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The Rise of Black Ethnics: The Ethnic Turn in African American Religions, 1916–1945

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2018


During the world war years of the early twentieth century, new African American religious movements emerged that emphasized black heritage identities. Among these were Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew's Congregation of Commandment Keepers (Jewish) and “Noble” Drew Ali's Moorish Science Temple of America (Islamic). Unlike African American religions of the previous century, these religious communities distinctly captured the ethos of ethnicity (cultural heritage) that pervaded American social consciousness at the time. Their central message of salvation asserted that blacks were an ethnic people distinguished not by superficial phenotype but by membership in a heritage that reached far beyond the bounds of American history and geography. The academic study of these religions has largely moved from dismissal and cynicism to serious engagement with African American Jews and Muslims as veritable forms of religion. Despite this progress among scholars, some recent studies continue to deny that Matthew’s and Ali's communities were authentically Jewish and Islamic (respectively). When scholars dispense with theological or racial biases that bifurcate religions into ‘true’ and ‘false’ forms, the study of these black ethnic religions might best yield important insights for understanding the linkage among ethnicity, the nation-state, and religion. The religious reasoning of Matthew and Ali produced resourceful, complicated challenges to dominant colonial and racist paradigms for understanding agency and history. Their theology is appropriately discerned not as illusion, hybridity, or confusion but as thoughtful anticolonial expressions of Judaism and Islam that sought inclusion and honor through black ethnicity. At a time when African Americans were viewed as cultureless and without any legacy of inheritance except the deformities of slavery, the rise of black ethnics introduced religious traditions that demonstrated blacks were indeed a people with heritage.

Research Article
Copyright © Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture 2010

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I owe tremendous thanks to my colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University for devoting one of our faculty colloquiums to providing me feedback on an earlier draft of this article. I am especially grateful for a generous research leave that the department and College of Arts and Sciences extended to me so that I could devote adequate time to the research and writing for this essay and the related book project.

1. Sernett, Milton, Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), 155 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Best, Wallace D., Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915–1952 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 1922 Google Scholar; Giggie, John Michael, After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875–1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 196, 197CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gregory, James N., The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

2. My spelling of “Itzchok” is based on that used in the Chicago Daily Tribune. See “Chicago Has an African Jew,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 6, 1913, G2. Other sources use different spellings.

3. Ibid.

4. “David Itchoch ‘Black Rabbi’ Is an Imposter,” Chicago Defender, November 28, 1914 (cited from ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The Chicago Defender [1910–1975], 1). 5. Emanuela Trevisan Semi and others, “Beta Israel,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2d ed., 22 vols., ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), 3:503.

6. “The Most Gifted of Africans,” New York Times, April 19, 1896, 29.

7. I employ race throughout this article to denote the discourse of innate, biological difference that has been regarded as the primal cause of putatively natural varieties of human beings. It is clear from current research on genetics that race has no empirical basis in human biology and is thus rightly regarded as an unscientific concept. Although racism is thus rooted in fictitious, perverse claims about “natural” human constitution, it is nevertheless meaningful and forceful because it is rooted in a social construction that has emerged in the wake of relations of power and interests that establish very material, worldly systems of domination (most recently, by self-designated white Europeans over the peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Americas). My use of ethnicity reflects my view that it, too, like race, is a discourse in the sense that Michel Foucault identified the nature of sexuality. I am in agreement with Werner Sollors's assessment of ethnicity for this reason. Since its discursive origins in the early twentieth century, ethnicity has functioned to signify cultural difference vis-à-vis racial difference. In other words, the idea of ethnicity functioned to unify an amalgam of Europeans (previously conceived as racially, thus biologically, varied) into a single, biologically homogeneous race. As a result, what had earlier been viewed as racial difference among multiple European types was subsumed under a rubric of cultural difference within a single race. The recourse to pre-American heritage served to explain the differences between “white ethnics” and prototypical white Americans despite their being racially identical. “Black ethnics” were attempting to claim heritage by identifying in terms that had been reserved for European immigrants who were acknowledged to have cultural backgrounds that inhibited their assimilation into a “nonethnic,” pristinely white American civilization. After World War I, the view that multiple inferior races of Europeans threatened the pristine sanctity of white Anglo-Saxons was gradually yielding to a different consensus—Europeans were racially homogenous and differed only through cultural backgrounds that could be shed through the rigorous work of assimilation. As a result of this trend, white Americans would forget or conveniently ignore the fact that many of them (or their forebears) had been classified as racially (that is, innately biologically) distinct from and inferior to white Anglo-Saxons. Consequently, the chief racial divide would become the black-white binary. Although co-existing with racist distinctions between whites and Asians or whites and Indians, the “Negro question” would typically dominate legal, cultural, and institutional efforts to police the racial boundaries of American inclusion in the twentieth century. See Jacobson, Matthew Frye, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 78, 109110, 246–48;Google Scholar Goldstein, Eric L., The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)Google Scholar; and Roediger, David, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (1991; repr., New York: Verso, 2007)Google Scholar.

