Judith Weisenfeld

 

On her book New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration

Cover Interview of April 19, 2017

In a nutshell

New World A-Coming examines a set of religious movements founded in the early twentieth-century urban north whose members refused the racial category of Negro and rejected Christianity in favor of other identities. In the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, members believed their true identities to be Asiatic Muslim, while members of Congregation Beth B’nai Abraham and the Commandment Keepers embraced Ethiopian Hebrew identity. In the Peace Mission movement, Father Divine’s followers believed him to be God and took up his call to reject race altogether. I argue that what drew people to these movements was not only that they offered diverse religious options, but that in linking religious and racial identity, they provided new ways of thinking about black history and peoplehood.

These religio-racial movements, as I call them, emerged in the context of the large-scale migration of African Americans from the South to the cities of the North and the immigration of Blacks from the Caribbean to the U.S. The cultural creativity in black literature, visual arts, and music of the Great Migration era is well known, as is the political activism in movements like Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Religious creativity also marked the period, and charismatic leaders, some claiming status as prophets or divinities, captured the imaginations of black urbanites. These leaders’ preaching and teaching motivated many to transform how they understood their individual identities, collective histories, and imagined futures.

In addition to examining the religio-racial theologies and histories the leaders put forth, the book explores the question of how one transforms one’s identity. How did a black migrant from the South or an immigrant from the Caribbean detach from the identity of Negro once they came to believe that it was a false category produced in slavery and imposed on them? Through what means did they become what they believed they truly were, be it Asiatic Muslim, Ethiopian Hebrew, or raceless child of God? What were the stakes for them in doing so in a highly racialized society in which people of African descent had long invested in racial solidarity under the banner of Christianity to oppose racism and oppression?

In order to understand this process of transformation, I examine embodied practices members used to remake themselves, such as adopting new names, styles of dress, dietary practices, and approaches to health and healing they believed were appropriate to and required by their religio-racial identity. I also consider how participation in a religo-racial movement transformed members’ understandings of family, community, politics, space and place, and relationships to the world beyond the movement. The book explores the distinctive elements of each religio-racial movement while also offering a sense of the common practices and strategies members developed to become what they believed God had made them. For members, these were not practices that led to conversion, then, but reversion to a divinely ordained self.