Civilizationism and Reverse Civilizationism
As noted in the previous chapter, Malcolm X’s thesis on black revolution in the United States was rooted in his black nationalism. Malcolm saw nationalism as the major progressive force in U.S. politics as well as in contemporary revolutions throughout Africa and Asia. Post-NOI Malcolm saw black nationalism as a broad, dynamic, and evolving ideology having political, economic, and social dimensions. Malcolm had been reworking his theoretic and programmatic conceptualization of black nationalism from the millenarianism of the NOI to the revolutionism of his post-NOI conception. It was this bedrock black nationalism that was the theoretical framework of the Black Power Movement (BPM) and the impetus for its most important political objective: black revolution in the United States. While Malcolm’s black nationalism provided the impetus for his revolutionary theorizing, it also transferred its shortcomings to his thesis of black revolution and those of subsequent BPM revolutionists who adopted it; and the most deleterious shortcoming was Malcolm’s reverse civilizationism.
Civilizationism, in the context of black nationalism, is Moses’s (1978) characterization of the tendency within classical black nationalism, which throughout the nineteenth century endorsed a sanguine view of the developmental efficacy of Western “modernization”—including proselytizing the assumedly “heathen” Africans—to provide industrial and technological development for Africans in the colonies, ostensibly under the direction of African American emigres, especially, industrialists, technicians, teachers, and missionaries. Classical black nationalism, Moses reminds us, depicted enslaved African Americans as uncultured displaced Africans and viewed indigenous Africans in similar benighted terms. Although classical black nationalists often advocated emigration for enslaved blacks, they actively supported the overthrow of slavery, as well, and fought for the extension of the civil rights of blacks in the North. Nevertheless, guided by their civilizationism, classical black nationalists, in Moses’s view, endorsed repatriation to Africa not only to free blacks from racial oppression—including racial slavery—in the United States, but to bring American Christianity and technology to “backward” African “heathens.” The latter goal reflects what Moses refers to as the cultural assimilationism of classical black nationalism, which employed the cultural arrogance—though without the racial supremacy—of the prominent arguments of Western imperialists. This orientation toward territorial separation (i.e., emigration) and cultural assimilation (i.e., civilizationism) was shared by black nationalists from Martin Delany to Alexander Crummell to Henry McNeal Turner, and characterized much of its “golden age” from 1850–1925 (Moses, 1978). Moses acknowledges that Du Bois (1903) modernized black nationalism from the emigrationism and Anglophilia of the classical era to incorporation of positive conceptions of African and African American culture. While hailing both the roots of civilization in Africa as well as the prominent contributions of African peoples and their culture to world history, Du Bois affirmed and highlighted the importance of African American culture in the United States, as well. African American culture was constituted, in part, from African cultural retentions such as found in the Black Church but, more directly, it derived from black folk culture, which was incubated in—and emerged from—the slave plantations and was becoming increasingly urbanized in the early twentieth century, especially during the Great Migration.
Seemingly oblivious to Du Bois’s arguments more than a half-century earlier affirming African American culture, rejecting civilizationism, and establishing black cultural nationalism, Malcolm’s reverse civilizationism denied African American culture while inverting the teleology of civilizationists: instead of Africans being “behind” African Americans developmentally, as the civilizationists had argued, the reverse was true (i.e., reverse civilizationism). Malcolm was convinced that African American revolutionary thought and praxis languished behind that of Africans who were engaged in revolutionary struggles on the continent and that this was in part owed to black Americans’ lack of cultural identity. As a result, Malcolm’s thesis on black nationalism—and the thesis of black revolution that emerged from it—was hamstrung by its reverse civilizationism, which subsequent BPM activists and theorists who followed Malcolm adopted as well. Attributing much of this “backwardness” to black Americans’ lack of culture and their failure to recognize and practice their basic “African-ness,” nearly all the major organizations of the BPM advocated reverse civilizationism to some degree, and its adoption explains African Americans’ open advocacy of African “traditions,” “customs,” languages, dress, and aesthetics, during the BPM. Such tendencies led Cruse (1967, p. 557), among others, to admonish “Negroes to cease romanticizing Africa and pre-feudal tribalism,” while castigating reverse civilizationists whose “readiness . . . to lean heavily on the African past and the African image” he viewed as “nothing but a convenient cover-up for an inability to come to terms with the complex demands of the American reality” (ibid., p. 554).
The shortcomings of Malcolm’s and subsequent BPM activists’ rendering of black nationalism were not specific to them, but were evident among analysts and advocates of black nationalism in general. Some of these shortcomings were rooted in the dualities of black nationalism itself, both as a concept and as a specific program for black liberation. There was/is a tendency of both analysts and activists to view these dualities as contradictory, requiring adoption of one aspect and the rejection of the other instead of viewing them as potentially mutually constitutive, complementary, or simply as multiple dimensions of the ideology that might be usefully synthesized. Three of these dualities with respect to black nationalism stand out. First, is the duality reflected in statist and nonstatist definitions of black nationalism. Second, and related to the first, is the distinction between emigrationist and non/anti-emigrationist aspects of black nationalism. Third, is the duality represented by the contrasting Eurocentric and Afrocentric (or, better, Anglophilic and Afrophilic) cultural orientations in black nationalism; specifically, the tension between centering the cultural orientation of black nationalism on replicated European/white cultural forms—especially European American religious conceptions, liberal democracy, and market practices—as opposed to grounding it in African/black cultural, political, and economic forms. The latter duality is represented in large part by the civilizationism of classical black nationalism and its rejection in modern black nationalism, which posits, inter alia, a distinct African American culture. Appreciating these historic and contemporary dualities in black nationalism provides a context for understanding how and why Malcolm adopted and modified his conception of black nationalism in specific ways, and how his choices informed those of subsequent BPM activists and the theses on black revolution they proposed.
For antinationalists and many other critics of black nationalism, these dualities do not reflect the richness and diversity of black nationalism as an ideology, but instead demonstrate its contradictory and even destructive tendencies, suggesting its inability to cohere at the level of political ideology, much less to serve as an organizational or mobilizing basis for black liberation. For example, one grossly misleading claim is that black nationalism is inherently sexist, a viewpoint often proffered by liberals, integrationists, Marxists, and assorted antinationalists while ignoring the sexist practices common to their own perspectives. For example, the most enduring sexist institution in black communities has been the Black Church, which, although black nationalist in its founding and early years, throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries it has been a center of liberalism and integrationism. Although the Black Church has been liberal and integrationist for the last century, the implications for these ideologies of black women’s toiling in every major activity in the church with little hope for advancement in its hierarchy do not typically include the charge that they are inherently sexist.
Liberal, integrationist, and Marxist sexism is often overlooked or minimized by focusing on black nationalist groups such as the NOI as prototypal, for example, or by ignoring sexism endemic in the labor movement and in Marxist organizations such as the Communist Party (Jones, 1948), or in the Black Panther Party, whose leadership included Eldridge Cleaver, a rapist and untransformed misogynist who was elevated by the White Left as the “voice” of black liberation. The prevalence of sexism in the most important White Left organization of the 1960s, SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), is rarely associated with its ideology (see Barber, 2008). In contrast, even sexist statements (as opposed to policies or practices) from black nationalists endure in a way unlike those of non-nationalists. For example, the oft-repeated reference to Stokely Carmichael’s comment on the allegedly “prone” position of women in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) are not only lifted out of its context, but it is seldom noted that it was asserted at a time when he and SNCC were integrationist or “radical democrats.” It is rarely cited as evidence of the “inherent sexism” of integrationism or radical democracy as ideologies. Carmichael’s appointments of black women to leadership positions is infrequently highlighted, as is the recognition that it was in its presumably black nationalist black power phase that SNCC articulated an unequivocal black feminist perspective in SNCC member Frances Beal’s (1970) enunciation of her seminal thesis on “double jeopardy,” which laid the basis for subsequent intersectionality perspectives (e.g., Crenshaw, 1989).
It is only with respect to black nationalism that female subordination is viewed as among the core principles of the ideology. The contributions of Mary Shadd Cary, Mary Bibb, Adelaide Casely Hayford, Henrietta Vinton Davis, Amy Ashwood, Amy Jacques Garvey, Audley Moore, Dara Abubakari, Amina Baraka, or Adjoa Aiyetoro to black nationalist feminism typically are ignored because they belie the view of the irreconcilability of black nationalism and feminism. At times, the feminism of black nationalist women is attributed to “internationalism,” which is excised from black nationalism. Given that international/transnational elements and orientations have been embedded in black nationalism since its founding, then, to excise internationalism from black nationalism is to lift black nationalism out of its own history (see Henderson 2018b). Thus, antinationalist feminists are among those who contribute to silencing black nationalist feminists’ voices, activism, and contributions to theory. Black nationalism is imagined as embodying patriarchy in its core precepts, presumably unlike the patriarchy in liberalism, integrationism, radical democracy, Marxism, or progressive ideologies—“progressive” being an adjective rarely applied to black nationalism.
Such unabashedly uninformed and misleading views regarding black nationalism, which are so prominent in academic discourse on black nationalism, are not limited to analyses of black nationalism and feminism but redound to a broader tendency of many scholars to dismiss black nationalism as a viable ideology of black liberation and to ignore or reduce its dynamic multidimensionality to self-negating contradictions, apparently impervious to theoretical synthesis, treating black nationalism as static and one-dimensional. Some of the apparent contradictions arise from the dualities mentioned above, but they also reflect challenges stemming from the dynamic context of the U.S. sociopolitical economy in which black nationalism has been incubated. Nevertheless, it is clear, as Hanes Walton pointed out decades ago, that black nationalism may be the most misunderstood ideology in the United States. Therefore, it’s important to challenge inaccurate preconceptions of black nationalism—as well as outright misrepresentations of the ideology in the literature—in order to demonstrate both Malcolm’s contribution to its development as well as the shortcomings in Malcolm’s perspective, which would inform subsequent theses of BPM activists.
In the following sections, I review each of these apparent inconsistencies and explain how they represent dualities within a singular ideology, black nationalism, and discuss how black nationalism promotes black revolution, both historically and during the BPM. First, I define black nationalism and situate this definition in the broader political science literature on nationalism. Given the contrasting definitions of nationalism—some insisting that nationalism must have as its objective sovereign statehood and others that it does not have to—then by defining black nationalism we begin to address the dualisms outlined above, recognizing its logical coherence and multidimensionality as an ideology. I also examine the related issues of whether black nationalism is synonymous with a commitment to emigrationism, and discuss Eurocentric and Afrocentric conceptualizations of the constituent elements and orientation of black nationalism. Second, I examine Du Bois’s conception of black nationalism at the outset of the twentieth century, which provided a theoretical synthesis of several of the dualities in black nationalism. Du Bois’s modernized black nationalism—as opposed to the classical black nationalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—emphasized the importance of African American culture; and it proffered, inter alia, a particular form of revolution: black cultural revolution. Malcolm X and subsequent BPM activists reversed some of the Du Boisian contributions to both black nationalist theory and the black revolutionary theses that derived from it. The major result of this reversal was that while it asserted the importance of cultural factors in the black freedom struggle, it promoted a largely imagined and ahistorical African culture while failing to seriously consider liberating aspects of African American culture. As a result, it posited a theory of black cultural revolution in the United States devoid of a demonstrable and relevant black American culture to propel it. The lack of appreciation of historical and contemporary African American culture to the BPM also contributed to the failure to recognize antecedents of black political revolution in the United States—e.g., the Slave Revolution of the U.S. Civil War, which a study of black culture would reveal. At minimum, such a focus on black culture—and Du Bois’s cultural thesis in particular—would provide a point of departure for BPM revolutionists attempting to theorize—much more to engage in—revolutionary struggle in the United States.
Nationalism and Black Nationalism
Black nationalism in the United States is an ideology that maintains that black Americans constitute a nation, and that this nation has the right to determine the political entity that governs it. While straightforward, this definition is hardly undisputed. For example, one of the most cited definitions of black nationalism is Essien-Udom’s (1962, p. 6):
the belief of a group that it possesses, or ought to possess, a country; that it shares, or ought to share, a common heritage of language, culture, and religion; and that its heritage, way of life, and ethnic identity are distinct from those of other groups. Nationalists believe that they ought to rule themselves and shape their own destinies and that they should therefore be in control of their social, economic, and political institutions.
Acknowledging that his definition identifies an ideal type and that no black nationalist organization “wholly conforms” to it, he adds that “although black nationalism shares some characteristics of all nationalisms, it must be considered a unique type of separatist nationalism seeking an actual physical and political withdrawal from existing society” (ibid., p. 7). Moses (1996, p. 2) agrees with this basically statist definition of black nationalism, especially that which emerged in the “classical era of black nationalism” from 1850–1925. For him, classical black nationalism may be defined as “the effort of African Americans to create a sovereign nation-state and formulate an ideological basis for a concept of national culture.” He adds that “the essential feature of classical black nationalism is its goal of creating a black nation-state or empire with absolute control over a specific territory, and sufficient economic and military power to defend it.” Clearly, Moses views black nationalism—essentially its classical variant—in statist terms.
Moses also acknowledges different connotations of the concept, noting a few pages later in the same volume that “in a broader sense, it may indicate a spirit of Pan-African unity and an emotional sense of solidarity with the political and economic struggles of African peoples throughout the world” (ibid., p. 20). But, in general, Moses does not accept “nonstatist” definitions of nationalism. For example, he argues that David Walker’s thesis, which viewed blacks as constituting “a nation within a nation” and called for slave insurrection on the basis of what amounts to national self-determination, was not black nationalist because Walker did not support black statehood nor emigrationism. Similarly, he notes that Maria Stewart “clearly viewed black Americans as a nation” and “possessed a religiously based black nationalism,” which viewed blacks “as a modern Israel in Babylon,” but, like Walker, “she opposed the idea of territorial separatism” either in the form of colonization in general or the Back to Africa movements in particular, thus failing “to carry her nationalism to its ultimate logical expression of territorial separatism” (Moses, 1990, p. 161). He concluded that Stewart’s ideology “therefore lacked the geopolitical ambitions of the true nationalist” (ibid.).
