Hasna Muhammad is a photographer, filmmaker, and writer who uses art to bring light to social and human conditions and to draw attention to the extraordinary in the ordinary. Her collections include, Kenneth Chamberlain (It Ain’t Over ‘Till It’s Over) about a son’s fight against police brutality and Sara about the final months of her friend with ALS. Sum of 7 Billion features her photographs of people, and Indestreet is a collection of her street photography, which includes photographs taken of oncoming traffic from the middle of the street.
A photograph from her series My Life With Guitars is presently on display at The Gallery at Still River Editions in Danbury, CT. Photographs from her Jazz at Lincoln Center (J@LC) series are currently on display at the Dwyer Center in Harlem, NY. She has exhibited at the Barrett Art Center in Poughkeepsie, NY; the Bridges Cultural Center in Cleveland, OH; the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Amherst, MA; the New Rochelle Council on the Arts in New Rochelle, NY; and at ArtsWestchester in White Plains, NY.
Hasna writes non-fiction about family, social justice, and education. Her work has been published at Sankofa.org and in Crisis Magazine. Hasna is the author of five collections of poetry, and she created, Crumb Navigation, a unique line of greeting cards about being and aging.
Hasna is also an educator who received her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and her M.A. and Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University. Hasna is the daughter of Ossie Davis and Ruby, and she grew up in New Rochelle, New York with her siblings, Nora Davis Day and Guy Davis. She currently lives in Putnam County with her husband Wali Ali, and they are parenting three adult children.
At 12:01 AM this morning I felt joy. A smile of light came from my heart and came out of my mouth with a sound. The emotion reminded me that I am still that little girl who believes she can fly. My breath relaxed my shoulders. My arms embraced the space before me and wrapped themselves around me. I was there. I was whole. Of all the days in the year, today I claimed as mine. I knew that tomorrow and the next 364 days I would share with the rest of the world. But today would be mine.
I went to bed and fell asleep after tossing and turning a little less than the night before. When I awakened I opened my eyes to a view of the ceiling. Again. I was that little girl who’d lain on the floor and wondered how life would be if the ceiling were the floor. The furniture would remain in place. The windows would be lower, and I’d have to step over doorways. I knew that I could live in a house like that. I would adapt.
Today, I am that little girl still. Today I hang upside down on a jungle gym and let my blouse fall down around my armpits. I spin and stop. Spin and stop. Spin and spin and lose track of exactly where I am. Today I climb boulders and conquer the back yard. I find friendship in butterflies and solace in the sound of the wind in the trees. Today is the day I wonder what ifs and laugh my answers out loud so that everyone can hear.
Today, I am that little girl still. The one who loses herself in time. The one who believes her own explanations. She has run around the sun 63 times—spinning and skipping and jumping. Cape flying behind her. She yells a charge that transforms into song. Then she lands at the end of the day and walk back into her shoes. Fearless. Determined. Whole and still there.
On a cold January morning, I remember waking up, opening my eyes, and breathing a warm smile. In the peace of that moment, I realized that I had not awakened on my own. I had help. The divine essence of life pushed my eyes open and allowed me to be conscious of my being. The protection of my home and the love of my family made it worthwhile. My sense of destiny and purpose kept me from rolling over and going back to sleep, and instead sat me up and prepared me to stand. As I sat on the edge of the bed, I also realized that the day will come when I will need even more help than that
the time, Mom was still working; still being Ms. Dee at 89-years-old. She knew that the Divine awakened her, but
she also believed that she was doing everything else on her own; that it was
she alone who got her on the set, on the stage, at the event. In reality, we got her there. All she had to do was get in and out of the
car and be Ruby Dee in between. We kept close watch on her sense of freedom and
independence, and when she would curtly remind us that she didn’t need any
help; that she had been doing “this” all her life; that she could do it, go
alone, and be OK, we sucked back our concerns and left them in her echo: “Don’t
you know me? Don’t you know who I am? Sometimes, later on she would hear us. She would thank us for taking care of
business, and she even talked about getting the help that she agreed she needed.
transfer of care-giver to care-receiver and care-receiver to care-giver
requires a sensitive compass. One that belongs to both, and one that is guided
by the steadier hand. I know I will need
more help than I now need or want, but I feel blessed that I have three children
who have already contributed to the care of their great grandmother, four
grandparents, and two parents. I still have an independent compass, but I have
begun to navigate this part of my journey with grace. I am relieved to gradually
relinquish control, agree, and trust blindly the love of my children and their
awakened today. And I am divinely grateful to all the folks who helped.
