When most people, regardless of age, sex, or race, are asked to identify black nationalists, they may mention Marcus Garvey, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X), or, more recently, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. To others, who are aware of the back-to-Africa movements of the late nineteenth century, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner frequently comes to mind. Rarely however, have black women nationalists such as Maria W. Stewart, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Henrietta Vinton Davis, Audley “Queen Mother” Moore, or Amy Jacques Garvey been recognized for their contributions to the history of the black nationalist movement and ideology. Other black women, through mass movements, political organizations, church groups, female societies, and the early women’s club movement, fueled the movement’s growth at different times in African American history. Although African American men were in the foreground of the movement and the enunciation of the ideology, with particular emphasis on racial solidarity and political self-determination, men and women worked in concert to define the dimensions of the ideology and created the impetus for the black-nationalist movement to gain currency and broad pragmatic application in black communities.
Black nationalism is the political and social thought as well as the collective strivings of African Americans seeking political, economic, and cultural autonomy in American society. At its center, black nationalism embodies the worldview that all Africans are linked to each other throughout the diaspora by the common ties of history, shared oppression, and destiny in Africa and New World societies. In the contemporary period, “black nationalism,” owing to its diasporan ethos, has frequently been used interchangeably with “Pan-Africanism.” Three critical factors that continuously fuel black-nationalist ideology are the memories of an African homeland, the displacement of Africans in the global slave trade, and the racial subordination of African Americans in American society. Although black nationalism arises principally as a collective response to institutional and individual racism as well as the desire for self-determination, black nationalism is a by-product of the transoceanic slave trade, the subsequent slavery and oppression, and black political agency in the western world.
Because blacks are particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of capitalism, there is a direct correlation between the evolution of black-nationalist expressions and the prevailing political, economic, and social conditions of African Americans. Black nationalism frequently lies dormant for short periods of time when there are efforts to include blacks in the American body politic, and resurges with new momentum when prospects for political and social gains are dimmed. As black nationalist consciousness has evolved over the centuries, so has the racial nomenclature, ranging from African, Negro, colored, black, and Afro-American to African American, marking the progression of political development. African, black, Afro-American, and African American are often used interchangeably, and all have gained currency since the 1960s.
The character and emphasis of black nationalism change over time, reflecting the material realities of black life and struggles of black people to achieve self-determination. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, African American leaders such as Paul Cuffee, Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, and Mary Shadd Cary advanced the ideas of separatism and emigrationism as the solutions to the black plight of slavery and racism in America. They also argued that new countries would provide opportunities for political self-determination. After the Civil War, when blacks were hopeful that they would be included in the reconstitution of the American democratic order, black nationalism was muted, and many nationalists were ambivalent about resettlement. By the late nineteenth century, however, as blacks were enmeshed in the rising tide of racism, the powerful force of domestic white terrorism in their daily lives, and their inability to purchase land because of collective white opposition, these factors caused many black nationalist grassroots organizers to implement several alternatives—territorial separatism, emigration, and economic nationalism—to mitigate the black plight in the post-Civil War South. Territorial separatism was the mass exodus of rural southern blacks to northern or western towns and cities as well as southern enclaves; economic nationalism was the development of black capitalist initiatives in black enclaves as a vehicle for black business and community development; and emigration was the mass back-to-Africa movements of the late 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s.
Despite its historical and political variances, several features of black nationalism have remained constant and give the ideology and movement its cohesiveness. The primary principle that drives black nationalism is racial solidarity, whereby African Americans mobilize for social change as a racial collective. Here African Americans view themselves as an aggrieved population seeking to ameliorate their collective condition through radical social change in American society. An extension of this concept is Pan-Africanism, a movement uniting black people all over the world, based on common African ancestry and the shared experience of oppression. A second feature of black nationalism is religious separatism, manifested by the rise of African American Christian houses of worship in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in both the North and the South and urban traditional spirituality praise houses and centers (many African-derived) in northern cities in the contemporary period. In both periods, blacks are defining their relationship to the spiritual universe separate and apart from the larger white society.