Moses distinguishes classical black nationalism from “modern” black nationalism with respect to the former’s advocacy of Anglophilia and territorial sovereignty, and the latter’s promulgation of an affirming African American culture and nonterritorial or nonsovereign objectives. Modern black nationalism became synonymous with black cultural nationalism by asserting African American culture as its centerpiece and eschewing the Anglophilia of the classical period. It also advocated political autonomy, while demurring on the necessity of establishing a territorial state. The former closes a breach in classical black nationalism first identified by Moses, but the latter betrays the essential characteristic of black nationalism—and all nationalisms—for Moses, the objective of acquiring a territorial state. Pinkney (1976, p. 2) seems to disagree slightly with Moses; and while not eschewing statist definitions of black nationalism, he notes that such definitions “appear to be narrowly applicable to nationality in the sense of nation-states, rather than to the aspirations and actions of national minorities within already existing states.” For him, “historical circumstances and the specific social conditions of a country determine the form in which nationalism manifests itself” (ibid.). These forms range from a drive for “complete separation from the dominant group and the right to establish a nation-state of its own, either in a part of the territory of the host society or in a different area,” to the demand for “some degree of control over the social institutions which are ostensibly responsive to their needs” (ibid.). Focusing mainly on black nationalism of the 1960s, he argues that it rests on unity, pride in cultural heritage, and autonomy—but not necessarily statehood.
For Carlisle (1975, p. 158), black nationalism is less an ideology than a “cluster of related ideas,” which has discernible features that are comparable to European forms of nationalism, while manifesting doctrines peculiar to African American history. He argues that nationalism “presumes a black nation existing unassimilated alongside the American nation” and, borrowing from Shafer (1955), he argues that nationalists focus on “a territory, a language and culture, common institutions, sovereign government, a common history, love for fellows, devotion to the nation, common pride, hostility to opponents, and hope for the future.” He notes that certain points recur regularly in nationalist discourse, including an “emphasis on African past glories, rejection of white association, rejection of miscegenation, advocacy of high personal morality, interest in pan-African unity, elevation of black womanhood, pride in standards of beauty unique to the black race, and interest in and support for the education of blacks” (Carlisle, 1975, p. 6). He insists that “beyond a shared national identity there is little which can be said to unite black nationalists” and “perhaps the most common feature of those advocating black nationalist ideas has been the ideal of overcoming black powerlessness in the American context by setting up mechanisms of self-determination.” While “for some, revolution or emigration to a black state seemed the proper approach,” and “[o]thers preferred the slow and careful building of separately controlled black institutions,” nevertheless, “[a]ll sought control of their own destiny and liberation outside the white-dominated society” (ibid.).
Bracey et al. (1970, p. xxvi) embrace a broad conceptualization of black nationalism, which, for them, describes “a body of social thought, attitudes, and actions ranging from the simplest expressions of ethnocentrism and racial solidarity to the comprehensive and sophisticated ideologies of Pan-Negroism or Pan-Africanism.” They add that “the concept of racial solidarity is essential to all forms of black nationalism,” and racial solidarity is “the simplest expression of racial feeling that can be called a form of black nationalism” (ibid.). Van Deburg (1997, pp. 3–4) recognizes that “[black] nationalism can be blended with a host of related ‘isms’ and approaches—to better address the specific needs of individual adherents or to . . . adapt to changed social conditions.” He adds that “[n]ationalists can lean either to the right or the left of their customary place on the political spectrum” and “can be ‘classical’ or ‘modern’—sometimes even ‘neo’ or ‘proto’ ”; and “[t]heir issue orientation may tend toward territorial, religious, economic, or cultural concerns” (ibid., p. 4). A “common denominator” for Van Deburg, whether “nationalism is expressed in demands for territorial cession, political empowerment, or increased cultural autonomy” is the “high value” it places “on self-definition and self-determination” (ibid., p. 2).
The diverse and even contrasting views on what constitutes black nationalism are reflective of the broader argument on nationalism in the political science literature. To be sure, a preponderance if not a majority of nationalist scholars seem to be of the opinion that nationalism seeks to reconcile the nation with a state, which is captured in Gellner’s (1983) famous definition of nationalism as the doctrine that the political unit (the state) and the cultural unit (the nation) should be congruent. Thus, on the one hand, the prevalent view in the social science literature is that nationalists seek to possess a state, which ties nationalism to political sovereignty as an objective. This is evident across the political spectrum among liberals such as Woodrow Wilson, conservatives like Elie Kedourie, and socialists such as Lenin, Luxemburg, Stalin, and Hobsbawm. On the other hand, scholars such as Hutchinson (1987) argue that different types of nationalism (in this case, political and cultural nationalisms) have different orientations toward statehood. In one of the most popular political science formulations, Smith (1991, 73) defines nationalism as an “ideological movement for attaining and maintaining autonomy, unity and identity on behalf of a population deemed by some of its members to constitute an actual or potential ‘nation.’ ” He points out that the “core doctrine” of nationalism does not include the acquisition of a sovereign state (ibid., p. 74). He insists that nationalism is “an ideology of the nation, not the state,” which “places the nation at the centre of its concerns, and its description of the world and its prescriptions for collective action” (ibid.). He acknowledges that early nationalists including Rousseau, Herder, Achad Ha’am, and Aurobindo “were not particularly interested in the acquisition of a state, either in general or for the nation with whose aspirations they identified” (ibid.). He is emphatic that the “notion that every nation must have its own state is a common, but not a necessary, deduction from the core doctrine of nationalism” (ibid.). Thus, a statist conception of nationalism is “neither necessary nor universal” (ibid.).
Smith’s view is echoed in the more recent work of political scientists, such as Snyder (2000), which posits that while nationalism may have a civic or ethnic orientation, neither necessitates statehood and they might seek sovereignty or autonomy within a federal framework. For Snyder, “defining the aim of nationalism as achieving a sovereign state would seem to exclude the seeking of political rights short of sovereign statehood by cultural groups”; and “these broader meanings are an integral part of the thing people call nationalism” and “common parlance links these phenomena not out of confusion, but because they have related causes, dynamics, and consequences, which a theory of nationalism . . . ought to try to capture” (2000, pp. 22–23). For Snyder, nationalism is “the doctrine that a people who see themselves as distinct in their culture, history, institutions, or principles should rule themselves in a political system that expresses and protects those distinctive characteristics. A nation is, therefore, a group of people who see themselves as distinct in these terms and who aspire to self-rule” (ibid., p. 23).
Similarly, black nationalism, conceptually, like nationalism in general, has both statist and nonstatist orientations (Price, 2012), and historically has had aspects of both as well. This doesn’t reflect any internal incoherence in black nationalism as an ideology but, instead, mirrors the particular historiography of African American political development. For example, while Moses (1990, p. 36) endorses statist definitions of pure black nationalism, he recognizes that there are more inclusive forms of black nationalism as well:
In its purest form, American black nationalism is concerned with territorial separatism and with the establishment of a separate government. In its more inclusive forms, it is broadly concerned with the codification and maintenance of culture and ideology to reflect realities of black American history and to serve as a guide towards a happier future.
What unites the two perspectives is the broadly accepted nationalist maxim that the social and the political should be congruent. Both statist and nonstatist conceptions of nationalism accept this maxim; however, the congruence of the social and political units can be achieved through either their reconciliation in a sovereign state or in an autonomous polity within a state. Thus, black nationalism, like nationalism in general, can seek either sovereign statehood or nonstatist/sovereign autonomy in a federal arrangement. Further, black nationalism reflects the range of political options available to blacks in the United States who sought their freedom as Africans (and their descendants) who had been captured and taken from Africa to enslavement in the Americas. These options are evident in the prominent strategies of early black nationalists, such as Paul Cuffee, who proffered a “dual colonization” program entailing African American emigration to Africa and/or their establishment of autonomous settlements in territory in North America. The statist and nonstatist aspects of black nationalism reflect the nuance and historical specificity of the form of nationalism that emerged among diasporic Africans in the United States.
The differences in the definition of black nationalism with respect to its statist and/or nonstatist dimensions are related to differences among scholars on the origins of black nationalism in the United States. This is expected given that scholars who assume a statist basis of black nationalism would likely only locate its ideological origins with those articulating an objective of acquiring statehood while scholars focusing on nonstatist black nationalism would do likewise with respect to non-state-based orientations. Thus, not surprisingly, there are clear differences among scholars on the origins of black nationalism in the United States, which are associated with disagreements on what constitutes black nationalism as an ideology in the first place. For example, Stuckey (1972, p. 2) associates black nationalism with a quest for autonomy among African Americans and suggests it was “surely as old as the 1600’s,” although it “crystallized” as an ideology during the 1830s and 1840s. In fact, he argues that “[i]n the period from the 1780s to the 1830s, nationalists dominated the ranks of Afro-American leaders” (ibid., p. 214). Also associating black nationalism with a quest for autonomy in either state or nonstate political formations, Pinkney (1976, p. 3) traces “black nationalist sentiment” to the first documented slave conspiracy in the United States in 1526. For Carlisle (1975, pp. 16–23), the roots of black nationalism are evident in Paul Cuffee’s emigrationist and settlement efforts in the early 1800s. Miller (1975, pp. 93–94) also traces nationalism to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in the persons of Paul Cuffee, Newport Gardner, Richard Allen, and Samuel Cornish, but notes that Woodson was “the first to articulate a genuine nationalist-emigrationist creed and place it in a coherent ideological framework” between 1837 and 1841 (ibid., p. 94). In a co-edited volume, Meier and Rudwick disagree with Bracey on the roots of black nationalism. While they all seem to agree that “nationalist sentiment” first became prominent in “Negro thought” in the 1790s (Bracey et al., 1970, pp. xxv–xxvi), Meier and Rudwick seem to view black nationalism as emerging from the 1840s and 1850s (1971, p. xxxv), while for Bracey its developoment has been “persistent and intensifying, from 1787, if not earlier, to the present” (ibid., p. lvii). Brotz (1992) traces black nationalism to the emigrationism of the early nineteenth century.
Moses (1996, p. 6) argues that black nationalism is “one of the earliest expressions of nationalism” and insists that “while it originated in unison with the American and French Revolution, it was not an imitation of North American or European nationalism.” Though often paralleled to Zionism—especially in its emigrationist variant—black nationalism preceded Herzl’s articulation of the Zionist desire for a homeland for the Jewish diaspora, which at the time lacked a consensus territorial base. He acknowledges that a “dearth of contemporary writing makes it impossible to determine precisely when African Americans began to develop a nationalistic ideology”; nevertheless, “evidence of such thinking predates the American Declaration of Independence” (ibid., p. 7). Moses traces the contours of black nationalism from the proto-nationalism of the 1700s to its classical nationalist phase which “came into existence at the end of the eighteenth century” (ibid., p. 6). Acknowledging proto-nationalistic drives for self-determination in the Brazilian quilombist republic of Palmares, which existed for more than a hundred years and withstood armed aggression by Europeans as well as engaged in international diplomacy with the Portuguese and Dutch, he cites similar cases of nationalist self-determination drives among Maroon societies in Jamaica, South America, and North America, but he does not argue that slave uprisings were necessarily expressions of black nationalist ideology as much as discontent with conditions of servitude (ibid., pp. 6–7). Rather, he focuses on a 1773 emigrationist appeal of free Africans in Boston who sought to set aside one day a week in which to earn money to return to Africa. Though lacking a sense of “national destiny” or an intent to create a “nation-state” or a “distinctive national culture” (thus its designation as “proto-nationalistic”) it is a clear call for self-determination in a context of racism in its allusion to Africans in Latin America whose conditions the emigrationists contrasted with their own (ibid., p. 7).
In 1787, Prince Hall led a delegation that petitioned Massachusetts with a plan for resettlement in Africa to relieve themselves of the “disagreeable and disadvantageous circumstances they faced in America as well as for “[b]oth Christianizing and ‘civilizing’ the indigenous peoples, setting up missionary schools, and establishing domestic and international commerce” (Moses, 1996, pp. 8–9). Moses sees the goals of the Hall delegations’ petitions as an expression of pan-Africanism “in the sense that they linked the concerns of African Americans to the advancement of African peoples on the African continent” (ibid., p. 9) and acknowledges that this internationally or transnationally focused pan-Africanism has been a key element of black nationalism since its inception, which belies the view of those who attempt to excise “internationalist” thought/practice from black nationalism (Henderson, 1997). Moses traces this nascent black nationalism through the emigrationism of Cuffee as well as the messianism of Maria Stewart and David Walker, who both spoke of a national destiny of black Americans, while eschewing emigration. Notably, he characterizes the ideology of David Walker—Stuckey’s prototypal nationalist—as “stateless,” which for him, disqualifies Walker as a classical black nationalist. For Moses, Blyden was the most influential proponent of classical black nationalism in the nineteenth century, followed by Delany, Garnet—as well as non-African-oriented emigrationists such as Holly and Ward (Haiti), and Shadd (Canada)—and exemplified in Alexander Crummell and Henry McNeal Turner. Garvey is the last of the major classical black nationalists of the golden age, for Moses. Although Du Bois, for Moses, is disqualified as a classical black nationalist given his lack of support for emigrationism, he represents a turning point toward modern black nationalism.
In sum, although the prominent view in the political science literature is that nationalism may endorse a range of objectives related to political autonomy, rather than an exclusive focus on sovereignty, there is a prominent statist bias in much of the scholarly literature on black nationalism. The result is that nonstatist forms of black nationalism often are construed as not actually nationalist. Such a conclusion is not only myopic but ahistorical, limiting our ability to trace the actual contours of black nationalism from its origins to its present manifestations. The statist bias in analyses of black nationalism contributes to a related one that argues that black nationalism is essentially emigrationist, and we examine that flawed assumption in the next section.
