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Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali
September 13, 2018
Call number: 2018.006.38
ALI: Today is Thursday, September 13, 2018. I'm Zaheer Ali, Oral Historian atBrooklyn Historical Society, and I am sitting here in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with Suheir Hammad. And this interview's for the Muslims in Brooklyn project. Suheir, can you introduce yourself to the recording by telling us your name, and when and where you were born?
HAMMAD: Hello, future, this is Suheir Hammad. I was born in Amman, Jordan, bythe Jordan River, [date redacted for privacy], 1973.
ALI: Tell me about your family background.
HAMMAD: I am a Palestinian with maternal and paternal roots in what we call '481:00Palestine, which is modern-day Israel. So their -- the towns that my parents come from -- were actually not taken over in 1948, but taken over in 1949. Those people were the original group of refugees that UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East], the United Nations refugee service, was created for, was those groups of Palestinians displaced. And my families were displaced through Egypt into Jordan.
ALI: How long did you spend in Jordan?
HAMMAD: Five years. Five years in Jordan, with a stop in Beirut during the civilwar, because, you know, itineraries [laughter] matter. [laughter]
ALI:They do. [laughter] So, you know --
HAMMAD: How you going to come to Brooklyn without stopping in a [laughter] civilwar first? [laughter]
ALI: So I, I'm interested by the phrase you use: '48 Palestine. You know, we've2:00been trying to think about how different people identify places and a lot of us, because we're, we, we see the physical earth, we think of the places as being fixed, and --
ALI: -- tell me, tell me about time and place and how, how that, how, how thatshapes your sense of national identity.
HAMMAD: Well, I don't know if I have a national identity; poetry teaches meother forms of identity, to focus on and study. I think there's civic responsibilities, which I try to adhere to and follow. That's hard working right there. But time is space -- like where we're sitting right now -- used to just 3:00be street. Cars used to just roam through here, and now it's considered a public space. A triangle, a pyramid -- it was already here. My home girl used to live -- we're facing a bunch of apartments, literally like a few hundred feet away from us -- and she used to sit up on that window, and we used to look down that window up there --
HAMMAD: -- I mean, they can't see where I'm pointing to --
HAMMAD: -- up behind that tree --
ALI: And what street? What street is this?
HAMMAD: That's Lafayette Avenue, and we used to think she was so fancy forliving off of Lafayette right there, like, by the trains. So --
ALI: What was it like? What was it like here --
HAMMAD: It's still --
ALI: -- when you'd come see her --
HAMMAD: -- here --
ALI: -- and when, when was that?
HAMMAD: That was the '90s, right? But before that, I was going to Muslim schoolnot -- Atlantic Avenue not far away, and walking over here in the '80s, this triangle -- this pyramid -- was still here. It just wasn't designed through the mayor's office; it wasn't -- I don't know -- some kind of deal made with -- 4:00
HAMMAD: -- really people who run stuff I don't know about.
ALI: So did people -- did people already gather in this space, or was it --
HAMMAD: Yeah, that's what I'm trying to tell you, Zaheer --
ALI: Yeah, yeah.
HAMMAD: -- like, they're gathering with us right now. So, like, the buses thatare passing by us right now, how many times did I have real feelings and real, like, human experiences on those buses? I kind of fractured -- like parts of me. So where we're sitting right now, I still see all of my friends, living and not -- in all of our ages, I, I s-- I, I've always felt that. So I felt that even as a little girl, right? That, like, you would you think I was sitting in Dunkin Donuts -- it wasn't Dunkin Donuts at the time -- being like, some guys would have come from somewhere, talking about Brooklyn with me, in this pyramid that I crossed thousands of times in my life with so much shit on my mind, so many 5:00space-time issues that I was working out.
And so I think specifically, like, growing up in a, like, in Sunset Park in the'80s, most of my teachers were coming not from Brooklyn or from communities that were living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, but were coming from predominantly white, middle-class communities in Long Island or other parts of maybe the city. So it mattered somehow to these teachers that I was Palestinian, that my parents had said to me, "That's what you are." If I had another set of teachers who could've been like, "Okay, great. Puerto Ricans, we love you. Black people, welcome. Haitians, don't let them bother you." You know what I'm s-- that's not what we had. We had this kind of racialization of ourselves as students, as citizens, as our parents, as worker -- of -- as workers.
And so I think that's part of all these kind of multifaceted identities thatcome out of the BK [Brooklyn], right? It's also like, what did authority tell us 6:00about ourselves? As children. As children, right? Not as like -- that's -- and to, to take accountability that I, I referenced those people and their ideas of me in the formation of my identity, to take accountability for that, to weed that out as I grow up, as I want to find fulfillment and peace within myself and peace when I see other people and, and listen to other people.
ALI: How, how, how do you do that? How did you begin -- well, before we do that,I want to -- for people who are listening, or will be listening -- situate us. We are -- we're at the Triangle of Lafayette and Fulton and South Elliott --
ALI: -- we are a block away or a half a block away from 40 Acres and a Mule --
HAMMAD: Yeah --
ALI: -- Filmworks --
HAMMAD: -- Spike Lee might walk right by now any second [laughter] lookingcantankerous. [laughter] I'm waiting. 7:00
ALI: I'm interested to revisit this idea of, of how the process by which you'vebecome yourself in a way independent of what has been imposed on you, and so I hope to explore that as we go through, an-- and we don't have to stick to a linear timeline for sure, but we, we will occasionally reference time just so we can help locate people. So you lived in Jordan, and when did you move to, to Brooklyn?
HAMMAD: '79. So I turned six here, I'd imagine, and I started, you know, likekindergarten --
HAMMAD: -- I had like ESL, although both of my h-- parents spoke really goodEnglish; they went through the primary refugee education, which was British based, not American based. So they pro-- they pretty much spoke better English than a lot of people who taught me. That's the truth. And I went to PS 29, which 8:00actually Spike Lee went to PS 29.
ALI: Is that right?
HAMMAD: Yes. A bunch of people went to PS 29.
ALI: Do you remember what your first day of school was like? Or what it was liketo prepare --
HAMMAD: I remember my mom --
ALI: -- for your first day?
HAMMAD: -- taking me to school; I do, 'cause you know, first of all, like, youjust remember your mom as like, this queen goddess, like, angel type, and now when I think about it it's even more so. I remember her like holding my hand and taking me to school, and be-- I, because I had to have, I had a bit of a speech impediment, I had to have these rehabilitation courses, so I think that somehow like softened my entry, because I was given special attention for my stuttering and that went hand in hand with acclimating me to the language. But at that age, you know, you pick it up, and then, everybody wishes you'd shut up. In every language. [laughter]
ALI: What, what were your classmates like? What was the demographic of the9:00school at the time?
