No April Fool: Q&A with author Kembrew McLeod

To celebrate April 1 and the release of our new book, Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World, today we have a Q&A with the author—and self-proclaimed prankster—Kembrew McLeod. McLeod discusses pranks, hoaxes and cons (and what makes them different), the origins of secret societies, and how pranks and humor have been used throughout history to spark debate and inspire change.

Interviewer: What are the differences between pranks, hoaxes and cons?

Kembrew McLeod: When media outlets report that a person has been “pranked,” they are often discussing what I consider a hoax. A hoax is a kissing cousin of a prank, but its primary purpose is to fool people and attract attention. A prank, for me, is a staged provocation that uses media to enlighten or stir up a debate. I use cons as an all­purpose term for scams that are meant to defraud or gain an advantage—like an email phishing scam. Although it seems like the Internet Age has created a hurricane of pranking, hoaxing and conning, this tricky tradition has thrived for centuries.

You mention that one of America’s “founding fathers” was a merry prankster.

Ben Franklin was an O.P.—Original Prankster. In fact, Franklin’s very first print publication was a pseudonymously penned hoax (he wrote more than 100 satires, pranks and hoaxes under fake names over the course of his lifetime). Just before he died, Franklin penned an op­ed under the name “Historicus,” which trolled the anti­abolitionists by arguing that Muslims should enslave Christians. You won’t find that story in any Fox News­produced documentary on Ben Franklin!

What does media have to do with pranks?

If reduced to a mathematical formula, the art and science of pranking can be expressed as Performance Art + Satire x Media = Pranks. Put simply, pranks are playful critiques performed within the public sphere, and amplified by media. They allow ordinary people to reach large audiences despite constraints (like a lack of wealth or connections) that would normally mute their voices.

What are the prank origins of the urban legend that smoking banana peels can get you high?

Members of the hippie band Country Joe & the Fish started this rumor, which first spread through word of mouth and was quickly picked up by the national news media. Soon, lots of people joined in on the fun. For instance, Rep. Frank Thompson drafted the Banana Labeling Act of 1967 after a “high official in the FDA,” the Congressman claimed, urged him to introduce the bill. “From bananas,” Thompson stated in the halls of Congress, “it is a short but shocking step to other fruits.”

The past year has seen many pranks and hoaxes. Does the wired age lend itself to these events, or are we just more aware of them?

The Internet has changed the ways that pranks, hoaxes and cons can circulate, but trickery has been a pronounced part of the modern age since Jonathan Swift’s time. Pranks went viral much more slowly back then, but the dynamic is still the same.

Your book pays homage to women involved in important pranks. Many readers are probably familiar with Yoko Ono, but fewer know WITCH. What was WITCH?

The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) was an unruly group of ‘60s feminists who pulled many a political prank. For instance, they crashed a large bridal fair and performed an Un­Wedding Ceremony: “We promise to smash the alienated family unit,” they said in unison. “We promise not to obey.”

Some people have heard of the Illuminati from hip­-hop, or they may have encountered the Rosicrucians in a book or movie. What are the prank origins of these so-­called “secret societies”?

The Rosicrucian Brotherhood was invented in the early seventeenth century by Protestant pranksters in 1614. Their anonymously published “Rosicrucian Manifestos” were intended to stir up a public debate about scientific and theological ideas that the Catholic Church opposed. The Rosicrucian myth created the template for virtually every occult conspiracy theory that followed: an elite body of initiates—a satanic secret society within a secret society, sometimes known as the Illuminati—that wants to overthrow the established religious­political authority and create a New World Order.

Why do people put so much credence in ideas that a simple Google search can debunk?

Belief systems are powerful. People fall for pranks, hoaxes, cons and conspiracy theories when they confirm their deep­seated worldviews. Conspiracy theories are inherently non­falsifiable, and any attempt to disprove them is considered suspect.

What sparked your interest in pranks?

When I was a twenty­ year-old college student, I created a fictitious movement to change my school mascot to a three-eyed pig with antlers. It snowballed from the campus newspaper to regional news media, eventually landing on CNN. Reflecting back on the mascot changing prank, it helped me understand how trickery can shape mass media and, to a certain extent, how we perceive the world. It was my first dive into the prankster pond, and I was never the same.

Finally: Is Andy Kaufman still alive?

You’ll have to ask him yourself.

Women’s History Month: Remembering Viola Wyle, “a mother to all”

—Caroline E. Light

Many common threads link the lives of the orphans and widowed mothers documented in the case files of the Hebrew Orphans Home of Atlanta. They came to the home when life circumstances left them no other choice: economic crisis, illness, death, and abandonment recur in these records, and the institution extended to each the helping hand of Jewish gemilut hasadim, or “loving kindness.” But another constant, from just before the Great Depression until World War II, was their contact with a woman who many came to see as a surrogate mother during a time of extreme hardship and emotional strain.

