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Reflecting on the life and work of Muhiyidin d'Baha

He wanted to wake us

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This past Monday night I couldn’t stay asleep. It was frustrating. I usually go through these things with some sense of why, but not this time. I dozed and woke seemingly every 30 minutes to an hour, but at 1:30 a.m. I found myself slightly shaken. I’d decided to keep myself from fretting over my insomnia by reading a little. Soon I dozed off with the book on my chest, but then felt the distinct sensation of someone slapping my cheeks, the way one does when trying to rouse someone from a deep slumber. I opened my eyes, but there was no one there. It was a weird dream and I didn’t like it. It’s sheer coincidence that this occurred the same night Charleston activist and local Black Lives Matter leader Muhiyidin d’Baha was shot while riding his bicycle in New Orleans. According to police, he died from his injuries the next morning. When I sat down to think over what I knew about this dynamic activist’s life, the slaps in my dream started to feel like a stinging symbolism.

Muhiyidin and I were not friends. I met him a few times, but for the most part, all we share are a handful of very smart friends who have a deep love and frustration with their Charleston community. To be honest, the first time I ever laid eyes on Muhiyidin he pissed me off. Greatly. I never really forgave him for that moment or the one that occurred the next time I saw him. I’m pretty sure there are several politicians, social justice activists, media personalities, and childhood friends who had similar moments of anger or frustration.

But here’s the thing … no one will ever forget being in a room with Muhiyidin d’Baha.

Muhiyidin may have been irreverent and disruptive. He may have even seemed volatile at times, but he was absolutely unforgettable. I remember my facepalm during my third or fourth Muhiyidin sighting, which took place at Circular Congregational Church. He was shouting at the late Gwen Ifill during a taping of a PBS Evening News Town Hall about racial discourse in the wake of the Mother Emanuel AME Church massacre. Everyone who was there remembers that moment, and while many of us were aghast, all of us knew the basis of his intentions were to keep the topics of equality and justice at the forefront of community conversation. The same was true when he started a protest chant during lecture on Jackie Robinson’s activism given by Ken Burns and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

There were many who loved Muhiyidin’s audacity. Others wished he would at least settle down enough to palatably coordinate his message with others in order to reach a wider audience. No matter what we all wished over him, his message was always firmly settled. He was committed to seeing his hometown and his country “…really look after individuals and look after people,” which, he noted, is “…a little bit different than just winning talking points or changing public opinion so we can get someone into office.” This is why he didn’t care much about who was in the spotlight at the moment. The point was to keep the flames of this message burning at all levels, in sight of all people, at all costs. This tactic, much like this extremely intelligent man’s life, burned hot enough to imprint our retinae, but like the brightest flame, it was snuffed out too quickly. 

At the time of his death, many in Charleston hadn’t heard from Muhiyidin in a while. He’d gone quiet as many of us continued to underestimate him and fail to forgive him for disrupting friends and adversaries, alike. We’d failed to consider that what Muhiyidin had been doing all along was his just another part of his greatest gift to the world—the gift of unabashed growth in experience.

Muhiyidin d’Baha’s activism was unforgettable because he unapologetically experienced his grand triumphs and glaring mistakes while accepting the consequences and growth spurts that accompanied each. He was a complicated showman in constant search for the right means of executing his message. On a personal level, he was warm and engaging to everyone he met. He was the embodiment of Charleston’s self-denial and self-discovery and complications. Except he listened to everyone, he read everything, and he acknowledged every feeling.

Muhiyidin understood Charleston’s conflicts with itself and its discomfort with its past, which is to understand the contradictions that have led the nation to its current moment of unresolved racial and class anxieties. He stepped out of the spotlight to reflect and mature, and neither Charleston—nor the world—had really seen anything from him yet. His potential had only just begun. Muhiyidin understood Charleston’s desire to hide from itself in slumber, and he was constantly slapping our cheeks and telling us to wake up—not just to the recognition of continued inequality and racial disparities, but to the sense of community we are denied when we refuse to tell the truth about ourselves and our past. Muhiyidin lived his bold strokes and bold mistakes in the open, showing us the uncapped possibilities that might be possible for the Holy City through his own uncapped potential to lead by learning.

He was trying to slap us awake so we wouldn’t miss those possibilities, and now many—myself, included—are realizing the extent of his importance too late. And we are sorry. And we are grieving. And we are figuring out how to use the gift of potential Muhiyidin gave to us to create some permanent good.

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