8. Sollors, Werner, ed., Theories of Ethnicity: A Classical Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1996), x CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9. Du Bois, W. E. B., “The Conservation of Races,” American Negro Academy, Occasional Papers, no. 2 (1897), in Writings, ed. Huggins, Nathan (New York: Library of America, 1986)Google Scholar; Du Bois, W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folk (1903; repr., New York: Penguin Books, 1995)Google Scholar. Du Bois was also keenly aware that blacks occupied a very problematic location with respect to Americanness, as reflected in his oft-quoted reflection on “double-consciousness” or “two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” Americanness was constituted through white racial subjectivity. This is why white ethnics could become “simply” white. The very phenomenon of whiteness depended upon the constitution of black subjectivity as its necessary antithesis. Du Bois's most explicit discussion of African cultural influence on slave religion is in his edited Negro Church (Atlanta: Atlanta University Press, 1903; repr.; Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 4–5. Du Bois is actually the first to argue that religion among enslaved Africans was primarily African, not Christian. Only in the past few decades have the major histories of African American religions taken seriously the capacity of African religions to exert a meaningful influence on North America's religious subjects.

10. Even progressive social scientists like the anthropologist Franz Boaz typically failed to link the peculiarities of African Americans to any substantive notion of African culture, focusing instead on the idea of an ahistorical racial nature or perhaps a biologically based racial essence shaped by environment. See Williams, Vernon, The Social Sciences and Theories of Race (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2006), 2634 Google Scholar. During the Harlem Renaissance era, Zora Neal Hurston and Alain Locke promoted the idea that African Americans embodied a distinctive culture— particularly evident through black folk art and idiom—that was an invaluable contribution to national and world culture. As Locke would emphasize, “civilization is an ‘amalgam of cultures,’” among which was that of African Americans. Locke was primarily concerned with the northern urban context of black culture, whereas Hurston highlighted African American folkways of the South. See Locke, Alain, “The Contribution of Race to Culture,” in The Philosophy of Alain Locke: Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, ed. Harris, Leonard (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 5960 Google Scholar; and Hutchinson, George, The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5960 Google Scholar. It is fair to say that Carter G. Woodson was the most effective at institutionalizing the recognition and anamnestic observance of black contributions and culture, especially since he instituted the memoriam of black history during the month of February. Woodson's prodigious research, moreover, and his editorial leadership of the Journal of Negro History (currently the Journal of African American History) inspired generations of American scholars to engage seriously with the history of blacks as a site of cultural and intellectual significance. He published a history of Africa's major public figures. And in what is perhaps his most famous text, he observed that American history books (of the early twentieth century) denied blacks “a place in the curriculum” and relegated them to the status of a “hewer of wood and drawer of water,” mindless bodies without the capacity to form thoughtful contributions to human cultures. Woodson stressed that Africa was key for understanding the identity and distinctive ethos of African Americans, and it was by turning to Africa and its history that the world should come to understand black contributions to world civilization. See Woodson, Carter G., African Heroes and Heroines (Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1939)Google Scholar; Woodson, Carter G., The Mis-education of the Negro (1933; repr., New York: AMS Press, 1972), 21 Google Scholar; Smallwood, Andrew P., An Afrocentric Study of the Intellectual Development, Leadership Praxis, and Pedagogy of Malcolm X (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001), 24 Google Scholar; Adeleke, Tunde, The Case against Afrocentrism (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2009), 8084 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Martin, William G. and West, Michael O., Out of One, Many Africas: Reconstructing the Study and Meaning of Africa (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999)Google Scholar. Exceptions to the trend of ignoring African religions in North America include Katherine Dunham, The Dances of Haiti: A Study of Their Material Aspect, Organization, Form, and Functions (n.p., 1938); and Hurston, Zora Neal, Mules and Men (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1935)Google Scholar. Both of these anthropologists were contemporaries of Du Bois and Woodson, and they pioneered the study of African-derived religions among Western blacks.

