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Chapter 4

Cultural Revolution and Cultural Evolution

The last chapter discussed how W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke historicized and theorized, respectively, a relationship between black cultural and political revolution. First, Du Bois argued in Black Reconstruction that changes in “slave religion” motivated the “largest slave revolt” in U.S. history, the General Strike, which compelled Lincoln to change his war aims to overthrow chattel slavery, making the Civil War a political revolution.1 In this way, Du Bois observed that a black cultural revolution motivated a political revolution. Second, Locke provided a theoretical formulation of the processes outlined by Du Bois. For Locke, cultural democracy involves expanding the domain of political and economic democracy into the cultural sphere in a way that facilitates racial democracy—describing a process that approximates a cultural revolution. As applied to Du Bois’s historical analysis in Black Reconstruction, Locke’s thesis suggests that the transformation in black culture (i.e., slave religion) ramified into the political and economic spheres (the General Strike), implicating multiracial democracy; the resolution of this confluence compelled a political revolution for both black America (i.e., the Slave Revolution) and the United States (overthrowing chattel slavery, defeating the CSA). Thus, the historical black revolution in the United States resulted from a cultural revolution that stimulated a political revolution. This was an extant thesis of black revolution in the United States that was available to Black Power Movement (BPM) revolutionists prior to the Civil Rights Movement (CRM).

Given the centrality of cultural revolution to these processes, in this chapter I examine the theoretical development of the concept. First, I briefly review the component concepts of cultural revolution, that is, culture and revolution. Second, recognizing the anteriority of the concept of cultural revolution in the academic literature, especially among Marxists, I discuss the applicability of Maoist, Leninist, and Gramscian theses of cultural revolution to black America. Third, I trace the roots of early formulations of black cultural evolution to the social development theses of black American activists and intellectuals—including black nationalist feminists—in the nineteenth century, and discuss how it informed later theses of black cultural revolution. Fourth, I review Du Bois’s cultural evolutionary thesis from The Negro and Social Reconstruction, which focused on the development of parallel institutions of black civil society. I also discuss Du Bois’s arguments during the Harlem Renaissance on the use of black culture as a propaganda tool and its implications for black cultural evolution. The analysis extends the conclusion of the last chapter that prior to the BPM there was an extant thesis of black cultural revolution that BPM revolutionists could have drawn on for theoretical direction, but also available was a thesis on black cultural evolution. The latter is not only an academic point, but contextualizes the irony that it was the latter cultural evolutionary approach that BPM revolutionists drew on in their programs to inform the cultural revolution they sought. In this way, their putatively revolutionary theorizing was guided by an evolutionary orientation.

Conceptualizing Black Cultural Revolution

Cultural Revolution: Defining the Terms

Cultural development, if not cultural revolution, has been central to major ideological arguments on African American politics for at least two centuries, and it reflects, in large part, the attempt by black Americans to fashion a humanity-affirming black culture in the context of white supremacy and its deculturalization of captured Africans and their progeny over more than two centuries of enslavement and more than a century of post-slavery Jim Crow. It has been espoused by black Americans of diverse ideological bents; among its earliest and most prominent advocates were black nationalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the AME Church, in prominent black voluntary associations such as the Prince Hall Masons and Odd Fellows, as well as in black mutual aid societies. In contrast, many contemporary integrationists argued that blacks should assimilate the culture of white Americans in order to facilitate their entry into U.S. society. For example, William Whipper advocated the removal of “complexional” terms in the names of black organizations in the nineteenth century, such as the AME Church.

For the most part, arguments for black cultural revolution have emerged from black nationalists asserting the importance of black cultural identity in challenging white supremacist notions of black inferiority. They viewed such an assertion as necessary to begin the process of recovering and reconstructing the history of black peoples and the heritage that was denied them, the rights that were due them, and the reparations that were owed them. But given that black leadership at the national level “swings” between the two prominent ideologies of nationalism and integrationism, with the greater stress on cultural revolution usually emanating from the former, the development of the concept of cultural revolution as well as a theory of cultural revolution proceeded in fits and starts, gaining steam during nationalist ascendance, dying down under integrationist hegemony, and reemerging with the next phase of nationalist prominence.2

Cultural revolution rests on two often less than precise concepts: culture and revolution. There may be about as many definitions of culture as authors studying the concept. For example, Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) provided a list of more than 150 different definitions of culture. Definitions of the concept range from Matthew Arnold’s (1869) focus on culture as “the best which has been thought and said in the world” to Raymond Williams’s (1952) association of it with the qualities evident in the “everyday life of the common man.” Edward Tylor (1920 [1871], p. 1) viewed culture as socially patterned thought and behavior. He saw it as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” This conception echoes anthropological definitions of the concept, such as Murphy’s (1986, p. 14), which views culture as “the total body of tradition borne by a society and transmitted from generation to generation,” consisting of “the norms, values, and standards by which people act,” including “the ways distinctive in each society of ordering the world and rendering it intelligible.” In this view, culture provides both a “mechanism of survival” as well as a “definition of reality.” It is “the matrix into which we are born”; it is “the anvil upon which our persons and destinies are forged.” For Bodley (1994), culture has various dimensions, including: historical (i.e., social heritage, or tradition), behavioral (shared learned behavior, or a way of life), normative (ideals, values, or rules for living), functional (the way humans solve problems of living together and adapting to their environment), structural (patterned ideas, symbols, and behaviors), and symbolic (arbitrarily arranged meanings that are shared by a society). It consists of and reflects “what people think, what they do, and the material products they produce.” In sum, it is a system of shared beliefs, traditions, customs, practices, techniques, values, symbols, and the artifacts and material products of society transmitted across generations. It is the conceptual and material reservoir of a society, learned through socialization, that encompasses the institutionalized perspectives, practices, and production associated with a particular group, organization, or people. Cultures are identifiable across time with many features that are stable, some varying, and others dynamic. One of the dynamic aspects of culture is its capacity, at times, to generate revolution.

Culture also serves as an analytical tool to explain political phenomena such as decision making, collective action, and revolution, and, as such, it is distinct from the behavior it is assumed to generate. That is, in order to explain behavior, culture cannot simply be defined as the behavior itself, since there would be nothing left to explain; culture would be both cause and effect and would have no analytical value. In his study of strategic culture, Johnston (1995, p. 21) provides a useful definition of culture that avoids this logical contradiction and enhances its usefulness as an analytical tool. He suggests that culture “consists of shared decision rules, recipes, standard operating procedures, and decision routines that impose a degree of order on individual and group conceptions of their relationship to their environment, be it social, organizational, or political.” Given that “cultural patterns and behavioral patterns are not the same thing,” it follows that “insofar as culture affects behavior, it does so by presenting limited options and by affecting how members of these cultures learn from interaction with the environment.” In this view, culture is “learned, evolutionary and dynamic,” and, although “[m]ultiple cultures can exist within one social entity” such as an organization, institution, community, or state, there is usually one dominant culture whose interest is “in preserving the status quo”; “[h]ence cultures can be an instrument of control, consciously cultivated and manipulated.” Culture, then, may affect the propensity of individuals and groups to make political choices for a range of individual and collective actions, including revolution.

Revolution, as discussed in the previous chapter, should be understood as the overthrow of a governing system with the aim of establishing a substantially different one. While there is a substantial amount of overlap, we can usefully distinguish among three types of revolution: political revolution, which involves the transformation of the system of government—the polity (e.g., the French, American, Russian, Chinese, and/or Cuban Revolutions); economic revolution, which involves the transformation of the economic system—the economy (e.g., the market revolution that transformed European feudalism to capitalism;3 the overthrow of chattel slavery as an economic system in the United States); and social revolution, which involves the transformation of the social system—the society (e.g., Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” plan). We can further disaggregate social revolutions into their two principal forms: demographic and cultural. Demographic revolutions are dramatic transformations in the distribution of groups in society that result from major demographic events such as immigration, emigration, diasporazation, urbanization, suburbanization, ruralization, demographic transitions, youth bulges, or the aging of the population, which prominently change the composition of a society or revise conceptions of the identity of the society. Cultural revolution entails the overthrow of one cultural system and its replacement with another. It may also be viewed as a dramatic transformation in the expression, representation, and prominence of a group’s culture in the broader cultural system of the society (e.g., its cultural hegemony), resulting from changes in the racial, religious, ethnic, linguistic, aesthetic, and educational institutions and/or in the familial structures, voluntary associations, and gender relations of the group or the society. This process historically has involved the overthrow or radical transformation of the major cultural institutions of a state and a reordering or renunciation of their hierarchy, such as occurred in the overthrow of the secular regime of the Shah of Iran and its replacement with the theocracy of the Khomeini regime (Sobhe, 1982). Cultural revolutions may encompass an entire state or a group within it (e.g., a racial, ethnic, linguistic, or religious group); or they may occur across states.

For many BPM revolutionists, Mao’s “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art” of 1942 evoked the cultural revolution that they sought. There, the future leader of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) argued that culture should promote the interests of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. He argued that

[o]ur literary and art workers must accomplish this task and shift their stand; they must gradually move their feet over to the side of the workers, peasants and soldiers, to the side of the proletariat, through the process of going into their very midst and into the thick of practical struggles and through the process of studying Marxism and society. Only in this way can we have a literature and art that are truly for the workers, peasants and soldiers, a truly proletarian literature and art.

Such a perspective was consistent with an earlier argument of Du Bois as he contemplated the role of black culture during the Harlem Renaissance. He, like Mao, was convinced that culture should perform the function of propaganda; and this orientation would resonate with BPM activists and serve as the point of departure for the Black Arts Movement (BAM)—the “sister” of the BPM, as Larry Neal referred to it—as well. In the next section we turn to some of the influential precursors of the black cultural revolution theses proposed by many of the leading revolutionists of the BPM.

Cultural Revolution: Reviewing Some Prominent Examples

Cultural revolution may not entail the overthrow of the political or economic system of the state in which it occurs but might strengthen or weaken them. For example, it might be undertaken by leaders attempting to solidify their political control, as in what is probably the most famous cultural revolution, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the PRC. Beginning no later than 1966, Mao Zedong attempted to purge the party, military, schools, media, and the broader society of suspected “bourgeois reactionary thinking” among those who allegedly were attempting to take the country “along the capitalist road.” Mao (and his supporters) initiated the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) to rally support for himself and promote a cult of personality to solidify his authority against opponents of his failed economic policies. The context that generated the GPCR was the critique of Mao’s disastrous economic policies of the Great Leap Forward, which resulted in the deaths of between twenty and thirty million people from starvation and disease related to malnutrition, the collapse of the commune programs, and the withdrawal of Soviet technicians from the country. This critique among longtime and high-ranking party members and Chinese intellectuals evolved into a general crisis of confidence with Mao’s leadership such that de facto control of the Chinese state was turned over to Liu Shaoqi (Mao’s heir apparent for many years) and Deng Xiaopeng. Under Liu’s guidance—which included reversing Mao’s failed policies of the Great Leap Forward—by 1962 China’s economy had begun to recover the productivity gains of the 1950s.

