The little children yet unborn; the little children sitting here who will have children. We are concerned about their children.
—Albert Cleage, Jr.
Sunday, June 23, 1963 could have been mistaken for a feast day in downtown Detroit. As the Reverend Albert Cleage, Jr. would recall in a sermon, the Walk to Freedom that afternoon looked like “much more of a triumphant thing than Jesus had in Jerusalem.” The press estimated the number of marchers at 125,000. Cleage later mocked the jittery police officers stationed along the route who knew that the mostly black crowd “could have walked them into the asphalt of the street without even striking a blow.” There were no cloaks or palm branches laid across Woodward Avenue for the afternoon’s speakers, only placards strewn in front of the Cobo Hall convention center, and the lilt of hymnals lifting.
On the same day the assassin of civil rights activist Medgar Evers was charged in Mississippi, twenty years after the 1943 race riots in Detroit were suppressed by federal troops, Martin Luther King, Jr. was being rushed from his suite at the Sheraton-Cadillac to reach the front of the procession. Notwithstanding King’s presence, the march was blemished in Cleage’s eyes by two unwanted white guests: Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther. (Governor George Romney sent a poorly received message to those who’d streamed into the arena’s rooms at the end of the march; he didn’t attend public functions on Sundays.) Cleage’s dismay at the white interlopers foreshadowed the gap that was to grow between his dream and King’s.
Cleage had worn the trappings of an immaculate race man for a while. Having joined the NAACP in the 1940s, he co-chaired the Detroit membership drive of 1953, one of the most successful in the country. Five years later, “in furtherance of good race relations and the spirit of brotherhood,” one Detroit Free Press writer wrote, Cleage participated in a three-way pulpit exchange with two white pastors as part of a “Race Relations Sunday.” But by 1968, the summer rebellions flaring in major U.S. cities and the Vietnam War convinced Cleage that King’s nonviolence doctrine was not only starkly ineffective, but possibly immoral as well. The failures of peaceable reconciliation between blacks and whites—Cleage dismissed the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) as a red herring—coalesced in the image of King’s crumpled body.
Cleage was born in 1911 to Indianapolis natives Pearl Reed and Albert Cleage, Sr., a doctor who co-founded the first hospital catering to Detroit’s black community. Cleage, Jr. had been appointed as the first pastor of St. Mark’s Community Church, which served blacks in the northwest part of the city, in 1951. Two years later, feeling his leadership subject to undue oversight by suburban whites, Cleage led a mass exodus from the Detroit Presbytery, taking three hundred other parishioners along with him to form St. Mark’s Congregational. Cleage didn’t become a fixture in Detroit media and politics, though, until after the March on Washington in the fall of ’63, when his church hosted the state drive for the all-black Freedom Now Party.
Freedom Now sought a spot on the 1964 state election ballot, but Baptist minister C. L. Franklin refused to have the party represented at a November conference of the Detroit Council on Human Rights. “In renouncing the independent black political action represented by the Freedom Now Party, and the new Negro image which is called ‘black nationalism,’” Cleage responded, “the DCHR has renounced any reason for its existence.” Freedom Now received about 22,000 signatures—enough to get it on the state ballot—and Cleage programmed an alternative event to counter Franklin’s. It was called the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference, and Malcolm X delivered the keynote. Malcolm’s speech exhorted black listeners to disregard their religious and political differences to confront “a common oppressor, a common exploiter and a common discriminator.”
Where King’s demonstrations in places like Birmingham and Selma enticed the “white enemy” to come out in the open and reveal his blood frenzy, “Brother Malcolm,” Cleage’s friend and lodestar, identified white society as the active agent of black oppression, not merely an impassable obstruction. Cleage accused prominent black moderates fighting to integrate of succumbing to self-delusion. Neither did he find the tactics of some of the more capricious black nationalist groups workable, like the Detroit-born Republic of New Afrika (RNA), whose members dreamed of an independent provisional government that “reclaimed” five states in the Deep South. Perhaps most misguided of all, Cleage thought, was the Nation of Islam, which relied on an elaborate creation myth to explain the corruption of white people. Groups like the Nation of Islam and the RNA seemed to be turning away from reality instead of confronting it. Whites weren’t otherworldly devils but conscious social actors, and neither excess violence nor geographical separation would destroy white power at its root.
Though Freedom Now dissolved shortly after the ’64 elections, its grassroots appeal made mainstream Democrats blanch. Critics called Cleage a demagogue, an opportunist, an extremist and a fearmonger. None of this stopped him from running, over the next decade, for city council, the Detroit Board of Education and Congress. Cleage’s recurring defeats reinforced his conviction that the political establishment was a nonstarter for a black electorate interested in running its own institutions. Cleage’s brand of Christianity, particularly his belief in an eventual but unforeseeable reckoning for white society, reconciled his embrace of a messianic end-times theology with his misgivings about the effectiveness of anti-racist struggles. Only a day of judgment, marking the end of injustice, would eliminate the need for black skepticism.
