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Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali
July 07, 2018
Call number: 2018.006.23
ALI: Okay. I'm Zaheer Ali from Brooklyn Historical Society, and I am here doingan oral history interview with Idris Braithwaite at Abu's Bakery at 1184 Fulton Street. And this interview is for the Muslims in Brooklyn project. Idris, if you can -- I don't think -- let me say the date. I don't know if I said the date. Today is Saturday, July 7, 2018. So Idris, if you can introduce yourself by giving your full birth name and birth date, and then we can begin.
BRAITHWAITE: [inaudible]. Hi, my name is Idris Braithwaite, born [date redactedfor privacy], 1971, and today's date is July 7, 2018.
ALI: Okay. We are also in this interview joined by Idris's son, JibrielBraithwaite, who is witnessing his father's oral history. 1:00
ALI: Have you ever done an oral history before?
BRAITHWAITE: Not that I -- no, not that I recall.
ALI: Okay. All right. Well, this is good. This will be part of a permanentarchive for you and your family and generations to come, so --
BRAITHWAITE: That's awesome.
ALI: -- so let's start. So tell me where were you born and where did you grow up.
BRAITHWAITE: I was born in Brooklyn, St. Mary's Hospital, which is not -- it'sno longer around, unfortunately, but it's not too far from where we are right now, the same Bed-Stuy area. But I've grown up in different locations, Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, but all relatively -- you know, I've spent time in Brooklyn most of my life, and I currently live in Charlotte, North Carolina.
ALI: Okay, so we'll get into what prompted the move out of Brooklyn.
ALI: Tell me a little about your family.2:00
BRAITHWAITE: So I'm the eldest of six children. I have a younger brother, Hanif.There are three boys and three girls.
BRAITHWAITE: So --
ALI: Total, including you.
BRAITHWAITE: -- total, total, including myself.
BRAITHWAITE: And I'm the eldest. Alhamdulillah, everybody has a set of children.Everyone is doing well. My nieces and nephews can be found, you know, at the bakery quite often, my sons' families, a very close-knit family. Everybody does well. We have some doctors in the family. We have electricians and schoolteachers, you know, following the tradition of my -- of my -- my mom, nurses. So, Alhamdulillah, everybody is well adjusted and doing well.
ALI: So -- so growing up, how spaced out were you and your siblings in terms of years?3:00
BRAITHWAITE: I am the oldest, and I've -- my brother -- I'm seven years olderthan my brother, youngest, closest to me, and they kind of all come together in, like, a clutch, more, you know, bang, bang, bang --
ALI: Okay. Okay.
BRAITHWAITE: -- more, you know -- but the separation of the seven years -- it'smore like two years between everybody else.
ALI: Okay. Okay.
BRAITHWAITE: You know.
ALI: So you -- you are, in a sense, significantly older, if there are sevenyears between you and the rest of your siblings.
BRAITHWAITE: Right, right, right, right, right.
ALI: Growing up, did you have to help out with -- with taking care of your siblings?
BRAITHWAITE: I mean, you know, typical duties of an older brother, you know,babysitting and Pampers and stuff like that. So, you know, now that I think about it, I mean, I kind of do have an affinity to babies, so even myself, my wife, you know, having children, I kind of, like, am very child-friendly, you 4:00know, all of my nieces and nephews.
ALI: [laughter] Right. Right.
BRAITHWAITE: So maybe that has something to do with --
BRAITHWAITE: -- you know, having a lot of --
ALI: Early on.
BRAITHWAITE: -- yeah, babies around, you know, my siblings. I never thoughtabout that, but -- yeah.
ALI: So tell me what it was like growing up in the '70s. Well, let me just do itthis way. When you were born, growing up in the early part of your memories, what was -- was Islam in your family's life at that time?
BRAITHWAITE: You know what, I would say it wasn't such a prominent impact, youknow, besides my name, you know, as far as what's distinct -- the distinctions. But around me, most of my friends and my mother's friends weren't Muslim. A lot of --
ALI: Were or were not?
BRAITHWAITE: Were not Muslim.
ALI: Were not Muslim.
BRAITHWAITE: What I recall, the most influential sort of movement or thing that5:00sticks out in my mind was sort of, like, a Black nationalist kind of thing. We were -- my parents were involved with the East Movement, which is called Uhuru Sasa, and I went to those kind of very Black nationalist -- if anything. Other than that, you know, very typical, you know, African American, grew up in Bushwick, and I don't know when it occurred to me that I was Muslim or that I was different. I grew up very much like everyone else, you know. I think for me, looking back, being Muslim really is something that women, because of their dress codes, have to be very cognizant of and very conscious of. And for young men, it's like, "Eh," you know. It's not really as prominent as an issue, you 6:00know. It doesn't really come up until somebody is like, "Oh, what's your name?" "Idris." And then, "Oh, where does that come from?" you know, that kind of thing. But growing up, the only real -- my first memories of, like, any significant otherness, other than being African American, was being into the Black nationalist thing heavily, you know.
ALI: So you said, "Other than being African American." Tell me about theotherness that you felt growing up, being African American.
BRAITHWAITE: Well, like I said, it wasn't a heavy -- it was like we're the samebut different, so there were situations -- it's funny, because I was talking to my kids the other day about salat, you know. Salat was the thing that kind of distinguished the Muslim or me -- it distinguished me from everyone else, and it wasn't a nice thing. Unfortunately, it wasn't -- it wasn't something that I recall with fond memories, because you'll be playing ball or you'll be playing 7:00skully or you'll be doing something that all the other kids -- and then, out the window, it's like, "Idris, come in." And I'm like, "Oh, my God." So it was like being pulled out of the now that every -- you know, that young kids live in every -- it seemed like every two minutes, but it might have been, like, every three, four hours. [laughter] And I was telling my kids, like, one thing that sticks out in my mind distinctly, one situation, I was in the movies. You know, I went with some older brothers, you know, teenage types, and we went to the movies. And we were watching a karate movie, and it was, like, you know -- back in the day, everybody loved karate movies. And then, it was like, "Time for salat." And it was like, "Bro," you know, and we left. We left the movie theater, and I remember being so upset about that. I mean, so --
ALI: How old were you? Do you remember?
BRAITHWAITE: I might have been, like, 15, you know, and --
ALI: Did you -- when they were like, "It's time," or whoever was like, "It's8:00time for salat," did you --
BRAITHWAITE: Right. Right.
ALI: -- say something, or were you -- did you try to like --
BRAITHWAITE: Yeah, I --
ALI: -- "Can we stay and watch the movie?" or --
BRAITHWAITE: Yeah. I think, you know, it's funny, because, yes, I remember beingvery outspoken and things. You know, I'm -- Islam to me was present unlike, you know, for my parents, who made a conscious decision to become Muslim. And I think when you make a conscious decision you're much more willing to stick to the -- hit the marks, so to speak. And so me growing up Muslim, where I say, like, the majority of my parents' friends or my friends weren't Muslim, you know, I grew up just doing everything else like everybody else did. So when the, 9:00like, emphasis of Islam was placed on me, it became, like, an interference. You know what I'm saying? So I wasn't used to that kind of stuff. I might have said, you know, my earlier years, I wasn't used to, you know, this Islam sort of impinging on my sort of reality. So when my family got, you know, more into Islam -- because their Islam developed, you know, younger teenage and twenties, thirties, whatever, so their Islam developed, and as a child that sort of, like, forces you to make this transition. And for them, it's conscious. For me, it's an imposed, you know, kind of thing.
ALI: What were -- do you -- do you remember when this became more pronounced?Was it a specific time or --
ALI: -- event?
BRAITHWAITE: Well, I can't -- you know, as far -- like, I don't really think of10:00-- I'm not good with dates and times and things of that nature, but I do remember asking my dad, like, "How do you know, you know, Prophet Muhammad was the messenger and all that stuff?" I didn't get a good answer. He was kind of upset that I even asked a question like that. [laughter] He was like, you know -- it wasn't -- it wasn't -- I didn't get a good philosophical, like, "You know, I'm glad you asked me that." He was more like, "How dare you ask me something like that?" You know, and -- so that kind of, like, sticks out in my mind, maybe the moment that I was like, "Huh, where does this come from?" You know, so, again, like, being Muslim, growing up Muslim, there's so much that you just take for granted, that you don't really know that it's different until you are 11:00dealing with other people. And then, they're, you know, eating pork, or, "I don't do that," or, you know, these kinds of things. It's funny.
ALI: What -- what were some of the -- so you mentioned prayer, feeling like itwas an intrusion --
BRAITHWAITE: Intrusion, yeah, definitely.
ALI: -- into your enjoyment of life.
BRAITHWAITE: Right, right, right, right, right.
ALI: -- [laughter] as a young person.
ALI: What were some of the other challenges for you as your family became moredeeply committed as Muslims?
