In December 1942, an FBI agent questioned Black residents of Columbus, Indiana about their neighbors, Reuben Frazier and Ophelia Frazier, as part of a nation-wide investigation into potential draft evasion and sedition among members of the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA). The Fraziers’ neighbors recounted a dramatic change in the lives of the couple, both in their sixties, beginning several years earlier. Respected farmers and members of a Baptist church who sent their children to school, neighbors said they seemed to harbor no ill will toward the government or white people. But after Reuben attended the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair and encountered members of the MSTA “wearing fezzes [and] short pants with elastic below the knee,” who told him that “negroes may be from Morocco,” he began to change. According to the neighbors, Reuben no longer had “belief in God and justice from the white race.”
On Thanksgiving Day 1935, with his extended family gathered, Reuben opened a large suitcase containing fezzes, knee-length satin pants, flags, and reading material and announced that he had realized the truth of his identity. He invited his relatives and neighbors to join him. Embracing what they believed was a divinely ordained Moorish Muslim religio-racial identity, the Fraziers undertook the material work to live as Moorish Americans: decorating their house and truck with the flag of the Moorish Science Temple; the men donning the group’s signature red fez, the women turbans, and all members of the family wearing Moorish clothing; adopting the “true tribal name” of Bey; and taking on new approaches to diet, as directed by the founding prophet, Noble Drew Ali.
The approaches to embodied transformation through which the Frazier Beys—formerly Christian and classified racially as Negro—and other members of the MSTA embraced and enacted Moorish Muslim identity made a deep impression on observers of the group. Indeed, the moment of Reuben’s unveiling of Moorish garb to his family and friends proved so striking to the neighbors that the FBI interviewed, that the agents situated it as the dramatic centerpiece of an extended narrative account of the family’s activities.
The physical and material dimensions of such religio-racial self-fashioning sometimes generated ridicule among Black commentators who had investments in Negro Christian respectability. In a March 30, 1927, article in the New York Amsterdam News typical of mocking discourse about new religio-racial claims in this era, Edgar M. Gray declared Harlem “the Mecca of Fakers” and decried the appeal of figures who “simulate[d] the appearance of Orientals – East Indians, Mohammedans, etc.” White Americans encountering religio-racial identity claims like that of members of the MSTA also commonly disparaged and refused them, often based on visual evaluation and ideas about race and the physical body. When 49-year-old Philadelphia resident and MSTA member Alphonse Bentley Bey registered for the draft in 1942, he asserted Moorish American relgio-racial identity in rejection of the government-supplied racial category of Negro and characterized his complexion as Olive, in accord with MSTA theology. The draft registrar appended a comment: “I think this registrant is a Negro,” aiming to reinscribe prevailing racial classification and hierarchy.
Attention to embodied practices of producing, maintaining, and expressing religio-racial identity (and focus on the social and political formations such identity claims supported) might lead us to miss the profound significance of a religio-racial metaphysical imagination that animated and sustained members of the Moorish Science Temple like Reuben and Ophelia Frazier Bey and their descendants. Indeed, even I missed this significance in my earlier work on the Black southern migrants to northern cities who made up the first generation of MSTA membership. Similarly, in my discussion of the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, the Nation of Islam, and Father Divine’s Peace Mission, I foregrounded the embodied practices of religious race making through which the divinities, prophets, leaders, and members rejected the ascribed American racial category of Negro. Yet this analysis also underplayed the significance of the metaphysical.
While embodied practices of religio-racial identity link these groups, despite important theological and institutional differences, a Black metaphysical imagination of what the rightly tuned religio-racial mind might accomplish also connects Black new religious movements of this period. Father Divine promoted New Thought positive thinking, W. D. Fard and Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam revealed “Supreme Wisdom,” Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew of the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation drew on Jewish mysticism and Western esoteric traditions for healing, and Noble Drew Ali began his public career as a healer promoting Egyptian secrets and incorporated esotericism into the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple.
The religio-racial metaphysical imagination, however varied, was particular to the conditions of Black people. The goal was to detach them from the false belief that Negro Christian identity was appropriate and propel them to locate themselves in a new frame of being, whether that be as raceless children of Father Divine, Moorish American Muslims, Ethiopian Hebrews, or the Original Black man of Nation of Islam theology. Harnessing the power of the mind, fueled by Black geographies of Morocco, Ethiopia, Mecca, and the earthly Kingdom of Father Divine, often combined with esoteric wisdom the founders and leaders brought forth, was key to religio-racial transformation.
Across these groups, members affirmed the idea that ignorance of identity led not only to political disempowerment but also to diseased physical, psychological, and social states. Thus, it was necessary for the material and the metaphysical to work in tandem to restore what they believed was their true religio-racial identity. As MSTA Grand Sheik H. Harris Bey told readers of the Moorish Guide in 1928, he learned from Noble Drew Ali that disconnection from Black people’s first religion made everyone a “slave to the lower self.” He came to believe that the tools of a rightly tuned mind could overcome the subjugation of the mind to “European psychology” and activate the powers of the higher self. What members found in these groups was more than social and psychological support, although many found that too; the groups offered profound connection to the world beyond and a universal endorsement of their religio-racial selves that preceded and exceeded this time and this space. Sister M. Whitehead El felt the impact of how Noble Drew Ali’s described the effect of his appearance among them and reminded other members of the MSTA that the prophet declared, “I have mended the broken wires, and have connected them with the higher powers.” Where their embodied practices of dress, diet, and understandings of skin color carried them through this world in the physical form they believed God had created them—Moorish American, Ethiopian Hebrew, Asiatic Muslim, raceless child of Father Divine—by also tuning the religio-racial mind to the truth of their identity, members of these groups connected to and harnessed a universal power that was nevertheless grounded in and spoke to the Black metaphysical.
We can see how the material and metaphysical combine to animate religio-racial commitment in Mississippi-born Isaac Cook’s account of how he came to join the MSTA in Chicago in 1925 and how it transformed him. Cook encountered an MSTA member preaching on the street, proclaiming the arrival in Chicago of a holy prophet who had brought knowledge of “our nationality and divine creed.” His curiosity led him to the Temple to hear Noble Drew Ali preach, and Cook reported feeling “perfectly satisfied when I heard the teaching that night.” He felt drawn to return the following day to declare knowledge of himself as a Moorish American and receive his nationality card. As the Frazier Beys would do several years later, Isaac Cook put on the fez, reclaimed his “true tribal name” and became I. Cook Bey. He eagerly took up Noble Drew Ali’s charge to “sound the trumpet and wake up our people.” He labored for several years with his brother G. Cook Bey to found MSTA Temples in Baltimore and to expand the material world of Moorish Science. But the power of the connection he felt to Noble Drew Ali, and the tuning of his mind to his true self and to the universal realm, animated his mission and life. He reported that when Noble Drew Ali died in 1929 while he and his brother were in Baltimore, he felt a vibration shake him up. At that moment he recalled that the prophet had declared himself a prophet for all nations. “I’m a universe prophet.”
As I tried to show in my work, by moving beyond the directives and official theologies of the charismatic founders and attending to embodied practices in these groups, we can gain some sense of full purchase of a transformed religio-racial identity for members. To do so I turned to unusual sources for the study of Black religions: draft registration cards and FBI files. Looking to unconventional sources is needed to better understand the significance of the Black metaphysical imagination for members of religio-racial movements. Accounting for how members took up the work of tuning the religio-racial mind with embodied practices can help us see how the metaphysical imagination resonated with members and how they put the reclaimed power of the religio-racial mind to use for themselves, their families, and their communities.