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Exchange on Black Nationalism

In response to:

In Search of Black History from the October 22, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

There are two reasons for discussing Professor Eric Foner’s highly polemical review of my book, The Rediscovery of Black Nationalism [NYR, October 22]. One is that he has seriously misrepresented the book. The other is that he has curiously distorted the subject. In part the two cannot be disentangled, and I will deal with both of them together.

Professor Foner apparently assigned himself to play the dual role of prosecuting attorney and defense counsel. In the former part, he permitted himself some questionable liberties. In the latter, his self-chosen clients may not prove wholly happy with him.

For black nationalists want a nation, a separate, sovereign nation. This is what runs through and binds together their entire history. When they do not see how they can get it in the United States, they advocate emigrating elsewhere. When they do not see how they can get it by emigrating, they try to locate it somewhere within the boundaries of the United States. The Republic of New Africa wants five states for a new black nation. Eldridge Cleaver demands a “sovereignty” recognized by other nations of the world. When Malcolm X was still an orthodox black nationalist, he held: “Land is the basis of all independence.” Dr. James Turner, director of the African Studies program at Cornell University, maintains that “without control over land, resources and production, there can be no self-determination for a people.” Other black nationalists argue whether they should build on “city-states” or take total control of the United States, as proposed by James Forman’s “Black Manifesto.”

A real nationalism is based on the relationship of a people to a land. The historic inability of black nationalists in America to solve the land problem gave rise to what I have called a “quasi-nationalism.” It has produced substitutes for sovereignty, such as separate, autonomous, all-black Black Studies programs and departments. But however baffling the “land question” may be, authentic black nationalists cannot give up the struggle to find an answer for it, even if some answers take the form of escapism and fantasy.

Foner gives up this terrain without a struggle. Instead, he offers black nationalists three possible substitutes—black culture, black history, and “revolutionary nationalism.” Let us consider them in turn.

Black culture. According to Foner, I have limited myself to the land question and ignored these other possible definitions of “nationality” (his switch to this word, instead of “nationhood,” is most revealing, and I will come back to it). He claims that “Draper dismisses out of hand the notion of a separate black culture.”

This is simply untrue. I stated my position on this matter on pages 125-131, where I discuss the views of Julius Lester, LeRoi Jones, and Harold Cruse. I cited a statement by LeRoi Jones made in 1962: “The paradox of the Negro experience in America is that it is a separate experience, but inseparable from the complete fabric of American life.” Then I added:

Not only is the uniqueness of American Negro culture difficult to define but, wherever and whatever it is, it is still, as Jones persuasively put it, “inseparable from the complete fabric of American life.” In any event, culture should not be equated with nation; culture is a far less clearly defined and localized concept than nation. There can be a distinct culture without an independent nation, and an independent nation without a distinct culture. [pp. 127-28]

I made another point which takes us into the problem of terminology. It is necessary to distinguish clearly between nationhood, nationality, and ethnicity. Unless these terms are used with some care, the whole subject of black nationalism can be hopelessly muddled.

A nation is basically a sovereign, political organism with a definite territory and government. It is the “hardest” concept of the three. If the black nationalists give up the quest for a nation, they are really using “nationalism” to mean something else, and a good deal of trouble might be avoided by calling it by its right name.

Nationality, however, may have two meanings. It may denote membership in a particular nation. But it may also signify an ethnic group that is part of a nation. Nationality is a “softer” concept that needs a definition or a context to be perfectly clear and unambiguous.

Ethnic refers to people of a common culture, held together by mutual traits and customs. It is still “softer” and more inclusive. Thus black nationalists object to thinking of black Americans as an “ethnic group” because it would imply that they could be quite distinctive culturally and still form part of the American nation.

Now I took the position in my book that black nationalism cannot be satisfied by “cultural nationalism.” I put it this way:

Yet “cultural nationalism” by itself implies or requires little more than the status of an ethnic minority. Unless “cultural nationalism” is hinged to some form of separate nationhood, in or out of the present United States, it need never get beyond the ethnic status. [p. 131]

Whether the reader agrees with me is not now the point. What is indefensible is Foner’s assurance to his readers that “Draper ignores other possible definitions of nationality” and “Draper dismisses out of hand the notion of a separate black culture.” I gave this notion a great deal of thought and tried to state my view with some precision.

But what of the substance of the issue? Foner loftily advises that “Draper would have done well to consult” some articles on black dialect and black music, as if specialized studies on ethnic and social influences in these fields could demonstrate any more than that there are some distinctive features in American black culture. He also refers to a new book, Afro-American Anthropology, published in 1970, too late for me to consult it. This book contains an essay of a more general nature by Professor Robert Blauner, which I am sorry I did not have in time.

