Memory, Experience, and Imagination in Black Religion

This post is part of our online roundtable on Judith Weisenfeld’s New World A-Coming

Prophet Noble Drew Ali (standing center) and temple members, at religious service of the Moorish Science Temple of America, circa late 1920s (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division)

Judith Weisenfeld’s New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration is a careful historical examination of the Ethiopian Hebrews, the Moorish Science Temple (MST), the Nation of Islam (NOI), and the Peace Mission (PM). It explores the complexities of lived religion at the center of significant changes occurring during the first half of the twentieth century including the two World Wars, the massive migration of southerners to northern urban cities, increased immigration into the United States, the financial crash of 1929 and the ensuing economic depression of the 1930s, new desires to identify authentically American cultural forms, and novel articulations of American culture as something plural, mixed, and contested. Weisenfeld weaves together strands of scholarship that focus specifically on the Ethiopian Hebrews, the NOI, the MST, and the PM and examines the thematic intersections of these new religious communities.1 Weisenfeld emphasizes how these groups’ perspectives of time and space become refigured in ways that reflect their historical context and that underscore the newly creative ways Black people responded to dramatic change.

In New World A-Coming, Weisenfeld focuses on interwar northern environments and uses ethno-historical analysis to make sense of how new religio-racial groups opened up “the intellectual space for blacks in the United States to think in unconventional ways about narratives of peoplehood, religious history, and racial identity” (17). Importantly, Weisenfeld’s theory and method of analysis allow for the category of religion not to be grounded in an idea of Protestant Christianity as necessarily normative for Black people. Weisenfeld’s careful opening of the lives and perspectives of these religio-racial movements’ members details how they were uniquely creative in imagining the relationship between labels and time outside standard ideas and prevailing theological boundaries. Moreover, Weisenfeld’s implied definition of time as something that arises from the intersections, overlaps, and contradictions of memory, experience, and imagination provides a nuanced theory of religion.

Weisenfeld focuses on how members of these religio-racial movements used their religion to access older Black identities instead of adopting the concept of the “New Negro” to define their self-determination. These groups reached back in time, sometimes with interest in discovering the original, earliest religious beliefs of Black people, to locate these identities. Weisenfeld argues that the idea of primacy, a “superiority derived from being first,” helped to make these new religio-racial cosmologies attractive to Blacks seeking spiritual fulfillment.

Ethiopian Hebrews worship service (New York Public Library)

This emphasis on original religious identities arose from but also stood in contrast to the idea of the “New Negro.” Although the term came into vogue in the 1920s, it had circulated since at least the late nineteenth century. While the term was not known to most Black people, a new class of political, cultural, and religious leadership often used it. The renowned African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Reverdy C. Ransom penned a poem in 1923 titled “The New Negro,” forecasting what would be the title of Alain Locke’s 1925 epoch-defining volume, The New Negro: An Interpretation:

…Rough hewn from the jungle and the desert’s sands,
Slavery was the chisel that fashioned him to form,
And gave him all the arts and sciences has won,
The lyncher, mob, and stake have been his emery wheel.
TO MAKE A POLISHED MAN of strength and power.
In him, the latest birth of freedom,
God hath again made all things new….”

Like the religio-racial movements, Ransom portrayed Black people in America as experiencing an unprecedented awakening. However, he employed the idea of re-definition to argue that African Americans were being made anew. This remaking represented a Biblical story of progress and a historical narrative of enslavement and struggle. In Black Protestant narratives of history, slavery occupied a prominent role as a marker of the past and as a referent for progress. As Wilson J. Moses noted, Christian theodicy explained that God allowed for evil only so far as good always ultimately resulted from bad. This framing, the “fortunate fall” idea, allowed Afro-Protestants throughout the African and Black Diaspora to comprehend the seeming paradox of having Christianity revealed to them via the displacement and horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and American slavery.

