A Conversation with Jaquial Durham, Interfaith Peace Builders Delegate, Washington, D.C.
April 1, 2018
Background: In April 2018, undergraduate student Olivia Vita interviewed Jaquial Durham as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Fellows Program. Durham was a recent delegate of Eyewitness Palestine (formerly Interfaith Peace Builders, IFPB) and is a pro-Palestine activist. In this interview, Durham speaks about experiences visiting Palestine, interfaith social justice activism, and the intersectionality of identities.
Please describe your current involvement with Interfaith Peace Builders.
I am a recent delegate and am organizing an event that will involve the Interfaith Peace Builders.
Could you tell me a little bit more about the event?
The event is centered around the Congolese art form called kindezi. Kindezi is basically a scientific way that they raise children in the Congo. I will be having a panel discussion that is focused on community engagement of young people within the United States using the framework of kindezi. Panelists will discuss the community involvement of young people.
What motivated you to get involved in IFPB and activism as a whole?
I heard about IFPB through the co-founder of Dream Defenders, Ahmad Abduznaid. We met at the 2016 Palestinian Film Festival, and some of the Palestinian activists and organizers saw me there and asked me what my interest was, so I told them. He was one of the first people they put me in contact with, and we stayed in touch. He wanted to get me to Palestine. He knew that since I was a D.C. resident, IFPB was the best local organization to work with.
What is unique about IFPB’s approach to social justice work in Palestine?
I know IFPB is going through some changes right now as far as being distinctive. The name itself can lead people, especially young people, to think that it’s not as radical as they would like it to be or as revolutionary as they would like it to be. However, the main organizers of the organization, I believe, are what make it distinctive, particularly Emily [Siegel] the director, who is of Jewish descent.
Do you feel like the trip was transformative in any way, and if so, can you tell a story that illustrates this?
Yes, I think it was transformative for sure. Before the trip, I was more focused on the academic side of resistance; however, going there and being more “boots-on-the-ground,” I got to see the things I had been reading and writing about for years. The transformation was that it made me take my studies and writing more seriously. One experience I think of is visiting the African Quarter in Old City Jerusalem. As I’m walking and heading to the African Quarter, I ran into and got to meet the leader of the African Quarter, Ali Jiddah. I had the opportunity to speak with him about Afro-Palestinians and the movement, and how their existence became present within Jerusalem. Just his words and philosophy on Palestinian freedom were transformative. I got to spend time in his home to sit and talk with him; he showed me around the Old City. Seeing people who look like myself being doubly oppressed because they are not only Palestinian but also black was itself a transformative experience. It allowed me to take a different approach and to think differently about the movement.
What was he like? What is the history of the Afro-Palestinian people in Jerusalem?
There are five generations of Afro-Palestinians within the African Quarter. However, there are more Afro-Palestinians in Jericho, and over 32 percent of Afro-Palestinians live in Gaza. A lot of the Afro-Palestinian women in Gaza have some form of leadership role in the Gaza Strip as well. The thing I took from Ali that was most moving and inspiring was that in the United States, people of color lack two things: organization and unity. He was incarcerated in 1982 and learned English, Hebrew, and of course he already knew Arabic. He also owns a tourist attraction company within the Old City to take people on tours to see what they wouldn’t see on an Israeli tour. He’s extremely funny and extremely knowledgeable on history and what’s going on. He’s a revolutionary. He calls himself the Denzel Washington of the Old City. He’s someone that if you go there, you have to meet him. He’s just a beautiful human.
Where does your sense of moral and social responsibility come from? Has your religious or spiritual upbringing shaped or influenced this in any way?
Religion is one of the things I’m still maturing in. A professor from Howard University named Dr. Ronald Hopson who teaches in the School of Divinity said something that really made me look at religion differently. He says, “Do not ask me what my religion is. If you ask me, I’ll say I’m from the South.” So, basically, what he’s saying is, no matter how knowledgeable you are in religion, no matter how religious you think you are not, where you’re from ultimately shapes what your religion is. What you’re born into and raised with affects both your core beliefs deep down and how you operate throughout life. Me growing up in South Carolina, I grew up in the Baptist Church.
