but even then, they were always worried, telling us to keep our eyes open and pay attention to our surroundings. But everything about Maplewood seemed different than Newark. Newark was gritty, with a lot of pavement and dilapidated buildings. Maplewood was pure, full of trees and parks. Parts of Maplewood literally looked like a stand-in for a 1950s movie set, particularly the downtown area with its restaurants, cafés, bakeries, and bookstores. It looked like a storybook town to my parents. The park in the center of town was designed by John Olmsted and Frederick Olmsted, Jr., sons of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and had a duck pond and white wooden gazebos dotting the area. My parents knew they made the right decision to raise their family in Maplewood. In addition to all of the family-friendly amenities, including good public schools, libraries, and a community center, Maplewood was also an anomaly because of its racial and economic diversity.
In the early nineties when my family and I arrived in Maplewood, the city was approximately 59 percent white and 33 percent Black. There was only one other Muslim family in town, but the women in that family didn’t wear hijab like we did. But the lack of other Muslims didn’t stop me from finding friends and feeling right at home. My first and best friend was Amy.
Amy had big round brown eyes and long black hair that she always wore in two lopsided ponytails. I remember soon after we moved in, Amy crossed the street with her mother and came to say hello. Then while our mothers talked, Amy asked me if I had a bicycle.
“Yeah, I have a bicycle,” I said. “It’s purple and pink. Pink’s my favorite color.” After that, it didn’t take Amy and me long to set up a routine. First, we’d grab our bikes and ride up and down our driveway, talking about all the things we were going to do that day, and when we grew bored of that, we’d head over to her backyard and play until our moms called us in for dinner.
One time, not long after we moved in, Amy and I were sitting in the grass in her backyard and she asked me, “Ibtihaj, how come your mom always wears a scarf on her head?”
No one had ever asked me that before. All my friends in Newark from my preschool and the masjid where we went to pray all had moms who wore hijab. In fact, I didn’t have any friends except Amy who had a mother who let her hair out in public.
I had to stop and think for a minute before I could answer Amy’s question. “My mom wears hijab because we’re Muslim,” I said as I pulled up a handful of grass and then tried to weave the blades together into some kind of tapestry.
“What’s a Muslim?” Amy asked, a frown wrinkling her suntanned face.
I looked at my new friend and wondered why she didn’t know what it meant to be Muslim. “It’s our religion.”
“When you grow up are you going to wear the same thing on your head like your mom does?” Amy asked.
I shrugged my shoulders. “Yeah, I guess so. Sometimes I wear a scarf now for special occasions.”
“That’s cool,” Amy said, obviously satisfied with my answers.
In my room, I plopped down on the floor of the bedroom I shared with my sister Asiya. Asiya was only five, but she was a good listener. My mom always joked that Asiya was a good listener because I talked so much.
“What’s the matter?” Asiya asked me as I picked up a Barbie doll from our stash. Playing with our Barbies was always my default method of passing time. I could lose myself playing with my dolls any day of the week, imagining a fabulous life for them with their cool clothes and ever-changing hairdos. As I found a new outfit for the honey-colored Barbie in my hand and combed her thick black hair, I recounted my tale of woe to my little sister.
“I hope Mommy can convince Abu to let me go to Amy’s sleepover party,” I said to Asiya. “Amy really wants me to be there. I’m her best friend.”
“But we never sleep over anywhere,” Asiya said, as if she hadn’t heard a word I’d said.
I shook my head at my sister. What did she know? I turned back to my Barbie and continued dressing her. A short time later, I heard my mother calling me.
“Ibtihaj, come here, please.”
Asiya looked at me, and I smiled. I hoped my mother had good news for me. I padded down the stairs and saw my mother waiting for me, still seated on the couch. Faizah was asleep in her rocking seat next to her. It appeared my father was gone.
“Where’s Abu?” I asked, desperately scanning the first floor for him.
“He left for work,” Mom said and told me to come sit with her. I leaped over to the couch and snuggled in close to her. I loved my baby sister Faizah, but she took up a lot of my mother’s snuggle time, so when I got my chance, I took it. Mom was warm and soft and she smelled like comfort. I loved that we looked the most alike, with our matching golden skin and hazel-colored eyes.
My mother looked me in the eye. “Ibtihaj, you know your father and I make rules to keep you and your siblings safe. It’s not safe for you to sleep over at other people’s homes when we don’t know who all is going to be there.”
“But it’s Amy’s house. They live across the street. You know them,” I said, trying not to whine.
“I know,” she said, “but rules are rules.”
I hung my head in defeat. Amy was going to be disappointed, and I was going to continue to be the odd one out on Monday when everyone was talking about it at school.
“But”—she wasn’t done—“I convinced your father that since we do know Amy and her family, and since they do live right across the street, you can go to the birthday party.”
“Yes!” I shouted, jumping off the couch.
“Don’t get too excited,” she said. “I said you can go, but we will pick you up around eight-thirty, so no sleeping over.”
To me this was still a win. I just wanted to be there.
I squealed, thanked her, and dashed over to Amy’s to share the big news.
Amy’s party was fun, but it wasn’t as exciting as I’d expected. Most of the girls from our third-grade class were there, and we played in Amy’s backyard until the sun set. Then Amy’s mother called us all in for pizza and soda. After that, Amy’s mother brought in a big sheet cake decorated with big pink-and-yellow flowers, and we all sang happy birthday and watched Amy open her presents. By the time my mom came to pick me up, the rest of the girls were changing into their pajamas and brushing their teeth because Amy’s mom said the lights were going off in one hour. So the only thing about the sleepover I was going to miss was the sleeping part.
When I got home I told my sisters and my mom about the party as we sat around our big wooden kitchen table.
“Did you have fun?” Mom asked.
- "What a clear-eyed and amazing memoir.... I plowed through it.... Ibtihaj's story is at once so deeply personal and amazingly universal."—Jacqueline Woodson, National Book Award winner and New York Times bestselling author of Brown Girl Dreaming and Another Brooklyn
- "Her story is inspiring and illuminating."—The Christian Science Monitor
- "A tumultuous, unforgettable tale of perseverance and faith."—The Chicago Tribune
- "A must-read."—PopSugar
- "[Ibtihaj's] stories of fighting racism and xenophobia are inspiring... but Muhammad's battles with her own demons are equally brave and 100 percent relatable."—Glamour.com
- "Ibtihaj Muhammad is as sharp with her words as she is with a sabre."—The National (United Arab Emirates)
"Fencing made her who she is today, but fencing isn't her only narrative. Her journey is one of authenticity at all costs and being unapologetically herself."
"A powerful sentiment that sums up not only her own struggles, but those of so many minorities in America."
—The Daily Beast
"It's clear that Muhammad has become an icon beyond the realm of sports.... Ibtihaj Muhammad's journey is uniquely her own, and yet, it is one that many people will find relatable, comforting, and inspiring."
- On Sale
- Apr 23, 2019
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Hachette Books