HAMMAD: Well, from, from Park Slope, we moved to Sunset Park in a few years, soI actually -- between Park Slope and Sunset Park, I grew up in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood, which had recently transferred from being Italian and Polish kind of working class. But for me it was just like, really it was like Puerto Rico, and we had a few Dominicans; they were like rare. [laughter] And some Haitians. And my first, my parents always say, like, my best friends everywhere I went, the first friends I made were beautiful Haitian women who are still my friends to this day. So our demographic was very working class, and anyone who is interested on any neighborhood in Brooklyn at any time, you know, you just look up Sunset Park 1980s; I don't really think I can do justice to 10:00the, the destruction that Reaganomics did to certain communities, but I think my actual community is well documented in the rise of HIV [human immunodeficiency virus] and teenage pregnancy and crack.
ALI: So let's talk a little bit about that, I mean. You, you, you began yourjourney in the United States in the, with the 1980s, or right before the 1980s kicked in. And the 1980s were kind of like a wild decade --
ALI: -- it was a decade of contrasts. There were, you know, this is when WallStreet is emerging as like, the center, and s-- you know, the yuppie and, and mass wealth from one end and deep, deep, deep urban poverty on the other. It's also a time as you've mentioned with HIV; it's, it's when crack would come in. But it's also a time of great cultural resilience in the form of hip hop, so, so 11:00tell me what it was like growing up -- and, and not only it was that, there were, there were people who have only been able to study to this -- they -- because they weren't here or weren't around -- there were people who witnessed it from afar because they weren't in this locale. But you were, you were at like, one of the epicenters of, of this stuff happening, so, so tell me --
HAMMAD: And --
ALI: -- tell me what was going on, what was happening.
HAMMAD: -- and I was born loving poem. And I think that is probably the filter,if you could call it that, that most matters in any perspective I can share, really.
ALI: Did you -- tell me about your introduction or your exposure to poetry. Howand when did it start for you?
HAMMAD: Definitely been on record as saying the streets, the few streets Iwalked to [laughter] from my apartment to school was just like, you know -- an 12:001980s science-fiction surreal video of what you think hip hop is. Everything from the cardboard on the streets -- you know, now it's like, at, near 45, the same conversation I've been having for 20 years, like this is how I grew up. I can, I can sense, I can sense sentimentality in my tone, but I want to challenge that in myself because all of these tropes of hip hop or of urbanity -- of ultimately what is an extension of the black experience in this country, for all the language we use around it, like where did you wind up around whom? Who did you serve and who served you? All those kinds of nuanced qu-- like, realities are flattened just like that cardboard box, right? 13:00
So I think there's something to be said for Brooklyn brevity. There's somethingto be said for sitting back and watching what happens and being comfortable and sure on your corner, you know? Like that -- your back is taken care of, and I think the sense that somebody got your back allows the imagination to feel just a little more secure. I don't know wh-- if security is what every imagination needs, but I think every imagination might need it at some point. So the streets were like, what they were. And then my parents in their home, very proprietorial 14:00over honor and virginity and an authenticity that the world itself refused to give them as refugees and as specifically Palestinians, because what it meant to acknowledge their displacement -- the cost of that to authority. So you have like a holy scripture, which really prohi-- what's the word I'm looking for? I mean, intimidatingly, is said to be perfect. [laughter] In a language I would love to love, but is still removed from me, right? And, and so I felt what one would call this creation, this life force, this god -- if God was in language, it was given to me through hip hop and through the Qu'ran. And poetry -- and I -- like, love, or the service of poetry, is like the tool that I have to try to 15:00understand myself and my, my environment. So I'm always going to look at Brooklyn knowing that June [M.] Jordan walked these streets first, that she wrote about Walt Whitman walking these streets first, [laughter] knowing that [Nikola] Tesla laid down, like, copper wires out here for ConEd [ConEdison], like, people that -- not only influenced me and made me feel, good to be a human, like, they still influence everybody around us and they don't even know. Like, they don't know June Jordan walked these streets, and the fact that I know it is like a birthright, even though I wasn't born here -- it's that birthright, that like, once you, once you've rooted yourself, the fruits are not commodifiable for some of us. But we harvest them.
ALI: That's great. I want to -- so, I want to talk about a little about, you16:00talked about the support that your -- your parents, the support structure that your parents had for you. In, in your family, did you have siblings? And where were you in the line of siblings?
HAMMAD: I'm the eldest of five.
ALI: Okay. So, you were -- among your siblings -- a kind of pioneer.
HAMMAD: Yes. [laughter]
ALI: What, what was that like to, to both --
HAMMAD: Well --
ALI: -- have to -- to learning a new place, not just because -- not just it wasa place, but it --
HAMMAD: I appreciate this question, but I just want to tell you --
HAMMAD: -- most of your listeners are not going to be the eldest, given just themath [laughter] and they really don't care --
ALI: No, but it's -- I care.
HAMMAD: -- what it's like for the eldest, and it's mad typical for every eldest --
ALI: I care. Yeah. I care, because --
HAMMAD: -- no. Everyone else is rolling their eyes, [laughter] like, yeah, butyou bossy, and nobody told you to take that on. That's what it feels like. It 17:00feels like doing what you got to do --
HAMMAD: -- doing your duty sometimes makes people feel like you bossy --
ALI: What, what kinds of things --
HAMMAD: -- and you have an attitude.
ALI: What, [laughter] what kinds of things did you -- growing up -- did you feellike you had to share with your younger siblings that you learned by experience that you hoped that they could learn by listening to you, that even if they didn't listen to you, you hoped they learned by listening to you?
HAMMAD: Actually, I feel like I didn't have that -- I don't think we ever hadthat kind of calm. We all worked, as children. I worked in bodegas and supermarkets my whole childhood, and so I think there's a -- as many children right now; we could walk into any neighborhood in Brooklyn on a school day right now and find someone covering for somebody, or kids who are just not going to school. That wasn't my case -- I went to school -- but those weekends and those holidays, I didn't know nothing about. So there's an isolation already for me 18:00and my peers, that I was going to school on, on Monday -- again, because of poetry, like, I've found a light in that, you know? What it is to be like, 11, 12 years old and serving people what they need in a bodega at all hours of the day.
ALI: Tell, tell me what that's like.
HAMMAD: Well, we, my father had a store in Livingston [Street]; we could walkright to it. It had Bon Ton chips, Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, Spanish fly -- which I was not allowed to get to -- so for instance, when people want to like, talk about like, discovering your adulthood, you know? How -- these guys would come in looking like they had to pee, right? And my dad would push me aside [laughter] sorry -- because he already knew what they wanted, and he'd be like, "Go get this bottle of," whatever, and I'd be like, "What is that?" But everybody else was coming in -- I could sell them whatever they wanted, you know what I'm saying? Like, when you go back and you think about that, just as a 19:00woman, you're like, "These guys were running these streets on pre-gingko," like, it was crazy stuff out here that, like, was, is still in every bodega. I don't know what they are.
Those kinds of things, like -- because we, because I was down of off of Fulton,it was like the mall, it was like a very working class shopping district, right? So people were coming in with all of the working class aches and joys, and I was a child, like, trying to find joy in everything and trying to connect with every person I met, and I did, you know? Like, I saw a lot of hunger. I saw a lot of violence. I saw, like, I, I, I think anybody that works, you know, and pays attention, you -- before the word algorithm ever came to my attention, I was living on algorithms, and depending on your economic reality, you just got to, 20:00like, figure out where you're at, and why everyone is stressed, you know, a week into the end of the month. Why is everybody drunk at the beginning of the month? Or like, a million things that you, that, that you notice.