The original critique of Mao’s policies was put forth by Defense Minister Peng Dehuai in 1959. Peng was purged—although developments in the next three years would prove him correct—and he was replaced by Lin Baio, who became one of the main protagonists of the GPCR. Following Peng’s sacking, other prominent officials critiqued Mao’s policies along similar lines. Mao targeted the arts and literature in order to justify attacking intellectuals and universities, which in his view were providing a source for the most potent critiques of his domestic and foreign policies, allowing him to attack both concrete policies and more abstract thought. By associating his targets with capitalist, bourgeois, reactionary, or revisionist thought he could implicate both intellectuals as well as party officials—including veteran comrades in arms, most notably Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaopeng.

The GPCR was less a cultural revolution than a wholesale program to ferret out opposition to Mao in all major institutions of Chinese society, from the family to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The GPCR elevated a notion of proletarian culture that privileged rural society and was violently anti-urban and anti-intellectual, utilizing children and teens (i.e., the Red Guards) to prosecute some of its worst excesses. A far cry from Mao’s idealistic pronouncements at Yenan, the GPCR was a deadly, disruptive and disastrous period in post-revolution China, which destabilized the country and entrenched Mao’s power. Agents of the GPCR burned books, destroyed museums, closed universities and schools, while targeting intellectuals, scientists, teachers, administrators, and their families. They imposed compulsory migration to rural areas (later replicated to genocidal effect by a Cambodian visitor to China at the time, Saloth Sar, aka Pol Pot); and set back China’s economic, technological, and educational development for at least a decade (Pye, 1986; Thurston, 1985; Tsang, 1967). They tortured, terrorized, and humiliated those who could be labeled as going “along the capitalist road,” using indiscriminate killings, political imprisonments, purges, “re-education,” and relocation to rural areas. The resulting chaos, repression, and bloodletting almost led to civil war by 1968.4 The GPCR resulted in the deaths of untold numbers of Chinese, with estimates ranging from tens of thousands to one million people. The economy floundered, the authority of the CCP was undermined, the educational system atrophied, and arts and literature were reduced to sycophantic propaganda lauding Maoist thought. Yet, the political system remained relatively intact even upon Mao’s death in 1976—to no small degree as a function of the loyalty of the military—but there were dramatic transformations afterward. Power ultimately remained with the CCP but it swung away from those who had prominently supported the GPCR, the Gang of Four, to those who had been its targets, such as Deng Xiaopeng.5

In contrast to Mao’s promotion of the GPCR, Lenin initially opposed cultural revolution in Russia, but subsequently advocated it to strengthen his regime. Major Bolsheviks encouraged proletarian culture shortly after the Russian Revolution and during the Russian Civil War.6 For example, Alexander Bogdanov was an early proponent of the promotion of proletarian culture, prolekult, as was Bukharin. The initial conference of proletarian culture organizations was held in 1917, prior to the October Revolution, and “by 1920 the proletarian culture organisations had some four hundred thousand members, and published fifteen journals” (Birchall, 2000, p. 83). Bogdanov’s resolution, adopted by the All-Russian Conference of Proletarian Cultural and Educational Organisations in September 1918, proclaimed:

The proletariat must take over the treasures of past art with its own critical illumination, in a new interpretation, revealing their hidden collective principles and their organisational thought. They will then become a precious heritage for the proletariat, a tool in its struggle against the old world which created them, an instrument for organising a new world. (ibid., pp. 95–96)

Prolekult promoted, inter alia, Prolekult Theatre, which emphasized industrial motifs and the subculture of the factory floor, as well as folk songs and avant-garde art.7 It sought, inter alia, to “defamiliarize the familiar” and make the audience reflect on the material condition of their lives.8 Conflicts between proletarian culture organizations and the Party leadership were evident by 1921 (ibid., p. 82). For example, Leon Trotsky and Aleksandr Voronsky viewed the proletarian culture movement as contradictory and antithetical to the Marxist position on bourgeois art and science. Trotsky argued that it was impossible for the proletariat to develop its own art forms given that by the time it had fulfilled its historic mission of overthrowing the bourgeoisie it would cease to exist as a class. More importantly, Lenin subordinated the promotion of a revolutionary proletariat culture to the Party and the “Marxist world outlook” (Biggart, 1987, p. 233). For example, in his “On Proletarian Culture” of 1920, Lenin insisted “that the Marxist world outlook is the only true expression of the interests, the viewpoint, and the culture of the revolutionary proletariat” (1966b, pp. 316–317).9 He added that since Marxism has “assimilated and refashioned everything of value in the more than two thousand years of the development of human thought and culture,” (p. 317) then

[a]ll educational work in the Soviet Republic of workers and peasants, in the field of political education in general and in the field of art in particular, should be imbued with the spirit of the class struggle being waged by the proletariat for the successful achievement of the aims of its dictatorship, i.e., the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the abolition of classes, and the elimination of all forms of exploitation of man by man. (p. 316)

Lenin (ibid., p. 317) was convinced that this could only be realized through the efforts of the Communist Party, and concluded that “[o]nly further work on this basis and in this direction, inspired by the practical experience of the proletarian dictatorship as the final stage in the struggle against every form of exploitation, can be recognised as the development of a genuine proletarian culture.”

In time, the Bolsheviks came to appreciate a role for proletarian culture in solidifying the postrevolutionary regime in the Soviet Union, to the extent that it might challenge “the problem of bourgeois cultural restoration,” and Mao drew on a similar rationale decades later. As the Bolsheviks consolidated their power following their victory in the Civil War, Lenin changed suit and called for a cultural revolution. In his “On Cooperation” of 1923, Lenin (1973a, p. 474) acknowledged “a radical modification in our whole outlook on socialism,” which had formerly emphasized “the political struggle, on revolution, on winning political power,” but “[n]ow the emphasis [was] changing and shifting to peaceful, organizational, ‘cultural’ work.” He advocated a cultural revolution that would establish a cooperatives-based economic system in the Soviet Union. He thought that “the organisation of the entire peasantry in co-operative societies presupposes a standard of culture among the peasants . . . that cannot, in fact be achieved without a cultural revolution” (ibid. p. 474). For Lenin, organizing the peasantry into cooperatives was essential to organizing cooperatives throughout the entire Soviet population.

Lenin viewed a cultural revolution as necessary to further develop the communist leadership as well. Given the “deplorable” status of the state apparatus whose “defects [were] rooted in the past,” which, nonetheless, in various aspects persisted beyond the Revolution, he saw a particular role for trade unions—in tight coordination with the government, the CPSU, and the masses—in this educational and practical project. Thus, in “The Role and Functions of the Trade Unions under the New Economic Policy,” in 1922 Lenin stated that “[b]eing a school of communism in general, the trade unions must, in particular, be a school for training the whole mass of workers, and eventually all working people, in the art of managing socialist industry (and gradually also agriculture)” (1973b, p. 190). By 1923, in his last essay, “Better Fewer, But Better,” he argued:

Our state apparatus is so deplorable . . . that we must first think very carefully how to combat its defects, bearing in mind that these defects are rooted in the past, which, although it has been overthrown, has not yet been overcome, has not yet reached the stage of a culture . . . I say culture deliberately, because in these matters we can only regard as achieved what has become part and parcel of our culture, of our social life, our habits. (Lenin, 1973c, pp. 487–488)

Lenin argued that “the workers who are absorbed in the struggle of socialism . . . are not sufficiently educated” and are unable to build a viable state apparatus because, inter alia, “they do not know how. They have not yet developed the culture required for this; and it is culture that is required.” (ibid., p. 488).

Lenin (1973a, p. 475) recognized that “in our country [Russia] the political and social revolution preceded the cultural revolution, that very cultural revolution which nevertheless now confronts us.” He was hopeful that “[t]his cultural revolution would now suffice to make our country a completely socialist country”; nevertheless, he warned that “it presents immense difficulties of a purely cultural (for we are illiterate) and material character (for to be cultured we must achieve a certain development of the material means of production, we must have a certain material base)” (ibid.).

All told, neither the cultural revolution of Mao’s PRC nor of Lenin’s Soviet Union was the type of cultural revolution envisioned by those applying the concept to black America. Both of those cultural revolutions were prosecuted shortly after successful political revolutions. Most BPM revolutionists did not view themselves in a post-revolutionary context in the United States, notwithstanding the arguments in the previous chapter on the Slave Revolution in the U.S. Civil War. In addition, the cultural revolutions in the PRC and USSR were cultural revolutions “from above,” initiated by the centralized political leadership; however, black cultural revolution was to be initiated by black Americans, who were among the most politically marginalized groups in the United States. Therefore, they were compelled to make cultural revolution “from below” to achieve their liberation.

The latter orientation seems akin to Gramsci’s thesis on the need for the proletariat to challenge the cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie prior to organizing the political revolution that would usher the ascendance of the socialist state. Gramsci was concerned with explaining why proletariat revolutions had not ensued in the West as Marx had predicted. He argued that the cultural apparatuses of advanced industrial states indoctrinated workers into a false consciousness that led them to identify with the interests of the ruling classes through socialization by mass media, compulsory public education, and popular culture that ingrained the norms and practices of the ruling class into the populace, often through appeals to overt nationalism, religious affiliation, and consumerism, or more subtly through the institutions of civil society. In such a context, Marxist revolutionists were obliged to organize a counter-hegemonic thrust on the cultural front in order to combat the hegemonic culture of the ruling class. Overthrowing this cultural hegemony was necessary before a political revolution could ensue. Therefore, Gramsci proposed a twofold strategy consisting of a war of position, which was a struggle on the cultural front, followed by a war of maneuver, which was the struggle on the political front—the classic Marxist revolution.

Gramsci’s thesis did not augur political revolution in the United States, because he insisted that the countries that were least likely to achieve a cultural revolution were those with highly developed institutions of civil society, such as the United States.10 Further, Gramsci’s thesis seemed to presume that the cultural reservoir from which challenges to the cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie could be derived were readily available to revolutionists to draw upon and employ in a war of position. This approach does not appreciate the extent of white American destruction and/or appropriation of black American culture, such that blacks were not only conditioned by the views and values of white racist cultural hegemony, but by as late as the twentieth century there were still prominent debates inside the black community on whether blacks possessed a culture at all. If cultural revolution was going to be salient to black Americans, a case had to be made that they had a culture in the first place, from which to construct the counter-institutions necessary to promote the counter-hegemony that Gramsci theorized. Black cultural revolution, in modified Gramscian terms, would involve blacks fighting a war of reconstruction—or what Du Bois called reformation—prior to either a war of position or maneuver.

Gramsci’s negative orientation toward religious institutions as effective counter-institutions further distanced his approach from black American experiences given the centrality of the Black Church to social change historically as well as the reality that it was the most powerful cultural institution in the black community and the backbone of its civil society.11 It was inconceivable that black cultural revolution could bypass the major cultural institution of black people. Moreover, given the role of the Black Church as a social change agent, it was clear that its potential contribution to black cultural revolution was much different than what Gramsci proposed given his experiences with the Catholic Church in Europe.

