MICHIGAN CITY — Arab American author Edward E. Curtis IV plans to surprise audiences in Michigan City with the early Islamic history of their own community.
He will speak at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Michigan City Public Library’s Writing Out Loud series.
Curtis – who has published 13 books on the Muslim, Arab and Black American experience – will share some local facts area residents might not be familiar with about their own city.
The William M. and Gail M. Plater Chair of the Liberal Arts, and a professor of religious studies at IUPUI is an Arab American from southern Illinois. Curtis traces his roots to the Samaha and Hamaway families who immigrated from Ottoman Syria to his home region before World War I.
He moved to Indianapolis in 2005 when IUPUI offered him an endowed professorship in the School of Liberal Arts. He has written for the Journal of American History, American Quarterly, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and Religion and American Culture.
The Herald-Dispatch recently spoke to Curtis about his career and what he will be covering in Michigan City.
H-D: How did you get into writing?
A: My junior high English teacher in southern Illinois made us keep daily journals. I started writing then, and I haven’t stopped yet.
H-D: Why did you pursue religious and African studies?
A: I have always been religious, and I started pursuing the academic study of religion in high school. During my first semester at Kenyon College, I took a course on Classical Islam and I have been hooked on Islamic studies ever since then.
My focus on Black studies also comes from a deep personal investment. I started to read Black literature in grade school, and the Black experience helped me understand my own history as a person of color growing up in the rural Midwest.
H-D: What are some facts/trivia people might not know about the history of Muslims in America that would surprise them?
A: Muslims are the only major religious group in the United States in which no one race is a majority; Muslims are Black, brown and white.
Muslim Americans have served in the U.S. military since the American Revolution. Michigan City Muslims have served since World War I.
H-D: What led to your latest book, “Muslims of the Heartland: How Syrian Immigrants Made a Home in the American Midwest,” being written?
A: The book begins with a family secret. I won’t spoil it here, but suffice it to say that this is personal for me.
H-D: “Muslims in America: A Short History” was ranked among the 100 best books of 2009 by Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal called your two-volume “Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History” one of the “best reference works of 2010.” How did these books come about?
A: They were both commissions. Professors Jon Butler and Harry Stout of Yale asked me to write the first one. A publisher called Facts on File offered me the chance to edit the second.
H-D: Your books “Black Muslim Religion of the Nation of Islam,” “The New Black Gods” and “Islam in Black America” share a common theme of Black American religions. What led to these books?
A: In graduate school I focused on the question of why African Americans chose to become Muslim and how Islam mattered to their lives. I trained in Black studies, U.S. history, and Islamic studies in order to answer that question.
H-D: What did you find surprising while studying the Nation of Islam and other Black religions in the U.S.?
A: About the Nation of Islam: if you study a religion long enough, those things that at first seem completely strange – like the Nation of Islam’s beliefs in UFOs – begin to seem completely normal, whether you agree with those beliefs or not.
H-D: Can you describe your work with the Arab Indianapolis community history project?
A: Everybody knows that there are a lot of Arab Americans in Detroit. But the history of Arab Americans in Indianapolis has been completely buried and hidden. I am partnering with Arab American community members to help tell that story for the first time.
Instead of publishing an academic book that no one will read, we are making a public television documentary, writing a coffee table book of photographs, creating a website and more.
H-D: What can audiences expect when you speak in Michigan City?
A: You will likely learn something new about your town. I read a lot of the books about the town’s history, but until I got my hands on some old microfilm, I did not know that Muslims played a central role in the lively Michigan City wrestling scene. I am going to introduce you to Michigan City’s favorite Muslim wrestler.