Another focus of black nationalism is cultural history, a cyclical view of history that identifies the African continent as the intellectual and cultural seat of western civilization and promises the reemergence of African greatness in the modern world and the restoration of racial pride of all of Africa’s descendants. These three elements are strengthened by a fourth: self-determination, which promotes the autonomous decision-making, self-governance, and pragmatic programs necessary to achieve liberation.
Early Black Nationalism, 1787-1829
Black nationalism has its roots in post-Revolutionary War America. Two of its earliest forms of expression were religious separatism and emigrationism, which were intertwined in the African missionary zeal of Paul Cuffee. In 1815, Captain Cuffee, a shipowner and philanthropist, motivated by the “civilizing” fervor of African Methodism and a commercial plan that he hoped would establish economic connections between Africans and African Americans and ultimately eradicate slavery, relocated thirty-eight blacks to Sierra Leone. Although Cuffee’s plans encountered stiff black and white opposition in America and his attempts to foster future colonization efforts were frustrated, he planted the seeds of religious separatism and emigration to the motherland as a viable alternative for African Americans.
Religious separatism also proved to be the political spark that galvanized free African Americans in their first freedom movement with the founding of the black church, fraternal orders, and benevolent societies that addressed their sacred and secular needs in urban areas. The movement was spearheaded by the Free African Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1787; this secular society, with its underlying religious ethos, proved to be the parent organization of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and served as a catalyst for black church development in nascent black communities. The intertwined sacred and secular themes in the black church are rooted in these beginnings, and the black church grew phenomenally during this period. Several early black female evangelists, such as Jarena Lee, Zilpha Elaw, Rebecca Cox Jackson, and Julia A. J. Foote, were affiliated with the early black church and, despite their domestic and international missions, identified black churches as their “home” church at varied points in their lives.
These women were responsible for the success of many black churches in reaching and appealing to larger audiences and they helped generate revenues to keep various black churches active and viable within their communities. Rebecca Cox Jackson, for example, worked with pastors and members of churches to make sure they understood the importance of unity among black people. When Cox spoke to them, she would tell them that in order for black churches to be effective and secure in their positions in the community, they had to address the major issues facing black Americans—civil rights, education, job opportunities, and black family life.
Equally so, black female evangelists aroused the ire of the developing black church male hierarchy because of their broad influence in black and white communities. In addition to their affiliation with black churches, the black female evangelists Jarena Lee, Zilpha Elaw, and Julia A. J. Foote frequently preached to vast interracial audiences across the country and garnered praise for their spiritual integrity and evangelical mission. At home, they could be found conducting prayer meetings, classes, and spontaneous exhortations at women’s homes, bonding closely with the other female church parishioners. Black male ministers frequently but unsuccessfully attempted to stifle the voices of these women, viewing them as a threat to black male leadership and control of the African Christian message. The rise of ecclesiastical sexism in the black church, forcing black female evangelists and female parishioners to act in concert to thwart its development, was related to early nationalist expression and proved to be a bone of contention up until the contemporary period.
Black Nationalist Ideology and Expression, 1829-1863
The disparate features of black nationalism were woven together in a composite ideology from 1829 to 1841. Although such ideological features as religion and racial identity were integral to the slave community, the articulation of the ideology began in northern cities as fugitives and free persons began to struggle with their own definition of peoplehood. The focus on political equality, antislavery, and nationalist aspirations led black nationalists to combine both assimilationist and separatist views in a spiritual and political uplift program for members of the black community. Assimilationism and separatism would be viewed as two different ideological perspectives in the twentieth century, but in the antebellum era many African Americans wedded their right of self-determination to their rights as citizens of the American polity.
With the publication of Robert Alexander Young’s Ethiopian Manifesto and David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World in 1829, many of the early and later ideas of black nationalist ideology were expressed. Young’s primary argument was that God would send a black messiah to spearhead the black freedom struggle and that in taking up their cause, blacks would achieve spiritual redemption. The notion of a black messiah who wages a holy war on the enemies of African Americans and simultaneously offers spiritual redemption would remain prevalent in black nationalist thought. Walker called for national and international solidarity, uniting Pan-Africanism with black nationalist ideology. What alarmed advocates of slavery as well as some of the more moderate abolitionists was that Walker also advocated violence as a necessary component of the freedom struggle, believing that the superior strength of African Americans was merely lying dormant until the proper time of retribution. Critical to Walker’s position was that enslaved and free blacks must act in concert to achieve victory in the emancipation of the slaves and the liberation of free blacks from their political and social conditions.
