20th Century Black Nationalism
— Clarence Lang
A Nation within a Nation:
Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) & Black Power Politics
by Komozi Woodard
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999),
352 pages, $17.95 paperback.
We Are Not What We Seem:
Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century
by Rod Bush
(New York University Press, 1999), 336 pages, $19 paperback.
MORE THAN A movement, Black Power (1965-75) was a nationalist slogan whose meaning disparate communities of activists fought to define and appropriate.(1) Scholars have paid particular attention to the schisms that developed between two trends of Black Power: cultural and revolutionary nationalism. The former emphasized the creation of African-centered values and practices. The latter, oriented toward Marxism, focused on both the racial and class concerns of the African-American “grassroots.”
Two new excellent books written by veterans of this era -- Komozi Woodard's A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics, and Rod Bush's We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century -- revisit the nationalist upsurge of the twentieth century from these contrasting perspectives.
Both defend the legacies of Black Power from contemporary critics on the right, but this is far from the only goal. In his work, Woodard argues that cultural nationalism (and its most influential proponent, poet/playwright Amiri Baraka) played the decisive role in shaping African-American mass politics during the 1970s. He suggests that it contained progressive qualities often obscured by critics, then and now.
Bush, responding to critics from both the liberal center and the left, asserts the “universalistic” nature of Black nationalism and its centrality to working-class struggle.
The books themselves are companion pieces. By advancing different views of African-American nationalism -- its origins and class bases -- Woodard and Bush cross each other's paths.
Woodard, a history professor at Sarah Lawrence College, argues that long-term processes of African-American urbanization and modernization earlier in the twentieth century laid the basis for “a black national political community” initially rooted among professional, managerial and business elites (6). He contends that while African Americans were assimilated into urban society along lines similar to Southeastern European immigrant groups, the pattern of their inclusion diverged from ethnic group politics.
That is, African Americans were fundamentally excluded from “wealth, power and privilege,” by both recent European transplants and native-born whites. As a result, a rising stratum of educated Blacks was propelled toward nationalism; they pursued their group interests through independent institutions, and in the process developed a distinct national culture and consciousness (33).
The Nationalist Impulse
During the 1960s, as more African Americans appeared at white colleges and universities, Black nationalism spread among a small circle of students, artists and intellectuals. Thus, Woodard concludes, the pace of black nationality development actually accelerated as African Americans were urbanized and acculturated” (6).
He suggests that at its core, modern African-American nationalism was “engendered by the nature of urban bureaucratic competition and conflict in a multiethnic capitalist society” (261). This involved not only an exclusion from modern bureaucratic society and its ethnic-based politics (e.g., urban political machines and similar avenues of group brokerage). Similar to other forms of nationalism, it also had origins in the petty bourgeoisie's rejection of bureaucratic society and its conformities.
At the same historical moment that nationalism was cresting among the Black college-educated elite, Woodard argues, federal urban renewal schemes and the collapse of municipal government and commercial services activated a nationalist groundswell among the grassroots. According to the author, the Cuban Revolution, African liberation struggles, and the widespread influence of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik Shabazz) further ignited nationalist insurgency among the working class and poor, and more widely.
Significantly, the urban uprisings of the 1965-70 period created the historical context for fusing the nationalism of the college-educated with the broader based nationalism of the Black “masses.” These two elements together constituted the Black Power Movement.
In Woodard's estimation, the most widespread expression of Black Power was cultural nationalism, whose strategies reached a zenith in what he terms the “Modern Black Convention Movement.”(2) This movement marked an attempt to grasp electoral power in U.S. society and influence U.S. foreign policy. It was also a step toward the formation of a national Black political community.
In Woodard's words, the convention movement “constructed its own democratic process of agenda building around the principle of proportional representation, articulating the numerous viewpoints within the black community and giving each perspective due weight in decision making” (160).
This manifested itself in the National Black Power Conferences held between 1966-68; the Congress of African People (CAP), which consolidated as a united front in 1970 and built twenty-five chapters around the country; the National Black Political Assembly (NBPA), which grew out of the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana; and the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC) and Black Women's United Front (BWUF), both of which formed in the early 1970s.