11. Glazer, Nathan and Moynihan, Daniel Patrick, Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1963)Google Scholar; Taylor, Ronald, “Black Ethnicity and the Persistence of Ethnogenesis,” American Journal of Sociology 84, no. 6 (1979): 1404 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Also, see the insightful discussion of Glazer and Moynihan's work by Moses, Wilson Jeremiah, The Wings of Ethiopia: Studies in African- American Life and Letters (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990), 3031 Google Scholar. Glazer and Moynihan would issue a second edition of Beyond the Melting Pot in 1970 and would repeat this distinction between African Americans and white ethnics as a means of explaining what they perceived to be a gross lack of institutional “self-help” among the former. In addition to the minimal distance between middle-class blacks and the more numerous, impoverished members of the race, these authors opined that the more important barrier to black self-help was that

the Negro is so much an American, the distinct product of America. He bears no foreign values and culture that he feels the need to guard from the surrounding environment. He insists that the white world deal with his problems because, since he is so much the product of America, they are not his problems, but everyone’s. Once they become everyone’s, perhaps he will see that they are his own, too. (53)

Glazer and Moynihan were influenced by E. Franklin Frazier's thesis that African Americans owed any culture they had strictly to America; Glazer contributed the foreword to Frazier's revised edition of The Negro Family in the United States, rev. ed. (1939; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966).

12. The first programs and departments of black studies would be created in the 1970s and intellectually led by Black Power activists such as Maulana Karenga, who insisted that African culture was absolutely central to interpreting the content of African American identity; Karenga articulated a growing consensus among African American thinkers that being black necessarily meant being African by heritage. In 1977, Alex Haley would produce the popular mini-series Roots; Levine, Lawrence would publish Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977)Google Scholar. As Kamari Maxine Clarke has noted, the era was one in which popular American views were characterized by the linkage of race (Diasporic blackness), geography (Africa), and culture (African). See Clarke, , Mapping Yorùbá Networks: Power and Agency in the Making of Transnational Communities (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004), 116–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13. Taylor, Ronald, “Black Ethnicity and the Persistence of Ethnogenesis,” American Journal of Sociology 84, no. 6 (1979): 1401–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14. Sollors, Werner, “Theory of American Ethnicity, or: ‘? S Ethnic?/Ti and American/Ti, De or United (W) States S Sl and Theor?’American Quarterly 33, no. 3 (1981): 257–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Sollors's peculiar title to this article is based on a database search string that he used to locate the numerous articles on ethnicity published in social science journals. For the interface between ideas of ethnicity and those of race, see his “Foreword: Theories of American Ethnicity,” in his edited Theories of Ethnicity, xiii–xiv . Sollors locates this genealogical approach to ethnicity within the broader analytical shift toward invention as the fundamental means of human agency in construing and constituting social reality.

15. Wallerstein, Immanuel, “The Construction of Peoplehood: Racism, Nationalism, Ethnicity,” in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, by Balibar, Etienne and Wallerstein, Immanuel, trans. Turner, Chris (New York: Verso Press, 1991), 78, 84Google Scholar.