Actually, the most compelling application of Marxism to black America was Harry Haywood’s Black Belt thesis, which recognized the salience of black culture to black liberation, and engaged the Black Church seriously, which, given his original articulation of his thesis in the 1920s—an era when the Church’s role in social movements was at a low point compared to organizations such as the UNIA or NAACP—was particularly insightful; however, Haywood viewed it playing a tertiary role, at best, to the CPUSA and trade unions as agents of revolutionary change. Unfortunately, neither of the latter institutions was committed to a meaningful engagement with black culture—or, often, black workers—and those among the CPUSA membership that were derided as nationalistic, ultimately including Haywood and his supporters, were purged for their alleged “racial/nationalist chauvinism,” while black unionization was subordinated to the white racist labor aristocracy—and general white membership—of the major unions. In the event, Haywood did not develop a thesis on cultural revolution per se. Potentially closer to such a development was Claudia Jones’ Marxist feminism, which incorporated the Black Belt thesis while raising the fundamental cultural contradiction within black communities, namely, sexism, although she didn’t develop a specific cultural revolution thesis either.

To be sure, black Americans did not await the insights of European and American Marxists to delineate the elements and processes of cultural change in black communities and proffer theses on black cultural revolution. Black activist/intellectual theses on the need for cultural transformation and the development of black social consciousness as a precursor to—or concomitant of—political and economic transformation had begun to be expressed by no later than the nineteenth century. These early pronouncements on the role of cultural change in black liberation were more evolutionary than revolutionary, yet, they laid the basis for later theorizing in both veins.

African American Cultural Revolution: Precursors

Broad arguments situating black cultural development at the center of black liberation struggles were prominent in the nineteenth-century discourse of black nationalists such as the emigrationist Mary Shadd Cary, who argued against both racism and sexism and advocated abolition of slavery, the advancement of black institutional development, black resettlement in Canada, and the political rights of black women in some of the earliest statements of black feminism. Shadd Cary was the first black woman in North America to establish and edit a weekly newspaper, Provincial Freeman, in Chatham, Ontario, in which, inter alia, she promoted black social uplift, tied to black educational and industrial development, and stressed the importance of black women in facilitating that development. Pursuant to this, she highlighted the need to establish free black communities and develop independent schools, voluntary organizations, and businesses—what we would call institutions of civil society today. Central to the development of strong black communities was the recognition of the rights of women and the cultivation of their talents in the major political, economic, and cultural institutions of black society. This was among the earliest assessments of the need for black cultural evolution in terms of the attainment of gender equality (along with those of Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Harriet Tubman, among others).

Shadd Cary’s approach is mirrored in Ida B. Wells Barnett’s practice as a newspaper editor, political organizer, and social reformer. Before she helped found the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Wells Barnett wrote, rallied, and organized against white racism in the South. In Memphis, Tennessee, she wrote newspaper articles and published pamphlets and broadsides excoriating the lynchings that were occurring regularly in the final decades of the nineteenth century. She drew from her own surveys and interviews of lynchers, their supporters, and advocates, as well as victims and survivors, and heroically published her findings and conclusions—facing threats of murder, rape, and torture from her white racist detractors—in her Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892), and The Red Record (1895). She railed against the racist propaganda of the time, such as the oft-repeated lie that the main motivation for white lynchers was the protection of white women’s “virtue,” and instead demonstrated through her interviews that their motivations were mainly economic, as they attempted to suppress black economic competition. Her orientation toward ending lynching is clear in her instruction that

[t]he lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched. (Wells Barnett, 1892a, p. 36)

Convinced of the unwillingness of whites to support social justice for blacks, even when blacks had achieved some economic success, she advocated black migration from the South to the West and North and the establishment of black towns in areas more hospitable to an independent black presence. Wells Barnett not only demonstrated the importance of independent black institutions, but she asserted the centrality of women in the development of black society.12 Like Shadd Cary, Wells Barnett sought change through both intraracial and interracial organizations.

Assertions such as those expressed by Shadd Cary and Wells Barnett (among others) implicate cultural evolution to the extent that they suggested that the attainment of black women’s equality was essential to the development of black communities, of women in general, and of the United States as a whole. Only by recognizing black women as equally representative of black society could one comprehend the black community as it actually existed. The recognition of that fact and the struggle to ensure that the black community’s political, economic, and social institutions reflected that reality was necessary as a first order of cultural development or cultural evolution, and thus central to cultural revolution, as well. Further, such recognition, as black feminists argued, necessitated recognizing the juridical equality of black women. Sojourner Truth expressed this equality of black women to black men (and women to men, in general) in terms of shared abilities, and Anna Julia Cooper expressed it in terms of the complementarity of women and men. In fact, it is Cooper’s explication of this relationship and its centrality to black social development that epitomizes both the basic orientation and insight of nineteenth-century black nationalist feminism as well as the point of departure for conceptualizing black cultural evolution.

In her 1892 A Voice from the South by A Black Woman of the South, Cooper stated that “[a]ll I claim is that there is a feminine as well as a masculine side to truth; that these are related not as inferior and superior, not as better and worse, not as weaker and stronger, but as complements—complements in one necessary and symmetric whole” (p. 60). Recognizing this complementarity, the black community should facilitate the entry of the black woman into the social, economic, and political spheres with rights and opportunities equal to those of men. But the black women’s entry into civil society (and attainment of equality) had an added value unique to black women, which rested upon their exclusive social position and the duality of their oppression. Cooper noted that black women occupied “a unique position in this country. . . . She is confronted by both a woman question and a race problem, and is as yet an unknown or an unacknowledged factor in both” (1892, p. 134). Cooper’s thesis on multiple oppressions of black working-class women prefigured those of Claudia Jones (1949), the double/triple jeopardy perspective of Francis Beal (1970), and the intersectionality of Kimberle Crenshaw (1989); also, it suggested a double consciousness that preceded and transcended that articulated by Du Bois, and with implications that were even more profound. Black women’s emancipation was not only important for their betterment, but was necessary for the advancement of the entire race because “[o]nly the BLACK WOMAN can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me’ ” (ibid., p. 31). Along with its political and economic implications, with respect to black culture, Cooper was clear that if black cultural development was to proceed in earnest, the amelioration of the condition of black women would have to be its centerpiece and would facilitate the fundamental transformation of black society, as well.

Black cultural development, for Cooper, was rooted in the main institutions of nineteenth-century black communities: black labor and industry, black schools, and the Black Church. She lauded the ingenuity and creativity of blacks in both their labor and commerce. At first blush, it may appear that Cooper’s views on black labor were less forward-looking than those on gender. For example, she expressed “little enthusiasm” for what she characterized as “the labor riots,” which were “epidemic” in the North. She chastised and vilified Northern white workers for striking and protesting wages that were several times those found in the South (1892, p. 252). Her target was not labor per se, but white labor, which she viewed as unremittingly racist, including “the amalgamated associations and labor unions of immigrant laborers, who cannot even speak English” (ibid., pp. 255–256), yet, “will threaten to cut the nerve and paralyze the progress of an industry that gives work to an American-born [Negro] citizen” (ibid., p. 266). She excoriated white immigrant workers who “complain[ed] of wrong and oppression, of low wages and long hours” but “would boycott an employer if he hired a colored workman” (ibid., p. 255). She assailed the hypocrisy in the treatment of white and black women workers, remarking:

One often hears in the North an earnest plea from some lecturer for “our working girls” (of course this means white working girls). . . . I listened to one who went into pious agonies at the thought of the future mothers of Americans having to stand all day at shop counters; and then advertised with applause a philanthropic firm who were giving their girls a trip to Europe for rest and recreation! . . . But how many have ever given a thought to the pinched and downtrodden colored women bending over wash-tubs and ironing boards—with children to feed and house rent to pay, wood to buy, soap and starch to furnish—lugging home weekly great baskets of clothes for families who pay them for a month’s laundrying barely enough to purchase a substantial pair of shoes!

Thus, she found it “impossible to catch the fire of sympathy and enthusiasm for most of these labor movements at the North” (1892, pp. 254–255).

A tireless advocate of education for freepersons and their descendants, Cooper championed female literacy, higher education, and the importance of the Black Church in black society, but she was also critical of the Church for “not developing Negro womanhood as an essential fundamental for the elevation of the race, and utilizing this agency in extending the work of the Church” (1892, p. 37). Cooper asserted the “vital agency of womanhood in the regeneration and progress of a race” (ibid., pp. 23–24), and insisted that women and girls should be educated more fully. Cooper praised the AME Church’s efforts in educating blacks, while challenging depictions of blacks in prominent literature—expressing her “hope to see . . . a blackman honestly and appreciatively portraying both the Negro as he is, and the white man occasionally, as seen from the Negro’s standpoint” (ibid., p. 225).

Theses on black cultural evolution such as Cooper’s often were embedded in broader concepts of culture and civilization that did not view black culture as an independent source of revolutionary change, viewing it instead in civilizationist terms, seeking a sort of black uplift defined often as attainment to a white ideal. Other contemporary black feminists tied black women’s liberation to working-class liberation in theses that privileged a multiracial revolutionary proletariat. The latter was evident, for example, in the thesis of the anarcho-Marxist Lucy Parsons who, reportedly, was once described by the Chicago Police Department as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.”13

In contrast to some of the bourgeois aspects of nineteenth-century feminism, Lucy Parsons’ feminism was grounded in black working-class values and her revolutionary advocacy of social change to end human oppression. She supported prominent women’s rights issues of the time, such as a woman’s right to divorce, remarry, and birth control; however, she viewed these issues as well below the importance of directly organizing workers against capitalist oppression, viewing issues of gender as well as race as intertwined within the larger struggle of labor against capital. Parsons’ feminism brought her into ideological conflict with even her anarchist contemporaries such as Emma Goldman, whom she castigated for privileging “free love” advocacy over working-class interests. In fact, as Parsons rallied workers as a highly effective anarchist organizer, a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, aka the Wobblies), advocating and organizing on behalf of black and brown laborers, women, political prisoners, and “tramps,” she chided Goldman for “addressing large middle-class audiences.” In an 1896 essay, she castigated Goldman and her “free love” supporters for their attempts to “bind . . . labor’s emancipation from wage-slavery” to “free love” advocacy and to “call them one and the same.” Parsons asserted that “[v]ariety in sex relations and economic freedom have nothing in common.” Her debate with Goldman also reflected Parsons’ view that marriage and family were natural conditions of human existence, so she rejected the arguments of elitist white anarchist feminists such as Goldman, which criticized these institutions. Ashbaugh (1976, p. 202) explained the disagreements between Parsons and Goldman in this way: “Lucy Parsons’ feminism, which analyzed women’s oppression as a function of capitalism, was founded on working class values. Emma Goldman’s feminism took on an abstract character of freedom for women in all things, in all times, and in all places; her feminism became separate from its working class origins.” Lucy Parsons was committed to the view that the social revolution that she sought would only result from a movement focused on the working class that seized the means of production and that racial and gender equality would be achieved with the overthrow of capitalism.

