“Call me utopian,” Robin D.G. Kelley writes in the introduction to Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, “but I inherited my mother’s belief that the map to a new world is in the imagination, in what we see in our third eyes rather than in the desolation that surrounds us.” Kelley’s mother, who took the name Ananda, spent her mornings meditating in her bedroom when and where “her third eye open[ed] onto a new world.” The dream of a new world that emerged from her spiritual practice was the birthright of her children. She passed on to them the imperative “to live through [their] third eyes, to see life as possibility.” And yet, despite Kelley attributing his mother’s spiritual practice as a “catalyst for [his] own political engagement,” Freedom Dreams provides no sense of the deep connections between his mother’s third eye vision and histories of Black struggle.
Equipped with three eyes for the journey, Ananda and others with similar spiritual sensibilities have been excluded from Black religious history, religious histories of Black women, and histories of the Black radical imagination. Her third eye vision renders her invisible. Perhaps considered a little too “out there,” stories like Ananda’s have been pushed to the periphery of the history and historiography of Black religion and Black struggle, even as they exist in intimate proximity to dominant narratives. Trivialized as fringe, repudiated as politically suspect, dismissed as inauthentically Black, or glossed as an ahistorical spiritual impulse, Black people who were attuned to the infinite and the beyond often find themselves out of tune with representative accounts of Black life.
This forum offers “Black metaphysical religion” as an analytical historical frame to bring into view the widespread and varied occult interests and mystical orientations of Black communities in the twentieth century. Following Charles Long’s still-relevant call for “methodological perspectives” that transgress narrow approaches to Black religious life, Black metaphysical religion provides a lens to better “perceive certain creative possibilities in the black community” that have been obscured by existing viewpoints. Building on scholarship that has, in different ways, attended to overlapping geographies, chronologies, and figures—the Black gods of the metropolis, thaumaturgical sects, Black magic, Black orientalism, Africana esotericism, and religio-racial movements—we ask: What alternative forms of life emerge from the archive when we focus on the neglected metaphysical fulcrums of Black thought, and how might they animate new directions in the fields of Africana religions and Black studies? What genealogies and terrains of Black struggle remain poorly understood because our well-disciplined “epistemological respectability”1 cannot acknowledge the first principles so axiomatic to the creators of wayward religious worlds? How would rerouting our accounts of twentieth-century Black life and politics through metaphysical histories unsettle traditional grooves of historiography and challenge our own otherwise horizons—the making of futures out of tune with and maladjusted to the epistemological straitjacket and enduring anti-Blackness of “common sense” and punitive rationality?
The contributions to this forum include diverse and seemingly discrete religious histories and spiritual practices, some new and some familiar. But as Malachi Crawford notes in his contribution on the hidden power of words and naming for Nation of Islam adherents, the metaphysical imaginations and practices featured in this forum resonate beyond discrete individuals and groups. As a frame, Black metaphysical religion attends to structures of esoteric thought as well as the “materiality of intellectual inquiry”—the material connections and social life that sustained the circulation of metaphysical ideas. Put differently, Black metaphysical religion tracks what Saidiya Hartman describes as the “traffic in occult visions of other worlds” that provided “new possibilities and new vocabularies” among “wayward” and minor figures. Black metaphysical religion thus amplifies the call to examine “Africana mystical technology and theurgical epistemologies” as a site for “generative religious reflection.”