Weisenfeld notes that, in different ways, the Ethiopian Hebrews, the MST, the NOI, and the PM decried the description of blacks as “Negros.” Some Ethiopian Hebrews not only criticized the term “Negro,” but they also explained that “Hebrew,” and not “Jew,” was the proper descriptive term for people of African descent. They argued that the term “Jew” should be used to refer to whites of Israelite descent (35). In this, some Ethiopian Hebrews differed even from other religio-racial communities who accepted the term “Jew” for self-description. The communities of the MST and the NOI used the phrase “so-called Negro” to emphasize their view that the term was derogatory, that it highlighted a history of subjugation, and that Blacks who used the term demonstrated an acceptance of historical effacement (109). Moreover, Moorish American Muslims also described the labels “Black,” “Colored,” and “Ethiopian” as false descriptors for Black people who were Asiatic and Moorish (43).

Although the NOI and the PM created divine histories apart from a Biblical chronology, Weisenfeld contrasts the NOI’s emphasis on racial categorization with the PM’s motive to move beyond race. However much the NOI essentialized race by casting whites as devils and Blacks as divine, their beliefs and actions, when contrasted to those of the PM, demonstrate the wide range of ways people of color engaged, negotiated, or tried to dismiss race. Every member of a religio-racial movement experienced the impossibility of living outside racial categories while at the same time constantly laboring to find routes that revised notions of race and led away from white supremacy.

Ethiopian Hebrew women at worship service (New York Public Library)

Ethiopian Hebrews and MST and NOI members argued that their divine lineages predated or were outside the Christian Biblical timeline. For the Ethiopian Hebrews, Judaism predated Christianity. For followers of the Moorish Science Temple, Moorish American Muslim history revealed that Black people in America derived their genealogy not just from Africa but from one of only two actual groups of people. Noble Drew Ali had defined “Asiatic” as a broad ethno-racial category that essentially encompassed all people who were not European (45, 65, 112). This internationalist and anti-colonial impulse also underlay the NOI. While members of the NOI also understood themselves as having Asiatic origins, they further understood that people with black skin had existed since the beginning of human creation (57–59). Further emphasizing a determined anticolonial and contra-Christian stance, NOI members defined whites as devils that had been created in cosmic history. Weisenfeld traces the influence of Garveyism in shaping ideas of Black self-determination; however, she reveals that Garveyism also generated competing claims about how to define and cultivate self-determination (18, 275).

Rather than impose a definition of the sacred upon the people of New World A-Coming, Weisenfeld locates religious belief, experience, and expression within a social and cultural context, thereby providing an operative definition of religion. The benefits of situating religion in this way are demonstrated in Weisenfeld’s insightful identification of new kinds of sources and in her creative examination of these records, which allow her to find religious identity and expression in new places. In addition to studying sources generated from these religio-racial groups concerning worldview, dress, eating, habitation, and accounts of them from the press and the broader public, Weisenfeld discovers various legal records that reflected engagements between these groups and public authorities. Moreover, she illustrates that these religio-racial movements drew unique attention from an array of outsiders, including the state. Interactions between individuals and state institutions, although seemingly mundane, were infused with meaning about how bodies and outlooks were simultaneously incorporated and marginalized relative to state apparatus like census takers, draft registrars, educational authorities, immigration regulators, and marriage and licensing courts.2

Weisenfeld emphasizes that these new religio-racial groups “did not grow to become the sole religio-racial orientation for blacks in America as their founders and those who worked to build them had hoped” (282). Yet, despite this limited growth, the Ethiopian Hebrews, the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, and the Peace Mission stand out for their religious radicalism. Their intent to “reconfigure black racial identity through religious means” required religious imaginations that were exceptional for the turn of the twentieth century (282).

  1. For example, see: Claude Andrew Clegg, III, An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad (1997); Edward E. Curtis, Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960–1975 (2006); Edward E. Curtis IV and Danielle Brune Sigler, eds., The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African American Religions (2009); Karls Evanzz, The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad (1999); Michael A. Gomez, Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas (2005).
  2. For example, see New World, 175, 181, 201, 203, 216, 220, 279.

Chernoh Sesay Jr.

