Writing on Women and the Nation of Islam: An Author’s Response

This post is part of our online roundtable on Ula Taylor’s The Promise of Patriarchy 

Religious Fervor is Mirrored on the Face of a Black Muslim Woman, One of Some 10,000 Listening to Elijah Muhammad (Photo: The U.S. National Archives, Flickr).

I am so very humbled by Ashley Farmer, Asia Leeds, Erik McDuffie, Gerald Horne, and Robyn Spencer’s willingness to read my book closely and with generosity. The Promise of Patriarchy:Women and the Nation of Islam is my effort to explore the complicated choices of Black women, many of which are grounded in the seductive landscape of patriarchal hopes and dreams. Patriarchy, as a concept and as a practice, must continue to be critically interrogated with an intersectional analysis. In the current #MeToo moment, all of the ways that it can destroy lives has become ever present. During the research and writing phase of my book, I found myself confronted with a range of understandings about patriarchy that require a nuanced analysis of race, gender and class when it comes to women and the Nation of Islam (NOI).

Essentially, as aptly pointed out by Ashley Farmer, I am driven by one key question: why would a Black woman would choose a life within the Nation of Islam (NOI)? I was also curious about women who decided to participate in patriarchal exchanges. Their decision-making practices rubbed against my feminist sensibilities, and at times tested my capacity to wrangle with their difficult choices. Nevertheless, it was imperative for me to let go of my political judgments and moral assumptions, in order to move past the well-worn narratives of all women simply being duped by patriarchy. As a historian of twentieth-century Black women, I believe we must interrogate experiences that push against our personal politics. All Black women are worthy of serious historical scholarship!

All historical scholarly endeavors begin in an archive. And, in the case of NOI women, at first glance, it was thin. As my desire to learn more about how women experienced the NOI flourished, I was shocked by the dearth of secondary literature, especially given the iconic status of Minister Malcolm X and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in African American life and culture. In order to do the work with a level of integrity, I had to cobble together an archive. I was assisted by a number of amazing scholars—some of whom I know well, others who were kind enough to share materials when they heard about my work. Together, we built an archive that allowed me to fill in many historical gaps. Despite my determination, as noted by Gerald Horne, I was unable to figure out the origins of W.D. Fard. Even the few dissertations that professed to be biographical works about Fard, left so many unanswered questions. I agree with Horne that W.D. Fard’s origins are really important, and well overdue for a fuller examination.

I so appreciate that Robyn Spencer understands my work as “pierc[ing]the mystique around the NOI’s norms and practices with close analysis of archival evidence.” I searched for years through public libraries, private repositories, and eBay on-line, for answers to questions around NOI membership. One of the challenges of writing a book that stretches the time frame of 1930-1975 are all of the major historical changes over a long stretch of time. Asia Leeds reminds us, “no singular narrative captures the dynamics of NOI women.” I had to grapple with how the Great Depression, WWII, the Cold War, the modern Civil Rights movement, Black Power, and the Women’s movement shaped Black women’s perceptions of the NOI. Equally important, I was concerned with how historical conditions impacted the goals and agenda of the NOI. Each chapter sits at this intersection and I tried to bring new voices into the narrative.

After a lot of thought, I took the position that I didn’t want to overload each chapter with a lot of women’s names and short biographical sketches of their NOI membership. In fact, I wanted readers to walk away knowing a few women really well. This framing has a lot to do with my teaching. In my undergraduate classes, the push back that I’ve received around texts with many names and snapshots of activity, has impacted my writing style. I’ve learned that students prefer to read books where they can hold onto people, via their names, and thus, the unique experiences of transformative subjects. Erik McDuffie speaks to the power of names by highlighting my extensive interviews with a few members of the NOI to whom I was able to give in depth attention. Through their personal stories, we are able to learn how patriarchy impacted their daily lives and inspired a tangle web of middle-class aspirations.

I am an outsider of the movement. None of my extended family were former members of the NOI, so I didn’t have immediate access to insiders. I am so thankful to folks who were kind enough to vouch for me as a historian who had no agenda other than to tell their historical truths. Again, at times their truths were painful to hear, and I grappled with what was at stake in knowing. Patriarchy is a “many-headed hydra” and its manifestations are difficult to contain with simple language.  This is why, as detailed by Asia Leeds, I had to figure out a conceptual way to explain the complexity.  Therefore, “trumping patriarchy” named behavior that gave women opportunities to disrupt the male dominated landscape. Here, I was able to analyze how Black women lived within, and supported, this structure and system of power. Each of the roundtable responses offer a generous critical engagement, and I so thankful for their willingness to think with me.

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Ula Y. Taylor

Ula Yvette Taylor is a Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam, The Veiled Garvey: The Life and Times of Amy Jacques Garvey, co-author of Panther: A Pictorial History of the Black Panther Party and The Story Behind the Film and co-editor of Black California Dreamin: The Crisis of California African American Communities. Her articles on African American Women’s History and feminist theory have appeared in the Journal of African American History, Journal of Women’s History, Feminist Studies, SOULS, and other academic journals and edited volumes. In 2013, she received the Distinguished Professor Teaching Award for the University of California, Berkeley.