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Black Hebrew Israelites

Black Hebrew Israelites (also Black Hebrews, African Hebrew Israelites, and Hebrew Israelites) are groups of people mostly of Black African ancestry situated mainly in the United States who believe they are descendants of the ancient Israelites. Black Hebrews adhere in varying degrees to the religious beliefs and practices of mainstream Judaism. They are generally not accepted as Jews by the greater Jewish community, and many Black Hebrews consider themselves — and not mainstream Jews — to be the only authentic descendants of the ancient Israelites. Many choose to self-identify as Hebrew Israelites or Black Hebrews rather than as Jews.

Dozens of Black Hebrew groups were founded during the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. In the mid-1980s, the number of Black Hebrews in the United States was between 25,000 and 40,000. In the 1990s, the Alliance of Black Jews estimated that there were 200,000 African-American Jews, including Black Hebrews and those recognized as Jews by mainstream Jewish organizations.

Overview

While Black Christians traditionally have identified spiritually with the Children of Israel, they never claimed to be descendants of the Israelites. In the late 19th century among some African-Americans, an identification with the ancient Hebrews developed into an identification as ancient Hebrews. One of the first groups of Black Hebrews, the Church of God and Saints of Christ, was founded in 1896. During the following decades, many more Black Hebrew congregations were established. These groups claimed descent from the ancient Israelites. They selected elements of Judaism and adapted them within a structure similar to that of the Black church.

The beliefs and practices of Black Hebrew groups vary considerably. The differences are so great that historian James Tinney has suggested the classification of the organizations into three groups: Black Jews, who maintain a Christological perspective and adopt Jewish rituals; Black Hebrews, who are more traditional in their practice of Judaism; and Black Israelites, who are most nationalistic and farthest from traditional Judaism.

Nevertheless, Black Hebrew organizations have certain common characteristics. Anthropologist James E. Landing, author of Black Judaism, distinguishes the Black Hebrew movement, which he refers to as Black Judaism, from normative Judaism practiced by people who are Black (black Judaism):

Black Judaism is … a form of institutionalized (congregational) religious expression in which black persons identify themselves as Jews, Israelites, or Hebrews…in a manner that seems unacceptable to the “whites” of the world’s Jewish community, primarily because Jews take issue with the various justifications set forth by Black Jews in establishing this identity. Thus “Black Judaism,” as defined here, stands distinctly apart from “black Judaism,” or that Judaic expression found among black persons that would be acceptable to the world’s Jewish community, such as conversion or birth to a recognized Jewish mother. “Black Judaism” has been a social movement; “black Judaism” has been an isolated social phenomenon.

Landing’s definition, and its underlying assumptions about race and normative Judaism, have been criticized, but it provides a helpful framework for understanding some of the common traits that various Black Hebrew organizations share.

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Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam is an African-American religious movement founded in Detroit, Michigan, by Wallace D. Fard Muhammad in July 1930. He set out to improve the spiritual, mental, social, and economic condition of the Black men and women of America. From 1934-1975, the NOI was led by Elijah Muhammad, who established businesses, large real estate holdings, armed forces and schools.

During the later part of this period, Malcolm X became a prominent minister and leader in the NOI. Before his assassination in 1965, he was moving toward non-separatism and orthodox Sunni Islam after his experience of having made Hajj to Mecca.

Elijah Muhammad’s son by his legal wife Clara, Warith Deen Mohammed, a minister in the NOI, was made national leader of the organization in 1975. He led most of the NOI members to merge and convert to traditional Islam and dissolved the NOI structure. He renamed the group the American Society of Muslims, which he led until 2003.

Splinter groups developed soon after Elijah Muhammad’s death, including that of Louis Farrakhan, who was unhappy with Mohammed’s leadership. Originally calling his group Final Call, in 1981 Farrakhan took back the name of Nation of Islam, at the same time renewing the original practices and beliefs of Elijah Muhammad. He was followed by a minority of the members at the time of Muhammad’s death. The N.O.I.’s national center and headquarters were located in Chicago, Illinois at the Mosque Maryam. Farrakhan named it to bridge the gap between his group and African-American Christians, while simultaneously moving toward mainstream Sunni Islam. Farrakhan holds his Sunday meetings at 10AM locally, the same as most churches.

The Nation of Islam is currently running as local temples in various major cities in the United States such as Muhammad’s Temple #1 in Detroit and Muhammad’s Temple #12 in Philadelphia. Local Nation Of Islam meeting times are at 2 PM, the same time meetings were held when Elijah Muhammad was alive. A meeting in 2000 gathered about 20,000 members.

The number of members of the Nation of Islam is believed to be between 20,000 and 50,000, and it is particularly strong among prison populations. Most of the members are in the United States, but there are small communities in other countries, such as Canada, United Kingdom, France, and Trinidad and Tobago. Another reformist branch is The Nation of Gods and Earths.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified the Nation of Islam as a hate group

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Religions Popular Among African Americans

The majority of African Americans are Protestant of whom many follow the historically black churches. Black church refers to churches which minister predominantly African American congregations. Black congregations were first established by freed slaves at the end of the 17th century, and later when slavery was abolished more African Americans were allowed to create a unique form of Christianity that was culturally influenced by African spiritual traditions.

