Cults & Sects
Published in

Cults & Sects

Mother Divine with her husband, Father Divine, in September 1953 (Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images)

New World A-Coming (3)

Selfhood

What we’re reading

  • Weisenfeld, “Selfhood” (Part 2, pp 89–166)

Keyword

  • performativity

Weisenfeld, “Selfhood”

Prof. Weisenfeld uses the introduction to this section to clue us into how members of R-R movements “externalize and perform their commitments in a variety of embodied ways,” (2016, 90). Living into religio-racial identity involved a number of embodied daily practices, including

  • new clothing and ways of dressing
  • new names
  • new food practices
  • and new approaches to health and healing

That members of R-R movements didn’t just believe but practiced — daily! their new/original/true/eternal identities matters for several reasons, Weisenfeld tells us (ibid). Blackness or dark skin did not, these groups explained, necessarily imply “Negro racial identity,” Weisenfeld explains (Weisenfeld 2016, 91).“Performative assertions of religio-racial identity disrupted the expected relationship between the surface of the body and race,” (ibid.). New foodways, health practices, names, and ways of dressing practices telegraphed members’ religio-racial identities and commitments in public spaces. These practices helped foster, maintain, and solidify a new sense of self and a connection to their new sense of history and belonging.

The performance of religio-racial identity wasn’t just important for individuals, however. Embodied expressions of religio-racial identity also built community among folks with similar convictions and connections to these R-R movements’ understandings of the world and members’ places in it (ibid.). Weisenfeld further notes that embodied practices of religio-racial identity were not meant only to shape individual members’ understandings of themselves OR to foster community among these members. As she puts it:

Living [into religio-racial identity] as such required members of these groups to externalize and perform their commitments in a variety of embodied ways. Not only did racial construction take place through discursive means and ideas about history, bodies, and difference, but it also was necessarily connected to embodied experience and situated in particular social and political contexts…[M]embers of the religio-racial movements understood their bodies to be critical sites for practicing and performing their new identities and solidifying the senses of self that grew from them. Such embodied performances sutured individuals to the relevant narrative of identity and helped to reshape or, in their understanding, restore their entire being to its original and right formulation. (Weisenfeld 2016, 91)

So, in your own words: what does Prof. Weisenfeld mean by this? Why does it matter?

In addition to self- and community-building, these practices also disrupted broader American cultural narratives about Black people’s “natural and simplistic religiosity,” (Weisenfeld 2016, 92 — and you probably remember that Fauset was similarly trying to disrupt these kinds of narratives in Black Gods of the Metropolis). “Clothing the body or eating in ways that disrupted expectations about how people of African descent should express themselves religiously undoubtedly made a political statement about race, embodiment, and citizenship in this period,” Weisenfeld explains (ibid.). Dressing, naming, eating, and living in ways meant to disrupt white assumptions about essential Blackness absolutely had political intent and effects. But it would be just as much of a mistake to understand these practices as exclusively political — Fauset again — as it would be to think of them as exclusively religious. These are multivalent acts of embodied religio-racial identity: they work on individuals, communities, and the broader public all at once.

You’ll note that Weisenfeld is calling these embodied practices “performances.” As she says, she’s not suggesting R-R movement members were being fake or disingenuous (Weisenfeld 2016, 92). Rather she’s referring to performativity, a theory that helps us understand the ways our historical and cultural contexts shape our actions. So if we think about R-R identity practices as performative, we can see:

  • Members were so invested in their religio-racial identities and commitments that they wanted to DO their r-r identities in public and on their bodies
  • The ways they chose to express those identities were informed BOTH by the movements themselves AND by how R-R movements interacted with each other and their surrounding culture(s)
  • Though members understood these groups to be restoring them to their original/true identities, they still had to WORK at breaking old habits and creating new ones more in line with who they now understood themselves to be

For them, just as the black self had been deconstructed by slavery’s pressure to adhere to European traditions, including religious ones, the reconstruction of the true black self required both the acquisition of the new knowledge and ongoing expression of that knowledge. (Weisenfeld 2016, 92–3)

Again, in your own words: what does this mean? Why does it matter?

Weisenfeld, “Religio-Racial Self-Fashioning”

From the introduction to the “Selfhood” section, we know to look for

acts of performative self- making, such as naming, dress, and conceptions of skin color, that helped to constitute and define the individual within the religio-racial community, transforming the old, false self into a restored and true one (Weisenfeld 2016, 93)

in this chapter. So:

  • What do the naming conventions, manners of dress, and understandings of skin color tell us about the worldview of the Moorish Science Temple? How did this work on the body help restore MST members to their true selves?
  • What do the naming conventions, manners of dress, and understandings of skin color tell us about the worldview of the Nation of Islam? How did this work on the body help restore NOI members to their true selves?
  • What do the naming conventions, manners of dress, and understandings of skin color tell us about the worldview of Father Divine’s Peace Mission? How did this work on the body help restore PM members to their true selves?

Weisenfeld, “Maintaining the Religio-Racial Body”

From the introduction to the “Selfhood” section, we know to look for

the practices in which members engaged to maintain their bodies within the theological and social worlds of their religio-racial identities

including diet, health and healing practices, and attitudes toward death/funeral practices. With that in mind:

  • What do diet, health and healing practices, and attitudes toward death and dying tell us about religio-racial identity formation in the Moorish Science Temple? the Ethiopian Hebrews? Nation of Islam? Father Divine’s Peace Mission?
  • How did these practices respond to broader American cultural ideas about race and members’ experiences of racism and white supremacy?
  • What was it like for members of religio-racial movements to implement these practices into their daily lives?

“Community” on Tuesday, the last big chunk of this amazing book.

I wonder if we’ll know who the next president will be by then!

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Megan Goodwin

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