Revising 20th-century

The post-Sept. 11 political environment has given questions about Islam's role and presence in America a vital urgency, and into that vacuum comes Robert Dannin's work, a welcome and sweeping portrait of orthodox Islam in America.

Most media and scholarly accounts of America's Black Muslims have focused on the Nation of Islam and the colorful personalities of Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan. Dannin points out, however, that the Nation is actually a fringe community, its members far outnumbered by orthodox Muslims whose roots reach far deeper into the American past than is generally acknowledged. This ignored orthodox majority, its customs, conflicts and characters, become Dannin's focus in Black Pilgrimage to Islam.

The opening section of the book follows the "trail of the red fez" through American history. In an analysis that many might argue is too brief and cursory to do justice to the sweeping claims, he makes, Dannin attempts to interweave accounts of enslaved Muslims in the South with freemasonry in the North during the 18th and 19th centuries. The argument does not gain heft until Dannin enters the 20th century, analyzing the importance of three storefront religious movements--the Moorish Science Temple, the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam and the Lost-Found Nation of Islam--for African Americans who fled to the North during the Great Migration.

The opening section is somewhat marred by what at times seems an excessive focus on detail: the bewildering array of sects and subsects, factions and leaders that emerged from the splintering of these early Islamic movements. But patience is rewarded as the second section of the book proceeds to focus on conversion narratives and oral histories, for which the first section proves an indispensable backdrop.

Section two, drawing as it does from the language of followers of the religion speaking in their own words, is both colloquial and compelling. Dannin takes the reader from New York's maximum-security prisons to a Muslim village founded by four steelworkers during the Great Depression, from the intricacies of the doctrine of the Five-Percenters to the challenges faced by independent Black American women adapting to what often appears a harshly patriarchal faith.

Black Pilgrimage to Islam has its flaws. It is, at times, an uneasy combination of the techniques of traditional history, journalism and ethnography, and one wishes in vain for an analysis of the contacts between Black Muslims and the growing ranks of their Arab and Asian counterparts here. The book, nonetheless, serves as a valuable introduction to the history and the contemporary challenges facing orthodox Black Muslim communities in the United States.

Robert Dannin is adjunct professor of metropolitan studies at New York University.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision By Dr. Barbara Ransby The University of North Carolina Press, April 2003, 544 pp., $34.95 cloth, ISBN 0-8078-2778-9

A national officer and key figure in the NAACP, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a prime mover in the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Ella Baker is one of the most important African American leaders of the 20th century. In this deeply researched biography, Dr. Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker's long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual and a teacher, from her early experiences in Depression-era Harlem to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s.

Ransby is associate professor of African American studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Along the Color Line: Explorations in the Black Experience

By August Meier and Elliot Rudwick. Foreword by David Levering Lewis. The University of Illinois Press, January 2003, 440 pp., $21.95 paper, ISBN 0-252-07107-7

First published more than a quarter of a century ago by two of the most accomplished historians of the modern African American experience, this diverse collection of essays addresses topics such as Black nationalism, nonviolent action, the changing patterns of interracial violence in the 20th century, and the ways African American leaders have functioned and coped with racism in their quest to ensure the fights of full citizenship for African Americans.

Meier is a professor emeritus of history at Kent State University. The late Elliott Rudwick was a professor of history and sociology at Kent State University. Lewis is the Martin Luther King Jr. university professor of history at Rutgers University and author of the Pulitzer prize-winning W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race.