In 1933, forty years after millions of wide-eyed visitors had crowded the midway to watch the hootchy-kootchy dance in the Street of Cairo exhibition, gawk at a model of the Eiffel Tower, and stroll among Samoan, Javanese, and other ethnological villages, the Century of Progress Exposition brought the world's fair back to Chicago. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 had celebrated the achievements of the newly industrialized United States by creating a "living museum of humanity," in which representatives of the world's peoples were literally put on display to illustrate their supposedly hierarchical relationship to one another. For the organizers of the 1893 world's fair, contemporary American culture, exemplified by the suggestively named White City exhibition, occupied the pinnacle of this hierarchy. By 1933, the idea that human groups could be ranked along an evolutionary scale had become both more popular and more controversial, attracting supporters such as the racist ideologue Madison Grant and critics such as Franz Boas, the father of cultural anthropology. Like its predecessor, the Century of Progress Exposition of 1933 sought to naturalize this hierarchy by juxtaposing displays of "primitive" peoples alongside ones that demonstrated the purported superiority of the white American elite. Thus, for example, the fair organizers erected a quaint "Indian Village" in the looming shadow of the General Motors Tower, a modernist temple dedicated to the ascendant American auto industry.
The real Native Americans who inhabited the ersatz tepees of the Indian Village served as reminders of an earlier way of life that had been rendered obsolete by the steam engine, the automobile, and other advances produced by white American civilization. Now vanquished and domesticated on reservations, Native Americans were seen largely as harmless or even ennobled—more deserving of pity than of fear. Elsewhere at the fair, however, in the prominently located Hall of Science building, another supposedly atavistic and far more dangerous "tribe" was being put on display by the eugenics movement.
Unlike the Native Americans of the Indian Village, members of this Midwestern tribe were not physically present at the fair. Had it been possible, the organizers of the exhibit undoubtedly would have included some flesh-and-blood individuals in a simulated version of their "natural" environment, either a run-down slum dwelling or a makeshift "gypsy" caravan. Instead, the prominent eugenicist Harry Laughlin and his colleagues had to make do with photographs and explanatory texts. The evocative name of these modern day "savages" was the Tribe of Ishmael, and according to the Hall of Science exhibition, they were "A Degenerate Family ... which, despite opportunities, never developed a normal life. Shiftless, begging, wanderers, sound enough in body, their hereditary equipment lacked the basic qualities of intelligence and character on which opportunity could work." Accompanying this ominous caption was an elaborate genealogical tree—a staple of all eugenics displays—and a handful of photographs labeled "Typical Ishmael Portraits" that depicted members of the family, their homes (including that of George Ishmael, described as "the most intelligent of the group"), and the Indianapolis city dump, which several generations of Ishmaels had divided "among themselves peaceably."
Just as the Indian Village stood next to the General Motors Tower, thereby highlighting the gulf between them, the eugenicists had erected a display devoted to "A Superior Family: The Roosevelt Family-Stock" on panels adjoining those dedicated to the Ishmaels. At the head of the Roosevelt family tree stood Jonathan Edwards, the famous Puritan theologian. Official-looking portraits of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt framed the genealogical tree, along with photographs of lesser-known members of the clan and the legend "Pedigree showing the distribution of inborn qualities in a family which produced two presidents of the United States." The point of the world's fair eugenics exhibition was crystal clear: if the Roosevelts were America's best family, the Ishmaels were its worst.
In less than two centuries, the Ishmaels went from being an obscure colonial-era family of poor Pennsylvania farmers to being put on display before millions of visitors to the Chicago World's Fair of 1933 as the very image of degeneracy and criminality. Along the way, the Ishmaels had helped to settle the Kentucky frontier and had served in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. During the economic depression that gripped the nation in the 1870s, members of the Ishmael family, like thousands of other displaced agricultural laborers, made their way to the city, in this case Indianapolis. There, some Ishmaels refused to assimilate into the wage-labor industrial economy and, instead, continued to embrace a lifestyle rooted in their rural, Upland Southern background. It was at this crucial moment in their history that the Ishmaels encountered the man who would turn them into a living symbol for all that was wrong with America, setting them on a path to the Eugenics Records Office, the halls of Congress, and finally, in 1933, the Hall of Science. In many ways stranger than fiction, the true story of the Tribe of Ishmael, as the family first became known in the 1870s, serves as a profoundly unsettling counterhistory of the United States.
