In Search of Black History

The Rediscovery of Black Nationalism

by Theodore Draper
Viking, 224 pp., $5.95

Theodore Draper sets himself what can only be described as a formidable task in his new book The Rediscovery of Black Nationalism—a historical survey and assessment of black nationalism in America, in fewer than 200 pages. In the deft style to which readers of his books have become accustomed, Draper chronicles the rise and fall of nationalist movements, touching on such nineteenth-century leaders as Paul Cuffe, Bishop Henry Turner, and “the father of black nationalism,” Martin Delany, and contemporary movements like the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers, and Black Power.

Throughout, Draper is on the look-out for the ambiguous, the contradictory, and the absurd in nationalist rhetoric and ideology. Subjecting the speeches and writings of nationalist leaders to a close textual analysis, he concludes that they apply such terms as “colony” and “nation” to black America, without ever really defining what they mean, or confronting the questions raised by such terminology. Blacks, Draper argues, cannot be an autonomous “nation” because the only land in which they have real historic roots is the United States. The only workable nationalism for blacks is American nationalism: black nationalism, he believes, is “spurious” and a “fantasy.”

The crux of Draper’s critique is expressed in his judgment on Martin Delany:

Delany’s “black nationalism” was based on unrequited love, on rejection by whites, rather than on a deeply rooted, traditional attachment to another soil and another nation…. Paradoxically, then, black nationalism in America arose out of a frustrated American nationalism and the frustration could only take quasi-nationalist forms.

Because black nationalism is simply a negative response to the rejection of the black man by his own—that is, American—society, its most common expressions have been such escapist fantasies as mass emigration to Africa or the partition of the United States between blacks and whites.

Whatever its limitations, Draper’s book does demonstrate that black nationalism has had its share of fuzzy thinking and misuse of terminology. Nor is there any question that land is one of its basic conceptual problems. It may be true that, as Malcolm X said, “land is the basis of all independence,” but Draper is most convincing when he argues that nationalist spokesmen have failed to outline a practical way of creating a traditional national state for black America.

Yet, ironically, this focus on the land question, which is one of the strengths of Draper’s book, is also a serious weakness. By limiting his consideration to the question of land, Draper ignores other possible definitions of nationality. The question remains, if blacks possess a unique culture, historic experience and traditions, and community of interests, do they not, in effect, constitute a nation? Draper dismisses out of hand the notion of a separate black culture, but many anthropologists and sociologists would disagree, pointing to cultural survivals from Africa, the communities forged by slaves and free blacks before the Civil War, and the folkways of the rural South and black urban North. Draper would have done well to consult, for example, the…

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