Viola Wyle, the orphan home’s Director of Case Work starting in January 1929, was born in Ohio in 1881, the daughter of a native-born father and a Czechoslovakian mother. Before arriving at the Atlanta home at age 49 with her husband Armand, the home’s new superintendent, and her daughter, Eleanor, she had served Jewish orphan homes in Rochester, New York; Newark, New Jersey; and Cleveland, Ohio.

Early in her career, Wyle had attended the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children in January 1909—less than one year before she herself became a mother—where she joined two hundred other social work professionals to discuss the effects of institutionalization on young children. Declaring that “home life is the highest and finest product of civilization,” President Theodore Roosevelt called for an end to the institutionalization of impoverished children. Twenty years later, Viola Wyle would make it her mission to provide loving homes for the Jewish orphans and half-orphans of the southeast.

The Wyles moved to Atlanta in January 1929, just months before the Stock Market crash would send the nation hurtling into economic crisis, with a catastrophic impact on southern immigrant communities. While the wives of past Superintendents had assumed the role of “Matron” or home mother, Viola Wyle worked as a vital part of the home’s professional team, overseeing the process of assigning children to foster families in the community and supervising widowed mothers who received monthly subsidies to care for their own children. It was through her efforts and ingenuity that the home ended its institutionalized care by 1931.

Wyle’s substantial personal qualities and warmth helped generate trust and cooperation among her clients throughout the home’s five state region, and her impact is evident in the extensive case files she compiled and managed during her tenure. As a result of a combination of meticulous record-keeping and what one might call sentimentality, the case files she left behind provide a treasure trove of insight into the lives of Jewish southerners who struggled for survival during the Depression. Her tendency to keep and file the sometimes personal correspondence that transpired between herself and the widows and orphans whose lives she touched illuminate the complexity and ambivalence that characterized the relationship between social workers and their clients.

Hers was difficult and sometimes heartbreaking work, in which she had to balance sympathy for her clients with discerning attention to the institution’s strained budget. For example, Wyle visited the homes of subsidized mothers, ensuring that their children were properly socialized and educated. She determined which local families could provide suitable foster homes for orphans. She collected report cards from all children in the home’s care, providing additional support for subsidized and foster mothers whose children struggled academically.

Yet beyond her provision of guidance and supervision for the home’s regionally dispersed clientele, Wyle served as a source of warmth and reassurance, a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, for many of the struggling families she served. Her death in March 1944 sent shockwaves through her community, and the home sent letters to clients both past and present notifying them of the tragic loss of a “mother to all.” Viola Wyle’s personal mementoes—the wedding and bar and bat mitzvah invitations, New Years and Mothers’ Day cards, and baby announcements—are all preserved alongside the professionally assembled case records documenting the lives touched by this “professional altruist.” We owe the depth and richness of this archive to her.

Caroline E. Light is Director of Undergraduate Studies at Harvard’s Program in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of That Pride of Race and Character: The Roots of Jewish Benevolence in the Jim Crow South (NYU Press, 2014).

A “more Irish” St. Patrick’s Day parade tradition?

—Jennifer Nugent Duffy

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio added another layer of controversy to this year’s St. Patrick’s Day season when he announced his decision to boycott the city’s parade because of its policy that prohibits homosexuals from marching under a separate banner. Undoubtedly many Irish Americans will dismiss de Blasio’s stance and possibly attribute it to his Italian heritage, but it will be more difficult, however, to overlook Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who has threatened to boycott his city’s parade if gay groups are excluded. As the son of Irish immigrants, perhaps Walsh’s choice is shaped by St. Patrick’s Day parade traditions in Ireland, which are far more tolerant than the ones on this side of the Atlantic. Of course, the parades emerged in dramatically different contexts.

St. Patrick’s Day parades emerged in the mid-nineteenth century United States in a profoundly nativist and hostile climate.  The Irish—who began to arrive in the 1830s— witnessed church attacks and efforts by fraternal organizations like the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, or the Know Nothings, to bar the foreign-born from holding office. Anti-Irish sentiment only intensified as 1.5 million Irish people sought refuge in the United States from Ireland’s Great Famine. Here Irish immigrants faced resentment for their Catholicism, but also questions regarding their loyalty to the United States, as many remained committed to nationalist groups that sought to free Ireland of British rule.

As the United States became increasingly urbanized and industrialized, meager wages and industrial accidents made it difficult for Irish men to support their families.  As a result, the Irish had the second highest number of female-headed households in the United States. Yet Irish households were condemned as disorderly because they did not have the economic security to meet America’s middle-class domestic ideal of a wage-earning husband and a family-rearing wife. Furthermore, Irish immigrants transgressed America’s racial order by engaging in intimate relationships with Chinese immigrants and free Blacks in New York neighborhoods like the notorious Five Points in lower Manhattan. In political cartoons, Irish immigrants and African Americans were depicted as similarly repulsive to the American public.

