The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam

The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam

The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam

The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam


The patriarchal structure of the Nation of Islam (NOI) promised black women the prospect of finding a provider and a protector among the organization's men, who were fiercely committed to these masculine roles. Black women's experience in the NOI, however, has largely remained on the periphery of scholarship. Here, Ula Taylor documents their struggle to escape the devaluation of black womanhood while also clinging to the empowering promises of patriarchy. Taylor shows how, despite being relegated to a lifestyle that did not encourage working outside of the home, NOI women found freedom in being able to bypass the degrading experiences connected to labor performed largely by working-class black women and in raising and educating their children in racially affirming environments.

Telling the stories of women like Clara Poole (wife of Elijah Muhammad) and Burnsteen Sharrieff (secretary to W. D. Fard, founder of the Allah Temple of Islam), Taylor offers a compelling narrative that explains how their decision to join a homegrown, male-controlled Islamic movement was a complicated act of self-preservation and self-love in Jim Crow America.


I became initially drawn to women and the Nation of Islam (NOI) as a scholarly project when Spike Lee’s movie Malcolm X premiered in 1992. As a young assistant professor, I was asked to participate on a panel after the movie for a question-and- answer session with the audience. Given that I was the only female panelist, I knew I would be expected to answer any woman-related question. It was during my preparation for the event that the glaring void in the literature on women in the original noi became evident. I published an essay in 1998 based on my initial findings and assumed I was done!

But over time, I would occasionally tinker with the materials in my office— truckloads of copies of Muhammad Speaks and secondary literature on the noi —largely because the possibilities of building a black nation in the United States continued to fascinate me. in 2003, I marshaled a chapter on noi women for an edited collection on the Northern freedom struggle. Again, I thought I was done! Still, I followed with interest as other scholars completed dissertations and book chapters on the topic. These tended to focus on individuals, such as Sister Clara Muhammad, or on later periods, post-1960s. I began to wonder even more about the early years in Detroit. During my winter break in 2006, I ventured to the city for a three-day research trip. When I located a 1934 report commis sioned by the Detroit Welfare Department at the main branch of the public library, I finally realized that I was not done! This document, an investigation into families of the “Detroit Moslem Cult” who had pulled their children out of public schools, had not been quoted in any of the materials I had seen, and it fully reinvigorated my interest in the noi.

At the present time, the noi is largely thought about in terms of the Million Man March under the leadership of Minister Louis Farrakhan. It is an organization that celebrates black achievement and a willingness to shoulder the burden of blackness in America. Whether “atoning” for not fully executing patriarchal mandates to provide for and protect black women or supplying security for druginfested public housing projects, Farrakhan’s Nation considers itself the leader in the redemption of black America.

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