I thought that I knew what religion was until I took a course called African American Religion at the College of Charleston, taught by Dr. Matthew Cressler. Dr. Cressler studied Black Catholics in the South and introduced me to the work of Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr., a professor at Princeton University who wrote this book called African American Religion. He basically gave an overview of all African-American religions, how and where they were started and who started them, and the purpose they served within the African-American community starting with the Great Depression. I left that class shattered. I wrote on my evaluation literally that I was leaving this class shattered. I thought that I knew what religion was, but then you learn that African-Americans started many of these religions based on being excluded—even with Christianity.
There’s many different ways to be Christian. Even Dr. James Hal Cone, who’s the founder of liberation theology, which is using the vision of Christianity to liberate your people, which could be the same philosophy as Nat Turner or Denmark Vesey in Charleston, South Carolina, who used Christianity to free people in bondage. Even the Nation of Islam, which was founded by Wallace B. Fard and later passed down to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who used this Nation [of Islam] to liberate their people and to be able to form a separate community within itself, operating off of Pan-Africanism. Like Malcolm X, John Henrik Clarke, Asa Hilliard, and Marcus Garvey—pioneers of Pan-Africanism—which also goes back to the foundation of the Nation of Islam.
Spiritually and morally, I take from each of these and added it to what I was raised with in a way that I think would help move the world in the direction of liberation. However, I try to walk everyday through life with the philosophy of what I call “Good Love,” which is basically I’m not someone who fights for freedom, justice, and equality but still doesn’t let individuals love who they want to love. As someone who is not homophobic, I’m not going to speak for God and tell someone that they’re going to hell because those same people who love candidly are essentially people who are fighting for same freedom and justice just like I am. I’m not going to be the oppressor and use religion in an oppressive way against another person the way it has been used against me. We don’t want to give the gun to the rabbit.
What challenges have you experienced in your work with IFPB or in interfaith and/or social justice spaces as a whole?
I personally haven’t run across any challenges in IFPB; they’re very supportive. Working with organizations who are faith-based has not really been my way; however, [I have been] going to church in Alexandria, Virginia, to Alfred Street Baptist Church, a very social justice-driven church. Rev. Dr. Howard John Wesley, who got his degree at Duke School of Divinity and is a very wonderful pastor who is very social justice-driven, will be going on a delegation with his congregation—two actually—to Palestine. For an entire month last year they focused on what’s going on in Palestine on Sundays, giving it a historic context, and their senior assistant to the pastor, Reverend Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams, speaks Hebrew and is able to go into the Bible and give it a more historical context. A church like that would be a perfect example of the history of the Black Church and where it’s at. I think most churches have to get back to doing that kind of work; that’s why I’m there.
Probably the most frustrating thing for me is finding where it is that I stand. Whether I am this Pan-Africanist, or someone who is just your liberal guy who is not progressive. The more I learn, the more I lean toward Pan-Africanist philosophy. I just don’t want to get to a point where I have a narrow view of what it means to be conscious, read a narrow body of work, and that I become very homophobic and sexist—which is usually an unfair critique of ALL Pan-Africanists. It’s really me trying to infuse African philosophies into how I organize and how I resist, as well as exploring other ways. Marc Lamont Hill wrote an article about Black Twitter entitled “Thank You, Black Twitter: State Violence, Digital Counterpublics, and Pedagogies of Resistance.” In this article, he thoroughly addresses the way Twitter has become a platform to resist, as well as other social spheres as a means of social dialogue like coffee hops or churches.
Interfaith work has been critiqued often. Can you tell me a story that illustrates its challenges and potential?
Me personally, maybe not, but I can give an instance I think of. Malcolm X gave a speech in Detroit I think in April of 1964, “The Ballot or the Bullet Speech.” In it he said that we need to put our religion in the closet and focus on our commonality. He says MLK is a Negro preacher who is a Baptist minister, gives examples of other pastors of the time, then mentioned himself being an Islamic minister, but then he says we all are Negro preachers, that we’re all fighting for the same thing. One of the things my professor kept getting at, Dr. Cressler, was that we need to put our religion in the closet because it divides us. When we put our religions in the closet and then find out what we’re all fighting for then we can move forward. At the end of the day they don’t kill you because you’re Muslim, they don’t kill you because you’re rich, they don’t kill you because you’re poor: they kill you because you’re black. They don’t kill you because you wear a hoodie. They kill you because you’re black.
