[AAS21 Podcast] Episode #8: The Formation of 'Religio-Racial' Identity

Wednesday, Aug 2, 2017


Podcast Transcript:


 [music in the background music]

Eddie Glaude: Hello. I'm Eddie Glaude and I'm the chair of the Department of African American Studies here at Princeton University. Welcome to the African-American Studies Podcast. I'm delighted to have with me today Professor Judith Weisenfeld, the Agate Brown and George L. Collord, Professor of Religion. She specializes in American Religious History with a particular emphasis on 20th century African-American religious history. She also focuses of course on religion, race, and gender, and religion in American film and popular culture. She's the author of several outstanding works: Hollywood Be Thy Name: African-American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 and African-American Women and Christian Activism: New York's Black YWCA, 1905-1945. But today, we are here to discuss her important new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Black Migration, an extraordinary study of how religious groups like the Moore Science Temple, The Nation of Islam, Father Divine's Peace Mission Movement, and Congregations of Ethiopian Jews re-imagined racial identity in light of their religious commitments. It is a fascinating book. Welcome, Judith.

Professor Judith Weisenfeld: Thank you, Eddie.

Eddie: So let's just talk, alright? So, talk a little bit about how you came to this topic especially given the subject of your last book on African-American religion in film.

Judith: This is actually the material that brought me to this field. As an undergraduate, I was in a course at Barnard College called Religion in Racially Stratified Societies. It was a comparative course dealing with religion and racial stratification in the US and South Africa and among the course texts on the US were Al Raboteau's Slave Religions. 

Eddie: [laughter]

Judith: That's how I read that, and Arthur Huff Fauset's Black Gods of the Metropolis from 1944. I became absolutely captivated by Father Divine. I'm not the first person to have that experience and I'm not the last, I'm sure. But I just really, um, found the intersection of the questions about the generation of new religious movements in African-American communities to be really, um, compelling and the urban context and so this was, really um, it's kind of gnawing at me for a long time. I wrote in my application to graduate school that this was what I wanted to work on and for a variety of reasons, um, had a meandering--

Eddie: [laughter]

Judith: -- half to it. I think--

Eddie: Right.

Judith: I think the time, the delay benefited the book in lots of ways that we can talk about in terms of the sources that are available. But I was just-- 


I maintained my interest in this area and I think it does. It connects to the previous book and my first book in a number of ways. One, I continue to be interested in urbanization and migration. How do new, uh, living contexts and the convergence of people in new, um, places and spaces like that urban context. How do they affect religious life in early 20th century, African-American history is one of the questions. And the book about film is about, um,how Americans have thought about race in and through religion.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: And so, this book picks up on that question as well. But turning from, um, external, mostly external constructions, what have white people said, how do they think about this uh, conjunction of religion, race, to thinking about how people of African descent have really grappled with the meaning of that conjunction.


Eddie: So how do you-- How does um, A New World A-Coming,  um, intervenes in historiography of these groups? I mean, you know, that the kind of work around this period, the Moore Science Temple, The Nation of Islam, Father Divine. These are all sects and cults, right?

Judith: Right.

Eddie: Even Pentecostal is in its throne, and that is. So, how do you kind of grapple with the historiography around these groups and open up space for what your particular intervention in this book?

Judith: So in some ways, it is. It does again jump off from Fauset's Black Gods of the Metropolis. I do not talk about certain of the groups he included and I have added groups that he did not address like The Nation of Islam. Um, he was interested in what the emergence of these sects and cults in a language of the time, could tell us about how African-American religion was connected to African traditions and um, that's a question that is not at the forefront of my work. I was interested in what the racial claims of these groups tell us about, um, African-American identity. And so, um, I was not interested in thinking about them in relation to, uh, the religious groups that Fauset saw them as kind of split from.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: Right? So, we talked about sects or cults that are always in relation to some normative mainstream, um, real religions.

Eddie: Right.