The remarkable and complicated man who discovered—or, as I argue, invented—the Tribe of Ishmael was a Congregationalist minister named Oscar McCulloch. A pioneer in the emerging field of hereditarian theory and an important proponent of the Social Gospel, McCulloch helped lay the groundwork for eugenics, scientific charity, and organized social work in the United States. Just as important for the subsequent history of the Tribe of Ishmael, McCulloch was also an armchair Orientalist with a deep fascination for Islam.
In 1878, Oscar McCulloch stumbled upon an extended family living in a hovel in one of Indianapolis's most run-down neighborhoods. Shocked by the wretched scene, McCulloch soon discovered that the family was called the Ishmaels, which he mistakenly assumed was a pejorative pseudonym. A check with local officials revealed that the Ishmaels were at the center of a group of interrelated families notorious in the city for petty crime, wandering, gleaning, and pauperism. McCulloch devoted much of the next decade—indeed, what remained of his short life—to researching and eventually publicizing what he claimed was a veritable tribe of savages living in the heart of darkest Indianapolis.
McCulloch's first challenge in representing the Ishmaels to the public was the absence of obvious physical markers to differentiate this poor white family from its respectable white neighbors. In response, McCulloch created a set of discursive signs to indicate their difference, the most striking and effective of which were the exotic-sounding names applied to the family members, their relatives, and their associates: the "Tribe of Ishmael," the "Ishmaelites"—both of which suggested Islam in the late-nineteenth-century imaginary—and the "American Gypsies" and "Grasshopper Gypsies." These titles enabled McCulloch and his successors to stigmatize the Ishmaels by subtly exploiting contemporary Orientalist stereotypes of the Islamic East as a culture in decline and of Gypsies (Roma) as a threat to settled urban communities.
When McCulloch first employed the name "Tribe of Ishmael," his original intent was not to argue that the Ishmaels of Indiana were actually Muslim, but that they resembled their biblical namesake in the threat they posed to civilized Christian society. Similarly, when he likened the Ishmaels to Native Americans, he generally intended the comparison to be symbolic rather than literal, although he sometimes attributed certain Ishmaelite traits to a "half breed" Indian ancestor. McCulloch's underlying ideological assumption was that poor whites like the Ishmaels and their associates, who did not live by middle-class norms, were functionally equivalent to outcast groups such as Muslims, Native Americans, and Roma. Indeed, they were even more dangerous to respectable society than those more easily identifiable outsiders, since the white physical appearance of most Ishmaelites disguised their true perfidy.
The symbolic racialization of the Ishmaelites places their story within a broader historical narrative that the scholar Theodore Allen has called "the invention of the white race." Rather than viewing whiteness as a biological category, Allen and others have argued that it represents a social construction, historically grounded in factors such as class, culture, and country of origin. Nineteenth-century Irish immigrants constitute what is probably the most striking example of this phenomenon. Despite their typically pale skin, Irish immigrants were frequently likened to blacks and labeled "white niggers" because of their disproportionate participation in unskilled labor and their cultural and religious differences from the Anglo-Saxon elite. Similarly, the Ishmaelites, depicted by McCulloch as eschewing wage labor entirely and engaging in a host of aberrant practices, did not fit neatly into the emerging social category of whiteness and were therefore characterized as belonging to a separate and unequal tribe of savages. The Ishmaelites had failed to become white.
Because of McCulloch's efforts, the Ishmaels became virtually synonymous with the undeserving poor in the United States from the 1880s until the Great Depression. This category, which dated back to the Elizabethan poor laws of early-seventeenth-century England, reflected a moral distinction between poor people who supposedly deserved charity and those who did not, resulting in what Michael Katz has called the "transmutation of pauperism into a moral category." Traditionally, members of the so-called deserving poor included widows, orphans, the infirm, and the elderly—in other words, those who were unable to support themselves or their dependents because of circumstances beyond their control. By contrast, unwed mothers and especially able-bodied men who were seen as refusing to work constituted the undeserving poor, or, as they were popularly known, paupers. For such individuals, poverty did not result from bad luck; rather, like the proverbial scarlet letter, it signified moral failing. Those who accepted this distinction viewed giving charity to the undeserving poor as immoral, since it had the effect of rewarding and even encouraging sloth, licentiousness, and other sins. In the United States, being labeled a member of the undeserving poor carried a special stigma because in rhetoric, if not always in reality, America was supposed to be "the best poor man's country," a place where ambitious individuals were not bound by the rigid socioeconomic hierarchies of Europe and could radically transform themselves through hard work.
