Book Review: American Imam: From Pop Stardom to Prison Abolition

Book Cover Images image of American Imam: From Pop Stardom to Prison Abolition

by Taymullah Abdur-Rahman

    Publication Date: Feb 27, 2024
    List Price: $26.99
    Format: Hardcover, 250 pages
    Classification: Nonfiction
    ISBN13: 9781506489285
    Imprint: Broadleaf Books
    Publisher: 1517 Media
    Parent Company: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

    Read a Description of American Imam: From Pop Stardom to Prison Abolition

    Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming

    Taymullah Abdur-Rahman’s sharp and stylish memoir, American Imam: From Pop Stardom to Prison Abolition, concerns itself with the causes and consequences of emotional and spiritual transformation. Unlike the classic The Autobiography of Malcolm X, this book doesn’t have the literary breeding of the other, since this brother was an ordinary youth on a quest rather than a handpicked celebrity. However, it lacks none of the hard-felt experience and self-knowledge of the memorable Muslim spokesman killed in Harlem.

    Fate, though, has smiled on the Imam, born Tyrone Sutton, the youngest of six siblings raised by a single mother, in Roxbury, Massachusetts, during the 1980s and ’90s. His father left the home when he was five, and his protective mother did the best she could to sustain a loving and nurturing household. She worked as a secretary at a company supervising public housing. Growing up in a depressing and tough environment, Tyrone, a straight-A student in elementary school, struggled to maintain his grades with all the misery and tragedy around him. He recalls his school was a place for gang recruitment and crime training for amateurs.

    Abdur-Rahman’s writing here refuses to soft-pedal the facts. The reader can tell he knows what he is talking about:

    The Black American experience of being poor but wanting to present a façade of wealth gave our narrative a molested and lethal volatility. We didn’t have enough food and possessions to rise above the poverty line, yet we would never starve. And when you’re young, with your stomach half full and being influenced by a dog-eat-dog society, you have just enough energy and time to kill one another and not enough hope and education to consider tomorrow.

    Finally, a break came his way. Tyrone, barely a teen, joined the upcoming R&B group Perfect Gentleman, with a soaring Top 10 hit “Ooh La La,” and with that came major hype in the popular teen mags and a slew of TV such as Soul Train, The Arsenio Hall Show, Dance Party USA, and a prime spot on the Oprah Winfrey Show. It was great being on top. Lavish lifestyle, private jets, tour buses, luxury hotels, packed concert halls, pretty, pretty girls. This lasted almost four years before Columbia Records dropped them.

    When the bottom fell out, Tyrone returned to the killing fields of the streets, walking among an army of crackhead zombies wandering the streets. The author pulls back the curtains on the apartments where the smokers did every perverse act imaginable, people sold themselves and each other, others sold anything of value for a hit; and Mona, an ex-police officer, rented her apartment every night for free drugs. Now, Tyrone, who was starting to get into the street life, was there at the crack house, with a newborn son to feed. And no prospects. No life skills. A tragic letdown.

    Sometimes when you get knocked down, it’s hard to pull yourself back up. Tyrone knew the score, but he just didn’t know what to do about it. In the chapter titled “Lost Boys: Black Dreams in a White Construct,” he writes:

    We love to make our Black bodies a brand, just like chattel slaves. We can’t see beyond our own desperate vain for fame and a red car. Even if it costs our own souls. We dream in months, rather than in decades like white people do. We dream in clouds of glitter, rather than black ink on white paper like white people do. And we dream for ourselves and not for our great grandchildren like white people do… But for me, there was a way out. I just had to stumble to it.

    Following almost a decade wandering in the wilderness, Tyrone was seeking a sense of spiritual renewal. He changed his surroundings and began learning the basic beliefs of a Muslim; he began seeking out halal food, learning about Allah, the meaning of Ramadan, and about the sacred Hajj journey and visit the Kaabah. He had good mentors, schooled in the blessings of Islam. On December 8, 1999, he became a Muslim and “it felt good.”

    The Islamic life has been great for Abdur-Rahman. He worked in a maximum-security prison and later as the first paid Muslim chaplain at Harvard, focusing on redeeming souls. Presently, he is a doctoral candidate for Transformational Leadership at Boston’s University’s School of Theology and a senior educator in Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership at Hebrew College in Massachusetts. He is also the creator and host of the American Muslim Daily podcast and founder of SPENTEM, a prison abolition and restorative justice company and network.

    Abdur-Rahman’s American Imam offers many solutions, cures, and resolutions on its pages. One such antidote comes from the mix of the ugliness and the wondrous he has seen during his life. “Kindness is not overrated. People want space to be made for them, so they can feel warmly owned by something greater than themselves&hellip' We are a human race in reckless need of being adored.” This book is full of treasures such as this, brimming with inspiration and reflection.

    Read Broadleaf Books’s description of American Imam: From Pop Stardom to Prison Abolition.

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