There is an American folk myth that has endured since the evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century that paints the arc of African-American political redemption as inseparable from the grace of God. In his book Afropessimism, Frank Wilderson III writes that narratives of black liberation assume such stories contain people who can be subject to storytelling’s conventions. They imagine that blacks once lived in a state of plenitude prior to the transatlantic slave trade (Act I), then descended into slavery’s abyss (Act II), and now have before them an arduous but promising path to plenitude regained (Act III)—the second coming of the Lord, maybe, or the abolition of the police state.
Wilderson says that this progression isn’t real, however, because slavery has always framed the relationship between non-blacks and blacks, the sentient undead. This is not a problem the imagination can solve. What Wilderson calls the “end of the world” is not what it seems: not the flood or the fire, but the end of expectation. It is the point at which the young black boy realizes he has no ego to elaborate, no story to take part in, no ambition that moves him substantively forward, makes him human, gives him power. Civil death is the impetus for black utopia—the no-place of the slave who “often dreams of the world’s undoing without being burdened by a vision of a new world.” Its inauguration means the shedding of any pretense to lasting social bonds.
I hadn’t known this idea—a critique of white society that is “without redemption or a vision of redress”—could exist until I learned of the women, men and children whose lives Cleage directed toward this end. I had been taught that redemption, if nothing else, was my birthright. In the Baptist churches I’d attended in suburbs around Cleage’s own church, and in a childhood household inoculated against the threat of despair, the doctrine of permanent death received no sanctuary. The end times meant the end of time for some, deserters from the army of God, and where I was, on a paradisal plain outside of the crucified city, the dead were only good for resurrecting.
Cleage might have been remembered merely as a local folk hero had it not been for the publication of The Black Messiah in 1968. The book was a compilation of twenty sermons he’d given at the Shrine of the Black Madonna—the flagship institution of the Black Christian Nationalist (BCN) movement—that laid out the rudiments of Cleage’s theological doctrines. His most controversial thesis stated that Jesus was a historically black, or non-white, revolutionary fighting to free his people from an empire of white gentiles, Rome. Two thousand years later, black Americans were bound to be shepherds in the Promised Land or the wilderness, and Cleage believed either way it was easiest to go there together. The problem was most blacks were stuck in the “slave theology” taught to them by the black church, guilty of not unfettering itself from Paul the Apostle’s conceit of individual salvation. Talk of the individual’s merits distracted from the long game of institutional disentanglement.
Knowing what it was like to get beaten up at the polls, Cleage felt that any real base of black power in the U.S. was to be found among the pews of black-run churches, obsolete as most of them were. These were the havens that many African Americans had always been happy or obliged to retreat to, brick-and-mortar hush harbors where power was negotiated not only by the preacher but by bit players as well: the Sunday school teachers, nursery attendants, front-row elders and choir members. Everyone had a part or could volunteer to play one. Cultivating a spirit of “African communalism” could provide the basis for an appropriate response to white egocentrism.
If there was any truth to what the liberation theologian James Cone said about the lives of black Americans—that they were largely structured around efforts to overcome experiences of suffering and humiliation—what happened after transcendence, once the Promised Land was reached? Toward what riches would black hope then stretch its hand? Implicit in the project of black utopia, Alex Zamalin writes in his 2019 book of the same name, has been the paradoxical notion that the Promised Land is by definition tragic, built on “unfinished conversations, unresolved debates, [and] critical problematics, which resisted easy resolution.” Accusations that Cleage’s theology was never fully elaborated miss his ambition to keep “alive a horizon, which would exist as unfulfilled possibility.”
Cleage himself vacillated on this point. Sometimes the Promised Land represented a distant dream; at others, it was the present reality. The white man might believe he occupied the Promised Land, Cleage wrote in The Black Messiah, but he didn’t understand that “the Promised Land is not any definite place. It’s the way you are. Now [the white man] may not know it yet, but we’re there already. Because we have made up our minds. We have decided. We are in the Promised Land.” Then Cleage seems to shift course: “If we cannot enter into the Promised Land, we can at least build the institutions that are necessary so that our children can enter in, with courage and knowledge.”
Which one was it? Were Cleage and his audience within or outside of this placeless place? Despite the apparent contradiction, Cleage’s articulation of the Promised Land wasn’t garbled. It supposed a way of interpreting history that was retroactively forceful and, for that reason, resistant to fatalism. The speculative question “what if?” became the raison d’être for Cleage’s impending projects. Cleage’s pronouncement that “we are in the Promised Land” was not a bold theory but, as the course of his life would reveal, a promise that he saw himself enacting: we are because we can be.
