Amassing pieces of material culture from American religion is a hobby of mine. My older sister collects thimbles from various times and places, while I prefer to build a more quirky and eclectic collection. I own a pack of “After the Rapture” mints aimed “for those of us not going anywhere,” and I gaze upon my officemate’s “Buddy Christ” from the movie Dogma with jealousy. While writing a paper last spring semester on the Moorish Science Temple’s Moorish Manufacturing Corporation, my curiosity about the curative and therapeutic products increasingly grew. Though Noble Drew Ali founded the MMC in 1927 and the products largely disappeared after his death, I found a temple in Brooklyn that still sold his teas and tonics. About two weeks ago, my purchase arrived.
Having ordered the Moorish Body-Builder and Blood Purifier with no online description, I was eager to see what exactly I had bought. Containing “No Harmful Drugs,” the label informs the consumer that Noble Drew Ali developed this particular tea to alleviate “rheumatism, lung trouble, run down constitution, indigestion, and loss of manhood.” For the consumption of men, women, and children, the tea is made with “the purest natural herbs.” Inside the box, the loose tea was packaged in a zip-lock sandwich bag. Curious enough, considering their proscription of alcohol, the suggested dose is “one wine glass full, twice daily.” In the maintenance of their bodily purity and good health, MST followers were willing to appropriate non-Moorish tools, from glassware to advertising forums. Advertisements for MMC Products could be found in late 1920s editions of the MST’s newspaper Moorish Guide and in the secular newspaper the Chicago Defender, next to notices for local fortune-tellers, “Mystic Arabian Oil,” and “Oriental Magic Loadstones.”
Though largely overlooked in the historiography on the MST, the products of the MMC offer another method of exploring the Temple’s early days and the everyday life of its adherents. In Edward Curtis’ chapter on the MST in his recent co-edited volume The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African American Religion, he briefly calls attention to the similarities between southern African American traditions of Conjure and the material culture products of the MMC. This proposal is historically plausible and compelling; though, Curtis does not take this idea further. In terms of form, function, and context, a familial resemblance exists between the practices of root-work and Noble Drew Ali’s products. By means of religious knowledge, both attempt to heal black bodies through engagement of both the physical body and spiritual identity. Noble Drew Ali’s vision for “a clean and pure nation” had a material and corporeal grounding in the men, women, and children composing the Moorish race. In the MST’s material culture and theology, the body, spirit, and race impact and influence one other.