Mom had visitors on Sundays. Her friends. Our friends. Food, music photos. Lots of slapping five while talking about history and current status of designing the infrastructure for the Struggle.
The visitors came when they could, and the folks who showed up on those days were perfect combinations of a life span of extended family, neighbors, friends, actors, musicians, activists, writers, and sometimes just us.
This particular Sunday, Susan Taylor, Kephra Burns, Ambassador Shabazz, Pamela Poitier, Sherri Poitier, and Gina Belafonte came to visit. That’s just how it fell. We sang Oh, Ruby, Ruby to her a la Smokey Robinson.
We talked, ate, laughed, and cried. Each of us took private moments with her. All of us surrounded her. Held her hands. Rubbed her arms and kissed her. While we were visiting, Mom said quite clearly and completely out of the blue: We who know enough about the past, know enough to hope. it was the last crumb she dropped.
Mom and I were eating at the kitchen table, and I told her that she looked good. She laughed and quoted a birthday card that I had given her a few years back, “It’s nice to see you doing so well at your age…You know, breathing and everything,” and we both fell out laughing. Then she said: You know you’re getting old when ordinary things seem like miracles. And we fell out again. Mom kept making funny remarks about aging until we dropped our forks and lost our breath.
You know how 30 is the new 40 is the new 50? How Thursday is the new Friday, and gray is the new black (Not orange, but that’s another story)? Well sitting is the new running.
I challenge myself to exercise everyday. I have done 65 Bikram yoga classes in 65 days. I’ve alternated swimming, walking, running, Gyrotonic, and yoga for 30 days straight. During a more recent 30 days, I did whatever I deemed to be exercise, and couldn’t make the 30 days. I feel that my body is begining to take longer to recover. Now I plan to exercise 7 days a week, but I’m satisfied with 6. I know that at least by day 15, I will have to take a break.
I also know that there will come a day when exercising everyday; when swimming a mile or doing yoga in a hot room for an hour and a half will be too much to expect of myself. Putting one foot in front of the other will be the best I can do. Sitting down will be my new workout.
I’ve seen my mother in dozens of performances. And although I connected with the characters she played, I always looked for a layer of my mom; not Ruth or any of the other names she would slip on, but Mom. No matter how closely she wore her characters as an actor, I usually found just a hint of her in her hair, her voice, or the expression on her face. I knew that the woman on stage, on screen, or on television had not been consumed, and that I’d have her back at the end of the day.
It was when she played the roles of William Shakespeare and the Greek Theatre that I could not find her. No matter how much I tried, I found instead Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, Cordelia in King Lear, Gertrude in Hamlet, Cassandra in Orestei, and Iris in The Birds. My mother had disappeared, and someone else emerged to tell the story that thrust my imagination like good theatre and good actors always do.
During every performance of The Taming of the Shrew, I secretly wished that she would not be tamed. That she would defy her suitor and live single and triumphant. When she flew onto the stage in The Birds, I was less her daughter and more her fan as my little girl mind believed that she was really flying. After the performances, I would rush backstage to find her. She would still have on her costume and exaggerated makeup that looked so natural from the stage—red lips outlined in black, penciled brows, lots of eye shadow, and thick black eyelashes. Her gowns flew behind her as she reached for me. I would touch the thick brocade and hug the heavy velvet or delicate lace as if I were playing in her closet, and she was Mom again. She’d hug me and leave a lipstick smile on my cheek.
Visitors would interrupt our conversation with compliments and roses. She’d introduce me as her baby who was already taller than she. I’d carry her pocketbook, her glasses, and the bouquet of flowers and walk out of the stage door in front of her like a guiding light. She spoke with people and signed Playbills all the way to the car where Daddy waited to take us home. I didn’t know then that she was the first black woman to perform in the American Shakespeare Theatre.
