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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 writings of William A. Stewart on black dialect, John F. Szwed on black music, and other recent writers whose work challenges what one sociologist calls the “dogma of liberal social science…that Negroes lack any characteristics of a distinctive nationality.”1

The question of black culture is obviously complex, not only because blacks have absorbed many of the values of the larger society, but also because much of white culture originated with blacks. But it is one which must be faced in any study of black nationalism. For Draper’s interpretation that at the core of black nationalism lies the “fundamentally negative need” to reject a society which rejected blacks is only a half-truth. Black nationalism is this, but in its most sophisticated forms it is also an affirmation of the unique traditions, values, and cultural heritage of black Americans. Only by slighting this positive side of black nationalist ideology can Draper maintain that it is an escapist outlook which lacks authentic social roots.

Because of his association of nationalism with land, Draper’s treatment of the historic antecedents of black nationalism examines only emigrationism and “internal statism.” But most historians have used the term to include a far greater variety of movements and programs. John Bracey, August Meier, and Elliot Rudwick, in their recent collection of documents, Black Nationalism in America,2 cast a far wider net than Draper does, including not only movements for physical separation, but cultural, economic, religious, and political nationalism. The lowest common denominator of these phenomena, they observe, is the quest for group solidarity. Draper’s narrow definition leads him to ignore nationalist movements which have aimed at radically changing American society rather than separating from it. What Vincent Harding calls the “black messianic tradition” 3—the belief that blacks have a unique role to play in transforming this nation, and that they must play this role as a group, under their own black leaders—is barely discussed; the place of revolutionaries like David Walker and Henry H. Garnet in the nationalist tradition is not mentioned.

Even within his own assumptions, Draper’s treatment of nationalist leaders is sometimes strangely limited. Take, for example, his section on Marcus Garvey, leader of “the first and greatest Negro mass movement in American history.” Draper treats Garvey as an emigrationist pure and simple: “the only thing that mattered to him was getting the Negroes out of the United States back to where he thought they belonged—Africa.” “For Garvey,” he adds, “black nationalism in Africa implied white supremacy in the United States….” Draper chooses to ignore Garvey’s explicit statement that “to fight for African redemption does not mean that we must give up our domestic fights for political justice and industrial rights.” His wife, Amy Jacques-Garvey, has denied that Garveyism was a “back-to-Africa” movement in other than a “spiritual” sense, or that he envisioned the emigration of most American blacks.4

Garvey’s rhetoric was, to be sure, confused and confusing. Yet Draper fails to do justice to the complexity of the man’s thought. One of the assumptions of his pan-Africanism was that the establishment of an independent Africa—under the leadership of the most advanced portion of black people, those in the United States—would aid blacks around the world. In a world of nation-states, Garvey believed, “the white man will only respect your rights constitutionally as a citizen of this country…when you have some government behind you.”5 Whether Garvey was right or wrong, of course, is not the issue here, although it is worth noting that the emergence of independent African states did have a significant impact on white American attitudes toward civil rights, just as the creation of Israel has altered the position of American Jews. The point is that by forcing Garvey into his preconceived schema, Draper has lost sight of an important side of the man’s thought.

The “lesson” of Garveyism, according to Draper (citing Gunnar Myrdal), is that black movements without white support are doomed to failure. Perhaps, but Draper never confronts the really important question about Garvey—how was he able to reach down to the lowest class of urban blacks and mobilize them politically in a way no organization before or since has done? Just as he fails to examine black nationalism as an expression of a unique cultural tradition, Draper ignores the psychological and social functions of nationalism within the black community.

It is hardly a new insight to observe that the experiences of slavery and oppression have been psychologically devastating for many black people, engendering a sense of dependency, worthlessness, and self-doubt. Virtually every black leader, nationalist or otherwise, has addressed himself to this reality; the Bracey collection is sprinkled with statements like Eldridge Cleaver’s call for blacks to “re-evaluate their self-image…slough off the servile attitudes inculcated by long years of subordination.” In this way, the black experience has many affinities to the psychological effects of colonialism described by such writers as Frantz Fanon. “Like the peoples of the underdeveloped countries,” according to Harold Cruse, “the Negro suffers…the psychological reactions to being ruled over by others not of his kind.”6 For this reason, if for no other, black nationalists are not mistaken in drawing the black colonial analogy.

