Review: New World A-Coming

Darrius D. Hills

Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Morgan State University.

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Darrius D. Hills, "Review: New World A-Coming," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018):

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Judith Weisenfeld. New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration. New York:  New York University Press, 2016. 345 pp. ISBN 9781479888801

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The construction of self, identity, space, and place is an enduring theme in African American religious thought. The discursive and material formations of African American identity have been a necessary tool of survival for the African American sojourn in an American social and political landscape grounded in black inferiority and (no)thingness. Judith Weisenfeld’s thorough examination of the role of religion in shaping African American identity and community during the social and physical shifts of black migration to the urban North emphasizes the multifaceted nature of religion for black communities as a source of material and psychical sustenance.

New World A-Coming traces select black religious groups’ efforts to reconstruct racial and religious peoplehood while also deconstructing limited notions of black humanity grounded in America’s racial taxonomy. The religious groups featured illustrate a unique “religio-racial identity,” which captures the fusion of African American selfhood as contoured by respective religious faith systems (5). Weisenfeld draws upon archival research, periodicals, and personal correspondence to discuss the nuances of religio-racial identity formation in the Moorish Science Temple (MST), the Nation of Islam (NOI), Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement (PM), and Ethiopian Hebrew congregations. The book divides into three parts, “Narratives,” “Selfhood,” and “Community.” Weisenfeld retraces how these groups “entered into the processes of racial construction and produced their own religio-racial meaning(s)” in light of changing social, political, regional, and religious landscapes (7-8).

In part one, Weisenfeld addresses the narratives of identity and peoplehood in connection to “sacred geography” and “divine time and chronology.” The MST and Hebrew congregations both articulated a sacred narrative of black identity which centralized Africa as a spiritual/cultural homeland, but also connected Africa(ns) to other regions. Hebrew congregations, both those aligned with Arnold Ford’s Beth B’nai Abraham (BBA) and Wentworth Matthew’s Commandment Keepers (CK), developed a theology of black personhood as linked to the original Jews—configuring “Africa as the source of their Jewishness” (39). The fusion of Black and Jewish identity allowed members to reorient their racial personhood(s) by refining what it meant to be part of a “chosen” religious community in their embrace of Judaism.  Meanwhile, near Chicago, Noble Drew Ali, the prophet of the MST, was also teaching a unique narrative of black selfhood by deeming African Americans “Moorish Americans”—thus more in keeping with their true racial heritage. Categories such as “Negro,” were distortions that “kept their true identities hidden” (43). Like the Hebrews, Moorish Americans rejected common nomenclatures of race and religion that, from their perspectives, erased Africanity. Ali taught that Islam and Koranic teaching represented the true religion of the “Asiatic” peoples, which included Africans, Japanese, Chinese, South and Central Americans, and Mexicans (45).

Religio-racial groups also understood themselves as a sacred people connected in divine space, place, and time(s).   Weisenfeld notes that the NOI’s uniqueness—beginning with the teachings of W.D. Fard and continuing with Elijah Muhammad—lay in its development of a novel cosmology of black history underscored by Islamic teaching. The “tribe of Shabazz,” from which the “so-called Negroes” descend, are the original people. The “Asiatic Black man” is the original man, vested with divine import as the creator of the universe. In contrast, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement would prove to be totally noncommittal to notions of racialized collectivity. Divine, a charismatic and messianic figure, promised access to God and to life eternal through a theology of time and selfhood that erased individual histories and classified all racial categories as illusory and sinful attachment to enfleshed reality (75). Divine’s teachings also privileged an esotericism that encouraged members to dismantle attachment to racial identity to cultivate the “divine power within” (79). Black and white PM members (“Divinites”) learned to see themselves as united not by blood, family, or color, but through an “angelic” identity in service to God.

The second portion of the book examines the historical and social contexts that enabled religio-racial groups to engage in self-making/(re)making that pushed the bounds of established cultural norms and prompted the acknowledgment of a specialized identity. Mechanisms for this process involved “performative” behaviors such as naming, wearing specialized attire, reconfigured notions of skin color, dietary laws, and even burial procedures.

Building upon their theology of racial erasure, Divinites adopted name changes—rejecting family names and ancestral histories in preference for a spiritual identity. PM members took name changes to rupture ties to family, and thus to be focused on Father Divine’s teachings (98). NOI and MST members rejected racial categories of American society altogether, which meant an emphatic disavowal of names and identities subject to white racial dominance. Moorish Americans cited a specialized identity and process of naming traced to the tribes Bey and El in Africa (105). NOI members’ refutation of “Negro” identity prompted the adoption of “righteous” names more suited to their Asiatic heritage. Regarding skin color, Divinites’ nonracialism underscored a dualistic theology asserting that vesting skin color with meaning was spiritually destructive to membership within “the Angelic race” (119). Clothing and dress enabled the groups to both establish ties to the traditions of their ancestors, as in the case of the Moorish Americans, and serve as a means of establishing purity and discipline for the body, as in the case of the NOI and the PM.  Specialized diets served primarily as a means of maintaining the physical body as well as rendering the collective religio-racial body on holier ground. Noble Drew Ali taught such dietary laws to Moorish Americans in order to overcome the spiritual and physical deformities endemic to overcome both “European psychology” and to “uplift fallen humanity” (130-131). Kashrut observance for Ethiopian Hebrews included both fasting on holidays and high holy days, and embracing Kosher laws, linking them to Orthodox Judaism (137). NOI dietary prescriptions cleansed the body and home, featuring not so much a sophisticated theology as much as a desire to instill respectability meant to “clean up darker peoples” and give them the tools to survive white rule in America until Allah returned (145-147). Finally, death and burial provided opportunities to continue the establishment of group ties while also honoring the dead’s unique religio-racial identity (161).