BRAITHWAITE: Well, I mean, I think that there was always an issue with fashion,right? So the Muslim identity, the Muslim identity, I think to this very day, especially for an indigenous African American community, has always been a hot point, you know. And growing up, I remember different -- because you got to 12:00Islamic schools, and then Islamic schools will -- back then, anyway, because when my kids -- when they went to Islamic schools, they just had, like, regular blue pants and a polo shirt, which was cool. But back then, there was a very big emphasis on looking like a Muslim or being Islamic, so the Islamic schools had thawbs and other items of clothing that were identified as Islamic, you know.
And I remember I would get, like, a thawb, and then I'd be like, "I don't likethis." Then, my mother would cut it like this and cut it like this until at some -- at one point it's like a T-shirt, you know what I'm saying. [laughter] Like, you should have just bought a shirt, you know, but I really didn't -- I never really was a kufi guy or a thawb guy. I never really bought into the whole 13:00otherness or the identity. I mean, I was into clothes. You know, at a certain point, when teenagers get into clothes, I was trying to be polo fresh and Coca Cola clothes like everybody else. You know what I'm saying? I didn't want to be walking around with no thawbs or no alien indig-- alien culture. And, you know, my parents weren't very strict with regards to that. Like I said, that, the staunchness, really is imposed or is -- it's more like women. Women have less options in that regard, so you really couldn't say nothing. It was like, "I don't have to wear a thawb." You know what I'm saying? There was no Islamic --
BRAITHWAITE: -- jurisprudence that said -- you know, so there was really nopushback. It was really more to try to coalesce this Islamic identity among -- within the community. So I always kind of pushed back from this whole kind of, 14:00like -- the groupthink kind of thing.
ALI: So you mentioned your mother helping you by raising the hem of your thawb.
BRAITHWAITE: Right, right, right. Exactly.
ALI: So do you remember having conversations with your parents? What kind ofconversations did you have with your parents as you were trying to negotiate a space for yourself within Islam that was comfortable to you at that time?
BRAITHWAITE: I just feel like -- I don't know if, you know -- like today, I can-- we can have a discussion about that. But as a young person, I just saw or felt like style-wise, you know, this is not fly. You know, for kids, it just is simple. I don't know -- you know, I'm not dealing with all the ideological and the heavy philosophy. Polo don't make that. You know what I'm saying? [laughter] So it was more like that than anything else.
M1: What's up, bro? Long time.
BRAITHWAITE: Hey, what's going on? How are you?
M1: I'm going to try some of this cake [inaudible]. Ain't nobody out here except15:00the ice cream man.
BRAITHWAITE: Okay. Go ahead. Yeah, so -- yeah, so it was more or less that, andI think my mother was -- as mothers are -- much more understanding of things like that, you know, "Let the kid be into what he's into." Like I said, I don't -- I don't recall getting a lot of pressure about it, but it was just more of, like, a -- Muslims, the way that I look at it now, there are some -- Muslims are trying to, you say -- like you said, cut out a space. And so part of cutting out that space is, like, what identifies me, so it's like the Nation of Islam. They have the suit and the bowtie, you know, so that Muslims that you would call traditional Muslims, African Americans, are always trying to find a space.
So back in the day, the mothers would knit the khimar or knit the kufis, you16:00know, so everybody's mom was making clothes and making this and making that. And my mother, you know, like everybody else's mother had patterns and stuff and was sewing things, and there was a lot of that do-for-self because there really wasn't any other option. You know, right now, you can go on Atlantic Avenue. You can go to all these different places and find Islamic clothing, but back then you didn't have that, so women were making things. And it was like being into fashion and being, you know, a regular street kid where people were wearing Lees and Pumas and Adidas suits and stuff like that -- it was like, "I don't want no handmade garments or whatever." You know what I'm saying? [laughter] So it was sort of, like, that simple. You know what I'm saying?
ALI: So you -- you've talked about how the -- that it was -- it's different forwomen --
ALI: -- because the dress code is a little bit more explicitly restrictive --
BRAITHWAITE: Right. Right.
ALI: -- in a way that it isn't for men.
ALI: Do you remember having conversations with your siblings who -- yoursisters? Were they looking at Idris, being like, "That's not fair," like --
ALI: -- "Why does he get to dress like that?" Do you remember the conversationsyou had amongst your siblings about this?
BRAITHWAITE: Well, no. Like I said, my -- the next sibling under me, my brotherHanif, we were -- you know, I spent the most time with him before the others came along. So, as a boy, no, and my sister came, Atiyah, who came after, we were sort of like -- there's enough distance between us where we would never have had that conversation. But growing up in the Muslim community, you know, I do know that, you know, women or the young girls, my peers -- I don't remember them, like, having too much of an issue because, again, it's -- it's the 18:00community. Once you're a part of the community and this is what, you know, the groupthink is, you know, every -- all the other girls are doing it. You know what I'm saying? My sort of exposure to the street, I think I was allowed -- I know that I was allowed to be much more liberal. My parents were a lot more liberal than some of my peers, so I think that they -- some of my peers were much more -- I ain't going to say -- I don't want to use "indoctrinated" because that sort of has, like, a negative connotation, but, you know --
ALI: "Sheltered," maybe.
BRAITHWAITE: -- sheltered for sure, sheltered for sure. So I was allowed to,like, do other things outside, you know, where other -- because I was into music, so I was DJing. You know what I'm saying? I had -- I had DJ equipment at my house, stuff that I could think about now -- like, if you think of a 19:00traditional indigenous Sunni Muslim household, like, I was doing all kinds of stuff, you know, so --
ALI: So tell me what -- what was -- if someone -- if one of your friends were tovisit you as a teenager -- so we're talking about the early '80s here or mid-'80s.
BRAITHWAITE: Right. Right.
ALI: If they were to visit your home, what would they find that would bedistinct as a -- as a Muslim or African American Muslim home, that you think would be distinct for them?
BRAITHWAITE: Well, I mean, it depends on which friend you're talking about. Ifyou're talking about a non-Muslim friend --
ALI: Yes. Yes, a non-Muslim friend.
BRAITHWAITE: If you're talking about a non-Muslim friend --
BRAITHWAITE: -- you would say, like, incense burning all the time, [laughter]extensive sewing kits from -- you know, your parents' ball of yarn and thread making kufis and stuff. What else? Prayer rugs and the extensive library with, 20:00you know, books with different writings on it, you know. It's funny, because -- and, of course, my mother, being covered, things of that nature, and maybe Islamic motifs -- oh, yeah, that's another thing. My father, you know, as far as when you -- interior decoration, your interior decoration of a typical Muslim home was sort of like, you know, they'll try to inscribe something in the wall, "La ilaha illallah," something like that, calligraphy or something. It was, like, very artsy. When you look at it now, they look at it, you know -- look back, my son, he uses this word. What's this word you say when you describe people that are trying to do something?
J. BRAITHWAITE: Hipster.
BRAITHWAITE: Yeah, he calls everybody a hipster. So if you look at it, it'sprobably like a hipster scene, you know, people that are intentionally being 21:00very different, being counterculture. And again, I think it comes out of the sort of Black nationalist, "I'm going to be something other than what this system has designed me to -- has willed me to be." You know, so Christianity was like -- it's okay to be Christian, but it was like, "I'm not doing that." [laughter] You know what I'm saying? So it was like, you know, you know the history of America, so there's somewhat of a rebellious -- a rebellious anti- sort of western -- if you go back and you watch the movie Roots, you know, you see that it kind of hints to the fact that Africans were Muslims before they came here.
So I think as, you know, people like the musicians -- I remember -- my name isIdris, and there's a very famous drummer named Idris Muhammad. He came to my 22:00house when I was little, and he gave me some drumsticks. So I think that -- and, of course, I don't -- I don't know. You know, that's my father, into the jazz, and a lot of the Muslims were into the jazz and the Last Poets. Those are, like, my -- Jalal Nuriddin, you know, may he rest in peace. He just passed away maybe not even a month ago, but he stayed at my house. You know, these were my people, so it was like -- it was a lot of, you know -- there's a counterculture sort of, like, revolutionary regaining some sense of self kind of aura about the whole thing, you know. And that is a, you know, distinction, very distinctive. So the women being covered, and -- you know, you see a Muslim woman from a mile away, 23:00and it's like, "Peace, sister," you know, whatever. So it was always -- I would say there was definitely, you know, a benefit. Maybe I didn't necessarily appreciate it, you know. I didn't necessarily appreciate the differences.
When you go to your friend's house and, you know, it's the holidays and peopleare drunk and on drugs and fighting and just like the typical -- because we grew up in the hood. It wasn't like you -- as a Muslim you put yourself in some other economic space. You might -- you might have been poorer than everybody else, but, you know, you didn't -- you weren't all materialized out and sort of -- Islam, I think, ultimately, you know, provided some level of sanctuary from the 24:00chaos that was, like, around you, you know. So people didn't go inside that Muslim box. If you were doing something crazy out there, you ain't do it over here, you know, where the Muslims were at.