For two weeks at a time during my childhood summers I lived in my own Promised Land, though I have long since left it. Promise Land, Tennessee is white space on a map, an unincorporated hamlet that lies forty minutes west of Nashville, near the quiet town of Charlotte, seat of Dickson County. In 1780, the government of North Carolina gave its Revolutionary veterans a bounty that wasn’t theirs to give—thousands of acres west of the Middle Tennessean mountains. The region’s hard soil prevented the flourishing of cash crops, but by the early 1800s the land had revealed other treasures, namely healthy veins of iron ore. Ironworks run by industrialists like Montgomery Bell, Anthony Van Leer and, for a short time, James Robertson (the “founding father” of Nashville) bloomed across the western Highland Rim.
These men owned slaves and petitioned other slave-owning whites in the region for the use of additional labor. From the furnaces of these iron factories my paternal ancestors emerged. In 1880, the black Civil War veterans John and Arch Nesbitt used their pensions to buy the plot on which Promise Land grew. It was a haven for my and a handful of other black families wanting to avoid the constraints of Jim Crow legislation while benefiting from proximity to an employer as significant as Cumberland Iron Works, which remained active until 1936.
In the first years of the twentieth century, the settlement had one school, two churches (representing three denominations), a few basic stores and about fifty homes. Today only the St. John Methodist Church and one-room Promise Land School (an entry in the National Register of Historic Places) remain. Besides the addition in the school of linoleum flooring and a ceiling fan in 1985, features from the original central bay built in 1899, from the wood walls to the chalkboard, haven’t changed. Occasionally when the schoolhouse couldn’t hold all the children, the older grades would have their lessons in the Mt. Olive Baptist Church up the road. The kids learned reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as etiquette, state history, agriculture and vocational skills.
This community founded by freedpersons for freedpersons entrusted the formal education of its children to black teachers, a conceit that would’ve been unthinkable a generation earlier, and even then surprised Southern politicians and educational leaders who’d expected communities like Promise Land to embrace white instructors. Cleage probably wouldn’t have heard of Promise Land, but like his church, the settlement was built on the assumption that institutional separatism born principally of self-regard was sensible and pragmatic.
As intentional communities formed in reaction to the impositions of Jim Crow, Promise Land and the Shrine of the Black Madonna fit the mold of “utopias in black,” byproducts of white-supremacist legal arrangements whose constituents were in many ways broken and battered. The psychic suffering endured by the initial members of such communities was the first condition and irony of black utopia, which had less in common with Plato’s ideal republic, for instance, than with his cave—a place of bondage whose prisoners can hardly imagine a truer or more perfect reality, who in fact have no awareness that an “outside” exists as an alternative to what they’ve always known.
The children born after the architects of these black utopias, and their children after them, would measure the success of their forebears’ efforts. While my paternal grandfather, Rufus, was some generations removed from Promise Land’s founding, his and my grandmother’s move to Detroit in 1968 coaxed a new branch from the family tree. The harshest part of reflecting on my grandparents’ migration was realizing that the trek ended, in a sense, with me, their northernmost grandchild. My life and the lives of the first young people to come out of Cleage’s Black Christian Nationalist Church (BCNC) are testaments to ancestral prayers, welded across time by a city that resident Rosa Parks called “the northern Promised Land that wasn’t.” Could young black lives deemed exceptional flourish in Detroit, a place that, at the time of our birth, was being described as a no-place, a non-site, a city of the dead?
Albert Cleage, Jr. shed his birth name in April 1972, three months after publishing his second and final book, Black Christian Nationalism. Those closest to him started calling him Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, a composite of Luo, Amharic and Akan names meaning “liberator, blessed man, savior of the nation.” Black Christian Nationalism called for the creation of additional Shrines, black training and cultural centers, and economic development programs. For the first time, Cleage equated the cause of pan-Africanism, “a climactic battle for the liberation of Africa,” with the true Promised Land, a state of dignified relations that God intended for humankind. By extending the activities of Detroit’s Shrine #1 into other American towns and cities, the BCNC could pilot-test a program that, if successful, would be transferable anywhere.
Cleage’s various electoral defeats throughout the Sixties spurred an inward turn that encouraged him to concentrate on small social groups as building blocks of societal transformation rather than an impersonal public. Perhaps a single family could serve as a model for a city, a country and the world. D. Kimathi Nelson, the current presiding bishop and Holy Patriarch of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church (BCNC became PAOCC in 1978), who succeeded Cleage when he died, writes that 1972 demarcated Cleage’s pragmatic realist phase from an age of revolutionary mysticism, when he was “concerned with leading people to a personal theosophic experience” as a precursor to his wider campaign for social change. From the moment Black Christian Nationalism hit the shelves, Nelson writes, “Cleage’s black theology was no longer an intellectual debate with outsiders, but an organizing tool for insiders.”