Chernoh Sesay Jr. is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University. He earned a Ph.D. in American History from Northwestern University in 2006. He is currently completing a book entitled Black Boston and the Making of African-American Freemasonry: Leadership, Religion, and Community In Early America. Follow him on Twitter @CMSesayJr1.

Comments on “Memory, Experience, and Imagination in Black Religion

  • Such a good read! Very interesting.

  • This one engages my theological imagination and construction as well.

    I think one of the intriguing questions here is “what is memory and what does it do?” If one takes cues from John Mbiti’s analysis of time in African Traditional Religions (which is not without criticisms) religious ritual, ancestor veneration, etc. is a link to one’s past and therefore one’s identity and being. The rituals of remembering one’s ancestors keeps them alive in the ‘near past’ rather than fading into the generalized sense of “The Ancestors” of the ‘far past.’

    By opening with Alec Brown Bey, draft card, Weisenfeld seems to do an academic version of this by naming a specific person in a specific instance, who otherwise may have slipped in to the generalized memory of “everyday people” of the MST and brought him, and others like him, back into memory. One of the methodological trends I’ve enjoyed in history in recent times is a shift toward looking at the everyday people for snapshots of life, movements, and events rather than focusing solely on the biographies and statements of leaders. As you and others at the roundtable have noted, Weisenfeld’s attention to her sources have done a great job with this. So, in addition to what Wesienfeld’s research shows about how these groups re-conceptualize time and memory, she’s also doing some of this herself as she tells their stories.

    Another thing about time and memory that’s becoming a part of a side project of my own is the ancient Greek understanding of time and memory that ultimately shows up in Augustine’s thought on teaching. That teaching /learning is the act of remembering things we’d forgotten we know and thus an act of anamnesis. By remembering (through doing) we bring something back into being that was once lost to our memory. It’s an interest area of mine as a Deaf scholar and theologian who ponders whether signed languages might have an advantage of some sort with this act of re-membering due to the visual-gestural nature of their expression that languages in cultures that have become tied to written forms no longer can quite achieve in the same manner. A similar argument could be made for cultures where the oral-aural performance of language has primacy over written forms.

    Mbiti’s sketch of ATR ritual, time, and memory seems somewhat commensurable with these ideas of memory, time and ‘re-membering’ as well. So remembering in these groups, and perhaps in the book itself, is more than an act of ‘recalling things that have passed’ but also an act of ‘bringing it back into being’ in powerful was to shape the lives of the living. Your article here presents compelling evidence from Weisenfeld’s book to this frame of memory being more than simple recollection.

  • Thanks again, Kirk, for your thoughtful response. Your meditations on how memory works in relation to Africana religions and time puts me in mind of Julie Dash’s wonderful film, Daughters of the Dust (recently remastered: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-return-of-julie-dashs-historic-daughters-of-the-dust) , and one of the opening titles: “Gullah communities recalled, remembered and recollected.” There’s a dynamism to memory here. Of course, Rhon Manigault-Bryant’s Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women is a must read for thinking about these issues and more.

  • Yes. I taught a course on Black Religions in the Americas last term and we used Chireau’s Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition which opens with a reference from that movie. Two of the students had seen it and it led to a lively “summarize and discuss the meaning” session between them and the class.

    Thank you for the other references! They’ll go in the pot as I let my “memory project” simmer with some more ingredients.

  • Kirk, thank you for your insightful response, and I agree with you that Judith’s approach to memory is so novel and compelling. New World A-Coming shows in such interesting ways how the past constantly became a frame for understanding and participating in the present and for imagining and trying to shape the future. As you put it relative to Judith’s book, memory was far more than “simple recollection.” Also, as I was reading New World-A Coming, I was also thinking about Michelle Wright, Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

    Judith, again, thank you for writing such an amazing book.

    Thank you both for the great teaching suggestions! In addition to your book, Judith, the materials both of you reference will be so useful in my efforts to help students think about “religion” not as a static category but as a dynamic and lived social experience that gets expressed in terms of memory and in ways that are seemingly mundane but actually profound and powerful.

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