Black Nationalism

Nationalism is the expression of a people's commitment to self-determination in all its scope and dimensions. The nationalism of Africans in America is a conscious expression of the self-determination of a people who have been forcibly abducted from their homeland without the choice and/or means to return on their own terms. The historical development of Africans and Europeans in America has involved a symbiotic relationship in which Africans have been exploited in the economic and political system of the U.S. social order. The nationalism of Africans in America can be described as the belief in and vision of independence from this exploitative relationship, and as a conscious political and sociopsychological move outside this sphere of influence. Thus, the ideas and praxis of African Americans that can be characterized as nationalist, and perhaps pan-African nationalist, are inextricably linked to the hegemonic context that gave rise to the pursuit of sovereignty and the idea that Africans in America constitute a cultural nation.

Conceptualizations and Proponents

Several historians have described the convergence of distinct African peoples on plantations in the South into a common culture, which flowed from an essentially autonomous value system anchored in indigenous Africa and created a pan-Africanism that provided an identity and an ideology. It has been demonstrated that, at the time of emancipation, enslaved Africans still remained essentially African in culture. Similarly, an examination of the religious orientation, artistry, music, and statements of Africans in America also revealed that the core values of the great number of Africans in America have always been self-determination, freedom, and resistance to assimilation. The idea here is that slave ships and the plantation system of the South served not only as natural incubators of revolts but also to create a nascent pan-African nationalism that grew and assumed different forms as it was articulated by numerous proponents over the last two centuries.
Historically, the dual themes of integration or assimilation and black nationalism, at times recognized by their respective nonviolence and self-defense connotations, have been represented by proponents seemingly at odds in their ideological position relative to liberation for African people. The accommodationist nature of proponents of integration has been essentially defeatist and has not been a viable option for sovereignty in the United States or elsewhere. Despite the historical shifts from nationalism to accommodationism, or visa versa, as a result of the bankruptcy of one movement or the ability of the other to advance its cause, black nationalism has always had a significant constituency in the African community in America, which tends to expand during periods of crisis and contract under overtly oppressive conditions.
The black nationalist movement has also embodied an internal contraction (i.e., accommodation) or expansion (i.e., pan-African nationalism) in terms of pushing either for full rights for blacks as citizens of the United States and/or for a physical space that blacks would govern. Historical representatives of the dual forces of nationalist accommodation or pan-African nationalism include Martin R. Delany and Frederick Douglass in the 19th century, Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois in the early 20th century, and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the latter half of the 20th century.
In the late 18th century and early 19th century, Daniel Coker, Elijah Johnson, and Paul Cuffee acted on pan-African ideas in advocating emigration to Africa, and Paul Cuffee used his own money to repatriate 38 Africans to Sierra Leone in 1815. The so-called club movement (of self-help institutions) of African women in the early 1800s and the national convention movement sought to address nationalist concerns in their debates over how they should identify themselves culturally. Yet, it was the appearance of David Walker's An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World in 1829 that engendered a more confrontational and pan-African nationalist stance against enslavement, an institution that Walker believed affected African people worldwide. Walker's Appeal contained a severe criticism of the system of enslavement, a call for revolt by the enslaved Africans, and a nationalist position to accommodationist perspectives (within the national convention movement) on how Africans should culturally identify themselves.
Henry Highland Garnet published his 1847 address and Walker's Appeal together. Garnet, like David Walker, viewed black nationalism as not simply a means to freedom but an eternal principle to struggle toward. The years 1840 to 1865 were Garnet's greatest period of activity and accomplishment. Garnet defended the notion of African humanity and linked the fate of Africans within and outside the United States together, asserting that it was the responsibility of the oppressed to liberate themselves. He later moved toward the idea of emigration to Liberia and cooperated with the New York State Colonization Society, but he remained opposed to the notion of involuntary emigration as a condition of liberation in the United States. Garnet studied much and was a precursor to W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and the scholastic tradition embodied by Cheikh Anta Diop of Senegal. In an 1848 speech delivered in Troy, New York, Garnet noted the contributions of Africans to ancient civilization while Anglo-Saxons were living in caves, and he called for ideological unity of Africans in America.