The exaggerated rhetoric and fiercely pro-black ideology of black nationalism are in part designed to help blacks achieve mental “decolonization.” “I am the equal of any white man,” Garvey told his followers. “I want you to feel the same way.” Garvey’s doctrine of racial pride helped to meet the lower-class urban black’s desperate need for what E. Franklin Frazier called “freedom from contempt.” Studies of the Nation of Islam have concluded that the elaborate religious cosmology and strict rules of social conduct have much the same effect.7 Moreover, black nationalism performs the function of helping to unite black communities, analogous to the way anticolonial movements have helped overcome class and ethnic differences in the Third World. Nationalism acts as a social glue in black urban ghettos, where institutions, apart from the church, are weak, and where migrants from the South experience in an extreme form the traditional dislocations attending the movement of a peasantry to the city.

Draper also fails to analyze the class basis of the various forms of black nationalism; as a result, he ignores the place of Booker T. Washington in the nationalist tradition. Washington is presented only as an advocate of patience and accommodation. But his economic philosophy called for blacks to advance by a combination of group solidarity (like Delany and Elijah Muhammed, Washington said, “We are a nation within a nation,” and insisted on group pride), the adoption of middle-class standards of conduct, and the creation of a class of black businessmen and capitalists. As a number of recent studies have made clear,8 Washington’s ideology reflected the social outlook of an emergent black bourgeoisie, a class which has traditionally been assimilationist in style and politics, but which relies on black patronage for economic survival and therefore has a stake in community solidarity and racial consciousness.

Black power,” according to Harold Cruse, “is nothing but the economic and political philosophy of Booker T. Washington given a 1960s militant shot in the arm and brought up to date.”9 With his penchant for pointing out historical ironies and making contemporary political leaders uncomfortable, Cruse no doubt exaggerates, but there is much truth in his observation. It can be seen most clearly in the current doctrine of “black capitalism,” which aims at strengthening the black community by replacing absentee white economic control with resident blacks. Such a program, of course, would be of dubious benefit to the mass of ghetto residents, although it would certainly be helpful to the black bourgeoisie.

Black capitalism represents the most conservative element in the reformist wing of the Black Power movement, whose general outlook is expressed in a much quoted sentence from Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s Black Power: “The concept of Black Power rests on a fundamental premise: Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks.” This position (and it must be said that both writers have expressed doubts about the “openness” of American society since the book was published in 1967) rests implicitly on a dubious analogy between blacks and immigrant ethnic groups, which achieved social mobility only after they had established their sense of group solidarity, and developed in their own communities institutions parallel to those of the larger society.

If group solidarity and self-determination are the final goals of Black Power, then that movement, as Draper writes, is by no means “truly revolutionary.” Modern corporate capitalism can unquestionably adapt to self-determining black ghettos, in much the same way as, on a world-wide scale, imperialism has adapted to the political independence of most of the Third World. It should come as no surprise that, for example, the Newark Black Power Conference of 1967 was financed in part by grants from fifty corporations.

There is, however, another strand of contemporary black nationalism, usually labeled revolutionary nationalism and best exemplified by the Black Panthers, which views the organization of the black community as an interim program, a prelude to a more fundamental revolution in American society. Revolutionary nationalism has its roots in nineteenth-century black abolitionism and black messianism, but its contemporary foundations were laid by Malcolm X, who attempted to weave together such ideas as the identity of interests of American blacks and Third World liberation movements, the development of black pride and community self-determination, and the forging of a unified black movement to play an independent revolutionary role, although united with white allies of its choice.

In part, today’s revolutionary nationalism is grounded in the deep urge toward racial separatism in the psychology of the black urban lower class, and therefore, for Draper, it is as much a fantasy as any other black nationalism. It can be argued, however, as A. James Gregor and Robert Allen have done, in important recent works10 which Draper does not consider, that it is a response to two basic realities: that the civil rights victories of the 1960s did not bring any visible improvements in conditions of life in the ghetto, and, even more fundamentally, that under present conditions in America, no form of integration could solve black America’s socio-economic psychological crisis.

The opening of economic and political opportunities to blacks, Gregor argues, benefits only the black bourgeoisie, which has the assimilationist outlook, middle-class mentality, and education to take advantage of them. Moreover, the modern economy simply has little need for the unskilled labor of blacks in the way it needed cheap, unskilled immigrant labor decades ago. The disastrous rates of unemployment, semi-employment, and employment in marginal jobs among inner-city blacks, as well as the lack of decent living conditions, are likely to remain with us for a long time. Integration in virtually any form, unless accompanied by truly fundamental changes in American society, may well be meaningless to the unskilled, barely educated, self-doubting lower-class urban blacks who have formed the backbone of twentieth-century nationalist movements.

