Judith Weisenfeld

 

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

Cover Interview of April 19, 2017

A close-up

I begin the book with the stories of a number of men who were members of the Moorish Science Temple, the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, and Father Divine’s Peace Mission registering for the draft in April 1942. Each refused to be classified as Negro and asked the draft registrar to substitute what they believed was the correct religio-racial designator. These stories are a great entry point for the project because they highlight the high stakes of religio-racial assertions for members of these groups. At this significant moment of military registration, where issues of race, racism, national belonging and exclusion were evident, these men insisted that they be represented as they believed God had created them rather than how the government chose to classify them.

The draft cards themselves showcase the kinds of sources on which I drew to tell the story of average members of the religio-racial movements. While sermons, scriptures, correspondence, and newspaper articles were important sources, I also turned to records like birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, wills, FBI surveillance files, state and federal censuses to track average members. These kinds of documents, that capture moments in everyday life and in public actions from birth to death, reveal the extent and power of members’ embrace of religio-racial identities.