CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne
We still need good ethnography about single new religious movements, the more so when they are obscure and controversial. Susan Palmer’s new book The Nuwaubian Nation. Black Spirituality and State Control (Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2010) is a welcome addition to the field of ethnographic studies of black messianic and millenarian movements in the United States. Palmer has been studying for several years the group subsequently called Ansaru Allah Community, Holy Tabernacle Ministries, United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, and Yamassee Native American Moors of the Creek Nation. All these organizations were the brainchild of Dwight York, known to his followers as “Dr. Malachi Zador York”, a name Palmer consistently uses throughout her book, although no evidence is offered that York holds a real doctorate. While York assumed during his religious ministry several different personae – Muslim imam, Hebrew rabbi, Native American chief –, he maintained a core teaching centered on the superiority of the Black race: a “blackosophy”, as Palmer calls it, firmly grounding the Nuwaubians in a tradition of African American racialism.
This is an important and well-researched book, whose only flaw is a truly excessive number of typos. For example, author Zecharia Sitchin is alternatively spelled “Zechariah Sitchen” (p. XXIV), “Zecharia Sitchen” (Index, which also wrongly remands to p. XXV rather than to p. XXIV), and “Zechariah Sitchin” (p. 16). Conspicuously absent is only the correct spelling. Sociologist Peter Worsley has his last name spelled correctly in the text and in a footnote at p. 143, but “Worsely” in four other footnotes at p. 142. And so on. These outcomes of sloppy proof-reading should not, however, keep the reader from appreciating the author’s tour de force as a white female social scientist exploring, with surprising empathy and success, a patriarchal and black racialist subculture.
Palmer reconstructs the origins and development of York’s career, mentioning also the doubts and holes in his story as currently described by both friends and foes. Even on the year of his birth – 1935 or 1945 – there is considerable controversy. Secular anti-cultists and Islamic counter-cultists, concerned about the risk that the Nuwaubians may attract African American seekers who would otherwise encounter a more orthodox form of Islam, have described York’s changing rituals and language as evidence of his fraudulent purposes. Palmer proposes a different narrative, where York consciously assumes the mythical role of the trickster in order to lead his followers into a renewed form of gnosis. York’s sources are indeed eclectic, but Palmer convincingly traces the origin of the Nuwaubian teachings to the Western esoteric tradition – including Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, and UFO lore (York claims to have been repeatedly visited by aliens from Zeta Reticuli) – much more than in Islam or Judaism. Although some of the most esoteric teachings and rituals have been kept from Palmer, her book offers rare insights into York’s “blackosophy”, insists on the Masonic connections, and shows how the Nuwaubians are both similar and different from other African American new religious movements including the Five Percenters, the Nation of Islam, and the Nation of Yahweh.
A large part of the book is devoted to York’s fall, starting from the ill-advised move in 1993 from New York to rural Georgia where the Nuwaubians built Tama Re, both holy city and Egyptian theme park. As Palmer notes, while other African American movements went North from South, York moved the other way round. Rural South did not welcome him. A black racialist group claiming that the white “palemen” were cursed by God with eternal leprosy could not sit well in counties still proud of their Confederate past. As usual – Palmer mentions Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, but the story dates back at least to the Mormons in Missouri and Illinois – Georgians became concerned when Nuwaubians started registering for voting, threatening to take over local city councils, the rural press played an inflammatory role, and defectors – led by one of York’s sons, Jacob – fed lurid rumors to the media.
As usual, again, the rumors the media were most interested in were of a sexual nature. Just like the Mormons of old, the Nuwaubians practiced polygamy, and York was credited with some 100 sons and daughters. And just like contemporary fundamentalist Mormons, who still practice polygamy more than a hundred years after mainline Mormonism abandoned it in 1890, the Nuwaubians were accused of involving minor girls in the practice. In 2002 Tama Re was raided and York arrested, in what local authorities described as the largest child molestation case in the history of the United States. Since York’s sexual relationships with underage girls extended into several States, the FBI was involved, and the Nuwaubian leader was successfully prosecuted through the use of the anti-mob RICO statute, which enabled the prosecutors to throw in financial charges and to seize the Nuwaubians’ assets, including Tama Re, even if it did not belong to York personally.
York was sentenced in 2004 to 135 years in a maximum security federal prison, and Tama Re was demolished in 2005. The Nuwaubians, however, still exist, and routinely try substantially hopeless legal appeals trying to free their leaders from jail. Whether post-charismatic Nuwaubians may really continue to operate without York remains to be seen.
York was not helped by his bizarre behavior in court, where he appeared alternatively in full Egyptian, Masonic, or Native American regalia and claimed to be outside the U.S. jurisdiction either as a leader of a sovereign Native American nation, as a Liberian diplomat (a claim the Liberian authorities did not confirm), or simply as God or the Messiah. Regalia and bizarre claims where interpreted by the media as an unsuccessful plot by York to persuade the court that he was mentally insane. Palmer offers an alternative explanation, and argues that York was engaged in an exercise of “ghost dancing” similar to the Ghost Shirt Dance of the Lakota Sioux in 1890, when the wearing of white shirts and sacred dances were supposed to protect against the white man’s bullets. York, Palmer suggests, and perhaps also the Lakota Sioux in 1890, did know that ghost shirts, dances and strange antics were not factually effective, but still resorted to them in order to escape from an intolerable reality into supernaturalism. York, the book notes, at least succeeded in preventing any violent outburst of his followers’ anger against the authorities.
Palmer explains York’s fall in Georgia through theories of labeling, deviance amplification, and the creation of “folk devils” by locals and media concerned both with black racialism and “cults”. Yet, the question remains: did York’s admittedly multiple marriages and sexual relationships involve under-age girls? Did he molest children, even outside plural marriage? Palmer does not exclude that some of the accusations may be true, and hints, although does not fully explore, at the possibility that “at a deeper, esoteric level” the still secret rituals may involve sexual elements whereby “the Master Teacher”, i.e. York, tries to “transmit the sacred culture of Nuwaupu – in a physical, embodied sense – to the next generation” (pp. 151-152).
But, according to Palmer, chances that we will ever know what really happened are slim. She clearly believes that York did not, perhaps could not, have a fair trial in Georgia. The court of public opinion had already judged him guilty as a “cultist” and a Black racist well before the trial began. Palmer’s conclusion is that there are limits to freedom of opinion in the United States: openly advocating polygamy and claiming that white men are lepers racially inferior to African Americans is ultimately not tolerated in rural Georgia, perhaps not even in New York. She also underlines that this was the fourth case where the RICO statute was used against new religious movements (including the Nation of Yahweh, in a 1992 Florida case quite similar to York’s), and that “the application of RICO in these four cases poses a dangerous precedent in a nation that values religious freedom” (p. 166).
On the other hand, the question remains. When suspicions arise about possible crimes committed by fringe religious leaders how can law enforcement authorities investigate them without conceding to local prejudice? How a fair trial can be guaranteed to these highly unpopular accused, protecting them from bigotry, yet scrutinizing in depth also the claims by the alleged victims? These questions do not have an easy answer. Perhaps the jury system is not well suited to accused which are part or leads unpopular groups. Achieving a balance between protecting the victims of malfeasant religious leaders, who certainly do exist, and avoiding the prosecution of unpopular ideas is extremely difficult. All parties involved in “cult-watching” – the general expression used by Eileen Barker and quoted by Palmer (p. 152) –, as different as they may be, should recognize this balance as an aim worthy of their best efforts.