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When Legends and Reality Collide:
The Extraordinary Life of Dr. Sulayman Nyang
Update: March 15, 2018
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By Imam Khalid Fattah Griggs
There are a few rare individuals who live up to and surpass the hype surrounding them once you finally gain their acquaintance. Typically, when you hear of a reputable scholar teaching courses at a school where you are an alum in a department where you maximized opportunities to take classes, you take more than a casual interest. Such was the case when I heard of Dr. Sulayman Nyang joining the African Studies Department of Howard University in 1974, one year after my graduation. In a relatively unspectacular first encounter with Dr. Nyang in 1979 in the hallway of the modular structure that housed portions of the African Studies Department, Dr. Nyang flashed his patented smile and, without knowing anything about me, encouraged me to develop whatever potential skill set that I possessed to research and expose factual information that would be beneficial to myself and others, particularly African people.
In subsequent encounters with Dr. Nyang, I arrived at the same conclusion that others who interacted with him already determined, that he is a dignified, almost regal, humble, and patient individual who never flaunts his vast knowledge or many accomplishments. One would never surmise that this intellectual giant of a man had once been the Deputy Ambassador of The Gambia to Saudi Arabia and was responsible for maintaining relationships with seven Middle East and North African nations, or that he has mentored over 200 graduate and undergraduate students at Howard University and other institutions, or that he has authored more than 11 books and tens of articles, or that he is a regular contributor to publications like the Washington Post and Huffington Post, or that he is a prolific national and international lecturer or that the list of boards and committees that he has served on are too numerous to mention. Dr. Nyang’s contributions to scholarship on African peoples’ history is the stuff that legends are made of.
Dr. Nyang responded to my appeal for him to participate in a national conference on Malcolm X in 1989 that was being held on the campus of Winston-Salem State University. Without any hesitation, he graciously accepted to speak at the event that was being sponsored by a relatively unknown group, Institute for Islamic Involvement, the predecessor organization to Community Mosque of Winston-Salem. I was amazed when I saw Dr. Nyang limp into the auditorium, flashing his signature smile, a result of his bout with gout in his foot. Over the years I learned that he seemed to routinely be challenged by physical ailments. Never one to complain, Dr. Nyang became my role model on so many levels. We would hear of his being in the hospital and begin making
plans to visit him, only to see him, often one day removed from a hospital bed, speaking at a conference. I have never heard anyone say a disparaging word about Dr. Sulayman Nyang. With the exceptions of my wife and daughters, no one has encouraged me to write more than my dear brother and friend, Dr. Sulayman Nyang. When true legends meet reality, they force a new reality upon themselves and those who benefit from their works. We are all better from knowing and/or benefiting from his contributions to humanity. Please pray that our Creator restore his health, extend his life, and allow us to benefit from his works.