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  • The Other Harlem Renaissance:Father Divine, Celibate Economics, and the Making of Black Sexuality
  • Benjamin Kahan (bio)

Divine Alternatives

In his foreword to Bobby Seale's A Lonely Rage (1978), James Baldwin describes feeling "inept" and "almost presumptuous" in writing an introduction to the autobiography of the co-founder of the Black Panthers. These feelings stem from the differences in generational outlook between the older Baldwin and the younger Seale:

The time of my youth was entirely different and the savage irony of hindsight allows me to suggest that the time of my youth was far less hopeful . . . . Our most visible heroes were Father Divine and Joe Louis—we, in the ghetto then, knew very little about Paul Robeson. We knew very little about anything black, in fact, and this was not our fault.

("Stagolee" ix–x)

Here, the spiritual leader "Father Divine" and the heavy-weight champion "Joe Louis" seem to signify knowledge about blackness, constituting some of the "little" known "about anything black."1 Langston Hughes similarly flags the importance of Divine and Louis in his distinctly inclusive "The Heart of Harlem" (1945):

The buildings in Harlem are brick and stoneAnd the streets are long and wide,But Harlem's much more than these alone,Harlem is what's inside—

It's Joe Louis and Dr. W. E. B.A Stevedore, a porter, Marian Anderson, and me.It's Father Divine and the music of Earl Hines,Adam Powell in Congress, our drivers on bus lines.

(Collected 311–12)

Joe Louis' 1938 defeat of the German Max Schmeling was understood allegorically as an American victory over Nazism. Louis was a national hero and a model for (black) manhood during the fearful time of the Depression and coming war. While much has been written about the importance of Joe Louis in relation to national and international politics,2 it is far less clear what the much-misunderstood and much-maligned Father Divine signifies for black identity in the 1930s and 1940s.

Father Divine was an intellectual and religious leader who believed he was God. In the 1930s, when his religion, the Peace Mission Movement, was at its apex, he had a large following both nationally and abroad. In Harlem, he is estimated to have had between three and four thousand core followers, though his appearances drew crowds of ten to fifteen thousand and his newspaper, the Spoken Word, had a national circulation of about thirty thousand (Watts 141–42). The size of his global following in the 1930s is disputed, but was estimated to be in the millions (Griffith 119–20).3 The central ritual of the religion was the banquet table at which Divine lavished abundant and delicious food on thousands of unemployed and hungry people. At the table, Divine impresses the hungry visitors with his overwhelming bounty, quieting their stomachs' grumblings long enough to hear his message. Divine's strong emphasis on celibacy seems at odds with this practice of gluttonous eating, but both practices have the effect of focusing followers' attention on the materiality of his body.4 He organized his followers into communal interracial celibate living situations called kingdoms. Members of these celibate kingdoms broke ties with their families, friends, and spouses, creating an environment in which to meditate on Divine and his teachings, minimizing influences outside the Peace Mission Movement. Divine's own abstinent marriage underwrites rather than undermines this emphasis on celibacy as he considered his marriage sacrificial, marrying so that his followers would not have to suffer the burdens of conjugality. [End Page 38]

Despite Father Divine's following and mass appeal, many believed he was a charlatan and a swindler. Hughes' own "Projection of a Day" (1946) imagines Father Divine speaking the truth "when the Savoy / leaps clean over to Seventh Avenue / and starts jitterbugging" (Collected 403–04). Owen Dodson's Divine Comedy (1938) presents a similarly unfavorable portrait of Divine, as does Chester Himes' A Rage in Harlem (1957), where the protagonist analogizes getting conned and believing in Father Divine: "It [the con] hadn't been too hard for him to believe. Other people in Harlem believed that Father Divine was God" (31). Period journalism bolsters these literary depictions...


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