16. A number of factors situated Rabbi Matthew's understanding of Ethiopian Hebrew identity. Most significant was the international attention toward the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia. Also important was the Ethiopian victory against Italian colonialism. The Emperor Haile Selassie embraced the religious implications of his defense against European domination as relevant for the African Diaspora and not merely the nation of Ethiopia. See Scott, William R., The Sons of Sheba's Race: African- Americans and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935–1941 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993)Google Scholar. Of course, as I discuss below, immigration in the early twentieth century forced the rise of ethnic consciousness among African Americans. White ethnics, on the one hand, were assumed to have history and culture that overlay their Americanness, although this white ethnic identity was not consistently a badge of pride; white immigrants were compelled to assimilate into Anglo-Saxon identity by suppressing or modifying their ethnic “baggage.” The point, however, is that they represented their arrival as one equipped with history and cultural accoutrement. Blacks, on the other hand, had to contend with the colonial meanings of black historylessness. In general terms, the dichotomy was one of European culture versus African savagery. Matthew's assertion was a response to this form of antiblackness.

17. See Haynes, Stephen, Noah's Curse (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Goldenberg, David, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003)Google Scholar; and Johnson, Sylvester, The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity: Race, Heathens, and the People of God (New York: Palgrave, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18. Wentworth Matthew's explanation of Ethiopian Hebrew genealogy is reproduced in Sernett, Milton, ed., African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness, 2d ed. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999), 473–76Google Scholar. Matthew was not the first to make this claim; Native American and African authors made the same assertion in the early 1800s. See Pennington, James W. C., Text Book of the Origin and History, &c. &c. of the Colored People (Hartford, Conn.: L. Skinner, 1841)Google Scholar; and Lewis, Robert Benjamin, Light and Truth, From Ancient and Sacred History (Augusta, Maine: Severance and Dorr, 1843)Google Scholar.

19. The Kebra Nagast is a sacred text of Ethiopian Christianity that relates the descent of Ethiopia's rulers from the ancient Israelite King Solomon.

20. Years earlier, one anonymous writer for the New York Times did assert that the Beta Israel Jews were Caucasian and in no way related to the blacks who surrounded them in Africa.

The experience of the Italians during the past few years with the Abyssinians has shown beyond doubt that these mountaineers of the “Switzerland of Africa” are decidedly a superior race to the other peoples of the Dark Continent with whom the Europeans have come in contact in their colonization and partition schemes. To a great extent their superiority is the result of their origin and pedigree. Although the modern representatives of the Ethiopians of myth and history, they are in reality not Ethiopians at all. They are not black, but are of Caucasian descent as pure as the Anglo-Saxon or the Celt. Language and physiology stamp them as members of the Semitic race, and, consequently, as kindred peoples to the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Arabs, the Syrians, the Jews and other history-making nations of antiquity.

See “The Most Gifted of Africans: The Antiquity, Origin, and Religion of the Abyssinian Race,” New York Times, April 19, 1896, 29. This was, of course, finely characteristic of how colonial constructions of blackness operated to define any signifiers of culture and history beyond the realm of blackness. It was impossible, in other words, for blacks to be ethnic.

21. “Rabbi Wentworth Matthew, Led Ethiopian Temple Here,” New York Times, December 5, 1973, 43.

22. The by-laws of the MSTA were divided into “acts” (instead of articles). The sixth act or rubric clearly indicated the theological aim of resituating identity for African Americans as ethnic and not simply racial, stipulating that,

With us all members must proclaim their nationality and we are teaching our people their nationality and their Divine Creed that they may know that they are a part and a partial of this said government, and know that they are not Negroes, Colored Folks, Black People, or Ethiopians, because these names were given to slaves by slave holders in 1779 and lasted until 1865 during the time of slavery, but this is a new era of time now, and all men now must proclaim their free national name to be recognized by the government in which they live and the nations of the earth, this is the reason why Allah the great God of the universe ordained Noble Drew Ali, the prophet to redeem his people from their sinful ways. The Moorish Americans are the descendants of the ancient Moabites who inhabited the North Western and South Western shores of Africa.