Foner quotes from Blauner’s essay to the effect that liberal social science has made almost a dogma of the view that “Negroes lack any characteristics of a distinctive nationality.” The essay is directed against this extreme view. The quotation, however, offers a striking example of the need to know in what context “nationality” is being used. Does it relate to “nationalism” or to “ethnicity”?

Blauner’s entire essay is cast in terms of culture. Its very title is “Black Culture: Myth or Reality?” He tells us that “the concept of culture—as well-taught undergraduates should know—is a very sticky and troubling concept.” In that case, well-taught undergraduates should also know that a nationalism based on cultural differences is an even stickier and more troubling concept. Blauner repeatedly refers to the Negroes’ “ethnic culture” and even “emerging ethnic culture.” He contends that this “ghetto sub-culture involves both lower class and ethnic characteristics” (italics in original). He apportions the “American” and “African” components in the following way: “Though this [Negro American] culture is overwhelmingly the product of American experience, the first contributing source is still African.” The first is not necessarily the most, and “nationality” here is clearly related to ethnicity, not to nationalism.

Blauner’s exposition is quite similar in essence to the view expressed by LeRoi Jones in 1962, before his black nationalist phase, that the American Negro experience is “separate” but “inseparable from the complete fabric of American life.” There is nothing in it to which I would take exception. In my book, I did not challenge the notion that there is some kind of distinctive Negro culture within the wider American culture. But a nationalism based exclusively or predominantly on cultural distinctions, which exist side by side with cultural similarities, and without territorial and political underpinnings, is doomed to frustration and misuse.

In the end, Foner is not even sure whether black nationalism has a sound basis. He settles for the soft line that the question of whether blacks constitute a “distinct nationality and culture” requires further study. Here again he studiously avoids the term “nation,” and one never knows whether he conceives of the American Negroes as finally constituting a distinct nationality or culture within the larger American nation or culture, or whether he thinks of them as a distinct nation. Moreover, if black nationality and culture require further study to find out whether they are really “distinct,” what kind of nationalism can be based on such intangible, uncertain, shifting ground? A “nationalism” based wholly or largely on a still indeterminate culture has far to go before it can produce anything more than another form of ethnicity.

Cultural nationalism” per se is a faute de mieux position. It may be connected with or lead to political and territorial nationalism but it cannot take the latter’s place. If Foner had chosen to discuss these issues, he might have contributed something useful. Instead, he avoided them by misrepresenting what I wrote.

Black history. Foner complains that I should have cast my net wider to take in “cultural, economic, religious, and political nationalism” as well as “movements for physical separation.” He recommends the recent documentary collection, Black Nationalism in America, as a model.

This book, which also came out in 1970, too late for me to deal with the trend which it represents, virtually equates black nationalism with black history. Thus it includes, among others, T. Thomas Fortune, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Kelly Miller, and A. Philip Randolph. The editors in their Introduction include “bourgeois reformism” as the mildest political form of black nationalism. They disclaim the intention of suggesting that only black nationalism existed, and protest that their book is needed as a corrective to the more general view that “integration and assimilation” have reigned supreme. But they never explain how and why A. Philip Randolph, for one, belongs in such a collection—the same Randolph who, in the section allotted to him, disclaims that his movement should be linked with “Black Nationalism” and defines his purpose as the solution of the Negroes’ problems “within the framework for the larger social and economic problems of the American scene.”

T. Thomas Fortune was an enemy of colonizationism and emigrationism. Frederick Douglass said: “All this native land talk is nonsense. The native land of the American Negro is America.” Booker T. Washington taught that the Negroes would take their full and rightful place in American society when they were prepared for it economically and educationally. Kelly Miller sponsored the National Urban League. If they belong in an anthology of black nationalism, who does not?

In 1966, Professor Eugene D. Genovese proposed the thesis that Booker T. Washington was a forerunner of black nationalism. To which Professor C. Vann Woodward replied that this “picture of Booker Washington as a prophet of black nationalism sends involuntary shudders through my entire scholarly nervous system” and the lesson drawn from it almost “makes me despair of history as the path to wisdom.” It should be even more cause for shudders and despair that Washington has now found his place in a literary pantheon of black nationalism.

There is here a simple confusion. It arises from the circumstance that later black nationalists, especially Marcus Garvey, found inspiration in some of Washington’s teachings, such as the emphasis on Negro self-help. In effect, elements of Washington’s system could be fitted into another, quite different system. This is a familiar phenomenon. Washington may have inspired Garvey, but Washington would also have been appalled by Garveyism.