The development of the BWUF, moreover, symbolized Black nationalist women's determination to fight not only colonialism in Africa and racism in the United States, but also sexual exploitation and male chauvinism within the movement itself.
Amiri Baraka's importance to this period, Woodard asserts, stems from the fact that he drew lessons from individuals like Malcolm, Lumumba, and Fidel Castro. He also theoretically understood the effects of urbanization on Black nationality formation. But foremost, Baraka was the leading figure in `60s cultural nationalism, and the convention movement of the `70s.
Anchored by Baraka's Committee for A Unified Newark (CFUN), CAP led cultural nationalists to the dead center of African-American politics. Surpassing the influence even of the newly elected Black officials it helped generate, this nationalist community enjoyed a brief hegemony between 1970-74, with Baraka occupying its uppermost peak.(3)
Not surprising, Newark, New Jersey (Baraka's base and CAP's national headquarters) is Woodard's case study in this book, serving as his index to the triumphs and failures of Black cultural nationalism elsewhere. Thus, he argues that when Newark mayor Kenneth Gibson and other local Black officials “emerged as allies of white agents of repression,” activists around the nation felt the ripples (224). Many cultural nationalists lost faith in their previous strategies, and sought new answers.
Already influenced by aspects of “Third World” socialism, individuals like Baraka began to consider its doctrines more seriously, and by 1975 embraced a “Marxist-Leninist” ideology influenced by Mao Tse-Tung. Woodard maintains that Baraka's putative rejection of nationalism drove a final nail into the coffin of the Modern Black Convention Movement and the `60s wave of cultural nationalism that had nurtured it.(4)
Culture vs. Politics?
Woodard's greatest contribution to literature on the Black Power era is his argument that cultural nationalist strategies were not nearly as isolated from concrete, quality-of-life struggles, as has been commonly argued.
While even Woodard concedes that cultural nationalism emphasized “the importance of a black cultural revolution to win the minds of black people,” the practical political orientation of CFUN/Newark CAP, and the convention movement more generally, exposes the myth of a purely cultural politics.
In many accounts of the period, for instance, the cultural nationalist US Organization is often compared unfavorably to the revolutionary nationalist Black Panther Party, its chief rival. This opposition revolves around the revolutionary nationalists' practical community organizing versus the cultural nationalists' supposed navel-gazing.
By drawing on the record of Newark activists and offering a more complex picture of cultural nationalism overall, Woodard suggests that the differences between the two tendencies were not so fundamental after all.
However, he never entertains the question: Were the community struggles coordinated by cultural nationalists in Newark the exception to their activities elsewhere, or the norm? (Another reviewer, James Smethurst, has argued that Woodard altogether overestimates the importance of the Northeast to Black Power nationally.)
On a theoretical note, Woodard seems to conflate cultural assimilation with structural integration, even though the two categories are not the same. Attacking barriers to Black participation in U.S. society (a structural integrationist objective) does not conflict with nationalist aims of Black institution-building. In contrast, cultural assimilation implies, at least, a rejection of such building efforts.
Further, Woodard's assessment that Black nationalism arose as a petty-bourgeois dismissal of urban bureaucratic society seems too broad. As the 1960s revealed, for instance, some expressions of Black Power coexisted with mainstream electoral politics; many would-be African-American politicians made powerful appeals to nationalist sentiments.(5)
Finally, Woodard's focus on cultural nationalism and its moorings among the Black petty bourgeoisie overlooks traditions of nationalism among the “grassroots” and poor. In attributing the origins of grassroots revolt mainly to the urban crises of the post-World War II period, he leaves relatively unexplored the long-term roots of working-class Black nationalism.
A Universal View
Rod Bush's work is in some ways the opposite. At the center of We Are Not What We Seem is the urban poor and working class who have brought social change from the bottom up. Bush, a sociologist and anthropologist at St. John's University, argues overall that African-American social movements have only superficially been about group interests.
More important, these movements have reflected a “universal” resistance to economic exploitation and political oppression. Black Power, in particular, raised issues that “the existing framework of social relations” could not resolve (11). More generally, Bush argues, Black nationalism in the twentieth century was fundamentally anti-systemic in nature, demanding a “reordering of the capitalist world-system” (20).