This proclamation of a Moorish identity was also incorporated into catechetical literature for MSTA converts. See “Questionnaire and Additional Laws for the Moorish Americans,” Moorish Science Temple of America, FBI File 62-25889-6, unnumbered page.

Noble Drew Ali also taught that Jesus was a Moabite and, thus, a member of the Canaanite nation. Part of his basis here was the genealogical claim in Matthew's gospel (1:5) that Jesus’ ancestry can be traced to Ruth of the Moabite nation.

24. See the membership materials of the MSTA, box 1, folder 3, Moorish Science Temple of America Collection, 1926–1967, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York City.

23. From the 700s to the 1900s, most European languages employed some form derived from the Spanish MorosMauren, Maures, Mauri, Mohren, Moors, Moren, blackamoor, moor, mauro, or moro—to denote Muslim conquerors in the Iberian peninsula and, eventually, to identify blacks throughout Africa (but primarily North Africa) and Europe, but not black Muslims exclusively. The English term moor, for instance, was also employed to denote simply Muslims, Berbers, or Syrians. The slippage that lent use of the term to denote “dark” or “black” applied not only to people but also to objects, rendering terms such as “Moorish (black) coffee.” See Minnich, Nelson H., “Pastoral Care of Black Africans in Italy,” in Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, ed. Earle, T. F. and Lowe, K. J. P. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 282 Google Scholar; Butcher, Philip, “Othello's Racial Identity,” Shakespeare Quarterly 3, no. 3 (1952): 243 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Lévi-Provençal, E., “Moors,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., ed. Bearman, P., Bianquis, Th., Bosworth, C. E., van Donzel, E., and Heinrichs, W. P. (Leiden: Brill, 2009)Google Scholar.

25. Lincoln, C. Eric, The Black Muslims in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961)Google Scholar.

26. See Nance, Susan, “Mystery of the Moorish Science Temple: Southern Blacks and American Alternative Spirituality in 1920s Chicago,” Religion and American Culture 12, no. 2 (2002): 125, 126–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For instance, Nance repeatedly emphasizes that Ali and many of his followers were poor southern migrants with minimal education, as if this somehow counts as evidence that they could not have possibly been real Muslims. Compare the more sympathetic approaches of Richard Brent Turner, , Islam in the African-American Experience, 2d ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003)Google Scholar; and McCloud, Aminah Beverly, African American Islam (New York: Routledge, 1995)Google Scholar.

27. Berg, Herbert, Elijah Muhammad and Islam (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 5658 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28. IV, Edward Curtis, “Why Malcolm X Never Developed an Islamic Approach to Civil Rights,” Religion 32, no. 3 (2002): 227–42Google Scholar; and his “African-American Islamization Reconsidered: Black History Narratives and Muslim Identity,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 73, no. 3 (September 2005): 659–84. In this latter article, Curtis explains why the locus of religious conversion needs to be resituated from pronouncements of creeds to the formation of identity. Also see his Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002); and his Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960–1975 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

29. Kidd, Colin, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 267 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30. See Brotz, Howard, The Black Jews of Harlem: Negro Nationalism and the Dilemmas of Negro Leadership (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964)Google Scholar; Gerber, Israel J., The Heritage Seekers: American Blacks in Search of Jewish Identity (Middle Village, N.Y.: Jonathan David Publishers, 1977)Google Scholar; and Lounds, Morris, Israel's Black Hebrews: Black Americans in Search of Identity (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981)Google Scholar. Among the earliest of these more objective studies was that by A. Paul Hare, whose sociological examination of the Hebrew Israelite Community residing among Israelis employed ethnography to explain how this group fashioned identity, authority, gender, and ritual observance to create their version of an ideal society. See Hare, , The Hebrew Israelite Community (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1998)Google Scholar. Other representative studies include Chireau, Yvonne and Deutsch, Nathaniel, eds., Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters with Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Goldschmidt, Henry, Race and Religion among the Chosen Peoples of Crown Heights (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2006)Google Scholar; and Könighofer, Martina, The New Ship of Zion: Dynamic Diaspora Dimensions of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem (London: Lit Verlag, 2008)Google Scholar.

