Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions

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Winner of the Byron Caldwell Smith Book Prize
Winner of the 2014 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions

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 ...

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Winner of the Byron Caldwell Smith Book Prize
Winner of the 2014 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Chosen People is unique in placing Black Israelite religions in the complex context of American history and is the most comprehensive work of scholarship on this topic...No one attempting to understand the rise of Black Israelite religions in America can afford to do without Chosen People." --Jewish Review of Books

"Chosen People offers a fascinating look at Black Israelites, people who resided in the interstices of groups and ideas we commonly separate-Blacks and Jews, religion and politics, history and identity, cultural theory and historical documentation, Christians and Jews. Dorman situates his subjects in an incredibly rich context, illuminating not only those African Americans who believed in the blackness of the ancient Hebrews, but also the many social, political, and cultural forces operating in post-emancipation African American history. It is fascinating reading for anyone interested in American religion, history, or culture."--Cheryl Greenberg, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of History, Trinity College

"Jacob Dorman has written a masterful (even paradigm-shifting) book on Black Judaism, a genuine tour de force. Carefully combining a close reading of primary artifacts/evidence with substantive life-history interviews, critiques/re-readings of various secondary literatures, and even a healthy dash of what I'd call a decidedly ethnographic sensibility, Dorman has crafted a powerful and meticulous portrait of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Black Jewish leaders who institutionalized versions of Black Judaic subjectivity in the United States that can still boast many adherents all around the country and the world today. Chosen People is an engaging and thoughtful read for students and scholars of Jewish studies, Africana studies, religious studies, and American history."--John L. Jackson, Jr., Richard Perry University Professor of Communication and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania

"Jacob Dorman has not only established himself as the leading historian on Black Israelites, but has made an immense contribution to our understanding of the African Diaspora, religion and modernity, and the vexing problem of cultural identity. The research is prodigious, the scope impressive, and his telling of how African-descended people embraced and transformed Judaism is truly dynamic. Most importantly, Chosen People reminds us that people are not merely inheritors of tradition but its creators."--Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

"Jacob Dorman extends historical narratives of African American religion beyond 'Black Jews' to the kinship between Black Israelites, Ethiopians, Rastafarians, and Holiness-Pentecostal Christians, with Freemasons, Conjurers and Mystic Scientists forming a bricolage of ideational, rather than hereditary, traditions. This is a fascinating study that shifts models of African American cultural transmission and religious innovation from 'roots' to 'rhizomes,' and from 'syncretism' to 'polyculturalism.'"--Yvonne Chireau, co-editor of Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters with Judaism

"Dorman's book draws an intricate web of connections between Israelites, black Jews, Holiness, Pentecostal, and Anglo-Israelite groups, all with a skilled reading of the meaning of religious symbols." --Religion in American History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195301403
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 1/14/2013
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 961,826
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jacob S. Dorman is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Department of American Studies at the University of Kansas.

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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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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2014

    Kind of interesting

    Argues that Black Israelite religion started as a way to be like Jesus. (If African Americans are really the people of Israel, and if Jesus was of the people of Israel, then....) Covers American roots, return to Africa, and connections with Judaism and other religions. Provides ample detail of the Ethiopia connection. Mentions but does not fully discuss Rastafarianism. Likes the word "bricolage."

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