Black Nationalism and Emigrationism
The statist bias in analyses of black nationalism is associated with the view that black nationalism is inseparable from black emigrationism. For example, David Walker is Stuckey’s seminal black nationalist who in his Appeal to enslaved Africans to insurrection asserted that “enslaved children of Africa will have, in spite of all their enemies, to take their stand among the nations of the earth” (1830, p. 15). He also asserts that the “full glory and happiness” of black people “shall never be fully consummated, but with the entire emancipation of your enslaved brethren all over the world,” and the “greatest happiness” of black people could only be derived from “working for the salvation of our whole body,” such that, according to Stuckey (1987, p. 135), Walker “helped to establish the rationale for pan-Africanism.” But this important black nationalist also adamantly eschewed emigration, which for some analysts is the sine qua non of black nationalism. For example, Moses (1996, p. 69) asserts that Walker’s Appeal “despite its continuing popularity with black nationalists, cannot be said to represent classical black nationalism, because it does not call specifically for a separate nation-state.” In this quote we can see how the conflict about the centrality of emigrationism to black nationalism is tied to the statist versus nonstatist dispute discussed above. Interestingly, earlier Moses (1978, p. 38) argued that Walker was a “fervent black nationalist” who, “like most black nationalists of the nineteenth century, blended radical and conservative elements in his philosophy, advocating violent means to achieve fundamental changes in the nature of American life.” Walker, like Douglass after him, according to Moses, “belonged to that tradition of black nationalists who militantly asserted their right to American citizenship.” He adds that this tradition “exemplifies the distinction between nationalism and emigrationism” (ibid.). Walker’s nationalism, in Moses’s earlier formulation, was evident even as “he opposed colonization, emigration, racial separation, and laws prohibiting intermarriage” (ibid.).
Walker is emblematic of pre–Civil War black nationalists whose ideology Moses views as “pragmatic,” that is, not necessarily tied to emigration, but culturally assimilationist in its appeals to “Christianizing” and “civilizing” Africa, “and not as clearly distinct from colonizationists as the emigrationists would have liked to appear”—a recognition of Walker’s civilizationism (Moses, 1978, p. 45). We can infer from Moses, then, that while Walker might have been a black nationalist, he was not a classical black nationalist; therefore, in Moses’s statist, if not emigrationist, prerequisite for black nationalism, Walker’s Appeal does not seem to qualify. Moses’s more developed argument on the subject suggests that “in a broader sense [black nationalism] may indicate a support of Pan-African unity and an emotional sense of solidarity with the political and economic struggles of African peoples throughout the world” (1996, p. 20). Nonetheless, in evaluating Walker’s nationalism he notes that Walker viewed African Americans as a “nation in bondage,” but since Walker did not, in Moses’s view, “advocate a separate national destiny,” and—in spite of his revolutionary rhetoric—he held out the possibility that with God’s Providence blacks and whites should become a “united and happy people,” then Walker’s Appeal, for Moses, is “not compatible with classical black nationalism, which always aimed at the creation of a separate nation-state” (ibid., p. 15). This argument reflects Moses’s statist criterion for black nationalism; however, as argued above, like nationalism in general, black nationalism has both statist and nonstatist orientations—the latter such as those proposed by Cuffee or Woodson and arguably Walker, as well as postbellum Exodusters and twentieth-century black nationalists of the BPM who advocated separate black settlement in the United States.
Historically, black nationalism is not synonymous with black emigrationism. Moreover, the bias that reduces black nationalism to emigrationism typically misses the dual aspect of black nationalist emigrationist arguments. First, it assumes that black nationalists assert that there is little reason to pursue citizenship rights in the United States since white supremacism is so entrenched that blacks could never be fully integrated in U.S. society much less achieve full political and economic rights. Antinationalist critics often view this tendency as defeatist, justifying the abandonment of black liberation struggles in the United States or, worse, the abandonment of enslaved blacks to their lot. Second, it argues that an independent African state or states could produce goods to compete with “King Cotton” and undermine the economic basis for slavery, thereby transforming the United States as a whole. The second aspect of emigrationist strategy is usually neglected by antinationalists. In its place is either the contention that black emigrationists were simply escapists or, worse, that they were seeking to colonize Africa themselves and to set up a similar arrangement as white slavemasters in the United States but this time with émigré black Americans dominating the indigenous Africans. The historical example of Liberia shows that for some emigrationists this last charge was not without merit. For, coupled with a civilizationist discourse, some emigrationists sought in Africa the black equivalent of the “white man’s burden,” and they expropriated land and lives in the name of Christianizing the African “heathen.” However, while the practices of some African American settlers are deserving of opprobrium, they constituted an extremely small portion of black emigrationists. Further, some of the worst policies of the Americo-Liberians, in particular, attracted the censure of black emigrationists such as Crummell—although he shared the view of the mission civilatrice for the black race and saw himself as an agent of a benign black imperialism of sorts.
More telling is the emigrationism of Mary Shadd Cary which was no imitation of the white man’s burden. She had no intention of “civilizing” black natives or exploiting them (or other indigenous peoples). Instead, her emigrationism was focused on Canada and the opportunities that it allowed for black settlement and the development of institutions of black uplift (more below). But Shadd Cary disappears from the discourse of antinationalists because (1) to focus on her is to problematize emigrationism itself and turn it away from Africa and notions of “escapism” to absent oneself from the liberation struggle of African Americans; and (2) she is among the most important first wave feminists, which on its face challenges the view that black nationalists are inherently sexist. Shadd’s emigrationism was clearly related to engagement with abolitionist struggle and her focus on Canada West was consistent with her view of the need to construct a meaningful stopping point on the Underground Railroad.1
Emigrationism simply cannot be reduced to an escapist desire to return to Africa or some other international destination, but it should be understood as a strategy focused on two fronts: Africa (or another region, such as Canada or the Caribbean) and the United States. The former advocates emigration out of the United States while the latter focuses on the establishment of black sovereignty or autonomy within the United States. But some view the focus on autonomy within the United States as not quite legitimate within the panoply of black nationalist objectives. To be sure, in its classical era black nationalism was strongly tied to emigration, but even at that time this dual focus was present, evident in Cuffee’s request for both the establishment of a settlement in an African colony, as well as a colony on the frontiers of the emerging U.S. republic, while advancing a strategy to industrialize Africa and to undermine U.S. slavery. Cuffee’s “dual colonization” sought the establishment of a black settlement in Africa as well as a separate territory in the United States (Miller, 1975, p. 47). This is evident in a letter of August 7, 1816, to Samuel Aiken wherein Cuffee makes clear that he sought to convince Southern planters that it was in their interest to “provide means to effectively abolish the Slave trade and then free their Slaves and Colonyze them either in America or Africa or in both places or free them and give them their plantation to work on . . . until such time as they are capable of managing for themselves” (Bracey et al., 1970, p. 39). In a subsequent letter of January 8, 1817, to Robert Finley, Cuffee (1970, pp. 44–45) again notes with favor the desirability of an African or American site for black settlement:
[I]f there were a spot fixed on the coast of Africa, and another in the United States of America, would it not answer the best purpose to Draw off the coulored Citizens. I think it would be a good Plan, that Vessel and suitable Persons, to discover which Place would be most advantageous to colonize these people.
Miller (1975, p. 47) notes that Cuffee’s “dual colonization scheme would also provide undefined opportunities for those free blacks bound inexorably by race and humanity to their enslaved brethren in the South,” and concludes that “[m]ost likely, Cuffee thought independent black colonies would demonstrate to white Americans the capabilities of blacks. Perhaps he also held nascent free labor views—that free labor produce and goods could, if patronized, challenge the economic underpinning to the slave South” (ibid.). Miller is clear that Cuffee, who “demonstrated nationalistic tendencies which prefigured the full-blown nationalism of the 1850’s” (ibid., p. 52) was “the first black of stature to connect colonization with emancipation” (ibid.). Carlisle (1975, p. 21) also acknowledges the dual colonization plan of Cuffee, and that nationalists considered alternative locations for the prospective colony for emigrating blacks including Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and autonomous enclaves within the United States (ibid., pp. 4–5). It is important to note that if Miller and Carlisle are correct, then the connection between emigration and emancipation is evident in the earliest forms of black nationalism in the eighteenth rather than the nineteenth century.
The black nationalist Henry Highland Garnet called for the establishment of “a grand centre of negro nationality, from which shall flow the streams of commercial, intellectual, and political power which shall make colored people respected everywhere” and argued for its establishment in either Africa or the Americas (see Moses, 1998, p. 25; Stuckey, 1987, p. 183). In 1848, Garnet (pp. 201–202), who in 1843 made an open call for insurrection among slaves in the South in order to eradicate slavery, was a serious opponent of emigration and argued emphatically that
America is my home, my country, and I have no other. I love whatever good there may be in her institutions. I hate her sins. I loathe her slavery, and I pray Heaven that ere long she may wash away her guilt in tears of repentance. . . . I love my country’s flag, and I hope that soon it will be cleansed of its stains, and be hailed by all nations as the emblem of freedom and independence.
He even favored the reopening of the slave trade if necessary, to effect his desired slave insurrection: “Let them bring in a hundred thousand a year! We do not say it is not a great crime, but we know that from the wickedness of man God brings forth good; and if they do it, before half a century shall pass over us we shall have a Negro nationality in the United States” (quoted in Stuckey, 1987, p. 183). But Moses (1978, p. 38) notes that Garnet’s attitude shifted dramatically within the next few months, leading him to write in February 1849 that “I am in favor of colonization in any part of the United States, Mexico or California, or in the West Indies, or Africa, wherever it promises freedom and enfranchisement.” He then became one of the most ardent supporters of emigration for the remainder of his life. Clearly then, emigrationism, when seen through the lens of those black nationalists who actually advocated it, was an emancipatory and not escapist pursuit and the duality of nationalism is evident among nineteenth-century nationalists such as Garnet, Delany, and Crummell who were both champions and detractors of emigrationism in their lifetime.
For many blacks—including some of the most prominent black nationalists—emigrationism dovetailed too comfortably with the racist views of the American Colonization Society (ACS), established in 1817, which sought to solidify slavery by deporting free blacks and in this way removing a persistent aggravant on the structure of the slave system. Racist ACS founders such as Henry Clay were vocal in their denunciation of abolition and their espousal of black inferiority. But black emigrationists preceded the ACS and usually advocated a selective—and completely voluntary—repatriation of selected blacks to Africa simultaneously with a commitment to the continuation of the liberation struggle in the United States. They simply put little faith in white America to live up to its creed, and they admonished blacks to fight on two fronts—at home and abroad. Nevertheless, the convergence of black nationalist views with racist ventures would haunt black nationalism through the Garvey movement and the NOI. Critics of black nationalism would rightfully assail such associations but, too often, attempt to project such a critique onto black nationalism as a concept or ideology, in a type of guilt by association linking selected nationalists with white supremacists, in ways such critics were not likely to treat Stalin’s pre–World War II alliance with Hitler as a meaningful critique of Marxism as an ideology, or Carrie Chapman Catt’s support for white supremacism as a meaningful critique of feminism as an ideology, or Mao’s rapprochement with Richard Nixon as a meaningful critique of Maoism as an ideology, or U.S. slavery as a meaningful critique of liberal democracy as an ideology. What is often lost is an appreciation of black nationalism as an ideology; thus, the appropriate focus in considering its value as an ideology is an examination of it as a concept, rather than as a biography of individuals (or groups) that may be associated with it. Once this is realized, then it is evident that black nationalism is the original ideology of African Americans; and at its most progressive and radical it has been an emancipatory ideology in the United States.2
Further, as influential as black emigrationism was in the nineteenth century, several key black nationalists did not support its goals, while several integrationists—the ideological counter to nationalists—advocated emigration. For example, Delaney, who Cruse (1967) argues was the prototypal black nationalist, shifted his sites for emigration from Liberia and Nigeria, to Central and South America and even the U.S. frontier. In fact, Delany opposed emigration until roughly the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 (the beginning of Moses’s classical period), but he subsequently served in the Union Army before becoming involved in Democratic Party politics in the South where he was harangued as the “nigger Democrat.” As noted above, Garnet, whom Moses views as a classical black nationalist, argued for both slave insurrection and emigration.
Black nationalists did not share the view that emigrationism was a cornerstone of their ideology, nor did they agree on the site for their colonizationist schemes. For example, Samuel Ringgold Ward and Reverend Holly sought settlement in Haiti, Mary Shadd Cary viewed Canada as a site for black emigration, while African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) Bishop Henry McNeal Turner sought colonization in Africa. Even Frederick Douglass, for most the archetypal integrationist, flirted briefly with Haitian emigration, although for most of his life he was an adamant opponent of colonization. Eventually his integrationism would lead him to eschew racially named organizations, institutions, and initiatives; and even aspects of his personal life were consistent with his integrationist views given his marriage to a white woman.
Where Douglass sometimes invoked nationalist rhetoric toward integrationist ends, Mary Shadd Cary employed emigrationism for integrationist ends, creating a conflation of perspectives that confounds analysts attempting to pigeonhole black nationalism under a simplistic monolith. For example, she advocated black emigration to Canada but often quarreled with fellow emigrationist Henry Bibb’s initiatives to create independent black schools there because she supported racially integrated schools. Her emigrationism may be viewed as instrumental to her integrationist goals, in which she apparently found no contradiction. Silverman (1988, p. 99) recognizes her “long-held preference for integration” and “her lifelong goal” of achieving equality “for all black men and women,” yet, “[t]o achieve this she was ready at various times during her life to endorse emigration and even separate institutions” (ibid., p. 100). Rhodes (1999, p. 87) situates Shadd’s contending perspectives in her black nationalism, and argues that she
cultivated a black nationalist ideology that was dependent on identification with a nation-state—in this case British North America. Traditionally the ideological basis of nationalism has its roots in a people’s ties to a geographic region which they feel entitled to possess. Black nationalism, as it evolved in the nineteenth century, was less connected to a particular nation-state than to the unifying ties of skin color and culture. Shadd’s nationalism blended these two impulses: blacks could not hope to possess and control Canada, but could claim their rightful place within a nation state that promised them equality and citizenship. At the same time, she believed that the political, social, and cultural unification of black people was essential for their survival. Shadd shared Martin Delany’s advocacy of an autonomous black political force that could fight white supremacy from beyond the borders of the United States. But she was fundamentally at odds with Delany’s romance with Africa as the “Fatherland,” and his assertions of black hegemony.
