“I like research work in science better than anything I know,” observed Eugene Reuben Mumford, a Black New Orleanian, when interviewed by Louisiana Writers’ Project (LWP) worker Jeanne deLavigne Scott in May 1939. “When it comes to navigatin’ the heavens, I like that the best – although I’ve never owned any kind of telescope, nor even a good pair of opera glasses. I really believe the stars have an effect on mankind. I really believe that each and every individual here on this planet is visited by a vibration. There are different planetary influences.” In the same interview, Mumford also said he “never did attend church much.” He continued, “I feel that certain stars guide certain people. As for me, I think Uranus and I are pretty good friends.”1Interview with Eugene Reuben Mumford by Jeanne deLavigne Scott, May 1939, Folder 1021, in the Federal Writers’ Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All references to Mumford’s language in the present essay derive from the 1939 interview by Scott.
This essay considers Mumford’s intellectualizing about race, religion, and planetary science and situates his provocations in the growing field of Africana Esoteric Studies (AES), as outlined in Esotericism in African American Religious Experience. The editors contend that AES “advocates [for] the embrace of a new paradigm for thinking about the material and ethereal dimensions of the world as encountered and charted by peoples of African descent.” In his appeal to the stars for guidance and instruction, Mumford’s beliefs reveal yet another way that Black people have relied on esoteric mystical knowledges to traverse this antiblack world.
At the time of Mumford’s interview, Uranus was in Taurus (which happens every eighty-four years), between 1934 and 1942, the era of the Great Depression and the Second World War. One astrologist observed, “The new social circumstances of this period, described by unemployment, poor living conditions and quality of life, dramatically influenced people’s beliefs, customs and lifestyles. It changed the way people worked, behaved and organized themselves collectively to meet their basic needs.” In an article detailing how Uranus’s transit in Taurus had produced the likes of Adolf Hitler in Germany, an astrologist for the Times-Picayune also detailed how “planetary vibrations” affected individual lives based on “ancient rules.” They wrote, “[Uranus] …has always been associated by students with a steady, persistent effort. It is a sign which produced practical builders and those who are able to carry out the plans of others with great faithfulness.”2“Hitler’s Rise Seen in Stars; Learn What’s Ahead for You,” Times-Picayune, December 2, 1935, p. 20. One is left to speculate if Mumford had encountered this article and all the others like it in New Orleanian newspapers during the period. We are also left to wonder about how Uranus might have affected Mumford differently than Hitler.
Born in Brookhaven, Mississippi on February 7, 1879, to Isaac and Esther Crump, Mumford proclaimed his affinity for the stars very early on. Inspired by his grandmother’s prophetic ruminations about the stars and their role in Black life, he reasoned, “The stars rule most everythin’ in a powerful way.” The Mumfords were attuned to the Black outdoors—gardens, crops, chickens, cows, and the sky above. In Brookhaven, they spent time in the moonlight and planted mustard seeds. By 1900, they moved from rural Mississippi to New Orleans, a vibrant American port city, home to many migrants from rural enclaves and the circum-Atlantic. Mumford was the second oldest of thirteen children (seven boys and six girls). Between roughly 1895 and 1901, the curious, self-determined young man went on his own journey throughout the United States, seeking his way in the world post Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). He left New Orleans for Chicago, then went to Waterloo, Iowa; followed by Omaha, Nebraska; Denver, Colorado; Pendleton and Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, California; Salt Lake City, Utah (where he encountered the Mormons, describing them as “very religious”); Elco, Nevada; and Kansas City, before finally returning to New Orleans. In each of these cities and towns, he took on odd jobs: porter in a barber shop, janitor in a wooden mill, stock man in the Rosenthal Shoo Company, street paver and concrete turner, waiter in a restaurant, and much more to make a living.
