By Sean P. Mulhall – Editor-in-Chief
Mursalata Muhammad stands on the stage in Spectrum Theater, focusing on a small point in the distance. The look on her face is serious, confident. There isn’t a trace of fear. She is about to recite an original work, a poem titled, “Hey.” It’s hard to imagine that this is the same person who was afraid to walk to school by herself in the fourth grade.
Muhammad has been writing poetry since she was a shy, 12-year-old girl, composing rap songs in her bedroom, but it is not her main source of income.
Muhammad teaches English at Grand Rapids Community College, and the road that led her to the college was not the most typical.
Growing up in Detroit, Muhammad was homeschooled until the age of 9, due to her mother’s religious beliefs. Back then, homeschooling was not officially recognized and she was forced to go to public school.
At that age Muhammad should have been in the fourth grade, but she was placed in second grade instead. While she didn’t necessarily agree with it, she went along and did her best.
As the only black Muslim kid in her school, Muhammad did not feel comfortable. Instead of trying to fit in with the other kids, she focused on her schoolwork and excelled.
Sometime during her fourth grade year Muhammad was suspended for bringing a butter knife to school.
“I was afraid of being snatched,” Muhammad said. “I didn’t even know what that meant. I was scared and couldn’t explain it. My brother had to walk me to school, because I would not walk by myself … He hated it because he had to get up an hour early every day to walk me.”
After surviving the public school system for a few years, her mother could finally afford to send her to a private Muslim school for sixth grade. In her first year at Sister Clara Muhammad, she and a boy in her class competed for the top spot.
“I was an ideal student,” Muhammad said. “Both grade-wise and behavior-wise. All I did was my work. I liked being at school.”
Being two years older than her classmates, Muhammad knew that it wasn’t much of an accomplishment to be at the top of her class. She also knew that there were other reasons why she should move to the grade where she belonged.
“I just told my teacher…‘I’m two years older than everybody here.’” Muhammad said. “That’s what I felt. ‘This stuff is not that challenging to me … How do I get into my right grade?’… I felt like I demonstrated to him throughout the whole year that I thought I was capable and at some point…I’m going to blossom and I’m going to be looking older than everyone.”
Over the summer the administration at the school and Muhammad’s parents decided that it was time for her to join everyone else her age in ninth grade. The jump wasn’t tough for Muhammad to handle because her freshman year was at the same school. The next year would be different.
Since the school only went up to the ninth grade, Muhammad was forced to go back into the public school system for her sophomore year of high school.
“Those two years at Sister Clara Muhammad were the two most stable years of my education career,” Muhammad said. “Having that freshman year at the private school really solidified in me that I was going to graduate high school.”
Muhammad can sum up her first year back in the public school system with one word, “horrible.”
“Public school, when I went back, there was no order,” Muhammad said. “It was just free-for-all behavior. I like uniforms and we didn’t have uniforms…because I didn’t have to think about what to wear. For me, I grew up really poor and wearing a uniform did equalize things. You could still tell the poor kids, because their uniforms would be tattered or patched up, but it wasn’t as obvious as if you didn’t have the latest (fashion trends).”
Fashion wasn’t the only thing that separated Muhammad from the other students.
“I know I looked scared,” Muhammad said. “So I was probably a prime target for bullying.”
After a tough few weeks at Denby High School, Muhammad made the switch to Finney High School, where she had a nephew who was four years her senior.
“He said, ‘Come over here, nobody will bother you, because I pretty much rule this school,’” Muhammad said. “So I went over there and he dropped out, but not before establishing, ‘That’s my aunt. Don’t mess with her.’ I was Bobo’s aunt.”
Being Bobo’s aunt did keep Muhammad from being picked on, but she was still not the most popular girl in school.
“I was not popular at all,” Muhammad said. “I was probably more like the ‘weird kid.’ There weren’t very many … black Muslims, with different names … At Finney High School, I knew one other kid who was Muslim, but he had a regular name. His name was Kevin. I was like, ‘Kevin, nobody knows you’re Muslim.’ So I had the weird name, the weird religion.”
Even though Muhammad didn’t have to worry about other kids picking on her, she still almost flunked out that first year.
“I didn’t go a lot,” Muhammad said. “My counselor told me I may have to repeat. That was my wake up call. I worked too hard to get in the correct grade for me to put me behind … When I skipped school, I went to downtown Detroit. I went to the art institute and I went to the library, because I didn’t have ‘skipping buddies.’ And I think that’s why my counselor … took pity on me.”
Muhammad was only the third of 13 children in her family to graduate high school. That fall, she enrolled at Oakland University. At that point, teaching was not her goal.
“I wanted to be a lawyer,” Muhammad said. “I wanted to help people. I wanted to change the world.”
Back then there were no pre-law majors and the best way to get into law school was to major in communications and minor in English.