In an article published in 1884, “To Tramps,” she called to revolution “The Unemployed, the Disinherited, and Miserable,” those who were “tramping the streets . . . with hands in pockets, gazing listlessly about you at the evidence of wealth and pleasure of which you own no part, not sufficient even to purchase yourself a bit of food with which to appease the pangs of hunger now knawing at your vitals” (Parsons, 1884, p. 144). She admonished that each of them had been “execrated and denounced as a ‘worthless tramp and a vagrant’ by that very class” which had been “robbing” them (ibid.). It was immaterial whether there was a “good boss” or “bad boss” because “it is the INDUSTRIAL SYSTEM and not the ‘boss’ which must be changed” (ibid.). She argued that they should reject religious admonitions that it is their lot to be poor; and instead “[s]end forth [their] petition” to be read “by the red glare of destruction,” which is “the only language” that “these robbers . . . have ever been able to understand” (ibid.). She emphasized to the “hungry tramps who read [her] lines” to

avail yourselves of those little methods of warfare which Science has placed in the hands of the poor man, and you will become a power in this or any other land. Learn the use of explosives! (ibid.; original emphasis)

At the IWW’s founding convention, Parsons advocated the use of the general strike as a tactic for workers and argued that her “conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production”; and, in this way, her approach anticipated the sitdown strikes and factory takeovers of future labor organizations. Her view of cultural evolution/revolution was grounded in her revolutionary thesis, which was embedded in Marxist (and anarchist) conceptions and the Eurocentric teleology to which they both were tethered. Such approaches are bound by their own corresponding civilizationist vision, and it would be another half-century before Marxists such as Claudia Jones asserted a radical feminism grounded in a modernized black nationalist understanding of black culture.

The development of a thesis on black cultural evolution/revolution was central because the equality of black women challenges the two most fundamental systems of domination in the United States: racism and sexism. Moreover, within black communities women’s equality not only is a recognition of human rights—monumental in that regard alone, but also given the historic role(s) women have played in black institutions, ending the oppression of women and encouraging their independent course of action also unleashes the awesome potential of these institutions since it is commonly understood that black women do the lion’s share of the organizational work in major black institutions, even as they are typically denied leadership in them. The liberation of black women would redound to black institutional power. Such an orientation toward black women’s liberation was largely absent among black nationalists—as well as integrationists, Marxists, and white feminists—until well into the twentieth century. Although feminist perspectives informed the earliest conceptions of black cultural evolution, they were often ignored by theorists of black cultural revolution—and black revolution in the United States more generally—well into the BPM era.

In the nineteenth century, U.S. culture (and Western culture, in general) was wedded to civilization, civilization to race, and race to biology, and whites alone were viewed as having a culture, which was a reflection of their presumably exclusive attainment of civilization, which in this view was a reflection of their racial superiority. Following Franz Boas, by the turn of the century, culture theorists were turning away from biological perspectives of culture to anthropological ones, the latter providing a basis for a less hierarchical rendering of culture in the form of cultural pluralism. Du Bois and especially Alain Locke, who authored a novel thesis on race as a sociological construct as well as a dynamic thesis of culture (as discussed in chapter 3), were central to the development of this work and its application to African American culture and ultimately to theses of black cultural revolution in the United States. Related to, if not directly building on, these culturalist precepts, Du Bois provided two theoretical frameworks on black political development that inform subsequent theses of black cultural and political change in the United States. The first he proffered in Black Reconstruction and juxtaposed to Marxism, and the second he articulated in The Negro and Social Reconstruction and contrasted with integrationism. Two transitional periods in U.S. history—the Civil War, and the Great Migration/Harlem Renaissance—witnessed dramatic black cultural change stimulating significant political change. For the nineteenth-century slave community, the fulcrum was slave religion (and slave hiring), which led to the Slave Revolution in the U.S. Civil War, and for the twentieth-century black community it was the Great Migration and resultant urbanized black institutions (e.g., black churches, schools, and businesses) that augured dramatic political change. In these two important works, completed within a year of each other, Du Bois provided frameworks for conceptualizing the former in terms of cultural revolution and the latter in terms of cultural evolution. Ironically, BPM revolutionists were seemingly unaware of the former revolutionary thesis, and they oriented their ostensibly revolutionary initiatives in the latter evolutionary program and its focus on developing parallel black institutions of civil society.

W. E. B. Du Bois and Black Cultural Evolution

Although Du Bois laid the groundwork for an understanding of black cultural revolution in Black Reconstruction, as we discussed in the previous chapter, his arguments on the significance of black culture to social change were not singular; they alternated between revolutionary and evolutionary perspectives. The source of this variability was Du Bois’ wavering views on the role of the Black Church in progressive social change. Du Bois’ ambivalence toward the Black Church—even as he lauded “slave religion”—was an impediment to his development of a thesis on black cultural revolution, and it seems to have prevented him from realizing the insurgent potential of religion in the earlier slave rebellions even as he recognized it as a catalyst of the General Strike. Du Bois’s ambivalence toward the Black Church is evident in his earliest ruminations on the subject in 1897 (Evans, 2007, pp. 281–282; Green & Driver, 1978, p. 234). He argued that the Black Church should restrict its activities to spiritual matters, putting greater faith in voluntary and civil rights groups as agents of social change, as he began in earnest to develop the “race organizations” he had outlined in “Conservation of Races.” Two years later, in The Philadelphia Negro (1899, pp. 469–470), he observed that

[t]he Negro church is not simply an organism for the propagation of religion; it is the centre of the social, intellectual, and religious life of an organized group of people . . . it serves as a newspaper and intelligence bureau, it supplants the theater, it directs the picnic and excursion, it furnishes the music . . . it serves as a lyceum, library, and lecture bureau—it is, in fine, the central organ of the organized life of the American Negro.

Four years later, in The Negro Church, Du Bois (1903b, p. 5) argued that it was “the first distinctively Negro American social institution.” Also, in that year, in Souls, he referred to “[t]he Negro Church” as “the social centre of Negro life in the United States,” which “as a social institution . . . antedated by many decades the monogamic Negro home” (1903a, pp. 117, 119). It was also “the most characteristic expression of African character” (ibid., p. 117); and the black preacher was “the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil” (ibid., p. 116). The Negro preacher was “[a] leader, a politician, an orator, a ‘boss,’ an intriguer, an idealist . . . and ever, too, the centre of a group of men” (ibid.). He viewed the music of the Negro Church as “the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born on American soil” (ibid.). He called the AME Church “the greatest Negro organization in the world” (ibid., p. 120) and saw the “great city churches” such as Philadelphia’s Bethel AME as “really governments of men” whose activities are “immense and far-reaching” and whose presiding bishops are “among the most powerful Negro rulers in the world” (ibid., p. 118). Regardless of its propensity to reform or stasis, Du Bois viewed the Black Church as an important progenitor and incubator of African American cultural traditions in the aesthetic, material, and institutional sense. Therefore, the cultural evolution of black society would to a large extent rest on the cultural transformation of the Black Church.

Yet, Du Bois’s ambivalence toward the Black Church as a progressive change agent persisted throughout the remainder of his life. Although he praised some of its leaders and congregants, he admonished its otherworldliness, the pretentiousness and licentiousness of some black preachers, the absence of sociopolitical activism, and its failure to mobilize the economic power of the black community. He was joined in these criticisms by leaders such as Ida B. Wells Barnett, who admonished church leaders for their political timidity, for example, with respect to the antilynching activity that she spearheaded.14 Carter G. Woodson criticized the church as the central divisive force splitting the black community between conservative religionists and progressives oriented toward reform in worship, theology, and political engagement. Du Bois had criticized how socially stratified congregations reflected and reinforced black intraracial class divisions, yet, like most black critics, he saved his harshest rebuke of organized religion for the white church and its vehement racism.

Du Bois’s ambivalence toward the Black Church was recognized by his biographer, David Lewis, who acknowledged that

[n]otwithstanding those soaring passages in Souls [of Black Folk] and Gift of Black Folk, or, later, in Black Reconstruction, celebrating Negroes’ “peculiar spiritual quality” and the “Negro Church today . . . [as] sole surviving social institution of the African fatherland,” an informed reading of Du Bois’s oeuvre discloses virtually no modern role assigned to the Negro church. (Lewis, 2000, p. 306)

Moses (1993, p. 246) agrees that “Du Bois was clearly ambivalent about the black church,” noting “its importance as the central institution of black political life” while also suggesting “that it represented only a primitive level of struggle towards full political consciousness.” He could at once be both “sympathetic to the church, tracing its traditions of cultural and political resistance” while in other writing—especially his fiction—expressing “hostility” toward it.

On the other hand, Blum (2007, pp. 117–118) maintains that “a host of evidence contradicts this assessment.” He notes that as late as 1950, in an article in the Pittsburgh Courier, Du Bois recognized that the black church of the twentieth century had “lost ground”; yet it was “still a powerful institution in the lives of a numerical majority of American Negroes if not upon the dominant intellectual classes.” Du Bois had not been sanguine about the prospects of a Gandhian approach to overthrowing Jim Crow and thought that blacks “are not ready for systematic lawbreaking” (Lewis, 1995, p. 410). In contrast, in his 1948 “The Talented Tenth: Memorial Address,” he argued that “[o]ur religion with all of its dogma, demagoguery and showmanship, can be a center to teach character, right conduct and sacrifice,” and therein lies “a career for a Negro Gandhi and a host of earnest followers” (ibid., p. 352). Nevertheless, in his 1957 “Will the Great Gandhi Live Again?” reflecting on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he asks, “Did this doctrine and practice of non-violence bring solution to the race problem in Alabama? It did not” (ibid., p. 359). It appeared that just as in his analyses in Black Reconstruction, where he could not seem to flesh out the connections between black religion and social change, he did not seem to grasp the role that black religion was playing in the CRM that was unfolding in front of him. Yet, later in that year Du Bois admitted that the issue of the applicability of Gandhi’s program to black America had “long puzzled” him, but concluded that “[i]t may well be that . . . real human equality and brotherhood in the United States will come only under the leadership of another Gandhi” (ibid., pp. 91–92). Therefore, to his credit, he came to appreciate the benefits of a “Gandhian” approach—if not the Black Church as the agent of the change that the approach might facilitate—even though he did not live to see the fruition of the nonviolent direct action program of the CRM, which mainly followed his death in August 1963.15

The arguments on both sides of this debate have merit. That is, Lewis is correct that Du Bois’s corpus of work suggests that there is “virtually no modern role assigned to the Negro church,” the operative term being “virtually” because Du Bois remained convinced that the Church should perform a progressive function in the black community; but he was unconvinced that it would accomplish this mission. Du Bois continued to insist that if transformed, it could be the key institution for the kind of change he advocated, thus supporting Blum’s more optimistic view. Therefore, convinced of the need for black institutions to articulate a vision and practice of positive social change but lacking faith in the Black Church to carry out such a mission, Du Bois promoted other black institutions in taking up this burden.