The Irish response to this hostility was a mixed bag. They refused to yield in regards to their Catholicism, but demonstrated their loyalty to the United States by fighting in the Civil War. Unlike Chinese immigrants, the Irish could naturalize and vote, and they leveraged their political power to secure better-paying municipal jobs, which soon allowed Irish immigrants to form more traditional households. But they also learned to adhere to America’s racial order. Within a generation, Irish immigrants went from being attacked to participating in the 1863 Draft Riots, lynching free Blacks on the streets of New York City, and attacking interracial couples.  With these actions they made it clear that Irishness in the United States, meant white.

We see the legacy of this history in St. Patrick’s Day parade traditions in cities like New York. Parade leaders fiercely resist any displays that may challenge their religion or traditional definitions of marriage and family.  Adherence to conventional gender roles is also on display, as grand marshals are almost always male but also white. The Irish are so removed from liaisons with nineteenth-century free Blacks that African Americans with Irish surnames, like “Eddie Murphy,” are not considered Irish.  President Obama, who traces some of his ancestry to Moneygall, County Offaly, will probably never be asked to lead the parade in Manhattan (although I am sure that he would be welcomed at the St. Pat’s for All parade in Queens).

In marked contrast, displays of Irishness in the Republic of Ireland are not as firmly anchored in sexuality, gender, race or even ethnicity for that matter. Christine Quinn, New York’s first female and openly gay City Council Speaker, led the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, as did Samantha Mumba, an Afro-Irish singer and actress. Drag queens are a popular presence in the Dublin parade and in local celebrations; it is not unusual for new groups, like Polish immigrants to participate under their own banners. Though St. Patrick’s Day initially was a religious holiday in Ireland, current parade practices indicate how traditions can and do change, often dramatically. Political independence and economic growth has shaped a parade tradition that is confident and encompassing, rather than defensive or exclusionary.

Though St. Patrick’s Day parades in the United States initially were formed by an unreceptive environment in which the Irish defended themselves from hostile nativists, parade leaders are still defensive—even though that hostility and fears about an Irish social, economic and political presence have dissipated.

Do we still need a parade defined by that experience? Though leaders speak as if the parade is under attack, the real threat stems not from the participation of Irish homosexuals but from the leaders themselves. Graying parade leadership suggests that their narrow definition of Irishness, so inflexibly grounded in the nineteenth century, is unappealing not only to Mayor de Blasio and other progressives, but also to young Irish Americans, who are conspicuously absent from the parade committee. Parade leaders take notice: if the St. Patrick’s Day parade tradition does not change, it may be doomed to extinction.

Jennifer Nugent Duffy is Associate Professor of History, Western Connecticut State University. She is the author of Who’s Your Paddy? Racial Expectations and the Struggle for Irish American Identity (NYU Press 2013).

Making America Christian: A forgotten HERstory

—Priscilla Pope-Levison

Visit dusty archives around the country, even into Canada, and you’ll discover a slew of sermons, diaries, papers, and autobiographies of women evangelists, whose profound impact on American religion is now neatly boxed away on tidy—and more often untidy—shelves, from Oskaloosa, Iowa, to the farthest eastern tip of Nova Scotia. The women whose letters and papers you’ll find there are notably absent from the conventional history of American evangelism, which moves from Jonathan Edwards to Charles Finney to Dwight Moody to Billy Sunday to Billy Graham.

Two decades ago, as I did my class prep for an introductory lecture on American evangelism, resources by and about these men flooded my desk. I began to ask a simple question: Were there any women? I wasn’t aware enough of any women evangelists to pose the question, “Where have all the women gone?” because I didn’t know if they were there in the first place.

Twenty years later, I know. Yes, they were there, a whole army of them, like Evangeline Booth in this Salvation Army photo. Women weren’t just there, in fact; they were actually shaping American religion in profound and powerful ways, as they engaged in courageous social outreach, changed the shape of American politics, and attracted hundreds of thousands of devotees.

Social outreach

These women evangelists championed an intrepid humanitarianism. Sojourner Truth solicited aid for freed slaves living in squalid camps in the nation’s capital city. Phoebe Palmer began Five Points Mission, one of America’s first urban mission centers, in a New York City slum. Within two months after Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple Free Dining Hall opened in 1931, its workers had already fed more than 80,000 hungry people, and the Angelus Temple Commissary, opened in 1927, was crucial to the survival of many in Los Angeles during the Depression. And their contribution to race relations? Women evangelists held integrated meetings—Jarena Lee, for example, whose audiences in the 1820s included “white and colored,” “slaves and the holders,” and “Indians.” This practice continued into the twentieth century, with Aimee Semple McPherson’s and Kathryn Kuhlman’s racially integrated services.