Kelley writes that his mother, Ananda, passed along an “expansive, fluid, ‘cosmos-politan’ definition of blackness” to her children. Elsewhere he mentions that she was a disciple of Swami Paramahansa Yogananda and a member of his Self-Realization Fellowship. Ananda was not alone. In 1927, Yogananda’s publication East-West magazine reported that “Swami [Yogananda] gave a class in Washington [D.C.] for colored students and had an earnest class of about fifty people” that, judging by the accompanying picture, was made up of mostly Black women. The class occasioned the establishment of the first “Afro-American Yogoda Sat-Sanga,” and students met on Wednesdays to “review the Yogoda exercises,” which promised practitioners access to the “single spiritual eye of meditation…to find Cosmic Consciousness.” As Yogananda explains, he taught students to “bask once more in the all-healing Cosmic Conscious Rays.” In addition to Wednesday gatherings, “public meetings [were] held each Sunday night at 5 o’clock with a lecture, music, and healing vibrations.”2
Attraction to an idea of Indian spirituality has been well documented and used to show, among other things, how older traditions of healing (like those memorialized in Seth Gaiters’s contribution) were transformed in practice and performance in the wake of the Great Migration. But what if we figure third eye visions, cosmic consciousnesses, and healing vibrations as part of a general metaphysical grammar and set of spiritual practices that gained authority among Black communities in the twentieth century? LaShawn Harris’s contribution shows how crystal balls, dream books, and “yogic wisdom” were embedded in the “day-to-day worlds” people traversed, helping them navigate the terrains of love and labor as well as circumvent the social and physical violence upon which gendered racial capitalism depends. The metaphysical sources and practices that sustained Black social life may be unbecoming to more staid histories of Black study and Black religion. Yet appreciating the languages of freedom derived from struggle requires becoming “comfortable with forms of heresy and socialist opposition… which may seem to emerge from anomalous or inappropriate sources.”3
Consider Arna Bontemps’s characterization of the “fringe movement” in The Negro in Illinois. Written in the 1930s, it provides a concise glimpse of the crowded terrain that “Black metaphysical religion” holds together as well as a rehearsal of the conventional attempt to undermine its legitimacy:
The ‘fringe’ movement comprises esoteric theosophical, Cultural Unity and New Thought, elevated Bahaism, yearning Christian Science and Holy Roller, non-descript store-fronters, Primitive Baptists […] and […] the many semi-social, semi-economic, semi-political religious organizations, and burial, fraternal, and uplift societies, as well as eastern mystical cults, genuine Mohammedanism and denatured oriental philosophy thinly disguised for exploitation purposes. And in addition there are the jogi and the swami.
The fringe is full. A pronounced distaste for its fullness continues.
The 1990s and early 2000s reinforced the exclusion of the so-called fringe as worries arose among mainstream Black studies scholars and public commentators that Afrocentric and Black nationalist scholarship threatened the legitimacy of Black studies departments on university campuses. Whether or not the worry was warranted, the critique of Black nationalism often centered the Nation of Islam, especially after the 1995 Million Man March, and commonly pointed to its esoteric, theosophical roots as a way to delegitimize its popularity. For example, Paul Gilroy connected interest in “a range of occult beliefs” to the inevitable reproduction of “fascist political cultures” within Black communities. It was “morally indefensible,” Gilroy argued, to give “serious consideration” to movements that authorized their flight from an anti-Black world through references to “arcane lore” and “eccentric occult figures.” For Gilroy, there were no “redemptive fragments” in such histories.
As Ahmad Greene-Hayes shows in his contribution, the connection between the occult and fascism is well worn. But as he also suggests, we need histories that appreciate the way metaphysical imaginations have located power and desired destinations beyond the world structured by Black confinement and death. James Padilioni’s contribution recovers flight from the world toward new destinations: mystic flight, human flight, flights of fancy. Padilioni engages flight as a radical tradition of Blackness rooted in a commitment to community, comprised of histories that must be preserved.
Formulations that render Black metaphysical traditions as fascist without attending to worlds cultivated within and between masajid, temples, store fronts, and street corners diminish the complex worldmaking efforts of ordinary Black people. These worldmaking efforts are seen to evidence the “cultishness” of domineering leadership and unthinking followers. Such judgments lose sight of practitioners who constituted the bodies of these groups and performed the quotidian labor to reproduce communities. In writing off the out-there collectivities and histories of the Diaspora, rendering adherents as mad, these formulations underestimate the bewildering violence of Reason, following La Marr Jurelle Bruce’s productive theorization of madness and Black radical creativity relative to the domineering histories of violently “legitimized” Western thought.