Du Bois also sought to draw on the key constituency in the Black Church, the black women who predominated in the pews, though not in the pulpit. In Darkwater, he argued that “strong women . . . laid the foundations of the great Negro church of today,” emphasizing the importance of black women and the struggle against sexist domination in ways that prefigured more notable feminist analyses decades later (Du Bois 1920, 174). In challenging his friend Kelly Miller’s rejection of women’s suffrage, he argued that “[t]he meaning of the twentieth century is the freeing of the individual soul; the soul longest in slavery and still in the most disgusting and indefensible slavery is the soul of womanhood” (Lewis, 1995, p. 298). In several works, he excoriated the oppression of black women, assailed sexist renderings of black women, and asserted the centrality of women’s struggles to the transformation of black society.16 He shared Cooper’s dictum that “[o]nly the black woman can say ‘when and where I enter’ . . . the whole race enters with me,” and stated that “[t]o no modern race does its women mean so much as to the Negro” (ibid., p. 304). Du Bois concurred that if black cultural development was to proceed, the amelioration of the condition of black womanhood would have to be a centerpiece of that transformation. Du Bois viewed the importance of the liberation of black women in this way: “The uplift of women is, next to the problem of the color line and the peace movement, our greatest modern cause. When, now, two of these movements—woman and color—combine in one, the combination has deep meaning” (ibid., p. 309). Nevertheless, Du Bois’ feminism—like most feminism of the day—was limited in ways that would not be addressed until the era of second wave feminism, for instance, the recognition that “peace” considerations should extend to the domestic/interpersonal/familial sphere and the sexist violence to which men subjected women and girls.

With respect to cultural evolution, it was not clear if the uplift of black women would be facilitated or circumscribed by the Black Church, which was a pressing issue given its importance in the black community and the reality of black women toiling in every major activity of the church with little hope of advancement in its hierarchy. Increasingly, for Du Bois, the Black Church was an ancillary change agent, at best, to help guide the increasingly working-class American Negro of the first few decades of the twentieth century. Du Bois had come to more fully appreciate what he had only broached in Black Reconstruction: the defeat of radical Reconstruction and the reconstitution of the slavocracy in all but name in the U.S. South—as a complicit act of the Negro’s Northern “allies”—had so thoroughly destroyed the institutions of black civil society for the majority of black Americans that no single institution—even one as potentially powerful as the Black Church—could provide the political, economic, and social correctives to address black underdevelopment. Du Bois sought to develop parallel political, economic, and social institutions of black civil society to provide those absent from or enervated in black communities. These would focus on the Negro’s access to the ballot, land ownership/property rights, access to schools, striking down discriminatory laws, anti-imperialism, pan-Africanism, and freedom from lynch law and arbitrary arrest.17

Pursuant to this, Du Bois turned to the black intellectual and organizational elite epitomized in the talented tenth, or the “guiding 100th”—from the institutions of black civil society such as black colleges, black churches, black lodges, black newspapers, black businesses—to civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP, as the key change agents for black America. However, the NAACP was not organically rooted in the black community (although it found a greater home there than in probably any other ethnic community in the United States), it was lacking in black leadership (Du Bois was the only black member to serve on its original governing board), and its major policies—seeking legal redress for discrimination and lobbying and organizing for antilynching legislation—were only indirectly committed to the broader political, economic, and social development of black America that Du Bois envisioned and championed.18 The Urban League was similarly hamstrung among the major voluntary associations of increasingly urban black America because although it was more oriented to black economic and social uplift it was not as politically focused but arguably was organically rooted in the black community. The Negro women’s clubs that would amalgamate in the NACW were more organically situated in the black community and more representative in their leadership and general membership, although their general orientation was no less elitist than the NAACP’s.19 Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) demonstrated the potential of a mass-based black organization rooted in black communities, representative, with predominantly black leadership and general membership, and committed to political, economic, as well as social development, but its program for black repatriation to Africa was politically myopic and civilizationist, as well as a needless drain on the organization’s resources.

With the Great Migration, Du Bois saw the promise of the political, economic, and social transformation of black America in the “New Negro” phenomenon epitomized in the Harlem Renaissance, and he proposed the talented tenth (and later the “guiding 100th”) as the vanguard of their cultural evolutionary project. Given his view of the shortcomings of the Black Church, he did not project on his notion of the talented tenth Kelly Miller’s (1914) argument that it should assume the leadership of the Black Church and flood the ministry in order to provide guidance to it and hence the race. Even less heed was given to Woodson’s more radical contention that the diverse black Christian denominations should unify under a single “United Negro Church” that would serve as a major national black mass organization that would wield substantial political power—in fact, AME Bishops Reverdy Ransom and R. R. Wright Jr. advocated linking black churches across denominational lines in a program of social service delivery and public policy engagement. For Du Bois, the Black Church was ill-suited to respond meaningfully to the depredations blacks suffered in the post-Reconstruction era or the challenges and opportunities afforded by the Great Migration. Even influential black church newspapers were being supplanted by black newspapers such as Abbott’s Chicago Defender and Vann’s Pittsburgh Courier, and Du Bois’s editorship of Crisis gave him an important media stage from which to project the kind of radical change he envisioned outside the Black Church and the educational institutions it controlled.

Du Bois’ ambivalence toward the Black Church contributed to the view of subsequent theorists of black politics that black cultural change could largely bypass the major cultural institution in the black community. Nevertheless, in the interwar era, Du Bois continued to insist that if transformed the Black Church could be one of three key institutions in black communities to effectuate the kind of change he advocated. This is most evident in what is probably Du Bois’s most important unpublished work in his lifetime: his 1936 monograph The Negro and Social Reconstruction.

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Negro and Social Reconstruction

In The Negro and Social Reconstruction, Du Bois promulgated his “self-segregation” thesis.20 For him, black social reconstruction entailed a turn inward, relying on the institutions of the black community in the context of the segregation of blacks to develop the economic basis for black politico-economic power in the United States. Convinced that the Great Depression signaled the death knell of capitalism in its present form, he was intent on saving the black nation through a transition to a national economic program of consumer and producer cooperatives, a cooperative commonwealth, rooted in the separate politico-economies of the segregated black community. He argued that given that segregation was a reality—and an irrational one at that—it was necessary to add a measure of rationality to it by using the separate conditions in which blacks found themselves to construct and wield institutions to facilitate black liberation. He argued that blacks constituted

a separate nation within a nation. Most of us are in separate churches and separate schools; we live largely in separate parts of the city and country districts; we marry almost entirely within our own group and have our own social activities; we get at least a part of our news from our own newspapers and attend our own theaters and entertainments, even if white men run them. (Du Bois, 1985, p. 144)

He observed that “through voluntary and increased segregation, by careful autonomy and planned economic organization, we can build so strong and efficient a group of 12 million men that no hostile group can continue to refuse them fellowship and equality” (ibid., p. 150).21 He maintained that “[n]ever before since the abolition of slavery have the Negroes of the United States had such motives for uniting in a desperate effort to save themselves” (ibid., p. 151).

Du Bois proposed to organize black power through a “nationwide collective system” of consumer and producer cooperatives to coordinate black economic activity “on a nonprofit basis with the ideal that the consumer is the center and the beginning of the organization; and that to him all profits over the cost of production shall be returned” (1985, p. 151). The immediate aim was to develop “a body of economic leadership in the United States that can undertake the organization of the consumers’ power among American Negroes and lead them to success” (ibid., p. 152). He proposed that

the Negroes who eat food can arrange to buy a large part of it from those Negroes who raise food on their farms; the Negroes who use towels and sheets can buy them off Negroes who raise cotton and spin and weave it on machines which can be bought at public sale; the Negroes who wear clothes can have those clothes made . . . by Negro members of the various clothing unions which have welcomed them and this effective demand can supply the necessary sewing and cutting machines; the Negroes who wear shoes can make those shoes on machines of the United Shoe Machinery . . . the homes that Negroes live in can be built by Negro carpenters and masons; and so on . . . but the chief difficulty, now, is that the work has not been systematized . . . and the whole arrangement has been accidental and spasmodic rather than a carefully thought out and planned racial economy. (ibid., p. 151)

He argued that there were three institutions that should guide this program: black churches, black businesses, and black schools. He argued that it was necessary to “begin with the Negro church, which is the most complete and oldest and in some respects the most effective Negro institution” (1985, p. 153). Reflecting the ambivalence discussed above, Du Bois was emphatic that the Black Church’s involvement would entail a drastic transformation of the institution, which “would involve the elimination from the present church organization just as far as possible, of theology and supernaturalism,” while “prayer would become earnest and purposeful effort” (ibid., pp. 153–154). Either the Church would become “a great social organ with ethical ideals based on a reorganized economics,” or simply be “a futile and mouthy excrescence on society which will always be a refuge for reaction and superstition” (ibid., p. 154). He notes that “this change need be nothing revolutionary or sudden. The co-operative enterprise could be grafted on the church in the same way that organized charity and the visiting of the sick are a part of its present program. It could gradually be incorporated into the church organization” (ibid.). Du Bois asserted that

if the Negro church cannot do this, co-operatives can and must be set up as organizations entirely distinct from it, which means that they would have to compete in a way that would eat into the church organization even more than the fraternal lodges have, since the program of the co-operatives would be more vital and the results more satisfactory.

Moreover, he maintained that “[w]hile we are organizing for our own industrial development largely along segregated lines, there is no reason for giving up our fight for equality. On the contrary, the fight against discrimination must be emphasized, but at the same time nationalized” (1985, p. 156). He maintained that “if we move back to increased segregation it is for the sake of added strength to abolish race discrimination; if we move back to racial pride and loyalty, it is that eventually we may move forward to a great ideal of humanity and a patriotism that spans the world” (ibid.). In effect, Du Bois’s program was aimed at developing parallel institutions of black civil society to facilitate black economic self-sufficiency that would then be leveraged politically.

Beyond cooperatives and churches, Du Bois also asserted the centrality of Negro colleges in his program of social reconstruction. In his 1933 “The Negro College,” Du Bois averred:

Unless the American Negro today, led by trained university men of broad vision, sits down to work out by economics and mathematics, by physics and chemistry, by history and sociology, exactly how and where he is to earn a living and how he is to establish a reasonable Life in the United States or elsewhere—unless this is done, the university has missed its field and function and the American Negro is doomed to be a suppressed and inferior caste in the United States for incalculable time. (1995b, p. 73)

Du Bois’s advocacy of Negro colleges included a strong critique of not only the substandard quality but the feigned universalism of the liberal arts curriculum being taught at black universities. The chimera of universality—to use David L. Lewis’s apt phrase—in college curricula obscured an underlying parochialism. Du Bois rejected such universalist mystification and insisted that

there can be no college for Negroes which is not a Negro college and . . . while an American Negro university, just like a German or Swiss university may rightly aspire to a universal culture unhampered by limitations of race and culture, yet it must start on the earth where we sit and not in the skies whither we aspire. (1995b, p. 68)

He maintained that “the Spanish university is founded and grounded in Spain, just as surely as a French university is French” (ibid., p. 69); yet, “[t]here are some people who have difficulty in apprehending this very clear truth” (ibid.). Instead, they assume

that the French university is in a singular sense universal, and is based on a comprehension and inclusion of all mankind and of their problems. But it is not so, and the assumption that it is arises simply because so much of French culture has been built into universal civilization. A French university is founded in France; it uses the French language and assumes a knowledge of French history. The present problems of the French people are its major problems and it becomes universal only so far as other peoples of the world comprehend and are at one with France in its mighty and beautiful history. (ibid., pp. 69–70)

He continued:

In the same way, a Negro university in the United States of America begins with Negroes. It uses that variety of the English idiom which they understand; and above all, it is founded or it should be founded on a knowledge of the history of their people in Africa and in the United States, and their present condition. (ibid., p. 70)

Their education should begin with the particular and extend to the universal.