Political impact

These women influenced the nation’s leaders, too. Harriet Livermore preached in Congress several times between 1827 and 1843 about the predicament of Native Americans. Sojourner Truth generated a petition and presented it to President Ulysses S. Grant, requesting that a colony for freed slaves be established in the western United States. Jennie Fowler Willing’s speech on women and temperance in 1874 prompted hearers to form the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the largest women’s organization in its day. Through her periodical, Woman’s Chains, Alma White supported the platform of the National Woman’s Party, including the Equal Rights Amendment. And Aimee Semple McPherson marshaled her vast number of followers to help defeat Upton Sinclair in his 1934 bid to become California’s governor because, she claimed—albeit mistakenly—that he would introduce Communist and anti-Christian legislature in the state.

Massive numbers

These women preached to audiences often numbering in the thousands. During her 1889 Oakland revival, Maria Woodworth-Etter repeatedly packed to capacity her 8000-seat tent. Aimee Semple McPherson’s church in Los Angeles, Angelus Temple, boasted a 5300-seat auditorium, which filled up three times for Sunday services. Crowds for the weekly healing service stood in long lines, waiting for an open seat in the auditorium. At the age of fourteen, Uldine Utley preached on Halloween night in Madison Square Garden in 1926 to a crowd of 14,000. This service marked the end of her four-week, two-sermons-a-day evangelistic campaign in New York City. Numbers are impossible to gauge for Kathryn Kuhlman’s radio program, “Heart-to-Heart,” broadcast regularly for over 40 years, or her long-running CBS television program, “I Believe in Miracles.”

I no longer ask the question, Were there any women? Nor do I ask, Where have all the women gone? Now I know, at least in part. They’ve underwritten the legacy of American religion, which, until now, has been overwritten by the lives and legacy of their male counterparts. No more, however. It is time to write women evangelists into the history of American religion because our take on American religion is different—changed—by their ubiquitous presence, their bold initiatives, their fascinating personalities.

Priscilla Pope-Levison is Professor of Theology and Assistant Director of Women’s Studies at Seattle Pacific University. She is the author of Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era (NYU Press, 2013).

[This post originally appeared on the Patheos blog, spiritchatter.]

Happy Mardi Gras from NYU Press!

It’s Mardi Gras, y’all! 

In honor of Fat Tuesday, we’re featuring an excerpt from our award-winning book, Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy (NYU Press, 2007). Written by Tulane sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham, the book illuminates how New Orleans became a tourist town known as much for its excesses as for its eccentric Southern charm. The excerpt below is from the book’s second chapter, “Processions and Parades: Carnival Krewes and the Development of Modern Mardi Gras.”

Authentic New Orleans – Chapter 2

“I felt safer among the alligators than among the white men”

—Sylviane A. Diouf

For all its apparent fidelity to the narrative of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave falls quite short when it comes to integrating the various dimensions of community solidarity and resistance Northup witnessed and described. Making them part of the film, even tangentially, would not only have given a more faithful account of the book but, more importantly, of the historical reality.

During his years in Louisiana, Northup heard, discussed, and saw them all: from talks of rebellion to wishes of American defeat in the Mexican War, from planned mass migration to Mexico to escapes to the woods.  Especially escapes to the woods. Northup even planned for his own by mistreating the dogs so that they would not attack if sent after him; and he secretly fed Celeste, a runaway who hid in the swamps for months to avoid the whippings of her overseer.

Indeed, like her, tens of thousands of men, women, and children left for the woods, the swamps and the mountains, carving into the wilds what I call “the maroon landscape” that extended from the borderland of plantations to the hinterland and cut paths to the slave quarters, the Big House and even the cities. Some were newly-arrived Africans, like Arrow from Benin, who escaped two days after landing in Charleston and managed to stay hidden for years. Others built large communities, as did St. Malo in Louisiana, and even a fortified camp, as did Captain Cudjoe in the Lowcountry.

Counting on their own resources—the tacit solidarity of the enslaved community (a community completely absent from McQueen’s film), night raids on plantation warehouses and, sometimes, remunerated work for white and black men—the maroons created a unique alternative existence. Rejecting passing for free in the slavery South or the semi-free North, they wanted out of white-controlled areas, even if living in the wilds was hard and hazardous.

Many felt safe only when they disappeared from the face of the earth.  When her owner hit her, a young woman hit back and ran away to a cave, an underground home that her husband equipped with a stove and furniture. Three children were born there, a stone’s throw away from the plantation. While the husband remained enslaved, bringing them the food he gathered from neighbors, mother and children lived under the Georgia ground for seven years and got out only after slavery was abolished. Hundred of miles away, a Virginia family lived in its own large cave and brought to life fifteen children who never had to endure slavery.

Maroons developed new forms of life as they retreated from, but still measured themselves against, a terrorist system and took advantage of a challenging environment. Their removal to the wilderness was not only a denunciation of the social order of the land but more profoundly, a radical rupture. Like the runaways, they wanted freedom but, distinctively, they wanted freedom on their own terms, not those of the larger society.

It was a difficult enterprise and, to be sure, they made mistakes. Some cost them their freedom or their lives. But over all, their neglected narrative, is one of courage and resourcefulness; hardships endured and freedoms won that adds a crucial chapter to the multi-faceted chronicle of slave resistance. One that 12 Years a Slave, the movie, unfortunately chose to ignore.

