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.
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 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).
- 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). ↩
- For example, see New World, 175, 181, 201, 203, 216, 220, 279. ↩