“I was headed to law school,” Muhammad said. “For my senior year, I decided to double major (in communications and English). For my last year all I had was upper level English credits.”
After excelling in her English courses, Muhammad said her teachers encouraged her to continue with English, but she still wanted to change the world. After taking the GRE and LSAT tests, there wasn’t much left for a decision.
“I really dislike standardized tests, with a passion,” Muhammad said. “Mostly because I suck at them. I like open-ended essay questions, because I can talk my way into (a right answer).”
The fact that she was not a great test taker, coupled with the fact that it would be very expensive to become a lawyer, were two of the major contributing factors that lead Muhammad to enroll in the master’s program, in English, at Oakland.
“I applied for everything,” Muhammad said. “When the results came back I realized how much it would cost. A professor mentioned a fellowship about people of color going into higher learning.”
The Martin Luther King, Caeser Chavez and Rosa Parks Future Faculty Fellowship was geared towards students who were thinking of going into teaching. Muhammad ended up applying and qualifying for the fellowship and stayed at Oakland for another couple of years. She would later find out that at least one teacher was upset that she stayed.
“One professor wasn’t happy,” Muhammad said. “I asked him for a recommendation two years later. After he wrote it, he gave me a copy…This was the first time I learned what the word reticent meant…He was disappointed I stayed. He thought I should’ve moved on and gone somewhere else.”
During her time in the master’s program, Muhammad married her husband, Will, who she met through his sister, a fellow student at Oakland. She also decided around the same time that she would become a teacher.
“I really like writing,” Muhammad said. “Two professors said, ‘You should be a teacher.’ So I said, ‘Fine. I’ll be a teacher, like you guys.’”
Muhammad realized that if she wanted to teach at a four-year university she had to get a Ph.D. and continued on to Penn State. When she arrived, the faculty was a little surprised with what she brought with her. Not only did she bring her husband, but Muhammad was seven months pregnant when she showed up.
“I realized very early on that this was a very sexist environment I just walked into,” Muhammad said about the first time meeting the department head at Penn State. “I could tell by the look on his face. It was a very tense conversation and I knew my belly was the issue.”
Because of the realization that she got off on the wrong foot, it forced Muhammad to work harder.
“I didn’t know that starting in the Ph.D. program as newly married and pregnant was frowned upon,” Muhammad said. “Once I started in the Ph.D. program, I knew somewhere deep in my mind, that I didn’t like it.”
At first it was subconscious, but as time wore on Muhammad’s misgivings were reaffirmed again and again, but she kept working towards her doctorate.
“I wasn’t happy,” Muhammad said. “I didn’t have the passion for it … Being the only person in my family to get that far in education, I didn’t want to quit … My grandfather was very proud and helped me out financially. I didn’t want to let him down.”
After having her first daughter on a Saturday, Muhammad showed up for class two days later, on Monday.
“It was a literature class…and we had a group presentation,” Muhammad said. “My classmates were depending on me … So I made my husband wait in the hallway with the baby.”
Luckily the class was team-taught by two women and was focused on feminism. When the teachers found out Will was in the hallway, they had him bring the baby in and after Muhammad finished her presentation, she was sent home.
“A couple days later, they pulled me aside,” Muhammad said. “They told me I should not have come. I understood there was a lot a pressure in the program.”
After seven years in the Ph.D. program, Muhammad decided to leave right before starting her dissertation. There were many reasons that factored in to that decision.
“When I look back on it, it wasn’t because I couldn’t do it. I could,” Muhammad said. “I was really tired, I got burned out. From high school through my Ph.D. I only took one summer off.”
Muhammad decided to leave and finish her dissertation away, but also knew that she didn’t need her Ph.D. to teach. Another reason she decided not to write her dissertation was that her topic, the relationship of black male writing in America and it’s association with incarceration and the legal system, was too depressing.
“I knew it was true, (growing up in Detroit) I saw so many men of color have a negative interaction with the legal system,” Muhammad said. “I thought to myself, ‘this is horrible,’ and I didn’t want to be the expert on this topic, especially as a woman, a black woman, a black Muslim woman.”
Muhammad sent her resume to Henry Ford Community College, Saginaw Valley State University, Delta College and GRCC. While she was hoping to be closer to her family in Detroit, GRCC was the first school to offer her a position.
“GRCC offered me a job before any of the other places offered an interview,” Muhammad said. “A week later, Henry Ford called for an interview. It was too late. I already accepted my job at GRCC.”
The one recurring theme throughout her journey has been poetry. Muhammad has been writing throughout her life and does not limit herself to one style of poetry.
“My style is all over the spectrum,” Muhammad said. “It’s not all ‘Tis Benign.’ I’ll even write some sonnets. I like haikus. They’re hard, but compact. You really have to think about language and compact it … (You have to) think critically. I think poetry is the height of critical thinking”