The third and final portion of the book sheds light on how the religio-racial groups navigated familial, communal, and national ties.

Most of the religio-racial groups adopted conservative familial arrangements (171), but this tendency cannot be separated from the unique ways members fashioned family life according to specific needs. Ethiopian Hebrews, the NOI, and Moorish Americans favored heteronormative family structures because it furthered their vision for racial salvation (172). On this register, marriage and family  strengthened religio-racial identity by continuing the lineage of distinct peoplehood, behaviors, and sexual organization, and thus, established and reestablished collective purity in perpetuity. Divinite families, owing to Divine’s teaching of the sinfulness of mortal attachment to “worldly things,” rejected current ties to marriage, family, and sex, preferring “spiritual marriages” and identities as “children of God” (183). In PM theology, celibacy, sex separation, and the quelling of desire for familial attachment was fashioned as a mechanism for spiritual purity. Religio-racial family structures were thus sometimes at odds with American social conventionality—especially as it impacted children. The educational prescriptions of the NOI, for example, sought alternative schools and programs under the purview of its religious community to “reeducate” its young people as a buffer against the corruption of white American schools and culture (203). Divinite familial configurations often left many members open to charges of child abandonment, given their renunciation of family ties (205).

Religio-racial migratory patterns to northern cities presented other unique challenges. In addition to the sheer logistics of carving out a distinctive sense of space and place on new terrain as racial minorities, they were also faced with the prospect of being religious minorities. NOI members saw their relationship to America as strangers in a strange, wicked land—as the alienated and dispossessed who therefore had no patriotic allegiance (214). For the MST, “embrace of Moorish identity entailed loyalty to the nation” (219). In an effort to be “part and parcel” of the United States, Moorish Americans embraced a duality that preserved both their unique religious sensibilities as well as devotion to the nation. PM members saw America as a promised land through which Father Divine could fulfill his messianic role and establish Divinite spaces as “non-racial Kingdom of Gods” (234). All the groups, including the Ethiopian Hebrews, furthermore cultivated their own religio-racial spaces in the cities in ways that bolstered their message and communal arrangements. This included developing residential projects, businesses, and civic organizations centered around their worship spaces. The Great Migration, therefore, placed these groups in the unique position of refashioning their identities in distinctive ways from black (Christian) communities, and in the face of shifting geographies of place and space in the urban North (251).

The final chapter focuses on tensions between religio-racial groups and the black Christian establishment(s). The “black church” essentially found itself under pressure from competing truths, theologically and otherwise, offered by religio-racial groups who now had encroached upon their “turf” (253). This tension was exacerbated in a few notable ways. First, black Christians were preoccupied in part by notions of respectability politics, which they understood to be paramount in offering blacks the means to facilitate social and spiritual uplift—creating a polemic against the presumed authenticity and suitability of religio-racial theologies (257). Competition from religio-racial groups also raised serious and contentious debates centering soteriology, or concern with personal salvation—in this regard, Father Divine’s claims of divinity put the PM particularly at odds with other black Christians (261). Finally, underscoring much of the public debate about the rifts with black Christians was the role of the black and white press, who often provided the first glimpse to the traits, teachings, and general profiles of religio-racial groups to black society (273).

Weisenfeld’s well-researched exploration of these religio-racial narratives illustrates the necessity of studying articulations of black religious selfhood marked by both genealogical and geographical liberation in ways that eschewed racial and religious classifications of American society. One particular strength of New World A-Coming is its privileging of the reconstruction of self and narrative of “extra-Christian” religious groups as critical to the study of African American religion, which is often reduced to interrogating varied forms and expressions of black, Protestant Christianity. To be sure, there are other notable works that elaborate upon concepts of self-(re)making in collective African American religious experience. Anthony Pinn’s Terror and Triumph (2003), which constructs the theory of complex subjectivity as the foundation for black religious experience, is one example. Given the overlap of both authors’ research as it relates to centralizing identity formation in light of diverse religious sensibilities, it would be interesting to place the historical and comparative implications of Weisenfeld’s study into conversation with Pinn’s theorization of black religion.  Generally speaking, this book will arouse the interests of scholars of African American religious thought, as well as the general reader of American religious cultures and history seeking to understand the unique ways in which African Americans have adapted and cultivated religious identity in light of shifting social and political contexts in North America.