And the Muslims, you know, can provide some type of sanity or sanctuary in the-- in the otherwise chaotic environment, you know. And not necessarily -- you know, that's what -- when I think about my parents or that generation before that grew up in these, you know, non-Muslim environments, especially, like I said, in the hood, in the ghetto, where they were seeing drugs and, you know, 25:00drug overdoses and pimping and all kinds of weird, unhealthy behavior, Islam was a clear distinction for them away from that, because the church was even there in those environments. You know, everybody that was doing craziness, the same way today, you know, was Christian. But when it wasn't Sunday, they were doing whatever. So I think that those types of observations and then Islam -- with Islam, they were able to find or create an environment that was much more edifying for -- for their development.
ALI: So you -- you mentioned holidays.
ALI: What -- what were your holidays, or what were the holidays that -- what wasthe holiday for you? What -- 26:00
ALI: -- what kinds of things did you do for a holiday --
ALI: -- for you growing up?
BRAITHWAITE: Well, you know, of course you have the holidays that everybody elsedo. It was funny, because, like, my Christmas, I would get things. I remember getting things for Christmas. My grandmother would sneak something. My parents wouldn't do it, you know, but my grandmother would get me a football or get me a baseball bat, you know, so I got the same things that my cousins got. But that kind of stopped, you know, when your mother and father became Muslim. Then, all of those other things became, you know, issues. So any time -- and that still happens today -- any secular holiday that happens, it's an opportunity for the Muslim to give a little education, "Oh, Halloween is the work of the devil." You know, so it's like every Fourth of July, you know -- but within Islam, you have 27:00Eid and -- which comes after Ramadan and what have you, and --
ALI: How was -- do you remember the first Ramadan that you completed --
BRAITHWAITE: Participated in?
ALI: -- entirely, that you, like, fully participated in?
BRAITHWAITE: I don't nec-- I remember, like, sneaking and eating chips and stufflike that. [laughter] You know, I remember stuff like that. I don't remember, like, you know -- like I said, I remember Ramadan being imposed, like, "Okay, we're fasting." It was like --
ALI: Wait, you have to tell me the chip story. [laughter] I have to hear this story.
BRAITHWAITE: I mean, it was -- it was -- I mean, it probably has happened somuch it wasn't -- it's not -- but it's like --
ALI: How would you do this?
BRAITHWAITE: Go to the store, buy some chips, eat it, [laughter] and then, youknow, nobody knows. Nobody knows any better, you know, so it was like -- so, you know, that's the thing about living in New York. You've got bodegas everywhere, so you could go outside for 15 minutes. You know, any corner you go to you can 28:00get a bag of chips. That was -- that was before --
ALI: Make sure you have no, like --
BRAITHWAITE: Yeah, make sure you wash your mouth, like the Cheetos commercials.They put the light on you, and your hands glow. So, you know -- but that was before the Arabs had all the corner stores too. I probably would have gotten caught back then. One of the Arabs --
ALI: Because they could check you.
BRAITHWAITE: -- would have snitched on me, [laughter] so, "Ain't you BrotherIdris's son? Astaghfirullah [Seek forgiveness]!" you know. That was when all the Spanish guys had all the stores, so they didn't give a damn. But, yeah, I do remember it being hot, and fasting was -- was a challenge. But, you know, nothing, like, really stands out. You know, I --
ALI: What did your family do for Eid?
BRAITHWAITE: Well, Eid used to be a very big deal in New York, in the AfricanAmerican community in particular. There used to be in Prospect Park -- I don't remember what years it was, but that's when, you know -- it's funny. I don't know how many numbers -- there was -- I was young, but the Muslims used to have 29:00Prospect Park on smash. And the Last Poets, you know, were just one of the brothers that were there. They'd have a serious drum circle, and brothers would be doing them, you know. So there would be food and festivities, and that's how I remember Eid as a young person, that, you know, the Muslims would be deep in Prospect Park. Now, the funny thing is that a couple of friends of mine, myself and about five others, we tried to revive that. I would say that might be, like, about 10 years ago now, because time flies. We did it about three years in a row, and it was difficult. We got into the political. Like, you know, it was a naïve thing. "Do you remember the Eid?" "Oh, yeah, let's do that." And we did it. We gave kids toys and food and blah, blah, blah, but the politics have changed so much, you know.
ALI: What do you mean, the politics changed?
BRAITHWAITE: Well, I think back then the African American community was at the30:00forefront of establishing an Islamic presence here. So if you were a Muslim immigrant, you might have been hiding or not -- you know, you're not promoting it. You don't have masjids calling adhan out loud or whatever. So, you know, when Black people do something, they do it -- like I said, they've got this chip on their shoulder, so they're Muslims. They dress in a certain way. "I dare you to say something about it," blah, blah, blah, so I think the Muslims, African American Muslims, they were very -- what am I trying to say? They were very insistent upon imposing -- not imposing -- identifying or cutting that space 31:00out, you know, for themselves. And the indigenous community kind of fell in line. I think over the years the indigenous communities have built up their own identities at this point.
At one point, it was the organization called the Majilis-ash-Shura, which wasstarted by the indigenous community, indigenous imams. And they are the ones that had conversations with political officials, so they were, like, the point organization for communication with the Muslim community. Now, you have groups like ISNA and ICNA and MSAs, so the foreign communities or the immigrant communities have their own kind of lanes now. So the African American community is kind of, like -- they're definitely not -- we're definitely not the prominent 32:00point community with regards to Islam and its presence here in New York.
So when we went out to different masajid, even the African American communities,you know, the politics of, like, who's going to lead the prayer, who's going to do this, and who -- like, who's doing this, everybody -- because the Ramadan and the Eid changes seasons, I think we had, like, 10 years where it's wintertime during Ramadan. And I think in that decade everybody is in their masjids, and they have become accustomed to functioning independently. So now, to say, "Okay, come outside, and everybody come to one gathering," you know, then it's like, "Well, who's in charge here? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." So, you know, the politics has changed here in the city and within each indi-- individual community. 33:00
ALI: So growing up, what were -- what community do you remember being --
ALI: -- most participating in, what mosque community?
BRAITHWAITE: Right. Well, initially, when I went to, like, sort of, like, aMuslim school, there was a school called Islamic Academy. That's on Atlantic Avenue or was on Atlantic Avenue where Masjid Farooq is now. And I have a vague memory of that, but the majority of my growing up we were involved with Masjid Ikhwa out there on Eastern Parkway and Utica. Initially, the imam was Khalid Yasin, who has, you know, gone on to be very well known internationally as a, 34:00you know, Islamic orator. And then, after he left, there was Imam Ibrahim, who's still there to this day. So that's, you know -- that's the community I grew up with. After I came back from college in '93, my family was at Masjid Taqwa here with Imam Siraj. But growing up, it was Ikhwa and Ibramim and Khalid Yasin.
ALI: Tell me -- tell me about Khalid Yasin.
BRAITHWAITE: It's funny, because he was here -- he came to see me a couple --like, two days ago. I mean, like I said -- recall him then as opposed to now?
ALI: Yes, growing up.
BRAITHWAITE: Growing up, you know, he was very dynamic. He -- he -- he favors inlook, like his face and his -- his aesthetics, he favors Malcolm X. You know, he 35:00has, like -- fair-skinned guy, he sort of wears those types of glasses or did back then. And he had, I felt like -- to me, thinking back, he kind of embodied that kind of brashness and boldness and very -- now, he's a short guy, because Malcolm X, I believe, was tall. He's a short guy, so he has, like, a spark plug energy kind of, like, boom, bursting, and he's 70-something years old. I saw him two days ago, and he's still the same, very energetic. I remember that the community was very -- somewhat dynamic under his kind of leadership.
ALI: What does that mean?
BRAITHWAITE: They were always trying to, like, do things, ambitious, you know.36:00They went from a small building to a big building. They went from the masjid. Then, they opened the school. Like, there was a Catholic school that might have closed around the corner that had a -- a property, a campus, a little campus, and they moved in there. And it was like, "Wow." And then, they had some -- bought some land up in upstate Vermont or something, and we went up there. And it was like, you know, the masjid was doing kind of, like, big things when he was around.
I think after he left, you know, it was much more about, you know, prayer andmore like -- not so much an outward development. It was more -- I'm not going to say it's more of an inward development. I think more, like, rituals and stuff. I'm not -- you know, there's a distinction between those two, you know, and I think it has a lot to do with the character of the imam. You know, Imam Ibrahim, 37:00that's my man. I love him. He married -- you know, he officiated my wedding, and I saw him the other day too. But he's, like, a Southern guy, you know, probably, like, much quieter, a much more reserved type, a big guy and stoic in a sense, you know. So with those two different types of leadership, you know, you've got two different types of energy leading and changing the community, the personality change.