In my book, I discussed Washington’s influence on Garvey, without making Washington a premature black nationalist. I also devoted a page to Henry H. Garnet, whom Foner says I never even mention. He is in the index. This carelessness is one more telltale sign of an almost desperate anxiety to find fault, more to be expected in a freewheeling prosecuting attorney than in a responsible scholar.

If black nationalism is virtually equated with black history or with all the struggles for justice and equality in black history, the former loses its special place in black history. It begins to mean so many different things that it must end by becoming meaningless. This may be the fate of black nationalism if it is made to take in Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and A. Philip Randolph as well as Martin R. Delany, Bishop Henry M. Turner, and Marcus Garvey.

As volunteer defense counsel, Foner’s strategy consists of turning attention away from the one thing that is the raison d’être of black nationalism—the quest for nationhood. Garvey? He once said that the fight for African redemption did not mean giving up “our domestic fights for political justice and industrial rights.” Of course, he said a great many other things, far more often, such as his willingness to “cede to the white man the right of doing as he pleases in his own country”—a sentiment which could hardly help those “domestic fights.” Foner also tells us that the “exaggerated rhetoric” of black nationalism serves to achieve “black ‘decolonization,’ ” and that nationalism acts as “a social glue in black urban ghettos.”

But this is a defense that refuses to defend the nationalist essence of black nationalism. In my book, I was not unmindful of the incidental benefits of some black nationalist movements, as in the case of the Nation of Islam or Black Muslims. But I had enough respect for the black nationalist tradition to treat it in its own terms, to take its raison d’être seriously. Whatever the side effects of “exaggerated rhetoric” may be, they are not the main issue; and “exaggerated rhetoric” may not be the only or best way to achieve psychological “decolonization” or “social glue.” To reduce black nationalism to culture and fringe benefits as Foner essentially does, is to give it the status of a “quasi-nationalism,” not the real thing.

Revolutionary Nationalism. For Foner, it is merely “another strand of contemporary black nationalism,” best exemplified by the Black Panthers. I devoted a chapter to the Panthers, so I cannot be accused of ignoring, dismissing, or slighting the subject. But is it just “another strand”?

When I wrote, the Panthers were still trying to sit on two stools—the black nationalist and the social revolutionary. It required a difficult balancing act because it opened the Panthers to attack from two sides—from those who want a black nationalism not dependent for its ultimate success on a white social revolution, and those who want a social revolution untainted by black nationalism. This tension showed that the Panthers might one day have to choose between pure and simple nationalism and black-and-white social revolution.

The Panthers have now chosen. In the August 29, 1970, issue of The Black Panther, the supreme commander, Huey Newton, made the choice. He gave up “all claim to nationalism” because, he wrote, the “dialectical forces in operation at this time and our history” had “destroyed our feeling of nationhood.” The Black Panther Party was now the vanguard of revolutionary internationalism “without chauvinism or a sense of nationhood.” He explained that the Black Panthers had decided to go directly to a “higher level” than nationalism, nationhood, or statehood—to “a socialist state and then a non-state.”

If the Black Panthers best exemplify the social revolutionary strand of black nationalism, that strand has been broken. Their maximum leader has come out for revolution without nationalism. But this latest phase has its roots in what I called the “ambiguous legacy” of Malcolm X. Foner tries to pass off the “revolutionary nationalism” of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers as just another strand of black nationalism, whereas the former might be better called “revolutionary internationalism” and has for some time been straining to break away from the latter.

As Malcolm X’s last year and the Black Panthers’ present year show, what Foner calls “revolutionary nationalism” may come out of black nationalism, but it has an inner dynamic which makes it move away from black nationalism. The new Panther line came as no surprise to me because I ended my chapter wondering which way they were going to jump. But Foner could not have been following the Panthers very carefully if they still exemplified for him “another strand” of black nationalism.

Foner’s version of black nationalism is squeamishly soft at the center. This kind of thinking has produced untold mischief because it encourages a new black generation to occupy a halfway house that satisfies no one. If black students cannot have a black nation, they can have a black corner in a classroom, sit before white teachers whom they believe have nothing to say to them, and in some cases, as Professor Kenneth B. Clark put it, act out a “charade of power” which they do not really possess. This is a high price to pay for a nationalism which rests on a “nationality and culture” that need further study.