ALI: So you began to kind of see patterns, and --
ALI: -- yeah. How, how did you process this? Was it all just kind of internal?Or did you like, externalize this in any way.
HAMMAD: No, I think I'm like, even, shy? [laughter] I didn't have like anyextracurricular activity; I didn't, I was not allowed to date. My friends were all vetted for strict parental control over them. [laughter] Like you couldn't be free and be my friend. Oh no, that wasn't going to happen. [laughter]
ALI: You couldn't --
HAMMAD: You couldn't be free and be my friend. [laughter]
ALI: -- what does that mean, free?
HAMMAD: No, you had to have strict parents.
HAMMAD: So my friends were like Pentecostal -- the Pentecostal girls got mad --21:00people made fun of them; they could not wear pants. The Haitian girls -- like it was literally in the -- I always say, I know what it is to live under the tyranny of a minority. [laughter] So when the minority is a majority, and you on the out of it. So I understood that the majority of my peers were ill-treated as citizens -- like my parents were not well-treated as -- but we were like, it was also like, just the math of the streets. It was mostly Boricuas, so if you needed to be aligned with somebody -- and it was the same out here, where it was like between African American and Caribbean American, and then I remember when the Sudanese showed up, and different coiners and bodegas changed ethnicities -- they never changed landlords, though. That's rare; that's very rare. And who gets rented to and the leases and the raids and all of that stuff -- it's like, 22:00I think, the only, if, if anyone listening, you know, listens to Biggie Smalls or Jay-Z and wonders at like, the level of violence that their early records speak to and come out of, you know, I can attest that all of that is real. That was just the reality of New York that I saw, like you were saying, there were like the wolves of Wall Street, and then there was like, the Franklin Avenue train station.
And when my friends and I sit around and talk about, you know, our dads gettingstuck up with machetes, or people getting beat up downstairs with German shepherds, or now-famous rappers doing sex acts on the roofs of these towns, like, the roofs of this city -- Lord have mercy -- I guess if there's love for the culture of hip hop, I'd want people to know, those things happened. Those of 23:00us who survived maybe got to record some of it. Like Biggie didn't survive all the way through, and I guess the romanticization of a lot of that violence inside our homes and outside of our homes -- part of that is just youth, and now you know you recorded us at that age where we had to make that shit fly. And that's like, every generation's birth right, you know? Is to take that shit and to make it fly, and to lie about how it hurts, and to just get through your twenties, like somehow, some way, as unmedicated as possible. But that don't mean because we've romanticized it, or because it's all I have, that there's no accountability from the larger society around me, for the gifts that they took out of this culture, and the taxes that they fucking implemented on it. 24:00
ALI: You mentioned the, the Qu'ran and hip hop being the way that you learnedabout God, so I want to explore both, but I want to talk a little bit specifically now about your religious background or -- how would you -- how would you talk about your religious upbringing? You mentioned going to [inaudible] --
HAMMAD: Yeah, yes, I went to Masjid Al-Farooq, which is down on Atlantic Avenue,which -- it's not even a storefront mosque; it's a storefront and then the mosque is upstairs, and there were a few years of my life that every Saturday was Muslim and Arabic instruction, so Arabic instruction through Islam. I was not good at learning language and religion at the same time. I've -- not good at it. Not good. Not good. The experience, like -- actually, my Muslim school was 25:00just a slightly more multicultural than my actual school was. The ummah was a little more diverse than the 'hood, [laughter] in a way, you know? Because people were coming from different places, but, the Muslim school [laughter] was run by the Yemeni kids, who were getting beat up in every other situation that ever existed, but they ran that [laughter] school. So, that was also interesting; we were like the Yemenese were in control. African American students, different variations of Islam, different -- all pretty much Sunni and orthodox but with -- as all orthodoxy, mad variations within that and kind of threads of stuff that are all around. I myself tried not to talk about religious identity in my public life, because for many years I had no choice but to -- and 26:00I always -- I'm in a conversation with spirit, one way or the other, and rarely feel like it's public. I rarely understand, you know, the comfort we have in denying that this very, like, the term "jihad," internal, intimate, [laughter] earthquake -- [laughter] suddenly is like how I'm represented in the world, and how my gender is viewed, and how my vote is taken, and how this opinion that I'm expressing is accepted. And I generally have a problem with that, because I feel like none of us are that honest with ourselves -- the definition of Islam, of peace, and like the definition of responsibility. 27:00
Having said that, after September 11th, 2001, and 10 years after that again, Ihave changed my relationship to the publicness of my spirituality. I have understood my privilege in not being covered, in not having an accent -- in not being a male with a beard. And I have to use myself -- what I have and my resources -- to protect my family and to represent my family when I can; I can't always do that, but I am of this family and you, and after September 11th, 2001, 28:00and with this eternal war, and right now, today, with this current administration -- you know, that I grew up under this president's shadow, you know -- all of America got, to meet the bully I grew up with.
ALI:How, how, how was that? How -- you said --
HAMMAD: I still can't believe --
ALI: -- yeah.
HAMMAD: -- that he tried to kill the Central Park Five. Go look that up, guys.Look that up and sit with it. Like, just go -- you know what I'm saying? Like, that, there were so many pivotal, identity-forming news -- like, realities, phenomenons -- Tawana Brawley, Yusef Hawkins, the Central Park Five -- racialized young bodies, right? Available for whatever -- consumption. This 29:00current president, as a [laughter] businessman, was in my local newspapers, you know, for decades, like my whole childhood, with an opinion. So like, I understood Daddy Warbucks and Annie and just like, rich white men get to say whatever they want, and their opinions can kill you, you know? That those, those -- you know how many artists got the Central Park Five story wrong? You know how many people, woo, wrote poems about that? And had to go back -- like, we've all had to take accountability from misunderstanding or for being lazy in research, but our current president literally was shouting for the death penalty for five innocent people. So I think, seeing that as a child and honoring that as a child, right? Somehow I honored that. Now that's the miracle there, 'cause it wasn't like people like were like, "Honor that, Suheir. Honor that." No -- 30:00
HAMMAD: -- they were like, "Do your studies. Mind your business."
ALI: What did it -- what did the --
HAMMAD: That saved me --
ALI: -- what -- yeah.
HAMMAD: -- being able to honor that then saves me now.
ALI: What does that, that, what did that look like for you? Or what would thatfeel like for you when you say, "I'm honoring that"?
HAMMAD: Like no matter -- you know, I, I wasn't the gender or the color or thehistorical DNA of these young men. But there was something obviously wrong. So here they are trying to teach me math; they got that wrong. They're trying to teach me world history; they got that wrong. They're trying to teach me geography, I don't -- those countries, I still don't know where they are, and I've been to them. So why -- and when I say "they," I'm not blaming the Board of Ed [Education] and this like, large, general finger pointing, but overall in our society, the children that I grew up with and the child that I was, was not affirmed for the ways our parents and we survived -- we maintained our spirits, 31:00maintained spirituality, didn't hurt anybody, and it made all of that fly, right? Like, made all of that fly.
