Most of America discovered an old American religious tradition this week, and they did not like what they saw. For years, groups like the obnoxious Westboro Baptist Church taught America that real-life trolling could be used as a religious practice. This past weekend, Americans learned that there were African-American religious groups that have gotten in on this practice. (And, like many things in American culture, if you study history you’ll discover that it’s actually black people who did it first! Wait, this is one of those situations when that’s a bad thing. Never mind). But if this past weekend’s dueling videos are your only knowledge of this sect of bearded black men wearing Jewish-inspired regalia and verbally sparring with pedestrians, you’re missing out on a lot of history.
Among the many things have come out of the confrontation between a group of boys from Covington Catholic School (Kentucky) and participants in the first Indigenous Peoples March, a bit of spotlight has been focused on the third group involved in the confrontation, members of one of the religious sects known as the Black Hebrew Israelites (BHI). This group has generally received little attention or recognition in mainstream America – one of the Covington parents misidentified them as “Black Muslims.” While the specifics of the Black Hebrew Israelites’ religion differ considerably from those of Black Muslim groups like the Nation of Islam – the Jewish patriarch Jacob is revered by one sect and reviled by the other, for instance – both religious movements come from a place of black oppression and a search for meaning in America.
Like the Nation of Islam, the Black Hebrew Israelites (which are more of a collection of small sects with similar beliefs than a centralized organization like the NOI) has old roots in black American communities; one of its early founders, William Saunders Crowdy, was an escaped ex-slave. In the context of the pervasive racism and dehumanization of slavery and then Jim Crow in America, preachers like Crowdy or NOI founder Wallace Fard Muhammad offered African Americans an exalted identity and a sense of meaning.
For the movement that would evolve into the Black Hebrew Israelites, this meaning was found in the idea that African Americans were actually the descendants of the Biblical Jacob through the tribe of Jacob’s son ,Judah. Many abolitionists drew obvious parallels between enslaved black Americans and the ancient Hebrews who marched out of Egypt and away from bondage; the Black Hebrew Israelites made this connection literal as opposed to rhetorical. Their religious practices draw upon old forms of Judaism (sometimes mixed with Christianity), but, much like the Nation of Islam, are much different from the larger religion from which they draw inspiration.
The Black Hebrew Israelites generally extend their beliefs to cover other marginalized ethnic groups. For example, on the longer (nearly 2 hour) video posted to social media that shows the events surrounding the Covington-Indigenous people’s showdown, one of the Black Hebrew Israelites refers to the Indigenous marchers as “Gad,” another of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel that BHI equates with modern day Native Americans. They do not extend this identification to white people, even Jewish ones, leading to examples of anti-Semitism by some BHI believers.
Black Hebrew Israelites occasionally hold marches of their own (a group did so in Washington, DC late last year, although the exact goal of the rally was uncertain), but often appear as hecklers at other events, or simply on street corners where members loudly assert their beliefs and call out passers-by; in short, as seen in the videos this week, members engage in real-life trolling of those they deem to be evil or uninformed.
These activities have led them to be dubbed, in the words of a Village Voice article about the New York branch, “New York’s Most Obnoxious Prophets.” Even within the black community, many people are put off by the sects’ public activities and go out of their way to ignore them. Members of the BHI know that their words, like the homophobic and other comments made about Donald Trump in DC, are offensive (and that they get attention) – one of the members present at the DC even this weekend said their comments were “just rhetoric.”
For the most part, groups like the Nation of Islam and the Black Hebrew Israelites are little understood or recognized by most Americans, outside of the controversies like the ones of the past few weeks: to the extent that they are acknowledged, it’s as black extremists groups or annoyances. However, these religious groups have an oversized impact within the culture and consciousness of the African American community: in music (many rappers have come out of the NOI or related Muslim groups; Kendrick Lamar made several references to the BHI ideology in his recent album), in film (see Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Get on the Bus. Seriously, go watch them right now. I’ll wait.), and in their very visible and vocal presence in urban neighborhoods.
The reason why these groups and their ideologies show up so much in black popular culture is the same reason they have endured for decades and still attract followers. It’s not the anti-Semitism or the homophobia (elements that unfortunately persist, partially as a way of gaining attention), but the promise of deeper meaning and the redemption of African American identity from a position of inferiority imposed upon it to a place of exaltation. Groups like the Black Hebrew Israelites give their followers the idea that their identity is something higher in the eyes of God and one another.
[This article is the fourth in a series of articles entitled “America Marches”, inspired by the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the convergence of a series of public events this past weekend in Washington, D.C. and around the country]