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American Quarterly 54.4 (2002) 623-659

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Respectability and Representation:
The Moorish Science Temple, Morocco, and Black Public Culture in 1920s Chicago

Susan Nance
University of California, Berkeley


Sometime in 1926 or early 1927, rumors began spreading around Chicago's South Side that a group of exotically-dressed men had begun initiating altercations with strangers in public. Critics claimed these men called themselves Moorish Americans and strode around the city daring startled whites to trample black rights by announcing, "I am a citizen of the USA!" Some also witnessed these "Sheiks" making agitating speeches at work and at the street universities at Washington Park and on State Street. Journalists later described their intimidating public presence: "They flaunted their fezzes on the street and treated the white man with undisguised contempt. Many of them affected formidable-looking beards." 1 Soon the leader of these men stepped forward. He was Noble Drew Ali, a street-corner orator and southern migrant who espoused a transforming mystery religion and a proud patriotism that drew crowds of listeners. For many Chicagoans, the Moors' behavior was proof of the cynical local opinion that southern migrants were uppity and easily manipulated by alleged charlatans who advocated militant black pride and civil disobedience. 2 Locals said the Moors were engaging in fistfights frequently enough that the police had begun monitoring their activities. An officer in Detroit recalled his contact with the Moors: "What a terrible gang! Thieves and cutthroats! Wouldn't answer anything. Wouldn't sit down when you told them. Wouldn't stand up when you told them. Pretending they didn't [End Page 623] understand you, that they were Moors from Morocco. They never saw Morocco! Those Moors never saw anything before they came to Detroit except Florida and Alabama!" 3 Not everyone in the city was convinced by the Moors' new ethnicity since it was linked with perceived radical behavior. Thus, the police, the press, and suspicious Chicago residents, black and white, argued these migrants' claim to an identity wholly divorced from their southern ones was misguided, if not intentionally fraudulent.

Noble Drew Ali seems to have understood that observers of his religious movement would view the Moors' representations of Morocco—their presentation of themselves as representations of Morocco—and their public behavior as a package, the Moors' occasional lawlessness or 'disrespectability' influencing whether observers chose to accept their claims to Moroccan heritage. Issuing a private warning to avoid conflict in the streets, Ali thus wrote a proclamation that was to be read at every Moorish Science temple (fig. 1), which stated in part, "I hereby inform all members that they must end all radical agitating speeches while at work in their homes or on the streets. We are for peace not destruction. Stop flashing your [Moorish-American identity] cards at Europeans; it causes confusion." 4 All along, Ali had espoused a law-and-order patriotism upon which the respectable exoticization of his religion was contingent. Accordingly, for a time the Moors and their prophet, Ali, did become publicly respectable by staging exoticizing but law-abiding displays of publicity that drew on whatever positive stereotypes of Morocco and Islam existed in black and white American culture. The Moors claimed royal descent; they donned fezzes, colorful gowns, and turbans and identified themselves as "Moslem" in order to divorce black identity from black southern culture and the ostensible lawlessness, laziness, and immorality typically associated with it. Yet, the clichés of the "East" that the Moors drew on were grounded in homegrown interpretations of North Africa so long in circulation in American culture that they had become loaded with multiple highly volatile messages—about race relations, black politics, and city livingin the United States—that the Moors could not completely contain. Consequently, this process involved walking a tightrope between respectable exoticism and the commercialized immoral exoticism of the sideshow and amusement park, an exoticism many Chicagoans believed catered to the supposed gullibility of the uppity southern migrant. [End Page 624]

The existing literature on American representations of the Middle East has...