Could you clarify what “putting religion in the closet” means? What would that look like practically?
Putting aside the ego. Putting aside your views. A quote that comes to mind is by Dr. John Henrik Clarke: “I only debate with my equals. The others I teach.” Whenever I have conversations with certain people I know whom I can debate with and whom I need to teach. Sometimes those who I am teaching I sometimes, if not most of the time, have to tell them that religion is a separate conversation. Right now, we’re talking about freedom, justice, and equality. Religion is a different conversation. Not only in terms of converting people but also in terms of infusing religion into things, like same-sex marriage and using the Bible to say why it isn’t allowed. We need to be able to have a conversation about freeing our people from bondage without infusing religion because it’s a totally different conversation. It’s like a dissertation: you have to focus on strengthening the work and shrinking it at the same time with a particular topic. We have to focus on what we’re organizing around and leave your religion at home.
More and more people are beginning to highlight black-Palestinian solidarity and even Native American-Palestinian solidarity. Can you tell me a story that illustrates any parallels you have witnessed between Palestine and the United States?
I can speak more on black and Palestinian solidarity. I did an entire paper on black solidarity with the people of Palestine. It was looking at ways that people of African descent have experienced similar systemic oppression to the people of Palestine. The first section took a look at law and order, looking at laws that are practiced here in the United States and also practiced in Palestine, Israel specifically. Israel is broken down into areas A, B, and C [where Israelis and Palestinians have various forms of access across borders and lands]. Stop and frisk—first present in New York City, a practice by law enforcement that says if you look suspicious you can be stopped—is also practiced in Palestine. It was supposed to be stopping, question, and frisk, but they don’t do much questioning. Data put together by Adalah [Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel] outlined these laws; I didn’t know that these types of laws were practiced in Palestine.
In almost every state in the United States there are over 10,000 laws that if you have a felony on your record about things you can’t do. You can’t go to law school, you can’t be on a jury, you can’t get a type of public housing or assistance from the state if you have ever been incarcerated or ever been to jail in your life. So, I’m looking at this like, okay, this is like 50,000 laws but what about on top of how you’re already restricted in, what you already can’t do? Minorities are already disadvantaged by not having access to certain services and items. So on top of that, you can’t vote, you can’t get education—you’re not even a person.
Looking at mass incarceration and the number of political prisoners in Palestine compared to in the United States is astonishing. Looking at political prisoners in the United States—looking at Black Panthers—and then looking at political prisoners in Palestine as well…how many political prisoners still are there today? So those are some of the parallels that go into my solidarity. Lastly, looking at hip-hop as a tool of resistance amongst black and Palestinian youth. To me, it was important to find some group who was close to the experience of black Americans in the United States, and then solidarity with Palestinians is only natural because they are the closest to the experience of people of African descent in the United States. For my Ph.D I was thinking of doing more work around this, and so one thing we [Dr. Marc Lamont Hill and I] briefly discussed really trying to do is first define what solidarity looks like. We’re trying to just push out defining what solidarity looks like, but I don’t want to define so concretely what it looks like now because my definition of solidarity might be very different years from now.
However, I think it’s important to acknowledge the systemic issues that we both face and find ways to learn from one another and find ways to organize. I think Ferguson shows that solidarity can look like: when Mike Brown was killed in 2014 and you have basically a militarized police force coming out with guns and tanks into a small town, and you have youth from Palestine tweeting how to circumvent tear gas. It gives us an example of solidarity, when you have people faced with the same commonalities and are being resisted by the state in the same ways yet still able to provide ways to secure yourself, I think that’s one great example of solidarity.
What expectations did you have when you entered justice work? Have your expectations changed at all over time?
I’ve been an activist all my life, but actual organizing didn’t come until college in Charleston, organizing there, being involved, and working on campaigns. Being there when the Charleston Nine Shooting happened in downtown Charleston.
Wow...so you were there?