ALI: Who were some of the other key men and women in the community growing up?
BRAITHWAITE: So you have the imam. You have Imam Ibrahim. My dad was, you know,a pretty prominent figure. You know, I'm not good with names and things of that 38:00nature. We have a lot of older brothers. I mean, to be honest with you, like, my -- there's a lot of women, my mother and these different imams and their wives. It was more like -- it was a group effort.
ALI: What is your -- let me just for the record -- what is Imam Ibrahim's full name?
BRAITHWAITE: What's -- that's funny. Jennings. I don't know what his Islamicthing is.
ALI: I mean -- yeah, okay.
BRAITHWAITE: I don't know.
ALI: Okay. All right. We can --
BRAITHWAITE: You know, Imam Ibrahim, everybody --
ALI: -- I can -- okay. Okay, Imam Ibrahim.
BRAITHWAITE: -- you know -- yeah.
ALI: And what is your mom -- your mom's name?
BRAITHWAITE: Sariyah. Now, that's, you know -- yes, it's Sariyah. And, you know,39:00again, my interaction with the community, like I said, has always been somewhat, like, on the edge. I've never really fully embraced the whole -- I'm not going to say "Muslim thing." I understand -- I embrace Islam and its tenets and principles fully, but I -- to me, there was always something there that I didn't get, and it's -- I mean, now I understand. You know, now I understand.
ALI: And what do you understand about that?
BRAITHWAITE: Well, the Muslim community, the indigenous Muslim community, is acommunity that's in transition. It's new. It's like a new thing, and in its 40:00newness it's like it's not complete. You know, so when you don't have something -- when the thing that you have is not completely developed, you know, the culture -- it took me a long time. Maybe 10 years ago I kind of understood this from even, like, that situation with trying to put the Eid together. You know, the culture, there's -- there's a separation. There's a difference between your culture and your religion, you know.
So when you -- I think those early communities and even to this day do notnecessarily understand the distinction. So when you were trying to, like, put a certain type of clothes on, like thawbs, that is not Islam. That's not the religion of Islam. That's the culture of the Arab people. You know, so there was no need for me to have a thawb on, because that doesn't necessarily mean 41:00anything. You know, during the time of the prophet, Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam), everybody had a thawb on. If you go overseas now, Christians and atheists, Arabs have thawbs on, because that's what they wear. You know what I'm saying? So --
ALI: Do you -- were -- were -- because you mentioned how growing up, becausethese things weren't readily available, many of the families were -- and women were making these clothes.
BRAITHWAITE: Right. Right.
ALI: Do you -- were there kind of African American aesthetic or stylistic twistsput on it --
ALI: -- that made it somewhat different --
ALI: -- even though it may have been inspired by an Arab --
BRAITHWAITE: Right, right, right.
ALI: -- style?
BRAITHWAITE: Right. Now, that's where I believe some of that was lost, becauseat some point, because there were no -- there weren't any, quote-unquote, 42:00"Islamic" clothing stores, this was a burgeoning community. So there was an opportunity to, like, "Here's Islamic clothing that we designed. This is our culture." Right? But what happened is that at some point the -- it became more Islamic to look or to wear or to, you know, mimic something that's more authentically Islamic. You know, again, the difference between the culture and the religion. So those opportunities to create business, you know, there us-- there wasn't halal meat places all over the place like you see now.
It was -- it was a challenge. Somebody had to bring the halal this, and somebodyhad to bring -- so instead of creating or taking advantage of those opportunities to -- that's something more -- that might have been something more 43:00like a Khalid Yasin thing, you know, "We need to be creating halal farms so that we can create halal whatever," as opposed to, "Oh, I need halal. Somebody needs to bring that to me, and I can go purchase it." So it's the difference between being a producer and creating culture, and purchasing your culture. So the -- so that's the distinction that I -- that I see now, like --
ALI: Back then, though, you felt there was a --
BRAITHWAITE: Back then, it just -- it's something -- it just didn't sit rightwith me. You know, it just didn't sit right with me. It didn't make sense, you know.
ALI: So you -- school-wise, you went to -- you were saying you went to theIslamic Academy. Did you go to Muslim schools? Tell me -- tell me about your education. What kind of schools did you go to?
BRAITHWAITE: Well, yeah, I went to Muslim schools up until high school. Once I44:00got to high school, then I went to public school, but -- so I went to Islamic Academy. I went to -- which were basically the masjids creating skills. Islamic Institute was Ikhwe's school. Islamic Academy, I told you, like, was where Farooq is now. The school that is still in existence and is probably more -- I only went there one year, but my mother has been an administrator there for 30 years. All of my siblings went to this school, Al-Madrasa Al-Islamiya, which is not connected to any masjid. It's really a bunch of African American Muslim educators that, like, put together a school. 45:00
And I think the fact that it's been -- it's not sep-- it's not connected to amasjid is sort of, like, a gift and a curse, because it's not connected to a masjid, so they can -- it's run by educators. So it's not like the imam is saying, "Oh, I think this should be what the curriculum is because, you know, the prophet did this and this." No, we -- we've got to take Regents. You know, we've got to prepare these kids for, you know, higher education, so it does its job in regards to preparing students for academic success. The con to that is that schools kind of need communities to support them, so a lot of the Muslim schools that are out there that are not indigenous, that are not from the African Americans, it'll be that the Palestinian community has a school or the 46:00Egyptian community has a school or the Pakistani community has a school. And they fund those. They fund that school, and they take -- make sure that that school has all of the economics that it has.
The African American community doesn't think like -- think of themselves as adistinct community. And -- because again, the culture versus the religion thing -- and, you know, when you have this idea of religion, we're all Muslims, so the indigenous community that I come from, which is different than the Nation and which is different than even Imam W. Deen's community, who -- they do have a distinct, a very pronounced understanding of their culture and their -- and their unique reality. The community that I come from, you know, Orthodox, 47:00without that background, they've kind of -- we're still a little bit -- we're still confused today. We're still confused. So I would say the schools that I went to were very much reflective of the community in the sense that there was a lot of emphasis put on Arabic and Islamic studies, identity, religious identity, and, like, your uniforms looked a certain way.
And -- and I think it was just -- I felt -- I feel like -- like I said, exceptfor Islamic -- except for Madrasa, Madrasa, I think, has a much better grasp on the whole education thing. Unfortunately, though, a lot of African Americans 48:00don't go to that school. They don't support that institution, but that's an institution founded by African Americans, and I think that's an institution that does education right. But, you know, we're more interested in, you know, how -- how the Arabic class ain't the -- you ain't going to have -- you're not going to have hafiz al Qur'an [memorizer of Qur'an] come out of Madrasa, but you'll have people going to MIT. You know, so it's -- what are you going to school for? You know, so it's one of those things.
ALI: So when you went to high school --
ALI: -- what -- what was that adjust-- was there an adjustment for you, or whatwas that experience like?
BRAITHWAITE: No. It wasn't a serious adjustment, only because, like I said, Ialways had one foot in the street anyway. You know what I'm saying? My sort of, 49:00like, Islam is not like something I wear on my sleeve. It's more, like, about principles, so the things and the -- and the places where the adjustments will be made or not -- you know, I don't feel like I made adjustments. I don't think I went out of my way to compromise, you know, my principles. Like any young person, you know, you're living life. You ain't worrying about whatever. It's not a deep philosophical thing.
But I think where my Islam set me apart from other people, it happens, like, inyour engagements and in your -- in events that -- where a person's principles, you know, come to the table. So it's like with girls, you know. Everybody is, like, hound-dogging girls and on girls and blah, blah, blah. And I'm like, "Eh, you know, I like them," but there's a certain type of promiscuity that is not 50:00built into my psyche. You know, in college, I kind of, like, went and threw that whole book out the window, but just, like -- just generally speaking, even today as an adult, you know, I'm not -- there are little things that, you know, a Muslim -- Islam kind of implants in a -- in a person, and I think in the proper context that will come out for me. It will -- it comes out at times, and it shocks people, and it gives me the upper hand in -- in situations where principles matter, you know.
ALI: You -- so you mentioned you had one foot -- you were kind of --
ALI: What were some of the main kind of cultural attractions or political or --what was -- what was in the world that was pulling on you as you were -- so, 51:00like, in the mid- to late-'80s now, in Brooklyn, tell me what life in Brooklyn was like for a young African American Muslim man? As an African American, as a Muslim, as a young person, what were some of the things swirling around outside the mosque, if we were to say, that were, you know, kind of pulling on -- on young people at that time?
