restricted access 6. Anticolonial Rhetoric and Black Civil Rights History
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119 C h a p t e r 6 Anticolonial Rhetoric and Black Civil Rights History In 1935, Samuel Daniels, founder of the Pan-African Reconstruction Association and a prominent Harlem race advocate, suggested that Haiti, Liberia, and Ethiopia should unite and form a single corporation. He reasoned that this economic conglomerate could compete with European imperialism and establish a transnational base of “African ” political power. Although the idea may seem fanciful, even utopian, Daniels’s vision of African-Diasporic community was complex; his plan for a Pan-African, anticolonial corporation was motivated by a need for economic self-defense and thus gave the lie to the putative altruism that justified European imperialism. Also, although Daniels was attempting to shift the focus of international commerce from the West, like nineteenth -century nationalists Martin Delaney and Robert Campbell who sought an African epicenter for black collective identity, his foundation for black power was as dispersed as the diaspora itself. Departing from his predecessors, Daniels did not suggest a single geographic center for black economic and political power but an arrangement between communities with shared interests. Finally, the corporate model he chose suggests his dissatisfaction with the state as an organizing principle for political community . He preferred incorporation over nationalism, desiring to coordinate rather than assimilate the cultures of the African Diaspora, and in so doing expressed his skepticism about the state and optimism about new forms of black collective identity.1 Obviously, Daniels’s Africa, Inc. never came about. But Daniels, like other black anticolonialists during the 1930s, participated in a powerful 120 Ch apt er 6 new rhetoric, a transformation in black ethos that challenged white supremacy , proposed innovative relationships within the African Diaspora, and put forth possible models of progressive black community. A coherent black ethos developed through the medium of black anticolonial rhetoric as it interpreted the U.S. occupation of Haiti, the Liberian labor crisis, and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. The rhetoric of this black collective identity differed from much of the discourse that had preceded it. Prior rhetorics of black community were implicated in cultural nationalism and, like European nationalism, emerged from the politics and practices of colonialism; cultural diffusion—the belief that cultural and racial groups existed at the core or on the periphery of world historical narratives—shaped the rhetoric that expressed collective identity. Modern nationalism, and indeed the modern subject of the Enlightenment , came into being through managing commerce between these distinct cultural spaces: the metropolitan and the periphery, civilized and primitive, autonomous and dependent. People of African descent confronted , configured, and conformed to these assumptions in rhetoric that imagined and mobilized transnational political community. In the early years of the twentieth century, when people of African descent argued against racist policies they often invented new frameworks for viewing their experience. The highly influential Pan-African rhetoric of W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey used African spaces as metaphors for reconstituted black identity or as benchmarks for the evolution of black culture. Ultimately, this rhetoric served an existential function for black people in that it created an ontological center to bring together disparate African ethnicities and to disprove ideologies of racial inferiority through the sharing of a common metaphysical substance (the “race,” its destiny, or a debt to a sense of civilization, for example). These interpretations of Africa and the international diaspora served to buttress or recuperate black American existence, to stabilize black being rather than articulate a specific political community within which to contest specific policies. Indeed, this rhetoric required the recognition of distinct political circumstances among Africans, African Americans, and the African Diaspora as a condition for commonality among the people of these places. Ultimately, this rhetoric posited an epistemological subject as the foundation for political agency. It assumed the desirability of a single, unproblematic focal point as the font of political agency within the African Diaspora. Anticolonial Rhetoric and Black Civil Rights History 121 Through their responses to colonialist actions in Haiti, Liberia, and Ethiopia, black people were able to imagine a new sense of political community , a black ethos not defined by state boundaries or a single focal point. This community rejected the political borders created and maintained by white supremacy, but it did not eschew the imaginative political borders of black community. In this sense, while this discourse is PanAfrican , it does not rely on the language of return or on the idea that Africa is a homeland for black people in diaspora. From this...


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Race identity -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Attitudes -- History -- 20th century.
  • African diaspora.
  • Anti-imperialist movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • American prose literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
  • Haiti -- History -- American occupation, 1915-1934 -- Social aspects.
  • Labor movement -- Liberia -- History -- 20th century.
  • Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936 -- Social aspects.
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