New World A-coming: How Black Religion Helped Shape Racial Identity—Judith Weisenfeld, Religion Dispatches Usc Annenberg; an interview with the author about New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration
What inspired you to write New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration?
I have been fascinated by the black new religious movements of the Great Migration era since I read Arthur Huff Fauset’s 1944 Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North as an undergraduate. There has been a renewed scholarly interest in many of the groups he profiled that had emerged or expanded in the early twentieth-century urban North—Black Jews, the Moorish Science Temple, Holiness and Pentecostal churches, and Father Divine’s Peace Mission, for example—and attention to other groups he did not include in his study, such as the Nation of Islam. I thought the time was right to do a comparative study like his and revisit the period in which he conducted his ethnographic work, thinking across the groups about commonalities and differences.
I chose to focus on the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews, all early twentieth-century urban black religious movements in which founders, leaders, and members embraced new ways of thinking about the relationship of religion to racial identity. Like Fauset, I was interested in how migration and urbanization shaped the religious worlds of African Americans and Afro-Caribbean immigrants, but questions about the intersection of religion and racial identity frame my project.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
I want readers to come away with an understanding of the complexity with which religion and racial identity have been intertwined for people of African descent in the United States. Religious ideas, practices, and institutions have contributed to the production and maintenance of racial categories across American history and, with these groups—which I call religio-racial movements—we have rich cases of black people challenging and reformulating racial identity through religious means.
These were flamboyant, performative movements in which people took spiritual names, adopted new styles of dress and food practices, and ordered their families and communities in ways that sometimes chafed against social conventions.
By looking at how members of these groups understood religio-racial identity, we see that black people were not only subject to racial construction—that is