So ubiquitous did the association between the Ishmaels and the undeserving poor become that in How the Other Half Lives, his groundbreaking work on urban poverty, Jacob Riis explicitly invoked the family in order to signify the entire pauper population of New York: "Frauds, professional beggars, training their children to follow in their footsteps—a veritable 'tribe of Ishmael,' tightening its grip on society as the years pass, until society shall summon up the pluck to say with Paul, 'if any man will not work neither shall he eat,' and stick to it." Riis's reference to the Tribe of Ishmael indicates that by 1890, the name had already entered the lexicon of social reformers as a catchphrase for the undeserving poor in general, rather than just a specific group in the city of Indianapolis.
It is no accident that the myth of the Tribe of Ishmael began to take shape soon after Horatio Alger published Ragged Dick, his blockbuster novel about a young urban "vagabond" or "street Arab"—as such children were then known in both Great Britain and the United States—who goes from rags to riches by dint of good breeding and hard work. Horatio Alger's fictional hero would become an important model for American notions of the deserving poor: an ambitious individual who was "frank and straight-forward, manly and self-reliant. His nature was a noble one, and had saved him from all mean faults."
Oscar McCulloch's hereditarian portrait of the Tribe of Ishmael, in turn, represented the flip side of the Horatio Alger myth. Instead of the noble individual who pulls himself up by his bootstraps, the Ishmaelites were depicted as an atavistic clan that was both unable and unwilling to better itself, no matter how much aid was given to its members. They were, in short, born losers. In the following decades, the myth of the undeserving poor symbolized by the Tribe of Ishmael—clannish, racialized, morally and physically degenerate—would prove to be as enduring and as influential as Horatio Alger's fictional hero.
The Ishmaels reached their height of infamy—and had their greatest impact on public policy in the United States—during the 1920s, when the increasingly powerful eugenics movement transformed the family into a potent symbol for the dangers of unrestricted immigration, the growing epidemic of "feeblemindedness," and a host of other social problems, both real and imagined. Derived from a Greek root meaning "well born," the term eugenics was originally coined in the 1880s by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. According to the principles developed by Galton, genetically worthwhile people possessed two responsibilities to society. First, they needed to reproduce "like to like," as the eugenicists were fond of saying, so that their positive traits would be passed on to future generations. Second, they needed to prevent so-called cacogenic individuals (i.e., those with inferior genes, from the Greek term kakos or "bad") from blindly passing on their traits by reproducing with one another.
In the early 1920s, the eugenicists and their political allies presented the Ishmaels as crucial evidence during the Congressional hearings that led to the passage of the draconian Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. The eugenicist Harry Laughlin played such a central role in this drama that Ashley Montague later wrote, "It is perhaps not as well known as it should be that the United States Immigration Act of 1924 was based on the ill-considered, prejudiced, and scientific judgments of the late Mr. Harry Laughlin." At first glance, the Ishmaels were unlikely poster children for the threat supposedly posed by immigrants from Asia and eastern and southern Europe. After all, they were descended from old-stock Americans who had lived in the country since at least the beginning of the eighteenth century.
Yet the eugenicists subtly manipulated the Ishmaels' Islamic sounding surname to invoke the "Asiatic Menace" that contemporary racist ideologues such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard warned would soon swamp Anglo-Saxon civilization unless drastic measures were taken. As in Oscar McCulloch's day, therefore, Orientalist stereotypes concerning Islam and the East also helped to shape the popular image of the Ishmaels during what has been called the "tribal twenties." Thus, the Ishmaels were transformed into white, Midwestern surrogates for the "hordes" of Jews, Arabs, Chinese, and other "Asiatics" who threatened to turn the United States into a colony of Asia if they were allowed to enter the country.
Throughout the 1920s, the Ishmaels served as archetypal representatives of the country's cacogenic underclass. The following quote from Albert Edward Wiggam, a nonscientist who served as the Johnny Appleseed of the eugenics movement in America, exemplifies the attitude toward the Ishmaels during this period:
A few generations ago, down in Old Virginia, this family was composed of but two members, Old Man Ishmael and his wife, helpless, anti-social, thriftless incompetents. By the finest thing in civilization, kind-heartedness, the Ishmaelites were kept alive; not only that, they were given a better chance to reproduce their kind than the school teachers, preachers, business men, skilled mechanics, doctors and lawyers who tried to teach their empty brains to clothe and shelter their filthy bodies and, by expensive legal procedures, prevent them from being hanged. There were two of them then; there are nearly twelve thousand now!
