Judith Weisenfeld


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

Cover Interview of April 18, 2017

The wide angle

This topic provided the perfect opportunity for me to continue exploring the intersections of religion and race in American history. In earlier work I examined the role early sound film played in constructing and disseminating ideas about African American religion and race more broadly. In looking at Hollywood films I found that representations of black religious practices, leaders, institutions, and theologies often aided arguments about the limited civic, political, emotional, and moral capacity of African Americans. In other instances, black filmmakers used the medium to challenge Hollywood images either directly or through representations that offered a more complex picture of black religious life. My work engaged the movies as an early twentieth-century arena for conversations and debates about blackness that took place through representations of religion.

With the religio-racial movements, we can see another locus for discussions within black communities about the nature and meaning of blackness. Participants in the movements insisted on the significance of religion to any answer to the question of who we are as black individuals and black people. And, in contrast to a good deal of the scholarship on these groups, the racial component of the identities members embraced – of Asiatic Muslim, Ethiopian Hebrew, or raceless child of God – were profoundly important to them and also required for understanding the nature and meaning of blackness. It is not sufficient to think about these groups as primarily oriented toward Islam or Judaism, for example, because, for members, race and religion were connected and dependent on one another.

I was also interested in moving away from the scholarly tendency to focus on the founders and leaders of the movements and on the theologies they taught. This focus is entirely understandable given how fascinating figures like Father Divine, who claimed he was God, and Noble Drew Ali, the founder of the Moorish Science Temple, who declared himself a divinely appointed prophet, were. Their charisma was certainly a factor in what drew people to the movements, but charisma alone does not explain why people were willing to change their lives often in dramatic ways. In fact, members of the movements sometimes broke with family members, changed their names and habits of living, and came into conflict with the government over insistence on being recognized in their correct religio-racial identities.

Turning to explore the experiences of the first generations of members of the movements, to the extent that the sources allowed, enabled me to think more about the sources of the appeal of the different groups beyond the charismatic leader. We can see how, through participation in the movements, the members helped to shape both theology and practice. It becomes difficult when one looks at the degree and depth of commitment to view them as dupes of unscrupulous charismatic leaders, as many contemporary critics argued they were.

In addition, as dramatic and countercultural as the leaders and members were in their practices – wearing fezzes or turbans, taking spiritual names, transforming their diets, or rejecting their families for communal celibacy, for example – they were very much in line with broader African American culture in taking up questions about racial identity and the nature of peoplehood for people of African descent. I was interested in showing how they contributed to these broader discussions.