Black Nationalism 101

nationalists

Note: It would take an entire book at minimum to adequately discuss and explain Black Nationalism. In fact, several books on this topic exist (I provide a list of some at the end of this essay). If you are looking for a detailed and exhaustive discussion of the topic, this essay is not for you. If you are thoroughly knowledgeable about Black Nationalism, this essay will prove much too elementary for you. This essay, as indicated in the title, is a preliminary and basic discussion of Black Nationalism, for those readers who know nothing about the topic or very little.

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Throughout my years as an undergraduate and graduate student, along with my involvement in  activist circles, Facebook discussions, and street corner “debates”, I’ve encountered various Black people who harbor negative views of Black Nationalism. Feminists who are familiar with the misogynist behavior of some nationalists, refer to specific nationalist personalities of the Black Power Movement, and tend to classify nationalism as chock full of machismo, sexist and patriarchal. All-too-often, the dominant image of the ideology is one in which women walk 10 paces behind their male partners, and spend significant time in domestic activities, raising children and “supporting their man.”

In addition, some feminists argue that nationalists obscure women from leadership positions, and scarcely attempt any type of gender analysis, if at all. Members of the gay community, incensed by offensive references to their sexuality made by “heteronormative” nationalists, characterize the ideology as patently homophobic. Black people of the Marxist or Socialist persuasion often argue that nationalists focus too narrowly on racial issues and fail to critique capital and class. And the cultural pluralists/multiculturalists (along with their leftist counterparts) believe nationalists – with their blanket hatred/rejection of whites – are chocolate-covered racists trapped in a 1960s time warp who subscribe to simplistic and outdated notions of biological determinism. I can hear them now saying in unison, “ALL white people are NOT the enemy.” (Incidentally, I find this statement very annoying).

In summary, we Black Nationalists are typically mischaracterized as hate-mongers, demagogues, advocates of random violence, misogynists, Black supremacists, and irrational idealists of an era long gone. It doesn’t help that more fundamentalist nationalists behave in ways that empower and seem to justify these stereotypes. Because sensational images of nationalists are the ones most depicted by the corporate media, and since some nationalists themselves give the ideology a questionable reputation, this essay will attempt to briefly describe nationalism and its different branches. There is not enough space or time here to present a complete paper on Black Nationalism. But I do hope to present the ideology as more nuanced and sophisticated than mainstream culture does, and to challenge the way people sometimes paint the ideology with such broad and stereotypical strokes.

It is important to note that Nationalism is not the “evil twin” of pluralism or integration. Nor is it a “Johnny-come-lately” school of thought that first emerged with the rise of Black Power in the sixties. Actually, Black Nationalism is as old as America itself – older in fact. As James Cone notes:

The roots of Black Nationalism go back to the seventeenth-century slave conspiracies, when Africans, longing for their homeland, banded together in a common struggle against slavery…;

”It was also found in the rise of mutual-aid societies, in the birth and growth of black-led churches and conventions, and in black-led emigration schemes. Unity as a people, pride in African heritage, the creation of autonomous institutions, and the search for a territory to build a black nation were the central ingredients which shaped the early development of the nationalist consciousness.[1]

And while there are some advocates of nationalism that DO EMBODY MANY OF THE NEGATIVE CRITIQUES levied against the ideology, we should also note that many clear-thinking, balanced and serious-minded individuals championed Black Nationalism from the 19th century until the present: Martin Delaney, Robert Alexander Young, Henry Highland Garnett, David Walker, Henry McNeal Turner, Alexander Crummell, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Prophet Noble Drew Ali, Marcus Garvey, Queen Mother Moore, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur,  Robert F. Williams, MutuluShakur, Kwame Ture,  (aka Stokely Carmichael), Imari Obadele, Sister Souljah, and many more.

There is a tendency to view Nationalism in simplistic terms. Yet it has different branches, some conservative some fundamentalist, and others more progressive. Groups like The Moorish Science Temple or Nation of Islam embody religious manifestations of Nationalism. Such organizations focus on Black solidarity, industry, and a renunciation of chauvinist white religious principles. For example, in such organizations, the Supreme Being is Black and Black people are considered God’s “Chosen people.”

Organizations like the Black Liberation Army or Revolutionary Action Movement, represent revolutionary manifestations of nationalism which advocate armed insurrection and an overthrow of repressive government. The Black Panther Party, African Blood Brotherhood or the League of Revolutionary Black Workers embody nationalist organizations with a strong critique of class and capitalism in additional to interracial cooperation. Nationalism often promotes issues of Pan African solidarity, race pride and Black industry as in the case of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The “US” organization is an expression of cultural nationalism which emphasizes Blacks’ identification with African views and values along with the rejection of European-imposed definitions. Groups like the Republic of New Afrika as did the Nation of Islam, argue for separatism and seek American territories Black occupation and nation development. Clearly, the philosophy is by no means monolithic.

Nevertheless, we can identify some core concepts of Black Nationalism. Among these are:

  • Self-Determination: The right for Black people to define their own leadership, values and methodologies.
  • Black solidarity: Unity around race, the common experience of oppression, and common values
  • Self-reliance: The formation of Independent Black organizations and institutions that operate in Black interests, and the idea that Black people unify and organize to solve their own problems rather than looking to whites to do so.
  • Race pride: A conscious attempt to instill pride of African/Black history, culture, perspectives, values and phenotype.
  • Self-Defense: The right of Black people to defend their lives and property from physical attack (i.e. mob violence, lynching, church burnings, sexual assault). Sometimes, as evidenced by revolutionary nationalists, proactive violence against oppressive government agencies is also upheld.

Therefore some individuals and organizations believe and implement all of the above principles or any combinations of the above. As noted, some are more conservative, while others embody more progressive ideas. Given the breadth of this ideology, it is inaccurate to assume a person’s complete political menu just because he/she is nationalist. Nationalist ideology is interpreted and practiced in vastly different ways.

In fairness to its critics, Black. Nationalism does have its fair share of advocates with half-baked plans, misogynist ideals, oversimplified analysis and cult elements. But these individuals do not represent the entirety of Black Nationalism. The same holds true for Christianity, Socialism or any ideology.

During Black History Month, perhaps we can learn more about the Black Nationalist tradition, debunk the myths, and develop a more comprehensive and balanced understanding of the ideology. It would surely be tragic if Black people fail to do this, and simplify nationalism as an ideology which teaches that “all white people are evil,” or that Black people should use violence indiscriminately. It is erroneous to conclude that nationalism is too narrow and restricted to entertain allies or include an accurate analysis or gender and class. And in a context wherein Black people still find themselves the victims of hate attack, police brutality, poverty, the miseducation of our youth and so many other issues, Black Nationalism remains relevant and useful.

Reading List

- Black Nationalism: A Search for Identity E. U. Essien-Udom

- http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_nationalism

- Classical Black Nationalism: From the American Revolution to Marcus Garvey, Wilson Jeremiah Moses

- Modern Black Nationalism: From Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan, William Van deburg

- Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama, James Taylor

-The Ideological Origins of Black Nationalism, Sterling Stuckey

- The Crisis of the Negri Intellectual, Harold Cruise

[1]  James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm in America: A Dream or a Nightmare?, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books 1991) , 9.

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