For Du Bois, the American Negro college “cannot begin with history and lead to Negro history. It cannot start with sociology and lead to Negro sociology” (1995b, p. 71). He argued that “[t]he American Negro problem is and must be the center of the Negro American university. It has got to be. You are teaching Negroes. There is no use pretending that you are teaching Chinese or that you are teaching white Americans or that you are teaching citizens of the world” (ibid., p. 69). He notes that “this is a different program than a similar function would be in a white university or in a Russian university or in an English university because it starts from a different point.” He argues that

starting with present conditions and using the facts and the knowledge of the present situation of American Negroes, the Negro university expands toward the possession and the conquest of all knowledge. It seeks from a beginning of the history of the Negro in America and in Africa to interpret all history; from a beginning of social development among Negro slaves and freedmen in America and Negro tribes and kingdoms in Africa, to interpret and understand the social development of all mankind in all ages. It seeks to teach modern science of matter and life from the surroundings and habits and aptitudes of American Negroes and thus lead up to understanding of life and matter in the universe. (ibid., p. 71)

As Lewis (1993, p. 313) correctly observes, Du Bois’s centering of black interests at the heart of university education “was truly remarkable for its anticipation and commendation of the Afrocentric and diasporic agendas that were to contend for pride of place half a century later in America.”22

Du Bois’s tripartite focus on consumer and producer cooperatives, transformed black churches, and Afrocentric schools as the major mechanisms of black national development was also a program of black cultural evolution rather than revolution. Du Bois was unequivocal that

[i]n any real social revolution, every step that saves violence is to the glory of the great end. We should not forget that revolution is not the objective of socialism or communism rightly conceived; the real objective is social justice, and if haply the world can find that justice without blood, the world is the infinite gainer. (Du Bois, 1985, p. 142)

Four years later, Du Bois (1991, p. 286) argued in Dusk of Dawn that “no revolution in America could be started by Negroes and succeed, and even if that were possible, that after what I had seen of the effects of war, I could never regard violence as an effective, much less necessary, step to reform the American state.” Social Reconstruction was aimed at developing parallel institutions of black civil society to provide the segregated and economically depressed black community the political, economic, and social wherewithal to develop as a “nation within a nation.” This was an evolutionary rather than revolutionary program, advocating peaceful change over armed conflict, and it was this peaceful program of developing parallel black institutions that would be adopted by BPM revolutionists, even as many of them attempted to wed it to paramilitary approaches—linking an evolutionary program to a revolutionary objective.

While Du Bois appreciated the role of revolution in black American liberation in the nineteenth century, he reasoned that black liberation in the twentieth century was more likely to be realized through a less militarized process; and he rejected the call of those who encouraged black Americans to “storm the barricades.” In fact, Du Bois (1985, p. 143) asserted that “[t]he present radical and revolutionary program” envisioned by Moscow and the CPUSA “lack[ed] both the logic and power to emancipate the Negro.” He noted that “Radical communists will learn that the Negro has too much sense to become the shock troops of its revolution” (ibid.). He recognized that

[i]ncreased concentration of capital has not brought universal poverty and despair among laborers, but higher wages and better standards of life. Universal suffrage, including that of women, is widely exercised. While these great changes do not essentially alter the basic conflict they do make it possible to believe fundamental reform may be brought about by methods of peace and reason, if the masses interested work for this end. (ibid., p. 142)

He was just as emphatic that “[w]hat we need today is not fighting, but that basis of economic security which will permit us to fight” and to achieve “such victory over threatened starvation as will give us stamina to back our future complaints with power” (ibid., p. 156). Du Bois’ orientation toward Marxist revolution in the United States reflected his view toward organized labor in general. For him, white labor—as much as, and in some ways more than, white capital—was an implacable foe of black liberation. In fact, both white labor and white capital were implicated in the domestic oppression of nonwhite people in the United States—especially blacks, as well as the international oppression of nonwhite people in the colonies.

To be sure, Du Bois celebrated black labor and Black Reconstruction was a homage to its revolutionary potential, yet he cautioned that black labor, which was the broad class in which most blacks were situated, should make common cause with the emerging classes that were becoming evident within black communities, rather than with the invidious and racist forces of white labor. For Du Bois, the black worker in the United States had a historic role to play and it was not as shock troops of Herrenvolk white proletarians in a Marxist scheme. Black workers would continue to play prominent roles in the transformation of America, but along a trajectory that was their own, reflecting their agency and history. Du Bois was unequivocal in his assertion of both the centrality and uniqueness of black labor in this context:

[T]he black worker was the ultimate exploited; that he formed that mass of labor which had neither wish nor power to escape from the labor status, in order to directly exploit other laborers, or indirectly, by alliance with capital, to share in their exploitation. (Du Bois, 1969, p. 15)

Black workers had to contend not only with class enemies but with race enemies, and what emerged were race class enemies of which the white proletariat was no less significant than the white bourgeoisie. In fact, it was the fusion of the interests of white capital and white labor in the counterrevolution of property following the Civil War that subjugated newly emancipated black labor to “re-enslave” it and promoted similar processes abroad. Du Bois notes that, following the Civil War:

The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery. The whole weight of America was thrown to color caste. . . . A new slavery arose. The upward moving of white labor was betrayed into wars for profit based on color caste. . . . The resulting color caste founded and retained by capitalism was adopted, forwarded and approved by white labor, and resulted in subordination of colored labor to white profits the world over. Thus the majority of the world’s laborers, by the insistence of white labor, became the basis of a system of industry which ruined democracy and showed its perfect fruit in World War and Depression. (1969, p. 30)

The framework for national oppression represented in a fusion of the interests of white capital and labor, which had been formalized and developed in the counterrevolution of property that destroyed Reconstruction, was cast abroad in the form of national imperialism with similar deleterious effects for the predominantly nonwhite people of the colonial world. This fusion was evocative of the process of national imperialism that would refashion the landscape of world politics a half-century later and give rise to the most destructive war in human history up to that time, World War I. Twenty years before Black Reconstruction, in “The African Roots of War” Du Bois (1915) examined the international implications of national imperialism; and situated black-white labor relations in the United States within its context. Du Bois argued that World War I was largely the result of disputes over imperial acquisitions that fused the interests of bourgeoisie and proletariat in European states in a mutually reinforcing pursuit of racist and economic domination of African and Asian nations,23 which was transforming the landscape of international relations (Henderson, 2017ab).

Black Americans contended with the fusion of white capital and white labor interests in the United States that was not only economic and political but also cultural, and the cultural system of white supremacism proscribed the limits of black freedom and rationalized it. In the context of the United States, Du Bois argued, black solidarity with Herrenvolk white labor was as nonsensical as it was anathema. Instead, he saw within black communities a nation within a nation, comprised of a preponderant black peasantry, an expanding black proletariat, a nominal black petite bourgeoisie, and a largely nonexistent black haute bourgeoisie, which had not been developed as much on class lines but existed mainly as economic stratifications of a black sociopolitical outcaste. Given their much different origins in the United States politico-economy and social history, the divisions of class among black Americans did not generate the animosity that Marxism assumed would characterize class relations in Europe. This was especially evident in the relations between the black petite bourgeoisie and the black proletariat. This is one reason why the Garvey movement was not only supported by the black petite bourgeoisie, which Marxists assumed would flock to its black nationalist program, but dominated by working-class blacks, who Marxists had not expected would support it so extensively.

Du Bois understood these relationships well. For example, writing on the “Negro bourgeoisie” in his 1931 essay “The Negro and Communism,” he noted that “[t]he charge of the Communists that the present set-up of Negro America is that of the petit bourgeois minority dominating a helpless black proletariat, and surrendering to white profiteers is simply a fantastic falsehood. The attempt to dominate Negro Americans by purely capitalistic ideas died with Booker T. Washington,” in his view, and since Washington “there has never been a moment when the dominating leadership of the American Negro has been mainly or even largely dominated by wealth or capital or by capitalistic ideals” (Du Bois, 1995c, p. 587). Expanding on this argument, he stated:

There are naturally some Negro capitalists . . . but the great mass of Negro capital is not owned or controlled by this group. Negro capital consists mainly of small individual savings invested in homes, and in insurance, in lands for direct cultivation and individually used tools and machines. Even the automobiles owned by Negroes represent to a considerable extent personal investments, designed to counteract the insult of the “Jim Crow” car. The Insurance business, which represents a large amount of Negro capital is for mutual co-operation rather than exploitation. Its profit is limited and its methods directed by the State. Much of the retail business is done in small stores with small stocks of goods, where the owner works side by side with one or two helpers, and makes a personal profit less than a normal American wage. Negro professional men—lawyers, physicians, nurses and teachers—represent capital invested in their education and in their office equipment, and not in commercial exploitation. There are few colored manufacturers of material who speculate on the products of hired labor. Nine-tenths of the hired Negro labor is under the control of white capitalists. (ibid.)

According to Du Bois,

There is probably no group of 12 million persons in the modern world which exhibit smaller contrasts in personal income than the American Negro group. Their emancipation will not come . . . from an internal readjustment and ousting of exploiters; rather it will come from a wholesale emancipation from the grip of the white exploiters without. (ibid.)

He argued that it was possible that sometime in the future such a “full fledged capitalistic system may develop” (ibid.) among black Americans, but was emphatic that

[f]or two generations the social leaders of the American Negro with very few exceptions have been poor men . . . owning little or no real property; few have been business men, none have been exploiters, and while there have been wide differences of ultimate ideal these leaders on the whole, have worked unselfishly for the uplift of the masses of Negro folk. (ibid., pp. 587–588)

Du Bois argued that “[t]here is no group of leaders on earth who have so largely made common cause with the lowest of their race as educated American Negroes, and it is their foresight and sacrifice and theirs alone that has saved the American freedman from annihilation and degradation” (1995c, p. 588). And while Du Bois recognized the “shortcomings and mistakes,” some of which he argued were “legion,” of this group, nonetheless, he argued that “their one great proof of success is the survival of the American Negro as the most intelligent and effective group of colored people fighting white civilization face to face and on its own ground, on the face of the earth,” and “[f]or twenty years,” Du Bois notes, this group “has fought a battle more desperate than any other race conflict of modern times and it has fought with honesty and courage” (ibid.).