BRAITHWAITE: I mean, I kind of feel as though, you know, obviously, like, youknow, music. We're -- we're the same. You know, our culture is the African American culture. Now, again, there are some principles that kick in that will make a distinction, and then there are certain acts like the prayer and certain things, and especially, again, for women, the dress, that kind of put you outside and, like, "Hey, she's different." But for me, you know, I was doing 52:00breakdancing. I was doing DJing. I was doing -- I couldn't rap, but I kind of went into the producing end of making music, you know. My dad, he was a singer at one point, and he was -- he did have a decent music collection, you know. And I grew up with him being involved in music.
I remember going to those rehearsals, you know, with his group. Two members ofhis group died in a car accident, and I think that that, like, shifted his whole perspective on it. But he does have a deep affinity to, like, Motown and the music of his era, and I kind of had the same thing except for the music of my 53:00era. But as you know, hip hop borrows a great deal, so I kind of inherited his music collection, you know, and I had to listen to all of that stuff and looking for samples. You know, so I was doing the same thing that everybody else was doing, nothing -- nothing special, into fashion, into typical Black indigenous stuff, into, you know, just regular street life, running around with your friends. I played sports, too, so I played football in -- in high school and college, so that kind of played a role, and I did martial arts and things of that nature. But I would say, you know, maybe the biggest thing that -- when I went to college, I went to C.W. Post on Long Island, and I studied broadcast 54:00communication, and that was all connected to my desire to be a DJ. So, you know, the music thing was kind of a consistent --
ALI: Who were your models for that? Who was your -- who was your model DJ? Like,what were your -- who were your inspirations as a DJ?
BRAITHWAITE: I mean, everybody -- everybody liked, you know, Mr. Magic and ChuckChillout and, you know, Kool Herc -- not Kool Herc -- Chuck Chillout, Mr. Magic --
ALI: Red Alert?
BRAITHWAITE: -- Red Alert, of course. You know, so being in New York, this --this hip hop thing is serious out here, you know, so --
ALI: Did you -- at the time, did you connect with the references to Islam thatwere bubbling up in Islam?
BRAITHWAITE: Oh, yeah, heavy duty, heavy duty, heavy duty. So, you know, again,Last Poets was basically my uncles, you know. So I -- I -- I associate all of that. I feel like Islam is the -- Islam is the religion of hip hop. You know 55:00what I'm saying? You're just now getting, like, the Kanye talking about "Jesus Walks" and whatever, whatever, but there was always sort of, like, at some point -- I mean, it's kind of, like, taken a backseat now, but coming out of New York there was always sort of, like, an intelligence that the Five-Percent Nation, even though, you know -- for Muslim purists, you know, that's -- that's an issue. But for me, that was never an issue. I always kind of embraced the Rakims and the Wu-Tang. I'm a big Wu-Tang guy, and the Islamic references, Poor Righteous Teachers. I -- I take all of that. You know what I'm saying? And --
ALI: What did that mean to you as a Muslim to hear that in the music that youwere listening to?
BRAITHWAITE: I think, again, you take some pride in that, that -- I think for56:00me, and it's -- I don't know if it's indicative of the African American Muslim. The African American Muslim is always, even in the hood movies, like, the egghead or the smart guy is always, like, the Muslim. "Oh, here comes Raheem with his bullshit." You know what I'm saying? So it's like I kind of somewhat identify with that, like --
ALI: Tell me what was the first record you heard that had -- a hip hop recordthat had a Muslim reference and then, like, how you responded.
BRAITHWAITE: You know, it's funny, because, again, like -- I'm not going to saythe first, but there's a voice where RZA is talking about, "Allah is heard and seen everywhere," you know. Like, as a producer, I would sample certain things, so that was one -- that was a hook that I sampled, you know. And I have non-Muslim friends that I went to college with that - they called themselves 57:00rappers, and I would make the beats or whatever. And they were non-Muslim, but they -- they knew I was Muslim, and then they heard the RZA say, "Allah is seen and heard," in my joint. You know what I'm saying? And so it was like they thought it was cool that the RZA was Muslim. You know what I'm saying? For -- for other people, that was kind of like -- I know people that say, like, when they heard Rakim say something or the Wu-Tang say something, that made them go get a Qur'an. You know? I didn't have that experience, so I kind of, like, took it for granted, like, "Yeah, okay. So-and-so is Muslim," because, again, my -- my reference is to the Last Poets.
We've always been there, you know, and we -- we play that role of the smart guywho's saying the smart thing, and it ain't just hip hop, the hibbity-hibbity-hip. You know, it was the dude that was saying something intelligent and trying to move the culture into a more, you know, reflective state. It has always been that Muslim dude. You know what I'm saying? Whether it's the Nation or whether -- whoever it is, you know, so I kind of understand 58:00that, because in my kind of, like, street life that's -- that's the guy -- that's the role I play, you know. I'm always the dude that -- you know, I can do dirt, my dirt, but at some point I might put the brakes on it, and I might say something to make everybody like, "Okay, that's -- yeah, maybe that's not the right thing to do," or, "Maybe we should think about it differently." You know?
ALI: So -- so moving forward in your story, you said when you were in collegeyou kind of -- what -- what is your -- how would you describe your relationship to Islam at that time?
BRAITHWAITE: Well, I would say in college, being that I was away, you know --different, like -- my nieces, they're in college, but they still -- they're near here, so they're back, and they're around Muslims. When I was in college, there weren't any Muslims around, you know, so I could sort of, like, create my own identity, you know, and I didn't necessarily have to reflect anything per se. 59:00You know, and I kind of immersed myself in that kind of reality, so I would say college, I think, as -- as it is intended to be is an age of discovery. So you're, like, throwing ideas up against the wall and seeing what sticks, you know. So I didn't necessarily have to be Muslim in college. Like, okay, nobody was checking me, you know. I -- I was in philosophy classes a lot. I took a lot of philosophy classes, [laughter] and I think, along with other factors, I kind of may have discovered Islam for myself in -- in a way, you know, because there's no social impetus forcing you, like, to conform to some reality, which I never really bought into in the first place. 60:00
But now, I'm able to, like, check it against other leading poss-- possibilitiesand have a lot of books. You know, I -- I read, you know, philosophy and Christianity and Hindu -- like, you know, I went, deep-dive, into that stuff. And I think also -- you know at Post, my friends that I met there -- my wife is actually one of my friends -- some of my adult friends to this day come from my college experience. I got to see systems operating productively. You know, so I got to look, and so that thing that I wasn't really grooving with or that I felt 61:00wasn't right or something was off with my indigenous community, I kind of got to see what it was, you know. I kind of got to see, like, "Hey, this system is not operating right. It's not about the religion. Like, you can't pray this correct." You know what I'm saying? "You can't fast this correct. This is just, like -- your process is off." You know? And so the college thing was, I think, informative in the sense that I was able to, like, distinguish the principles from the practice and then the practice from the process.
So, like, to return to the community or whatever, now it's clear as day to me,you know. But that also makes me -- the interesting thing here is that, you 62:00know, our community, we have a tendency to have a relationship with the prisons. The African American masjids do chaplaincy, do outreach. We do outreach in the prisons, sort of, like, following the Nation and how they got Malcolm. "Oh, we'll go to the prison. There's some Malcolm sitting in there," where the other communities are, like, college-based, right? So you have the ICNA, ISNAs. They get the people that graduate from the MSAs, right?
So their communities are able to flourish because you have the people withcollege educations that understand the process of building an organization and sustaining an organization as opposed to going into the prisons, where you have a dysfunctional cat in the first place that comes out and now needs your help, you know, and doesn't really have -- like, Malcolm was an anomaly, and Malcolm 63:00also came into an organization that was fully aware of itself and its function. So you can't send a dysfunctional organization into a dysfunctional place and then bring out a dysfunctional dude and create function. You know, so the college thing was definitely, like, what it's supposed to be, and, you know, it -- it developed my Islam, like, more in a principled position, principally more than, like, being forced to conform to some box and make movements based on, you know, a social expectations kind of thing.
ALI: So you said you met your wife --
ALI: -- in college.
BRAITHWAITE: Right. She wasn't Muslim.64:00
ALI: She wasn't Muslim. How did you navigate that?
BRAITHWAITE: Well, again, you know, it was funny, because two of my -- you know,going back a little bit, two of my friends growing up, they became Muslim. And they said -- it was my friend, my best friend -- his name was Bilal. His name is Bilal now. His name was Bernard then. Me and him, we DJed together, so I used to go to his house, and we'd buy house music records and do our DJ thing. And his brother's name is Calvin, but his name is Akhil now. His brother is older than us, but they said at some point, like, I recited the sura in front of them, and they thought that that was like -- they were blown away. I don't remember this, but they were like, "Yeah, that was crazy," to them, that some, you know, Black kid like them was talking a whole other language, you know. And that kind of, like, started them down the road to like, "What is this?" You know? I don't 65:00remember this. This is what they told me.
