Rethinking Religion and Race in the Great Migration

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, in short, a marvelous book. With its focus on the Moorish Science Temple of America (MST), the Nation of Islam (NOI), Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement (PM), and a number of congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews, Weisenfeld challenges much of the previous scholarship by moving these groups from the margins to the center. She pushes the field to rethink its approach to religion and race, opening multiple avenues for future scholars.

The book contains a few interrelated arguments. First, Weisenfeld argues that these groups created novel religio-racial identities. She uses the term religio-racial “to designate a set of early twentieth-century black religious movements whose members believed that understanding black people’s true racial history and identity revealed their correct and divinely ordained religious orientation” (5). Weisenfeld shows readers that both racial identity and religious identity informed these movements’ understanding of self, community, and others. Weisenfeld also argues that much of the historiography has centered on whether these groups qualified as “true” modes of religiosity and has offered reductive conclusions about the movements’ appeal within contemporary economic crises. Weisenfeld shifts our attention to both the theological narratives of these groups and the lived realities of their members to challenge such simplistic interpretations. These groups didn’t cultivate religio-racial identities simply to escape the reality of America’s white supremacy or financial struggles. Instead, Weisenfeld deftly illuminates how these groups produced meaningful narratives, histories, identities, practices, and communities for their members’ everyday lives. Related to this argument is another about agency and race. Often studies of religion and race offer a top-down analysis about how those in power used religious rhetoric and interpretations to impose a racial hierarchy. Weisenfeld “highlights the agency of black people as religious subjects in constructing, revising, or rejecting racial categories” (7). The most striking contribution of this book is its use of the term religio-racial identity, which draws attention to how religion and race are co-constitutive identity markers. Weisenfeld’s work unpacks the complicated ramifications of race and religion’s mutual variability.

Fruit of Islam, a special group of bodyguards for Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad, sits at the bottom of the platform while he delivers his annual Savior`s Day message in Chicago, March 1974. (National Archives)

Weisenfeld organizes the text in a thoughtful and seamless thematic flow. Standalone chapters for each religio-racial movement might have seemed the most obvious organizational scheme for the book, but New World A-Coming focuses instead on narratives. Part One provides background information about movement founders and analysis on their theological understandings of racial identity. Rather than reduce the movements to simple understandings of their leaders’ charisma, Weisenfeld underlines how the movements’ authority came from confidence in the leaders and the power of the movements’ theology. Though some of these groups imbued their founder with a sacred or powerful identity, they still had to manage his inevitable mortality. These understandings of religio-racial identity made sense to followers and helped them make meaning of the world around them. In most cases, this meant reclaiming an old identity that placed them outside the racial hierarchy/binary (white/non-white) imposed by American society. Part Two highlights selfhood and practice. The chapters examine the transformations followers underwent and how they aligned their spirits, hearts, and bodies with their new religio-racial identity. Changing names, dress, diets, and understandings of the body, members of these movements re-fashioned their identities and “externalized what they took to be an essential truth about themselves” (92). Part Three investigates community formation and the internal and external forces that kept those communities separate but still a part of wider American society. Child-rearing, family dynamics, use of space, and interactions with outsiders all elucidate the boundaries between hardline and more causal members of the movements, outsiders, and critics.

By uniting her analyses of the MST, the NOI, the PM, and Ethiopian Hebrew groups, Weisenfeld recognizes similarities and differences among them. She reveals how although the process of creating and living a religio-racial identity might be similar, the lived experience and theological worldview of each group was unique. While the book’s thematic organization highlights connections that could be overlooked, Weisenfeld’s most exemplary methodology is her expertise with archives. Sometimes scholars neglect understudied groups because of practical, academic challenges, such as a lack of traditional sources. The search for sources that disclose the inner lives of everyday people, both in large and small religious movements, can be difficult. Due to limited archival sources, scholars knew little about most of Weisenfeld’s subject matter before New World A-Coming. Yet Weisenfeld utilized three uncommon archive bases in her research: declassified files from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, census data, and World War II draft registration card records. None of these archives explain what it was like to be a member of a religio-racial movement, but all offer windows into those worlds. As Weisenfeld explains, these documents require the scholar to read “with, through, and against … to find evidence of mundane and extraordinary experiences of religio-racial identity” (20). The payoff is great. Weisenfeld demonstrates “the power of the state to shape and constrain both religious experience and racial identity” (20). Though she acknowledges the challenges of this research, Weisenfeld’s handling of her source base appears effortless.

Religious Fervor is Mirrored on the Face of a Black Muslim Woman, One of Some 10,000 Listening to Elijah Muhammad

Like any path-breaking academic book, New World A-Coming answered many of my questions and generated new ones. Weisenfeld’s analysis of these religio-racial movements opens many doors for future scholarship on these groups and beyond. When discussing family dynamics, child-rearing, and sexuality, Weisenfeld’s attention to gender is rich and insightful; however, I would be curious to see more analysis on gender and the founders of these movements. This query is not a critique of the book — no scholarly monograph can do everything, and New World A-Coming offers the field a new way of thinking about black religion in addition to providing fascinating anecdotes and primary source evidence to support its multi-dimensional thesis. I raise the question because the founders of the MST, the NOI, the PM, and the Ethiopian Hebrew movements covered in the book are all men. Masculinity clearly shaped elements of these movements — one need only think of the erotic undertones of how some women in the PM expressed their love for Father Divine.