This contrasts with Woodard's portrait of Black Power as a group-specific politics, though the difference is mainly one of complexity. The broadly progressive character of Black nationalism also contrasts with “liberal universalism,” which espouses color blindness and opportunity but nonetheless is compatible with deep-rooted social inequalities (the William Jefferson Clinton years come to mind.)
In arguing that Black nationalism has lent motion to class struggle, Bush also challenges New Left scholars and activists who dismiss nationalism, and other “identity politics,” as a distraction from more fundamental, class-based matters.
He suggests the illusory nature of a generic proletariat un-bifurcated by race and nationality (22). Bush maintains that with the co-optation of labor leadership by Cold War liberalism, and the repression of the left in the immediate post-World War II period, African-American social insurgency became “the central force for a just and egalitarian social order within U.S. borders” (155).
Bush gives attention not only to the ferment of the 1960s, but also to the militant, anti-imperialist Black radical culture of the 1920s and `30s, which nurtured organizations like the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) and National Negro Congress. A linchpin of Bush's argument, however, is a reassessment of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
While Bush's sentiments seem to lean closer to the ABB, he suggests that the UNIA's mass-based character, and overwhelmingly working-class constituency, made it a better model of what an independent, mass-based Black organization should be. He also lauds Garvey's anti-colonial and -imperialist politics.
On such points, Bush defies scholars like Harold Cruse (author of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, who linked Garveyism to the accommodationism of Booker T. Washington), and even a large segment of the Black left (who view the Garvey Movement as petty bourgeois in character).
As in Woodard's book, Malcolm X plays a role here. His importance, for Bush, lay in transmitting to a new generation the grassroots nationalist tradition learned on the street corners of Harlem, and inherited from the Garvey movement.
More than Woodard, Bush talks extensively about the post-1974 period, when people like Baraka turned to Maoism, and nationalist fronts like CAP and ALSC became Marxist-Leninist organizations. For Woodard, this period is an endpoint, but for Bush it is the beginning of a new phase of movement activity. He maintains that one trend among this Black radicalism involved a withdrawal from organizing along national lines.
In underestimating the centrality of African-American national struggle, many activists missed an opportunity to advance working-class politics -- even as their outlook became more self-consciously proletarian.
Bush intimates that anti-nationalist sentiments contributed to white ideological hegemony over the left, and accelerated many cultural nationalists' anti-Marxism (which alienated them further from considerations of class). This created the space, in the late 1980s, for retrograde elements of the movement to appropriate Black nationalism as their sole property.
While women like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker play a role in his narrative, Bush engages the category of gender far less than Woodard. It also seems that Bush, like Woodard, oversimplifies African-American nationalism, though differently.
Woodard's framework encompasses both working-class and petty-bourgeois nationalism, though he seems to highlight the latter. Bush, on the other hand, tends to portray nationalism as an expression by the Black working class of its presumed anti-systemic interests.
At the same time, Bush does acknowledge that such social movements have involved actors across class lines, not to mention those who have supported the status quo. This is exactly the point: African-American nationalism has assumed numerous forms, and its content has varied -- within, as well as between, social classes.
In a related vein, Bush's reassessment of Garvey and the UNIA does suggest the need to look at how African-American workers have experienced class identities historically, in ways that may diverge from ideological models.
Yet Garvey's legacy is more contradictory than it comes across here. The UNIA was largely working-class in membership; yet Garvey counseled Black workers to seek “the good will of the white employer” by accepting pay below white union wages, and often preached the futility of political agitation in general.6 However strategic, such advice represented a retreat from the insurgency Bush views as central to African-American nationalism.
Similarly, Garvey may have espoused anti-colonialism, envisioning the formation of an independent African nation-state. Yet underlying this vision of redeeming the African continent was an assumption that African descendants in the New World would lead this nation-building (Garvey, after all, appointed himself Provisional-President of Africa), and that the peoples of the continent itself would passively submit to their leadership and plans for transatlantic Black commercial enterprises. On this score, Garveyism could be compatible with neo-colonialism. Nevertheless, it is probably best to distinguish Garvey's own thought from the Garvey movement, which contained numerous trends of thought.
Taken together, A Nation within a Nation and We Are Not What We Seem form an engaging chronicle of African-American nationalism over the past century, and suggest directions in the twenty-first.