Theodore Draper

Institute for Advanced Study

Princeton, New Jersey

Eric Foner replies:

Theodore Draper’s reply to my review of his book rests on two fundamental misconceptions. First, he continually insists that my purpose was to act as a “defense counsel” and spokesman for black nationalism. In reality, I am not, needless to say, a black nationalist or a spokesman for black nationalism. Black nationalists are perfectly capable of speaking for and defending themselves, and despite Draper’s use of the phrase, there is no such thing as “Foner’s version of black nationalism.”

Second, Draper states that I assigned myself the role of “prosecuting attorney.” Although this may seem an innocent enough charge, it suggests that because I criticized his book, I did not approach it with an open mind, and that my review was not an honest attempt to present and evaluate Draper’s views, but what he calls a “strategy” to discredit him.

The problem, and Draper’s annoyance, seem to arise from the fact that in evaluating Draper’s book and trying to gauge its contribution to an understanding of black nationalism, I was inevitably led to discuss some of the many aspects of this complex subject which Draper had ignored or slighted. Draper is thus quite wrong in claiming that I offered black nationalists “three possible substitutes [for land]—black culture, black history, and ‘revolutionary nationalism.’ ” What I did was offer these three, and others, to Draper, as areas in which his discussion was inadequate.

My major point was that in seeking to prove that black nationalism is a “fantasy,” Draper had not dealt seriously with many aspects of this multifaceted phenomenon. I began the review, however, by praising Draper for his convincing argument that the road to a traditional, territorial state for blacks is blocked in this country. For Draper, this is where the discussion of black nationalism ends; in my opinion, it is only a beginning.

A good portion of Draper’s reply consists of his repetition of what he said in his book, most of which I said he said in my review. Draper also offers, in a more precise way than in the book, his definitions of “nation,” “nationality,” “ethnic,” and “real nationalism.” Draper is entitled to his definitions, but he should not pretend that they are the only possible ones. Historians who have studied nationalism have agreed on one thing—that the term encompasses so many varied kinds of movements and ideologies that any definition must at all costs avoid rigidity.

While Draper insists that “real nationalism” is defined only by a relation to a specified area of land, Hans Kohn, for example, has written that “nationalism is first and foremost a state of mind, an act of consciousness,” and David Potter identifies common culture and community of interest as the two major determinants of nationality.1 Draper’s definitions are certainly as serviceable as any other. The problem arises when he applies these definitions to the history of black nationalism so schematically that he ends up calling it a fantasy because it cannot be encompassed in his preconceived formula.

In his book, The Meaning of Nationalism, Louis Snyder cites one definition of the term “nation”; “a single language or clearly related dialects, a common religion, a common tradition and history, a common sense of right and wrong, and a more or less compact territory, are typically characteristics; but one or more of these may be lacking and yet leave a group that from its community of interest and desire to lead a common life is called a nation.”2 Draper’s book deals almost exclusively with only one side of this definition—land—and I suggested that he might have devoted serious attention to the question of black culture.

In answer, Draper points out that he did devote a few pages to the subject, which I of course knew, and which did not alter my judgment that he dismissed out of hand the possibility of a distinctive black culture. His cursory discussion does not constitute sufficient attention to a subject which is crucial to any understanding and evaluation of black nationalist thought. I therefore suggested that there was a good deal of relevant information in a number of works by sociologists and anthropologists.

Draper’s explanation for not consulting these works is especially interesting. He insists that there was no need to look at them because they could not “demonstrate any more than that there are some distinctive features in American black culture.” If Draper had decided beforehand what these studies may or may not prove, I agree that there would not have been much point in his reading them.

Actually, despite what Draper suggests, I did not in my review endorse or defend “cultural nationalism.” I devoted considerable attention to the economic, political, and psychological underpinnings and roots of black nationalism. Draper’s reply does not discuss economics or politics, and dismisses the psychological aspects of black nationalism as “fringe benefits,” although every leading black nationalist spokesman, past and present, has considered them vitally important. Nor did I say that culture alone was sufficient basis for what Draper would call “real nationalism.” What I wrote was:

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?

Despite all his definitions and semantic juggling, Draper has not really confronted this question. I also argued that Draper’s dismissal of the possibility of a separate black culture blinded him to an important side of black nationalist thought. He insisted on presenting black nationalism as a purely negative response to exclusion from white society, while I pointed out that it was also a positive affirmation of blacks’ unique cultural and historic experience.

Draper is not content in his reply to charge me with various political and intellectual sins. He also takes to task the editors of the documentary collection, Black Nationalism in America, who, he claims, equate black nationalism with black history. This is patently untrue. What they insist is that black nationalism is an integral part of black history. Moreover, they recognize—as Draper, with his static and rigid definitions, does not—that black nationalism has been an evolving, growing ideology, and that men who were not wholly nationalist in outlook have made important contributions to the growth of the nationalist tradition.