Yes, I was there at that time. I wasn’t too far away from there actually. I remember seeing the faces of the family members affected and watching the news. I think that’s when I had real exposure to what I was learning. At that time I was still maturing in my education, trying to digest what I was learning. I was fresh into my degree in African and African-American studies. At some points in the midst of learning I would just be like, "Oh my God, I just want to punch a white person in the face," but in time you learn ways to organize and join organizations that organize by any means necessary. I think the expectations in black organizing are still the same as when Muhammad Ali, when he was stripped of his title for saying he wouldn’t go to war against brown people.
I joined actual organizing and activist work around the time of 2014. That is when I learned how to really start organizing. I learned from being asked to start organizing the Black Lives Matter chapter in Charleston with Muhiyidin d'Baha, the founder of which was just killed in New Orleans. He taught me how to organize as well. I was doing other political work with a coalition in North Charleston with former City Council member Kwadjo Campbell. When you grow up around people like that and you work with people like that and are exposed to African traditions and African principles around organizing, then in 2018 you’re organizing around the same thing. Going back to the Nation of Islam, freedom, justice, peace, and equality are some of the things that I fight for and we’re still fighting for that.
Could you share some of the things that you think young people should learn about religion and its effects on society?
It’s a powerful tool that has been abused. When you think about the Middle East, you think about people fighting because of different ideologies. When you think of the Middle Passage and the specificity with which people decided who went on what ship, which went with what tribe. They were so scientific about whom they put with whom because they knew how powerful spirituality was, and they wanted to strip Africans of their spirituality. They knew how powerful language was, and so they basically put different tribes with one another so that they couldn’t communicate across languages. Amongst other things like gender and age as well. Then you throw your religion at them to basically say, "This is what you were made to do. This is what you were supposed to do because this is what the Bible says." It’s a very powerful tool and to think that this is how some people operated from day-to-day. Even thinking about relationships and patriarchy, just how people maneuver about day-to-day. No matter how informed you become about religion where you’re from, what you’re brought up with is deep down how you operate. Sometimes I have to check myself.
One of my professors, Dr. James Pope, who teaches at Winston-Salem State University in the Department of African and African American Studies, said, "Religion is like a rainbow and it has many different colors, and those colors are formed in many different ways, but you need every color to make the rainbow. You take a little from each, take what you want, and leave what you don’t want. If at the end of the day it’s about making the world better, what difference does it make?" That’s how I look at it. We need everybody, and everyone is not going to be what I am.
The topic of dialogue has been a big debate within both Palestinian and black liberation circles. How essential is interreligious dialogue in IFPB? Can you give me some examples? What is bad dialogue and good dialogue?
In the black community, we talk about the issue. When we talk about education, we talk about how bad kids are [for example]—which is a bad term to use, I like to use [the word] “challenging”—we’re not focusing on the issue. What I’m learning about in my History of Black Education class now is why black kids act the way they act. They are functioning off a system that is meant to produce the outcome that they’re producing. Which is the system of white supremacy, which is one hell of a drug. We have to be deconstructing the system that is producing these results. Otherwise we’ll keep asking the same questions we’ve been asking forever. And I have to catch myself with my education to make sure I don’t just become a member of the bourgeoisie, forgetting I was a child once myself. James Baldwin said, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”
Within the Palestinian circle I don’t really wanna speak too much on it because I’m not familiar. However, I would say that one thing that’s become frustrating is the Afro-Palestinian ethnic group is not being acknowledged, is not being talked about, and is not being brought to the forefront. Even in new maps made by some activists of how Palestine is supposed to be organized in terms of locations and directions, the African Quarter isn’t included. So what Ali was urging me to do was to go back to the United States and talk about the stories of Afro-Palestinians. He was begging me to take pictures because he was saying that they’re not acknowledging that we exist. I didn’t even know Afro-Palestinians exist. So in circles of organizers, you should be acknowledging that Afro-Palestinians exist—some Palestinian organizers and activists from Palestine don’t even know about Afro-Palestinians themselves, or they give that same look that white people gives when they hear the black circumstance and they act amazed as if they aren’t familiar with the issues that "the other" is dealing with. It’s crucial for me to not only fight for African people here in the United States but to fight for African people globally. And so if I’m fighting for Palestinian rights, I have to fight for Afro-Palestinian rights as well. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson once said, “When you hook black people up you hook the whole world up.” It’s the same principal.