Between 1830 and 1860, the forces of accommodationism (i.e., integrationists) were countered by nationalists who articulated means by which genuine sovereignty might be attained. The integrationist movement contracted and the nationalist movement expanded during this period. The voices of 19thcentury nationalists, such as Martin R. Delany, Edward Wilmot Blyden, Alexander Crummell, Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, and George Washington Williams, reflected pan-African nationalist sentiments while holding at the same time ideas that underpinned the accommodationist outlook. For example, due to their ambivalence on the question of identity, Crummell, Turner, and Delany combined a strong affection for Africa with an equally strong, if not stronger, commitment to becoming fully American. Thus Alexander Crummell attempted to Christianize Africans and introduce them to Western ideas, Edward Wilmot Blyden pioneered the concept of the African personality, and Henry McNeal Turner taught black nationalism and pan-Africanism, advocated the view that God was black, and extended his message of black pride in Africa. Martin R. Delany, a proponent of pan-African nationalism, originated and used the phrase, “Africa for the Africans” in 1859, the same year he visited Liberia. Delany called attention to the African character of Africans in the North and South of the United States and held that the strength of African culture was essential to ending black ambivalence on the question of identity.
Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany, who coedited The North Star publication, personified the duality in African American nationality building between the integrationist and nationalist ideologies as well as within the integrationist and nationalist movements. For instance, when Delany was calling for blacks' political independence in Africa, Douglass was demanding full citizenship for blacks in the United States; later, Douglass briefly contemplated political independence and Delany momentarily tested the path of U.S. citizenship through his participation in the Civil War and the politics of Reconstruction. With the betrayal of the promise of Reconstruction and Jim Crowism, the nationalist spirit found expression in movements in the United States to establish all-African towns and Oklahoma as an all-African state.
In 1879, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton's migration crusade out of the South, from Tennessee, toward the West mobilized thousands of Africans in America. The 19th century also saw the emigration of thousands of Africans from the United States to Haiti. Africans entered the 20th century poised for a new political, cultural, institutional direction that was not being provided by personalities such as Booker T. Washington, who himself opposed going back to Africa but sponsored programs and opportunities for Africans in America to return to the African continent. It was Booker T. Washington who inspired Marcus Garvey to come to the United States and whom Garvey wanted to meet, but Washington died before Garvey arrived.
The pan-African nationalism of the Garvey movement and the accommodationist nationalism represented by the communist-oriented African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) directly and indirectly influenced the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century. The African Blood Brotherhood was founded by Cyril V. Briggs in 1919 after his split from A. Philip Randolph's group over their different definitions of radicalism. In the beginning, the ABB leaned toward nationalism rather than the socialism that was advanced by the communist movement. Members of the ABB included notables such as Richard B. Moore and Hubert Harrison; it was Hubert Harrison who originated the Harlem street corner orator tradition that Malcolm X later embraced, fashioned the slogan “Race First,” and provided a platform for Marcus Garvey when he arrived in Harlem in 1917. Shortly after his arrival in the United States, Garvey transferred the headquarters of what would soon become the largest ever black nationalist organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), from Kingston, Jamaica, to Harlem, New York. Garvey, a brilliant man, articulated for the first time the major tenets of black nationalism, and he is considered by most the father of modern black nationalism.
Garvey represented the sentiments of pan-African nationalism in the early 20th century, whereas W. E. B. Du Bois, a supposed rival of Garvey, discovered the black nationalist tradition in the 1890s through intense study and believed that nationalism was an effective means in the liberation struggles of Africans in America. Du Bois and Henry Sylvester Williams were the pioneers who founded the pan-African congress in London in July of 1900.
Du Bois viewed Africans in the United States as a permanent and distinct group, with specific nonnegotiable values, and as a nation filled with great possibilities of culture and an original destiny based on African ideals. Du Bois's work marked a new development in the nationalist tradition by virtue of his ability to move easily among his people and take part in the sacred settings of their lives. Though Du Bois might be considered by some to be a pan-Africanist and an accommodationist, for him, black nationalism and socialism, which he considered to have deep roots in African communalism, were actually reconcilable.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Du Bois contemplated the feasibility of spreading black nationalism in America through programs. He established connections between African culture and black nationalism and drew on indigenous values found in West African societies so that Africans in America might organize their lives in cooperative communities—a spiritual unity. These efforts derived from his vision of cooperative societies as the primary vehicles for the transformation, through trained leadership, of the majority of Africans in the United States into leaders. For Du Bois, as well as for Paul Robeson, African liberation was one that was worldwide in scope. Robeson believed that African peoples should seek out and build on their common qualities with the object of developing a more expansive and unified African culture. The relationship of culture, identity, and sovereignty was also recognized by pan-African nationalists, such as Carlos Cook and those who came after the civil rights and black power era. At a convention in Harlem in 1959, Carlos Cook, the founder of the Garvey-oriented African nationalist pioneer movement, called for the abrogation of the term negro; this term went out of use in the 1960s as a result of the efforts of the pan-African nationalist movements of the black power era. In hindsight, the ultimate concerns of the civil rights and black power movements were similar, and the latter was the logical extension of the former.

