Poet Sagirah Shahid spreads Black Sufi Joy and Archival Resistance


Libby Sykes, Staff Writer

On Tuesday Feb. 9, the Department of Multicultural Life (DML) presented local guest poet Sagirah Shahid in a Black History Month event called “Black Joy as Archival Resistance Practice: A Poetic Look at Black Joy as a Tool of Resistance and Healing.” Shahid, a Black Muslim poet from Minneapolis, presented 14 of her poems and reflected with Zoom attendees on their written responses to themes of love, recorded memories and joy in a collaborative dialogue. 

Shahid has received awards from both the Loft Literary Center Mentor Series and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. In 2020, she was featured in the online collection A Moment of Silence: 50+ Black MN Voices in a Historical Moment of Transformation, and her poetry was featured in Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art and Muslim Advocates’ virtual exhibit American Muslim Futures.

Shahid was introduced by Assistant Director of Diversity Education, Leadership and Inclusion at the DML TK Morton. Throughout the event Shahid developed different poetic concepts of writing cultural “joy” with the audience, such as using “time” as a placeholder for the future self and “grounding” as the context that one’s joy exists within. She continually asked the audience to think about their position as an observer or a witness in their own experiences.

Shahid emphasized the importance of her traditional Islamic Sufi practices and performed a traditional song to begin the evening. She reflected on her grandmother, whom she called Umi, and the mirroring elements of Islamic Sufi traditions of Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, Janaza, and the traditional wearing of white.

“I couldn’t help noticing the parallels between these really communal and celebratory moments, if you were Muslim, to make a spiritual celebratory pilgrimage to one single place and some of the rituals and rites of passage that we do for our funeral practices called Janaza.” Shahid said. “In Hajj, usually we wear white garments.”

Shahid continued, “I think a lot about the way that grief has this relationship to joy.” 

Shahid recited eight poems over the first half of the event, entitled “[Bean Pie, Buttermilk Pie, Sweet Potato Pie],” “Sweet Thing,” “In-visibility,” “Can Zam-Zam cure loneliness?,” “What if Superman was raised by Black Muslims?,” She also referenced the titles of her poems “Surveillance of Love,” “Nafsi, Nafsi,” “Social Distance,” “Familiar Fruit,” “Fire Medicine,” “Checklist,” and “Istikhara” in her presentation. 

She described her own experiences of racial injustice in the Midwest and also recounted her memories as part of a Muslim family. Shahid’s poem “Can Zam-Zam cure loneliness?” described the traditional Islamic, Old Testament Christian and Judaic lore of Hagar and Ishmael in the context of its origins in black slavery.

“In this poem, Zam-Zam is holy water in Islamic tradition,” she explained. “This poem was dedicated to Hagar, who in the Abrahamic tradition is the mother of Ishmael. The story goes that when they were in the desert, she was searching for water. And then the child kicked his foot in the sand and Zam-Zam sprang forth.”

“But a lot of folks don’t talk about her Blackness: she was a Black woman, she was enslaved,” Shahid continued. “And so thinking about the ways in which we investigate this longer history as well, and the ways that folks in our community were separately erased, or have forgotten, or been intentionally erased.”

Shahid displayed a slideshow presentation to show writing prompts and also cite songs by different Black musicians of which she played during the evening, such as “Naima” by John Coltrane, “Free” by Denise Williams, “Bye, Bye, Bye” by Noname, “Basquiat” by Jamila Woods and “Smile” by Saba, during times of reflection and writing.

“There is always time for people to pray and have that inner reflection,” Shahid said. 

Shahid then asked the Zoom audience to take a break and reflect on the last time their own joy was recorded. Those in attendance then conversed and shared some of their joyful memories, such as photographs and specific funny events. She also asked the audience to question their images’ power and wonder what their relationship would be to the pictures in 40 years. 

Finally, Shahid gave her audience the writing prompt of love to workshop the images the audience had in their mind. She asked everyone to picture someone, some place or something they loved and write a poem about how this place had witnessed their smiles, and how they, in turn, had witnessed that place. 

“As witnesses, as those who are the protectors and the Archivists of this joy, of this love, we have a responsibility to make sure that we remind ourselves and perhaps remind other people that, ‘this is my moment of joy. I’m committing the existence of archiving joy and I’m recording it.’”

Shahid also recited her poems “Surveillance Rakats” about the limitlessness of the internet and “Why I will Vaccinate” referencing the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research’s Belmont Report of 1976. 

True to Shahid’s archival practice, this event was close-captioned and recorded by the DML to be released this week. 

Sagirah’s debut collection of poetry, “Surveillance of Joy,” will be published by Half Mystic Press in 2021. You can find her TedXMinneapolis TED event here

[email protected]