Mumford was no stranger to hard work, and by 1910, he worked throughout New Orleans as a roofer for a roofing company. His skillset was capacious, wide-ranging, and afforded him the flexibility to travel and expand his horizons. He told the LWP interviewer, Scott, “I traveled around to see and hear and learn, and I did. I saw a lot of people and heard a lot of different views.” According to his 1917 US World War I Draft Registration Card, his occupation was described as “peddler” (he sold undisclosed goods near his home at 316 S. Derbigny Street). By the time of his interview with Scott, Mumford had become a fruit and vegetable vendor and he worked from seven in the morning until seven in the evening, seven days a week. All but one of his six sisters had passed on by then, and he was one of five remaining brothers. Mumford’s wife, Pearl Julien, a Catholic, had also passed in 1925, leaving him to raise their six children (one child would later die).
It is unclear if much of his family had died in rapid succession due to disease, poverty, the Depression, or from the other perils of being Black in the Jim Crow South. Despite these tragedies, Mumford affirmed that he came from good stock, working-class folk who made ways out of no ways, and pressed on to survive. Echoing many African Americans during the 1930s, he said to Scott, “It doesn’t do to complain about things — anybody’d better just keep goin’ and make the best of it. As for as the Depression is concerned, the colored man has always had a hard time. If a man has a large salary and it’s cut off, it makes a big difference. But the colored man hasn’t. So, he gets along about the same as usual.”
In the face of these debilitating circumstances, many people of African descent during the early twentieth century utilized their religious imaginations to conjure new worlds in the face of the ever-present antiblack world, all the while communing with worlds of times past and worlds yet to come. In my forthcoming book project, I think deeply and critically about these interventions in the face of the Jim Crow legal, social, and political criminalization of Black Atlantic religious and sexual cultures cultivated by migrants like Mumford in the city of New Orleans. Many of these individuals were unchurched, anti-church, or they ultimately created their own house churches and reinvented other public spaces like bars and slums for their religious services and offerings. Mumford’s scientific research, extensive travels, migratory patterns, and his intellectual mastery of astrology and his grandmother’s prophecies, along with his handle on all kinds of physical labor demonstrate the dexterity of Africana esotericisms—stretching between and betwixt systems of domination in an attempt to survive, and stretching beyond the limited and limiting confines of the ways of this world in order to, as he said in his own words, “[do] the best [he] could.”
Mumford’s embrace of Africana esotericism invites us as scholars of Black religions to return again and again to two pivotal questions: What makes one “religious” and who gets to determine what counts as a “religion”? Mumford told LWP worker, Scott, “Granny didn’t take any stock in religion. She believed in the stars, and she could manage ‘em, too. She used to make a lot of fun of [Christians].” Here, it appears that Mumford equivocates the category of “religion” with Christianity. But the capacity of the stars and the planets to communicate with humanity, send vibrations, and affect the course of human history in ways similar, but distinct from, the Holy Ghost speaking to Pentecostals in a storefront church or the Spirits writing on the walls in a Spiritualist séance raises questions. What do we ultimately make of Mumford’s suggestion that his and his grandmother’s metaphysical beliefs and practices were not “religious”? Recall again his observation that the Mormons he encountered in Salt Lake City were “very religious.” Had Mumford come to believe that he did not have access to the category of religion because of the longstanding disregard, policing, and marginalization of Africana esotericism by white Protestants and other largely white religions? Mumford later reasoned while talking with Scott, “I’m comin’ to believe that there’s not much in the whole universe but some kind of electricity, or magnetism or chemistry. You can call this force the cosmic ray…Or maybe it’s the electron, or the ion or the atom or the molecule.”
In his own uncertainty about what exactly to call this phenomenon—the intriguing and felt work of the stars—Mumford invites us to think about how people have historically called the unknowable many different things depending on circumstance and context. Black anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston who spent a great deal of time in New Orleans names this sentiment, noting, “The unreachable and therefore the unknowable always seems divine—hence religion.”3 Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 277. Africana esotericism (otherwise called “Black Metaphysical Religion” by this forum’s curators) might best be understood, then, as an ongoing energetic exchange, the cultivation of synergy in the service of Black thriving, and the electric shocks needed to keep hearts beating in a world wedded to the hold, the whip, and the lynch mob’s rope.