Alexander Crummell’s advocacy of emigrationism and black statehood ebbed after his nearly twenty years’ service in Liberia where black American émigrés, Americo-Liberians, replicated the Southern plantation system and systematically oppressed the indigenous peoples so thoroughly that their yoke was not thrown off until 1980—and then only temporarily. Yet, Crummell’s nationalism became stateless and anti-emigrationist as he laid the basis for the Talented Tenth orientation of Du Bois and the establishment of the American Negro Academy, of which Du Bois was a member. So, by the end of his life, Crummell, one of the fathers of classical black nationalism, seemed to no longer fit that designation. Moses (1989, p. 295) is clear that “Crummell eventually abandoned all activities on behalf of a black American nation-state and became downright abusive toward those who attempted to revitalize emigrationism after the end of Reconstruction.” Nevertheless, he continued to employ a nationalistic rhetoric, to refer to black people as “a nation within a nation,” and to speak of the “destined superiority of the Negro.” Moses is clear that Crummell “obviously did not remain a black nationalist” and near the end, “he seemed uncertain whether he was advancing ‘black power’ ideology or a continuing accommodation and cultural assimilation” (ibid., p. 296). This type of ideological vacillation even among committed individuals resulted from the vicissitudes of their own individual biographies, which is why black nationalism—like any ideology—is not the biography of an individual but the biography of a concept.
Not only nationalists but integrationists, their ideological counterpoise, manifest apparent ambivalence in their ideologies over their lifespans. There is probably no better example than the prototypal black integrationist William Whipper, who at one time admonished against using any “complexional” markers in organizations, in general, or even those comprised of blacks or oriented toward black uplift, advocating instead a “color blind America” (Stuckey, 1987, p. 204). For example, he lobbied on behalf of the right of whites to participate in the antebellum black conventions. Although he “was willing to sign his name to, and perhaps help draft, a nationalist declaration” that “declared that the black population of America constituted something of a nation” (ibid.), within a year, Whipper “began to move toward . . . a position of calling for the dissolution of organizations with complexional features,” and he put forth a declaration at the 1865 meeting of the convention movement to “abandon the use of the word ‘colored’ when either speaking or writing concerning themselves; and especially to remove the title African from their institutions, the marbles of churches, etc.” (ibid.). Nevertheless, Stuckey observes that “at the time Delany was purging whites from the ranks of the African Civilization Society, of which he had become an important member, William Whipper joined the organization” (ibid., p. 231). The transformation of the most noted integrationist from colorblindness to nationalism is indicative of the challenges black leaders faced in an America whose basic creed promised freedom but whose basic practices enshrined, institutionalized, and celebrated white racism. Stuckey (p. 231) put it thusly:
This is a measure of the continuing strength of racism and perhaps the supreme example of how black leaders kept their options open, refusing to be frozen in ideological time when living in a world of shifting realities. Whipper’s movement towards nationalism makes it clear that even his earlier stand for a color-blind America was not and could not have been a permanent one for a man of his intelligence and sincerity, which suggests precisely what occurred: his adjusting of strategies to meet perceived change or rigidity in oppressing structures, the jettisoning of a course pursued for years. Given American racial realities, a change was at least as likely to occur in the attitudes of black leaders as in the objective conditions of the times.
But it was not only the changes in the objective conditions of the times but also in the articulation of white supremacism, which is partly a response to the challenges of black organization and the reformulation of racism in response to them. Moses (1989, p. 295) appreciates this in his consideration of the transformation of Crummell away from nationalism, which he attributes to inconsistencies derived from the vagaries of a racist United States rather than intellectual shortcomings on the part of Crummell. He is emphatic that the black nationalism of Crummell—and by implication, black nationalism, in general—has been “marked by certain inconsistencies, but they derived from the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of American racism,” insofar as “it was impossible to create an ideology that responded rationally to an irrational system.”
In sum, it should be obvious at this point that black nationalism is not reducible to, nor synonymous with, emigrationism. Historically, black nationalism has both proposed and opposed emigration, and even when it has advocated it, destinations often varied. Further, none of the major black nationalist orientations pursued emigrationism for escapist reasons, but largely as a concomitant of a concerted strategy for black liberation in its broadest sense.
Eurocentric and Afrocentric Orientations of Black Nationalism
The third duality within black nationalism reflects the extent to which its cultural orientation is Afrocentric or Eurocentric, and bears directly on the issue of Malcolm X’s—and subsequent BPM activists’—reverse civilizationism. Specifically, this tension focuses on whether black nationalism in its origins, especially, is rooted in African American or European American culture. For example, Stuckey insists on the African-centered roots of black nationalism expressed in the “slave culture” of the black masses of the antebellum South, while Moses argues that it was rooted in Anglophilic civilizationism terms of a largely Northern black clerical elite. Stuckey (1972, p. 1) argues that the originators of black nationalism “emphasized the need for black people to rely primarily on themselves in vital areas of life—economic, political, religious, and intellectual—in order to effect their liberation.” He observes the “desire for autonomy” among a significant number of blacks evident as far back as the 1600s, but black nationalism in his conceptualization “crystallizes around the 1830s.” Stuckey views David Walker’s Appeal as “the most all-embracing black nationalist formulation to appear in America during the nineteenth century.” The call of his Appeal for African peoples to overthrow their oppressors, to rule themselves, to see themselves as a nation within a nation, to transcend their ignorance born of their subjugation, to take responsibility for their own liberation, demonstrates that “there is scarcely an important aspect of Afro-America nationalist thought in the twentieth century which is not prefigured in that document” (ibid., p. 9).
He traces the evolution of black nationalism from Walker’s Appeal and Robert Young’s Ethiopian Manifesto (published months apart), through Lewis Woodson, who was a teacher of Martin Delany, and who argued for the moral elevation of black people, while noting their creativity and decrying the disunity among them. Woodson called for a “general convention” of black leaders to construct enduring institutions, including a national one. His most distinctive contribution, according to Stuckey, “was his exhortation to his people to move to the countryside, to form separate settlements” (1972, p. 15). The mysterious “Sidney” is next in Stuckey’s pantheon of black nationalist leaders, followed by Garnet, who called for slave insurrection, the founding of black towns and settlements, as well as selective emigration to Africa—which he had earlier opposed. Delany is next for Stuckey, notable for his candid calls for black emigration, and he is followed by Crummell and other emigrationists. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Stuckey notes the diversity among black nationalists and insists that there were no monolithic conceptions of the ideology projected by major nationalist forces in the nineteenth century (p. 28). In Slave Culture, Stuckey expanded the list of notable contributors to black nationalism to include Du Bois and Paul Robeson in the first half of the twentieth century, although with the glaring omission of Garvey, whom he regarded as among the “less sophisticated ‘nationalist’ thinkers” (1987, p. 229); nevertheless, he acknowledged that Garvey “affected the sense of African consciousness of more black people in Africa, the West Indies, and the United States over the first forty years of the [twentieth] century” than any other (ibid., p. 350).
Stuckey is of the view that slave society synthesized an amalgam of African cultures in an African American cultural form, the remnants of which were manifest in such folk customs as the “ring shout,” the “Buzzard Lope,” “Pinkster festivals,” trickster tales (e.g., Brer Rabbit and Red Hill Churchyard), burial practices, spiritually inspired water immersions (e.g., kalunga), and a host of other African retentions that ultimately were given American institutional forms. According to Stuckey, these customs provided the bedrock of African American culture, which endured through slavery and provided the commonalities that are the foundation of national consciousness.
Moreover, Franklin (1992) insists that the national consciousness of African Americans was reinforced by the commonality of racial oppression in terms of white exploitation of black productive and reproductive labor through racial slavery for the black majority in the South and racist discrimination of the black minority in the North, the destruction of black familial-based kin groups, the destruction of African cultural practices, and the imposition of European American cultural practices, which eventuated in a syncretic Aframerican culture. These factors combined to provide a sense of national identity among African Americans and a framework for their culture.
Stuckey’s—and Franklin’s—conceptualization of the Afrocentric roots of African American culture and its association with black nationalism contrasts with Moses’s view that African American culture derived less from “slave culture” and more from the “high culture” espoused and practiced by free black intellectuals who were situated in prominent black cultural institutions such as the AME Church. For Moses, the black nationalism that emerged during the classical era drew less from slave culture—a notion that black nationalists such as Crummell abhorred—and more from the emigrationist arguments of free black intellectuals who were largely Anglophilic, elitist, and disparaging of both African American mass “culture” and the “barbarism” of continental Africans. This orientation, for Moses (1978), was just as evident in the nationalist and integrationist strands of black feminism as well, which informed their seminal views on black cultural transformation. In these conceptions, the ascendant culture to which blacks aspired was one that facilitated the acquisition of the technological attributes of material civilization associated with the “high culture” of white Europeans and white Americans, coupled with the “civilizing” influence of Christianity. This Anglophilic view was common to what might otherwise be viewed as the “progressive” if not “radical” tendencies of the nineteenth century. For example, it underwrote the assimilationist strains of black integrationism; but it also was not absent from Marxist views, which privileged the acquisition of Western material culture—especially Western industrial technology—as a precursor to the socialization of industrial workers into a proletarian class. Similarly, black feminist theorizing (both nationalist and integrationist) often promoted elitist Westernized conceptions of womanhood and excoriated the “peasant values” of many poor black women (Moses, 1978). Even among black nationalists of the nineteenth century, for whom “assimilation” should have been anathema, insurrectionists such as Walker (1829), restorationists such as Garnet (1843), and civilizationists such as Crummell (1898) articulated an ideology that even as it was territorially separatist was culturally assimilationist (Moses, 1978).
Such tendencies led to the primary contradiction of classical black nationalism for Moses: even as it posited itself as geopolitically separatist in advocating African emigration, it was culturally assimilationist in its advocacy of the “civilizing mission” of its emigrationist advocates exemplified in Crummell. Moses (1996, p. 1) argues that classical black nationalism “originated in the 1700s, reached its first peak in the 1850s, underwent a decline toward the end of the Civil War, and peaked again in the 1920s, as a result of the Garvey movement.” While Stuckey puts great effort into delineating the process contributing to black nationalism, Moses pays closer attention to delineating its origins and distinguishing its types (e.g., classical and modern). But Moses’s major contribution is his articulation of the contradictions within classical black nationalism. Among these are its focus, on the one hand, on the need for black uplift in the United States, given the depredations of slavery and racial discrimination, while, on the other hand, this uplift was assumed to require blacks’ acquisition of the attributes of “civilization” associated with the very people who were oppressing them. That is, classical black nationalists enjoined blacks to acquire the “high culture” of their white—especially British—oppressors, and to promote the civilizing influence of Christianity to both enslaved African Americans and benighted Africans. Moses notes the contradiction between black nationalists’ advocacy of geopolitical separation from white supremacists and their appropriation of the “civilizationist” discourse of white colonizationists.
Moreover, Moses (1990, p. 28) asserts, in contrast to Stuckey, that black nationalism was not born of African survivals and folkways among enslaved Africans in the U.S. South but from a culturally assimilationist, free black, largely clerical elite in the North with a messianic vision of black Americans’ national destiny. Moses (1989, p. 9) acknowledges that “[t]here is no denying the continuity between black intellectual life and black mass culture in the United States,” but he contends that it was not from “slave culture” that “the literate classes of black Americans derived their conceptions of what black culture ought, ideally, to become,” but “from the English/American literary traditions.” Therefore, for Moses, it was “necessary that we attempt to understand those aspects of nineteenth-century black culture that have their roots in places other than retained African folk traditions and slave culture.” He insists that “[s]ome legitimacy must also be accorded to the perspectives of black men and women who not only experienced nineteenth-century black life, but who enjoyed sufficient knowledge and literacy to develop their own theories of black American culture, civilization, and destiny” (ibid.).3 Thus, Moses rejects the argument that black nationalism emerged from African survivals and folk traditions of the slave quarters, and adds that there has been no systematic link established between black slave religion and black nationalism.4 Instead,
[b]lack nationalism was the creation of the Northern free-black community. Its ideology revealed no influence of an African priesthood, although it was clearly influenced by the “redeemer nationalist” rhetoric of the Northeastern clergy. Unlike their European nationalist counterparts, black nationalists were not obsessed with the search for cultural inspiration among the masses. It was more to their purposes to argue that the masses were deprived of all culture, including true religion because of the ravages of slavery. (1989, p. 28)
He cites Alexander Crummell’s attitude as typical of this clerical elite’s perspective toward the religion of the black masses:
Their religion, both of preachers and people, was a religion without the Bible—a crude medley of scraps of Scripture, fervid imaginations, dreams, and superstitions. . . . The Ten Commandments were as foreign from their minds and memories as the Vedas of India. . . . Ignorance of the MORAL LAW was the main characteristic of “PLANTATION RELIGION!” (1989, p. 238)
For Moses, both black nationalism and black integrationism—as well as American nationalism—derive from a common source: American civil religion. Following Bellah (1967), Moses (1990, p. 29) notes that “[t]his was the myth of Americans as a chosen people with a message for the world and a covenantal duty to respect the enlightenment doctrines of political and economic freedom.” He adds that the
rhetoric of American messianism could be adapted to these three apparently conflicting purposes, because of the complexity of Christian symbolism. The messiah is both a suffering servant and a King of Glory; both a protector of chosen peoples and a redeemer of all mankind. The rhetoric of American messianism could be modified by blacks to assert black militancy, to support racial harmony, and at the same time to instruct self-righteous white Americans, a chosen people, as to their covenantal responsibilities. (ibid., p. 29; original emphasis)
Bracey (1970) counters that a lack of historical documentation of a link between slave religion and black nationalism does not, in itself, demonstrate that such a link doesn’t exist. Franklin (1992) challenges Moses on his own terms—primary-source documentary support—and marshals evidence from slave narratives and testimonies to support his argument that a nationalist consciousness emerged in the slave quarters in a manner similar to that which gives rise to working-class consciousness, helping to create black nationalist sentiments among slaves. The crux of the issue is what would constitute persuasive evidence of what is, in essence, public opinion among slaves where there are no published records, much less polling data: the writings of predominantly Northern black religious elites, or slave narratives and oral testimonies? Further, with regard to Moses’s critique that there is no systematically established link between slave religion and black nationalism, there is no such link between civil religion and black nationalism either.