31. Chireau, and Deutsch, , eds., Black Zion, 3, 6–7.Google Scholar

32. Gold, Roberta, “The Black Jews of Harlem: Representation, Identity, and Race, 1920–1939,” American Quarterly 55, no. 2 (2003): 179225 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness; Goldschmidt, Race and Religion among the Chosen Peoples of Crown Heights; Goldschmidt, Henry, “Religion, Reductionism, and the Godly Soul: Lubavitch Hasidic Jewishness and the Limits of Classificatory Thought,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77 (2009): 547–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33. See Dorman, Jacob S., “‘I Saw You Disappear with My Own Eyes’: Hidden Transcripts of New York Black Israelite Bricolage,” Nova Religio 11, no. 1 (August 2007): 6183 Google Scholar. Dorman's otherwise lucid discussion of “bricolage” among black Israelites is finely characteristic of the problem at hand. Dorman details an interesting and attentive account of Wentworth Matthew and other members of black Judaism, but he centrally employs the idea of “hybridity” and “invention” to render black Jewish religion as uniquely exotic and decidedly other than “real” Judaism. At no point in his discussion does Dorman reckon with the fact that all religions are already hybridized, inventive, and eclectic. And he devotes no attention to the productive work of whiteness to make and authenticate a “normative” Judaism vis-à-vis Judaism among blacks.

34. Landing, James E., Black Judaism: Story of an American Movement (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2002), 13, 70–80, 435–45.Google Scholar

35. The spate of attention toward the challenges within the actual study of religion has been abundant. See Long, Charles H., Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Aurora, Colo.: Davies Group Publishers, 1986)Google Scholar; McCutcheon, Russell, Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)Google Scholar; and Mazusawa, Tomoko, Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)Google Scholar. Despite this and the robust growth of studies that objectively engage Judaism and Islam among African Americans, there persists a lack of reflexive attention among some recent studies to the problem of reinscribing boundaries of orthodoxy. See, for instance, Landing, Black Judaism; Kidd, Forging of Races; and Dorman, “I Saw You Disappear with My Own Eyes.”

36. Free Africans of New Orleans during the mid-1800s who were Vodun priests described their religion as “African religion” and evidenced an explicit pride in the fact that they practiced a religion of their African ancestors. See Fandrich, Ina Johanna, “Defiant African Sisterhoods: The Voodoo Arrests of the 1850s and 1860s in New Orleans,” in Fragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in a New World, ed. Smith, Patrick Belle-Garde (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

37. This is among the more disturbing, seemingly bizarre themes in African American Christianity that becomes more explicable in light of the overwhelming status of scientific, historical, and otherwise intellectual claims that associated Africa with decadence during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This African American theodicy interpreted slavery as a divine plan of redemption to deliver blacks into Christendom. The tradition is widely attested in African American Christian writings both during and after slavery. More familiar, perhaps, is Phyllis Wheatley's quip, “ ‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land/ Taught my benighted soul to understand/That there's a God—that there's a Saviour too;/Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.” Wheatley expressed not bitterness but gratitude to the Christian deity for being rescued from Africa. It was the nineteenth century, however, that would produce the most frequent and elaborate forms of this ideology. In his rousing speech to foment American support for Christian missions to Africa, Edward W. Blyden urged his black listeners to understand they had been taken from Africa “by permission of Providence, doubtless, that you might be prepared and fitted to return and instruct your brethren.” Or, as the African American Episcopal minister Alexander Crummell would describe it, the evangelization of Africa by black Americans had become possible precisely because of the “afflictions and sufferings, and even oppressions” that the black race had endured through slavery and racism. See Wheatley, Phyllis, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” in Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave, 3d ed. (Miami: Mnemosyne Publishers, 1969), 12 Google Scholar; Blyden, Edward W., “Hope for Africa,” Colonization Journal Tract no. 8 (August 1861): 4 Google Scholar; Crummell, Alexander, “The Regeneration of Africa,” in African American Religious History, ed. Sernett, , 288 Google Scholar. A number of scholars have examined this African American Christian tradition of theodicy. See Moses, Wilson Jeremiah, The Wings of Ethiopia: Studies in African American Life and Letters (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990), 141–58Google Scholar; Pinn, Anthony, Why Lord? Suffering and Evil in Black Theology (New York: Continuum, 1995), 5153 Google Scholar; Adeleke, Tunde, UnAfrican Americans: Nineteenth-Century Black Nationalists and the Civilizing Mission (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998)Google Scholar; Williams, Walter L., Black Americans and the Evangelization of Africa, 1877– 1900 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982)Google Scholar; and Johnson, , The Myth of Ham, 7591 Google Scholar.