So, kind of like the outcast Trinidadian girl and the queer kid and this kid andthat kid and that kid -- even within these communities, we all kind of like found each other and affirmed for each other in our friendships and then in our art that we existed, that we loved each other, that we fought, you know, that we survived. And I think you don't hear that term often, like, on these streets that I survived these streets 'cause you ain't survived it yet, bitch. You might -- [laughter] you're still in it.
ALI: When did you start writing?
HAMMAD: I've always written 'cause I've always read. I was always a reader, and32:00I don't think that there's a separation. So you, like, I, I was always writing. By the time I was a teenager, yeah, I would like, write little poems, but --
ALI: Did -- do you remember what it was that introduced you to the concept of apoem? I, I suppose you'd been practicing it long before, but the idea that this is what some people called it; when did that happen for you?
HAMMAD: I was always reading and I would -- I didn't know -- because I -- I cameinto adulthood in the '90s, that was the era of Reg E. Gaines, Paul Beatty, Tracie Morris -- many people, the Vibe Chameleons, what, what we call performance poetry, had just received a national stage with MTV and Lollapalooza, so -- and I had just gotten cable, right? Like, at, at sixteen, 33:00[laughter] so there was this, there were, they were the poems similar to what I was reading: I was reading Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni and whatever I could get my hands on. And those poets that were getting national attention were in those traditions. And then because it's Brooklyn and New York City and Hunter College and CUNY [City University of New York], I got to meet those people. They were also regular working class people who were artists and they, that's what happened, like any artist in -- when you get a stage or an audience -- like, the details are magical and boring. But as soon as I felt like I want to publish a poem -- I never felt like I want to get on stage -- as soon as I felt like I wanted to publish a poem, I was that kid that was in the library that was reading Alice Walker's book and looking up her publisher and sending a thank you 34:00note for the book and asking about guidelines. And I'd never taken a poetry workshop, and my parents -- I went to college but not for writing. I was the first female in my paternal family to go to college -- a four-year college -- and it was insisted that I go for pre-med or something that would make a career of my, you know, for my life.
So the studying of poetry and the understanding of like, automatically, that allthe MCs I loved legitimately were in the same field of creativity, right? So whether you call them poets or not, it was like, I knew by the time I got to college and had to take my, you know, regular English classes, that what Rakim had done and A Tribe Called Quest had done, and what they had done for me my whole life, was similar to what I was being taught about importance. Like when they were showing me European forms of poetry and, and trying to instill the 35:00importance [laughter] of these things, I already knew what was important to me. Like I already knew that I couldn't do those 16 bars with like, interruptions and stuff. And I was trying to do that. Like if I could just do that in the mirror alone [laughter] are you kidding me? I would never like get up -- I would no talent show ever. I just wanted to do that myself. Can you imagine just writing a beat by yourself? Saying what you wanted to say until the, until you started surprising yourself? Until, like -- that is what a cypher, you know, like, is. It's everybody's vulnerabilities and braveries meeting, and no one getting shit on. And that's so rare. Like, anywhere in the world that's rare. You know, it's like -- and you want to -- and the fact that I have had those experiences in the midst of the economic depression of my communities, the 36:00physical displacement of my communities, the canonization of gentrification -- yeah, poetry and writing it or reading it or living it, it literally like, feels like shelter from an onslaught.
ALI: I don't want to -- I definitely want to come to the Hunter years, butbefore we do that, halfway through high school you moved from Brooklyn --
ALI: -- to Staten Island? Can you talk about what that move felt like? Was itlike leaving Brooklyn or -- how, how did that play out for you?
HAMMAD: Yes. Leaving Brooklyn is like the title of lives, the worst band ever. [laughter]
ALI: We should trademark that. [laughter] That's our title.
HAMMAD: Just like -- well, you know, the late '80s, early '90s, there was a wave37:00of working class families over the Verrazano Bridge, trying to own houses. Honey, it was a scam. It was like these cardboard houses that like -- half of them is not even up anymore -- that they basically sold to, like, black and brown families and each -- it's funny, so we were the only one on our block. [laughter] But every block had one of us, I think.
ALI: The only one --?
HAMMAD: The only one, new, non--Staten Island --
ALI: Oh. Got you.
HAMMAD: -- white people, for the most part, on our black. So you can ima--coming from 33rd between 4th and 5th to South Gannon Avenue off of the highway, it was a culture shock. Luckily for me, I landed in Staten Island just as Wu-Tang [Clan]'s peach fuzz was growing in, so it was like, "Okay. [laughter] Where do I go?" And that was really the truth -- it was like, even the white 38:00friends I did befriend, which was one, they loved Wu-Tang too, so that was interesting, was, "Oh wow. This is the exact same thing that I know, but across the ocean, and utterly segregated and kind of like, you know, stir crazy, because it's an island?" I could get really excited talking about that. It was just like, my affirmation, you know?
So I had, so yeah, like, my gold-tooth front was understood, my bamboo earringswere understood, my, I, I, I was accepted and at the same time accepted in this way that's like, "But where --" you know "-- you're not from this 'hood." So it came with all of those things. I landed it what would you call, you know, white world, half an hour away from the world I grew up in; and yet, Staten Island now is full of Brooklynites I hear who can't afford their neighborhoods, and it's interesting to watch grown people, working class people, people who work for the government, civic workers, MTA workers -- it's, to watch them moved over and 39:00over again, and to stay Brooklyn in that way that like, you -- we recognize each other in state to state, you know? You go to Tampa; half of Tampa's Brooklyn right now. What does that mean for space-time? I don't know. And if I don't know, I don't know how these mofos around here know and they're trying to tell me.
I'm like, you know, like I think it's similar to New Orleans -- like, afterHurricane Katrina, more than 80 percent of New Orleans's black population has not returned. But when you sit in a triangle like this, you see black bodies around you, you see families -- you don't understand the density of loss that the natives are feeling and processing every day. You just don't, you know what I'm saying? And you -- and I really believe people are willing to share that. Everywhere I've been, everywhere I've been, I'm like, I'm not from here; I'm 40:00from Brooklyn for sure. And they tell me about where they're from. And what it was like. And what it's going to be like, and where they fit in, you know what I'm s-- like --
ALI: I'm [laughter] Zaheer Ali, Oral Historian at Brooklyn Historical Society;it is still Thursday, September 13th, 2018, and I'm here with Suheir Hammad. We are now in Fort Greene Park, and we are continuing our oral history interview for the Muslims in Brooklyn project. And as we continue, I wanted to ask you -- you mentioned Rakim, you mentioned Wu-Tang -- both artists who identified with the five-percent --
ALI: -- nation, and I, I wondered what it was like as, as a Palestinian, as aMuslim, as someone whose family language was Arabic, whose scriptural language 41:00was Arabic -- what was it like to hear growing up in New York, in Brooklyn --
HAMMAD: You already got me with this question --
ALI: -- yeah, what was it like to --
HAMMAD: -- you already, like, no, I'm sm-- I'm cheesing right now, like --
ALI: -- yeah, like, what was it like to hear these, these, these artists --
HAMMAD: -- but also like the words they use, you know, so for --
ALI: -- yes, so what was it like to hear that?
