The Promise of Patriarchy

Women and the Nation of Islam

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Ula Yvette Taylor
The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , October
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


What was “the promise of patriarchy” for 20th-century African American women? To Nation of Islam (NOI) adherents and some outsiders between 1930 and 1975, the promise of reversing white supremacy over a “lost” oppressed people meant the recovery of a divinely-ordained black male supremacy over history, nation, community, and the family unit. But creating and adhering to this divine social order required black women’s crucial support. They invested in the NOI for its promise of their deliverance from poverty, their social and financial protection by black male husbands/fathers, and the ultimate promise of prosperity for a people facing violent Jim Crow segregation and blighted urban deindustrialization (4).

The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam is the result of Ula Y. Taylor’s comprehensive scholarship on black women’s important choices to build the Nation of Islam (194). The substantial presence of black women—NOI “Sisters”—in the religion’s history is essential to representing their institutional and social labor to build a new religious nation. Their presence was central, peripheral, enduring, transitory, controlling, as well as challenging. And at times, the promises of a black male-dominated religious movement required women’s efforts at “trumping patriarchy” (Taylor’s term for practical social maneuvering around men’s authority when women were unable to acquire formal authority). Through selectively yielding to and resisting black men’s authority, NOI Sisters who trumped patriarchy acquired “short-term leadership,” often exercised through “husband management,” which afforded many women “self-preservation” in a system that did not intend for them to gain such social authority. However, it was their work to trump patriarchy that ultimately served to maintain this patriarchal system for NOI women (122-24).

Presented through ten semi-chronological and thematic chapters, Taylor’s work begins with a narrative of the essential presence of Mrs. Clara Poole (Sister Clara Muhammad) that renders her as a black woman asserting critical decisions for her husband, Elijah Poole/Muhammad—contrasting her literacy, prudence, and sobriety against his lack of education and pre-conversion gambling and drinking habits. Sister Clara’s critical decision-making remade her husband into the proper prophet for Fard Muhammad’s emerging religious movement. This framing represents Taylor’s central argument: black religious women were constantly making critical choices and negotiating with a black patriarchy, when necessary, to ensure the survival and thriving of NOI families. And Taylor does not limit this study of NOI women’s consequential presences, agency, and legacies to the relative elites among Nation Sisters. Sisters Burnsteen Sharieff, Pauline Bahar, Gwendolyn Simmons (Gwendolyn 2X), Tynetta Deanar (Tynetta Muhammad), Jamesetta Hawkins (Etta James), Sonia Sanchez (Sonia 5X), Belinda Boyd (Khalilah Ali), and several others represent the press writers, national secretaries, financial bookkeepers, civil rights activists, educators, culinary and fashion entrepreneurs, vocalists, and poets whose NOI affiliations mirrored the variety of black Muslim women’s experiences. This diversity of experiences and agency challenges existing perceptions of NOI women’s assumed passive domesticity.  

Taylor’s work provides rich attention to the Muslim Girls Training and General Civilizational Class (MGT-GCC) as a conventional religious institution for exploring the consequential agency of authoritative NOI Sisters through sartorial codes and dietary regulations—fruitful territory for expanding African American material religious studies beyond black Holiness-Pentecostalism. But Taylor’s reconstruction of NOI women’s importance also turns toward allegedly unchallenged realms of black male supremacy—NOI leadership, mosque ministers, and husbands. While NOI theology asserted (and reinforced, against some assertive Sisters’ wishes) that men were the rightful household heads who controlled their wives’ freedom of movement and professional aspirations, domestic spheres were spaces and opportunities for women’s ongoing and intimate contestation of authority over self, spouse, and children. For instance, Taylor’s turn to NOI women’s homeschooling labor also reveals household maintenance as a realm of practical leadership, the work of crafting black Muslim youth into proper religious and racial subjects who would propel the race into a secure, prosperous future. 

Although Taylor’s history recovers black women’s agency, she creates no simplistically heroic portrait of NOI women. Taylor responsibly discusses abuses present in this patriarchal black religious tradition, some resulting in NOI women’s decisions to leave abusive marriages. This work lends itself to constructive scholarly interrogations of abuse in various domestic contexts beyond any one religion in patriarchal societies. Taylor’s complex narrative also accounts for the anti-Jewish rhetoric of Sister Thelma X Muhammad, contextualizing her prominence, appeal, and representativeness among urban African Americans while not marking her as their sole historical representative (82-86, 101-103). Taylor’s nuanced engagement with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s framework of intersectionality, which she complements with attention to class and religious status as they allowed some powerful NOI Sister Captains to oppress other members (or turn a blind eye toward their oppression), provides a compelling rationale for midcentury black women’s choices to commit to a patriarchal religion, particularly in light of emerging women’s liberation movements (170-177).

By examining social scientific, newspaper, government, and law enforcement/intelligence records, Taylor’s engagement with NOI Sisters pursues an innovative archival path present in recent African American religions scholarship. Her work joins Judith Weisenfeld’s study of black religions through US.Census data and military draft registration records in New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (New York University Press, 2017), and Lerone Martin’s study of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux through FBI files in “Bureau Clergyman: How the FBI Colluded with an African American Televangelist to Destroy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr” (Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 28 No. 1, Winter 2018). Taylor extends the emphasis on taking seriously the NOI’s religious practices for everyday living by Edward Curtis in Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975 (University of North Carolina Press, 2006). Beyond a variety of archival sources and oral histories, this richly interdisciplinary study models methods for comprehending women’s roles in the construction of masculinity as a lived religious, rhetorical, and domestic practice. Taylor’s inclusion of NOI debates (and women’s negotiations) around birth control and de facto practices of polygamy inserts into the study of African American religions a necessary discussion of gender and sexuality, particularly related to heterosexual family planning. And where there have been archival silences, Taylor includes productive, credible speculations on the lives and motivations of NOI Sisters to depict a diverse community of NOI Sisters —fruitful questions and suppositions about the experiences of imprisoned black Muslim women, or musings about Sisters whose lives would have resonated with the most (archivally) visible women leaders and celebrities.

Taylor seeks to create an academic representation of the NOI women “who have fallen out of its recorded history” while aspiring to afford them, as readers, “a glimmer of themselves” in her scholarship (184). An eminently accessible text for students and scholars of religion as well as general audience readers, The Promise of Patriarchy is a refreshing, robust study of the most prominent community of African American Muslims in the 20th century.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Vaughn A. Booker is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion and the Program in African and African American Studies at Dartmouth College.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ula Yvette Taylor is professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.


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