Judith: These are movements that bristle against those or against society in particular ways and that there's something there. So, I wasn't pursuing a line that a lot of recent scholarship has, uh,that ask questions about to what extent can we consider The Nation of Islam islamic.


 Eddie: Islam. Right, right.

Judith: For example. Or people who call themselves Ethiopian Negroes, they're not really Jews. These are questions that, um, there's some really exciting and useful recent work where people are trying to think about, grapple with that question. I wanted to know what did these people think they were doing. And how did their racial identity claims work in relation to religion? So that set of work where people say are they really Muslim or they're really, um, Jews. And to what extent can we talk about Father Divine for example as Christian. There was a missing piece in the way, uh, scholars recently have approached this. So The Nation of Islam, it's claim is not simply that we are Muslim. It's that we are Asiatic Muslim.

Eddie: Right.

Judith: And the Black Jews who call themselves Ethiopian Hebrews, it was not simply that we are the Hebrews of the Bible but that we have some kind of connection to Ethiopia and that is a racial claim. And Father Divine's claim was not only that he is God in the body and brought the kingdom of God to us. No, it's that we are raceless. There is no race. So I wanted to really work through what-- why this part was so important to participants in these movements and to the leaders, and to think about it comparatively. So again, a lot of the recent scholarship, they're wonderful, single, movement studies. But all of these groups are occupying the same space. They are also in the same space with Pentecostal and holiness leaders. And so what to think about  what I might be able to find out or say about what was going on collectively with this set of groups. And so what I decided in terms of and I struggle with this a lot, how to designate them as groups. I struggled with that and I decided that rather than use that terminology of sector cult 


 or the more recent religious studies, framework of new religious movements because--

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: -they're not really that new or it's not of interest to them. It doesn't help me explain what they thought they were doing. I called them religio-racial movements to group them together for the purposes this particular framework but not, um, try to make any claims to any inherent characteristic like cult or new religion.

Eddie: So let's think about that category, religio-racial, and it's hyphenated and it's important throughout the book. And so, could you say a little bit more about it is? Is it the way in which you're trying to mark how these are co-product? You know, that religion produces racial meanings and racial meanings produce religious meanings, I mean talk a little bit about what you mean by the phrase.

Judith: That's been, uh, scholarly interest of mine in general.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: Asking questions about that, how religion and race are mutually, uh, constituting in the American context in particular American ways. I think that that's the central claim of each of these groups.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: That you cannot understand who you are racially without also understanding something about your, um, appropriate religious orientation, what God meant for you to be. And you can't understand yourself or once you understand yourself religiously, you'll understand your racial identity. So for each of these groups, God, there's an assertion that God created us as this interwoven thing, an Asiatic Muslim or a Moorish Muslim or an Ethiopian Hebrew. And that these two things were essential and eternal, and God-given. And so, they're um, they all have interesting perspectives 


or relationships to Christianity but they're all making the claim that the Christianity that, um, many of you have been committed to and the Negro identity that you think is yours. Both of these things are wrong and once you know you are, uh, Asiatic, you're Muslim. Once you know you're Muslim or you're Asiatic. 

Eddie: And it's not distinctive to black folk either, right? I mean so when you think about the ways in which are racial identities among white folks, you'd think KKK, right? The kind of-- the ways in which a certain kind of Christian imaginary is informing a certain construction of whiteness or even how we might think about the interaction of the evangelical and whiteness, where the category white evangelical, where one's religious position that is-- or religious commitments somehow inform how one sees oneself or has, right? Racialized being of sorts, right?

Judith: Absolutely and it's unavoidable in the American context, right? Race is unavoidable in the American context. So that Father Divine tried to--


Eddie: [laughter]

Judith: --step outside of it. Um... 

Eddie: Even though you have rooms that were separated by God, right?

Judith: But yes, II came to that designation of religio-racial movement from the inside of these groups but I do think that it's applicable beyond these movements and I think it certainly does in a very broad way I speak to. Just a very powerful and, um, consistent and yet changing ways in which religion and race interact. 