HAMMAD: -- it was amazing, like, to hear Rakim s-- or I think like Big DaddyKane sing, like, "As-salaam alaikum," at the end of like, some regular-ass song, to be honest. [laughter] The -- also, giving props and thanks to the five-percent language system, so that words like "supreme" and "universal," which, as a poem-loving child, feel like the only things that make sense in the world. [laughter] What is everything else? Everything should be supreme and universal and -- so there is the Arabic, the choice of, the choice of the strong, strong usage of strong specific positive light around identity, and then 42:00the, the, the way English was used around Islam.
I think the other thing too, Zaheer, and I feel like I felt this growing upbecause I was writing as a teenager and I had journals and I published poems that I wrote at 17 and 18 -- those are the first poems that are out in the world of mine -- all of it is there. So, I think the differences like, in the ideologies in these Islamic schools, I didn't, it didn't matter, because the magic that the word Allah brought us, right? And then having our Rastafari 43:00friends being like, "We don't say that word," and -- "But here's what we have." For real. And our Pentecostal friends bringing their damn symbols and hand claps who da -- like, everybody brought -- the children, the young people -- we brought ourselves together, like, the way deen is supposed to. So it was like, your parents were like the ones that were like, "You'd better not be listening to that, them Arabs talk" -- you know, "They'd be selling you." Or "What you talking about? Five percent what, Suheir? God is not a black man, any man." All those differences that literally stop conversations? [laughter] That stop a whole community that is seen as one from, from actually being one? The children are, like -- first of all, those are not conversations they deem worthy. And then I actually believe they are more honest about it then the adults, so the adults are set in our ways of whatever pedagogy -- is that how you say that 44:00word? You know, it is mad words Brooklyn has only read, [laughter] and not said out loud. [laughter] So -- we be living that shit all day, like, "Oh that's what -- okay. Thank you. 'Cause I don't know."
Yeah, the, we came together around the light that is, you know, knowledge andunderstanding of a supreme being, like any kid would wa-- who wants to feel connected would connect to that, I, I think. And it's, it's unfortunate that all these years later, we haven't had summits and gatherings of people who just call themselves Muslims, and I think at this point, there's so many other identities outside of just the -- what you call yourself religiously, how you identify sexually, how you identify in a million ways. It's -- I think there's an 45:00opening. I definitely grew up in a heteronormative environment. I have had to change what I think access is, and, and privilege to worship.
HAMMAD: I mean, I could sit here and wax poetic for days about, like, having topray in the back of a mosque, or not feeling -- trying to understand why I need a guardian -- all the things that any Muslim woman, or woman in a Mus-- in Islam, negotiates for herself and then has to translate into the public, [laughter] as an opinion that's like, valuable and educated. It's her own opinion, right? So how I feel about guardianship, how I feel about witness, witnessing, all these things that are always, that are the actual wrestling of the deen, you know? Those -- the things that stood out to me as a kid. Why do you need two women? Why were there no female prophets? All of these questions 46:00that, like, were shut down in you as a child and then are made dangerous as an adult --
ALI: And where do you dwell in that? Where were you--?
HAMMAD: I feel like, if you've got the question, God wants you to have ananswer. So, it is not for me to stop you. Ever. I, I just don't come from the natural make of, "We need less prayer." [laughter] I don't really know what prayer does, but I don't think we need less of it, and I'm not going to be the one to tell you you can't pray for me or yourself, it's -- and I, I think the privileges that I've had, being heterosexual, the things that I've just taken for granted, like, okay, I'm not doing this the way that Islam would like, but I'm still straight. I'm still going to give God my female duties, like, and having to listen to and make space for friends who want to have a relationship 47:00to Islam, in Islam, that's both public and personal, and knowing that my comfort about, around being straight, has made them uncomfortable, has made that space less safe for them, because we actually need to be really clear that this space is inclusive. It's not an assumption; the assumptions I've made have been hurtful to other people. I'm not just going to tell you about your assumptions on me. You don't really care about your assumptions on me, so let me go take accountability. [laughter] And not make it worse for my peers and my, my, my brothers and sisters, you know?
But I think we can all take a breath and try to be more inclusive and can onlylook at our own privileges individually as poor and broken and isolated as we feel, like -- like, I have sat in masjid and I have sat in public space and been 48:00secure in my womanhood, in my community. And that is, that security, first of all, is a lie. Any woman in any community needs to be more secure than her community says she is. And it, it kept other people on the outside. And, and, I, I ask to be forgiven for that, and I work to be forgiven for that, you know? And to, like -- I think any of us that, I think deen, faith, is rare, and to use a Christian term that has always resonated with me: if you just have the faith of a mustard seed, God will come through. And I think asking for more than that of me or the people that I love is too much. Let me have my mustard seed.
ALI: I know that our time is short, and so the two things I want to make sure we49:00cover is the experience of -- I know you did two books -- but especially the experience of writing and, and what came around it, Born Palestinian, Born Black, and the, the, the experience on being on Def Jam --
ALI: -- Def Poetry Jam. So those are the two things, hopefully we can get toothers --
HAMMAD: Yeah, we can do that.
ALI: -- but I want to -- so tell me, and maybe this leads into --
HAMMAD: I think I have five books.
ALI: -- well, I want to talk especially --
HAMMAD: [laughter] I know, right-- no, no, the early ones, I don't know, but Ithink I have four. Five. Four.
ALI: -- you, you -- you might have five books, but you only be giving me like --
ALI: -- 20 more minutes, so [laughter] you know, I got to pick and choose.
HAMMAD: Well, let's do the, let's do the, the Def Poetry. Actually, I can dothem both together --
HAMMAD: -- I can, I can --
ALI: Well, I want to, I wanted to, I want to drill into them, because I thinkthat I want to hear the story of -- and you talked a little about you in Jordan -- you know, and, and, and, and Born Palestinian, Born Black comes on, you know, 50:00after your time at Hunter. So if you can talk about like, what going -- what being at Hunter did for you as an artist or as a poet and, and then lead into --
HAMMAD: Yeah. S--
ALI: -- the, the inspiration, I know that the, the last stanza to --
HAMMAD: No, I'll tell you.
ALI: -- "Going to Harlem" -- yeah, I want to hear that story. You've probablytold it already, but I want to get it.
HAMMAD: No, but it's a beautiful story --
ALI: Yes, so, so talk about the genesis and arrival of Born Palestinian, Born Black.
