Millenarian Motherhood: Motives, Meanings and Practices among African Hebrew Israelite Women

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MILLENARIAN MOTHERHOOD: MOTIVES, MEANINGS AND PRACTICES AMONG AFRICAN HEBREW ISRAELITE WOMEN1 Fran Markowitz When new cults and religious sects burst onto the American scene in the 1960s and 70s, they immediately captured popular and academic attention . Where had these new religions come from, and why did they offer such strong appeal to America's youth? Sociological and psychological studies revealed that no matter which one, these religious movements attracted young, middle-class whites - especially those from lapsed Catholic and Jewish families. For men, the group's charismatic, loving yet authoritative leaders served as role models and protective father figures, and for women, life in communal cults offered clearly defined gender roles and an alternative vision of family.2 More generally, the cults redressed young people's sense of a lack of spirituality in their lives, their disenchantment with materialism, and their feeling that warmth and intimacy were lacking in their immediate environment.3 In contrast to whites, very few, if any, African-Americans could be found among the cults' adherents.4 Archie Smith readily explained that New Religious Movements (NRMs) had failed to attract minorities because their ethical systems and messianic messages showed little concern for racism, ethnic oppression or the struggle for social justice.5 Janet Jacobs added that because black women are often heads of households as well as significant income providers, the family-like religious community headed by a divine patriarch, which proved so attractive to whites, is "less relevant for youth whose primary relationships may develop within a more femalecentered family structure."6 By limiting their focus to the larger, controversial and attention-getting sects, Smith and Jacobs failed to see that black youth have indeed explored 106Nashim:A Journal ofJewish Women's Studies and Gender Issues, no. 3. © 2000 Millenarian Motherhood and experimented with cult-like groups. And despite what Jacobs describes as the "diversity of family arrangements that typify black culture, particularly with respect to the role that women assume within the black family,"7 African-Americans of both sexes can and do find patriarchal leaders very compelling - when they are black. During the twentieth century, charismatic male religious leaders have frequently emerged in the black community, where they founded new churches and social movements. Father Divine and Marcus Garvey, the best known such figures before Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, attracted hundreds of thousands of followers in the 1920s.8 Today, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam is perhaps the most recognized black religious leader in America. His rhetorical style is fiery, his message is distinctly patriarchal and exclusionary, and he places strict demands upon his huge crowd of followers. The Nation of Islam is surely a New Religious Movement, although its appeal is restricted to African-Americans. To remedy the problem of black invisibility in NRMs caused by basing their definition on such groups as the Unification Church, the Hare Krishna Movement and the Divine Light Mission, it is helpful to employ the definitional alternative coined by Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe. Emphasizing that the global concern of new religious movements is "to revise traditions through practical innovations and new expressions of traditional piety," Hexham and Poewe suggest that sects and cults be viewed as revitalization movements.9 No matter what their structure or audience appeal, revitalization movements attempt to resurrect a (mythical, idealized) past by changing unfavorable present circumstances through the radical alteration of group members' beliefs and behaviors.10 Commenting on the teachings of the Ghost Dance Religion, Kenelm Burridge notes that they are an "attempt to excise the purely existential and apparently purposeless nature of the present by searching into the past in order to posit a viable future."11 The Nation of Islam certainly qualifies, as its central message is that the glorious black past can be revivified if blacks will only reject the exploitative, white Judeo-Christian tradition and embrace an African one in its stead. The lesser-known African Hebrew Israelite Community (AHIC) proffers a similar goal, and for much the same reasons.12 Like the Nation of Islam and most other NRMs, the African Hebrew Israelite Community is a highly patriarchal, hierarchical society whose 107 Fran Markowitz spiritual leader is...
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)106-138
Number of pages33
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2000


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