Like his professional counterparts in the eugenics movement, Wiggam repeated canards and exaggerations about the Ishmaels. Wiggam, who once authored a eugenics version of the Ten Commandments and liked to brag that "had Jesus been among us he would have been president of the First Eugenics Congress," expressed his views in a populist idiom. Others—including David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University and a prominent eugenicist, who advocated involuntary sterilization of so-called degenerates, Charles Davenport, the head of the influential Eugenics Records Office, and Arthur Estabrook, the most prolific eugenics field-worker of the day—depicted the Ishmaels more scientifically, if no less grotesquely.
Estabrook, the young eugenicist who published a follow-up study on the Ishmaelites in the early 1920s, also helped to formulate and enforce the State of Virginia's notorious Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which legally prohibited "miscegenation." As Paul Lombardo has demonstrated, the role that eugenicists like Estabrook played in lobbying for this legislation was critical and, until recently, largely overlooked, even in studies of the eugenics movement. Estabrook's own private papers contain letters from Virginia state officials asking him to perform background checks on racially "suspect" individuals requesting marriage licenses. As a result of Estabrook's genealogical research, people who had lived their entire lives as whites were officially designated as black because they possessed a single African American ancestor, a policy popularly known as the "one-drop rule." The ramifications of such a reclassification were enormous. In some cases, couples were prevented from marrying; in others, children were expelled from schools they had attended for years; in still others, previously "white" individuals were now forced to drink from colored water fountains.
What kept eugenicists like Arthur Estabrook up at night, however, was not the risk posed by blacks or by the recent waves of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. Although such people were seen as genetically inferior by the eugenicists, they were also typically identifiable by a wide range of physical, linguistic, and/or cultural markers and, therefore, sexual unions between them and genetically superior individuals (i.e., middle- and upper-class whites of northern European background) could be regulated via the antimiscegenation laws and restrictive immigration policies that the eugenics movement helped to pass in the 1920s. No, what most bothered men like Estabrook and his boss, Charles Davenport, was another group that they considered to be even more dangerous to American society than blacks and immigrants: genetically inferior, native-born whites, like the Ishmaels. As Edward Larson has noted in his history of the eugenics movement in the Deep South: "Eugenicists' overriding concern [was] with purifying the Caucasian race. A typical example of this concern appeared throughout an article in the Journal of the Medical Association of Georgia during the 1937 campaign for eugenic sterilization in that state. According to the article, the 'South's "poor white trash," so aptly named by the Negro,' threatened to choke civilization 'in a wilderness of weeds.' Physicians must sterilize this 'human rubbish,' it warned, or the 'time may come when it will be necessary to resort to euthanasia.'"
The danger posed by people like the Ishmaels lay in the very fact that they possessed the same names, physical appearance, and, frequently, some of the same ancestors as the genetically superior members of their communities, including, it should be noted, the eugenicists, themselves. Nevertheless, they also possessed defective "germ plasm"—the phrase eugenicists employed to refer to genetic material—which resulted in inferior intelligence. This feeblemindedness, in turn, contributed to a wide range of aberrant behaviors, including sexual licentiousness, laziness, and criminality, that together conspired to create the undeserving poor.
In some cases, eugenicists and their forerunners, such as the nineteenth-century Italian criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, did try to argue that cacogenic individuals displayed physical signs of their genetic inferiority. Yet the absence of real evidence for such a connection led some eugenicists to doctor photographs to make supposedly cacogenic individuals look more like stereotypical criminals or deviants. These clumsy efforts betray the great difficulty in actually identifying cacogenic individuals by their physical appearance alone. Instead, preventing these individuals from interbreeding with genetically superior people required an elaborate system of background checks, intelligence testing, institutionalization, and, in some cases, compulsory sterilization.