Northup knew from experience that, “Notwithstanding the certainty of being captured, the woods and swamps are, nevertheless, continually filled with runaways.” Former maroon Tom Wilson from Texas explained why: “I felt safer among the alligators than among the white men.”

Sylviane A. Diouf is an award-winning historian of the African Diaspora. She is the author, notably, of Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons and Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, both with NYU Press.

Cars, planes, and gospel grenades: Women evangelists settle down

—Priscilla Pope-Levison

I’ve been writing on women evangelists for some twenty years now, and I thought I’d seen it all: the faith healer Maria Woodworth-Etter, who fell into forty-five minute trances during her sermons with her right arm raised above her head, moving slowly back and forth, and her index finger pointed upward—or Uldine Utley, a child prodigy who at age fourteen filled Madison Square Garden for a four-week, two-sermons-a-day evangelistic campaign.

Then, I traveled from Seattle to Portland, Oregon, where I met, face to face, the legacy of Florence Crawford, a Pentecostal evangelist from the heady days of the 1906 Azusa Street Revival. From Los Angeles, Crawford traveled north to bring the apostolic faith message to the Pacific Northwest and eventually settled in Portland, where she founded the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM). Her creative and expansive adaptation of transportation technology for evangelism in and around her Portland headquarters ranks as an entrepreneurial marvel.

Crawford began modestly enough with a gospel wagon purchased for $250 in 1908. She owned only the wagon; horses had to be hired for each evangelistic meeting in a Portland park. White canvas stretched tautly over each side of the wagon provided a surface for gospel slogans printed in large capital letters: PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD and TURN YE FOR WHY WILL YE DIE. She quickly transitioned from a horse-drawn wagon to the automotive horsepower of a Federal truck, complete with detachable seats for carrying literature. In 1913, a band of a dozen workers took the truck on its first evangelistic trip, driving from Portland to Vancouver, a one-way distance of more than 300 miles. Within two years, by 1915, she had purchased enough automobiles, fourteen in all, to ensure that each city with an AFM mission—Vancouver, Seattle, Tacoma, Eugene, Dallas, and Portland—had at least one car to use for evangelism.

Once she had amassed a garage full of automobiles, she purchased a 3-passenger Curtiss Oriole, The Sky Pilot, in 1919.  Her son, Raymond, pioneered aerial evangelism, which entailed dropping religious papers from the air, like 1,000 papers over rural Idaho and 9,000 invitations over Portland. Targeted areas for the literature drop included Oregon’s state penitentiary, reform schools, poor farms in Multnomah and Clackamas counties, and town centers throughout greater Portland. Dive bombing areas with religious literature did not last long, however, because in 1922, legal restrictions were passed, prohibiting the practice, so Crawford sold The Sky Pilot.

Not content to evangelize by road and air, Crawford initiated an evangelistic outreach to the sailors aboard merchant ships from many countries docked in the Portland harbor, located about 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean on the Willamette River. For harbor evangelism, she bought a 28-foot motorboat named the Morning Star. AFM workers steered the Morning Star alongside docked ships, and, when given permission by the captain, set up an extension ladder to climb aboard in order to distribute religious literature and invite sailors to services at the mission. For ships whose captains prohibited them on board, the workers launched “gospel grenades”—waterproof packets of religious papers printed in the language of the sailors on that ship. Factoring in the height differential between the Morning Star and a seagoing ship, the grenades had to be thrown as high as fifty feet in the air in order to land on deck.

Obviously, Crawford was nothing if not entrepreneurial in her use of transportation technology for evangelism. Yet there is something distinctive in the way she chose to exercise that entrepreneurial spirit. She hunkered down in one location and launched evangelistic forays from her Portland headquarters. She bought cars to be driven up and down the coast from Oregon north to British Columbia, a plane to drop literature over the entire state of Oregon, and a boat to ply the Portland harbor. In other words, Crawford stayed put and focused her entrepreneurial evangelism in nearby neighborhoods and cities.

In the years prior to the Progressive Era, women evangelists with that same entrepreneurial spirit chose to itinerate. Jarena Lee, for example, who in the 1820s and 1830s itinerated throughout New England, north into Canada, and west into Ohio, traveled by foot, stagecoach, and boat to preach in churches, schools, camp meetings, barns, and homes. Her contemporary, Nancy Towle, preached throughout the United States, Canada, England, and Ireland. These evangelists embody the moniker, “rootless women,” coined by Elizabeth Elkin Grammer in her book, Some Wild Visions: Autobiographies by Female Itinerant Evangelists in 19th-Century America.