But is lower-class nationalism, for all of this, still a fantasy? That depends in large measure on whether one considers blacks to constitute a distinct nationality and culture. A definitive answer to this question no doubt requires further study; this is one of the reasons why the new programs in black studies may be so important. Some scholars have made important contributions to our understanding of the lives and values of slaves, Southern freedmen, and ghetto dwellers, but there is no equivalent in black studies to the work of E.J. Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, and George Rudé on working-class culture and life in Europe. This is, of course, an area full of difficulties for the researcher, and it is not surprising that perhaps the best book to come out of the recent upsurge of interest in black studies, Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black, is a study of white racial attitudes, for which the sources are so much more readily available.

Draper’s chapter on black studies is not concerned, however, with such questions. About half is devoted to recounting events at Cornell, where demands for a black studies program were accompanied by interracial strife and violence. Draper’s main interest seems to be in denouncing nationalists for demanding black control over black studies programs, and in warning of the imposition of what he calls “a black-nationalist party line” on the field. By virtually ignoring the countless schools where courses and programs in black studies have made encouraging beginnings without violence or even fanfare, Draper greatly exaggerates this danger. In general, black studies for Draper is more a power struggle than a demand for historical completeness or a criticism of the way American history has usually been taught.

If Draper believes that all forms of black nationalism are necessarily fantasies, his own political prescriptions seem equally far from reality. He is willing to grant blacks as much local autonomy as other ethnic groups have enjoyed, under “the existing Democratic rules” (rules which blacks had no part in making and from whose operation they have been excluded for centuries), but the only examples he offers are the election of black mayors and the development of a “Nairobi Village Shopping Center” and other institutions in the black community of East Palo Alto, California. “The life of Charles Evers may well be one of the most important lives in the United States,” Draper believes. Evers, the black mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, and his Northern counterparts certainly have a role to play in developing black pride and self-confidence, but Draper does not explain how they are to command the resources and power necessary to meet the needs of their communities. Blacks, unlike immigrant groups, are achieving local power at a time when the cities are bankrupt and effective political power, not to mention tax revenues, has shifted from localities to Washington.

It is not surprising,” Eldridge Cleaver has written, “that the average black man is schizoid on the question of his relationship to the nation as a whole.” It is inevitable, therefore, that there will be ambiguities and contradictions in almost any black political program, and Draper has performed a service for blacks and whites alike by illuminating the conceptual problems and failings of black nationalism. But he has not succeeded in conveying fully either the historic antecedents or the social roots and functions of nationalism. His judgment that it is basically a fantasy, with a strong “totalitarian potential” and affinity for “party dictatorships” will, I fear, reinforce the common white reaction to black nationalism—refusal to take it seriously coupled with fear of its implications. At a time when black nationalism seems to be evolving into a doctrine which, on its simplest level, is a program for group survival and development in the face of an overwhelmingly hostile larger society, and in its most sophisticated forms favors a radical transformation of American society, a more complete history and analysis is required than Draper has offered.

Letters

Exchange on Black Nationalism December 3, 1970

  1. 1

    See the very useful collection, edited by Norman E. Whitten, Jr., and John F. Szwed, Afro-American Anthropology (Free Press, 1970), whose extensive bibliography lists the works of Stewart, Szwed, and many others. The quotation is from Robert Blauner, “Black Culture: Myth or Reality?” in ibid., p. 348.

  2. 2

    Bobbs-Merrill, 1970.

  3. 3

    See Harding’s “W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Messianic Tradition,” Freedomways, Winter, 1969, pp. 44-58.

  4. 4

    Amy Jacques-Garvey, ed., Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey (Atheneum, 1969), II, 35; E.U. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism (Dell, 1964), p. 73.

  5. 5

    Garvey quoted in Rollin L. Hart, “The Negro Moses,” The Independent, February 26, 1921, p. 218.

  6. 6

    Harold Cruse, Rebellion or Revolution? (Apollo, 1968), pp. 75-76.

  7. 7

    The leading studies are: E. U. Essien-Udom, op. cit., and C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (Beacon, 1961).

  8. 8

    August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915 (University of Michigan, 1963), especially chapter 9; Allan Spear, Black Chicago (University of Chicago, 1967), chapter 4.

  9. 9

    Cruse, op. cit., p. 201.

  10. 10

    A. James Gregor, “Black Nationalism: A Preliminary Analysis of Negro Radicalism,” Science and Society, XXVII (Fall, 1963), pp. 415-32; Robert Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America (Doubleday, 1969).

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