Revisiting, Revising 20th-Century African American History

Article excerpt

Black Pilgrimage to Islam

Oxford University Press, 2002, 368 pp.

$35.00, ISBN 0-19-514734-0

The post-Sept. 11 political environment has given questions about Islam's role and presence in America a vital urgency, and into that vacuum comes Robert Dannin's work, a welcome and sweeping portrait of orthodox Islam in America.

Most media and scholarly accounts of America's Black Muslims have focused on the Nation of Islam and the colorful personalities of Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan. Dannin points out, however, that the Nation is actually a fringe community, its members far outnumbered by orthodox Muslims whose roots reach far deeper into the American past than is generally acknowledged. This ignored orthodox majority, its customs, conflicts and characters, become Dannin's focus in Black Pilgrimage to Islam.

The opening section of the book follows the "trail of the red fez" through American history. In an analysis that many might argue is too brief and cursory to do justice to the sweeping claims he makes, Dannin attempts to interweave accounts of enslaved Muslims in the South with freemasonry in the North during the 18th and 19th centuries. The argument does not gain heft until Dannin enters the 20th century, analyzing the importance of three storefront religious movements -- the Moorish Science Temple, the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam and the Lost-Found Nation of Islam -- for African Americans who fled to the North during the Great Migration.

The opening section is somewhat marred by what at times seems an excessive focus on detail: the bewildering array of sects and subsects, factions and leaders that emerged from the splintering of these early Islamic movements. But patience is rewarded as the second section of the book proceeds to focus on conversion narratives and oral histories, for which the first section proves an indispensable backdrop.

Section two, drawing as it does from the language of followers of the religion speaking in their own words, is both colloquial and compelling. Dannin takes the reader from New York's maximum-security prisons to a Muslim village founded by four steelworkers during the Great Depression, from the intricacies of the doctrine of the Five-Percenters to the challenges faced by independent Black American women adapting to what often appears a harshly patriarchal faith.

Black Pilgrimage to Islam has its flaws. …