38. See Blyden, Edward W., Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, 2d ed. (1888; repr., Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1994)Google Scholar.

39. Circle Seven Koran 46:1–4.

40. Brotz, Howard, The Black Jews of Harlem: Negro Nationalism and the Dilemmas of Negro Leadership (New York: Schocken Books, 1970), 34 Google Scholar.

41. Ibid., 26.

42. Among the earliest of English comparisons of religions is that by Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimage (London: William Stansby for Henrie Fetherstone, 1613). Purchas readily assumed and asserted Christian supremacy over all other religions. Christianity, nevertheless, was of a piece, a species within the genus religio. Purchas promoted an anthropological view of religion, and he claimed that all religions pursued knowledge and worship of the divine. The myriad influential observers and theorists of religions who would follow are familiar to those acquainted with the historical development of the modern humanistic disciplines— John Spencer, Hannah Adams, Ernest Renan, Friedrich Max Müller, James Frazer, Edward B. Tylor, and Émile Durkheim. Studies that examine the history of observing religion have flourished. Most notable and relevant here are the works of Chidester, David, Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Smith, Jonathan Z., Imagining Religion from Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982)Google Scholar; Masuzawa, Tomoko, The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; King, Richard, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and ‘The Mystic East’ (New York: Routledge, 1999)Google Scholar; and Said, Edward, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979)Google Scholar.

43. See Masuzawa, , The Invention of World Religions, 317–24Google Scholar. Masuzawa notes, for instance, that Ernst Troeltsch ably remapped claims to Christian supremacy by assuming that Western Europeans were culturally superior to all other races despite the history of religions turn that ostensibly rendered Christianity as just one of many religions. Because white supremacy was patently manifest in Troeltsch's purview, and because Europeans evidently derived their superlative cultural and intellectual sensibilities from Christianity, racial supremacy, rather than a claim to unique revelation, served as the guarantor of Christianity's elevated status above every other religion.

44. Dictionaries emerged in this period partly to demonstrate the efficacy of vulgar languages in transmitting the ideational currency of scripture, philosophy, intellection, etc. See Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983)Google Scholar; Sheehan, Jonathan, “Enlightenment, Religion, and the Enigma of Secularization: A Review Essay,” American Historical Review 108, no. 4 (2003): 1061–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45. “Questionnaire and Additional Laws for The Moorish Americans,” Moorish Science Temple of America, U.S. Department of Justice, FBI File 62-25889-6, unnumbered page.

46. Although I use cartography metaphorically here, it is also the case that map-making itself involved the occlusion of Native American and African representations of territories. See Biddick, Kathleen, The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47. Johnson, James William, “Chronological Writing: Its Concepts and DevelopmentHistory and Theory 2, no. 2 (1962): 124–45Google Scholar, especially 142–45; Whitford, David M., The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era: The Bible and the Justifications for Slavery (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing, 2009)Google Scholar; Kidd, Forging of Races; Johnson, The Myth of Ham.