Crawford represents the next generation of women evangelists, who settled down from a wandering itinerancy and built institutions to gather in converts, engage in evangelism, and establish a legacy in brick and mortar, in the bylaws and printed materials of their churches, denominations, schools, rescue homes, and rescue missions. In Hicks Hollow, an impoverished enclave in Kansas City, a former slave, Emma Ray, turned a ramshackle, two-story wooden building into a rescue mission for African American children, while at a nondescript crossroad along the foothills of the Appalachians, Mattie Perry founded Elhanan Training School in a former hotel, which she refurbished and furnished. Emma Whittemore launched her first of nearly one hundred Door of Hope rescue homes amidst the squalor of a New York City tenement.

These largely unsung entrepreneurial women evangelists resolved to settle down and build institutions, often financing them with little more than donations of pennies and crates of apples. Remarkably, many of their institutions continue a century later, including Crawford’s Apostolic Faith Mission, which sends out across the globe from its Portland headquarters more than two million pieces of literature each year.

Priscilla Pope-Levison is Professor of Theology and Assistant Director of Women’s Studies at Seattle Pacific University. She is the author of Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era (NYU Press, 2013).

What’s new about Hanukkah?

—Dianne Ashton

[This post originally appeared on the Jewish Book Council blog on November 26, 2013.]

This year, Jewish Americans will participate in an extraordinary Hanukkah celebration—they will light the first menorah candle on the evening before Thanksgiving. This has never happened before, but we came very close to it in 1888. Then, the first Hanukkah light and Thanksgiving occurred on the same day. That year, the national Jewish newspaper, the American Hebrew, dedicated its November 30 issue to the “twofold feasts.” The issue was as much “a tribute to the historic significance of Chanuka” as to “the traditions entwined about Thanksgiving Day.” The editors hoped readers would find the newspaper to be “a stimulus to the joyousness and gladness upon the observance of both.” In previous years they had described Hanukkah as a festival to thank God for the Maccabean victory, and, seeing both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as occasions for giving thanks to God, they easily encouraged American Jews to enthusiastically celebrate both events.

But most of the time, as we know, Hanukkah occurs at a time closer to Christmas. Most years, the American Hebrew’s Hanukkah message urged its readers not to join their fellow Americans in the national festivities because it was the celebration of Jesus’ birth that enchanted their gentile neighbors. Instead, that newspaper echoed the December messages of most other Jewish publications. Jewish newspapers, synagogue bulletins, women’s and men’s club letters, rabbinical sermons, and the urgings of educators and self-styled community leaders alike urged America’s Jews to make their Hanukkah celebrations as festive as possible.

Again and again, in the years since that early American Hebrew message, American Jews wove Hanukkah’s story into their own contemporary lives in ways that reflected their changing circumstances. Those retellings kept Hanukkah’s meaning alive and relevant. They turned the simple holiday rite into an event which, like other well-loved Jewish festivals, drew families together in their own homes where they could tailor the celebration to fit their own tastes in food and décor, and to reflect their own ideas about the holiday’s significance. They could indulge their children, and be joyous.

Will we ever celebrate Hanukkah and Thanksgiving together this way again? Almost. In 2070 Thanksgiving will fall on November 27th and Hanukkah will begin the following day. In 2165, we will light the first Hanukkah candle on November 28—Thanksgiving Day. But for Hanukkah’s first light to occur the evening before Thanksgiving, as it does this year, is truly an anomaly we won’t see again.

Dianne Ashton is Professor of Religion Studies and former director of the American Studies program at Rowan University. Her most recent book, Hanukkah in America: A History (NYU Press, 2013) is now available. (Read more about the book in this review from the Jewish Book Council.)

Why Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will never again coincide

—Joel Hoffman

[This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post on November 24, 2013.] 

This month, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will overlap for a joint celebration that will never happen again. Here’s why. (Try to keep up with me on this.)

Thanksgiving is the 4th Thursday in November. Hanukkah is the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.

The 4th Thursday in November can range from the 22nd to the 28th. If the 29th is a Thursday, then so is the 1st, so the 29th would be the fifth Thursday, not the fourth. And if the 21st is a Thursday, then it’s only the third Thursday. On average, then, Thanksgiving falls on the 28th about every seven years. It will fall on the 28th this year, then again in 2019, 2024, 2030, and 2041, or four times in the next 28 years. (It’s not exactly every seven years because leap days throw things off a little.)

The Jewish month of Kislev can currently start as early as November 3 or as late as December 2, which means that the first day of Hanukkah can come as early as November 28 or as late as December 27.

The reason for the broad range of possible dates is that the Jewish calendar is lunar-solar. The months are based on the cycles of the moon. But the calendar changes the lengths of those months, and even how many months are in a year, to make sure that Passover always falls in the spring. This complex system—put in place by Rav Shmuel in the first half of the first millennium CE—ensures that the Jewish date and the secular date match up every 19 years. (By contrast, the Muslim calendar is purely lunar, which is why Ramadan can fall during any time of the solar year. The Christian religious calendar is almost entirely solar, but Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox [around March 21], a calculation that involves the moon as well as the sun.)

Because of this Jewish 19-year cycle, 19 years from now, in the year 2032, Hanukkah will again fall on November 28. But Thanksgiving in that year falls three days earlier, on the 25th.