Without these policies, the eugenicists argued, the entire white gene pool would be dragged down by "normal-looking" but genetically inferior individuals, a phenomenon that had already occurred within infamous cacogenic families such as the Jukes and Ishmaels. It is not coincidental, therefore, that the so-called family studies produced by eugenicists focused almost exclusively on poor white descendants of early American settlers, that is, people who shared the same physical appearance and ancestry as the Anglo-Saxon elite. Indeed, some of these families, including the Ishmaels themselves, could rightly claim membership in blue-blood organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution.
As we have already seen, the process of demonizing the Ishmaels reached its apex in 1933, the same year that the newly elected Nazi government implemented a eugenically inspired campaign of forced sterilization in Germany. While the Nazis were drawing on a model sterilization plan authored by Harry Laughlin (who would later receive a medal from the German government and an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg for his efforts), he and his colleagues were busy presenting the Ishmaels as one of America's worst family in the eugenics exhibit at the Chicago world's fair of 1933. Following this event, the rise of Nazism abroad forced the eugenics movement to retreat from the public sphere in the United States, although sympathizers continued to work behind the scenes to influence policy for many years to come. By the eve of World War II, the Ishmaels had disappeared from the nation's consciousness as dramatically as they had first entered it. For the next four decades, the once notorious Ishmael family was but a vague memory among residents of Indiana and a footnote for scholars of the eugenics movement.
Then, in the strangest twist in an already extraordinary story, the Ishmaelites were resurrected a century after Oscar McCulloch first identified them as a distinct community and two centuries after the original patriarch, Benjamin Ishmael, had taken up arms to fight the British. Like McCulloch, Hugo Prosper Leaming, the man who rediscovered the Ishmaels in the 1970s, was a liberal Protestant minister and social activist who possessed a keen interest in Islam. In 1977, Leaming published a book chapter entitled "The Ben Ishmael Tribe: A Fugitive 'Nation' of the Old Northwest," in which he turned the standard image of the Tribe of Ishmael on its head.
Rather than a cacogenic community of old-stock whites, Hugo Leaming argued, the Ishmaelites had really been a "tightly knit nomadic community of African, Native American, and 'poor white' descent," that "could only be categorized as 'colored,' therefore 'Negro' or African-American (but including others, by marriage or adoption)." Instead of being feebleminded paupers and petty criminals, Leaming claimed that the Ishmaelites had founded the city of Indianapolis and developed their own distinct forms of architecture, music, and literature. And, finally, in the most stunning assertion of all, Leaming hypothesized that rather than being a "white trash" patriarch, Ben Ishmael had actually been a Muslim of African descent who had established the first Islamic community native to the United States.
After being driven underground in the first few decades of the twentieth century, members of this community had then supposedly helped to found the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, the earliest African American Islamic groups. In short, according to Hugo Leaming, the Tribe of Ishmael was
an older branch of this tree of African-American Islam. It is suggested that behind the millions of African-Americans who have been affected by Islam in recent years ... behind the Nation of Islam founded by the Divine Imam Master Wallace Fard Muhammad and led so long by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, behind the Moorish Science of the Divine Imam Noble Drew Ali ... there stands one more earlier Islamic saint or Imam, Ben Ishmael, and one more earlier Islamic community, the Tribe of Ishmael, a bridge between African and American Islam, a lost-found nation in the wilderness of North America.
On the surface, Leaming would seem to have made one of those rare discoveries that most historians only dream about. His assertion that the Tribe of Ishmael was a "tri-racial" Islamic community was nothing less than astounding. It literally revolutionized the standard picture of organized Islam in the United States. Put into comparative perspective, the first community of Muslims native to the United States was now revealed to be contemporary with the American Revolution rather than with World War I. Leaming had apparently transformed the standard narrative of class, race, and religion in America.
In the years since Leaming's essay on the Tribe of Ishmael was first published—it has since been reprinted—his version has become the most widely repeated and influential among contemporary readers, far outstripping the impact of Oscar McCulloch's work or that of his successors in the eugenics movement. Books and Web sites dedicated to uncovering the previously hidden history of "tri-racial" and Islamic communities in the United States have taken Leaming's portrait of the Ishmaelites as gospel. For example, one internet discussion group posted a message entitled "The first true Ummat [Muslim community] in America (1750–1920)," which informed its readers about "a nomadic group of Muslims called 'The Tribe of Ishmael.' This group was composed of Africans (African-Americans), white-Americans, and Native Americans. In short, it reflected what America claims to be—a melting pot. This group was persecuted severely by local governments and, eventually, the federal government." In response, another member of the discussion group wrote, "it is a tragedy that we have no record of the descendants of this tribe. were they killed off? did they convert to other religions? or did they just lose the fire in the belly to maintain their faith once the tribe was forcibly disbanded?"
