- Black (Counter)Terrorism
Writing in Social Text very soon after 9/11, Muneer Ahmad cited a New York Times article that quoted African American and Latino men, themselves long the victims of racial profiling, admitting that they supported racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims. Ahmad argued that, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, African Americans became suddenly more “American,” “now that Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians have assumed the primary position of racial scorn.”1 Arguably, Arabs and South Asians have maintained that unenviable position in US popular culture since 9/11, and terrorism is certainly still popularly understood to be a Muslim phenomenon, but the popular-cultural association between terrorism and ethnicity has turned out to be considerably more labile and unpredictable than Ahmad’s early assessment would have suggested. In this essay I offer a brief account of some of the ways in which African American figures have come to be linked to terrorism via either their association with the US-based Nation of Islam or with a vaguely defined pan-African blackness that, putatively, has insidiously made its way into the United States, bringing Islamic terrorism with it. Significantly, all three of the representations I discuss feature a black counterterrorist agent who is able to infiltrate an active terrorist cell. Thus each simultaneously affirms and disavows its linkage of terrorism to blackness: in each case, the black agent in is fact a loyal US citizen—indeed, an exemplary citizen. But he is an exemplary citizen who may be plausibly mistaken for a terrorist, both by the cell into which he insinuates himself and, in two of the cases under discussion, by the audience as well.
The Showtime television series Sleeper Cell (2005–6), about an Islamic terrorist cell based in Los Angeles, features Michael Ealy as a devout African American Muslim with ties (via his father, played by Charles Dutton) to the Nation of Islam. The first episode begins with an extended montage, in which we see Ealy’s character, Darwyn, wearing a taqiyah over his cornrows, praying in a prison cell. A picture of Mecca hangs on the wall, and the adhan—the Islamic call to prayer—resonates on the soundtrack. We see Darwyn say goodbye to his fellow Muslim prisoners; one of them, “the Librarian,” gives him a [End Page 171] locker key. Darwyn boards a bus and, as the soundtrack switches to hip-hop, disembarks in downtown LA. He is approached by hookers, but ignores them. He takes a room in a seedy SRO. In the next twenty minutes of screen time, following clues left for him in the locker, he connects with the leader of the cell and meets the other members. Not until twenty-five minutes into the program do we learn that he is an FBI agent under deep cover.
The opening of Sleeper Cell simultaneously mobilizes codes for militant Islam and for blackness, carefully bringing them together into the potentially explosive mix that is suddenly defused when Darwyn is revealed to be a federal agent. Darwyn’s cover is rendered plausible—both for the cell members and, I would argue, for the audience—by the fact of his incarceration, by the centrality of Islamic practice and community to that experience for many black men (including, famously, Malcolm X), and by the marginality and economic precariousness signified by his unsavory residence and minimum-wage job at a grocery store.2 The presence of Albert Hall, who plays the Librarian, Darwyn’s mentor in prison and his connection to the terror cell, is crucial here. Hall had a prominent role in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) and played Elijah Mohammad in Ali (dir. Michael Mann; 2001); it is not accidental, I think, that he is given the first line of the series, which deftly links the black Muslim notion of the “white devil” to the racialized work of the prison-industrial complex: “Remember what it feels like to leave this place and don’t come back,” he tells Darwyn. “If it comes to it, let the devil shoot you in your motherfucking head before they put you into one of their prisons.” Thus the Nation of Islam...