Date of Graduation

5-2018

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in History (PhD)

Degree Level

Graduate

Department

History

Advisor

Calvin White

Committee Member

David Chappell

Second Committee Member

Jim Gigantino

Abstract

Broadly speaking, my research focus is on African American religion, with particular interest in the various manifestations of black Islam in the United States. I am particularly interested in the question “Has religion served as an opiate or stimulant for black political protest?” And my research attempts to answer it by chronicling the experiences of black Muslims in southern prisons. My dissertation builds on Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). Alexander argues that African Americans were not over-represented in America’s prisons in the 1970s, but with President Reagan’s War on Drugs initiative in the early 1980s, black incarceration exploded. America’s black urban poor became the targets of government laws that meted out harsh penalties for crack possession. As a result, the criminal justice system became a new tool of white social control of black Americans, replacing the old system of Jim Crow segregation. Now, America’s prisons are the institutions depriving large numbers of African and Hispanic Americans of their democratic rights, even after they are released. If our prison system is a breeding ground for perpetuating white dominance, a new Jim Crow, then ultimately I ask if religion plays a vital role in motivating black communities to protest and demand reforms.

My sources—in-depth interviews, prison newsletters, and Muslim publications—contain much testimony from the religious experience of a specific population of oppressed black men at the heart of this new, literally confining system. And, this testimony allows us to take a fresh look at the old question, a constant in the historiography since DuBois: Does black religion in the form of Islam, as it evolved throughout the 20th century, help this African American population? Or does it comfort, divert, and entertain them and tend to make them complacent? Some sources say that it does, generally, in the “free world” as well as in prison. But my research reflects on their testimony in light of past experience.

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