Significantly, Leaming's portrait of the Ishmaels has also influenced some printed histories of the eugenics movement in the United States. One author of a recent work speculated that the Ishmaelites "may have been composed initially of Shawnee Indians, blacks of the nomadic Fulani Tradition, and a Celtic gypsy-like population called the Tinkers." Another uncritically described the Ishmaelites as a "tribe of racially mixed white gypsies, Islamic blacks and American Indians."
There is only one problem with Hugo Leaming's ingenious and inspiring portrait of the Tribe of Ishmael: it isn't true. Ben Ishmael was not an "Islamic saint or Imam," his name does not reflect a corruption of the Arabic "ibn Ishmael," as Leaming also suggested in his essay. Nor was Ben Ishmael of African descent. Moreover, the Tribe of Ishmael was never an Islamic community, and the vast majority of the people identified as Ishmaelites over the years were of Western European background, although a relatively small minority did possess some African or Native American ancestry. Indeed, as I will show, a careful examination of all the published and unpublished sources on the Tribe of Ishmael reveals that only one of Leaming's major claims remains a possibility, namely, that some of the individuals identified as Ishmaelites may have become early members of the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam. In light of the available evidence, however, even this assertion does not rise beyond the level of conjecture.
If the evidence is so weak, how and why did Hugo Leaming arrive at his startling conclusions? Leaming had complex personal reasons for reimagining the Tribe of Ishmael as a primarily African American Islamic community. Born into a white, middle-class Christian family from Virginia, Leaming decided later in life that he was actually triracial and, despite his upbringing, became a member of the Moorish Science Temple, the first African American Islamic group. In short, Hugo Leaming assumed the same racial and religious identity that he invented for the Tribe of Ishmael. While Leaming's own dramatic metamorphosis helped shape his interpretation of the Ishmaelites, broader cultural and ideological currents also influenced his portrait.
Unlike Oscar McCulloch, who "discovered" the Tribe of Ishmael when Islam was widely seen in the West as a religion in decline, Leaming produced his study of the Tribe of Ishmael in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights era in the United States, when prominent African American Muslims such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali had become cultural icons. At the same time, Islamicists in other countries were attacking Western imperialism and their own corrupt governments. By the 1970s, far from being a symbol of decay, as it had been for Orientalists during the nineteenth century, Islam had now come to signify in the eyes of many—including Hugo Leaming—robust and popular resistance to colonialism, racism, and economic oppression.
It is also important to appreciate that Leaming was able to reimagine the Tribe of Ishmael as Muslim because earlier authors had already exploited contemporary tropes of Islam in their own portraits, beginning, of course, with the Islamic sounding names coined for the group. In this respect, the Tribe of Ishmael's story sheds new light on what Vijay Prashad has evocatively referred to as "the undisciplined world of U.S. orientalism." Contrary to popular belief, Americans did not encounter Islam for the first time in the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, the roots of Islam in America date back centuries to the numerous Muslim slaves brought to these shores from Africa. Nor did it take Malcolm X or even the members of Al Qaeda for Islam to become part of America's collective consciousness. Instead, Islam has been present in the popular American imagination for centuries. As I will argue throughout this book, each stage of the Tribe of Ishmael's story corresponds to a different phase in this fascinating but largely unwritten history of American Orientalism.
One way of understanding Hugo Leaming's radical reinterpretation of the Tribe of Ishmael, therefore, is that he literalized elements of their identity that had previously functioned on a symbolic level. Earlier writers like McCulloch and Estabrook had depicted the vast majority of the tribe's members as white Upland Southerners of Anglo-Saxon ancestry. At the same time, however, McCulloch and Estabrook symbolically likened all of the Ishmaelites—white and nonwhite alike—to marginalized groups such as Gypsies, Native Americans, and Muslims. In his revisionist study of the Ishmaelites, Leaming flipped the actual ethnic and racial proportions of the tribe's members so that African Americans now dominated numerically and culturally. Leaming also literalized the previously symbolic association of the Ishmaelites with Islam. Almost alchemically, he had transformed a collection of poor, overwhelmingly white, Upland Southern migrants into an African American Islamic community.