The putative relationship between civil religion and black nationalism should not be confused with that between American Christianity and black nationalism, which for Moses and many others is readily demonstrable from a review of primary sources. What is debatable is a relationship between civil religion and black nationalism. Civil religion, as a concept, is difficult to define, and even more difficult to measure as an analytical construct; and the thesis in which it is embedded doesn’t appear to be falsifiable. To begin with, civil religion is not directly observable, but is inferred from documents and statements of political elites, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, as well as presidential inaugural addresses—and less so from actual practices. American civil religion, Bellah (1967, p. 8) insists, “is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity” in the public sphere, which is evident “from the earliest years of the republic.” It views the United States as a modern day Biblical Israel, “the promised land,” in which “God has led his people to establish a new sort of social order that shall be a light unto all the nations.” It presumably provides a “genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality . . . as revealed through the experience of the American people” (ibid., p. 12).
In referencing Bellah’s disputed concept as “the main influence on black nationalism,” Moses (1990, p. 28) does not point out that both historians and sociologists have challenged Bellah’s concept and the thesis related to it. For example, Wilson (1979) views the concept as ambiguous and is skeptical of the historical support for Bellah’s thesis. Fenn (1977, p. 507) raised the question of whether “religious symbols contributed an aspect or dimension of American nationalism or were in fact a separate and autonomous civil religion”? He acknowledged “some question as to whether the civil religion is essentially an elitist version of American nationalism which is more easily located in presidential speeches than in the ideas and values of the average citizen” (ibid.). He recognized that “there are serious problems of interpretation—for instance, the question of distinguishing rhetoric from serious communication, or literal usage from metaphor” (ibid., p. 508); and “formidable” analytical problems in determining “whether the civil religion is elitist or popular; whether it persists at all times or is the ideological response to times of crisis; and whether it is best located in official documents or can be found in less formal contexts” (ibid., pp. 507–508).
Bellah’s civil religion is probably more accurately viewed as an aspect of U.S. political culture, specifically, an aspect of American nationalism. In fact, civil religion seems little more than a quasi-religious gloss on a race-based American nationalism that promotes itself as civic-based when it is actually part of an American ideology consistent with that which Hunt (2009) asserts has guided U.S. foreign policy since the country’s founding, comprised of a myth of national greatness, white racism, and an anti-revolution bias. By invoking “civil religion,” rather than “slave religion,” as “the main influence on black nationalism,” Moses might have unintentionally appealed not only to a nonfalsifiable construct that is unmeasurable even in its effects, but simply, as Fenn notes, to one that provides “definitions-of-the-situation” that cannot serve as causal factors generating outcomes such as American or black nationalism. Instead, to my mind, civil religion reflects descriptive elements of the American nationalism it is assumed to generate. Simply put, civil religion, to the extent that it exists, is an attribute or result of American nationalism rather than a cause of it; and given Moses’s broader thesis and persuasive argument that black nationalism is not derivative of American nationalism—or any other form of nationalism—then Bellah’s civil religion, which at most is an outgrowth of American nationalism, cannot be a cause of black nationalism, which is temporally prior to and logically independent of it.
Returning to Stuckey and Franklin, an important implication of their main points is that if the cultural aspect of black nationalism was imbricated in slave culture (i.e., indigenous African American mass culture), then Moses’s privileging of Northern clerical elites in the genesis of black nationalism, while informed, is not dispositive of the issue. That is, given the temporal priority of slave culture over the later development of the black Northern clerical elite, the incubation of African American culture is more likely to have taken place in the slave quarters than the stained glass edifices of the North. Relatedly, the emphasis on the development of modern black nationalism as a function of the formulations of Du Bois reflects the recognition of the enduring slave culture that generated it. In addition, the centrality of black women to its development is readily apparent. In the context of the transformative capacity argument, the importance of black women in generating, articulating, and sustaining African American culture reflects the salience of black women in conceptions and practices of black culture, which is in contrast to Moses’s focus on black Northern clerical elites, who overwhelmingly have been men.
The arguments of Stuckey and Moses highlight the contrasting views of black nationalism among two of the most learned scholars of the subject; however, rarely have scholars engaged the subject of black nationalism in the sophisticated, nuanced, and erudite manner of these authors, with their keen sense of synthesizing divergent views of advocates and detractors while poring through reams of primary source material in order to capture the voices of black nationalists themselves. For example, although Moses (1978) asserts that classical black nationalism can be “conservative,” he is careful to qualify this point, especially as he confronts the radicalism of Walker and Garnet, who both call for wholesale slave insurrection, hardly a conservative objective. Further, the notion that blacks could effectively organize an independent state in the antebellum era, especially—the objective of emigration—coupled with a conception of black national destiny was inherently “nonconservative.” Moreover, Moses (1996, p. 22) observes that classical black nationalists “were unequivocally committed to the development of Africa as an economic, industrial, and military power controlled by Africans”—again, hardly a conservative goal. Further, while Moses (1978, p. 10) asserts that black nationalism “assumes the shape of its container and undergoes transformations in accordance with changing fashions in the white world,” he points out that black nationalism is “one of the earliest expressions of nationalism” and “while it originated in unison with the American and French Revolutions, it was not an imitation of North American or European nationalism” (Moses, 1996, p. 6). He is emphatic that the attempts of black nationalists to “construct a theory of history, a philosophy of religion, and an ideology of nationalism must not be misconstrued as unimaginative imitations of what white intellectuals were doing” (1989, p. 9). Such arguments belie the assertions of critics of black nationalism such as Robinson (2001) and Glaude (2002), who maintain that black nationalism has a conservative bias and is a mimetic imitation of white nationalism or even white racism, typically through their antinationalist, and often ahistorical, research projects resting on myopic and ossified conceptions of black nationalism and a liberal ransacking of history,5
What many serious analysts fail to appreciate is that an understanding of black nationalism requires nuance that does not reflexively wed the concept to the biography of black nationalists as individuals, such as undertaken by Stuckey and especially Moses, but to the biography of black nationalism, the concept. Individuals may adopt, alter, and even reject ideologies throughout the course of their lives and with divergent contexts, which such change often precipitates, and may also transform their ideological perspective in light of different political developments. In contrast, ideologies are much more stable; open to change, to be sure, but resting less on the vicissitudes that affect individuals over their lifespan. To put it simply: nationalism is not the biography of nationalists, but the biography of a concept. In light of this, the challenge for analysts is to conceptualize nationalism as a concept but without unduly imposing on it a contrived structure predicated on what has been a dynamic intellectual, programmatic, and theoretical orientation. Both Stuckey and Moses appreciate the tendencies and trajectories in/of black nationalism, although they differ on its precise origins. At first blush, these differences appear to reflect a divergence of class focus between the scholars, with Stuckey focusing on the mass culture of mostly illiterate black slaves who formed the vast majority of black Americans for most of antebellum U.S. history and through their everyday practices of “slave culture” gave rise to black nationalism, and Moses privileging the elite culture of literate “free blacks” intent on developing a culturally based source of legitimacy, which provided the basis for their nationalist claims. Put simply, Stuckey focuses on the practical or mass origins of black nationalism and Moses on its intellectual or institutional origins. A concern with practical origins leads Stuckey to focus on black mass culture—slave culture, which he conceptualizes in Afrocentric terms—while a concern with intellectual origins seems to lead Moses to focus on black institutional elite culture, which he conceptualizes in Eurocentric terms. The resolution of these perspectives—actually a useful synthesis of the two—turns, to some degree, on the evidence of the persistence of Africanisms in the United States, which is supported by a broad literature located mainly in history, anthropology, ethnomusicology, and black studies (see Henderson, 1995). To a greater extent, it rests on which of several characterizations of African American culture are prevalent in the United States at any given time—whether it is viewed as African or European, at times irrespective of whether it was an actual African or European cultural retention; or a syncretic mix of diasporic African, European, and Amerindian cultures. Given this context, the resolution of the issue of the form of culture—Afrocentric or Eurocentric—upon which black culture is based, and modern black nationalism is situated, would be affirmed near the beginning of the twentieth century by Du Bois—a point on which both Stuckey and Moses agree.
Du Bois provided a modernized black nationalism, which asserted an African American cultural identity rooted in the commonality of African American experience epitomized and articulated in the sorrow songs and black folk culture of the U.S. South (i.e., Stuckey’s slave culture). His analysis of “the souls of black folk” asserted the salience of black culture in U.S. society; and provided the basis for modern black nationalism, or black cultural nationalism, as opposed to classical black nationalism. The former, unlike the latter, no longer disparaged African cultures, but promoted them and those of their diasporic progeny, in particular, African American culture. Du Bois drew on these cultures as evidence of the inherent equality of black folk and to accentuate the achievements of black Americans in the cultural realm, and to recognize their possession of a culture that was in many ways superior to white American culture and one that could be a tool for black liberation. Thus, while one might usefully distinguish between classical and modern black nationalism, and accept that the former, following Moses, had important Eurocentric aspects—a view that Stuckey and Franklin reject—one may agree that modern black nationalism is more clearly Afrocentric.6
To be sure, for much of U.S. history, blacks were not viewed as possessing a culture—at least not in a meaningful sense. In two seminal works, “The Conservation of Races” (1897) and, more famously, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois proffered initial arguments asserting the existence and persistence of an identifiable black culture rooted in black folk traditions epitomized in “slave religion” and reflected in the “sorrow songs.” As discussed more fully below, he argued that this culture was not only central to black society, but central to U.S. society in general. Having established the parameters of black culture and its importance to the black community, he began formulating a thesis of black cultural change. In fact, beyond developing a thesis on black cultural change, Du Bois provided a basis for considering American national development through the impact of black culture. As a result, his work laid the basis for future conceptualizations of black nationalism, and also of black cultural revolution in the United States.
Du Bois and Modernized Black Nationalism
In “The Conservation of Races,” Du Bois articulated the first major cultural nationalist statement on black political struggle in the United States and abroad. He maintained that “the history of the world is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, but of races, and he who ignores or seeks to override the race idea in human history ignores and overrides the central thought of all history” (1897, p. 21). This thesis was tied to the prevalent view at the time that races have stable essences that are transhistorical; however, the progressive tendency in this view is Du Bois’s eschewing the Anglophilic, cultural assimilationist arguments of his mentor Alexander Crummell in his argument that African culture reflected an ancient and glorious heritage of black people who had made major contributions to human history (an orientation he would develop further in The Negro, Black Folk Then and Now, and The World and Africa) although the “full, complete Negro message of the whole Negro race has not as yet been given to the world” (ibid., p. 23).7 Du Bois did not espouse what Mazrui calls “African glorianna” or, for Moses, “Afrotopia”; instead, he recognized the importance that black people—and African Americans, in particular—not attempt to become pale imitations of Anglo-Saxons through the emulation of the latters’ culture. In a statement prefiguring the closing words of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth,8 Du Bois admonished,
If [Negroes] are to take their just place in the van of Pan-Negroism, then their destiny is not absorption by the white Americans . . . their destiny is not a servile imitation of Anglo-Saxon culture, but a stalwart originality which shall unswervingly follow Negro ideals. (1897, p. 23)
For Du Bois, it was incumbent upon blacks to assert their cultural values, carve out their cultural destiny, recognize their African cultural roots, and draw on their African American cultural practices. He was clear that only black people themselves could lead this transformation of the race and lift the banner of African people to the summit of world history. He stated that
if the Negro is ever to be a factor in the world’s history—if among the gaily-colored banners that deck the broad ramparts of civilization is to hang one uncompromising black, then it must be placed there by black hands, fashioned by black heads and hallowed by the travail of 200,000,000 black hearts beating in one glad song of jubilee. (ibid.)
He saw African Americans as an “advance guard” of this project of racial uplift and cultural transformation. But the double consciousness that he articulated so eloquently in The Souls of Black Folk was clearly a factor that confounded the process of black cultural transformation, since it left African Americans at a “crossroads” asking themselves the questions:
What, after all, am I? Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American? If I strive as a Negro, am I not perpetuating the very cleft that threatens and separates Black and White America? Is not my only possible practical aim the subduction of all that is Negro in me to the American? Does my black blood place upon me any more obligation to assert my nationality than German, or Irish or Italian blood would? (ibid., p. 24)
The answers to these types of questions generated the vacillation and contradictions evident in black society; and to answer them he examined the race prejudice that kept the two nations—white and black—apart, with the black subjugated. He thought that, at its root, this prejudice reflected the difference “in aim, in feeling, in ideals” of two races and the friction that was common to interracial interactions. He continued:
If . . . this difference exists touching territory, laws, language, or even religion, it is manifest that these people cannot live in the same territory without fatal collision; but if, on the other hand, there is substantial agreement in laws, language and religion; if there is a satisfactory adjustment of economic life, then there is no reason why, in the same country and on the same street, two or three great national ideals might not thrive and develop. (ibid.)
This led Du Bois to solve the “riddle” of what he would later call “double consciousness”:
We are Americans, not only by birth and by citizenship, but by our political ideals, our language, our religion. Farther than that, our Americanism does not go. At that point, we are Negroes, members of a vast historic race that from the very dawn of creation has slept, but half awakening in the dark forest of its African fatherland. We are the first fruits of the new nation. (1897, p. 24).
The culture of these “first fruits of the new nation” had yet to congeal around a distinct religious orientation in Du Bois’s mind, but in a few short years he would assert the distinctiveness of black culture in religious terms, as well, and maintain that slave religion was the centerpiece of a distinct African American culture, whose institutional expression, the Black Church, was an African cultural retention in the United States, with the black preacher serving as no less than an African priest. In his exegesis of 1897, black people were African Americans, a nation within a nation that was not only identified by the range of skin color within the darker hues of humanity, but by a common culture and a shared purpose of racial uplift that would proceed from the cultural transformation of black peoples, which required recognition of the “gifts of black folk” and the special role that blacks had already played in world and U.S. history. For example, Du Bois saw blacks as
that people whose subtle sense of song has given America its only American music, its only American fairy tales, its only touch of pathos and humor amid its mad money-getting plutocracy. As such it is our duty to conserve our physical powers, our intellectual endowments, our spiritual ideals. (ibid., pp. 24–25)
Du Bois then suggests the vehicle for the “conservation” of the black race: “[A]s a race we must strive by race organization, by race solidarity, by race unity to the realization of that broader humanity which freely recognizes differences in men, but sternly deprecates inequality in their opportunities of development” (ibid., p. 25). Specifically, “we need race organizations: Negro colleges, Negro newspapers, Negro business organizations, a Negro school of literature and art, and an intellectual clearing house, for all these products of the Negro mind, which we may call a Negro Academy” (ibid.).
