This post is part of our online roundtable on Ula Taylor’s The Promise of Patriarchy
Today the Nation of Islam (NOI) is one of the more important religious political groupings in Black America. Unlike the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), whose archives are sited at the Library of Congress, the University of California-Berkeley, and other repositories, researchers seeking to tell the story of the NOI are not as lucky in gaining access to the raw materials from which organizational history is constructed (such as correspondence, member diaries, and reports from branches). Historians so bold as to research and write about this important group merit our immense thanks. This is notably the case with the book at hand, which is a masterpiece of reconstruction and storytelling that unearths revelations about the NOI through the lens of gender that undoubtedly will withstand the test of time.
Ula Y. Taylor may be best known for her riveting book on Amy Jacques Garvey, the spouse of Marcus Garvey, in which she grapples with weighty matters not only relevant to Black America but to the entire planet. A decline of the organized left in recent decades has created fertile conditions for the rise of various forms of nationalism, which often present women in patriarchal terms that are not liberating or emancipatory. The question becomes how to convince half of a community that nationalism is in their best interest. As Taylor suggests in The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam, NOI women’s involvement was facilitated by a coruscating white supremacy that countenanced lynching—and worse.
By telling the fascinating story of those like Clara Poole (wife of Elijah Muhammad), Taylor weaves a detailed tapestry of how women like Poole kept the NOI intact when, for example, her spouse was incarcerated because of charges for pro-Tokyo sympathies during World War II. Taylor also recounts the story of Burnsteen Sharrieff, the secretary of W.D. Fard, who inspired the Allah Temple of Islam that gave rise to the Nation of Islam.
Like any good history, Taylor’s worthwhile study raises a number of inquiries that should keep students busy for years to come. For example, it is well past time for the dedicated researcher to investigate more systematically the Asia-Pacific roots of the NOI. Other scholars have suggested that Fard was of Pakistani or Turkish origin, or even possessing Maori roots. Researchers would do well to look at the early twentieth century religious movement in New Zealand founded by T.W. Ratana, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the NOI. Though a number of studies detail the multiple links between Black America and what used to be called British India (which encompasses today’s Pakistan), it would be useful to examine the ties between Turkey and the Ottoman Empire and Africans in North America over the centuries.
This leading power comprised overwhelmingly of Muslims ruled a good deal of North Africa, influenced Ethiopia (at various times helping to preserve its oft challenged sovereignty) and its late seventeenth century decline in many ways paved the way for the rise of the African Slave Trade to North America in that Western European nations thereafter had less fear of being enslaved in Algiers as they sailed southward to West Africa. Indeed, bookends for the rise of the African Slave Trade include the 1453 fall of Constantinople to the Muslims (which led to a frantic search by Western Europeans for a route to the riches of Asia, culminating in the hinge year of 1492) and the halting of the Ottomans in 1683 at the gates of Vienna.
Such an exploration would shed bright light on today’s invocation of the concept of the “Asiatic Black Man,” an androcentric conception that is still heard frequently, though it is unclear if those who mouth this potent phrase are aware of its tangled roots and diverse meanings. In that light, we need deeper research in pre-1945 Japanese sources that would shed light on the various ties between Tokyo and Black America. When this important research is conducted, inexorably the work of Ula Taylor will be seen as foundational and an important contribution to women’s studies, Black studies and religious studies.