Two of the seven areas of focus for BCN training were ujamaa and ujima—the Swahili for “familyhood” and “collective responsibility.” Cleage sought to refine his theology in an orderly “transforming community” that would apply the best of his insight and toss the chaff. True to Zamalin’s assessment that black utopians didn’t romanticize “people of color as empty vessels upon which to project their … unrealized longings,” Cleage acknowledged just how “sick” black spirits were in a white-dominated world. Reverse engineering the conditioned soul wouldn’t be easy.
The Alkebu-lan Academy was the BCNC’s “school of Black studies,” intended to provide for the children of young church members who spent much of their time recruiting, fundraising and elevating the movement’s profile. An initial cadre of about twenty people agreed to receive their basic needs from the church in exchange for full-time commitment to its mission. Many members chose to live in the extensive seventh-floor complex of the former Abington Hotel that the church had bought and repurposed as the BCN Training Center; it featured an industrial kitchen, dining and study halls, offices, a computer lab, lounge and apartment units.
A nursery was the first element introduced as part of the Alkebu-lan program. It was important that the church be perceived not merely as an economic arrangement but as a total system, a “wombish community” that promised to nurture the next generation of black children—what Cleage and his followers understood as a necessary intervention in one of the most segregated cities in the country. The church’s guarantee to these young parents and their children was “security from the cradle to the grave.”
“Everything was based on the survival of a people,” Shelley McIntosh, a pastor’s daughter who joined the church in 1971, told me. “And in order for a people to survive, your children have to have a quality of life.” McIntosh first decided to visit the Shrine after her sister brought home a copy of The Black Messiah from the BCN cultural center. She remembers between fifty and sixty other young black neophytes who, like her, dedicated their lives to the church that day. They were factory workers and city personnel, college students, teachers and nurses. (Joining wasn’t only a matter of publicly professing the faith. A year-long training program comparable to catechism preceded induction ceremonies.) The “BCNers” were immensely effective at expanding the church’s operations. Members would often hop in vans and travel to wherever they were assigned to go in the country. By the end of the Seventies, the BCNC had founded Shrines and training centers in and outside of Michigan, including places like Kalamazoo, Cleveland and Rochester (besides Shrine #1 in Detroit, the two Shrines that have survived are in Atlanta and Houston). Before the turn of the millennium, after many fundraisers and outreach efforts, the church would pull off arguably its most impressive gambit: a $10 million purchase of three thousand acres of farmland in Abbeville County, South Carolina, called Beulah Land, which was used as a retreat space, adult and youth training grounds and place of employment.
The last half of the Seventies precipitated a shift in Cleage’s theology and outlook on black progress that altered the church’s direction in subsequent decades. In 1977, Cleage declared that black communities were in “a state of total collapse.” Detroit’s well-documented crisis, an imbroglio of racial tensions, housing and job discrimination and disinvestment, was exacerbated in the postwar period. Two decades of steady population growth in metro Detroit had stalled by 1970, and the next two decades saw drastic declines in the city center’s population, manufacturing jobs and income levels, while crime and poverty rates were recorded as some of the worst in the country. There was no more spectacular display of Detroit’s spiral in the Seventies and Eighties than on Devil’s Night, the eve of Halloween. It was a nightmare for Detroit firefighters, including my Papa Rufus, when arsonists set homes and other buildings ablaze across the city.
Where in a ravaged metropolis could black women or men hope to find themselves, or the likeness of God, reflected? Deindustrialization meant the rise of automation, a potential coup de grâce, as Cleage saw it, to the black individual’s self-worth in a city that once prided itself on its manual laborers. As the Black Power movement waned and Detroit’s reputation as an economic force crumbled, Cleage became increasingly convinced that the church needed to help black folk recover an awareness of their essential humanity. Respect for self without self-centeredness was the basis for Cleage’s newfound philosophy, the Science of KUA, or “becoming what we already are.” Influenced by ancient animist traditions, as well as the formulation of the Standard Model of particle physics in 1974, which defined the universe as a network of energy processes rather than static material, Cleage began speaking of God as an infinite, life-giving force in whose nature we partake. A meaningful confrontation with one’s secular oppressors couldn’t happen without first having a direct, self-affirming experience of God.
Sustained, emotional group experiences were a crucial step toward knowledge of this cosmic unity, and there were no cleaner templates to inscribe these values on than the minds of children. McIntosh’s knack for instruction prompted Cleage to appoint her as the first director of the Mtoto House (the “children’s community”), Alkebu-lan’s organizing principle, which consolidated the nursery with groups for elementary and high schoolers in 1981. Two of the many books Cleage put on McIntosh’s reading list were Kitty Weaver’s Lenin’s Grandchildren (1971), about preschool education in the Soviet Union, and Bruno Bettelheim’s Children of the Dream (1969), a study of child-rearing in the Israeli kibbutz, a model of participatory democracy that gave Cleage and McIntosh their real-world precedent.