One of my favorite ways to appreciate a new book is to consider how it has re-shaped my thinking about my own work. My first book looked at the Afro-Creole community in New Orleans. No one characteristic differentiated Afro-Creoles from other southern blacks. Much of the city’s Afro-Creole population belonged to Catholic, educated, often mixed-race, French-speaking or bilingual families who were freed during the colonial or antebellum era and who were often wealthier than their Black, non-creole neighbors. When writing in response to W.E.B. Du Bois, local historian Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes noted a distinction between Afro-Creoles and other Black Americans. Desdunes wrote, “One aspires to equality, the other to identity. One forgets he is a Negro in order to think that he is a man; the other will forget that he is a man in order to think that he is a Negro. These radical differences act on the feelings of both in direct harmony with those characteristics. One is a philosophical Negro, the other practical.”1 Desdunes’s understanding of Afro-Creole identity was not the same as Weisenfeld’s religio-racial identities, but after reading her work I return to Desdunes with new eyes. She defined those religio-racial movements as those “whose members believed that understanding black people’s true racial history and identity revealed their correct and divinely ordained religious orientation” (5). In highlighting the uniqueness and contributions of his fellow Afro-Creoles, Desdunes too offered a racial history for the community and elucidated its philosophical and political orientation. The Afro-Creole community he studied was not a religio-racial movement. Yet as I learned from Weisenfeld’s marvelous book, Jonathan Z. Smith was right when he argued that “in comparison a magic dwells.” Magic indeed.

 

  1. Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes, “A Few Words to Dr. Dubois: “With Malice Toward None,” March 1907; Tureaud Papers (Box 77, folder 38), Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Emily Clark

Emily Clark is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. She specializes in race and religion in the Americas. Her first book, A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), explores the racial and religious politics of talking to the dead. Follow her on Twitter @clark_ems.

Comments on “Rethinking Religion and Race in the Great Migration

  • One wonders why these sources are not mined more by academia. As a genealogist, I live and die by such records. Also FBI files are a treasure trove of information even though it is information gleaned from the white, male governments perspective.

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading and commenting James.
      I too wonder why academics don’t use these sources more often. In my undergraduate African American Religions class, students read excerpts from the FBI files on the Moorish Science Temple. We discuss MST beliefs and practices and how to read against the grain of that white, surveillance perspective. It’s one of my favorite class days of the semester because the conversation in class is so rich.

      Reply
  • I too was impressed by Weisenfeld’s construction of religio-racial as an analytical frame that could encompass multiple identity factors that are created, performed, and understood simultaneously. It obviously serves her well in her analysis of MST, NOI, PM, and Ethiopian Hebrew congregations, but I think it has a huge potential to be an even larger contribution.

    I’m currently teaching a course using Peter Manseau’s One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History and I find myself using this religio-racial lens as a tool to ask new questions about how, for example, Manseau’s sketch of Chinese immigrants to California formed temples (which outsiders called “joss houses”) to welcome new immigrants were an expression of religio-racial creativity. These sort of expressions not only pushed back against the discrimination and marginalization they faced as being religious and racial “others” but also provided avenues for agency. (Chapter 14 of Manseau’s book)

    My mind also turned to my own white Christian context to explore how the religio-racial nexus operates less constructive expressions. While the obvious application of a religio-racial lens would be to explore how whiteness and Christianity merge in white supremacist groups that employ Christian language an symbolism, a more intriguing study might be to use the religio-racial lens to explore how such white supremacist patterns permeate more mainstream white Christian denominational identities. The often under examined meaning of whiteness in relation to one’s Christian faith among white Christians is a telling sign of privilege as we are quite often not forced to examine this nexus in the ways that people of color often find themselves forced to confront. A project that explores religio-racial whiteness in Christianity would help identify these points of privilege and power as part of a larger project to dismantle the racism that the black relgio-racial movements Weisenfeld examines here were often responding to with their creative approaches to identity.

    Taking this another step around the circle, I’d also be interested in seeing a project that used the religio-racial lens to explore how blackness and Christianity interacted in the more mainstream Christian denominations vis a vis the movements Weisenfeld’s study examines. We get glimpses of this in the book as AME leaders raise concerns about these movements, but it’d be interesting to see a slightly wider scope as to how these religio-racial movements created a wider conversation about race and religion acting in concert that shifted the consciousness and identity expression of mainstream religious groups as well.

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading and responding, Kirk.
      Another book that comes to mind is Joshua Paddison’s American Heathens: Religion, Race, and Reconstruction in California: https://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520289055 It’s a smart book that takes out outside of the places we often think about these formations and reconstructions, like white and black identities in the South.

      Reply
    • Ooh! I’m set up with my interpreters (I’m a Deaf scholar) to go to the Womanist studies group there as we have another Deaf presenter on the schedule. I’m not sure if it’s going to fly though as I’m not sure if she’s been able to register. If that panel doesn’t work out, I know where I’ll be then.

      Reply

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