Cults & Sects
Published in

Cults & Sects

Regina King as Angela Abar / Sister Night

Black Gods of the Metropolis (2)

No Mystery Gods

Really excited to see what else Fauset has in store for us. I also really like Hardy and Greene-Hayes’ work and thought the “Watchmen” HBO series was phenomenal, so today’s assignments feel like a real treat.

What we’re reading

  • Fauset, “Why the Cults Attract” from Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North (Penn 1970)
  • Fauset, “The Negro and His Religion” from Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North (Penn 1970)
  • Hardy, “No Mystery God
  • Greene-Hayes, “Black Gods Among Us

Fauset, “Why the Cults Attract”

We see right off the bat that Fauset’s interested both in nuance (“different people are attracted to a cult for different reasons,” 1970, 76) and in providing a broadly useful explanatory framework. We also see the “WHY DO PEOPLE JOIN CULTS” impulse is nothing new.

Fauset says Black people in the American urban north join “cults” for four reasons:

  1. connection to something bigger than themselves, i.e. “supernatural power”
  2. seeking healing for physical or mental illness
  3. “race consciousness” or Black nationalism, about which we’ll be talking a lot in the next few weeks
  4. charismatic leaders with “compelling personalit[ies]”

But what’s most interesting to me about this chapter is the painstaking way Fauset records his ethnographic findings. Rather than just make universalizing statements, he humanizes his interlocutors and helps us understand how folks might be drawn to even the same NRM for very different reasons.

The emphasis on seeking healing here is really pronounced, as it was in our readings about Mother Catherine Seals. Keep in mind that this book was first published less than 20 years after the discovery of penicillin, so American medical science is still very much in its infancy and we can assume white supremacy and poverty would exclude many if not most Black Americans from accessing antibiotics. NRMs offering alternate modes of healing or lifestyles intended to promote health and longevity are quite common throughout US history, from the Seventh Day Adventists, Church of Christ Scientist, and LDS, up through Scientology today.

Fauset also both notes that we don’t ask questions about why people join or remain in “more orthodox churches” and suggests that the NRMs in question are often responding to more mundane problems in more immediate ways (1970, 78). NRMs also facilitate experimental and unconventional modes of religious practice as well as making space to recreate more familiar religious environments (Fauset 1970, 79). I was really struck by this passage:

Many Negroes in Detroit, formerly faithful church members in the South, had suffered moral and religious shipwreck because they could not make the necessary adjustment, and the resident Christians did not always have the requisite sympathy, imagination, and resourcefulness to make them feel at home. (Fauset 1970, 79)

We’ve talked a little about the economic and social motivations for the Great Migration, but those terms don’t fully convey the anxiety, fear, and discomfort of leaving your home in hopes of escaping terrorism and finding somewhere you can survive. It makes sense that northern churches would be different than southern ones, but knowing that doesn’t make it easier to feel safe and welcome in an unfamiliar religious community — even if you and the community are both Christian.

Fauset also suggests that NRMs are “graduate church[es],” which offer members secret knowledge and further insights into the workings of the divine (1970, 82). This shared, advanced knowledge contributes to an intense socialization that can distance group members from those outside the group and vice versa, but Fauset maintains that most group members welcome outsiders — and that this welcoming attitude is key to attracting new members (1970, 86).

Fauset, “The Negro and His Religion”

Here again, we see Fauset pushing back in important ways against popular assumptions about Black people and religion. He notes that Black folks are no more inherently religious than white folks, and that scholars’ assumptions about the so-called “‘religiosity’ of the American Negro” are not supported by the data (Fauset 1970, 97).

Fauset proposes that Black people’s participation in religious communities might have more to do with having space to express themselves than with a universal proclivity toward being religious (1970, 98). Let’s not get too bogged down in this political analysis, but the tension Fauset highlights between Black people for whom a separate space/place feels necessary for liberation and flourishing and Black people for whom America might be a survivable space is a tension we’ll return to a lot in coming weeks (1970, 100). So too will we see differing perspectives on the role Africa plays in Black radical religious innovation (Fauset 1970, 101).