48. Consider how the Enlightenment rationalism that manifested in the emerging science of Orientalism shattered the supremacy of Hebrew and the Bible as divine sources of authority. These became species of a vast genus, particular examples of scriptural languages and texts in the company of other, more voluminous traditions found in Chinese and Sanskrit. The secularizing forces of expansion, historical confrontation, sympathy with exotic others (qua romanticism), and a zeal for classification (of languages, religions, races, sexualities, etc.) functioned to reconstruct the primacy of religion in a different key. Witness, for instance, the path taken by philologists like Silverstre de Sacy and Ernest Renan, who pioneered the discipline. Despite Renan's expressed disdain for religious dogma and creedal pieties, from which he claimed to be liberated by scientific method, he nevertheless refashioned Christianity as the supreme religion of white Europeans by interpreting Jesus as psychologically Aryan. Philology became the respectable means of comparing religions, and Renan's project emerged as one that was deeply theological. See Said, , Orientalism, 120–40Google Scholar. Generations of white European interpreters continued to employ Enlightenment, rationalist, secular methods to interpret early Christianity and demarcate the bounds of its Jewish and Greek content. By the early twentieth century, in the dominant perspective of white Christian scholarship, Jesus himself had become a white anti-Semite! See Kameron Carter, J., Race: A Theological Account (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kelley, Shawn, Racializing Jesus: Race, Ideology, and the Formation of Modern Biblical Scholarship (New York: Routledge, 2002)Google Scholar; and Heschel, Susannah, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

49. White Christians in the Americas actually developed new catechisms that were tailored to the task of encoding West African religions as Satanic. African slaves were to recite that the enslaved black priests of Vodun were actually servants of Satan and that honoring the spirits of African revealed religion was devil worship. In a more visceral demonstration of Christianity's racial power to relegate African religion to the shadowy realm of taboo, white Christian slaveholders tortured and publicly murdered Africans who were identified as insurrectionary priests of Orisha religions; their mutilated bodies were left exposed as a visual reminder to other African slaves. See Pinn, Anthony, The Varieties of African American Religious Experience (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 1819 Google Scholar; and Edwards, Bryan, “African Religions in Colonial Jamaica,” in African American Religious History, ed. Sernett, 23 Google Scholar.

50. Long, , Significations, 89106 Google Scholar; Long, Charles H., “Religion, Discourse, and Hermeneutics: New Approaches in the Study of Religion,” in The Next Step in Studying Religion: A Graduate's Guide, ed. Courville, Mathieu E. (New York: Continuum, 2007)Google Scholar; Biddick, The Typological Imaginary.

51. “Moorish Science Temple of America,” U.S. Department of Justice, F.B.I. file 62-25889, Part 1a of 8, Rhea Whitley to Director of F.B.I. [J. Edgar Hoover], memorandum, September 12, 1931, 2,, accessed June 1, 2007.

52. Ibid., Part 1b of 8, S. Culbertson to D. M. Ladd, memorandum, July 24, 1942, 1, and Part 6c of 8, New Haven, Conn., Field Office to Director of F.B.I. [J. Edgar Hoover], memorandum, August 6, 1952,, accessed June 1, 2007.

53. “Negro Jews Win Rent Suit,” New York Amsterdam News, December 23, 1925.

54. Chaim Brovender and others, “Hebrew Language,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. Berenbaum and Skolnik, 8: 671.

55. See, for instance, “The Most Gifted of Africans,” New York Times, April 19, 1896, 29; and “Find Race of Black Jews,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 28, 1902 (cited from ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Chicago Tribune [1849–1986], 1).

56. Sollors, Wernor, “Introduction: The Invention of Ethnicity,” in his edited The Invention of Ethnicity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), xiiixiv Google Scholar.

57. Vincent L. Wimbush, African Americans and the Bible; Bhabha, Homi, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge 1993)Google Scholar; Biddick, The Typological Imaginary; Long, “Religion, Discourse, and Hermeneutics.”

58. The hermeneutical exercise acquires more “refractive” potential, particularly for examining the more auspicious categories of “modernity,” when one keeps within historical purview the social milieu of subaltern subjects. See Bhabha, , The Location of Culture, 236–56Google Scholar.

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