My mother gave many memorable performances, and I continue to be mesmerized by her talent, skill, and craft as an actor. Each of her performances evokes a personal memory of Ruby Dee—the mother, the actor—but her Shakespeare and Greek Theatre performances have a special place in my heart. –Hasna.
Photo from THE BIRDS, Ypsilanti Greek Theatre, 1966.
Crumb #102: I can be me. You can be you: I know now that rejection is the greatest lesson that I will have to learn. Part of rejection is accepting who I am and the decisions I’ve made including the corners that I didn’t turn. Part of rejection is the lack of response to stimulus of outreach. When you reach out you run the risk of being ignored or turned upon. Neither of which allows my confidence and satisfaction with myself to settle in. So I have a choice. I can reach out and be rejected and feel badly about it. I can reach out and be rejected and not care or otherwise be okay with it, or I can keep to myself and not reach out at all. I need to figure out which approach to take. Feeling badly about rejection doesn’t help. Not reaching out when I want to hurts. So I’m left with reaching out because it’s what I want to do and accepting the silence from the other side as what others want to do. I guess that’s it. I can be me and you can be you.
David Bastianoni’s photograph, He Will Never See His Father, is a striking image that depicts a pregnant Muslim woman holding the head of her dead husband. She is dressed in a black Abaya, and her husband is enshrouded in an American flag. The woman is on her knees with her straight back hinged forward almost in a position of prayer as she kisses the forehead of her husband whose body lays supine on top of a gray coffin that is in front of a gray cross, the highest point in this staged image. The flagged-draped coffin as a symbol of service in the armed forces of the United States has been replaced. Instead, the red, white, and blue flag has become this Muslim soldier’s Janazah shroud. He is not wrapped in traditional white cotton for his final rite of passage. There is no coffin, no satin lining, no uniform between the man and the country for which he fought and died.
Bastianoni says that the story of this photograph goes beyond religious symbols to make a statement about loss. A father is being deprived of being a father, and a child is being deprived of having a father. I would add that a wife is being deprived of having her husband. But as art does, this image tells many stories and resonates differently with each viewer.
In addition to seeing the image as both the loss and promise of life, I see an immigrant family from Western Asia depicted with humanity in order to counter the view of Muslims as terrorists. I see a family’s sacrifice and its display of patriotism for and assimilation into this country. The untold story -what I don’t see- creates a dissonance that resonates more powerfully in the forefront of my mind, however. The absent presence of my historical and political perspective overshadows the “photographic reality” that Bastianoni’s wants the viewer to question in order to bring additional perspectives to bear.
I am a black, African American, 60-something, female, native-born Muslim photographer whose ancestors were American prior to the formation of the United States. We Muslims aren’t seen as terrorists per se, we’re not seen at all. And if we are, we are not seen as “real” Muslims. Our sacrifice and patriotism is muted. Our assimilation is a burdensome assumption or an accusation of just being black, not American.
The red, white, and blue in this image is a mask disguising corrupt capitalism and greed as democracy, freedom, and peace –the promise for which this soldier most likely thought he fought and died. My perspective is swift to consider that this man is dead because of this country’s invasion of Iraq, the support of the ongoing war in Syria, its presence in Afghanistan, and the drone attacks on innocent civilians. My perspective does not easily see patriotism, heroism, or symbols of my safety and security.
Somewhere I read that I have the freedom to hold such opinions and the right to expect just citizenship even though I reclaimed my way of life – Islam, discarded my slave name, and -for a time in my life- wore a Khimar. Somewhere I read that I have the right to shed the propaganda of this country and the obligation to embrace instead the promise of liberty. Somewhere I read that I am compelled to resist the marginalized projection of me as a black African American Muslim woman –even in art.
When I look at Bastianoni’s image, the spaces are filled with invisible African American Muslims like me. Also hidden there are the accounts of this country’s acts of terrorism against its own citizens and people all over the world. Certainly one frame cannot tell a complete story, but from the righteous to the criminal, each story that this image does contain comes from a myriad of perspectives on life, death, family, religion, citizenship, politics, and war. I suspect that the most critical story will be that of the unborn child.
He Will Never See His Father, won the Wedding and Portrait Photographer’s International (WPPI) Grand Award for 2017. The imagewarrants praise for its artistic quality as well as for its ability to evoke emotion including that of agitation –the true role of art as activism.