Judith Weisenfeld


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

Cover Interview of April 18, 2017


I hope that readers will come away with tools to think about the complicated ways that race and religion have interacted with one another in American history. Ideas about race, racial categories, and racial identities have changed over time, and religion has contributed to how Americans have thought about race, enacted policies that maintain racial hierarchy, and move through the world as racialized beings.

The specific case of the religio-racial movements highlights the complexity of conceptions of race among early twentieth-century African Americans and black immigrants from the Caribbean. Recent discussions of the possibility of a post-racial America assume that race is fixed and that people inhabit obvious categories. The history of these groups shows a more complicated story. Their perspectives may not have become the dominant ones, but their challenge to conventional understandings of racial identity and the role of religion in black life took place in a larger context of discussion about the meaning of blackness.

Exploring the histories, beliefs, and practices of the religio-racial movements also encourages us to recognize diversity within African American religious life. These groups have long been characterized as cults in a way that marginalizes them as illegitimate in relation to religious orientations considered acceptable in the American context. As a label, cult perhaps says more about the assumptions of the person deploying it than about the theological and social characteristics of any particular movement. Describing the groups in a way that I think captures what motivated participants avoids privileging certain religions as authentic and true over against others that are denigrated as invented and false. Rather than labeling the groups cults and attaching assumptions to them, such an approach requires attending to their specific theologies and practices as well as situating them within the broader landscape of American religious life.