From its earliest days, Mtoto House ritualized the inculcation of communal values. A houseparent system put church volunteers in charge of the kids from Monday to Friday. Days began with group recitations of a solemn covenant that identified each of them as their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Saturday mornings and afternoons were for work activities like church cleaning and pamphleteering. On Monday nights Cleage delivered addresses on African history and Black Christian Nationalism, and took sacraments of commitment—wafers and wine representing the body and blood of the Black Messiah Jesus.
McIntosh spent much of her adulthood at the Houston Shrine, where she ran the Mtoto House there from 1986 to 2001. About eighty kids became residents when the Detroit Mtoto House opened. Kenya Rivers, a 47-year-old social worker who was in this initial cohort, was two years old when she and her older brother moved into the Institute with their mother. Kenya had fond memories of visiting Cleage in his apartment with her group. “It was exciting when we first moved there,” she said. “You’ve got your own bed, your own dresser, your own environment. You’re living with your friends at the age of twelve… We had everything you would want as a kid.”
The joke I used to tell about my mother’s side of the family, the one I grew up with, is that they were Catholics disguised as Protestants. This was the easiest way of explaining why my family stayed seated in the pews of whichever church we were in when the other faithful rose for the welcoming songs, and why my grandparents kept their hands folded when others were raised to the rafters in praise. The stillness of their limbs mirrored perfectly the stillness of their lips. My joke suggested what I recognized intuitively: my mother’s family was, in some way, a minority within a minority. I still do not know exactly how much money my grandfather made—at one point he was an electrical engineer in the aeronautics industry—but it was enough to live in a large house in the idyllic suburb of Canton, one of the safest and wealthiest cities in the United States, located thirty miles from Detroit.
I did not acknowledge until college, after reading histories of black Catholicism in the United States, that my use of “black Catholic” was shorthand for something that felt inauthentic, contrarian, a little too concerned with the beauty of the cathedral; it veered dangerously if not inexorably toward what Cleage called “Uncle Tomism.” When I was old enough to join the adult table at family gatherings, I was inducted into ceremonies of intolerant banter. This talk did not so much concern gays and Muslims—though they had their hour too—as other blacks, urban blacks, in that city. Their yards were overgrown, they were indolent, they had not done the work to yank their city from ruin.
I was a good student in school, and the more I succeeded there, the more insistently I parroted these refrains. I did not know what was at the end of my educational path, but with their pride and praise, my relatives pushed me onward. Onward, not upward, where for so long I had believed myself to be going. Narcissistic entitlement is an unappealing quality from any angle, but the black egotist—who believes he has what Wilderson calls “Human capacities” (as opposed to the absolute lack of the Slave)—is also a joke. He constructs a world of possibility around himself without realizing he is a prop in a burlesque. When black Narcissus looks into the water and finds not even a distorted image of his face but nothing at all, what becomes of beauty? I had been panicking for much of my life because the expectations my blood and spiritual families had of me were as vaguely articulated as my own. Go onward as the Lord directs. May all that you accomplish extend His glory.
Even my stepfather at the time, a man who subjected me to emotional and physical abuse during my elementary years, was a pious deacon—he made me call him “Sir.” At his behest, when I was nine or ten, I underwent baptism in front of strangers in a church whose name and address I don’t remember. These years, the loneliest of my life, marked the summit of my faithfulness. When, on occasion, I was forced to stay shut in my room for the day, before or after a beating, I looked forward to receiving a cheese sandwich on a small white plate and reading Our Daily Bread, a devotional booklet with Bible verses and a brief message for every day of the year. I knew that Sir’s actions pained my mother despite the absence of an intervention on my behalf. Until she decided to divorce Sir, I spoke to God, though I’ve lost the records of our conversations.
I am still learning of the things my family did, on both sides, to try to protect me. My bitterness about their quietude aged into pity and grief. There are many things that have not been said, actions taken but never announced, tics that held our bodies back and too much distance for communion. Mine is the same alienated ego that Cleage wanted to save all black children from, and which a structure like Mtoto House was meant to ensure against. His dream of the black Nation evokes a specific kind of family that I’ve always failed to embrace. When Sir’s aimless wrath became too much for my mother, I would be sent to stay with my father’s parents in Detroit. My lasting memories of Promise Land are from the summers my grandparents would take me down home with them, into the protective circle of an extended family that prayed openly for me and laughed loudly. My Promised Land was a return to a home that was loaned to me in times of tribulation.
It is presumed on my dad’s side, often justly, that in phone calls with me concerning relatives—centering around births, deaths and little in between—I will need to be reminded of a name’s importance, how Robert Blue, Aunt Ladelle, Uncle John and so on indicate peculiar kinds of lives and sets of qualities that are in danger of being forgotten. Rufus’s widow, my grandmother Bettie, gets the sense that names, no matter how recently spoken, fall dead on my ears. She prays for me daily, especially me, I feel, because though she loves all of her grandchildren, I was the only one she and Papa helped raise. I was the Robertson that God chose to travel the world, presumably for His glory, well beyond insular Promise Land and nearer the boundless Promised Land. My family, Granny above all, recognized that there was an element of danger to these expeditions, a precarity of the soul in its movement away from the hearth, toward the fetish of attainment.