HAMMAD: So I was writing in my journals as a teenager, and I think I got toHunter -- I was 18 -- I had gone to Jordan for the first time as like -- I, I think I'd been to Jordan once before? In all those years after, after having left Jordan. And so my parents, after high school -- I graduated high school like, a semester early -- and they were like, "We're sending her ass to Jordan. I mean, she may not have to get married right away, but she's going to get a 51:00little more Muslim-ified." Which is -- don't be sending Yankee girls to Muslim countries 'cause we are shocked at what goes on. We, we believe you when we -- [laughter] literally when I was a kid -- and this is the same with all strict, like, kids who grow up with strict parents -- I literally was like, "How are you pregnant and not married?"
ALI: And this is -- because you found, in Jordan --
HAMMAD: This is the orth-- this is what orthodoxy teaches you --
HAMMAD: -- right? [laughter] Because they're not ready to tell you --
HAMMAD: -- how they want you to behave --
HAMMAD: -- so they tell you shit is impossible.
HAMMAD: And I would like, I wasn't just the, the ignorant Muslim; it was like abunch of us that was ignorant. [laughter] And all our parents had these like, to be Abrahamic sexual moralities, and that was one of them for instance, was like, "No, no, there's no babies outside of marriage." So when all my friends were getting pregnant, it was confusing. And suddenly what, what the religion said was impossible is obviously possible. I was writing about the people I grew up 52:00with and myself, and I was going to Hunter and failing at most of my classes, because I, all I really wanted to do was read. And now, of course, I understand that that's studying my craft. I took one writing course the semester that I didn't finish, and at 21 I left school. And I left my parents' house, and I was working, and I was doing what I could for the political causes that I believed in.
And so this ph-- phenomenon of leaving a strict home at 21 -- a loving, stricthome -- all you've ever known, and all the people that you love, f-- situating myself in a changing Brooklyn, watching a literary scene happen all around me in 53:00Brooklyn from a lot of people who weren't from here, who loved here, who moved here, and who were repping here -- but like, I wasn't as cool as them. And that's like any 20-, 21-year old baby would feel that way. And Zaheer, I did a poetry reading at a spot called The University of the Streets in the Lower East Side for Mumia Abu-Jamal, and it was basically like a bunch of lefty poets and activists reading for each other, right? Mumia Abu-Jamal's a -- right now -- a political prisoner on death row in Pennsylvania. And it's really try-- I really want to tell this story the way I remember it today for the nerdiest person listening to this right now with the illest lack of self-esteem and a community 54:00around you that really don't see you -- they're not your enemy, but they really don't see you. I was like, one of the last people to get up on that mic. I wasn't really invited to the mic; the host was like, "Why don't you get on the mic?" I got on the mic. I read a poem for Mumia. There was a producer from WBAI at the reading, and he said to me, "We have a, a poetry jazz night in a few days also for Mumia. Come read."
So it wasn't my peers that invited me along; it was this producer. I went toread in the m-- it was like a jazz show; it was in the middle of the night. [laughter] All these poets were there who've also been published and on TV and have really amazing careers, now. And I read two poems that night, live, on WBAI. And an editor in New Jersey was listening to that show. Called up the radio station, you know; it's a small, lefty New York world, so [laughter] 55:00everyone who listens to WBAI at the time was going to meet each other, and if you were in publishing or theater, like -- and the producer calls me, and he's like, "Harlem River Press. There's an editor there; he wants to see -- wants to meet you. He liked the poems that you read. He never heard anything like that before. His name is Ron David." Ron David works for Glenn Thompson, who is an African American man from Queens, who created Harlem River Press -- Readers and Writers Publishing [Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc.] house, and then Harlem River Press after that. I walk into their office, literally with the loose leafs of my teenage-hood, not edited by an editor -- Ron takes it. He reads it. He says, "I want to show it to Glenn."
At this point, everyone else on that roster -- on their roster is a publishedpoet or someone who has a following; I have done a handful of readings in my 56:00life at that point very nervously. Glenn had gone to Palestine in the '60s. Black man lost in America, not knowing what to do. Socialism? Kibbutzism? Let me go. Free cooch, maybe? I don't know. He goes. They think he's an Arab. [laughter] This man's entire experience of my occupying power is similar to mine. So you can imagine Glenn Thompson when 21-year-old me walks in with loose leaf papers of, you know, like, nationalist-fed, cultural-worker-inspired, not-performed poems -- I don't know, a hundred pages of them. He reads them. He says, "You know, I know June Jordan; you obviously love June Jordan. What's your 57:00favorite June Jordan poem?" "Moving towards Home." Which ends: "I was born a Black Woman / and am [sic] now / become [sic] a Palestinian / against the relentless laughter of evil / there is less and less living room / [sic] it is time to make our way home." And Glenn said, "The title is Born Palestinian, Born Black." It was his gift to himself and his experience that he'd had that he could never articulate. It was his gift to me. He must have made a promise to Palestine when he experienced what he experienced there. It was a gift to June Jordan, because you can love a poet and her efforts enough to honor her with all, with all you have. That could have been the only book I ever published, right? I was happy and honored. And the confusion that came along with the book 58:00-- which there was confusion on the right to the title -- never had anything to do with June Jordan's poem.
The introduction to the book is a -- is a lot -- I'm 22 years old, trying toexplain what the word "black" means to me. And I think about that girl now, you know, and how like, the people who wanted her to write that shit, they were never going to believe anything she wrote, anyway. They couldn't believe she could write. And like, the faith that Glenn and the world -- Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Rashidah Ismaili -- a world of mentors who stepped up -- Amina Baraka. Who I was, I was the age of their artists' children. I was the age of everybody else around me and, and I was not of my peership; I was mentored. I was protected, to a certain extent, 'cause I was not -- I was a little different. 59:00And to this day, Rashidah checks on me. And the last time I saw the Barakas, they were together before Amiri died. And the respect I have for my living elders is in the book -- it's obvious. And it's obvious in like, when I step on the stage, that I respect my teachers and -- you know, you can say that you're of a tradition. You can believe you're of a tradition, but you're going to get tested. You're going to get tested, so you just h-- it wasn't the tradition that ever tested me. And I guess the tradition loosely would be of, a service to poetry, right? So a service to poetry that brings about of a social justice platform, that brings about an interest in gender equality, that, that brings a curiosity about your narrative. So that book -- I guess also, future, I want to 60:00tell you this one thing about that book that's like, a tip from me, is like, I published that book; it was really hard to say the word "Palestinian." But, and sometimes it is still hard to say that word neutrally or even positively. But, there were many years when people would introduce me or talk to me about my book, and they would -- it's very simple. Born Palestinian, Born Black. Actually, very rare, you know? And they would always reverse it. And over time, I saw a pattern in that. People would, people would flip the book to Born Black, Born Palestinian, and they were insistent upon doing that [laughter] subconsciously. And it reminded me -- every single time -- the paradigm of race that we do live in in this country 'til today, what people get stuck on, what they, what we get stuck on, what I get stuck on, what I'm sensitive to, you know? Like, you reading it off a page, and you can't read it right? You really, 61:00like, oh, Colin Kaepernick, come here. Like, what's on your mind, and -- that book came out along with another book. I was rather young. A small black press. Had to do those readings by myself.
