A coming of age story of a Black Muslim girl living in America during trying social and political times.
“Self-love is something that you have be working at each and every day.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Leah Vernon. Vernon is a plus-size Hijabi model, social media influencer, public speaker, and freelance writer. Her book is Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Leah Vernon: Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim will be beneficial to BAR readers in regards to understanding the current social climate because it’s a coming of age story that allows the readers a front row seat into a narrative that isn’t usually told. One of a fat, Black Muslim girl living in America during trying social and political times. One that is often stifled. Like many of our voices, especially those in marginalized communities, are often swept under the rug or skewed. An agenda is always beneath the surface.
The narrative, my narrative in Unashamed, aims to break that status quo of societal norms. I think that a lot of people are searching for identity right now. They are searching for meaning and purpose. But the search for meaning is always met with outsiders trying to block you from your truth, but mostly we are the ones allowing outside forces to block us, to keep us from trying.
I talk a lot about that in this memoir. And, you go through all of these trials and tribulations and the highs and lows with me starting from the day I was born, all the way up to recent revelations. I take you through not only the losses but the wins.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I think the biggest lesson that activists and community leaders, just readers in general, will take away from Unashamed would be to listen to others who have completely different narratives than their own communities. We may have nothing in common, but I guarantee you that you will find common ground. A lot of us like to stick to our own. We love to be comfortable. Familiar.
I come from a Black Muslim community in Detroit. I was fed mostly Muslim information and none other. I wasn’t prepared to go out into the real world with others who weren’t like me. I was so ignorant to the fact that different people lived totally different lives. I was judgmental. Always had my nose up at someone. That is until my own people started to shun me, make me feel othered. I vowed to always throw myself into the unknown and meet and get to know people who were completely different than me.
By being in communities that are so much different from mine, practices and point of views that I’ve never even heard of, I started to become much stronger in who I was as a Muslim feminist traveling through the world. Reading, viewing, engulfing yourself in someone else’s experiences is by far the best learning tool.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I hope that readers will un-learn ingrained self-hate. This may seem cliché. You have this self-love movement that has been hijacked and commercialized by huge capitalist companies so now everyone seems like they are on the self-love and self-care journey. But all of that is a façade. People hate themselves still. They are pump fakin on social media. Putting on a show.
In this book, the reader will see that self-love isn’t a one-way street. It is not easy, nor is it something that one just keeps once it is attained. It is something that you have to constantly be cognizant of, something that you have to inwardly and outwardly be working at each and every day.
Self-hate doesn’t just affect the person, but it is something that seeps throughout the entire community. I’ve seen firsthand the harm it has done to a lot of communities. If we can’t truly find a reason to radically love ourselves then we can’t possibly love and uplift anybody else.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
There are so many heroines that I aspire to be like. That have helped me be fearless in how I present myself and my work to audiences.
I will start with Maya Angelou because to this day I am still angered that I never got the chance to be in her presence. We lost an icon that will never be replaced. Her story of pain, trauma, poverty, and failures, in which she turned all of that around to become beauty, inspiration, and art, it is magic. She is the epitome of magic. I dream of becoming even a quarter of who she was during her career, her life. Even the way she spoke was calming and charming; it made me feel like I could accomplish anything in this world.
Oprah! I have been a fan of hers since I was young. She was the only fat, Black woman in the media dominating. I’d never seen anyone do what she did. I used to write essays about her when I was homeschooled. She also came from a rough place and turned that pain into something more than resentment. That is not something that is easy to do. And, for that she will forever inspire me.
A few others are Rihanna, Cher, and Eartha Kitt because they were and are unapologetic in their stances, in their style. I’m obsessed.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
This memoir will help in imagining a new world of inclusion and acceptance. I always tell people who are mad about someone living in their truth “you don’t have to like it, participate in it, or enjoy it, but you will accept it and respect it. Period.” I might not agree or understand every narrative or identity in the world. But I accept it. It is valid. I don’t know the logistics. But I respect it.
In my reimagined world, I’d want people to feel welcomed, not tokenized or made to feel like a trend. I am not a fuckin trend. My body is not to be worn as the latest fashion craze.
I hope that my memoir softens the reader into understanding that this life is not easy for those who decide to live out loud, be daring, be truthful. That shit hurts. A lot. But that I also want more people to join me on the other side. For too long I’ve lived the lives of what I thought others wanted me to be. What they thought I should be. And we’ve all felt that before. This isn’t something that only a fat, Black Muslim girl from Detroit has experienced. This experience is universal.
The takeaway of my memoir is to dive in. Do it anyway. Do what you’ve always wanted because you are doing yourself an injustice by playing it safe. By being overly cautious. On the other side of fear is greatness. That’s where I want to be.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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