Eddie: You mentioned as you were kind of discussing the-- what brought you to the subject, um, uh, migration. And there is this sense that the two kind of migration pathways that kind of converge in the ext. Of course, there's south, north, or ruled urban and then south to north because it's not just simply south to north. [laughs] Right? You leave country side and go to mobile. How about or something like that. But it's also Caribbean, right? And there's an interesting kind of way in which this, um, evidence in itself in the text. So, and it's a story in some ways of-- I didn't wanna reduce it to urbanization and modernization, and the violence amid the shifting of material conditions that send people out, or the violence of actual people, that send people moving. But there's something about the city. I mean in some-- you actually introduce it in the third part of the book, some-- The Urban Sacred Enclave. Talk a little bit about how migration forms the backdrop to your account.

Judith: These movements are I think uniquely the product of migration and urbanization, and the cultural, um,


 creativity of these black cities within cities that develop and although-- I mean there are other kind of movements or figures who are making claims about all sorts of, um, different religious and, um, racial identity positions. I think that these ones that really, um, take hold and persuade people come out of this context of, um, I think a number of things converging. One is simply the new scale of the urban context--

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: --as for being um, in one's-- One could look at it liberated from the smaller, more claustrophobic context of, uh, right a small rural environment or being, um, the kind of either freedom or terror of becoming anonymous in the city, right?

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: You can change yourself when you get to some place new like that and there are all sorts of other options. And I think it's, uh, it's the first-- The people who join these movements as they're emerging in the 20's and 30's are the generation that's born during the, um, the solidification of Jim Crow.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: Right? They come up in a period where the question is, um, If that's what we felt was supposed to happen, that is Exodus and liberation and, um, transformation. God was going to change the fortunes of his people and our fortunes are still higher. What is our map? Maybe this is actually not the path we should be following. And so, there's a temporal, um, vector in that as well that then, right that is part of what-- 


 what motivates migration as well. And then, and the meeting of people from the Caribbean, um, who bring different religious sensibilities and different histories. And so, the urban context really is a laboratory for all sorts of, um, you know, as we know like cultural transformation but this religious transformation is a big part of it.

Eddie: So this is- I mean, you know, we're both students of Al Raboteau and you know this moment which he talks about the, uh, the religious marketplace. That not only do you have this kind of the possibility of anonymity, uh, scale, um, shifting material conditions, shifting relations to work, uh, as a result of moving into the spaces. There's also a kind of an, um, a new kind of consumer of religiosity, right? That these people are able to choose.

Judith: Yeah.

Eddie: And that choice is actually evidencing itself in very interesting and different ways a bit in this moment. So, Al kinda likes to-- The marketplace idea becomes really critical for this period of time.

Judith: And I think that's why the comparative study turned out to be so interesting for me. I think when I-- I wanted to, um, put these groups alongside one another and think about um, and also just put them into the broader religious landscape so they're not the only--

Eddie: Right. [chuckle]

Judith: --new consumer choices in the period. Um, and so to think about them together is also to recognize, to really bring to the floor the question of choice.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: And there were a number of people I encountered in the course of the research who were trying out these different groups. And there's a guy who is interviewed by 


a sociologist in-- who's in Chicago in the early 1940's. He's in the, um, Nation of Islam and he talks about how he got to Chicago and he tried this, that, and the other thing, and he gives a list of-- that includes Ethiopian Hebrews--

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: --and various political groups and Liberian ,um, immigration. He's looking for something that is going to tell him who he is. And he says and it was-- I-- It's um, such a compelling interview. He was out. He was out in a park and he heard one of the ministers from The Nation of Islam say, "You are not a negro and this is not your name." And he-- he, um, he talked about how he had struggled to get a job. He had struggled to get jobs. He knew he was qualified for and he knew he wasn't getting them because he was black. His wife had been sterilized against her.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: Without her knowledge. They were living in a run down rooming house with a bunch of people that he was ashamed to bring the sociologist to see. He said, "When I heard that man say, "You are not a negro", he said everything changed. And so, for a lot of these people, they are cycling through--

Eddie: Right.

Judith: --these different groups. Political, religious, religio-political, and looking for something and, um, you know, I-- I've-- There are some interesting patterns to where people land, um, but it's kind of hard to say so it was just that-- I don't know, that--

Eddie: Yeah, this--

Judith: --right message for him.

Eddie: You know, it's like-- You know, the paraphrase Jimmy-- James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time. You'll notice that that language that pretends our-- that offers to clarify one's circumstance, right? That offers your way of seeing 


and being that clarifies one's circumstance. So, I have to go to this question because this is you know, you're notorious for your archival sensibilities, right? And you know, I had-- I-- you know, I had the wonderful opportunity to talk with our colleague, uh, Tera Hunter last time we did the podcast. And we discussed the kind of shift, right? From what happened with her in the archival work from To 'Joy My Freedom to Bound In Wedlock. And the shift was to go from, uh, archive that was in some ways too small to an archive.

Judith: Mm-hmm.

Eddie: That was really really big. And I was really struck by your own archive. I mean it ranged from collections of letters to, um, newspapers of course, to census records. I mean the ways in which you use, um, military records, um, immigration paperwork. I mean particularly with regards to people who are applying for citizenship. Talk a little bit about the way in which the archive evidences itself in A New World A-Coming.

Judith: When I first thought about this project, I thought I was going to do a synthetic rereading of these groups using the existing scholarship and just bring this question of religion and races--

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: --co-constructing to the floor. And then I was gonna be a quick project.


Judith: I'm just gonna show this and really just read the work through. The story we knew--

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: --through this lens of religio-racial. And-- But I really-- As I went back the secondary work and started to poke around a little bit in some of the primary sources, um, two things-- I realized two things. And the main one is that, um, for good reasons, most of these other works just talk about the founders and leaders.

Eddie: Correct. 


Judith: And that really wasn't my question.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: So I often say it this way. "What I really wanted to know is if you're this guy or his ex, and you're in a park in Chicago and you are completely persuaded that you are not a negro Christian, you are an Asiatic Muslim. How do you that? How do you become?

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: How do you enact this other thing in daily life? And so, I realized I couldn't just synthesize the existing work because it-- the answers weren't there. And so, I mean I benefited from the fact that there are some recently deposited and processed archival collections like this really wonderful collection of materials related to Father Divine's peace mission that said, "Emery". And it's just full of amazing letters to and from him.

Eddie: Mmm.

Judith: I used to you know, it always seemed humorous to me that he had this cadre of secretaries around him and the joke, and Fauset talks about this you know, the ideas that um,  they're recording all his, you know, his every word and it becomes a bible. He's like a living bible.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: But in fact, you know, if you sent Father Divine a letter, you get a response three days later. He would put it in the mail. And so, he was very engaged, um, with members, with people on the margins of the movement and people outside. And so, those kinds of letters gave me a really rich sense of what life was like inside the movement. So those sorts of things. There's a collection of materials related to the um, The Kamemek Keepers: Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation at The Shaumburg. So those sorts of things, you know, those are the things that, um, in the kinds of conventional archival places people would go. And there are things now that weren't available. 

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: You know, ten years ago to people. But the other kinds of records that-- 


 that I didn't expect to use were things in, um, you know, these-- well, certainly the digitization of newspapers. It's just changed everything.

Eddie: Yeah.

Judith: Form the last book to this book. Um, and so that was really helpful but the kinds of vital records that are in, um, repositories like ancestry.com became fascinating ways of getting at this question of how people lived these religio-racial identities. And the ways in which bureaucracy was profoundly important for them. So, in the first sense, I-- it became very clear to me that these people really meant this. So, it seemed to me in some of the secondary scholarship that they're saying, "Well, you know, they really believe they're Muslim or Jewish and they're trying to do that but we don't really want to talk about that other line."

