Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An Interview With Karima El-Amin on Jamil El-Amin (Formerly Known as H. Rap Brown)

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An Interview with Karima El-Amin (Part 1 of 2)

By Nadrat Siddique

The Fourth of July is my birthday. Each year, I seek an activity which expounds on Frederick Douglass' renowned musing "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July" and my social consciousness as a Muslim. This Fourth, I visited Atlanta to run the Peachtree 10K race, the nation's largest 10K (it boasts 50,000 participants) and to interview Karima El-Amin, wife of Imam Jamil El-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown).

Imam Jamil El-Amin is one of America's foremost political prisoners, currently being held at the infamous high security prison in Florence, Colorado. I felt his case had received a degree of exposure, at least by independent Islamic media, but that far less was known about his wife and partner in the struggle, an activist in her own right.

Karima El-Amin graciously granted me an interview at short notice, even though it meant according me her scant leisure time (the holiday was one of those rare occasions on which she closed her law office). I was to meet her soon after my race. When I called to confirm the details of our meeting, she expressed concern for my condition. Was I too tired and dehydrated after the race, being unaccustomed to Atlanta weather? And did I require more time to rest before our meeting? I was reminded of Imam Jamil, whose self-less concern for his visitors to the prison even while he himself was being subjected to daily humiliation at the hands of prison guards was fabled. And she insisted she would drive to my hotel so that I would not have to attempt to navigate unfamiliar territory. We agreed to hold the interview in my hotel room.

She entered the room, a slender, bespectacled woman, with quiet manner and majestic bearing, dressed modestly in light green hijab. But, as she began to speak, I realized this was easily the most eloquent, self-confident, and politically aware Muslim woman I'd encountered. She was clearly very seeped in Islamic faith; indeed, it may have been what allowed her (and hence her family) to survive the incredible trials they'd experienced; yet she was not ostentatious with her Arabic, nor haughty or judgmental of me or others.

Q: How did you meet Imam Jamil, and what attracted you to him initially?

I met him July 31, 1967. I remember that day because it was the first day I had a job. I had just graduated from the State University of Oswego. I was there four years. I majored in English with the aim of teaching K - 9th grades.

Imam Jamil walked into the job. He was staying with my supervisor. The job was on 135th Street, in Harlem. It was with Job Corps. I thought I'd keep the job a while.

The Imam walked in. At the time, he had a cadre of bodyguards. He was meeting Minister Farrakhan, so he asked the supervisor "See if she'll go to lunch with us." I was the only female at a big table of only brothers. I remember it was a big, big table, and we got back to the job at 5 PM.

That evening, Nina Simone was performing. She had invited Imam Jamil. In later years, he kept in touch with her. She autographed a photo for him that night, which I still have.

Q: Tell me about yourself and your background.

A. My grandmother and mother were Canadian. In 1929, my grandmother brought my mother, her sister, and one of her brothers to the U.S. after divorcing my grandfather. They were deported, and then returned. Then, in 1938, my grandmother went before a judge to ask for her citizenship. In 1942, while my grandmother was living in Los Angeles, Immigration denied her case. By 1942, my mother's sister had married. Her husband was in the entertainment business, and his father wrote "Dark Town Strutters Ball." She was a little activist and traveled broadly.

My mother lived in the building where La Guardia, Duke Ellington, and other musicians lived on Fifth Avenue in New York. My father was from the U.S. (from Virginia), and was in the navy. He and my mother married in 1942, and I was born years later in New York.

We moved to Riverton, built and owned by Metropolitan Life Assurance, in Harlem on Fifth Avenue. It was built mainly for African Americans so that we would not reside in the company's other private developments built for Europeans.

In fact, my mother and father were considering being part of a class action suit to challenge the discriminatory practices of the company. Nevertheless, my parents moved to Riverton where I went to school in Harlem. and my mother was involved in the PTA.

My mother was involved in the PTA fighting zoning issues, and that was the first time the FBI came to the house. They thought the communists must be behind this, and we thought they were going to take our mother away.

My mother is from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. We would go back and forth to Canada to visit our grandfather, our aunts and uncles, and cousins. My father didn't want to tell a fib, so when they asked him is everyone in the car a U.S. citizen, he would just nod his head.

We're actually the descendents of runaway slaves. My sister and cousins are being tested to determine where we are from, but so far Spain, Portugal, and Europe are coming up, and not Africa. So, my family members still are exploring further testing.

My mother, after 30 years of being a housewife, went for a job with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Thurgood Marshall was the head of it. He wanted her to be in charge of payroll. To do this, she had to be bonded. Thurgood Marshall sponsored my mother to this end. I became the baby sitter for Thurgood Marshall and various African American judges and attorneys of the Legal Defense Fund.

I remember that my mother would tell my friends to put their dresses on so we could go to the Apollo. During the intermission, she had us walk around with buckets to collect money for whichever case was being fought in the South at the time.

Q: What led to your personal involvement in the Black Liberation struggle?

In college, I got involved with Friends of SNCC. That should have told me I'd wind up with the chair of SNCC.

I graduated in June and met Imam Jamil in July. My sister and her husband got arrested. They were with RAM (Revolutionary Action Movement). This was the first case in which middle class African Americans were involved in supporting the Black Liberation struggle.

RAM is mentioned in the original COINTELPRO papers along with SNCC, Stokely, H. Rap Brown, etc. My husband went to a rally for RAM before I met him.

By August 1967, the FBI had contacted me. They said, "You know your sister was framed. If you help us, we'll clear her." I told them I knew she'd be cleared because she was framed. The FBI wanted me to work for them to provide reports on Imam Jamil.

My parents were very involved with the community. We were a close knit family. I had a non-traumatic childhood (other than the fact that I was almost electrocuted). We did not go without anything. We traveled a lot. My father helped form an organization for African American city workers in transit.

My first trip to the South was in 1959 when a girlfriend of mine invited me to travel with her to visit her relatives. One day, we went shopping to look at earrings. I went to hand money to one of the workers, and she threw the money on the floor. Later, I was trying to buy a hotdog, and they would not sell it to me, because the hotdog stand was "Whites Only." Up in New York, we protested White Castle (fast food establishment).

My mother was very proper. When my husband's book came out, she would not say the name of the book, because it was called Die Nigger Die.

The FBI hounded my parents. They went to my father's job repeatedly. Despite this, my parents continued to be very supportive. I came from very smart, compassionate parents. They both died young (at age 51). One day, we went to the grocery store. When we came out, we found our car had a flat tire. We said, "Oh FBI."

Not long after, my father stopped at a gas station to fix a flat tire. He collapsed and died. Imam Jamil's mother died the week after that. Then, my mother went into the hospital. They discovered an aneurism on the right side of her brain. Then, they located another on the left, and she died two months later, in June. Then, in October, Imam Jamil was shot and went to the same hospital where my mother died. In fact, he was in the room next to where my mother spent two months before she died. All this happened in one year. We just didn't have time for grieving.

(To be continued)

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