Hardy, “No Mystery God”

Oh, I really dug this piece, y’all. I am always here for scholarship that takes bodies seriously, and Hardy’s proposal that Black NRM members “described a god found principally within the material world infusing the very bodies of the faithful” is provocative and important (2008, 150). Hardy helps us see that these NRMs resignify Blackness in divine or sacred terms, and that those who joined these movements “renegotiated what it meant to be religious in the new world they had freely (for the first time) chosen and now inhabited,” (ibid.). Black religious innovation here makes space for Black people’s agency, creativity, and flourishing.

Hardy helps us understand why Black people who moved north during the Great Migration might have been more attracted to newer or unconventional religious groups, suggesting their membership might have more to do with religious conditions and “language that celebrated the personal and the concrete over the abstract and shaped the evolution of black religion as a modern culture in an increasingly industrial age,” (2008, 129). That is: Black migrants to the US urban north didn’t join so-called cults — or more enthusiastic or charismatic Pentecostal churches, for that matter — because of an inherent and universal Black religiosity. They sought out belonging with communities that offered pragmatic and timely responses to the challenges they were facing and the lives they hoped to build. Equally important was the space these new ways of being religious made for “human exuberance,” for “collective joy and performance,” and for “individuality,” (Hardy 2008, 129).

The divine was concrete and material in such groups, Hardy argues. Groups as seemingly disparate as Father Divine’s Peace Mission and the Nation of Islam both shared an understanding of “the physical body as the principle site for imagining the divine,” a resignification of Blackness as sacred, and a “yearning for a god people could touch, feel, and see,” (Hardy 2008, 133). Food, dance, song, music, and dance in these communities should all, Hardy shows us, be understood as “concrete expression[s] of the divine spirit in the material world,” (2008, 143). Nor should we limit our consideration of bodily religiosity to sexual acts or expressions; Father Divine’s celibacy, for example, was not indicative of either bodily asceticism or a disembodied understanding of the divine (Hardy 2008, 144). Health, longevity, and survival are all key components of these religious communities.

“Divine possibilities…rooted in the material world,” such as Hardy sees in the Peace Movement, also bring Olamina’s Earthseed to mind (2008, 146). For all that the destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars, Olamina and her community are sharply focused on the material conditions necessary to bring that destiny to fruition. So too “a world made modern not only by scientific advances but also by the inexplicable existence of human suffering on the part of the earth’s disinherited and dispossessed,” (Hardy 2008, 146). Feeling pretty good about making us read Butler early in the semester, is what I’m saying.

In both Earthseed and in NOI theology as Hardy describes it, we see both “a more material conception of the divine” and “a platform for challenging the failure of the traditional Christian god to address the basic needs of black people,” (Hardy 2008, 148). How does Parable of the Sower echo the materiality Hardy posits in early 20th century Black religiously innovative communities? Why is a material Divine, a “god people could touch, feel, and see” significant in Earthseed, NOI, and other Black-led NRMs?

Greene-Hayes, “Black Gods Among Us”

A) I love this take on “Watchmen” (which: have y’all seen it? it’s so good)

and B) can you tell Ahmad inspired our assignments for the last few weeks?

The Black hero kills white supremacists using their tools — the lynching rope, the fist, the torch, and the gun. Wearing a black hood — one that resembles the hood of the KKK — the Black hero retaliates and inflicts violence on members of the white mob class. The cops initially put the hood on him as they took him to a tree to be lynched. Fleeing the attack, the Black hero put the hood back on himself, ultimately repurposing its function, christening it in Blackness, and bringing to the fore the hypocrisy, the sadism, and the cowardice of white American Christian supremacy and its missionaries and evangelists.

I’m really struck by this passage, particularly in conversation with the clip we watched from BlacKkKlansman, our discussions about Birth of a Nation and the Klan itself, and also with the image of Nat Turner as he’s presented in A Troublesome Property. In the spirit of Hardy’s challenge above: what is the material culture of Black resistance, Black survival, Black innovation? How do we see these commitments expressed in the movements we’ve discussed so far this semester? Think about the pieces I mentioned above, but also Hurston’s description of Mother Catherine’s Manger, Rebecca Cox Jackson’s writings (especially as Bassard analyzes them), and Olamina’s nascent Earthseed community.

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Megan Goodwin

Megan Goodwin

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author of _Abusing Religion_, co-host of “Keeping It 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion Podcast,” and wikipedia-certified expert on (ugh) cults