Du Bois advocated both “positive advance” and “negative defense,” since blacks were “hated here, despised there and pitied everywhere” (1897, p. 25). He called on African Americans as the vanguard of this struggle, and stated that “there is no power under God’s high heaven that can stop the advance of eight thousand thousand honest, earnest, inspired and united people”; but, he argued, “they must be honest, fearlessly criticising their own faults, zealously correcting them; they must be earnest.” He was unequivocal that “[n]o people that laughs at itself, and ridicules itself, and wishes to God it was anything but itself ever wrote its name in history.” On the contrary, “it must be inspired with the Divine faith of our black mothers, that out of the blood and dust of battle will march a victorious host, a mighty nation, a peculiar people, to speak to the nations of earth a Divine truth that shall make them free” (ibid.).
Du Bois’s call was rooted in his understanding that the battle for the human rights of the oppressed would fundamentally transform U.S. society much more comprehensively than a battle for political spoils within a fundamentally flawed and inhumane society. His was one of the earliest statements on pluralism in the cultural sphere, which today we might refer to as multiculturalism; however, the brand of multiculturalism he advocated took seriously the view that blacks comprised a nation within the nation of the United States, and it held out the possibility that the two nations could coexist if the institutions of white supremacism were destroyed. Each of these components reflected Du Bois’s modernized version of black nationalism. In contrast to classical black nationalism, which, while pan-Africanist, contained a powerful emigrationist orientation, modern black nationalism rested on more pluralist assumptions; although it did not reject emigrationism or state-centeredness altogether, it started from the premise that blacks comprised a nation and as such had the right of national self-determination. However, modern black nationalism suggested that self-determination could be realized either in a separate state, a politically autonomous formation, or possibly in a federal structure. Moreover, modern black nationalism rejected Anglophilia and the civilizationist claims of classical black nationalism, emphasizing instead the centrality of African American culture in its conception of the African American nation and its articulation of the prospect for African American political development in the United States. That is, modern black nationalism was black cultural nationalism; and black culture was African American culture.
In addition, modern black nationalism with its pan-Africanist underpinnings challenged imperialism as epitomized in Du Bois’s “The African Roots of War” in 1915, in which he argued that white workers in the metropole were not only racist toward nonwhite workers at home, but had fused their interests with those of their respective national bourgeoisies to find common cause in the exploitation of Africans (and Asians) abroad. Thus, modern black nationalism appreciated the role of class dynamics in the international and domestic spheres—and also the gradations of class in black America. It assailed the racism of white workers and rejected the assumption of both a “natural alliance” among workers across races or genders as well as the role of the white proletariat as the vanguard of a revolutionary struggle both abroad and in the United States, as most Marxists envisioned. For Du Bois, World War I was the result of disputes over imperial acquisitions in the colonial world that reflected this commitment of white labor to national imperialism, and white workers’ willingness to find common cause with white commercial and political interests to subjugate nonwhites. The Red Summer of 1919, shortly following the war, saw attacks by white mobs on blacks in more than three dozen cities and towns across the United States and reflected the continued commitment of white workers to utilize terrorism, murder, rape, and mayhem against darker proletarians. Du Bois’s thesis on imperialism and World War I prefigured and predated, and is usefully contrasted with Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, which was published the following year (Henderson 2017a).
In demonstrating that there was a rich African American culture, derived in part from seminal and enduring African cultures—represented by the diverse cultures of the continent—Du Bois nullified the Eurocentrism inherent in civilizationism, excising both from black nationalism. Modern black nationalism, after Du Bois, asserted the centrality of black American culture and forswore the civilizationism of classical black nationalism. It was this orientation toward black American culture, essential to modern black nationalism—indeed, its defining construct—that Malcolm X and black revolutionists of the 1960s implicitly rejected, reversing Du Bois’s arguments in their claims that black Americans had no culture worthy of the name, and were fundamentally behind their African brothers and sisters in that regard (i.e., reverse civilizationism). Malcolm’s reverse civilizationism owed its existence in no small part to the impact of Garveyism on Malcolm’s initial conception of black nationalism, and its lingering impact on Malcolm’s acolytes even as he began to embrace aspects of the modernized version.9 Garvey’s program was forward-looking in some of its pan-Africanist views, and progressive in its attacks on white supremacism in the global system, but, the Anglophilism of his “back to Africa” program was no less prevalent. The forward-looking project included fighting for the citizenship rights of black Americans—especially black workers of the industrialized northern United States where Garveyites were well represented during the Great Migration, and its backward-looking project reflected the civilizationist program of the classical black nationalist era aimed at emigration and racial uplift of benighted Africans. These contrasting aspects of Garvey’s program contributed to Moses’s view of Garveyism as having one foot in the twentieth century and the other in the nineteenth. Moreover, Garvey’s suggestion that the fate of Africans in the diaspora was incumbent upon their development of Africa and/or repatriation to the continent reflected the reverse civilizationism that Malcolm X would embrace decades later.10
While the largest black nationalist organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association & African Communities League (UNIA & ACL), failed to fully adopt the modernized version of black nationalism, in contrast, leaders of the earliest black Marxist organizations, such as the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), seemed more accepting of it. In particular, the head of the ABB, Cyril Briggs, proclaimed that blacks constituted a “nation within a nation”—almost two decades before Du Bois’s more famous essay; and, more significantly, former ABB member Harry Haywood proffered a “Black Belt Thesis” that would become a centerpiece of Communist Party theorizing in the interwar era, and the theoretical impetus for the domestic colonialism thesis that underwrote much of the political theory of the black power era. Haywood’s perspective relied on an appreciation of black Americans as a nation with the right of self-determination, including secession, and marked the clearest and most compelling statement by the Communist Party in both the USSR and the United States on this issue. The Communist Party-USA’s (CPUSA) abandonment of this view at the outset of the CRM—as well as repression from McCarthyism—helped relegate it as an organization into irrelevance during the CRM and the BPM. The importance of Haywood’s thesis and its grounding in modern black nationalism warrants further consideration.
Haywood and a Black Marxist Perspective on Black Nationalism
Harry Haywood proffered a thesis on black nationalism in the United States situated within a broader Marxist conception. Haywood served in the all-black Eighth Regiment in World War I (and later in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and the Merchant Marines in World War II). A former member of the ABB, in 1925 he joined the CPUSA and in that year became one of the few African Americans to study at Moscow’s Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTVA). In 1927 he was the first black American student at the International Lenin School, where he met, among others, future Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. From 1927 to 1938 he served on the Central Committee of the CPUSA and from 1931 to 1938 on its Politburo. Haywood helped formulate the draft of the Comintern’s resolutions on “The Negro Question” of 1928 and 1930, which stated that blacks in the Deep South of the United States, the Black Belt, constituted an oppressed nation with the right of self-determination—including secession.
Haywood was convinced that African Americans in the Black Belt satisfied the criteria for nationhood enunciated in Stalin’s (1913) “Marxism and the National Question”: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup manifested in a common culture.” This view informed the Soviet policy of korenizatsiya, which as adopted in 1923 was aimed at promoting the indigenous cultures of the constituent national republics of the Soviet Union through the promotion of their local languages into the major spheres of public life, for example, encouraging their widespread use in education, publishing, cultural institutions, government affairs, and Party activities. It also entailed promoting representatives of these nationalities to positions in their administrative divisions and governing bureaucracies to reverse the forced Russification that these nations had been subjected to under czarist rule; even ethnic Russians who served in the local governments in these republics were compelled to learn the local language and culture. Typically, there was a delimitation of the national borders of the administrative and political units, following the criteria for nationality as outlined above, and korenizatsiya would be implemented thereafter. The demarcation of the Black Belt in the United States seemed to follow along this course, for Haywood.
In Negro Liberation, Haywood asserted that black nationalism was at the root of understanding the “real problem” of the Negro masses in the United States. He saw “the so-called racial persecution of the Negro in the United States [a]s a particular form and device of national oppression” (1948, p. 137). In particular, he noted that “[t]he secret to unraveling the tangled skein of America’s Negro question lies in its consideration as the issue of an oppressed nation,” which exists simultaneously “[w]ithin the borders of the United States, and under the jurisdiction of a single central government” (ibid., p. 140). Thus, the United States consists of “not one, but two nations: a dominant white nation, with its Anglo-Saxon hierarchy, and a subject black one”—a clear restatement of the “nation within a nation” thesis of classical black nationalists, and a slogan that Du Bois himself would adopt by the 1930s (ibid.). Further, “[u]nlike the white immigrant minorities, the Negro, wearing his badge of color, which sets the seal of permanency on his inferior status, cannot, under contemporary economic and social conditions, be absorbed into the American community as a full fledged citizen”; therefore, “the Negro remains in America a ‘perpetual alien’ ” (ibid.). The Negro has been shaped “over the years” as “a distinct economic, historical, cultural, and, in the South, geographical entity in American life” (ibid.). Haywood is emphatic that “[t]he Negro is American” and that “[h]e is the product of every social and economic struggle that has made America”; nevertheless, he asserts that “the Negro is a special kind of American, to the extent that his oppression has set him apart from the dominant white nation” (ibid., pp. 140–141). Most importantly for our discussion here, Haywood affirms that “[u]nder the pressure of these circumstances, he has generated all the objective attributes of nationhood” (ibid., p. 141).
Given that they constituted a nation, Haywood asserted that African Americans in the South had the right of self-determination and that communists should support their claims. Specifically, blacks had a “national territory,” which was the historical “Black Belt” South. Haywood’s conception of black nationalism was rooted in his understanding of the prerequisites and prerogatives of black people in the peculiar context of American political, economic, and social development. Although they approached the issue from different ideological vantage points, in important ways Haywood’s understanding of black nationalism converged with Du Bois’s modernized version of black nationalism, in his recognition of the importance of African American culture in their formulations. For Haywood, this convergence is evident in his exegesis of “Negro” culture, which was one of the foundations of the black nation. Haywood focused on the cultural initiatives and institutions of the black nation that served as both change agents and precipitants of political mobilization. For example, Haywood (1948, p. 146) observed that “[a] common tradition and culture, native to Negro America, has been in the making since the first Negroes were landed at Jamestown.” It had been forged in the “special history” of oppression of black Americans and their resistance against it, beginning with “the misery of the chattel slave sold from the holds of the slaveships into bondage where an unknown tongue prevailed,” and including “more than two hundred heroic slave revolts and insurrectionary plots” (ibid., pp. 146–147). He added,
The history of the Negro people has infused the Negro with hopes, ideals, customs, and traits which are blended in a psychology whose activities and aims move . . . toward freedom and equality. This psychology has been evidenced in slave revolts, in participation in the democratic wars of this country and in its political life, especially during Reconstruction, and in the . . . organizations which developed the liberation movement of modern times. (ibid., p. 147)
He was emphatic that
[t]he entire development of Negro music, literature, poetry, and painting, of churches, fraternal groups, and social societies, bears the imprint of this struggle for liberation. The psychological as well as the economic need for continuous struggle to gain equal democratic status, to throw off the oppressive chains and assume the upright posture of a free people—this is and has been the dynamic of Negro culture. (ibid.)
Haywood wedded his argument to Du Bois’s, which was articulated in the NAACP’s 1947 “Appeal to the World” and stated:
The so-called American Negro group, therefore, while it is in no sense absolutely set off physically from its fellow Americans, has nevertheless a strong, hereditary cultural unity, born of slavery, of common suffering, prolonged proscription and curtailment of political and civil rights; and especially because of economic and social disabilities. Largely from this fact have arisen their cultural gifts to America—their rhythm, music and folk-song; their religious faith and customs; their contributions to American art and literature; their defense of their country in every war, on land, sea and in the air; and especially the hard, continuous toil upon which the prosperity and wealth of this continent has largely been built. (p. 147)
Haywood concluded that
[n]otwithstanding its many points of contact with the culture of the dominant white nation, this Negro culture has its own distinctive features. Thus there has arisen within the Negro community a socio-cultural structure corresponding to the status of fixed inequality forced upon him by the dominant white nation. There is among the Negro community a multiplicity of organizations, national and local, devoted to every field of human interest and endeavor: to education, to civil rights, to the special interest of various professional groups and of women, youth, veterans, and business enterprises. There is a Negro church which in many parts of the country is a social rallying point of the Negro community. (ibid., p. 148)
He drew on Drake and Cayton’s (1945) description of Negro culture in Chicago’s Bronzeville section and argued that the cultural patterns there have their “replica in Harlem, in Detroit’s ‘Paradise Valley,’ in the Pittsburgh Hill section, in Los Angeles’ Central Avenue, indeed in every Black ghetto in America, the greatest of which is the Black Belt itself” (1948, p. 149). For Haywood, “National Negro culture” was expressed “in a rich folk lore, in music, in the dance, in an expanding and virile theatre movement . . . a highly developed literature . . . in a rapidly growing press,” and, importantly, “through whatever medium it manifests itself, this culture is built around themes of distinctly Negro life and Negro problems” (ibid.). This national Negro culture, for Haywood, emanated “from the heart of the masses of people welded together by like yearnings, stirred by the same causes, this culture expresses the deep-felt aspirations of the Negro people, their strivings to break through the walls of the Jim-Crow ghetto and to achieve recognized status as a free people.”