Du Bois was recognizing that the black bourgeoisie was not functioning as a national bourgeoisie in a Marxist sense, since it possessed little capital and, more importantly, it wasn’t the primary exploiter of black labor. In fact, it hardly employed even a preponderance of black workers, which were overwhelmingly in the employ of the white national bourgeoisie and white labor as well. Whatever black bourgeoisie can be said to have existed at the time was not even a managerial class—much less a class of owners of capital, a position it could hardly aspire to, much less acquire until the overthrow of Jim Crow in the South, when blacks in larger numbers obtained positions in the public sphere as salaried workers for local, state, and federal agencies. Without a black bourgeoisie in a Marxist sense, it followed that its class differences with the black working class did not constitute the class antagonisms that Marxism anticipates. That is, the class differences in black communities didn’t generate the class contradictions that Marxism predicts because neither the black bourgeoisie nor petite bourgeoisie were the primary exploiters of black labor—this was the class position of white capitalists, and as Du Bois insisted, of white labor as well. It followed that the challenge for black political leaders was to organize intraracially across classes in black communities instead of organizing interracially among proletarians since class differences were not the primary mode of their oppression; it was race. Even during the Great Depression, Du Bois rejected the claim that the future of black labor lay in an alliance with white labor, arguing instead that

[t]hroughout the history of the Negro in America, white labor has been the black man’s enemy, his oppressor, his red murderer. Mobs, riots and the discrimination of trade unions have been used to kill, harass and starve black men. White labor disfranchised Negro labor in the South, is keeping them out of jobs and decent living quarters in the North, and is curtailing their education and civil and social privileges throughout the nation. White laborers have formed the backbone of the Ku Klux Klan and have furnished hands and ropes to lynch 3,560 Negroes since 1882. (1995c, p. 589)

He assailed socialists as well:

The American Socialist party is out to emancipate the white worker and if this does not automatically free the colored man, he can continue in slavery. The only time that so fine a man and so logical a reasoner as Norman Thomas becomes vague and incoherent is when he touches the black man, and consequently he touches him as seldom as possible. (ibid., p. 590)

The absence of white espousal of “the cause of justice to black workers” is explained by socialists and communists, according to Du Bois, by their argument that in their “poverty and ignorance” white labor “has been misled by the propaganda of white capital, whose policy is to divide labor into classes, races and unions and pit one against the other” (ibid., p. 589). Du Bois concedes that “[t]here is an immense amount of truth in the explanation,” as evidenced by the impact of “[n]ewspapers, social standards, race pride, competition for jobs,” which, in his view, “all work to set white against black”; however, he asserts that “white American Laborers are not fools. And with few exceptions the more intelligent they are, the higher they rise, the more efficient they become, the more determined they are to keep Negroes under their heels” (ibid.). In fact, “[i]t is intelligent white labor that today keeps Negroes out of the trades, refuses them decent homes to live in and helps nullify their vote. Whatever ideals white labor today strives for in America, it would surrender nearly every one before it would recognize a Negro as a man” (ibid.). While noting that some “American Communists have made a courageous fight against the color line among the workers,” though only by going “dead against the thought and desire of the overwhelming mass of white workers,” yet, in the face of white labor’s intransigence, “instead of acknowledging defeat in their effort to make white labor abolish the color line, they run and accuse Negroes of not sympathizing with the ideals of Labor!” (ibid., p. 590).

In light of the miscarriage of justice in the Scottsboro Boys case in Alabama, while recognizing the assistance of communists to their defense, he admonishes that while asserting their grounding with workers, they cannot speak for the white workers given that the “vast majority of these whites belong to the laboring class and they formed the white proletarian mob which is determined to kill the eight Negro boys” (1995c, pp. 590–591). He insisted that

[t]he persons who are killing blacks in Northern Alabama and demanding blood sacrifice are the white workers—sharecroppers, trade unionists and artisans. The capitalists are against mob-law and violence and would listen to reason and justice in the long run because industrial peace increases their profits. On the other hand, the white workers want to kill the competition of “Niggers.” Thereupon, the Communists, seizing leadership of the poorest and most ignorant blacks head them toward inevitable slaughter and jail-slavery, while they hide in safety in Chattanooga and Harlem. (ibid., p. 591)

Du Bois emphasized that “American Negroes . . . are picking no chestnuts from the fire, neither for capital nor white labor” (ibid.). He was convinced that “Negroes know perfectly well that whenever they try to lead revolution in America, the nation will unite as one fist to crush them and them alone. There is no conceivable idea that seems to the present overwhelming majority of Americans higher than keeping Negroes ‘in their place’ ” (ibid.). In this context, “Negroes perceive clearly that the real interests of the white worker are identical with the interests of the black worker, but until the white worker recognizes this, the black worker is compelled in sheer self-defense to refuse to be made the sacrificial goat” (ibid.). Although socialists and communists sneer at capital’s support of Negro education, enfranchisement, and employment, Du Bois argued, they have offered little by comparison, and where they have secured higher wages it was for themselves and only included black labor in their benefits when they were compelled to (ibid., p. 592). Thus, Du Bois advocated the necessity of the emancipation of labor, but noted that “the first step toward the emancipation of colored labor must come from white labor” (ibid., p. 606), and central to this was the eradication of white racism in labor, which was not simply epiphenomenal of white capital’s manipulation. Absent that development, black labor’s future lay in its organization within the race institutions of black communities (ibid., p. 593).

For African Americans, a coalition with racist white labor was not in the offing, nor desirable to achieve black liberation; instead, a concerted intraracial effort was necessary

for the Negroes to organize a cooperative State within their own group. By letting Negro farmers feed Negro artisans, and Negro technicians guide Negro home industries, and Negro thinkers plan this integration of cooperation, while Negro artists dramatize and beautify the struggle, economic interdependence can be achieved. (1995c, p. 569)

He asserted that “any planning for the benefit of American Negroes on the part of a Negro intelligentsia is going to involve organized and deliberate self-segregation”—and in so doing he embraced the nationalist project that he so condemned Garvey for, as well as the “nation in a nation” thesis that the CPSU had recently adopted from Haywood. Anticipating his critics in the NAACP, he argued: “No sooner is this proposed than a great fear sweeps over older Negroes. They cry ‘No segregation’—no further yielding to prejudice and race separation.” But Du Bois distinguished his plan to utilize the segregation extant in the United States to further the development of black America, from one that would simply acquiesce to such segregation, by refusing to concede the civil rights struggle. He argued for a concomitant struggle that recognized the “peculiar position of Negroes in America,” which “offer[red] an opportunity” to utilize the ballot at “critical times” when the black vote offered “a chance to hold a very considerable balance of power” (ibid., p. 568) and, more importantly, to utilize the “consuming power of 2,800,000 Negro families . . . a tremendous power when intelligently directed” (ibid.). Du Bois was recognizing that

with the use of their political power, their power as consumers, and their brain power . . . Negroes can develop in the United States an economic nation within a nation, able to work through inner cooperation, to found its own institutions, to educate its genius, and at the same time, without mob violence or extremes of race hatred, to keep in helpful touch and cooperate with the mass of the nation. (1995c, p. 568)

Du Bois recognized that “it may be said that this matter of a nation within a nation has already been partially accomplished in the organization of the Negro church, the Negro school and the Negro retail business, and, despite all the justly due criticism, the result has been astonishing” (ibid., p. 569). He argued that “[t]he great majority of American Negroes are divided not only for religious but for a large number of social purposes into self-supporting economic units, self-governed, self-directed,” and the “greatest difficulty is that these organizations have no logical and reasonable standards and do not attract the finest, most vigorous and best educated Negroes.” Nevertheless,

[w]hen all these things are taken into consideration it becomes clearer to more and more American Negroes that, through voluntary and increased segregation, by careful autonomy and planned economic organization, they may build so strong and efficient a unit that 12,000,000 men can no longer be refused fellowship and equality in the United States. (ibid., pp. 569–570)

In sum, Du Bois was proposing a plan for black socio-politico-economic development as a nationalist project that focused on the Black Church, black business, and black schools as key institutions because these were the ones that had, at that time, the greatest potential to effectuate the change that he sought.24 Lacking faith in the Black Church, in particular, to carry out such a transformative mission, Du Bois sought to create and promote other black institutions (i.e., black “counter-institutions” as Albert Cleage would label them in the BPM) to take up this burden. Although less sanguine of the Black Church as a progressive change agent, he remained convinced that black culture itself could serve that purpose. For Du Bois, culture was more akin to civilization, blacks were architects of an ancient civilization whose historical trajectory was truncated only by the recent depredations of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, European colonialism, and Western imperialism. Further, African American culture had given to the United States its only legitimate American culture. The challenge was to promote, popularize, and institutionalize this culture in such a way as to provide a mechanism for black entrée into the United States as full-scale citizens whose political and economic rights were recognized both de jure and de facto. Du Bois saw this progressive function as one to propagandize in favor of black culture, to provide legal redress to secure the political and economic rights of blacks, and to promote the institutions that would allow for both.

Du Bois’s analysis projected a form of black culture that needed to be recognized, promoted, institutionalized, and propelled by external factors rather than by its own internal dynamism—which makes his argument on the revolutionary potential of slave religion in Black Reconstruction so exceptional, given this broader context of his work. For the most part, in Du Bois’s view, the African American culture that provided the social resin of the black community apparently was motivated to progressive social change only by appeals to race consciousness, which could be undermined by either racist cultural hegemony or the appeal to exoticism (which was a critique he leveled at many Harlem Renaissance authors, artists, and performers). It was not enough that black culture be practiced as Locke argued (see chapter 3), it had to be propagandized, in order to have the impact that Du Bois sought. This constraint on Du Bois’s conception of cultural transformation was less a problem where the main institution of change was a cultural institution itself; however, in light of his ambivalence toward the Black Church, he began to look to alternatives such as voluntary organizations, elite groups, and social classes to serve as change agents. As a result, his conception of black cultural change relied on race organizations, the talented tenth, the guiding hundredth, or the black peasant/working class to facilitate the cultural transformation he envisioned.

As Du Bois began to look toward institutions that did not necessarily embrace black culture to serve as change agents for the black culturalist project that he did so much to establish (e.g., the NAACP), he began to deemphasize black organized religion, and to focus more on the aesthetics of black folk culture expressed in its distinctive music, arts, literature, drama, and recreation. Du Bois understood that black aesthetic and material culture could provide the impetus that black religious organizations lacked; specifically, they could provide propaganda to support politico-economic change, economic development through patronage of black arts and black artistic institutions, and sociodemographic solidarity through the promotion of shared cultural norms and nonreligious cultural institutions. Such objectives seemed achievable during the Harlem Renaissance and, during its height, Du Bois argued in “Criteria of Negro Art” that “[i]t is the bounden duty of black America to begin this great work of the creation of beauty, of the preservation of beauty, of the realization of beauty, and we must use in this work all the methods that men have used before” (1995d, p. 510). He argued that among “the tools of the artist . . . he has used the truth—not for the sake of truth, not as a scientist seeking truth, but as one upon whom truth eternally thrusts itself as the highest handmaid of imagination, as the one great vehicle of universal understanding” (ibid.). He asserted the critical role of artists as advocates, chroniclers, and representatives of truth through art (ibid., p. 514); and emphasized that “[w]e [blacks] could afford the truth. White folk today cannot” (ibid., p. 515).25 For Du Bois,

all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. (ibid., p. 514)

This quest to articulate a culture of truth was wedded to the broader political and economic aspirations of black Americans.