This is why, for example, Draper should not have slighted Booker T. Washington. I never said that Washington was “a premature black nationalist,” nor did Professor Genovese, whom Draper for some reason introduces. What I, Genovese, Harold Cruse, and others have argued is that Washington’s outlook had an important impact not only on the philosophy of Garveyism, but also on some of the modern variants of black nationalism. I also used the example of Washington to point out that Draper had failed to analyze the class basis of the various nationalist movements, and thus missed one way of understanding the differences among them.

Another omission in Draper’s historical section is an accurate appraisal of the place of Henry H. Garnet in the nationalist tradition. In his reply, Draper uses Garnet as an excuse for his most serious charges against me. After stating that he devoted a page to Garnet, “whom Foner says I never even mention,” and pointing out that Garnet is in the index, Draper accuses me of “an almost desperate anxiety to find fault,” and of not being “a responsible scholar.” Here, I am afraid, Draper has slipped into the very errors of which he accuses me. For I did not say Draper did not mention Garnet. What I wrote was: “The place of revolutionaries like David Walker and Henry H. Garnet in the nationalist tradition is not mentioned.”

I knew, of course, that Draper had mentioned Garnet. The point is that he mentioned only the parts of Garnet’s thought which fit into his—Draper’s—schema, that is, Garnet’s attitude toward emigration from the United States. Garnet’s speech of 1843 urging the slaves to rise in rebellion, which became a classic document of revolutionary nationalism, is not mentioned in the book, nor are Garnet’s activities as a leading black abolitionist discussed, and this is why I wrote what I did. I don’t really mind Draper misquoting me. I do mind it when he uses the misquotation as a basis for insulting me.

His failure to examine Garnet’s place in the nationalist tradition reflects Draper’s larger inability to understand that there is no necessary contradiction between black nationalism and demands for reform or revolution in this country. Since Draper assumes that “real nationalism” must believe either in emigration or “internal statism,” he fails to take account of the complexities of a doctrine like Garveyism, and he is unable to fit revolutionary nationalism into his analysis. He now presents us with some recent quotations from Huey Newton on the Black Panthers’ attitude toward nationalism. I don’t happen to have a copy of The Black Panther of August 29, 1970, at hand, but since, despite what Draper says, I have been “following the Panthers very carefully.” I do have an interview Newton gave to Liberation News Service on August 21, 1970, and published in LNS of August 26. It is evident that Newton’s position is not quite so simple as Draper would have us believe. Newton said:

After imperialism is destroyed, then there won’t be any need for nationalism, so we won’t support it. At this point we take a stand that we think blacks within this country have a moral right to separate. The revolutionary nationalist idea is a moral thing. After so many years of abuse we have a right to do this. On the other hand I feel, the Party feels, that history has bestowed an obligation upon us. And that obligation is to transform the whole society, and as a matter of fact, the whole world.

The Panthers, of course, have had serious ideological disagreements with many black nationalist groups. They have little use for cultural nationalism, or for a nationalism which aims merely at separating blacks and whites without revolutionizing the entire society. They see the major struggle as one of class, not race, and view themselves as a revolutionary vanguard. On the other hand, their program speaks of blacks as a “colony” and calls for a UN plebiscite to allow that colony to determine its own destiny. As I said in my review, they, like Malcolm X, view the organization of the black community as an interim program, a prelude to social revolution. Newton did not contradict any of this, indeed he himself spoke of “the revolutionary nationalist idea.”

Black nationalism is a vitally important phenomenon. Unfortunately, neither Draper’s book nor his reply does much to help us to understand it. But at least the last paragraph of the reply helps us to understand Draper. Here he flings at me the ultimate accusation—I have encouraged “a new black generation” to press what Draper considers their dangerous and unreal demands. If he were less emotive and hostile in his reaction to black students and black nationalism, he would see that his attempts to define it out of existence will not make black nationalism go away. Black nationalism exists, it is more than a fantasy, and as I said in my review, the danger of Draper’s book is not so much its own shortcomings, but that whites will use his inadequate analysis to reinforce and justify their own prejudices and fears.

  1. 1

    Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism: A Study of Its Origins and Background (Macmillan, 1944), p. 10; David Potter, “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” in The South and the Sectional Conflict (Louisiana State University Press, 1968), p. 54.

  2. 2

    Louis L. Snyder, The Meaning of Nationalism (Greenwood, 1954), p. 8.

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