So for the first time, getting out of Brooklyn, which is all I had ever known.Going to Vermont -- what the heck? On a bus? [Washington] DC, Philly -- just like, the whole first year of northeast travel and literally showing up at bookstores and there literally being the two white booksellers from Vermont and no one else showing up, and them sitting there listening to me reading poems about 40s and welfare, 'cause that's where I was coming from. Thinking I knew who my audience was, and then God showing me, and poems showing me -- they show up. Assuming that these people would never understand the struggle that I was 62:00trying to articulate, and then coming up to me being like, "You kn-- you best believe me I understand, although I look different."
So, at a young age as well, like, putting myself and being put in a position ofrepresentation -- intersectional representation, before it was a term -- and then also being open to the, the changing of that. Knowing that that has to change because of the travel, of the encounters, of the lessons -- how could I stay the same? So by the time 2001 came along, I had been touring the country really frugally: universities and coffee shops and jails and street corners. I, I, I, I still get shy of reading poems in front of people, so I can honestly say whether it's a jail or an Ivy League school -- for me, the nerves are similar, 63:00for real. And so, like, when -- it's interesting. When people are like, "But you've done it here, here, and there," but I'm like -- it's, it's really not the context. It's like, I have these people's attention; I want, I find that a responsibility. I wa-- slam poetry and performance poetry was very popular; there were films and CDs and magazine articles, and I was on the periphery of that world. I, I was always in, I was always in the hip-hop journalist world on the periphery, writing. I was always on the spoken-word scene on the periphery, being like, the political person. [laughter] I was like -- just on the periphery of everything.
But you know, the scene was popping in different cities now, and I really thinkthe change happened when the South got it. When the South started having their own poetry slams and doing it the way they do it, it changed -- for me, it 64:00changed the game. And everyone will always talk about Chicago and New York and L.A. and I get it, but I had never seen people like Georgia Me and I think Amir Sulaiman -- like the people that came out that she also brought along with her. So something happened, nationally, and Br-- producers based in Brooklyn and Danny [Daniel] Simmons [Jr.] -- also based in Brooklyn -- decided that they wanted to take the idea of a poetry slam or of a poetry show -- there was a racial tension between slam poetry and performance poetry and -- you'll have to have other people like, who were in those communities talk about it, but this, you know, people always make the distinction between academic and performance poetry.
But within those worlds, too, there are these stratifications. And a lot of it,too, does have to do with race and class, and, so what content and what delivery is rewarded. And all of those things I learned from, and I never did really 65:00well, right? So it was like, I was being published in college journals 'cause I was sending my work there, and I would, I would have readings, and I would be invited to places, but I wasn't the star of those worlds. So after many, like, national showcases trying to sell a show to HBO, basically -- I wasn't invited to any of the showcases in New York; I'd never thought about Def Poetry Jam -- I knew it was happening because all my f-- I had a lot of poetry friends. I think there was one night that Def Poetry had a show off of 23rd Street. I heard about it. I came -- me, Rocky La Montaña, who created All That Poetry, and Julio, who was the bouncer at the Nuyorican Poets Café -- we stood outside in the snow; we couldn't get in, 'cause we weren't on the list. And I saw Rakim walk right by 66:00me. And I was good, 'cause I was like out there with the two realest motherfuckers I knew who had, like, literally put blood, sweat, and tears into bringing hip hop and poetry together for years, and me. Tho-- those two men and me in the snow, not being able to get in. So I never really checked for them.
They, they started recording -- before they started recording, they did a -- Iwas finally invited [laughter] to do a Def Poetry showcase -- before it was Def Poetry -- at the Brooklyn Museum. It must have been like 70 poets; it was an all-day marathon. I was definitely in the last hour, and guess what I did? It was so long, and I knew I was never going to get on TV -- that I read a very long inappropriate poem that made everyone uncomfortable about gender violence. I mean, it was really long. And really a lot. And I was like, "Here we go." And 67:00I did it. And I said to myself --
ALI: What -- what made it inappropriate?
HAMMAD: It was not a s-- a pitch. It was not a pitch. I didn't have a pitch, so --
ALI: What made people uncomfortable about it?
HAMMAD: Gender violence makes people uncomfortable. Talking about it makespeople uncomfortable. Sitting in it -- and I think it's a strong poem, on top of everything else. I felt like -- I didn't know who was in that audience, but I knew that I was being presented with an audience that was important and media making, and I felt -- in that moment -- that all I had to give from my heart, the realest piece I had and the strongest piece I had, was this piece. And it was never -- like, this piece was too long to read at a regular reading --
ALI: What was -- [laughter] what was the title?
HAMMAD: It's called "Before You Touch." And I love it. And Stan Nathan, thedirector of Def Poetry, was in that audience, after hours of sitting through mad poems, and he got up and gave me a standing ovation, 'cause he has daughters. 68:00And I stayed on his mind. They went to book all the poets; they contacted me and asked for a VHS of me reading my poems, and I responded with, "I don't do that. I have two books available; you can read them. I could send you a couple of new poems by fax." So they didn't book me. They booked three days at The Supper Club for September 2001. They were in pre-production when September 11th, 2001, happened. They canceled production. One week later, I finish my poem, and I was -- there was Internet. [laughter] There was Yahoo --
ALI: And, this -- when you say you finished the poem --
HAMMAD: I finished writing my poem.
ALI: -- which -- the poem?
HAMMAD: My poem, "First Writing Since."
ALI: The first wr-- yeah, "The First Writing Since."
HAMMAD: So, a week into -- the week after September 11th, I write a poem thatbegins, "It has been a week." And I think -- so basically, I start, you know, 69:00within three weeks after September 11th, I had made my poem available to 100 of the -- 100 people that mattered to me. They were my friends, and they were my colleagues, and they were like my peers, and it went out on my, on my Yahoo account. This poem went out on my Yahoo account to my friends, and -- that's the thing about being from Brooklyn; you just got fly friends. I don't know, you know, I -- Walter Mudu was on that list, and he gave Stan and Russell [Simmons] a print out of "First Writing Since," another very long poem. [laughter] 'Cause it was a lot. Can you imagine they wanted us to experience all of that in a haiku? Which we did, too, you know what I'm saying? But like -- and they got a hold of the poem, and then they got a hold of me, and both Stan and Russell 70:00wanted a variation of that sentiment, of that poem, in the show. And I had never edited my work for entertainment; Stan Nathan worked with me really -- I mean, unbelievably -- so closely, his assistant worked with me closely. I had never thought, like, to edit this way. And it broke my head, you know?
And when we finally did tape that night, I, I was very nervous. I'd never like,had lights and camera [laughter] makeup. And they still wound up editing what I performed that night. But even then, Zaheer? They sent me -- via FedEx guys, out of -- there was a thing called FedEx and faxes and VHSes. And they would send me VH-- they sent me several VHS edits that, that they were like finalizing for HBO. Now that episode won a Peabody Award. That episode got funding for that 71:00show to go to Broadway --
ALI: This was the first episode --
HAMMAD: That was the first episode --
ALI: -- yeah.