Eddie: Yeah. Yeah, something else is going off, right?

Judith: Right. It's not really real, they don't really mean they're Asiatic or Moorish or whatever. And seeing the degree to which members of these movements were willing to go up against the government at various levels to insist on that surprise me and, um, just became central for the way I interpreted the experience of religio-racial identity and so, these moments where you know, they're forcing the census taker--

Eddie: Right.

Judith: To write down something else or the draft registrar or trying to have their spiritual name and right racial designation on a, um, naturalization papers showed me the amount of work of maintenance and kind of production and reproduction of religio-racial identity that was required in this movement.


Eddie: For me, it not only demonstrated that but it also showed how bureaucratic structures are the kind of front lines the state crafts production of racial identities or racial meanings. So, over and over again particularly with the Moorish Science Temple, the census taker, "Okay, you're olive," and then they would scratch, 'x' it out and then write in 'Black or Negro', right? So, there's this kind-- it's not a column set where it's erased and then written over but, there are these markings to suggest the state's trying to in some ways figure out what is being disrupted and then to re-categorize it according to what is standard. I just found that just really fascinating.

Judith: Absolutely, and I have been influenced by, um, reading Peggy Pascoe's book, What Comes Naturally on the history of interracial marriage, and she made the point there that it that in the section I think she was probably talking about the Virginia Racial Integrity Act and then, you know, the issuing of marriage licenses after that. And that race is made by the clerk in the bureaucratic moment of extending or refusing the marriage license and I found--

Eddie: [Inaudible] returns, okay. [chuckles].

Judith: Right, right. And these-- the members of these groups, all of them to a certain extent and Nation of Islam is a kind of, a little bit of, it needs to be bracketed in its relationship to the state but, um, but they're all, these members are out there, um, in some ways sometimes seeking these moments. They're looking for ways to produce their racial identity in visible ways and, um, to make the government recognize them. And I think, you know, we often-- it's easy to think about these groups as, uh, 


completely rejecting of government, um, oversight at all of any aspect of their lives but they wanted this kind of recognition.

Eddie: Absolutely.

Judith: And the most surprising thing for me about them, the Nation of Islam, that I found was, um, in the, um, Michigan marriage and divorce records that-- and this is the way in which these sources generate the questions I didn't know I had. So, I saw that these Michigan Marriage and Divorce Records who are available on ancestry.com and I started searching for people, names of some of the early members of the nation who had been given their names by WD Fard and I found a bunch of them.

Eddie: Karim.

Judith: Yes. And, uh, Allah.

Eddie: Yeah, Makhmud.

Judith: And, yes.

Eddie: Yeah.

Judith: And, Sharif and I found a lot of these people and so, my-- the question then, was, "All right, you're a group that rejects the authority of the government and yet, you want to be married and you're-- and you reject the Christian churches?" Like, "How do you do that?" or, "Why? Why do you do that?" I can answer the why. But I-- so, I found marriage licenses. Early members of the Nation of Islam getting a marriage license from a justice of the peace, sometimes going to a Christian clergy person or to a judge and getting, you know, gaining the, um, authority you know, the status of married or divorce even through the authority of the state. That to me was completely unexpected.

Eddie: Yeah. So, there's ongoing negotiation. Ongoing negotiation of religious meetings. Ongoing negotiation of the tentacles of the state, just ongoing negotiations. Let me ask you this question because-- 


really quickly, just came off, uh, it just came to me. There's a sense in which one of the interesting things about the organizations and we can-- and pleonastic by Father Divine, his peace mission movement, is that there is something distinctive about not being Christian. So just as in the historiography there is the kind of normative, uh, uh, claim about Black religion that hovers and how these, uh, religious movements are described uh, and if you pay attention to how that normative assumption affects and skews uh, the analysis of the groups, um, um, then it becomes reasonable to try to de-center it. But then there's the actual effort among those who embrace the groups, right? Who are-- who convert. That they are not-- that this is in some ways not just simply a rejection of Christian. It's a rejection of a certain kind of national identity, it's a rejection of Christian. Talk a little bit about what is being cast aside in these moments of creation, of conversation in some ways. Does that make sense?