So my wife, she -- she wasn't Muslim, you know, and she was Catholic and, like,a Haitian American, so that's, like, very Catholic. You know, [laughter] so it's weird, because they're very religious. You know, so as -- as -- you know, the Qur'an tells you that the Christians -- among the Christians and the Jews are people that are very religious, like, even more religious than you, you know. And I think that -- and as I discovered more about Haiti in particular, Haiti has a very close connection with African Muslims in their whole revolutionary thing. So I don't even think they -- I don't think a lot of them even know that. You know, she wasn't like that, like a historian, a Haitian historian, kind of, 66:00but as I -- you know, over the years, 20 something years now, I -- I've come to have a greater affinity for the culture and that history. But -- so she was religious, and so that's a great place, like, to have a religious conversation but not very, like, deeply informed, you know. So, again, the Muslims, as you tend to do once you run into somebody that's a certain religion, then you're like, "Hey, blah, blah, blah, blah," you know.
African American Muslims, because we're -- our parents' or my parents' culture,the American culture, is Christian, the African American Muslim has a lot of information as to, like, "Oh, Christianity did this, and Christianity started 67:00this. And who did this, and who did that?" So we have a lot of -- what do they call that? They call that comparative religious notes, just in our back pocket. You know, so a Christian person, you'd get into this debate. They may not know a lot of stuff. They may know a little bit, but you can get down to it. So [inaudible], so there's a desire to be religious. You know, there's a desire to, you know, have this relationship with God and all, and that's great. You know, so -- but then, once you say, "Well, check this out. You might want to check this out, or you might want to find this out," then it's like, "Oh, wow," boom, boom, boom. So in a way, you know, she says she feels like Islam was something that she wanted. Maybe, you know, when you're praying to God and you're a God-fearing person like how she is, you want to know the truth. And here comes this truth, and it's from an unlikely source, you know, because I wasn't -- 68:00again, I'm not like the guy with the big beard and the turban and proselytizing. You know, that ain't me.
You know, but -- so it was, like, one of those things, and I find that thathappens more times than not, you know, but again, because I'm not trying to be Joe Blow Muslim and run everything down your throat. I'm just chilling and being me, and those principles things that pop up where you make the right decision, where everywhere it's easier to make the wrong decision, and people see that and say, "Why do you do that?" you know, and I'm like, "Well, you know, I don't think that was right." You know? "I don't think that's the right thing to do." "How come you don't think it's the right thing?" "Well, Muslims, we --" "Oh, you're Muslim?" "Yeah." So it was like -- that happens to me quite a bit, you know.
ALI: How many children do you have?
BRAITHWAITE: I have four children, three boys, one girl.
ALI: And what are their ages?
BRAITHWAITE: Seventeen, 15, 12, and 10, I guess. I hope I got that right. [laughter]69:00
ALI: How -- how has your -- how has your experience growing up as a Muslim childinformed being a Muslim parent?
BRAITHWAITE: Wow. Well, what I can say is that, you know, what I try to do, Itry to do it a little bit different, you know, because, again, I -- I'm -- I see, you know, neophytes, a person that just comes into something, they come into it with a certain type of zealousness that can be, like, you know -- over time, you can refine and start to calm down, like, "Oh, maybe --" you know, a 70:00lot of the Muslims that became Muslim, like, they changed their name, "I don't mess with my mother no more," you know. "If you ain't Muslim, you're a kuffar [unbelievers]." They're, like, ready to throw out every damn -- everybody, you know, relatives, friends, whoever. You know, so that is sort of, like, indicative of neophytes into anything. You know, so I think I have the -- the benefit of seeing that, knowing not to do that, having the benefit of, you know, seeing the difference between the practice, the principle, and the -- and the process.
And I try to instill in my children, again -- because, again, we're AfricanAmerican on top -- in addition to that, so that's already -- that comes with a 71:00situation. So it's like -- I understand that this African American Muslim identity is still sort of, like, under -- under construction. So I'm not really selling -- it's not like a hard sell on what is happening right now. You know, I've tried to inform them that they're in a unique situation where they're sort of, like, creating culture, which is -- which is a weird position to be in. You know, most people have been around, and their culture is 1,000 years old, 100 years old, whatever the case may be. And it's like, "This is what it is to be an American." You know, you have your Constitution. You have your Declaration of Independence. You have all of these rights, the Bill of Rights, so that's kind of a hard, you know -- it changes over time and whatever, but, you know, there are some core things.
You know, to be an African American Muslim, collectively, I don't -- in my72:00understanding, it's not -- it's not -- you don't have those things. You know, and I'm trying to say they might have the opportunity to write that. You might have the opportunity to -- you're writing that as you're living, you know, so I try to be a little -- very lenient, like, also because, you know, how do you have a certain hard expectation on you to carry something if I haven't even -- I'm still trying to figure out how this thing works. You know what I'm saying? So I would say I'm super lenient, you know, even just from an African American standpoint. You know, our community is -- tends to be conservative, as they say, but it's also very restrictive, like, "Boy, get over here," kind of thing. You know, I'm very at peace with myself. You know what I'm saying? So I don't --
ALI: So do you call your kids out from playing when it's time for prayer? Like,how do you --
BRAITHWAITE: No, no, no, no, no.
ALI: [laughter] How do you -- how have you struck that balance between73:00conveying, let's say, the importance of certain kinds of practices but at the same time, you know, not feeling like it's imposing the way that maybe you felt it when you were growing up?
BRAITHWAITE: Well, I try to -- I say, "Listen, there is a benefit to this." Youknow, we had this conversation yesterday. You know, I -- we had this conversation yesterday.
ALI: "We" being --
BRAITHWAITE: Me, because we -- I took my kids to Coney Island, and so on thedrive, you know, we -- I had a conversation. We stopped and ate, and we talked about prayer, you know, because my father -- because we're in town, he's talking to them about prayer in his very -- you know, way. And they were kind of giving me the feedback like, "Grandpa said blah, blah, blah, blah, blah," like, hell and brimstone kind of talk. So I said -- I had to, like, you know, "What he's trying to say is this," you know. He's coming at them in a way that they don't 74:00really relate to. They -- they're saying, "Yeah, I kind of get it, but, you know, I don't want to --" it didn't have to go the way that it went, you know.
ALI: So what did you say to them or what do you say to them?
BRAITHWAITE: I'm saying like, "Listen, man." I said, "Why do people pray?" Iasked them, each one, "Why do people pray?" "Uh, to get things," I think this guy said, you know, "When you want stuff or for blessings." My other son said, you know, "To show gratitude and stuff," so I said, "You know, all of those all are correct. You know, all of those things are correct. I mean, the first thing I would say is that this is what Allah sort of commands, and you want to be in compliance with that, but also, you know, you have --" so I kind of took all of their answers and -- and kind of gave it some context. You know, "Look at how 75:00healthy you are. Look at how, you know, intelligent you are. Allah gives us all of this, and all he asks is for, you know -- take a moment out to pray or whatever, blah, blah," because I -- and I pointed out to them -- I said, "You know, when I was growing up, say, if I was walking down the street with five guys and it was time to pray, they might drop and start praying in the middle of the doggone sidewalk."
You know, things like that, for me, it was like -- like you said earlier when wewere talking about the people with the music, it's part theatre. You know, I always felt like, "How much of this is shock value?" You walk around the corner and see five guys praying dead in the middle of the street or something. You're like, "What the hell is going on here?" You know? Some of it was that, you know, because it was like, "This is not safe to do. This is not necessary. You know, you've got some time to get to the mosque. You ain't got to --" it was the neophyte, whatever. So I think for my kids I try to give them some principles. 76:00You know, I try to teach the principles first so that they can -- I said, "You know, you want this type of relationship with Allah. You want to see your --" that is a very unique position to be in for an individual where, like, you pray and things happen.
If you want that type of reality, you know, that type of reality is availablefor people that pray a lot. You know, so it's like -- we watch TV. We see superheroes all the time. We see prophets and stuff, and we read about that kind of stuff. But you -- we don't live that, but I'm saying you can live that, because if you ask Allah for certain things it'll be almost scary how responsive Allah can be when you build up your prayer energy and all that stuff. So that's kind of how I dealt with that.