Similarities and Dissimilarities of Proponents

Though integrationists and nationalists shared the same experiences of enslavement and European hegemony, the proponents of these ideological tendencies responded differently to the U.S. social order. The different, and often irreconcilable, themes represented by these tendencies have historically embodied or considered elements of each other, and within the nationalist tradition there have been proponents who have thought about and acted upon accommodationist (i.e., integrationist) ideas. Yet, more than any other period of black nationalist thought, the 1960s provided a greater articulation, through a multitude of disengaged organizations, of various strands of nationalist thought that vied for ascendancy as the most correct approach or ideological path toward liberation.
It is in this context that the black nationalist typology of cultural, territorial, religious, economic, and revolutionary nationalism can be found. The idea here, in a very simplistic way, is that cultural nationalists focus on the values and views of Africans in America, territorial nationalists focus on land (as the basis of an independent cultural nation), religious nationalists approach liberation from a religious perspective, economic nationalists operate as nationalists within the capitalist system, and revolutionary nationalism is premised on the international dismantling of capitalism and on armed resistance. Some scholars contend that revolutionary nationalism and reactionary nationalism are ultimately and fundamentally the only two types of black nationalism, in which the former believe in the potential of the masses to determine the course of liberation, while the latter fix on developing a capitalist and exploitative state in Africa.
The distant forms of black nationalism, such as cultural or religious nationalism, reflect a difference in emphasis rather than a mutually exclusive belief system. Cultural nationalists seek to restore African people's knowledge and practice of their authentic history and culture, thus to such nationalists, a cultural revolution precedes or is a form of political revolution. According to some, cultural nationalism has reached essentially the same impasse reached by assimilationism and black neoconservativism, due to what is perceived as reactionary obsessions with demonstrating the equality of African humanity and the primal and extraordinary qualities of African history and culture. The point is that the various groups of nationalists, particularly, after the civil rights era, have approached black nationalism from their particular level of experience and expertise, and their projected approach to black nationalism has been more a matter of strategy and tactic than a goal. Indeed, while most nationalists share the goal of liberation, the incoherency of black nationalist thought is due, in part, to groups' preoccupation with their own particular strategy or tactics rather than with the goal; it is also due to a lack of clarity about history and culture.
Liberalism, communism, and trade unionism, it can be argued, became the main ideological rivals of black nationalism in the 20th century. There was a proliferation of black nationalism in the urban centers of the late 20th century, and the dynamics and ascendance of black cultural nationalism in the broader context of nationality formation are observable. The historian Komozi Woodard lists five phases of black nationality formation: (1) the ethnogenesis of enslavement; (2) black nationalism before the Civil War inspired by principles of the American and Haitian revolutions; (3) the development of the subjected nation in the Black Belt areas of the South; (4) the great migration of 1.5 million Africans to urban industrial centers; and (5) the migration of 4 million Africans from the South between 1940 and 1970, heralded by the black power movement and the politics of black cultural nationalism.
In the final analysis, nationalism proves heterogeneous, even though no pure nationalist ideology can be identified with certainty. However, whether it be 19th-century personalities such as Maria Stewart, David Walker, and Henry Garnet, the words and works of whom reveal that language was used to establish cultural identity in ways that would advance liberation; or the Nation of Islam, which served primarily as a means for poor urban Africans to attain a national identity and a sense of ethnic consciousness, it can be asserted that the black nationalist movement, at its core, has always been concerned with liberation and national cultural identity.

The Current State of Black Nationalism

Throughout its evolution, the ideology of black nationalism in the United States has lacked coherence and adequate theoretical clarity. As a result, the black consciousness and black power movements were weakened from within by opportunism, ideological conflicts, paranoia, ineffectual leadership, lack of managerial skills, and a weak financial base. Harold Cruse's observation in the 1960s that black nationalism was fragmented into sects, factions, and cliques that resembled a morass of self-inflicted immobility and frustration still holds true today. Amos Wilson also observed that black nationalists and nationalistic organizations exist and function without a consensually clarified set of goals and a working well-coordinated system of interdependent nationalist organizations, and this makes impossible the conversion of ambiguously defined nationalist sentiments into a powerful movement.
Wilson advocated the formation of a black nationalist political party to serve as the primary and legitimate leader on behalf of the African community. He envisioned the party as providing viable and workable plans and training and organizing know-how and serving as the community's primary political arm, chief negotiator, and principal agency for forming coalitions with others. Some black nationalists argue that the United States and/or its revolutionary potential is where efforts should be focused, while others argue that the African continent is the African's only true land base. Black nationalists of the latter persuasion claim five states in the South on the premise of an African land-owning majority. Yet, Africans on the African continent and in the Caribbean are overwhelming majorities on their land but still are not sovereign in that they remain conceptually and physically dependent on external thinking and goods. The black nationalists who seek to organize the masses have failed to realize that mass movements have not shown to be sustainable or a viable strategy toward liberation. Certainly the idea of fighting for compensations through legal means is not new, and the African reparations campaign is a strategy that may yield some interesting outcomes.
If black nationalism is ideally a mass or people's movement, why is its greatest failing the lack of a clearly defined creed propagated by an organized group of dedicated advocates and activists? It appears that there is something more fundamental to the advancement of black nationalism than mass movements and a committed group of people. At the time of emancipation, enslaved Africans still remained essentially African in culture, and the core values of the great number of Africans in America have always been self-determination, freedom, and resistance to assimilation.
The greater and more substantive expression of black nationalism has been pan-African nationalism throughout the history of Africans in America. It is accurate to say that although the cultural identity of Africans in America continues to be affected by the U.S. social order, the African cultural orientation in America is still very much linked to the African historical-cultural continuum that informs that orientation. Thus, it is not difficult to find many illustrations of Africanisms in the thought, speech, social relationships, spiritual outlook, and general lives of many Africans in America today. Many are convinced that the liberation of Africans in America ultimately lies in their understanding, appreciation, and assertion of their cultural heritage. Black nationalism is inherently a cultural-ideological statement, and perhaps by drawing on pan-African nationalist conceptions unambiguously linked to culture, identity, and liberation, black nationalists will forge a coherent framework by which to achieve and sustain sovereignty in the African world.



  • black nationalism
  • nationalism
  • Africans in the United States
  • pan-Africanism
  • accommodationism
  • nationalist movements
  • black power movement


Further Reading

  • Akoto, Kwame A. (1992). Nationbuilding: Theory and Practice in Afrikan Centered Education. Washington, DC: Pan-Afrikan World Institute. This book addresses issues related to the applications of pan-African nationalist philosophy to nation building in the context of African historical and cultural continuity. The author applies a pan-African nationalist paradigm to African-centered education as well as connecting the concept of nation building to his discussion of education.
  • Lewis, Lewis, and Bryan, Patrick (Eds.). (1991). Garvey: His Work and Impact. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. These essays, written by an international panel at a conference on Garvey, evaluate pan-Africanism and other aspects of Garvey's ideological perspectives and practices, in addition to women in the movement, the influence of Garveyism on Jamaican culture and peoples of the Caribbean, and race and economic development.
  • Stuckey, Sterling. (1987). Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press. Stuckey explains how different African peoples interacted on the plantations of the South to achieve a common culture, which flowed from an essentially autonomous value system rooted in the African past and that created a pan-Africanism that provided an identity and ideology.
  • Van Deburg, William L. (Ed.). (1997). Modern Black Nationalism: From Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan. New York: New York University Press. The text is a collection of what the editor considers the most influential speeches, pamphlets, and articles that trace the development of black nationalism in the 20th century. It begins with Marcus Garvey as the father of the 20th-century movement, and then proceeds to black nationalism in the black power era and black nationalism and contemporary society.