According to a 2007 survey, more than half of the African American population are part of the historically black churches. The largest Protestant denomination among African Americans are the Baptists, distributed in four denominations, the largest being the National Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Convention of America. The second largest are the Methodists, the largest sects are the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Pentecostals are mainly part of the Church of God in Christ. About 16% of African American Christians are members of white Protestant communions, these denominations (which include the United Church of Christ) mostly have a 2 to 3% African American membership. The are also large numbers of Roman Catholics, constituting 5% of the African American population. Of the total number of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 22% are black.

Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in Harlem, New York City

Some African Americans follow Islam. Historically, between 15 to 30% of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were Muslims, but most of these Africans were converted to Christianity during the era of American slavery. However during the 20th century, some African Americans converted to Islam, mainly through the influence of black nationalist groups that preached with distinctive Islamic practices; these include the Moorish Science Temple of America, though the largest organization was the Nation of Islam, founded during the 1930s, which attracted at least 20,000 people as of 1963, prominent members included activist Malcolm X and boxer Muhammad Ali.

Religious affiliation of African Americans.

Malcolm X is considered the first person to start the movement among African Americans towards mainstream Islam, after he left the Nation and made the pilgrimage to Mecca. In 1975, Warith Deen Mohammed, the son of Elijah Muhammad who took control of the Nation after his death, guided majority of its members to orthodox Islam. However, few members rejected these changes, in particular Louis Farrakhan, who revived the Nation of Islam in 1978 based on its original teachings.

African American Muslims constitute 20% of the total U.S. Muslim population, the majority are Sunni or orthodox Muslims, some of these identify under the community of W. Deen Mohammed. The Nation of Islam led by Louis Farrakhan has a membership from 20,000—50,000 members.

There are relatively few African American Jews; estimates of their number range from 20,000 to 200,000. Most of these Jews are part of mainstream groups such as the Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox branches of Judaism; although there are significant numbers of people who are part of non-mainstream Jewish groups, largely the Black Hebrew Israelites, whose beliefs include the claim that African Americans are descended from the Biblical Israelites.

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The African American Middle Class: The Bill Cosby Show

The Bill Cosby Show is an American situation comedy that aired for two seasons on NBC‘s Sunday night schedule from 1969 until 1971, under the sponsorship of Procter & Gamble. There were 52 episodes made in the series. It marked Cosby’s first solo foray in television, after his co-starring role with Robert Culp in I Spy. The series also marked the first time an African American starred in his or her own eponymous series.

In this light-hearted comedy, Bill Cosby played the role of Chet Kincaid, physical education teacher at a Los Angeles high school, bachelor, and average cool guy trying to earn a living, helping people out along the way. Many of the episodes involved Kincaid in various situations at the high school with his students and fellow teachers. In some episodes, Kincaid was asked to substitute, and fill in as an algebra or English teacher.

In one episode, Kincaid was the driver’s education instructor trying to teach a nervous student how to drive. Leaving the student at the wheel, he went to get safety cones from the car’s trunk to lay out a course for the lesson. The student accidentally backed up, dumping Kincaid into the trunk and driving around the parking lot backwards with Kincaid’s legs dangling from the car.

In another episode, Kincaid is filming his football team’s practice for the first time. Standing on the field, camera to his eye, he calls for his team to run a running “sweep” play; the team questions the request, but Kincaid insists. The play he has called for sends the ball-carrier directly through where Kincaid is standing, and the viewers see the result as the camera sees it—the players charging into view, a sudden tilt of the lens upward to view only sky, and then the helmeted heads of the concerned team circling around their trampled coach.

Other episodes involved younger children, and some episodes involved family and adult characters. Different guest stars also appeared in various episodes throughout the series. One memorable show featured veteran African-American comedians Mantan Moreland and Moms Mabley as Kincaid’s married—and feuding—uncle and aunt.

The show’s theme song, “Hikky Burr,” was written by Cosby and Quincy Jones, with Cosby providing the vocals. A new version of the theme was recorded for later seasons.

The show did not use a laugh track, which at the time was unique for a half-hour situation comedy. (Other humorous shows had begun airing without laugh tracks, but these fell more under the TV genre of comedy-drama than did this show. Exceptions, however, include The Beulah Show, a controversial 1950-1953 sitcom.) The Bill Cosby Show was not the average, laugh-out-loud type of sitcom. The episodes were humorous, but the show emphasized intelligent character studies and plausible, real-life situations. The plot of many episodes centered on a lesson in life learned, which was explained in the classic Cosby style.

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Bill Cosby’s Dream Come True?

William Henry “Bill” Cosby, Jr. (born July 12, 1937) is an American comedian, actor, author, television producer, educator, musician and activist. A veteran stand-up performer, he got his start at various clubs, then landed a starring role in the 1960s action show, I Spy. He later starred in his own series, the situation comedy The Bill Cosby Show, in 1969. He was one of the major characters on the children’s television series The Electric Company for its first two seasons, and created the educational cartoon comedy series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, about a group of young friends growing up in the city. Cosby has also acted in a number of films.