Attention to the alternative social orders cultivated among adherents of the metaphysical suggests a complex interplay between charisma and the bottom-up forces shaping Black fringe worlds. Following Erica Edwards’s theorization of the “charismatic scenario,” this forum attends to the complexity of Black political and social formations of power without dismissing such complexity or committing further epistemological violence. As Shamara Wyllie Alhassan’s contribution reminds us, the work of Black esoteric and metaphysical worldmaking has often been women’s work; women engage seriously with these visions and their materialization is part of Black feminist or womanist projects. We should in turn take them seriously, as Ula Taylor suggests in the Promise of Patriarchy and Elizabeth Pérez argues in her contribution to this forum. One of the most important mass movements of the early and mid-twentieth century, Father Divine’s International Peace Mission centered on communion feasts that were organized and prepared by women adherents. Despite Divine’s sermonic diminishment and effacement of women’s role in creating the wonder and healing of the organization, these formulations of abundance and the horizon of alternative worldmaking, enacted through communion feasts and related rituals, underwrote visions of peace that preceded and exceeded the patriarchal, charismatic figure.
Out there on the fringe, yogis and swamis were not the only ones who cultivated “cosmos-polition” vocabularies and imaginations. As Judith Weisenfeld notes in her recent book, and intimates in her contribution to this forum, Noble Drew Ali incorporated the Rosicrucian text Unto Thee I Grant into the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple. But it should also be noted that Rosicrucian philosophy was widely popular beyond the leaders and scriptures of what Weisenfeld calls “religio-racial movements.” In October 1932, the leading Rosicrucian body in the United States announced that interest in their organization had grown so much among Black Americans that they were opening a “new branch for colored members in Chicago.” One already existed in Harlem. Each served as a regional headquarters for Black people to anchor their effort to “live in harmony with the creative, constructive Cosmic forces” through the study of Rosicrucian philosophy.4 Rosicrucian books were advertised and reviewed in the Black press, and Rosicrucian philosophy was a crucial component of the arcane lore that the musician Sun Ra considered essential to his own cosmic consciousness.5 These kinds of connections and threads that emerge from tracking the traffic in the occult suggest the immense but under researched contours of Black working-class thought, worlding, and politics that were never quite as fringe as dismissals suggest. Black metaphysical religion cuts across the so-called cults and sects and brings to the fore “the cumulative role that everyday life plays in the development” of emancipatory identities, movements, and Black aesthetics.
Each contribution in this forum is significant, recovering underappreciated orientations, sources, figures, and institutions for the study of Black religion and offering generative insight about their implications. While not comprehensive, the forum brings into view Black metaphysical self- and communal creations that have been relegated to the fringe and how they generated still unaccounted-for kinetic and social energy. By convening the featured scholars under the banner of Black metaphysical religion, we enliven a conversation at the intersections of history and historiography, Black studies and religious studies, freedom dreams and theological imaginations, Black geographies and gendered racial capitalism’s sacred spaces. We offer the forum as a provocation to think with and through Black metaphysical traditions of everyday life and worldmaking, to consider how attending to the horizons produced by the esoteric, the arcane, and the heterodox recircuit our accounting of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Black life and politics.
Rinaldo Walcott, “Outside in Black Studies: Reading from a Queer Place in the Diaspora,” in Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, eds. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae Henderson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 93.↩
East-West 2, no. 4 (May-June 1927).↩
Avery F. Gordon, preface to Cedric J. Robinson, An Anthropology of Marxism (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2001), xvii. ↩
Rosicrucian Digest 10, no. 9 (October 1932).↩
See Matthew M. Harris, “Black Religion Under the Sign of Saturn” (PhD dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara, forthcoming).↩