I can’t recall the melodies and verses that were repeated to me so often they might as well have been tattoos. The impressions of pastors’ hands on my shoulders, meant to be remembered, left only shadows of indentations. As my family’s elders die, I find myself wishing I could close the circle of my agnosticism. The unshut gap, this doubt, is utopia’s terror. What road could I have stayed on to retain the devotion that made me pray and read the Psalms before bed as a child? I’m not sure it was ever going to be available to me for long. As I grew, I read. The more I read about God, the louder the noise around God grew, and the more I wished to hear Him speak through it.
Some of the Mtoto children would grow to resent the fact that they were raised to be the spiritual foot soldiers of a vaguely outlined pan-African revolution. But their training in the Black Nationalist Church was intended to help them steer people like me away from false idols: the approbation of a whitewashed God, one who couldn’t be seen, and a Eurocentric education. Despite my grandparents’ outlying comforts, my mother made just enough for her and me to make up a lower-middle-class household. Scholarships allowed me to attend a top-performing high school in southeast Michigan and two elite universities, where I slipped into a near-comic state of incredulity at the restraints of my upbringing. Many of my desires, and hence my values, hung on perishable thrills and ornaments: not longings for wealth but respect from some phantom intelligentsia, faceless committees of tastemakers that would take interest in all that I did or said, like a confessor behind a curtain’s folds.
I forget who suggested that the seraphim, the highest rank of angels, which flit around the heavenly throne like fireflies freed from a fist, sing because they are unable to speak. They have gotten so close to God as He actually is that speech loses its appeal. They understand that the words used to describe Him are nonsense, and if they didn’t praise him with song, they would be silent. Silence and stillness are true, too, and can be more perfect than movement elsewhere. For some utopias to exist, it is better not to say their names. Best, in fact, to stay away.
“When a movement becomes a church,” Cleage wrote in Black Christian Nationalism, “its meaning and dynamics usually die.” What distinguished the two? Cleage believed that church in its purest form was a spirit of revolutionary communalism. Presumably it could live on in its children, long after Cleage himself had gone. But gaining power within the system never entirely faded from the agenda, and from the late Seventies through the early Nineties the aging Patriarch continued bolstering black political power in Detroit.
Cleage’s Black Slate Inc., a political lobby machine initially designed to give mayoral hopeful Coleman Young an edge during the 1973 election, used voting blocs to shore up support for pro-black candidates in the coming decades. Bishop Aswad Walker, present pastor of the Houston Shrine, was right when he said that Black Slate’s impact on late twentieth-century Detroit politics has often been underappreciated. An imprimatur from Cleage’s organization in the Seventies and Eighties was sometimes a golden ticket for hopefuls looking to get on city council, the local education board or even state and federal congress.
Shrine #1 produced one of Detroit’s most notorious political families. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick joined the Shrine in 1967 and her husband, Bernard, preached there. Cheeks Kilpatrick had Black Slate’s backing when she won her race for the Michigan House in 1979, where she served until she joined the U.S. House in 1996 (beating out another Black Slate candidate, Barbara-Rose Collins). She was a dominant force until she lost her seat in 2010, which some attribute to the turn of events consuming her son at the time, Kwame Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick, who was one of the original Mtoto kids, became the youngest mayor in Detroit history in 2001. He was a rising star in the Democratic Party until a series of misconduct allegations marred his reputation, culminating in 2008 with one of the most drawn-out and salacious political scandals the city had ever seen.
The stain of Kilpatrick’s legacy still embitters Detroiters. Like Coleman Young’s administration in the Seventies and Eighties, which was energized by vigorous PR campaigns that sought to redefine Detroit as the “renaissance city,” Kilpatrick’s years as the local Great Black Hope were deflated by ambivalent appraisals of his in-office achievements and suspicions, inelegantly expressed by elected officials in the surrounding suburbs and state capital, that the inner-city leaders couldn’t hold their own. African-American political optimism in Detroit gashed its head on the ceiling just as the Obama presidency was coming into view, and the city’s declaration of bankruptcy five years later set a thorned crown on the wound.
The rhetoric of black politics was rapidly changing, and so were the dreams of black youth. The old guard of the civil rights era was dying and, with them, a certain reliance on black religious institutions and their leaders to facilitate progressive social change. Before his death in 2000, Cleage urged his followers to prepare for whatever 21st-century identity crisis the church was sure to face. The looming crisis was not so much apocalyptic as mundane. Attendance at the church had been steadily declining since the height of Cleage’s popularity in the early Seventies.