On average, we would expect the 19-year Jewish cycle and the 7-year Thanksgiving-on-November-28 cycle to coincide about every 19×7 years, which is to say, approximately every 133 years. And they sort of do.

One-hundred and fifty-two years ago, in 1861, the first day of Hanukkah and the 4th Thursday in November were both on November 28th. But there was no Thanksgiving back then.

In 152 years from now, in 2165, Thanksgiving falls on the 28th, and you’d expect Hanukkah also to fall on the 28th, but it doesn’t.

If you’ve been paying attention (and if you haven’t given up yet), you may have noticed that I said “currently” when I explained when Kislev can begin. Remember Shmuel, who fixed the details of our current Jewish calendar in the first place? He, like everyone else back then, though that the year was 365.25 days long. This is why we have a usual year of 365 days, but every 4th year we add a leap day in February to make 366.

But Shmuel—again, like everyone else—was off by a little more than 11 minutes. The year is not quite 365.25 days long, but, rather, closer to only 365.2425 days, or about 11 minutes shorter than 365.25 days. For a long time no one noticed those 11 minutes. For a longer time no one cared. But by the time of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, those 11 minutes per year—or about 3 days per 400 years—had added up to about ten days.

This meant that March 21, which had once been the approximate date of the spring equinox, was now 10 days later than the spring equinox. Or, conversely, the spring equinox fell on March 11. This was a problem for the Church, because the springtime holiday of Easter was shifting further and further away from spring.

Pope Gregory fixed the problem in two ways. First, he lopped off 10 days from the calendar. For Catholics, the day after Thursday, October 4, 1582 was Friday, October 15, 1582. Secondly, he eliminated 3 leap days every four hundred years. He decreed that years divisible by 4 would still be leap years, unless they were also divisible by 100 but not by 400. So 1600 would be a leap year (divisible by 100 and by 400), but 1700 would not (divisible by 100 and not by 400). This became known as the Gregorian calendar, and it gradually spread through the Christian world.

In 1752, the British empire adopted the Gregorian calendar, making the day after Wednesday, September 2, 1752 not the 3rd but rather the 14th. (An 11th day was necessary because 1700 was not a leap year in the Gregorian calendar.)

The Jews, of course, didn’t give a damn what Pope Gregory said. They kept using the Shmuelian calendar for their calculations. The Shmuelian calendar and the Gregorian calendar have been diverging at the rate of about 11 minutes a year, or 3 days every 400 years. Furthermore, the year 2100 will be a leap year in the Shmuelian calendar (because it’s divisible by 4) but not in the Gregorian calendar (because it’s divisible by 100 but not 400). So not long after the year 2100, the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar will diverge by an additional 1 day—though the details are even a little more nuanced, because Shmuel used a simplification of the final Jewish calendar.

This is why (remember the question from several paragraphs ago?) in the year 2165, when we’d expect Thanksgiving and Hanukkah to coincide again, Hanukkah will actually be one day later. And that is why Thanksgiving and Hanukkah will never again coincide.

Well, almost never. If the Jews don’t ever abandon the calculations based on the Shmuelian calendar, Hanukkah will keep getting later and later—moving through winter, then into spring, summer, and finally back into fall—so that tens of thousands of years from now they will again coincide. But long before then the springtime holiday of Passover will have moved deep into summer, so be on the lookout for a memo with a calendar update in the next several thousand years.

And in the meantime, don’t miss this opportunity to enjoy an exceedingly rare confluence of celebrations.

Happy Hanukkah. And Happy Thanksgiving.

Joel Hoffman is the author of In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language (NYU Press, 2004). Hoffman is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post—read more of his entries here.

The New Southern Strategy: GOP plays the race card (again)

—Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks

At a recent Tea Party meeting in Hood County, Texas, Rafael Cruz, the father of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), made bold statements reeking of white supremacy and Christian nativism, suggesting that the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” in which the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were a “divine revelation from God […] yet our president has the gall to tell us that this is not a Christian nation […] The United States of America was formed to honor the word of God.” And just months prior to that event, in speaking to the North Tea Party on behalf of his son Ted (who was then running for Senate), Rafael urged the crowd to send Obama “back to Kenya.”

In the wake of the political dysfunction, gridlock, and rightwing obstruction, these statements certainly gesture toward important questions. Namely, is Rafael Cruz merely a “bad apple” that threatens to spoil the GOP or are his comments indicative of a larger strategic rhetoric that resonates with the lesser angels of our nature?

We suggest the latter.