HAMMAD: -- and that's the episode that won its -- a Peabody. And I did get to goto the -- that awards ceremony. And the grace of the people I worked for was that both Stan and Russell saw in me not just the talent of delivering my poems but then -- being an editor, and an associate, and -- and being the one, when the show did get picked up by HBO, to find those poems that Mos Def would read between shows, to find the icon poets -- Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka -- bringing the, their poems to Stan and Russell. They already knew who those people were, and some of the people didn't know who they were, right? That's my -- that was my duty. And the fact that they found the money to pay me for that? That's some 72:00real shit, 'cause I would have done that for free.
ALI: How --
HAMMAD: I was doing it for free.
ALI: -- yeah. I, I, I want to say, you know, many of us were still reeling from9/11 in various ways: people who had suffered loss, who had suffered family loss, death, people who saw war coming on the horizon, people whose, who looked a certain way being targeted -- none of us had seen a, a national articulation of what we were experiencing. And to see that on HBO in such a platform -- and not just, you know, not just see it from someone that we may have expected [laughter] to be in that platform --
HAMMAD: [laughter] Right.
ALI: -- but to see it from a, a woman who was Palestinian, who was Arab, who was73:00Brooklyn, who was hip hop, who was Muslim -- was like, "Wow." So I, I'm, I'm interested -- and I've always been interested -- like, what did it feel like on your side? Like I just told you what it felt like on my -- I mean, I was like, you know, felt like on my side --
HAMMAD: It felt similar.
ALI: -- tell me what, tell me what that was --
HAMMAD: I, I felt that when I was in TV Guide, like, when I got my postalworkers that like I used to go to my P.O. Box for a long time -- like, by the time I got on TV, I had been going to the post-- like, I had the same P.O. Box for like, eight years. I was used to getting letters from prisoners whose moms had sent them my book, you know? And bills. [laughter] And my postmaster was like, "I saw you on TV Guide." [laughter] Gir-- I said, what? I mean, that's what I felt -- the same thing you felt. I said, "My name? Hammad?" I never saw my name -- I never saw anything like that; my fa-- my, like, I felt all those 74:00things, and every time -- the thing is, I got this, I got critical respect and, and attention, and I got mad, uncritical hate. [laughter] And projection.
So I w-- experienced both at the same time, like suddenly I'm hella visible tobe the face that they can hate, but my face isn't really that hateable. On some real, like, alhamdulillah [praise be to God] -- I don't hate, and my face relates that, so --
I'm interested in media workings and taking 10 steps back and seeing, what dothey do with this name? This woman is not sexually available; what will they do with her? [laughter] This woman has an accent; what will they do with it? So it was like, I was blessed in order -- in the ways that I had, I did have the 75:00mentorship and the kind of spiritual foundation to step back always, to know that I was the first body that, there, the first Palestinian there. Or the first person who cared about black liberation to be in this space. So like, it's not just what I'm carrying physically; it's the people that I've cared for as a, as a kid from Brooklyn, from the Board of Ed, here, I never walked into a Broadway house until I was in a Broadway show. There was mad New York that I had no access to until I was VIP. I think I'm, I, I always felt thankful, and I want, I want to say about that poem -- I think s-- not everybody knows, my brother 76:00Sameeh (alayhi rahmah) [mercy upon him] was on the [USS] Kearsarge that day -- the day it happened. And when I wrote that poem, and when HBO aired my poem within a few months -- he was on his ship in the [United States] Navy, out to sea. And my brother watched me. And all his -- all his peoples around him said that was dope and fly, and they were like us. And "Nobody joins the Navy because they're rich, Suheir." And, "That's your sister? Oh, you might get some, 'cause your sister alone. 'Cause we're out in the middle of the ocean." And all of those realities -- and to think that, like, this year, a few days ago, someone 77:00like wrote me from -- like, somewhere in Europe, and says, "Every day -- every year this day I think of your brothers."
And I'm so thankful that my brother saw me, like, somehow my heart wastransmitted into the ocean, you know, from here -- from Brooklyn. And now it's like being transmitted into the future for, for you guys to listen to. But I, I'm thankful for the opportunities that I had to share my poems, 'cause it's like the best of me. Inshallah it's the best of me. And thank you for telling me about seeing me on TV, I, I don't -- I don't live the reality where I experience that -- even monthly. [laughter] So I appreciate you giving that back to me, 'cause sometimes you just feel tired and you don't know why, and it's like you 78:00do be carrying stuff. I really appreciate it, and I appreciate the time you're taking to talk to all these different Muslims. And I hope for you that all our vulnerabilities in talking to you bring you closer to your deen.
ALI: Yeah. Thank you so much.
HAMMAD: On the real, you know, like let's all get free together. And thank youfor seeing me as your sister and your patience with me and, like, you reached out to me, I was in a pain I can't express, and I felt you. And I said yes, anyway. I was going to do whatever you were going to ask for this project, wallah no-- you know what I'm saying?
HAMMAD: Like, I shouldn't even tell you that. It's like, you had it in the bag --
ALI: I appreciate that.
HAMMAD: -- because like, your niyya [intention], it was there, and how do youexplain that in a email, [laughter] from a stranger?
ALI: Yeah. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.79:00
HAMMAD: Salaam-alaikum, guys!
ALI: Walaikum salaam.
Oral History Interview with Suheir Hammad
Suheir Hammad was born in 1973 in Amman, Jordan. Her family immigrated to the United States in 1979 and settled in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. She started writing poetry as a teenager, often drawing from her family's history and her own experiences as a Palestinian Muslim woman in New York City. Her poetry collections Born Palestinian, Born Black and Drops of This Story were both published in 1996. She gained addition recognition with her poem "First Writing Since," which was centered around the September 11 Terrorist Attack in 2001, performing it for the pilot for the Peabody award-winning HBO show Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry and in the Tony award-winning Broadway play Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. She published additional collections of her poetry called ZaatarDiva in 2006 and Breaking Poems in 2008, as well as an updated version of Born Palestinian, Born Black in 2010. Her work has also been featured in various anthologies, magazines, plays, and films.
In this interview, Suheir Hammad discusses her family's roots in Palestine; their displacement to Jordan in 1949; and her childhood in Brooklyn and Staten Island. She talks at length about social justice, including gender, privilege, prejudice, and violence in her community. She elaborates about her passion for hip-hop; spiritual and religious convictions; and development as a poet. She expands on her poem "First Writing Since," which centered around the September 11 Terrorist Attack in 2001, and her subsequent involvement in the Peabody award-winning HBO show Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry and in the Tony award-winning Broadway play Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. In addition, she touches on her religious and secular education. 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.
CitationHammad, Suheir, Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali, September 13, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.38; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Def poetry (Television program)
- Hammad, Suheir
- Simmons, Russell
- Islam and the performing arts
- Muslim women authors
- Palestinian Americans
- Poetry slams
- Poets, Palestinian Arab
- Privilege (Social psychology)
- Racism and the arts
- Refugees, Palestinian Arab
- September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001, in literature
- Social justice
- Women in Islam
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Sunset Park (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidMuslims in Brooklyn oral histories