Thursday, October 10, 2013

how new religions are made

religiondispatches | What inspired you to write Chosen People? What sparked your interest?
When I was in college I was interested in the similarities between Jewish and Black nationalisms, and began to learn Jewish and African American histories at Stanford University with Clayborne Carson, George Fredrickson, Sylvia Wynter, Mark Mancall, Arnie Eisen, and Tudor Parfitt.

A chance encounter led me to visit the Original Hebrew Israelites of Dimona, Israel, and the experience was so powerful that I set out to study the antecedents of Black Israelite movements. At that time, Shlomo Levy, a Columbia University graduate student who was himself the son of one of the leading figures of the New York Israelite community, had begun to work with the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library to collect papers from a dozen or so Black Israelite synagogues. I wrote an honors thesis on a small part of that collection, and then returned in graduate school to use the rest.

Working towards my doctorate at UCLA I was fortunate enough to study Black Atlantic religions with Donald Cosentino, and African American and West Indian histories with Brenda Stevenson, Gary Nash, and Bobby Hill. I was also inspired by seminars I took with Carlo Ginzburg, Peg Jacob, Lynn Hunt, Henry Yu, and others. I wanted to thickly describe African American Judaism from microhistorical, Black Atlantic, and African American Studies perspectives.

The question of "authenticity" that had dominated the accounts of so many white Jews was of little interest to me. What had gone missing in the limited literature on the topics was an attempt to tell the story of Black Israelites as an instance of African American history (in the hemispheric sense, including the West Indies), and an attempt to write Black Israelites into the larger stories of American religion and of Black Atlantic religions.

You describe a variety of fascinating (and largely unknown) figures in American religious history. Which one of them fascinated you the most?
Prophet William Saunders Crowdy stars in two chapters and is a largely unknown but remarkable figure who deserves to be on a postage stamp for the impact he had on U.S. religion and culture. But without a doubt, I was most fascinated by Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew. That is because I had access to sources at the Schomburg and in newspapers over half a century that allowed me to clearly see Rabbi Matthew's religious evolution, and his polycultural bricolage of his own Israelite tradition combining Holiness-based Israelite churches, Judaism, conjuring, West Indian festivals, Central European occult practices, and freemasonry. Although Matthew tried his best to hide this religious bricolage, his papers offer a rare opportunity to see how new religions are made.

Is there anything you had to leave out?
Tons. I came to see Black Israelites as being very closely related to Black Muslims. Not only was there overlap between the groups' memberships, but it was not uncommon for groups to blend elements of both Judaism and Islam in the 1920s, as in the 1970s.

I think African American adoption of both religions are variants of Black thought about "the East," and deserve to be thought of as Black forms of Orientalism—not in a pejorative sense, but in an affirmative and romantic sense. So at one point the book was at least twice as long, before I decided that the Islam/Orientalism piece needed to be a book of its own.

Even then, the Black Israelites book continued for five more chapters concerning interactions and race relations between white and Black Jews during the Civil Rights and Black Power eras. Thankfully, Oxford University Press' readers reined me in, and I was left with the much more compact, and much more readable text as it stands today, which focuses on the period from the nineteenth century to the 1930s.


John Kurman said...

Recruiting local talent. That's the way to do it.

CNu said...

Particularly if you do it like the Moors did it, insisting on both exogamy and polygamy with conversion being a mere pronouncement.

But it was my understanding that Jewishness depended on matrilineage, so monogamous exogamy wouldn't be a winning strategy for producing any genuine chosen fruit of the tree of Abraham and David?