“It forces people to look at themselves and look at their experience differently,” Mbiyu Chui, the current bishop at Shrine #1, said when I asked about his dwindling congregation. “Church has to become placeless like everything else in the world.” Chui was fifteen when he visited the Shrine for the first time. He grew up kitty-corner to the building, and Cheeks Kilpatrick was his mother’s first cousin. While Mtoto’s moral-educational program seemed to work well for young kids and adolescents, Chui said it wasn’t able to address the demands of restless teens. The children of the kibbutzim were at least allowed to go out and discover their interests when they came of age before bringing their skills back to the group. “We didn’t give them the freedom and the autonomy to do that and discover their identity outside of the structure,” Chui said. “I could see that we were killing our teenagers and that they needed the freedom to decide who they wanted to become.”
Anticipating revolt, a faction of leaders that included Nelson and Chui began steering the church in a direction they believed honored Cleage’s later stance on the viability of their struggle. Speaking of all societal problems in terms of a black/white dichotomy inconveniently alienated the supposed heirs of the church’s doctrines, and it didn’t make sense in an increasingly globalized world. A new “Self-Help Theology” reframed the revolutionary struggle as a universal war between good and evil, opening up the path of salvation to any individual who sided with the former. For the Self-Help advocates, Chui said, the wider world revealed “the synthesis of life, of culture, religion, social and political movements.” Unless they acknowledged this reality, the Black Christian Nationalists wouldn’t survive. Chui said it bluntly: “There’s no more place for particular, culture-driven issues.” Black nationalism would cease to exist without a transracial consciousness.
Of course, not everyone agreed. It was precisely the “culture-driven” qualities of the church that had attracted many of the older members and some of the young. Makini Jackson, a former Detroit Mtoto child who is now the HR director for the city of Flint, objected when the Shrine stopped requiring uniforms and African names for the children, started teaching about the afterlife, and integrated altar boys and the stations of the cross in services. “That’s not the Shrine that I know,” she said.
Once the “liberation of black people” gave way to “striving to be our best selves” as the Shrine’s primary obligation, McIntosh, too, felt the original cadre members were owed an explanation. Still identifying as a black nationalist herself, she butted heads with Nelson and told him that some longtime BCNers felt betrayed. It was clear to her that Alkebu-lan Academy, and thus Mtoto House, was not long for the world.
In 2001, the Mtoto Houses faded as quietly as they had come, though only in 2019 did Shrine #1 finalize its sale of the Abington Hotel. McIntosh published a book in 2005, Mtoto House: Vision to Victory, Raising African American Children Communally, to memorialize the program in the hope that it might be used as the prototype for a future project. “To see those institutions sold, we began to ask ourselves, ‘What do we show for our work? What do we show for our sacrifices, besides the seeds that we placed in our children?’”
When Papa got cancer, he went back home to Tennessee to die. He passed in 2011. There was one less person now to remember when a tire swing and seesaw were still in the park across the street from the Promise Land School. It was not enough that the original St. John’s Methodist building had been destroyed by fire (the one that stands today was rebuilt on the same site in 1941). By the Fifties, Promise Land’s population was too small to merit a Baptist church as residents moved out, so it dissolved. The AME congregation held on for another decade. The Mt. Olive Church that had housed both denominations remained vacant until the mid-1970s, when it was finally torn down.
Granny left Detroit, too. She is with family in Ohio now, often crafting and flipping through photo albums of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to admire the breadth of what she, Papa and God made. I haven’t visited their old home in Detroit in nearly five years. I had to miss the most recent family reunion in August, the last chance I would’ve had to see Papa’s oldest brother before he died, because a psychogenic illness put me in an emergency room. My body stopped up, I wept and, on the phone, Granny read for me a scripture of healing: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all.”
According to the Pew Research Center, Gallup and elsewhere, African Americans are the most religiously committed ethnic group in the country. This is hard to believe looking at the shrinking sizes of the congregations of my youth—Bethany, Elim, Middlebelt, Master’s and many more—compared to what they were in the late Nineties and early Aughts. The decline has been especially sharp among the members of my demographic—blacks in their mid-twenties, with an advanced educational background and left-leaning politics—who are rapidly distancing themselves from Christianity, not only its tenets but also the physical church. My own crisis of faith is indistinguishable from a crisis of home. By walking through too many doors, I have torn another temple veil in two, and places once full are being emptied.
In November 2017, members of St. Peter Claver, one of Detroit’s historically black Catholic churches, noticed that fragments from the building’s plaster ceiling were falling. This was where Moses Anderson, who in the early 1980s was one of only ten black bishops in the United States, had served as pastor in the Nineties. An inspection showed that the parish church was structurally damaged and the building was closed off. The day after New Year’s 2018, the weight of snow atop the roof caused two trusses to collapse and the ceiling caved. The walls fell soon after. The implosion that exposes the inside of a chapel to the sky is what my cousin Timothy—another black millennial who grew up Christian and is now wrestling with that inheritance—compared to a second nakedness. The private sanctum is sabotaged the moment it is forced to open up to the world.