Woodard envisions a nationalism that draws on the Marxist tradition, generates progressive alliances, and binds together the Black Power and Hip-Hop generations. Bush, while asserting African-American struggle as a precondition for revolutionary change in the United States, recognizes that it is not sufficient by itself. He offers that the Black Liberation Movement ultimately will have to transcend its “radical nationalist moorings” (241).
As the “mainstreaming” of the reparations movement demonstrates, however, Black nationalism possesses much vitality at the beginning of the new millennium. This, and similar efforts, have created the basis for an alliance between nationalists and Black elected officials. It is perhaps reminiscent of the one Woodard discusses, though it remains to be seen on whose terms a new alliance would be built. Tied to this is the debate that has ensued within segments of the left (consistent with themes in Bush's work) about the “universal” versus exclusive nature of the reparations campaign.
Such immediate and open-ended issues make both books essential reading for students of the Black Liberation Movement, and movement activists.
- Black nationalism is a diverse body of thought whose ideas have ebbed and flowed throughout the African-American experience. Overall, it rests on the belief that African Americans possess a common history and identity forged during slavery. Most manifestations of Black nationalism advocate the building and maintenance of autonomous institutions, as in the Black town movement of the late 1800s, or the history of Black economic development begun earlier. One trend has posited the existence of a literal “Black Belt Nation” in the South, while some have cohered around prophetic or millenarian religions. Other expressions have promoted Black migration, either within the United States (e.g., the Exoduster Movement of 1879) or beyond (e.g. emigration to Liberia). In this manner, Black nationalism may be compatible with pan-Africanism, a belief in the common heritage and destiny of African-descended people globally. Some articulations of Black nationalism have promoted strategies of separation, while others have proposed that African Americans fight for their full citizenship in the United States. In some incarnations, Black nationalism has supported private capitalist entrepreneurship, while other tendencies have intersected with socialist ideologies. See, for example, two classics on the subject: John H. Bracey, Jr., August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick, eds., Black Nationalism in America (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970); and Wilson J. Moses, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1978). See also, Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, America's First Black Town: Brooklyn, Illinois, 1830-1915 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000); William L. Van Deburg, New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975 (University of Chicago Press, 1992) and Juliet E.K. Walker, The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship (New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1998).
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- During the 1830s, activists created the National Negro Convention Movement to press for the abolition of slavery. In the decades following the Civil War, the National Afro-American League (1890-1908) and similar united fronts argued for African-American men's right to full democratic rights in the United States. Other convention movement initiatives have included the Sanhedrin All-Race Congress (1922-24), and the National Negro Congress (1936-40). See Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, The Black Radical Congress and the Reconstruction of the Black Freedom Movement, The Black Scholar, Vol. 28, No. 3/4 (Fall/Winter 1998): 8-21.
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- As this first wave of post-'65 Black elected officials consolidated power, the cultural nationalists became junior partners in this tenuous alliance. By the late 1970s, electoralism had become the most prominent expression of African-American politics nationally. Among other things, this was perhaps consistent with the modern bureaucratic society of which Woodard speaks. See Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang, “Providence, Patriarchy, Pathology: Louis Farrakhan's Rise & Decline,” New Politics, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Winter 1997): 47-71.
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- Surely, Woodard is aware of the convention-building efforts that occurred after the early 1970s, such as the National Black Independent Political Party (1980-84), and the National Black United Front (1980). His likely suggestion is that these did not have the same impact as CAP, ALSC, and NBPA in their heyday. See Cha-Jua, “The Black Radical Congress and the Reconstruction of the Black Freedom Movement,” The Black Scholar, Vol. 28, No. 3/4: 9.
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- Moreover, in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), Kwame Touré (formerly Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton essentially recommended an ethnic group style of bureaucratic politics.
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- See the chapters “Advice to Black Workers” and “Garvey's Message for Whites” in E. David Cronon, ed., Marcus Garvey (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973), 57-60, 51-56. Both appear in Amy Jacques-Garvey, ed., Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey (New York: Atheneum, 1982). See also Adolph L. Reed, Jr., “Pan-Africanism -- Ideology for Liberation?” The Black Scholar (September 1971): 2-13.
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ATC 92, May-June 2001