Haywood also recognized the role of Negro artists, writers, dramatists, as well as Negro scientists and scholars such as Du Bois and Locke, among others, who helped give expression not only to the Negro’s massive yet often hidden contributions to civilization in general but to U.S. history, in particular. Such scholars
have done yeoman work in unearthing the Negro’s pre-American past, in piecing together that broken line of Negro history and the contribution the black man has made throughout time and throughout the world. They have refuted the spurious race stereotypes depicting the Negro as a man without a past, without a history, and, therefore, unworthy of an equal place at the table of civilization. (1948, p. 150)
For Haywood, the “New Negro” of the Harlem Renaissance was evident in even greater numbers by the World War II era, and one of the factors propelling their prevalence was the development of the black industrial worker. He noted that “behind this new Negro is the emerging dynamic force of the Negro industrial working class, which is playing an increasingly important role in the councils of Negro leadership” (ibid., p. 151). While acknowledging some of the “non-progressive” features of Negro culture, which he described as “self isolationism” and “Negro particularism,” he debunked notions that denied Negro nationality on the basis of its lack of a distinctive language, insisting only that the Negro practiced a common language though not necessarily an exclusive language. He was convinced that
in the course of their three hundreds years’ sojourn on the American continent, the Negroes have adopted the English language as their own in the same manner that they have adopted other institutions of the dominant American nation. They have become transformed from the enslaved descendants of various African tribes and nations . . . speaking different dialects and languages, into an ethnically homogeneous and tightly welded people. They are today a people strengthened and hardened by oppression and rapidly gaining maturity. (1948, pp. 151–152)
In fact, African Americans are “a nation within a nation,” albeit “a young nation whose advance to political consciousness and strength is retarded by imperialistic oppression” of the United States in which it is situated, contributing to the “weak development of national consciousness” among blacks, which is also “characteristic of young nations” (ibid., p. 152). Yet, Haywood argued, “this very oppression is creating the basis for the rise of a fully conscious national movement among them” (ibid.).
Haywood’s thesis marked a dramatic shift in Marxist conceptualizations of the African American liberation struggle. To be sure, Lenin distinguished the nationalism of oppressor nations from that of oppressed nations, and supported the former in his broader anticolonial vision; and he made positive parallels between national liberation struggles in the colonies and the black liberation struggle in the United States. In fact, in his 1920, “Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and the Colonial Questions,” Lenin (1966a, 148) directed that “all Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies.” Yet, this view was opposed by most American communists, including the leaders of the incipient CPUSA, who preferred to view black oppression as a problem of racial prejudice or in moral terms, and not as a result of national oppression. Further, Lenin’s position regarding African Americans stood as a proposition, but it had not been fleshed out historically or developed theoretically as a black nationalist program within Marxism until Haywood’s exegesis. To appreciate this more fully, it’s important to trace how Haywood derived his thesis, which he first articulated in the 1920s and the CPSU adopted in 1928. According to him, it was rooted in an argument he had with his brother, Otto Hall, while they were both attending KUTVA (Haywood, 1978). Otto argued a prominent line among many CP members at the time—and most American Marxists—that “any type of nationalism among Blacks was reactionary” because it obscured the more accurate conception of blacks as a persecuted racial minority whose struggle should be viewed as one of workers within the broader class struggle that would be resolved through socialist revolution in the United States. While blacks should pursue political and social equality, theirs was a race problem, not a national problem. Thus, the struggle for equal rights for blacks outside of this framework—i.e., black nationalism—was a diversion that subverted working-class unity and could undermine the struggle for socialism in the United States. For Haywood, Otto’s view—and the prominent ones among white American CP members—“saw only the ‘pure proletarian’ class struggle as the sole revolutionary struggle against capitalism”; but, for him, this “denial of nationalism as a legitimate trend in the Black freedom movement . . . amounted to throwing out the baby with the bathwater” (1978, p. 229). Rejecting his brother’s contention—largely born of negative relations with the Garvey Movement—that black nationalism was a “foreign transplant,” Haywood asserted that “[o]n the contrary, it was an indigenous product, arising from the soil of Black super-exploitation and oppression in the United States. It expressed the yearnings of millions of Blacks for a nation of their own” (ibid., p. 230). Although the Garvey movement had ended, black nationalism, in Haywood’s view, persisted because it spoke to the interests and conditions of blacks in the United States, and it was likely to reemerge as a movement, “to flare up again in periods of crisis and stress” (ibid.). It was important for Marxists, then, to ensure that in the future black nationalism not be diverted by “the leadership of utopian visionaries” away from the “main enemy,” U.S. imperialism; therefore, it was incumbent upon communists to present “a revolutionary alternative to Blacks” (ibid.). Thus, Haywood asserted, in contrast to Garvey’s program, one that viewed “the U.S. Black rebellion” as focused on black self-determination centered in the U.S. South, “ ‘with full equality throughout the country,’ to be won through revolutionary alliance with politically conscious white workers against the common enemy—U.S. imperialism” (ibid.).
Haywood’s orientation was not simply a pragmatic framework to supplant the appeal of Garveyism, but a well-formulated thesis on black nationalism that he synthesized with Marxism. In his autobiography, Black Bolshevik, Haywood relates the development of his synthesis and the centrality of black nationalism in the United States to it. He noted that “[t]he evolution of American Blacks as an oppressed nation was begun in slavery,” but, mainly, “it was the result of the unfinished bourgeois democratic revolution of the Civil War and the betrayal of Reconstruction” in the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877, which withdrew federal troops from the South, abandoned nominally free blacks to the Redeemer governments, compelled ex-slaves to return to the plantations as peonage farmers and institutionalized sharecropping, and subjugated them through the black codes and Jim Crow apartheid, as well as the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and other armed white supremacist groups (1978, p. 231). Following that,
[t]he advent of imperialism, the epoch of trusts and monopolies at the turn of the century, froze the Blacks in their post-Reconstruction position: landless, semi-slaves in the South. It blocked the road to fusion of Blacks and whites into one nation on the basis of equality and put the final seal on the special oppression of Blacks. (ibid., pp. 231–232)
“These events,” Haywood contended, foreclosed “[t]he path towards equality and freedom via assimilation,” “and the struggle for Black equality thenceforth was ultimately bound to take a national revolutionary direction” (ibid., p. 232). Thus, “[u]nder conditions of imperialist and racist oppression, Blacks in the South were to acquire all the attributes of a subject nation” (p. 232). Nevertheless, “imperialist oppression created the conditions for the eventual rise of a national liberation movement, with its base in the South” and “[t]he content of this movement would be the completion of the agrarian democratic revolution in the South” with its important implication, “complete equality throughout the country” (ibid.).
For Haywood, African Americans
are a people set apart by a common ethnic origin, economically interrelated in various classes, united by a common historical experience, reflected in a special culture and psychological makeup. The territory of this subject nation is the Black Belt, an area encompassing the Deep South, which despite massive outmigrations, still contained (and does to this day) the country’s largest concentration of Blacks. (ibid.)
Haywood’s “new analysis,” which came to be known as the “Black Belt thesis,” also “defined the status of Blacks in the north as an unassimilable national minority who cannot escape oppression by fleeing the South” because “[t]he shadow of the plantation falls upon them throughout the country, as the semi-slave relations in the Black Belt continually reproduce Black inequality and servitude in all walks of life” (1978, p. 232). Haywood was clear that
[t]here are certain singular features of the submerged Afro-American nation which differentiate it from other oppressed nations and which have made the road towards national consciousness and identity difficult. . . . Afro-Americans are not only “a nation within a nation,” but a captive nation, suffering a colonial-type oppression, while trapped within the geographic bounds of one of the world’s most powerful imperialist countries. (ibid.)
He added that “[t]he Afro-American nation is also unique in that it is a new nation evolved from a people forcibly transplanted from their original African homeland. A people comprised of various tribal and linguistic groups, they are a product not of their native African soil, but of the conditions of their transplantation” (ibid.). These peculiarities were due, in part, to the circumstance that “Blacks were forced into the stream of U.S. history in a peculiar manner, as chattel slaves, and are victims of an excruciatingly destructive system of oppression and persecution, due not only to the economic and social survivals of slavery, but also to its ideological heritage, racism” (ibid., p. 233). The “race factor,” as Haywood referred to it, not only perpetuated the doctrine of black inferiority and ensured that blacks would “remain permanently unabsorbed in the new world’s ‘melting pot,’ ” but it “also left its stigma on the consciousness of the Black nation, creating a powerful mystification about Black Americans which has served to obscure their objective status as an oppressed nation. It has twisted the direction of the Afro-American liberation movement and scarred it while still in its embryonic state” (ibid.).
Departing from Marxist arguments of the day, Haywood challenged its misconceptualization of racism as a concoction of the bourgeoisie to use as a wedge against a multiracial proletariat, making racism epiphenomenal of class dynamics. Haywood opposed such views and associated them with the white racism that his “new theory” rejected. He stated:
The new theory destroys forever the white racist theory traditional among class-conscious white workers which had relegated the struggle of Blacks to a subsidiary position in the revolutionary movement. Race is defined as a device of national oppression, a smokescreen thrown up by the class enemy, to hide the underlying economic and social conditions involved in Black oppression and to maintain the division of the working class. (1978, p. 234)
Thus, race is employed not to deny class oppression but to obscure the national oppression of blacks. This mystification of race, class, and nation was even more evident when compared to the objective conditions transforming black America, the United States, and the international system. In reverse order, the mobilization and prosecution of World War I—the most destructive war in human history up to that time—which Du Bois, Lenin, and many other observers associated with imperialist rivalry; the bloody Red Summer of 1919, which saw white pogroms against blacks in more than three dozen cities and towns in the United States; and the onset of the Great Migration, which began the movement of millions of blacks from the South to the North and West, and the massive urbanization of blacks in the twentieth century. Haywood noted that “[c]onditions . . . were maturing for the rise of a mass nationalist movement,” which came to fruition “with the rise of the Garvey movement” (1978, p. 233); but this “potentially revolutionary movement of Black toilers was diverted into utopian reactionary channels of a peaceful return to Africa” (ibid.). Nevertheless, he was resolute that “[t]he issue of Black freedom” remained “the most vulnerable area on the domestic front of U.S. capitalism, its ‘Achilles heel’—a major focus of the contradictions in U.S. society” (ibid.). Haywood realized that
[t]his new line established that the Black freedom struggle is a revolutionary movement in its own right, directed against the very foundations of U.S. imperialism, with its own dynamic pace and momentum, resulting from the unfinished democratic and land revolutions in the South. It places the Black liberation movement and the class struggle of U.S. workers in their proper relationship as two aspects of the fight against the common enemy—U.S. capitalism. It elevates the Black movement to a position of equality in that battle. (ibid., p. 234)
Thus, for black nationalists, anti-imperialism began “at home”—i.e., the battle for black national liberation was an anti-imperialist struggle in the United States. Haywood concluded that “Blacks, therefore, in the struggle for national liberation and the entire working class in its struggle for socialism are natural allies. The forging of this alliance is enhanced by the presence of a growing Black industrial working class with direct and historical connections with white labor” (ibid.).
Reflecting in his autobiography, Haywood argued that his “new theory was to sensitize the Party to the revolutionary significance of the Black liberation struggle,” such that “[d]uring the crisis of the [1930s], a significant segment of radicalized white workers would come to see the Blacks as revolutionary allies” (1978, p. 234). While retrospection may have shone a brighter light on the extent to which the Black Belt thesis had the effect on white workers that Haywood suggests, it clearly made the most significant synthesis of Marxism and black nationalism in the United States and the basis for the domestic colonial perspective that would dominate the black nationalist arguments of the BPM. Situating this in our broader argument, what Haywood had done was to excise the civilizationism from Marxism itself. That is, the Marxist teleology was no less guided by a Eurocentric trajectory than its liberal counterpart—not only Marx’s evolutionary stages, but his paternalistic view of colonialism as a modernizing force insofar as he assumed that it would lead to the creation of a proletariat in the colonial world, ultimately contributing to the overthrow of metropolitan power there. Du Bois (1935) demonstrated the fallacy of this assumption, and Robinson (1983) concurs, showing that one lesson of the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction was that capital could extend to peripheral areas and result in underdevelopment rather than development—a view that Rodney (1974), among others, would substantiate more broadly for Africa.
Haywood’s thesis became the policy of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union (CPSU) and, as a result, the CPUSA; adopted by Bolsheviks in 1928, it declined during the Popular Front era, before its lukewarm reacceptance in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and its final rejection by the CPUSA just prior to the onset of the 1960s signaled by the purging of Haywood from the Party. In its ultimate rejection of Haywood’s thesis, the CPUSA was rejecting the revolutionary significance of black liberation struggles in the United States even as the CRM was demonstrating just such significance; and this—along with the devastation of McCarthyism—helped to ensure the practical and theoretical irrelevance of the CPUSA during the CRM and the BPM. But just as with black nationalism in the era, neo-Marxists would pose their own form of reverse civilizationism in their assumption that the vanguard of revolutionary struggle had passed from the white working class to the third world proletariat—or peasantariat—which “true” revolutionaries in the United States were enjoined to follow, and this undergirded the rationale of Maoists and Castroists that guided many revolutionists of the BPM. For Haywood, this orientation mandated that he wed his thesis not to the black urban masses, but to the rural blacks of the South. Thus, he opined that the organization of the black “peasantariat,” consisting of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and broader agricultural workers in the U.S. South, was essential to a successful revolution in the United States.
Constrained by the compulsion to mirror third world revolutions in the most advanced industrial country in the world, this aspect of Haywood’s thesis was a throwback to nineteenth-century political economy, which was increasingly irrelevant to postwar black America. While Haywood appreciated the impact of the mechanization of agriculture, which was displacing unskilled and semi-skilled agricultural workers—and black agricultural workers in particular—he didn’t modify his thesis to reflect the impact of this displacement on his assumptions about the salience of the peasantry in the revolution he envisioned. Even greater was the demographic impact of both World War II and the Second Great Migration that had further urbanized blacks in their dispersal from the South to the North and West, and their movement within the South from rural to urban areas. These would lead to such a transformation that by the middle of the BPM most black Americans were living in or adjacent to cities rather than in rural areas. The basic problem was that Haywood’s thesis recognized the uniqueness of African American social development but at the same time assumed that African Americans needed to draw on the examples of successful revolutions in the third world rather than their own historical referents in the United States. Where novel creative theorizing was required to address the particularity of black America, such as Haywood had demonstrated in his Black Belt thesis, at this critical point in his theorizing, Haywood grafted from third world contexts that were not generalizable to the United States—especially the emergent black urban experience. Haywood’s was not the only Marxist thesis proffering such a view within the BPM, but its implications for the BPM were immense.