Since the “Southern Strategy” whereby the GOP turned its back on Civil Rights and began courting white Southerners who believed they were victims of a new reverse racism social order, the Republican Party has employed subtle (and not so subtle, as witnessed above) rhetoric that turns on implicit anti-Black and anti-immigrant messages. It is said no better than former Republican Party strategist Lee Atwater’s 1981 remarks in which he laid bare the GOP racialized strategy:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.”  By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you.  Backfires.  So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.  You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.  And subconsciously maybe that is part of it.  I’m not saying that.  But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other.  You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Hence, Ronald Reagan’s evocation that “welfare queens” were gaming the system sent a clear yet implicit message: Your taxes are high because Lyndon Johnson’s programs are funneling your money to undeserving and lazy black women.  When a group that supported George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign ran a television advertisement that blamed Michael Dukakis for murders committed by Willie Horton (a black parolee who broke into a white couple’s home), the message baited white fears about young black male violence.  When Jesse Helms, a white senator from North Carolina, faced black challenger Harvey Gantt in 1990, Helms’s camp ran a television advertisement showing the hands of a white person crumbling a rejection letter with the voiceover: “You needed that job, and you were the best-qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?” The ad was broadcast just a few days shy of the election and boosted Helms to victory in what was previously a dead heat.

And in relation to Obama, we have a new Southern Strategy: Cruz’s comments fall lock and step with GOP and Tea Party elements that have attempted to frame Obama as either culturally out of place if not legally unable to hold the presidency. Due in part to the conservative conspiracy theorists, a small cadre of politicians (e.g., Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, or Nathan Deal, the Democrat-turned-Republican Gov. of Georgia), and already established cultural tropes that conflate whiteness and Christianity with Americaness, by the 2008 election season, studies showed that U.S. residents were more likely to associate American symbols with white politicians (e.g., Hillary Clinton) or even white European politicians (e.g., Tony Blair) than with Obama. Even when American citizens viewed an American flag they then showed implicit and explicit prejudice toward African Americans in general and reluctance to vote for Obama when compared to those not exposed to the flag.

Simply put, Barack Obama did not fit most American’s implicit idea of an authentic American, and the GOP has seized upon that opportunity to engage in the latest state of the New Southern Strategy. The playing of the race card, even in implicit fashion, remains an efficacious political strategy for those on the Right.

Matthew W. Hughey is associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. Gregory S. Parks is assistant professor of law at Wake Forest University School of Law.  They are co-authors of The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama (forthcoming in 2014 from New York University Press).

The First American Muslims

—Sylviane A. Diouf

This week, 1.2 billion Muslims will celebrate Eid-al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice. Among them will be millions of believers throughout the Americas. While most people think Middle Eastern immigrants brought Islam to these shores, hundreds of thousands of West African Muslims preceded them and left significant marks of their faith and experience, including in the written word.

They have been mostly forgotten, but as my research shows, Muslims—mostly from Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and Nigeria—were among the very first Africans to be transported to all parts of the Americas (I study cases in twenty countries) as early as 1503. Some were teachers, students, judges, religious and military leaders, pilgrims to Mecca, and traders.

In the Spanish territories, whose colonists were only a few years removed from centuries of Muslim rule at home, their arrival was perceived as a threat to the spread of Christianity among Native Americans. But proselytism was not high on the Muslims’ agenda. Even though they made some converts, education and the preservation of the community were their major concerns—as was the difficult transmission of the faith and its rituals to their children, surrounded as they were by practitioners of other religions.

Many Muslims could read and write Arabic and their own languages in the Arabic script. They were not just a few individuals writing for a Western audience like Olaudah Equiano or Phillis Wheatley. They were countless people scattered across the New World writing for themselves and their own. From North Carolina to Georgia, from Brazil to Trinidad and Jamaica, although restricted by slavery, they produced letters, excerpts from the Qur’an, prayers, talismans, uprising blueprints, autobiographies, and other manuscripts that are still extant. These documents provide invaluable insight into their intellectual, social and religious lives; their educational attainments prior to deportation; and their personal and collective perspectives.

Most manuscripts have disappeared but some are still being recovered. On October 8, a 223-page copy of the Qur’an was put up for auction. It was written—from memory—in London in 1733 by Ayuba Suleyman Diallo (known in the West as Job ben Solomon), an erudite man from an elite family who had been enslaved in Maryland and was on his way back to Senegal. He owed his freedom to a letter in Arabic he had written to his father, asking to be redeemed. Intercepted and translated, his missive led to his being manumitted. Unbeknownst to all, Diallo’s precious manuscript had been in the private collection of a Californian since the 1960s.

We still have much to learn about the enslaved Africans who are part of the history of Africa, Islam, the Americas, and the global African Diaspora. And, uniquely in the world of American slavery, their own manuscripts are central to the discovery and recovery of their story.

Sylviane A. Diouf is an award-winning historian of the African Diaspora. She is the author of Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons and Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, both with NYU Press.

An introduction to Servants of Allah

Today, we have an excerpt from the 15th anniversary edition of Sylviane A. Diouf’s Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, in which Diouf looks back at the changes in the political, religious and social climate since the first edition was written (in 1998), and points to new avenues of research on African Muslims during slavery.

Read the introduction below, and be sure to enter our Goodreads giveaway this month for a chance to win a copy of the book!

Servants of Allah – Introduction to the 15th anniversary edition