Faculty Spotlight

SIPA Professor Hisham Aidi Writes Documentary on Harlem Activist Sister Aisha

Posted Feb 21 2024
Sister Aisha: Queen Mother of Harlem


Hisham Aidi, a senior lecturer in international relations at SIPA, was a fellow at Columbia’s Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) and for 10 years worked with the late historian Manning Marable, studying the influence of Malcolm X across the world. Aidi’s latest project — a documentary called Sister Aisha: Queen Mother of Harlem, about Harlem activist and community leader Aisha al-Adawiya — was funded through the Addressing Racism: A Call to Action for Higher Education initiative of Columbia’s Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement.

At SIPA, Aidi teaches the course Conceptual Foundations of International Politics. His interests include social movements, racial inequality and globalization. Aidi is also the author of Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture, which won the 2015 American Book Award.

The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Can you share a little bit about how this documentary came to be made?

In September 2020, the provost’s office put out a call for projects looking at Columbia’s relationship to Harlem and racial equity. I thought Sister Aisha would be a perfect subject for a short documentary. At the time I was helping her organize her archive and I thought her story captures a lot about Columbia’s relationship to Harlem and the tradition of Black internationalism that she comes out of.

Before diving deeper into who Sister Aisha is, could you talk a bit about how you put the film together with her as your subject?

I’m part of an effort to collect the archives of Harlem elders, and to get these archives housed at Columbia. One day, Sister Aisha called me and said “I’m gonna give up everything, just give it away.” I insisted she let me check out the archive first — she has boxes of cassettes, paraphernalia, all the events she organized she filmed, whether they were at Union Theological Seminary, or Earl Hall, or the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture, a unit of the New York Public Library] — she has an archive documenting decades of activism in Harlem. We started filming her and then by chance, the provost put out a call asking for projects on racial equity in Harlem.

I am the writer of this documentary, and the filming and editing were done by Sophie Schrago, a filmmaker and visual anthropologist who works on religion and women’s movements. 

So, who was Sister Aisha and why did you think of her as a figure who ties together Columbia’s relationship with Harlem?

Aisha al-Adawiya is longtime community leader, activist, and antiwar activist. She’s very well known in New York. In the mid-’60s, she attended a rally where Malcolm X was speaking, and she was spellbound. She joined the movement and became Muslim off the back of this. She began hanging out uptown in Harlem and at Columbia, so her memory of Columbia goes back over 50 years.

The first time I recall seeing her was in the mid-’90s — I was 21 years old. She was mobilizing a group of students at Barnard to go to the United Nations to protest. So she was a link between Columbia and Harlem.

Sister Aisha had strong ties to Columbia as a whole, but during her time organizing was she active in the SIPA community?

Sister Aisha brought the activism and pan-Africanist trends that were very vibrant in Harlem to SIPA. She was here at SIPA organizing panels around Bosnia, Iraq, and Somalia, inviting to Columbia prominent intellectuals like the late Kenyan historian Ali Mazrui, a SIPA alum, class of ’61.

In the days after 9/11 Sister Aisha was also here at SIPA defending students from police surveillance all the way up to the Muslim Ban of 2016. So, yes, she was very active here at SIPA.

What do you think the active relationship Sister Aisha had with Columbia, and SIPA, teaches about the relationship between Harlem and Columbia?

One of the things that Sister Aisha shows is that Harlem is very present at Columbia. Harlem has struggles, and she brought many of those struggles to campus and exposed students to them, and changed the debates on campus.

We tend to think of Harlem as sort of being “up there.” It’s where students live, or where we send students to do research. She took some of Columbia’s faculty and research to these marginalized communities uptown.

Many in our community are deeply concerned about the current war in Gaza. What do you think SIPA students should take away from the work of Sister Aisha in this current moment? 

On the question of Palestine, she’s always been very active on the front lines and in protests. She mentions how on campus she would come to see Edward Said. She was active for decades around the same issues without giving up or suffering from burnout or being drowned by pessimism. I think her optimism is rooted in solidarity in the community — it’s not top-down. It’s about making connections, building your community here, and then having your community reach out to the community in conflict. 

I think another lesson that students can draw is the importance of the margins in the periphery, not to ignore these peripheral neighborhoods and regions in global cities 

And finally what do you hope to be able to achieve with this documentary, what do you feel is the main takeaway?

I would love for this film to get Columbia to support the Shabazz Center. Columbia has had a difficult relationship with Harlem: Since the early ’90s, when there was a dispute around the Audubon Ballroom, Columbia had promised to set up the Malcolm X medical scholarship. I hope we can get that established. I also hope this film will raise awareness around the challenges facing Harlem and the Audubon. 

I would also like students to begin exploring Harlem and for our students at SIPA to begin seeing that Harlem has its traditions of internationalism, organizing, and political radicalism.

Watch Sister Aisha: Queen Mother of Harlem