Further, while Haywood’s thesis rejected some aspects of Marxist civilizationism it was less attentive to other major weaknesses evident in Marxist formulations and organizations, such as those attendant to gender. Thus, while Haywood recognized his fellow Marxist Claudia Jones’s inspirational support of his Black Belt thesis in a 1945 article in which she challenged the CPUSA leadership as they began to abandon it, he failed to address an important corollary of Jones’s support, which was her assertion of the importance of gender in their analysis of U.S. society in general, and the prospects of the CPUSA in particular. In 1949, she argued in her seminal essay “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!,” in ways that anticipated the intersectional analysis of the present period, that “Negro women—as workers, as Negroes, and as women—are the most oppressed stratum of the whole population” (Jones, 2011, p. 75). Further, she noted the rising militancy of “Negro women,” which she viewed as an “outstanding feature of the present stage of the Negro liberation movement” especially in the face of the “intensified oppression of the Negro people, which has been the hallmark of the postwar reactionary offensive” (ibid., p. 74). She noted that
[t]he bourgeoisie is fearful of the militancy of the Negro woman. . . . The capitalists know, far better than many progressives seem to know, that once Negro women begin to take action, the militancy of the whole Negro people, and thus of the anti-imperialist coalition, is greatly enhanced. (ibid.)
This relationship reflected, in part, the fact that
[h]istorically, the Negro woman has been the guardian, the protector, of the Negro family. . . . As mother, as Negro, and as worker, the Negro woman fights against the wiping out of the Negro family, against the Jim Crow ghetto existence which destroys the health, morale, and very life of millions of her sisters, brothers, and children. (ibid.)
Viewed in this light, it is not accidental that the American bourgeoisie has intensified its oppression, not only of the Negro people in general, but of Negro women in particular. Nothing so exposes the drive to fascization in the nation as the callous attitude which the bourgeoisie displays and cultivates toward Negro women. (ibid., pp. 74–75; original emphasis)
Nevertheless, for Jones, “the labor movement generally,” “Left-progressives,” and the “Communist Party” had grossly neglected this aspect of the liberation struggle.
She recognized, for example, that although “[i]n union after union, even in those unions where a large concentration of workers are Negro women, few Negro women are to be found as leaders or active workers” (2011, p. 78). This is all the more surprising given that “Negro women are among the most militant trade unionists,” of which she provided examples (ibid.).
The sharecroppers’ strikes of the 30’s were spark-plugged by Negro women. Subject to the terror of the landlord and white supremacist, they waged magnificent battles together with Negro men and white progressives in that struggle of great tradition led by the Communist Party. Negro women played a magnificent part in the pre-CIO days in strikes and other struggles, both as workers and as wives of workers, to win recognition of the principle of industrial unionism, in such industries as auto, packing, steel, etc. More recently, the militancy of Negro women unionists is shown in the strike of the packing-house workers and even more so, in the tobacco workers’ strike . . . which led to the election of the first Negro in the South (in Winston-Salem, NC) since Reconstruction days. (ibid.)
She was unequivocal that “[i]t is incumbent on progressive unionists to realize that in the fight for equal rights for Negro workers, it is necessary to have a special approach to Negro women workers, who, far out of proportion to other women workers, are the main bread winners in their families” (2011, pp. 78–79); nevertheless, she criticized unionists especially for neglecting women in their organizing efforts and organizational leadership. She also assailed that the “crassest manifestations of trade-union neglect of the problems of the Negro women worker has been the failure, not only to fight against relegation of the Negro woman to domestic and similar menial work, but also to organize the domestic worker” (ibid., p. 79; original emphasis). In her insightful analysis she proffered:
The lot of the domestic worker is one of unbearable misery. Usually, she has no definition of tasks in the household where she works. Domestic workers may have “thrown in,” in addition to cleaning and scrubbing, such tasks as washing windows, caring for the children, laundering, cooking, etc. and all at the lowest pay. The Negro domestic worker must suffer the additional indignity, in some areas, of having to seek work in virtual “slave markets” on the streets where bids are made, as from a slave block, for the hardiest workers. Many a domestic worker, on returning to her own household, must begin housework anew to keep her own family together. (ibid.)
Jones did not restrict her analysis to the political and economic conditions of “Negro women” and what they foretold for “Negro liberation,” but addressed directly several of the major social dimensions of the “women question” as well. She admonished that
the question of social relations with Negro men and women is above all a question of strictly adhering to social equality. This means ridding ourselves of the position which sometimes finds certain progressives and Communists fighting on the economic and political issues facing the Negro people, but “drawing the line” when it comes to social intercourse or intermarriage. To place the question as a “personal” and not a political matter, when such questions arise, is to be guilty of the worst kind of Social-Democratic, bourgeois-liberal thinking as regards the Negro question in American life. (2011, p. 81)
She counseled against
shielding children from the knowledge of this struggle. This means ridding ourselves of the bourgeois-liberal attitudes which “permit” Negro and white children of progressives to play together at camps when young, but draw the line when the children reach teen-age and establish boy-girl relationships. (ibid.)
She highlighted crimes against black women, who often were restricted by their political and economic marginalization to exposing themselves to the “virtual slave markets” of the domestic workers who were compelled to work in the homes or businesses of often physically and sexually abusive white men and boys, and she challenged white women, especially, to rebuke
the hypocritical alibi of the lynchers of Negro manhood who have historically hidden behind the skirts of white women when they try to cover up their foul crimes with the “chivalry” of “protecting white womanhood.” But white women, today, no less than their sisters in the abolitionist and suffrage movements, must rise to challenge this lie and the whole system of Negro oppression. (2011, p. 83)
Thus, appreciating the fullness of the political, economic, and social oppression of black women as well as their resistance on each front—even calling on “progressive cultural workers to write and sing of the Negro woman in her full courage and dignity” (ibid.), she argued that
[a] developing consciousness on the women question today, therefore, must not fail to recognize that the Negro question in the United States is prior to, and not equal to, the woman question; that only to the extent that we fight all chauvinist expressions and actions as regards the Negro people and fight and fight for the full equality of the Negro people, can women as a whole advance their struggle for equal rights. For the progressive women’s movement, the Negro woman, who combines in her status the worker, the Negro and the woman, is the vital link to this heightened political consciousness. To the extent, further, that the cause of the Negro woman worker is promoted, she will be enabled to take her rightful place in the Negro-proletarian leadership of the national liberation movement, and by her active participation contribute to the entire American working class, whose historic mission is the achievement of a Socialist America—the final and full guarantee of woman’s emancipation. (ibid.)
In the years following the publication of Jones’s essay, Marxist analyses were delinked from a civilizationism that relegated gender to a tertiary position, at best, behind class and race, rooting it in an intersectional context focused on black women. Jones projected in the 1940s a feminist insight that wouldn’t become prominent until second wave feminism was challenged by Frances Beal’s analysis as put forth in “Double Jeopardy” in 1970. The Afro-Trinidadian Jones was unable to develop her thesis into a full-fledged rendering of cultural revolution in the United States before her deportation from the United States, although she developed a prominent cultural thesis on black West Indians in Britain. One unfortunate result was that the CPUSA was slow to address many of the issues raised by Jones. Nevertheless, like Lucy Parsons’s view of cultural evolution/revolution (Ashbaugh, 1976), Jones’s was grounded inextricably in her revolutionary thesis, which was tethered to Marx’s Eurocentric teleology. Importantly, however, in asserting that a focus on women and sexism should be a centerpiece of labor organizing and communist revolutionist thought, and thereby rejecting the view that feminist organizing was simply ancillary to a focus on organizing labor in general, Jones had provided a prominent radical feminism grounded in her advocacy of the Black Belt thesis to a black nationalist identification of African American culture and cultural development. The lessons for the BPM were immense, but they were rarely appreciated as theory and even less as praxis by Marxists and the White Left (see Barber, 2008).
Having centered the analysis of black revolutionary theory in the Black Power era on the theoretical arguments of Malcolm X, in this chapter I discussed one of the most significant shortcomings in Malcolm’s revolutionary thesis, reverse civilizationism, and situated it within a broader discussion of black nationalism as a concept, as well as its historical evolution, in order to demonstrate its dynamic, multifaceted, and multidimensional aspects as an ideology, and to delineate how it gave rise to Malcolm’s thesis of black revolution in the United States. The shortcomings in Malcolm’s and subsequent BPM activists’ rendering of black nationalism were not specific to them, but were evident among analysts and advocates of black nationalism more broadly. Some were rooted in the dualities inherent in black nationalism, as both a concept and a specific program for black liberation, and three stand out: the contrast between statist and nonstatist definitions of black nationalism, between emigrationist and non/anti-emigrationist aspects of black nationalism, and between Eurocentric and Afrocentric (or Anglophilic and Afrophilic) cultural orientations. I showed how much of the theoretical synthesis of black nationalism with respect to these dualities was achieved by Du Bois at the outset of the twentieth century and is reflected in his modernized conception of black nationalism, which rejected civilizationism and promoted the cultural practices and cultural heritage of African people throughout the world, including African Americans’. Thus, modern black nationalism after Du Bois became synonymous with black cultural nationalism. This modernized version of black nationalism also informed the Marxist arguments of Haywood, who wedded them to his Black Belt thesis, which heavily influenced the theory of many BPM revolutionists, and Jones, who associated them with feminist arguments, and whose impact, although it would not be as great, would be profoundly influential in its implications.
I pointed out that Malcolm and subsequent BPM activists reversed important Du Boisian contributions to both black nationalism and the revolutionary theory that derived from it, dislodging the latter from its American roots, opting instead for African or “third world” revolutionist orientations. The result was that BPM revolutionists attempted to orient their movement across the terrain of the most powerful country in the world using a theoretical compass better suited for a third world country. Reverse civilizationism contributed not only to a lack of appreciation of the liberating role of African American culture in the BPM, but also to the failure to recognize the historical antecedents of black revolution in the United States, which a study of black culture would reveal. Its impact on theorizing during the BPM was twofold: (1) convinced that African Americans trailed behind Africans in their revolutionary trajectory, reverse civilizationists failed to draw on pertinent historical examples from black America for their revolutionary models—grafting instead from models from Africa and the third world that were less applicable to their conditions in the United States; and (2) convinced that blacks had no culture worthy of the name, they were unable to draw from African American culture a matrix of norms, practices, and institutions to reinforce and guide their revolutionary initiatives. The two factors exacerbated each other, so that, to the extent that black activists and theorists were convinced they lagged behind Africa, they grafted presumed African cultural practices onto black America in an effort to appropriate an “African culture” by replicating customs and languages of the African continent, and/or they adopted African revolutionary practices in order to create a “revolutionary culture” in the United States, which they assumed would emanate from mirroring anticolonial armed struggles on the continent within what they viewed as the domestic colonial context of black America. Both types of initiatives ultimately drew black revolutionists away from the reservoir of strategies and institutions of black America that had successfully waged revolution in the United States in the past, and from the increasingly urbanized, religiously inspired black proletarians who comprised a pivotal segment of the black communities that they sought to revolutionize. Divorced from their African American historical and intellectual antecedents, few BPM activists appreciated that their model for successful revolution was not forthcoming from abroad, it was to be found in their own historical past, for some, right underfoot in the U.S. Civil War. Du Bois (1986, pp. 105–106), once again, would be the source for connecting an affirming African American culture to black participation in the Civil War, which he argued “was really the largest and most successful slave revolt” in the United States. In the next chapter, we will lay out the case for the latter contention and suggest its salience for BPM revolutionists a century later.
1. On black feminists and emigrationism, Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1892b, p. 40) argued that “the right of those who wish to go to Africa should be as inviolate as that of those who wish to stay.”
2. Another misrepresentation of black nationalism by prominent scholars is Dawson’s (2001, p. 21) claim that “Black nationalism is the second oldest (after radical egalitarianism) ideological tendency within black political thought.” Such an ahistorical view of black nationalism is so pervasive that he privileges “radical egalitarianism” as the earliest black American political ideology against the evidence that black nationalism is the original black American ideology—its roots tracing back to the 1700s; it is not derivative of other nationalisms, but is contemporaneous with French and American nationalism. Such ahistorical views more accurately gauge the difficulty of antinationalists such as Dawson in reconciling that historical reality with their own ideological preferences (see Taylor, 2011).
3. Moses (1989, p. 239) insists that “[t]here were no black nineteenth-century leaders who spent much time discussing the positive aspects of slavery, and many years would pass before it would become fashionable to promote the mythology of a healthy slave community.” To be fair to Stuckey’s perspective, an acknowledgment of “slave culture” is not an assertion that slave communities were “healthy” or that they were not sites of inhumane oppression.
4. While acknowledging that the view that black religion is foundational to the black nation is “reasonable enough,” Moses (1990, p. 28) asserts that “there has never been any systematic demonstration of ties between black religion and black nationalism.”
5. See Taylor (2011, pp. 195–202) for critiques of this strain of anti–black nationalist scholarship.
6. Moses (1998) notes that Du Bois appears to have first employed the term Afrocentric in 1961.
7. While these notions seem congruent with Garvey’s, Du Bois viewed much of Garvey’s program as retrogressive and escapist.
8. The quote from Fanon (1963, pp. 312, 315) is: “We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe. . . . So comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions, and societies which draw upon inspiration from her. Humanity is waiting for something from us other than such an imitation, which would be almost an obscene caricature.”
9. It also borrowed from Paul Robeson’s emphasis on African culture.
10. Arguably, there were some elements of civilizationism in Du Bois’s (1897, p. 10) “Conservation of Races” in which he suggested the vanguard role of “the 8,000,000 people of Negro blood” in the United States, whom he characterizes as “the advance guard of the Negro people” (emphasis added).