ALI: How do you feel that was received, that talk you had with them?77:00
BRAITHWAITE: I mean, how do I feel it was received? I mean, they were engaging.My daughter kind of was talking while I was -- while I was going into it, [laughter] but as -- I feel like as long as they hear it, you know, as long as it's been articulated, then my job -- that's part -- that's, like, the main part of my job, you know. And if something good happens or, you know, you say, "Thank Allah," you know, there's -- a degree of it is modeling, right? So modeling is about, like -- when you score, when I score, when I do things, and you see, "Well, that was crazy," then I'll say, "Well, you know, Allah answered your prayers," or something like that. You know, so it's -- I'm trying to not, like, be like, "Oh, this -- you're praying, like --" you know, there's an aspect of it 78:00like that, you know, "Allah is saying you're the slave, and Allah is God, and you've got to go and do this." And it's like, "All right." You know, I'm Black. I've been a slave long enough. You know, I'm trying to -- you know, I get that, and Allah deserves that type of obedience, no question about it.
But, you know, I'm working for -- I'm trying to, you know, find the other link.I think for my community in particular we go into that very easily, and I don't know whether that's some leftover from Christianity or leftover from whatever. The obedient slave thing is played up in a weird way, and I don't know if that's just me being over-analytical, because I'm saying as a community, even the Prophet [Muhammad] (salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam), like, they scored. They brought things to the community. The people need to see you being productive, 79:00you know, so that plays as much a role as, you know, you being in humble obedience. You know what I'm saying? Be productive in the environment you're in and the community you're in. Then, you won't have to be so totalitarian. Like, I have to force you to do something.
If I was feeding you, I would say, "How do I get more of this?" "Well, come overhere and pray with us, brother, and we'll bless you with more." "All right, bet," you know. But if I ain't giving you nothing, then, you know, all I can do is force you to or guilt you into doing these kinds of ibadahs and stuff like that. So I think that there's -- you know, we have to strike a balance, a better balance, you know, for these kids. They -- they see stuff. They're mater-- they're not -- my kids are not materialistic. They're not big fashion, you know -- I was way more into styles and brands and stuff than them, but, you know, 80:00it's like, "Show me the money." Everybody wants to see the progress and the benefit of what it is you're talking about.
ALI: So along those lines -- and you've talked earlier about the -- theimportance of producing culture and the importance of being productive -- let's talk about the bakery. So your father in his oral history gave me a good history of the bakery, so I wanted to ask you to talk about your history with the bakery. So tell me how you came to and when you came to take on a more prominent role in the operation of the bakery.
BRAITHWAITE: Well, you know, I would say that prior to the bakery, you know, myfather has always been sort of, like, an independent, entrepreneurial type, so 81:00he would have -- be selling things and always kind of selling icies or something like that, something, whatever. And I would always, obviously, get sucked into stuff like that.
ALI: What do you mean, as a --
BRAITHWAITE: You know --
ALI: -- as a helper, as a --
BRAITHWAITE: -- as a helper or -- yeah, as a helper. Yeah, you know -- yeah,it's -- I can go into it. I don't want to get lost in that, but I'm just saying yes, you know. But to me, there's a hustler sort of mentality about it, and I don't mean hustler in the negative meaning. I mean hustler like, you know -- it's kind of like a level of business, degrees of business. There's a lower ground level, kids selling lemonade at a stand kind of thing. So around 2001, I was with some of my college friends in the city developing -- I had a website 82:00business, so we were doing websites for people.
And my dad and his partners had this -- had a business here, had the businesshere. I really didn't pay it any mind. I would come from Manhattan and walk by, you know. It just -- it didn't appeal to me. I mean, my father, one of his last kind of transitions as an entrepreneur was making cakes. So he, like -- the house where we lived over on Rochester, they brought this big confection oven, and they were making cheesecakes out of the house. So he would bring cheesecakes to jummah and that kind of transition to this situation. So him and another brother that used to do something similar, bake stuff and bring it to the mosque, they got brought into here by another brother, a businessman from another business in the area, and they started this situation. So I would come 83:00by, and it was, like I said, "Okay, see you later, bye," kind of thing. It was nothing that I was too intrigued by.
One year, my father's partner left, and my father got sick, and, like, he hadwalking pneumonia or something like that. So I -- he was at the house. He kind of couldn't get out of bed. He would kind of like, "Oh, this is how you do this, and this is how you do that." So I took it upon, you know -- I took the -- I didn't want to see the situation close for a week. Nobody knew what was going on, so I just naively -- it was naïveté, you know, and I think it's part of, like, my father's -- something I might have inherited from him, sort of like you might take on something cavalierly, again, not necessarily thinking about business plans and, you know, how things are done in the -- in the world that we 84:00live in. And so, "Oh, yeah, I'll help the situation," boom, boom, and what I realized is that they had good products.
You know, I was from the world that I was in, so the web design, it was sort oflike marketing, you know, at some -- I was accustomed to taking ideas that people had, "Well, this is what I want to do," make a website, and make it look real. It was, like, smoke and mirrors. So I was like, "Here's a guy with a good, solid actual product but no website, no aesthetics, no whatever, whatever." So I said, "You know, this business could benefit from what I've learned from what I've learned in my business, you know." So that was like my first entry into the bakery, but --
ALI: What kinds of things at that point did you do, did you implement?
BRAITHWAITE: I changed the logo, like, the whole idea of a brand. It used to be85:00Abu's Bakr Bakery or something. I never -- I hated that name. When he told me that, I was like, "Bro, you know, get out of here with that. What does that mean?" You know, that kind of thing, and he was like, "Uh." He didn't care. You know, he was just like, "I know there's a companion named that," but he wasn't a baker. I didn't get it, because I'm thinking brand, and I'm thinking, you know, all of these things. And I'm like, "What is that?" So the whole kind of, like, rethinking of the business as a brand was, like, my sort of first impact on the bakery.
Then, there's, like, the wholesale. There's the wholesale and retail aspect ofit. I kind of, like, launched the wholesale thing kind of because it was my own lane, and I didn't have to, like -- I didn't have to, like, check with my 86:00father. He wanted nothing to do with it. It was like, "All right. Good. Let me go over here and do my thing." So, you know, over time that came up, and, you know, things happen, as things do, father and son kind of conflicts, you know, different directions, who's blah, blah, blah, pissing contests, all kinds of, you know, whack stuff. I left, went and opened a not-for-profit for a while based on what I saw here. I said, "You know, here you're trying to run a business. People don't know how to work. People don't know these things." So I started a youth program, AUNT & UNCLE Youth Employment Services, with the idea that we need to teach inner-city people how to function before they get older 87:00and live their whole life and don't know how to function, because that's what I ran into, grown -- grown people that didn't know how to function. So I said, "Let me start this not-for-profit." I did that for about five years, went and worked at the high school as a dean. You know, I did the program. I did a workshop there, and then the principal invited me in there, and -- and --
ALI: What high school?
BRAITHWAITE: -- Boys and Girls, up the street -- worked there for a couple ofyears. But then, I started, like, sort of getting sucked into the board of ed thing, which is not really what I wanted. So, you know -- and I'm making it a lot smoother than what really happened, but -- you know, so I ended up back at the shop because this is a vehicle. You know, employment is one thing, but I'm teaching these young people how to get jobs, and, really, the best way to teach 88:00is to show and give you an -- you know, what I was doing was, like, "Let this young man work in your business so that he can work out the kinks," or whatever. But I'm like, "If I have my own business, I can be that guy that allows you to work out the kinks and this, that, and the other." So, you know, this -- I saw the opportunity to be more in the driver seat of that type of process.
So we do have -- we do work with the school, and we have some young people froma school, Frontier Academy, downtown Brooklyn, where they -- they come in, and they work with us. And, you know -- so I get to do that, besides the fact that my kids, you know, they -- for my nieces and nephews, this is also a vehicle for that. So, you know, the family business or being a business person allows me to 89:00do some of the things that I -- besides selling the product, and, you know, there's a social -- social dynamic that, you know, satisfies some of my interests as well.
ALI: So the bakery has been here since 2001.
ALI: It's 2018.
ALI: Tell me -- tell me what kind of changes you've seen in this area over thelast 17 years.
BRAITHWAITE: Well, I mean --
ALI: And how has that impact the -- the bakery?
BRAITHWAITE: Well, you know, being -- again, coming from where I'm coming from,I've always kind of, like, had a different vision for the bakery than, you know, what was here. Like, you know, again, my father does things in a sort of like 90:00mom-and-pop, kind of hustle kind of way, and that's a very different thing than, you know, a formal business that has plans and projections and whatever, whatever, brands and all of those things. So I had to struggle to sort of, like, understand that about what was happening here, and it's a cultural thing. So I have to, like -- again, we're back to the culture.
The bakery was -- I think my father might have seen it as -- as an element oraspect or appendage to the masjid. So this was the community's bakery, the Muslim community's bakery. So you [inaudible] come out the mosque, and, you 91:00know, that -- that group has sort of, like, that vision of having a community, blah, blah, blah. So I think the masjid or the bakery was seen as an appendage to the bakery -- to the masjid. The bakery was an appendage to the masjid, so it had, like, a lot of Islamic iconography, sort of like, you know, your house did back -- back when I was younger. So I kind of had to, like, rethink that and say, "What do you want -- what do you want people to see, and who is your market?" all of those things that, you know, businesses have to figure out.