Judith: Yeah. I think it's related to the question of corporate group identity, collective identity and history.

Eddie: Right.

Judith: In some ways, a lot of it-- some of these groups are like, they have no problem with Christianity in a way, right?

Eddie: Yeah.

Judith: So, it's just not ours. Right? You can have it.

Eddie: In some instances, like, the commandment keepers in their early phase you see elements of it.

Judith: Right, that's right. Yes, and then--

Eddie: And even in the nation of Islam we're going to use the bible to get to the people where they are, as Elijah Muhammad would say.

Judith: And, Arnold Josiah Ford of, um, Congregation Bethany Abraham, he would open up you know, after his services he'd invite Christian ministers and then they would debate.


Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: So, and there's an engagement one early observer of that congregation said, "Well, you know, their duty doesn't consist primarily of hatred of Christianity.


Judith: But I think, there's more than that. But, it is-- I think, in some ways it's related to the hunger for history. For a collective history that is not tied to enslavement in the Americas and, certainly you know, one way to... to solve that problem is to look to the ways in which ah, Christian history is African History.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: And there are lots of, um--

Eddie: Mm-Hmm.

Judith: There are lots of examples of African Americans or, uh, Afro-Caribbean Christians doing that. You know, could that-- or, Christianity's not yours.

Eddie: Right.

Judith: Um, but these moves do not satisfy the people in these particular groups and I think they really want to, um, excavate the history that is completely different in ways that, um, that generate these new, um, kind of geographic connections and they're-- and one of the arguments I make in the book is that they're not-- that they're actually part of a broader conversation that's going on in a couple of ways about who are we as a people.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: What should we call ourselves?

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: And then, also about what is black history? And so, a figure like JA Rogers...

Eddie: Right.

Judith: Who, you know, in an early chapter outline, I had a whole chapter on him because I just find him so fascinating.

Eddie: [Laughs].

Judith: You know, he and Garthie, they're saying they're-- you know, there's so much more to, um, the history of black people and to limit ourselves to Negro Christianity from--


Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: You know, the 18th Century in North America.

Eddie: I couldn't help as I was reading it thinking about, uh, the historian of religion, Charles Long's, Invocation of the Lithic Imagination of the Slave, right? That there is this, um, way in which of course he gets it from Hagel where, um, a mode of consciousness, um, that confronts reality in a way that forms a wheel of opposition. And it would come to kind of ground for, uh, what might be described a little bit more directly as to kind of [inaudible], right? These folks are drawing on a range of things. I mean, you see very clearly, uh, in your description of [inaudible] Lee, The Bricolage that is the Moorish Science Temple. That they're creating something new that could lead folks to say that it's not Islam, it's not that but there's something about the self-- I mean, use your language here, the kind of self-fashioning that is happening in this moment. Talk a little bit about that because it not only has-- the self-fashioning has implications for how one relates-- how they relate to their families, how they relate to their communities, how they relate to the state-- how they relate to the state? Um, so profoundly American, yes? [Laughs].

Judith: In some ways the-- when I think about it and it might be the exact, uh, center chapter. The chapter on, um, maintaining the religio-racial body that's about health and healing.

Eddie: Yeah. Yeah.

Judith: All these groups are about healing and restoring.

Eddie: Eating to live.

Judith: Eating to live. How to eat to live?

Eddie: [Laughs]. Yeah.

Judith: But, how to-- you know, they all argue so, in this rejection of Christianity that Negro-ness. The idea that you're a Negro and the idea that this is your religion, Christianity that these have damaged black people.

Eddie: Mm-Hmm.


Judith: And that, what the leaders offer is healing and restoration to original-ness in, um, right, all of these, ah, groups make that same kind of argument. That language of the original is so powerful. For the nation of Islam, they're doing the same thing and so, that right, the leader brings the message of how to, um, restore yourself and then, um, once you know that about yourself you transform yourself through these acts of self-fashioning.