In this conception, Du Bois was prefiguring a thesis of cultural change that augured not only the promotion of a black cultural aesthetic or even a black culture industry but a transformation of the broader society through the integration of African American art, standards of beauty, and the truth that challenged white supremacy and its representations of whiteness, its practices of domination, and its denial of black culture that supported both. He envisioned that the dominant society would be compelled to accommodate itself to the cultural demands of its Negro community, in part because “[w]e who are dark can see America in a way that white Americans cannot” (1995d, p. 509).

During the Harlem Renaissance, Du Bois was losing faith that the talented tenth would produce and promote this unique vision in black art and literature that would help radically transform U.S. society, because so many of them seemed to be parasitical on white patrons, and this era marked his open embrace of socialism.26 Beyond—or as a consequence of—their dependence on white patronage, Du Bois was repulsed by black intellectuals’, artists’, playwrights’, poets’, novelists’, and dramatists’ “art for art’s sake” disposition toward black cultural production, which led too many of them, in his view, to forgo pursuits comporting with his maxim of the propagandistic role of black creative production and opt instead for aesthetic themes, projects, and practices devoid of the culturally transformative racially emancipatory orientation that he thought should be manifest in any black art worthy of the name. In the latter vein, he targeted Alain Locke’s (1928) assertions regarding the “non-propagandist” role of art in particular, which Du Bois largely dismissed. But, as we’ve seen in the previous chapter, Locke had a more complex view of the role of race, culture, and social change than Du Bois appreciated (Harris, 2004), and he proposed a dynamic thesis on intracultural, intercultural, and interracial contacts, which related black cultural revolution to political revolution in the United States. In fact, Locke’s thesis of black culture provides a theoretical template for Du Bois’s most revolutionary work on black America, Black Reconstruction. In so doing, it also allows us to generalize from the Slave Revolution of the Civil War era to the conditions of black America during the Civil Rights era and, as a result, provided black revolutionists with a theoretical guidepost from black culture to political revolution that only awaited their synthesis into a coherent program of action. Nevertheless, it was Du Bois’s view of the propagandistic role of black art that was adopted by BPM revolutionists, especially in the Black Arts Movement (BAM), rather than Locke’s more dynamic thesis, with major implications for subsequent theses of black cultural revolution, including that of the first theorist of black cultural revolution in the CRM, Harold Cruse, which we examine in the next chapter.


In this chapter, I examined the theoretical development of the concept of black cultural revolution in the United States. Recognizing the anteriority of the concept of cultural revolution in the academic literature, I briefly discussed the applicability of Marxist theses of cultural revolution to black America. After tracing the roots of early formulations of black cultural evolution to the social development theses of black nationalists—including black nationalist feminists—in the nineteenth century, I discussed how it informed later theses of black cultural revolution in the United States, exemplified in Du Bois’s exegesis in Black Reconstruction. In contrast, in The Negro and Social Reconstruction, completed only a year later, Du Bois eschewed the revolutionary aspects of his cultural thesis in favor of a more evolutionary approach, which proposed that changes resulting in the development of separate black institutions within “self-segregated” black communities (i.e., cultural evolution) would facilitate the national development of black Americans and ultimately their integration into the political, economic, and social systems of the country as full-fledged citizens (i.e., political evolution). The analogue of the General Strike in the latter conception was the development of black consumer (and producer) power—and by implication the withholding of black consumption from white enterprises and institutions (i.e., a nationwide boycott)—and independent black institutions in a program that was primarily evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Given Du Bois’s ambivalence toward the Black Church as a change agent, he increasingly emphasized other factors. As a result, the program Du Bois devised was distant from the major cultural institution in the black community. Interestingly, the cultural revolutionary approach articulated in Black Reconstruction was largely ignored by BPM revolutionists, while the cultural evolutionary approach of developing parallel black institutions of civil society outlined in Social Reconstruction was adopted by many of them—often unwittingly. The distancing of black nationalist initiatives from the Black Church would be replicated by BPM revolutionists, as well. In addition, Du Bois advocated a propagandistic role for black art in opposition to the view of intellectuals such as Alain Locke. Yet, Locke had a more complex view of the role of race, culture, and social change than Du Bois appreciated; and Locke’s dynamic thesis of black cultural change dovetailed with Du Bois’s revolutionary thesis in Black Reconstruction, providing a framework to explain black cultural revolution in general and in this way offering a point of departure for BPM revolutionists seeking a thesis on black cultural revolution rooted in African American social dynamics. Nonetheless, it was Du Bois’s orientation toward black art as propaganda that would be adopted by BPM revolutionists, rather than Locke’s, and this would further enervate their cultural analyses.

Although Du Bois and Locke provided frameworks for understanding black cultural change, the theorist who provided the first explicit thesis of black cultural revolution, Harold Cruse, did not build on their specific arguments explicity, instead relying more on those of V. F. Calverton and C. Wright Mills. Cruse’s thesis was novel and influential, likely informing Malcolm X’s views on black cultural revolution, leading to the Revolutionary Action Movement’s (RAM) advocacy of the concept, encouraging Us’s promotion of it and the Congress of African Peoples’ (CAP) adoption of it, influencing both the Republic of New Africa’s (RNA) and the Shrine of the Black Madonna’s discourse on the subject. Each of these groups would take quite different approaches to the role of culture in black liberation, and this, in part, was due to the eclectic aspects of Cruse’s arguments on the subject. In the next chapter, we turn to an analysis of Cruse’s thesis.

1. To Du Bois’s thesis I added the role of slave hiring, inducing an incipient working-class consciousness.

2. On the pendulum shifts of nationalism and integrationism, see Cruse (1967); and a test of Cruse’s thesis in Henderson (2000).

3. Marx’s is among the most popular conceptions of economic revolution, as are Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism and Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.

4. An ironic aftermath of the GPCR’s persecution of “capitalist roaders” was Mao’s rapprochement with the world’s leading capitalist power, the United States, and his meeting with Richard Nixon in Beijing in 1972.

5. Deng incorporated market reforms that stimulated economic growth, reformed the educational system to promote skill sectors to develop the country’s technological capacity, and provided a modicum of liberalization in domestic politics, which did not preclude centralized repression. Liu died in 1969 under house arrest and was subsequently rehabilitated by Deng and accorded a state funeral in 1980.

6. For further discussion of prolekult, see Mally (1990).

7. Prominent filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was associated with the Prolecult Theatre.

8. Victor Serge, who witnessed the Russian Revolution, noted that young Soviet writers appeared to be “obstructed rather than assisted by doctrine” and “permanently tormented by a concern for orthodoxy” (Birchall, 2000, p. 83). He argued that proletarian literature often was simply not good, and he contrasted the rigid mechanistic prolekult literature with French proletarian literature (p. 85).

9. Unless otherwise noted, references from Lenin are accessed through the Lenin Internet Archive (1999, 2000, 2002).

10. For a Gramscian analysis of cultural revolution in the post-1960s United States, see Epstein (1991).

11. Simms (2000, p. 188) argues that “the Black church of South Africa . . . has a great potential for contributing to a cultural revolution,” thus broadening Gramscianism to accommodate a progressive role for the black church in cultural revolution. For a contrasting view, see Billings (1990).

12. Wells Barnett’s survey research on lynching may be viewed as laying the basis for modern sociological analyses that rest on fieldwork, interviewing techniques, and interpretive analysis that she utilized, even prior to Du Bois’s (1899) seminal work, which established modern systematic sociology including use of quantitative methods.

13. Parsons likely was born enslaved (see Jones, 2017).

14. For example, Wells Barnett could not secure support of her own or any other black church in Chicago for a public meeting place for her efforts to respond to a lynching in Illinois in 1908.

15. For example, see his “Crusader Without Violence” (1959). Du Bois was prescient in recognizing the weakness of the CRM in its failure to provide a parallel economic program to address the needs of blacks, although he was unremitting in his praise of the courage of King and his followers.

16. Some of his feminist works include “The Burden of Black Womanhood,” “The Black Mother,” “Hail Columbia,” “Woman Suffrage,” and “The Damnation of Women.”

17. On the latter point, see Du Bois’s (1935, pp. 698–700) discussion of the use of crime as a source of income for Southern states through the convict lease system. Also see Blackmon (2008). On the role of terrorism in the reimposition of the slavocracy, see Wade (1987), especially pp. 9–116.

18. There is some dispute as to whether Wells Barnett was to be a member of the NAACP’s governing board, the Committee of Forty. She was convinced of the connivance of Mary White Ovington in her exclusion (Giddings, 2008, pp. 477–480; Wells Barnett, 1970, pp. 321–329); and her name was eventually appended to the list (also see Lewis, 1993, pp. 394–399).

19. For an assessment of the elitism in the black feminism of the NACW, see Moses (1978).

20. Although The Negro and Social Reconstruction was published posthumously—a decade after the BPM, its main arguments were popularly known during the 1930s and 1940s because Du Bois had published them in two articles in the January and March 1934 volumes of Crisis: “Segregation” and “Separation and Self-Respect,” respectively. He expanded on them in his 1940 autobiography Dusk of Dawn, which had sections lifted from The Negro and Social Reconstruction, and his Current History article, “A Negro Nation Within a Nation.”

21. Du Bois (1991, p. 197) argued that his program could “easily be mistaken for a program of complete racial segregation and even nationalism among Negroes,” but, “[t]his is a misapprehension.” A few pages later, he uses the same language that he had disparaged: “Instead of letting this segregation remain largely a matter of chance and unplanned development . . . it would make the segregation a matter of careful thought and intelligent planning on the part of Negroes” (pp. 199–200).

22. Moses (1998) reports that Du Bois first used the term Afrocentric in 1961—almost two decades prior to Asante’s (1980) more popular usage. Incredibly, and without evidence, Asante (1988, p. 16) insisted that Du Bois was not Afrocentric, but given the range of logical, historical, and empirical errors in Asante’s work, such a mischaracterization is not surprising (see Henderson, 1995, pp. 85–90).

23. Although Du Bois (1915) was published prior to Lenin’s more famous pamphlet, it is rarely anthologized in contemporary International Relations textbooks or readers (see Henderson, 2013b).

24. It is not clear that the increased salience of the Black Church in the CRM led him to reconsider his view of it as a change agent. It was during the CRM that he joined the Communist Party.

25. He observed a special role for youth in this process (pp. 510, 514); and presciently noted: “Just as soon as true art emerges, just as soon as the black artist appears, someone touches the race on the shoulder and says, ‘He did that because he was an American, not because he was a Negro’ ” (p. 515).

26. Du Bois had declared himself “a socialist of the path” as early as 1907.

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