During the 1980s, Cosby produced and starred in what is considered to be one of the decade’s defining sitcoms, The Cosby Show, which aired eight seasons from 1984 to 1992. The sitcom highlighted the experiences and growth of an upper-middle-class African-American family. He also produced the spin-off sitcom A Different World, which became second to The Cosby Show in ratings. He starred in the sitcom Cosby from 1996 to 2000 and hosted Kids Say the Darndest Things for two seasons.

He has been a sought-after spokesman, and has endorsed a number of products, including Jell-O, Kodak film, Ford, Texas Instruments, and Coca-Cola, including New Coke. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included him in his book, the 100 Greatest African Americans.

In 1976, Cosby earned a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Massachusetts. For his doctoral research, he wrote a dissertation entitled, “An Integration of the Visual Media Via ‘Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids’ Into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning”.

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African American Metropolises

Almost 58% of African Americans lived in metropolitan areas in 2000. With over 2 million black residents, New York City had the largest black urban population in the United States in 2000, overall the city has a 28% black population. Chicago has the second largest black population, with almost 1.6 million African Americans in its metropolitan area, representing about 18 percent of the total metropolitan population.

Among cities of 100,000 or more, Gary, Indiana had the highest percentage of black residents of any U.S. city in 2000, with 84% (though it should be noted that the 2006 Census estimate puts the city’s population below 100,000). Gary is followed closely by Detroit, Michigan, which was 82% African American. Other large cities with African American majorities include New Orleans, Louisiana (67%), Baltimore, Maryland (64%) Atlanta, Georgia (61%), Memphis, Tennessee (61%), and Washington, D.C. (60%).

The nation’s most affluent county with an African American majority is Prince George’s County, Maryland, with a median income of $62,467. Within that county, among the wealthiest communities are Glenn Dale, Maryland and Fort Washington, Maryland. Other affluent predominantly African American counties include Dekalb County in Georgia, and Charles City County in Virginia. Queens County, New York is the only county with a population of 65,000 or more where African Americans have a higher median household income than Americans of European descent.

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African Americans in the USA

In 1790, when the first U.S. Census was taken, Africans (including slaves and free people) numbered about 760,000—about 19.3% of the population. In 1860, at the start of the Civil War, the African American population had increased to 4.4 million, but the percentage rate dropped to 14% of the overall population of the country. The vast majority were slaves, with only 488,000 counted as “freemen“. By 1900, the black population had doubled and reached 8.8 million. In 1910, about 90% of African Americans lived in the South, but large numbers began migrating north looking for better job opportunities and living conditions, and to escape Jim Crow laws and racial violence. The Great Migration, as it was called, spanned the 1890s to the 1970s. From 1916 through the 1960s, more than 6 million black people moved north. But in the 1970s and 1980s, that trend reversed, with more African Americans moving south to the Sun Belt than leaving it.

The following table of the African American population in the United States over time shows that the African American population, as a percent of the total population, declined until 1930 and has been rising since then.

African Americans in the United States
Year Number  % of total population Slaves  % in slavery
1790 757,208 19.3% (highest) 697,681 92%
1800 1,002,037 18.9% 893,602 89%
1810 1,377,808 19.0% 1,191,362 86%
1820 1,771,656 18.4% 1,538,022 87%
1830 2,328,642 18.1% 2,009,043 86%
1840 2,873,648 16.8% 2,487,355 87%
1850 3,638,808 15.7% 3,204,287 88%
1860 4,441,830 14.1% 3,953,731 89%
1870 4,880,009 12.7%
1880 6,580,793 13.1%
1890 7,488,788 11.9%
1900 8,833,994 11.6%
1910 9,827,763 10.7%
1920 10.5 million 9.9%
1930 11.9 million 9.7% (lowest)
1940 12.9 million 9.8%
1950 15.0 million 10.0%
1960 18.9 million 10.5%
1970 22.6 million 11.1%
1980 26.5 million 11.7%
1990 30.0 million 12.1%
2000 36.6 million 12.3%

By 1990, the African American population reached about 30 million and represented 12% of the U.S. population, roughly the same proportion as in 1900. In current demographics, according to 2005 U.S. Census figures, some 39.9 million African Americans live in the United States, comprising 13.8% of the total population. The World Factbook gives a 2006 figure of 12.9% Controversy has surrounded the “accurate” population count of African Americans for decades. The NAACP believed it was under counted intentionally to minimize the significance of the black population in order to reduce their political power base.

At the time of the 2000 Census, 54.8% of African Americans lived in the South. In that year, 17.6% of African Americans lived in the Northeast and 18.7% in the Midwest, while only 8.9% lived in the western states. The west does have a sizable black population in certain areas, however. California, the nation’s most populous state, has the fifth largest African American population, only behind New York, Texas, Georgia, and Florida. According to the 2000 Census, approximately 2.05% of African Americans identified as Hispanic or Latino in origin, many of whom may be of Brazilian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Haitian, or other Latin American descent. The only self-reported ancestral groups larger than African Americans are Irishs and Germans. Because many African Americans trace their ancestry to colonial American origins, some simply self-identify as “American“.

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