Despite its mythical quality, Leaming's version of the Ishmaelites' story illuminates a number of recurring themes in the history of African American Islam. The first is the powerful role that reinvention has played in the creation of new and distinctly American Islamic identities. In this respect, Leaming's transformation of the Tribe of Ishmael into an Islamic community and Ben Ishmael into an "Islamic saint or Imam," recalls the equally dramatic religious transformations of individuals such as Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. The second theme is best expressed by the Nation of Islam's phrase "lost-found nation," that is, the idea that the original Islamic identity of African Americans needs to be recovered and restored. Seen from this perspective, Leaming's revisionist interpretation of the Tribe of Ishmael fits into a broader pattern of reclaiming the supposedly obscured Islamic roots of all African Americans.
Finally, Leaming's identification of the Tribe of Ishmael as a "colored" community reflects a common American tendency to racialize Islam and, more specifically, to view it as a religion of nonwhites. To appreciate how deeply this racialization of Islam has penetrated the consciousness of many Americans, we need only recall Malcolm X's great surprise upon encountering blond-haired, blue-eyed Muslims on his pilgrimage to Mecca or, more recently, how governmental profiling of terrorist suspects has relied on narrow and misleading assumptions of what Muslims are supposed to look like.
Just as Hugo Leaming's portrait of the Tribe of Ishmael was influenced by contemporary shifts in the image of Islam, so too was it shaped by important changes in how the undeserving poor were represented in the United States. Following World War II, the popular image of the undeserving poor in America underwent two major revisions. The first was a shift from etiological explanations that emphasized biology to those that stressed culture. The second was the emergence of a primarily African American "underclass." Together, these phenomena had a major impact on Leaming's reconstruction of the Tribe of Ishmael as an African American community possessing its own distinctive culture.
During the first few decades of the twentieth century, eugenicists had argued that members of the undeserving poor such as the Ishmaels were doomed to engage in immoral behavior because of their inferior genes. By shifting the focus away from morality and toward biology, the eugenicists radically redefined the category of "undeserving." What had once been a moral category was now recast as a biological one. In this brave new world, the Ishmaelites, Jukes, Kallikaks, Wins, and other supposedly cacogenic clans did not deserve to reproduce, not primarily because they acted immorally—though they did, according to the eugenicists—but because they possessed bad genes.
The retreat of the eugenics movement in the 1930s coincided with the rise of the New Deal, whose policies were predicated on the assumption that the federal government had a responsibility to help the poor. Together, the leveling effects of the Great Depression, the decline of the eugenics movement, and the rise of the New Deal combined to drive the image of the undeserving poor from the popular imagination. For several decades, no major theory emerged in the United States to replace the biological model championed by the eugenicists. Then, as Michael Katz has written, "in the early 1960s intellectuals and politicians rediscovered poverty."
Rather than bad genes, scholars like Oscar Lewis and Michael Harrington—despite their differences—argued that the most intractable cases of poverty were rooted in culture. According to Lewis, certain individuals, families, or even entire communities, were mired in a pathological "culture of poverty" that "tends to perpetuate itself from generation to generation because of its effects on the children." Lewis identified sixty-two traits that characterized this condition, including many that basically reproduced the stereotypes previously associated with the undeserving poor. Indeed, Lewis even invoked the specter of degeneration that had earlier played a major role in McCulloch's portrait of the Tribe of Ishmael, writing that "the low level of organization ... gives the culture of poverty its marginal and anachronistic quality in our highly complex, specialized, organized society. Most primitive people achieved a higher level of socio-cultural organization than our modern urban slum dwellers."
In 1965, the culture of poverty took on a decidedly racial cast when Daniel Patrick Moynihan submitted a jointly authored report to President Lyndon Johnson entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Although Moynihan did not refer explicitly to Lewis's work, his description of poor African Americans as constituting a "subculture" dominated by families with a "matriarchal structure" that lay at the root of a "tangle of pathology," employed many of the same tropes as the "culture of poverty" theory, as well as the earlier family studies produced by the eugenicists.
