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Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religionsby Jacob S. Dorman
Synopses & Reviews
Winner of the Byron Caldwell Smith Book Prize
Jacob S. Dorman offers new insights into the rise of Black Israelite religions in America, faiths ranging from Judaism to Islam to Rastafarianism all of which believe that the ancient Hebrew Israelites were Black and that contemporary African Americans are their descendants. Dorman traces the influence of Israelite practices and philosophies in the Holiness Christianity movement of the 1890s and the emergence of the Pentecostal movement in 1906. An examination of Black interactions with white Jews under slavery shows that the original impetus for Christian Israelite movements was not a desire to practice Judaism but rather a studied attempt to recreate the early Christian church, following the strictures of the Hebrew Scriptures.
A second wave of Black Israelite synagogues arose during the Great Migration of African Americans and West Indians to cities in the North. One of the most fascinating of the Black Israelite pioneers was Arnold Josiah Ford, a Barbadian musician who moved to Harlem, joined Marcus Garvey's Black Nationalist movement, started his own synagogue, and led African Americans to resettle in Ethiopia in 1930. The effort failed, but the Black Israelite theology had captured the imagination of settlers who returned to Jamaica and transmitted it to Leonard Howell, one of the founders of Rastafarianism and himself a member of Harlem's religious subculture. After Ford's resettlement effort, the Black Israelite movement was carried forward in the U.S. by several Harlem rabbis, including Wentworth Arthur Matthew, another West Indian, who creatively combined elements of Judaism, Pentecostalism, Freemasonry, the British Anglo-Israelite movement, Afro-Caribbean faiths, and occult kabbalah.
Drawing on interviews, newspapers, and a wealth of hitherto untapped archival sources, Dorman provides a vivid portrait of Black Israelites, showing them to be a transnational movement that fought racism and its erasure of people of color from European-derived religions. Chosen People argues for a new way of understanding cultural formation, not in terms of genealogical metaphors of "survivals," or syncretism, but rather as a "polycultural" cutting and pasting from a transnational array of ideas, books, rituals, and social networks.
Jacob S. Dorman offers the first comprehensive study of the rise of black Judaism in America. Beginning with an examination of black interactions with white Jews during the Civil War, Dorman traces the influence of Black Israelite practices and philosophies on the Holiness Christianity movement of the 1890s and the emergence of black Jewish synagogues in the early twentieth century. Most fascinating is his focus on a number of residents of 1920s Harlem who, adopting the guise of spiritual merchants, drew on profoundly stereotyped visions of the Mystic East for radical, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist purposes. They formed their own new religions based on the belief that the ancient Hebrew Israelites were black and contemporary African Americans their descendants. This gave rise to many of the African-American sects of the twentieth century, including the Rastafarians, the Black Muslims, and the prosperity gospel of Father Divine.
This fascinating but little-studied group of mystic professors was founded by a Barbadian Rabbi who dreamed of resettling African Americans in Ethopia. The settlement scheme failed, but the black Israelite theology had captured the imagination of settlers who returned to Jamaica and transmitted it to Leonard Howell, one of the founders of Rastafarianism and himself a member of the mystic subculture of Harlem. The Black Israelite movement was carried forward in the US by several Harlem rabbis, including Wentworth Arthur Matthew, who creatively combined elements of Judaism, Pentecostalism, Freemasonry, the British Anglo-Israelite movement, Afro-Caribbean faiths, and occult kabbalah.
Drawing on hitherto untapped archival sources as well as personal interviews, Dorman provides a vivid portrait of the Black Israelites, illuminating their place in the creative ferment of spirituality, art, and commerce that characterized African American life in the early twentieth century. Scholars have traditionally attributed the cultural significance of the Harlem Renaissance to the productions of the black elite. Chosen People helps to rectify that imbalance by drawing attention to the distinctive movements and ideas that engaged the black working class.
About the Author
Jacob S. Dorman is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Department of American Studies at the University of Kansas.
Table of Contents
1. This is our Red Sea: Exodusters, Prophet William Saunders Crowdy, and the Beginnings of Black Israelism
2. Equivalent to Israelism: Inheritance, Freemasonry, and the Ancient Israelites
3. We are Israelites but not Jews: Orientalism and Israelism in the Holiness-Pentecostal Movement
4. Our Only Hope, Our Only Salvation as a Race Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford, Ethiopianism, and African American Settlers in Ethiopia
5. I Saw You Disappear with My Own Eyes: Hidden Transcripts of Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew's Black Israelite Bricolage
Appendix: Short History of The Congregation BETH B'NAI ABRAHAM, New York, N.Y.
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