New World A-Coming

Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Judith Weisenfeld
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , February
     2017.
     368 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781479888801.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With New World A-Coming, Judith Weisenfeld offers scholars from a range of subfields a well-researched and carefully crafted book. In it, Weisenfeld examines black religious movements such as the Ethiopian Hebrews, Moorish Science Temple [MST], the Peace Mission movement, and the Nation of Islam [NOI]. She focuses on their emergence in the 1920s and 1930s during the Great Migration. What binds these movements together in a substantive sense is the alternative “religio-racial” identities that each advocates. Each group “believed that understanding black peoples’ true racial history and identity revealed their correct and divinely ordained religious orientation” (5). Ethiopian Hebrews viewed black people as the biblical Hebrews. For the MST and NOI, this entailed the Asiatic and Islamic origins of “so-called Negros.” For Father Divine’s Peace Mission—the group most at odds with the others—this meant a commitment to racelessness under God. Weisenfeld is not interested in adjudicating the authenticity of such claims by assessing them in relation to movement leaders’ biographies, empirical historicist accuracy, or established religious creeds. Instead, New World A-Coming is about individual and collective self-understandings and the performative aspects that make these understandings material, even vital—especially within the US/American and Western context of anti-black racism.

This book is structured thematically, with three parts and seven chapters. Part 1—“Narratives”—explores how black religious groups situated black people within space and time, providing a sacralized sense of destined peoplehood in the process. Part 2—“Selfhood”—looks at the practices of naming and of the body that evidenced and gave an affective dimension to alternative religio-racial identities. Especially interesting is Weisenfeld’s attention to practices of diet and health. Prohibitions and recommendations about certain foods were often based on scripture. They were also based on ideas about proper diets for particular bodies—Asiatic bodies, in the case of Wallace Fard Muhammad and the NOI. Such proper proscriptions, Fard and later Elijah Muhammad argued, had been obscured by racial slavery and white-created foodways designed to oppress black communities. The vital stakes that black individuals saw in alternative religio-racial identities are especially clear here. Part 3—“Community”—goes the farthest in historically contextualizing these movements’ emergence during the Great Migration. Weisenfeld highlights the role of religio-racial identities in shaping the management of gender roles for women and men in regard to sex, the family, and children. She also examines the contestations and boundary-drawing occurring between different black religious movements, including black Protestants.

New World A-Coming sticks close to historical sources. To make this book possible, Weisenfeld had to do extensive archival research to get at the lives of the everyday members of these groups. A type of “lived religion” model is present here. The sacred narratives, selves, and communities of black religio-racial movements are evident in their letters, exegeses, biographies, attendance logs, newspaper articles, and advertisements. In the production of this book, self-understandings of the sacred are also being refracted through mundane documents of state bureaucracy: draft registration cards, applications for drivers’ licenses, census records, permits, petitions for citizenship, and, of course, the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who were surveilling these movements. Drawing on this array of sources, Weisenfeld highlights contestations over religio-racial identifications occurring at the level of encounter between subject and state.

State agents, at times, questioned the legitimacy of Moorish-sounding names, and questioned the legitimacy of racial classifications that were not “black” or “negro.” Policing agencies scrutinized communities interpellated through the categories of “cult,” “voodoo,” or “superstition.” As Weisenfeld relates in her conclusion, in 1992 a Moorish Science Temple sheik in Chicago requested that the death certificate for Noble Drew Ali—the founder of the Moorish Science Temple who died in 1929—be edited to change Drew Ali’s “color or race” from “American Black” to “Moorish American.” So many of the themes of New World A-Coming intersect here: the ongoing relevance and commitment to alternative religio-racial identifications in black communities, the material and performative aspects of religion, and issues about racialized and colonized subjects’ (il)legibility according to state bureaucracies.

What is interesting about the presence of governmental institutions throughout New World A-Coming is less methodological—can we use state archives to tell a story about anything other than the state’s own imaginary?—and more narratological—how have state institutions played a role in shaping religio-racial self-understandings? The story of religio-racial movements is part of a story about the powers of state agents to police, in limited yet efficacious ways, religious and racial categories—determining who is black, white, Muslim, in a cult, Christian, etc. This occurs through mundane bureaucratic practices as much as it does through spectacular uses of force. The story of religio-racial movements is also a story of the differential powers of people to abide by, contest, or reject state classificatory schemes. Assertions of alternative religio-racial truths collided with secular (a governmentalized white Protestant secular?) state-sanctioned truths.

Weisenfeld’s book is a must-read for researchers and teachers in American religion, race, gender, and the state. Thematically and narratively, Weisenfeld brings into view key elements of American religious history. In terms of thinking about blackness, racialization, and religion, this book is bound to inspire productive conversation in relation to recent and upcoming work by scholars such as Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús, Edward J. Blum, Will Caldwell, Emily Suzanne Clark, Matthew J. Cressler, Jacob Dorman, Jamil Drake, Paul Harvey, Curtis Evans, Sylvester Johnson, Nicole Kirk, Vincent Lloyd, Lerone Martin, Monica Miller, Josef Sorett, and many others. I hope to see future research that builds on this literature and the themes of New World A-Coming. More work is needed on diasporic religio-racial formations, the powers of state institutions to police practices in vital ways, and how the analytical language of “religio-racial” might be applicable to groups who are not black. For example, white religio-racial movements whose whiteness has, in some accounts, gone unmarked. Weisenfeld herself suggests this line of inquiry. Scholars are fortunate to have a book as rich, careful, and thoughtful as New World A-Coming to help raise these questions and point them in new directions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeffrey Wheatley is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Northwestern University.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Judith Weisenfeld is Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor in the Department of Religion at Princeton University. She is the author of 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.

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments