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Black nationalism (BN) advocates a racial definition (or redefinition) of national identity. There are different indigenous nationalist philosophies but the principles of all Black nationalist ideologies are unity and self-determination—that is, separation, or independence, from European society. Martin Delany (1812-1885), an African-American abolitionist, is considered to be the grandfather of Black nationalism.
Inspired by the success of the Haitian Revolution, the origins of Black and African indigenous nationalism in political thought lie in the 19th century with people like Marcus Garvey, Henry McNeal Turner, Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, Edward Wilmot Blyden, Paul Cuffe, etc. The repatriation of African American slaves to Liberia or Sierra Leone was a common Black nationalist theme in the 19th century. Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association of the 1910s and 1920s was the most powerful black nationalist movement to date, claiming 11 million members.
According to Wilson Jeremiah Moses in his famous work Classical Black Nationalism, Black nationalism as a philosophy can be examined from three different periods giving rise to various ideological perspectives for what we can today consider what Black nationalism really is.
The first period was pre-Classical Black nationalism beginning from the time the Africans were brought ashore in the Americas up to the Revolutionary period. The second period began after the Revolutionary War, when a sizable number of Africans in the colonies, particularly in New England and Pennsylvania, were literate and had become disgusted with the social conditions that arose out of Enlightenment ideas. We find in such historical personalities as Prince Hall, Richard Allen, and Absalom Jones a need to found certain organizations as the Free African Society, African Masonic lodges and Church Institutions. These institutions would serve as early foundations to developing independent and separate organizations.
The third period of Black nationalism arose during the post-Reconstruction era, particularly among various African-American clergy circles. Separated circles were already established and accepted because African-Americans had long endured the oppression of slavery and Jim Crowism in the United States since its inception. The clerical phenomenon led to the birth of a modern Black nationalism that stressed the need to separate from non-blacks and to build separated communities to promote racial pride and to collectivize resources. The new ideology became the philosophy of groups like the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam. Although the 1960s brought a period of heightened religious, cultural and political nationalism, still it was Black nationalism that would lead the promotion of Afrocentrism.
Marcus Garvey encouraged African people around the world to be proud of their race and to see beauty in their own kind. A central idea to Garveyism was that African people in every part of the world were one people and they would never advance if they did not put aside their cultural and ethnic differences and contrast. He was heavily influenced by the earlier works of Booker T. Washington, Martin Delany, and Henry McNeal Turner.
Although Garvey was a supporter of racial separatism, he made it clear that he held no hostility towards whites and believed in the equality of all human beings,. Garvey set the precedent for subsequent Black nationalist and pan-Africanist thought including that of Kwame Nkrumah (and several other African leaders), the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X and most notably, Carlos Cooks (who is considered the ideological son of Marcus Garvey) and his Black Nationalist Pioneer Movement.
Marcus Garvey's beliefs are articulated in The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey as well as Message To The People: The Course of African Philosophy.
Between 1953 and 1964, while most African leaders worked in the civil rights movement to integrate African-American people into mainstream American life, Malcolm X was an avid advocate of black independence and the reclaiming of black pride and masculinity. He maintained that there was hypocrisy in the purported values of Western culture – from its Judeo-Christian religious traditions to American political and economic institutions – and its inherently racist actions. He maintained that separatism and control of politics, and economics within its own community would serve blacks better than the tactics of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and mainstream civil rights groups such as the SCLC, SNCC, NAACP, and CORE. Malcolm X declared that nonviolence was the "philosophy of the fool," and that to achieve anything, African Americans would have to reclaim their national identity, embrace the rights covered by the Second Amendment, and defend themselves from white hegemony and extrajudicial violence. In response to Rev. Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, Malcolm X quipped, "While King was having a dream, the rest of us Negroes are having a nightmare."
Prior to Malcolm X's pilgrimage to Mecca, he believed that African Americans must develop their own society and ethical values, including the self-help, community-based enterprises, such as the Alcoholics Anonymous, that the black Muslims supported. He also thought that African Americans should reject integration or cooperation with Caucasians until they could achieve internal cooperation and unity. He prophetically believed there "would be bloodshed" if the racism problem in America remained ignored, and he renounced "compromise" with whites. In April 1964, Malcolm X participated in a Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca); Malcolm found himself restructuring his views and recanted several extremist opinions during his shift to mainstream Islam. Malcolm X’s assassination on February 21, 1965 at The Audubon Ballroom, a mere ten months after his life-altering experience in Mecca, destroyed Malcolm’s hopes of taking his campaign in a new direction.
Upon his return from Mecca, Malcolm X returned with moderate views that include an abandonment of his commitment to racial separatism. However, he still supported black nationalism and advocated that African Americans in the United States act proactively in their campaign for equal human rights, instead of relying on Caucasian citizens to change the laws that govern society. The tenets of Malcolm X's new philosophy are articulated in the charter of his Organization of Afro-American Unity (a non-secular Pan-Africanist group patterned after the Organization of African Unity), and he inspired some aspects of the future Black Panther movement.
While in France, Frantz Fanon wrote his first book, Black Skin, White Masks, an analysis of the impact of colonial subjugation on the African psyche. This book was a very personal account of Fanon’s experience being black: as a man, an intellectual, and a party to a French education. Although Fanon wrote the book while still in France, most of his other work was written while in North Africa (in particular Algeria). It was during this time that he produced his greatest works, A Dying Colonialism and perhaps the most important work on decolonization yet written, The Wretched of the Earth. In it, Fanon lucidly analyzes the role of class, race, national culture and violence in the struggle for decolonization. In this seminal work, Fanon expounded his views on the liberating role of violence for the colonized, as well as the general necessity of violence in the anti-colonial struggle. Both books firmly established Fanon in the eyes of much of the Third World as one of the leading anti-colonial thinkers of the 20th century. In 1959 he compiled his essays on Algeria in a book called L'An Cinq: De la Révolution Algérienne.
Black Power was a political movement expressing a new racial consciousness among African people in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. The slogan, "Black Power", was popularized by Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael.
Black Power represented both a conclusion to the decade's civil rights movement and an alternative means of combating the racism that persisted despite the efforts of African activists during the early 1960s. The meaning of Black Power was debated vigorously while the movement was in progress. To some it represented African-Americans' insistence on racial dignity and self-reliance, which was usually interpreted as economic and political independence, as well as freedom from White authority.
These themes had been advanced most forcefully in the early 1960s by Malcolm X. He argued that African people should focus on improving their own communities, rather than striving for complete integration, and that black people had a duty to defend themselves against violent assaults. The publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) created further support for the idea of African-American self-determination and had a strong influence on the emerging leaders of the Black Power movement.
Other interpreters of Black Power emphasized the cultural heritage of black people, especially the African roots of their identity. This view encouraged study and celebration of African history and culture. In the late 1960s African American college students requested curricula in African-American studies that explored their distinctive culture and history.
Still another view of Black Power likened it to Anti-imperialism which called for a revolutionary political struggle to reject racism, economic exploitation and colonialism globally. This interpretation encouraged the alliance of non-whites, including Hispanics and Asians, to improve the quality of their lives.
Critics charge that Black nationalism is simply black supremacism in disguise, and some argue that the implication of inherent cultures or unity based on race (a central idea of Black nationalism) is itself racist.
Norm R. Allen, Jr., former director of African Americans for Humanism, calls Black nationalism a "strange mixture of profound thought and patent nonsense".
On the one hand, Reactionary Black Nationalists (RBNs) advocate self-love, self-respect, self-acceptance, self-help, pride, unity, and so forth - much like the right-wingers who promote "traditional family values." But - also like the holier-than-thou right-wingers - RBNs promote bigotry, intolerance, hatred, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, pseudo-science, irrationality, dogmatic historical revisionism, violence, and so forth.
Allen further criticizes black nationalists' strong "attraction for hardened prisoners and ex-cons", their encouragement of black-on-black violence when African American individuals or groups are branded as "Toms," traitors, or "sellouts," the blatantly sexist stance and the similarities to white supremacist ideologies:
Many RBNs routinely preach hate. Just as white supremacists have referred to African Americans as "devils," so have many RBNs referred to whites. White supremacists have verbally attacked gays, as have RBNs. White supremacists embrace paranoid conspiracy theories, as do their African counterparts. Many white supremacists and RBNs consistently deny that they are preaching hate and blame the mainstream media for misrepresenting them. (A striking exception is the NOI's Khallid Muhammad, who, according to Gates, admitted in a taped speech titled "No Love for the Other Side," "Never will I say I am not anti-Semitic. I pray that God will kill my enemy and take him off the face of the planet.") Rather, they claim they are teaching "truth" and advocating the love of their own people, as though love of self and hatred of others are mutually exclusive positions. On the contrary, RBNs preach love of self and hatred of their enemies. (Indeed, it often seems that these groups are motivated more by hatred of their enemies than love of their people.)
Nigerian-born professor of History and Director of the African American Studies program at the University of Montana, Tunde Adeleke, argues in his book "UnAfrican Americans: Nineteenth-Century Black Nationalists and the Civilizing Mission" that 19th-century African American nationalism embodied the racist and paternalistic values of Euro-American culture and that Black nationalist plans were not designed for the immediate benefit of Africans but to enhance their own fortunes. Adeleke further criticizes the imperial motives and the concept of a "civilizing mission" operating within the Black nationalist thought which aided in "shaping and legitimizing European imperialism of Africa".
- Anarchism in Africa
- Back-to-Africa movement
- Black separatism
- Black supremacy
- Ethnic nationalism
- Harry Haywood
- Reverse racism
- Moses, Wilson. Classical Black Nationalism: From the American Revolution to Marcus Garvey (1996) excerpt and text search
- Price, Melanye T. Dreaming Blackness: Black Nationalism and African American Public Opinion (2009) excerpt and a text search
- Taylor, James Lance. Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama (Lynne Rienner Publishers; 2011) 414 pages
- Van Deburg, William. Modern Black Nationalism: From Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan (1996)