Rewriting False Narratives To Imagine Justice In Baltimore

The following is a guest post by Qimmah Najeeullah, the International Affairs Program Manager at Morgan State University.

At Morgan State, Najeeullah supports international partnerships and compliance with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She received a B.A in Art History from University of Maryland College Park, minoring in Portuguese through her studies at Pontifical Catholic University in Brazil. She holds a M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University. A Muslim Honduran-African-American woman, Najeeullah served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Turkmenistan. She was awarded a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship Award to study Arabic in Madaba, Jordan. Najeeullah is the mother of 2 and an avid indoor climber.


“By negligence and silence we have all become accessory before the God of mercy to the injustice committed against the Negroes by men of our nation. Our derelictions are many. We have failed to demand, to insist, to challenge, to chastise.” -Abraham Joshua Heschel

I discovered the life and work of Abraham Joshua Heschel through the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies’ Imagining Justice in Baltimore project. Heschel was a Polish-born American Rabbi who is considered to be one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century. The sensitivity and self-reflection of this humanist-scholar is often reflected in his writing and sampled in the quote above. Like all men of great faith, Heschel is a testament to the potential of the human condition, one balanced with the sentiments and logic required to prioritize the humanity of himself and the humanity of the other.

Heschel highlights the need for greater action by the faith community to challenge injustice in the U.S. However, his good intent only peripherally acknowledges the gravity of his request for personal accountability. I commend his attempt, but he neglects to address an underlying monolith: European American’s and Jewish American’s repressed fear of Negro empowerment and leadership

When envisioning a just world, it is reasonable for any person in a position of power and influence or of those recipients of un-assumed privilege to ask: how will our [European American and Jewish American] nation be impacted? Can we [European Americans and Jewish Americans] live the same way and flourish in a just society? Will we maintain our resources? Our influence? Can we still feel the “same way” about ourselves? And if not, how do I develop consolation with these changes?

I believe addressing this line of questioning is where scholars, activists, and humanists of European American and Jewish American communities have neglected to holistically prepare their communities to work authentically to address their derelictions. Without answering these questions for themselves, the European American and Jewish American community will never challenge the status quo for a future they have yet to envision fully and fairly.

However, this neglect of unexpressed barriers to challenging injustice is not the European American and Jewish American community’s alone.

As a multi-cultural American of African descent in search of solutions to my concerns, I naturally translated Heschel’s statement as if he were an African American leader speaking to his own nation, seeking justice from every angle. In contrast to the Jewish community, the unexpressed barrier to challenging injustice within the African American community, low self-esteem, stems from the collateral damage of the ongoing war with white supremacy.

The false narratives permeating American history of African Americans (being less-than human, less intelligent, feeling less pain than whites, etc.), are immersed in our criminal justice, education, and health care systems, and on and on. In reaction to an overwhelming amount of negative internal and external criticism and stereotypes, it has become tradition in the African American community to refuse to self-reflect and/or self-criticize out of love and shame.

Yet, an acknowledgement and delineation of what elements of African American tradition, behavior, and thought are detrimental is urgent. It is reasonable of any African American to ask: what is our definition of justice and success? What should be reevaluated in my community’s tradition? What parts of my culture were constructed out of agony and/or scarcity and no longer serve our development? Where can we improve?

If these questions are not being addressed in black institutions (i.e. churches, mosques, colleges, universities, business, etc.) and preserved as a part of African American transcendence, the basic value and purpose of these institutions are undermined and epidemics in black communities will never be fully addressed.

ICJS has challenged all of our religious and cultural communities to produce more collective-minded individuals who do not fear asking difficult questions about their communities. Heschel did this by willingly disarming himself and observing his impact on our shared social environment and on the consciousness of others. Abrahamic faiths share enough of the same values and barriers to equally perceive that we all have the same amount to lose, and work to do.

As those committed to establishing justice for all in America toil (with the same conviction and self-love) toward protecting and serving ourselves and our shared environment, our energy should be put toward identifying a specific concern and working to address it. Our community presence should result in the sharing of findings, reflections, and revelations as we uncover our fears of failure (and fears of success) on the path to develop solutions to the concerns that are our life’s work.

The city of Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race and community. At this pivotal moment in our city’s history, indeed our nation’s history, the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies highlights the continued importance of bringing diverse religious perspectives to address civic and social challenges. In the initiative Imagining Justice in Baltimore the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians and Muslims to the public conversation about justice, and injustice, in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome this diversity of perspective and are not seeking a single definition of justice between traditions, nor denying the multivocal nature of justice within traditions. The long-term goal of the Imagining Justice in Baltimore initiative is to create a model of interreligious learning and dialogue around differences that demonstrates how a robust commitment to religious pluralism can shape public life.

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