Eddie: Mm-Hmm.

Judith: And so, this was that question I was asking, "How do you-- how do you be some kind of new? How do you do it?" Um, a new religio-racial thing and so, I was really fascinated by again, things that in-- you know, in some of the secondary scholarship and certainly in contemporary responses to them, people found very humorous the way they dress and the name changes. Um, you know, Father Divine's followers of these spiritual names like, Glorious Illumination and Perfect Endurance.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: Or like, the insistence that we must get rid of our slave name and take something new, everyone's got a turban and a fess and, ah, these-- this was part of that work of, um, of constant production and reproduction and so, of the religio-racial self. And so, once, um, you know this about yourself and you are healed and restored, you maintain that through this work of, um, renaming yourself and dressing a certain way and eating a certain way and, um, and engaging in health and, uh, healing practices and then, as you said, um, once you move out from there it just once, uh, family, community formation and political orientation, orientation towards the nation and the world 


are transformed by these commitments.

Eddie: And then if we step back from the actual details of the account, you're making an intervention here, um, in the sense that you're insisting on attentiveness to the kind of material culture, right? Of these groups, right? What does it mean to take seriously? Not to focus just simply on the ideas of the charismatic leader but to think about the ways in which these new dispositions are reproduced. How are they foster? How are they inhabited? What are the kinds that-- what's the habit of-- what are the practices that generate these sorts of outcomes? And I just found that really, really fascinating, right? The way in which, um, the dispositions were fostered in the context of ritual acts, right? Whether it we-- how you-- what you chose to eat? Um, the kind of farmacopic way in which to invoke the office myths old language, remember that?

Judith: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Eddie: Um, the ways in which to even think about you know, healing and health as you just mentioned, right? It's all kind of bound up in a way of living which then impacts how you see and how you exist in someways, right?

Judith: In one of the sources that was the most useful for some of this, um, and that not the same kinds of sources available for all of them. Actually, were FBI files that, um, you know, a lot of people have turned to and there's a new, um, literature about the FBI and religion emerging right now. A couple of interesting text and I used them in those in the ways that others are interested in, like the question of surveillance. So, not only how are people engaging the state but, what does the state, right? How are they trying to contain these groups and the Moorish Science Temple and the nation of Islam in particular were surveilled in the context of World War Two and the questions of draft evasion and sedation and I mean, there are just thousands and thousands of pages of Moorish Science Temple FBI files. More than-- way more than the nation of Islam in that period. And they're just full of these fascinating details about the material world of the temples and the ritual structure and I found out things, um, obviously one has to, you know, read, uh, against the grains sometimes but not always. There are just sort of, you know, interviewing of funeral director, for example about you know, "What were they like when they were burying their people?" 

Eddie: Right.

Judith: "Well, they're really quiet and they had a, you know, a framed, um, copy of their-- of their state charter for the Moorish Science Temple up in the back of the casket." And, these kinds of details I found nowhere else or my favorite one is that, I was trying to figure out where, um, where the Moorish Science Temple in Camden, New Jersey. Like, where their temples were located and 


some FBI, uh, agents were interviewing somebody in Camden and they said, "Oh yeah, they used to live there but the landlord raised their rent and, um, to kind of get them out because the neighbors complained of the smell of frying fish all the time."

Eddie: [Laughs].

Judith: And, uh, yeah.

Eddie: That kind of detail.

Judith: That kind of detail.

Eddie: I mean, it goes to-- and to show how important this is to you-- actually in the book, uh, kind of pointing the reader to this, right? You say-- or to the sensibility that would lead you to pay attention to that kind of detail. You write, um, "Embracing a particular religio-racial identity involved more than affirming a set of beliefs or ideas. Also requiring daily enactment as individuals and families and in communities. Members of the early 20th Century religio-racial movements wrestled with the religious implications of American racial categories and the racial meaning of religious commitment in complex ways. 


