- New Negro Politics in the Jim Crow South by Claudrena Harold
THE SOUTH HAS RISEN AGAIN! Never again can scholars and public observers make the slipshod claim that the southern arm of the Black Freedom movement began after WW II. In this powerful and epic rendering of the southern New Negro movement, Claudrena Harold destroys the still resilient notions of Black southern backwardness awaiting uplift and politicization from northern interlopers or Cold War geopolitics. The above assertions have allowed generations to push forward Booker T. Washington as the only viable Black outcome of a dangerous Jim Crow South. And then enters New Negro Politics in the Jim Crow South where Harold brings to the conversation a vibrant public sphere of Black political life existing a decade before the subjects that populate Robin Kelley’s Race Rebels and filled with residents who did not equate resistance with resettlement like the southern expatriates in Glenda Gilmore’s Defying Dixie. Here we find that New Negroes of the south were not exiles from Babylon or carpet bagging interlopers from outside, but the native Black sons and daughters [End Page 187] of Dixie working out plans of political possibility built from the soil of Jim Crow (and, if they had their way, fertilized in its ashes). With Harold’s work, these un-heralded New Negroes of the south now have a chronicling that maps the epic nature of their politics, both its profundity and limits.
However, the import of New Negro Politics in the Jim Crow South does not simply lie in its reconfigured geopolitical mapping of the New Negro movement. With the emphasis here on politics, both electoral and social movement, Harold firmly places the state and statecraft firmly back into discussions of the Black modern experience during the New Negro era. Trade union and left wing politics, the electoral arena, the Garvey movement, and historically black universities are the primary spaces of modernist strivings in this engaging text. This work follows the trend of the latest New Negro scholarship to push the boundaries of this movement beyond the longstanding focus on literary and visual artists and intellectuals. But Harold’s attention to the southern manifestations of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, southern Black intellectuals, and the amazing National Brotherhood Workers of America forces us to more accurately align our theories of Black politics with the actual workings and dreamings of freedom found in everyday Black life.
I was struck most by how New Negroes of the Jim Crow South was able to capture the artistry and political imagination of rank-and-file workers and activists who were so aware of their place within a transnational orbit of Black modernity. Harold powerfully features historical subjects that were members of the UNIA, NAACP, architects of the NBWA and appealed to the American Federation of Labor – all at the same time! Moreover, a focus on the south forces us to trouble mainstream historiographical conventions by exploring the complex relationships between Black political and civic organizations in ways that cut across ideological distinctions. Harold shows that in the south, the NAACP was an explicit ally of the working-class black left, Garveyites looked beyond grand dreams of an African return to also engage in the fine grain community projects of building schools and health clinics amidst Jim Crow. And southern Black colleges, like Virginia Union, were not simply bastions of Victorian restraint but wellsprings of New Negro political protest and intellectual life. This dynamic public sphere of radicals and reformers, trade unionists and voting rights activists, intellectuals, college students and the working poor quite frankly demand that we do better in our historical reconstructions of the Afro-Diasporic experience.
The last decade has witnessed the burgeoning of what could be called a subfield of “New Negro Studies” where this text will hold a prominent place. The focus here on the south (beyond a space of primitive raw source material), the black political engagement...