Utopia in Dark Times

Mural in the Sherdavia Jenkins Peace Park in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, Florida, January 18, 2020 (Carrol M. Highsmith/ LOC)

In this turbulent historical moment, I find myself often reflecting on Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower . Butler set this novel in the early 2020s when climate change, rising violence, and economic inequality have created social chaos. Butler’s protagonist, Lauren Olamina, suffers from a form of hyperempathy, feeling the emotional and physical pain of those around her. However, this weakness gives her the insight to develop a new philosophy and religion, which she calls Earthseed. This new religion is based on the precept that “God is change,” and that humans have the ability to “shape God,” giving hope to those who were willing to act as agents of change. Lauren develops her religion after being forced from her gated community to survive in an anarchic and dangerous world. After a series of struggles and calamities, Lauren creates an interracial community in northern California, which she calls Acorn, to develop her religion and provide a protective space for her followers. That safety proves elusive with the rise of a Christian Fundamentalist right-wing president whose followers attack and destroy Acorn. In the 1998 sequel Parable of the Talents, Butler gives us a more utopian vision of Earthseed’s potential for change. When Acorn is destroyed, Lauren and others are enslaved and their children are sold off to white Christian families. But after escaping enslavement Lauren gathers increasing support for her new religion, building enclaves of Earthseed supporters, and preparing for a future on other planets. In these works, Butler offers us a remarkable vision of a dystopia so like our present state that it seems prophetic. But she also offers a utopian vision of an interracial community that believes in the ability to shape the future through human agency.

However, we don’t have to look to fiction or the future for examples of utopian practices rooted in spirituality and a deep belief in radical egalitarianism. During the height of the Great Depression, when African Americans suffered from debilitating poverty and rampant racial discrimination, a Black spiritual leader created a utopian community in upstate New York that resembles Butler’s fictional Acorn. Father Divine, an itinerant minister, established what he called the “Peace Mission” in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1920s. Father Divine practiced a profoundly disruptive politics, preaching that all humans were fully equal and should live this reality in interracial homes and communities. The Father Divine movement embraced what I have termed utopian interracialism in my book Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement. Similar to Butler’s vision of Acorn, groups like the Peace Mission called for immediate and radical change and prefigured that change by sharing labor, property, and politics. Indeed, Divinites embraced a present and future entirely free of racial categories.

Historian Judith Weisenfeld identifies the Peace Mission as one of several “religio-racial” movements that flourished in Black communities during the Great Migration era. She notes that “Father Divine called on followers to erase the past and re-create themselves as his raceless children to gain eternal life in Heaven on earth.” This re-creation had profound physical and psychological impacts on Divinities. Divine’s followers changed their names, many practiced celibacy, and the abundance of healthy food and the renouncing of tobacco and alcohol often transformed their physical health. Peace Mission banquets were the most distinctive aspect of the Father Divine movement. Divinities offered lavish multi-course meals for no charge during the height of the Great Depression in Harlem and other cities. Father Divine claimed to have fed nearly three thousand people a day in his Harlem banquets alone. And he built an economic empire during the 1930s and 1940s, with hundreds of cooperative businesses from gas stations and restaurants to boarding houses and retail stores.

But Father Divine’s most remarkable accomplishment, and the one that resonates with Butler’s vision, was an interlocking set of cooperatives in upstate New York that he named the Promised Land. The Promised Land was in Ulster County, New York, about one hundred miles due north of Harlem and accessible by steamboat, train, and car. Ulster County was an overwhelmingly white area, but for Divine, this was an asset rather than a drawback. As he built his cooperative empire, he deliberately sought out opportunities to racially integrate communities, despite threats of violence. Divine bought his first cooperative farm in 1935 and put an African American woman, Mother Sarah Love, in charge. At its height, the Promised Land consisted of thirty communities that housed twenty-three hundred people and were spread across about two thousand acres. All the cooperatives were women-run and interracial. In addition to farms with cows, chickens, and gardens, the Promised Land boasted cooperative gas stations, restaurants, and tourist residences. Two large docks with lavish boathouses welcomed excursion steamers from the city.

As with his urban cooperatives, the Promised Land ran only on cash and Divinites sold all their goods at below market rate. They lived communally, sharing the labor and the profit from their farms. Much of the food grown in Promised Land farms ended up on the banquet tables and restaurants of Harlem. It was an early example of a farm-to-table movement, and it enabled the Divinities to feed impoverished city dwellers economically. African American women’s agricultural skills, honed in the South prior to their migration north, proved invaluable to the farms’ success and provided goods for cooperative businesses. Even The New York Times took notice in a glowing 1939 article, “In this huge community that has facilities for feeding and lodging perhaps 10,000 persons at one time, where no person may smoke, drink or curse, there are cultivated farms, resort hotels, country clubs, estates, scores of houses and dormitories, all manner of restaurants, stores, gasoline stations, tailor shops, barber shops, garages and even two large docks with boathouses on the Hudson River, capable of accommodating the largest excursion steamers.”1 Growing food and raising livestock provided abundant and healthy vegetables and meat to an urban population flocking to Divine’s banquets and restaurants. It also provided a livelihood for hundreds of Divinities running the rural cooperatives and small businesses. And the interracial communities challenged the white domination of upstate New York, bringing racial integration to the rural North.

After World War II, when greater prosperity lessened the appeal of the cooperative life, the farms and businesses in the Promised Land began to close. The remaining Peace Mission cooperative businesses were concentrated in Philadelphia, Newark, and Harlem. But even if ephemeral, the Promised Land’s existence and prosperity demonstrate the power of utopian thinking in dark and dystopic times. In Parable of the Talents, Lauren Olamina instructs, “Kindness eases change. Love quiets fear. And a sweet and powerful positive obsession blunts pain, diverts rage, and engages each of us in the greatest, the most intense of our chosen struggles.” The Divinities found some of that peace while shaping a more egalitarian future in the Promised Land. And readers of Butler’s work have taken inspiration from her Earthseed religion and agrarian communitarianism today. Whatever your “chosen struggle,” and there are many to choose from, finding inspiration in the actual past and the imagined future can bring solace and inspire the actions that change requires.

  1. See “Father Divine’s Movement Expands,” The New York Times, July 2, 1939, p. E10
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Victoria W. Wolcott

Victoria W. Wolcott is Professor of History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. She has published three books: Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit (2001), Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America (2012) and Living in the Future: The Utopian Strain in the Long Civil Rights Movement (2022). In addition, she has published articles in The Journal of American History, The Radical History Review, and the Journal of Women’s History among others. She is currently working on two book projects: an edited collection Utopian Imaginings: Saving the Future in the Present for SUNY Press’s “Humanities to the Rescue” series and The Embodied Resistance of Eroseanna Robinson: Athleticism and Activism in the Cold War Era, a microhistory of a Black Pacifist activist during the cold war.