By the middle of the 1970s, the popular media had begun to label this latest version of the undeserving poor the "underclass." Gunnar Myrdal had originally employed the phrase in 1963 to describe "an unprivileged class of unemployed, unemployables and underemployed who are more and more hopelessly set apart from the nation at large and do not share in its life, its ambitions and its achievements." Then, in 1977, a seminal article in Time magazine entitled "The American Underclass: Destitute and Desperate in the Land of Plenty," introduced the label to the broader American public. Time described the underclass in language that could have been taken directly from earlier studies of the Tribe of Ishmael: "More intractable, more socially alien and more hostile than almost anyone had imagined. They are the unreachables: the American underclass." The underclass label soon became associated with a host of adjectives echoing earlier hereditarian stereotypes of the undeserving poor, including "intergenerational," "biological," "hereditary," and "trapped."
Not coincidently, Leaming's revisionist essay on the Ishmaelites appeared in the same year that Time magazine introduced millions of middle-class readers to the latest incarnation of the undeserving poor. From the vantage point of the 1970s, the Tribe of Ishmael would have looked to many contemporary observers like classic denizens of the underclass. Yet Leaming asserted that the Ishmaelites—and by implication, the contemporary American underclass, as well—actually possessed a rich and vibrant culture of their own. The key was being able to recognize it. Thus, for example, Leaming interpreted the multiple sexual partners of some Ishmaelites as a sign of polygamy, perhaps influenced by Islamic tradition, rather than a mark of licentiousness. Similarly, he argued that depictions of powerful Ishmaelite women—whom he called "queens" in his account—indicated a matriarchal social structure instead of a pathological breakdown of the family. Most fundamentally, rather than being "intractable" and "hostile" degenerates—per contemporary stereotypes of the urban underclass—Leaming reimagined the Ishmaelites as pioneering "race rebels," whose only real crime was being ahead of their time.
By recovering what he claimed was their true identity, Leaming sought to redeem not only the Ishmaelites of Indiana but also their symbolic descendants in America's contemporary inner cities. Once put on display at the World's Fair as America's worst family, the Ishmaels had now been transformed into an allegory for why categories like the undeserving poor and the underclass should be abandoned forever. Against this backdrop, Leaming's work on the Tribe of Ishmael should be seen as an imaginative, if historically inaccurate, intervention in the postwar debate about the poor, as well as another link in the centuries-long chain of American fantasies about Islam.
Like the character Zelig in the Woody Allen film of the same name, the Ishmaels have appeared and reappeared under different guises throughout American history. Present at the American Revolution, the settling of the frontier, the economic Panic of 1873, the Roaring Twenties, and the Great Depression, the Ishmaels are a quintessentially American family. Rather than generals, presidents, and other "great men," the central characters in this book's narrative were poor people whose hardscrabble lives were written out of history except when they could be rendered into crude cautionary tales. Unlike Zelig, however, the Ishmaels and their neighbors in Indianapolis were flesh-and-blood people whose own story is as meaningful and illuminating as the fantasies projected upon them.
Instead of an atavistic tribe of urban savages, a cacogenic clan, or an African American Islamic community, the Ishmaelites of Indiana were poor people trying to survive during an era marked by rapid industrialization, urbanization, and other radical dislocations. Some were petty thieves and prostitutes, others were more hardened criminals, but most of the people identified as Ishmaelites by Oscar McCulloch and his successors struggled to navigate the "shady world" between legitimate and illegitimate economies, supporting themselves by working "off the books"—to borrow Sudhir Venkatesh's phrase—in occupations that ranged from fixing umbrellas and recycling trash to skimming grease and making throw rugs from dog pelts.
Ultimately, the competing fantasies inspired by the Ishmael family over the last century and a half reveal a great deal about how successive generations of Americans have deployed and manipulated race, religion, and science in order to shape the popular image of the poor in the United States and to formulate public policy based on these shifting representations. Just as this book revises standard notions of American history, so, too, does it raise important questions about the nation's mythology and, in particular, the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" narrative known as the American Dream. If everyone should be able to succeed in America through hard work, what does that imply about those individuals or, worse, entire families who are unable to escape grinding poverty after years or even generations of struggle? In the first half of the twentieth century, the eugenics movement answered this question by positing that such people, including members of the Ishmael family, were born not made. As the world's fair exhibition of 1933 glumly put it, "their hereditary equipment lacked the basic qualities of intelligence and character on which opportunity could work." By contrast, I argue that the desperately poor people once labeled the Tribe of Ishmael were made, not born. For, as Thomas Paine observed in 1795, the same year that Benjamin Ishmael, the patriarch of the Ishmael family, left Pennsylvania for Kentucky in search of a better life, "Poverty ... is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state."