 The rich landscape of ideas and practices they created offers the opportunity to engage in more careful and expansive thinking about race, religion and American life." So, here after the journey through these extraordinary movement, you offer something, um, to the graduate student, to the scholar, to those of us who do this sort of work. Tell us, what as-- as folks who are doing this, what are you saying that we should pay attention to more? And how will that impact the work in African-American religious studies and American religion, religious history more broadly?

Judith: I think, by the end I became even more committed to attending to the participants in these movements to the members and to think about them as creating these religions, these religious movements as much as the founders. And I'm fascinated by the early, uh, generations of any given movement who joins. Who changes their whole way of being to this degree when something is completely unknown. Um, and so, these were the people I wanted to follow but it wasn't simply that, uh, Elijah Muhammad and, WD Fard said, "This is what you believe you know, this is what we have to say and this is what you believe." It was that these people coming in and enacting that and living it and becoming Asiatic Muslims, um, or becoming Moorish Muslims, becoming race-less children of God. They created the movement.

Eddie: Mm-hmm.

Judith: And,  in making that turn I think, you know, one of the things that-- 


 that I regret in someways is that I didn't attend more explicitly to women and gender, um, and I've made that choice for a couple of reasons, um, in making that turn to--

Eddie: Give me-- hold up-- what were the-- why did you make that choice?

Judith: Why did I make that choice?

Eddie: Yeah.

Judith: Um, partly, because they did not talk about it in ways that made it easy for me to separate what they were doing around those things from questions of family and the reproduction of their movement.

Eddie: Okay. Okay.

Judith: And so, I ended up doing two things; one, to populate the book with women who were all over.

Eddie: Yeah, they're all over the book. Right.

Judith: Um, that was impossible to avoid because once one turns from the founders and leaders to the members, women are there, uh, everywhere.

Eddie: Oh, what's her name when she declares to her children that she's now MST? She's now a member and the children reject her? I mean, it's just a startling moment.

Judith: I have the story from an FBI file.

Eddie: Oh, okay. All right, good.

Judith: Um, yeah, she says, "Well, I have the truth now and I have a new family."

Eddie: Right.

Judith: Um, which was really, uh, powerful and then, in the census I found her living in this kind of large residence with a bunch of other members of the Moorish Science Temple. It just, it ended up feeling forced and I would not have had sufficient sources to talk about it in a separate way and I hope someone proves me wrong about that but it just-- as I was sort of trying to be on the ground with them to think about how they were living these various, um, elements of kind of self-fashioning and maintenance and community structure that the question of like, what-- 


what religo-racial women and men are, was always coming back from me to families and or destruction of or kind of dismantling of families for Father Divine's people and the future, um.

Eddie: So, there's this-- one of the lessons then is that you know, underneath these large abstractions are actually living, breathing human beings forging the world, doing interesting things in complex ways and if you have in someways, your temperament you can actually revel in all of it. [chuckles].

Judith: As I was going to say, the other thing I hope I bring is like, you just-- you've got to do a lot of research.

Eddie: You're notorious for your ancestry.com. [Laughs]

Judith: It's just-- it's a lot. It's actually a very, um, tedious.

Eddie: Yeah, yes indeed.

Judith: But one learns a lot along the way.

Eddie: Well, thank you so much Professor Weisenfeld for joining us today. It's such a wonderful book.

Judith: Thank you.

Eddie: A New World A-Coming, um, black religion and racial identity during the great black migration. Thank you for joining us for this discussion today and I would especially like to thank Professor Weisenfeld for, uh, this brilliant book. Additionally, a special thanks to Courtney Brian for providing the music to this Podcast. To the staff of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, our office manager April Peters, our event coordinator, Dion Worthy. Our social media specialist, Alice Bland and of course, our technical specialist and audio engineer, Ely Elio. Remember, you can find this Podcast and more by visiting our website aas.princeton.edu. Goodbye and take care, until next time.


[Music playing]


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