And then, how do you break that current culture to, like, bring in this other --bring in this new way of thinking about things? So I think that there's still, you know -- I'm "in charge," quote-unquote, of the business at this point, so I 92:00don't really have to, like, convince anybody of anything. But there is a sort of role -- I guess it's similar to the role I've always kind of played, now that you've got me sitting here, thinking about it, like, one foot in and one foot out. And so the changes that --
M2: As-salaam alaikum.
BRAITHWAITE: Walaikum salaam. The changes that, you know, the community isexperiencing are gentrification. You know, that's the terminology that's commonly used. It's sort of a change that -- because I'm on a couple of boards. I'm on the Bed-Stuy Gateway BID, Business Improvement District, board, so I've gone to -- I've been involved in that from its inception. I've been -- and so 93:00I've seen the plans, you know, and been privy to them, so I'm -- you know, I've got to look at this from a business standpoint. You know, there are opportunities here, you know, so that's -- you know, you do your SWOT analysis, and then you say, "Okay, what's --" as opposed to a person, like, that's like, "Oh, my God, the world -- the sky is falling. You know, the things that we're accustomed to, the customer that we're accustomed to is no longer here. They're moving everybody out." I'm like, "Okay, so who's here? Who's coming, you know, and what are they used to? How do we position the business in a way that the change benefits us?"
You know, so that's sort of been my role as -- you know, reading the tea leavesand not just reacting. But again, I have a different perspective on the whole 94:00religion and culture and -- and our place in it, you know, role. So, you know, the changes, change is constant. Change is -- now, the thing is -- you know, you don't -- we're not in control of the change, so that's what makes people uncomfortable. But you had your opportunity to change it. If you didn't change it, now outside forces have come in to change it. So I'm not going to bitch and moan about it, but I'm going to try to see where they're going and see where to place myself in that -- in that picture so that I can benefit from it, you know.
ALI: So you -- you made an interesting point about how the bakery was conceivedas the Muslim community bakery with a -- with a clear kind of Muslim identity. You know, the first name was Abu Bakers, a play on Abu Bakr. It's part of the 95:00Mosque kind of complex, in a sense, right?
BRAITHWAITE: Right. Right.
ALI: One of the main offerings is a bean pie, which is a very Muslim --
ALI: -- African American Muslim dessert.
ALI: How -- how do you define the bakery now in terms of its relationship toIslam or to Muslim identity?
BRAITHWAITE: Well, again, just like I tell my kids, it's an opportunity todefine yourself. I mean, this is -- this is -- you know, it's funny, because I'm evolving as a person, so in my evolution as a person I've had to sort of, like, readjust or make adjustments to my -- make adjustments to my perspective. You 96:00know, we've got -- you know, we have Trump in -- in office, you know, right after Obama, so it's like -- the identity of American, Muslim, all of that -- thanks. All of that comes into play when you're deal-- talking about this bakery. So I sort of had to struggle and, like, break away from the idea that this is, like, a, quote-unquote, "Muslim bakery," you know, because that's sort of, like, a weird -- that's a misnomer.
That's a -- it's too vague, you know, because do we have baklava in here? Some97:00people, like -- there are too many kinds of Muslims. There are a million kinds of Muslims, so Russian Muslims or Chinese Muslims or -- a Muslim bakery, what does that mean? So we have traditional American food in here. You know what I'm saying? So you have -- aside from the bean pie, now, the bean pie is tradition -- it's not traditional, but it's very American. So it's like -- so -- so, again, the dynamic of, like, the African American being somewhat counterculture or not necessarily grasping or embracing its American -- or having conflict, having -- the dust hasn't settled yet on the American aspect of the African American Muslim. We're not fully -- they still haven't fully embraced that identity.
But in the bean pie, you know, in the bean pie, the bean pie is very American.98:00The bean pie is almost going back to, you know, the Muslim women sewing the khimars and stuff. Like, this is an invention that -- a creation that doesn't come from the Middle East. It doesn't come from the South. It doesn't come from the slavery experience. It's an African American Muslim dessert that is very American. It's very much like hip hop. It's very much like jazz. It's very much out of the creative process of the African American here in -- the African American, the Black American, here in America. This is what we do. So this is our -- this is our -- this is a cuisine that we have presented, and this is our contribution to the American -- to, in the grand scheme, the American culinary landscape. You know, so that's what, in my big vision -- in my big vision, 99:00that's what I have an opportunity or that's what I would look to do as far as, like, jail-breaking the bean pie, because, you know, the bean pie is usually associated with the Nation, "Bean pie, my brother?" You know, and we love that because that's the source, but, you know, that -- that can be loaded. I'm -- we are not doing that. You know what I'm saying? We're not doing that. We're looking to curate the image of the bean pie as a uniquely American, African American, Muslim American, but an American dessert, product.
You know -- what am I thinking? So, yeah, that -- that's sort of -- we have100:00people -- when we have the gentrifying people, we have people that come from all over the world that live in this -- live in this area now. You know, they don't know bean pie from a hole in the wall, just like they don't know Bed-Stuy. You see people walking around the streets, and you'll be like, "Do these people know where they're at?" You know what I'm saying? They're on Nostrand Avenue. It's two o'clock in the morning. They're walking -- like, no, they don't know. You know? They don't know, and they don't care, really, and they're just enjoying their lives. Fine. So bean pie, I don't have to tell you anything that you don't need to know other than, "Try this product." And we have tons of people that come in here and are like, "What is a bean pie?" You tell them what the beans are. You say, "Hey, this is navy bean. This is a good protein. This is the best pie you ever ate."
And we have tons of people that are bean pie fans, you know, and -- like, I hada conversation with a sister. She was from -- she's from India, and I was 101:00saying, you know, this bean pie is -- I'm trying to think of, you know, how to present this thing. She was like, "Well, to me, a carrot cake sounds crazy, or a cheesecake really sounds crazy. Who would ever make cake out of cheese?" So I was like, "You know, that's true." You know what I'm saying?
We're so caught up in our bag that we think, you know, things are normal topeople, but these -- all these things are -- are crazy, you know, cheesecake, carrot cake, bean pie. And this product deserves, you know, its -- its time to shine. It deserves its -- it deserves its opportunity to take its place, you know, in the -- in the pantheon of desserts. You know, and Abu's Bakery, that's my ambition, to let Abu's Bakery be the company that does that. You know?
ALI: That's good. I'm -- good, that -- I think we're good here.102:00
BRAITHWAITE: [laughter] All right.
ALI: That's a perfect note to end it.
Oral History Interview with Idris Braithwaite
Idris Braithwaite was born in 1971 in Brooklyn. He had a strong interest in dance and music from a young age, including attending his father's music rehearsals and working as a DJ. As an adult, he served on the Bedford-Stuyvesant Gateway Business Improvement District Board, founded the non-profit Aunt and Uncle Youth Employment Services, and took over management of Abu's Homestyle Bakery (originally known as Abu Baker's Bakery) in 2011 from his father, Idris Conry (interviewed for this collection on June 21, 2018).
In this interview, Idris Braithwaite discusses his childhood in Brooklyn, being raised in a Muslim household following his parents' conversion to Islam from Christianity, and his approach to educating his own children about Islam. He also talks about his relationship with his African American and Muslim identities, including the distinction he draws between Muslim beliefs and Arab culture. In addition, he speaks extensively about his father's founding of Abu's Homestyle Bakery (now known as Abu's Homestyle Bakery) in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in 2001 and his own management of the bakery starting in 2011, especially regarding the bakery's focus on bean pies and their significance to the Muslim African American community. Interview conducted by Zaheer Ali.
This collection includes oral histories conducted and arranged by Brooklyn Historical Society in 2018. The interviews reflect varying approaches to religious observance among Muslim Brooklynites in relation to a wide range of communities and traditions within Islam, including Sunni, Shi'i, Sufi, Nation of Islam, W. D. Mohammed community, Five Percent, Dar ul Islam, and Ansaarullah. Collectively, there is particular focus on cultural and religious customs, practices, and gender roles within these communities; education and the arts; immigration from South Asia and the Middle East; the Nation of Islam; Islamophobia in the wake of the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as well as after the 2016 presidential election; political activism and engagement; and community relations with law enforcement and government officials.
CitationBraithwaite, Idris, Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali, July 07, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.23; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Abu's Homestyle Bakery (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Braithwaite, Idris
- Conry, Idris
- African American cooking
- African American Muslims
- Clothing and dress
- Family-owned business enterprises
- Islamic religious education
- Muslim families
- Religion and ethics
- Small business marketing
- Bedford-Stuyvesant (New York, N.Y.)
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidMuslims in Brooklyn oral histories