Salah Abdul-Wahid was born Daniel Hewlitt. He converted to Islam as a young adult in the 1960's, after growing up Catholic in a large Creole family living in Los Angeles.
In the 1960's when Salah was in his early twenties, he found himself caught up in the political unrest within the black communities of Los Angeles. At the time, many people were seeking new answers to old questions about the history of white dominance in the United States and the various systems of oppression that affected people of color in this country. In seeking answers to these questions, Salah opened himself to a radical conversion, leaving behind the Catholic faith of his family and his youth and converting to Islam.
Salah talks about his intrigue with the Muslim intellectuals he observed as a student at the University of Southern California, while at the same time he was drawn to the writings of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.
I was fascinated with Salah’s conversion story and why he changed his name and faith at such an important time in his personal life and in American history. I knew only vaguely about famous men who had taken a similar path - Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabar come to mind - but I was unsure of the meaning behind it. This was my chance to ask someone, and our conversation had my head spinning for weeks.
(It should be noted, based on several of the cultural references in this episode, that we recorded our conversation this summer, several months before the 2016 election results.)
Later in his life, Salah would travel the world and glean powerful wisdom about the role of religion in culture, and, as you’ll hear in my conversation with him, his comfort with asking hard questions and having tough conversations has been a consistent way in which he experiences the world.
Salah rattled off many books that had greatly influenced his life, including those by Mark Twain and Dashiell Hammett. But the two that caught my attention were the Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon and Freedom: Volume 1 by Orlando Patterson.
For a number of reasons, this was one of the most important conversations I had the entire year, and certainly in the making of this podcast. Thanks for listening.
For more news and updates, please follow Smartest Person in the Room on Facebook and sign up for our episode emails!