Tim and I were not expelled from our grandparents’ religion, but we are naked wanderers outside of Eden’s bowers. Tim suspects that many nonreligious black millennials who are familiar with the vocabulary of self-care—the same cohort that aspires to “a world free of anti-Blackness,” as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) mission statement declares—have retained something from the church: not the influence of the Father, or the Son, but of the Holy Ghost, which spirited into clusters of rose quartz and citrine, vials of anxiety-reducing lavender and bergamot oil, tarot decks and other objects whose effectiveness lies at least partly in the openness of our minds. I began expressing my own desire for restoration (fueled as much by chronic ailments as by misgivings about traditionalist pastors) through sporadic meditation and incense-burning.
There is an odd compromise between Audre Lorde’s famous exhortation to radical self-care—for black women especially, doing what was needed to stay afloat and appreciate one’s own life as something valuable in itself, regardless of individual political utility—and BLM’s global appeal to expunge racism. Is it possible to honor both mandates equally? The murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014 sparked a new social movement to cleanse the world of anti-blackness, which meant first identifying everywhere its pollutants had settled, from the courthouse to the classroom. The well-documented coincidence of Donald Trump’s election and growing interest in “self-care” obscured the ways the term’s political meaning was being subsumed under the multibillion-dollar wellness umbrella. Uncomfortably, the aspirations of Black Lives Matter and the pursuit of wellness, if not exactly the same, looked to be of a quixotic kind: rooting out the sources of psychic and bodily ills by naming them exhaustively.
My black life was now the premise of a miracle story. Given the volume of microaggressions some of my college peers said we were likely being subjected to daily, we would be lucky to ever hold onto peace of mind. When I tried yoga, a few instructors would surprise me by assuming we had all come to class with muscle tension and more frustration than joy. Was my day difficult? Had I not seen the signs? Was the bored gaze of a white stranger on the street actually a loathsome thing? One day I woke up as the paranoiac I had been paranoid of becoming. Around the same time, a spate of afflictions, many of them idiopathic, began manifesting: hive-like rashes ringing my eyes, purulent abscesses budding under my arms, my bladder and bowels feigning blockages—nameless sicknesses that mimicked others. Wellness, au revoir!
This isn’t an enviable life. Sustenance and survival are not enough. Despite the worry that sometimes flares in my body, I have felt that survival, too, needs a cure. That is the work of heaven and of the Promised Land, which lift the eyes of the lowly and sow ambition in the dead. Albert Cleage spent his life juggling the endless search for an earthly heaven with Lorde’s directive to always take care of ourselves together. He never stopped asking two questions: What is the point of black survival if not to aim for the highest good? Why aim high if you can barely survive?
Promise Land is a horizon, not a certainty, which lives in my grandmother’s prayers. What will happen to it when she dies is unclear. I do know that it won’t be what we imagine. One of my cousins, an ambitious man who has become Papa’s de facto successor as family caretaker, has been struggling to get a proper road laid down through the town. He and my father once proposed making it into a golf resort. It is Granny’s hope that my cousins and I will settle our spiritual accounts before we get together to mourn her. She fears what may happen to her and Papa’s home in Promise Land as generations increase in number, children grow older and the world calls us to its diverse corners.
I ask myself if the Dickson County school system hadn’t integrated in 1957 how long the Promise Land schoolhouse would’ve stayed open, how long until Papa thrust his head out of that little one-room and saw how large some worlds were, how small others. I’ve got this image in my mind from a year I don’t remember: the day is quiet, so Papa tells me we are going somewhere in his red pickup. He packs gloves and shears. No drive from one point to another in Promise Land is long, but in my memory this one meanders. We go from sunlight to tree branches scratching the truck windows, into a dark glade.
It is ugly and unkempt, and I fear at least one or two ticks will latch onto my ankles. Papa says to put on the gloves and help him clear away some of the shrubs. It is a graveyard, he tells me, and its contents dwarf even the things he knows of this world. As I’m watching now I see the ground more clearly, little crosses that look blown over and eroded plaques that have no dates or names. Who is buried here? I ask. Papa isn’t sure. Some from his mother’s side, he thinks. The rest are maybe ours, maybe some other black family’s, but we’re kneeling down and clipping vines when he says, I want you to take care of it when I die. I said something like I will. Too many words for a boy who hopscotched out of the cemetery like it was a game, trying not to trample the graves of people he didn’t know.
Art credits: Steffani Jemison, Power Listening (Power power power power), 2017/ Collaboration with Justin Hicks / Dye-sublimation print and acrylic on synthetic velvet / 48 x 177.5 in. / Photos by Dennis Ha, courtesy of the Western Front, Vancouver, BC