In 1835, in the Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart, Stewart, of Boston and later New York City, laid the groundwork for the role of black women in the freedom cause. As a militant abolitionist and an admirer of David Walker, Stewart merged her spirituality with her gender consciousness and ardent abolitionism as she encouraged women to move beyond household duties and define themselves as political activists in the cause of justice and freedom. In addition to her published essays and philosophical reflections, Stewart distinguished herself as a speaker, albeit contentious; speaking at such venues as the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society in 1832, she implored the women to lend their energies in a crusade of moral redemption, abolitionism, and the liberation of all African peoples. For Stewart, black women had to take their rightful place as moral and political leaders in the struggle for emancipation and liberation. As rhetorically strident as Young and Walker, Stewart proved unrelenting in her criticism of America’s domestic and international policies, seeing racism and exploitation in the former and racism, imperialism, and oppression in the latter. She proved just as compelling in her rebuke of black men, who, she believed, could and should do more for self-liberation.
There was a rhetorical stridency in early black nationalists, frequently providing an environment for their critics in the media to flourish. Although violence is very much a part of American past and contemporary history, when black nationalists have advocated violence as a necessary remedy for injustice, it has created a political backlash of unusual proportions. Of particular note in the early period was the militancy of Henry Highland Garnet’s “Address to the Slaves” in 1843, which reiterated Walker’s call for slave resistance and violence, if necessary, to achieve emancipation. Although this fiery speech was delivered at the National Black Convention in Buffalo, New York, of that same year, it received national attention among both supporters and Garnet’s critics. As free African Americans tried to find common ground amid slavery on one hand and nascent capitalism in urban cities on the other, separatism in many ways reflected this dilemma.
Separatism continued in the 1830s and 1840s with the development of all-black settlements in the Midwest, where African Americans free from the burden of white society emphasized their self-reliance. These all-black settlements proved to blacks that they could flourish under self-governing townships and communities. Sarah Woodson Early was raised in one of these settlements in Berlin Crossroads, Milton Township, Jackson County, Ohio. This independent farming community, which had its own school, church, and real estate, made a lasting impression on Early, who later emphasized her own nationalism through education, moral reform, and religion as essential to elevating the race. A dedicated educator, Early played an active role in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, promoting moral reform and women’s equality within the black church. In the late nineteenth century, Early, still advocating separatism and self-reliance although not shying away from larger reform movements, joined the temperance movement, succeeding Frances E. W. Harper as superintendent of the Colored Division of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
By the 1850s, there were several factors that rejuvenated interest in emigrationism in black communities. For one, black menial workers were being supplanted by the large influx of Irish workers coming to America as a result of the potato famine in Ireland. For another, nascent capitalism was solidifying blacks at the bottom of the economic ladder, and their economic opportunities were dismal at best. However, the catalyst for the dramatic upsurge of interest in emigrationism was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. For many blacks, this law came on the heels of having fled slavery, living in substandard housing in urban areas, scraping out a meager living in episodic employment, and daily confronting the brunt of racial discrimination. As emigrationism gained broad-based support in black communities, it was undoubtedly viewed as an answer to the unemployment, racial discrimination, disenfranchisement, and segregation that plagued the lives of African Americans. Black leaders like Frederick Douglass who were opposed to emigration supported separate institutional development as a vehicle for improving social conditions of rural and urban blacks.
In its wake, the emigration movement left towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania almost completely emptied of African Americans, as thousands, fugitive and free, fled to Canada. Among emigrationists, Haiti, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Africa all became viable emigration alternatives. Mary Ann Shadd Cary encouraged emigration to Canada when she published A Plea for Emigration or Notes on Canada West, in Its Moral, Social, and Political Aspect: With Suggestions Respecting Mexico, W. Indies and Vancouver Island for the Information of Colored Emigrants (1852). As Jane Rhodes notes, “the little book catapulted Mary Ann Shadd Cary into the public arena and into the heart of the emigrationist debate.” Shadd migrated to Canada in 1851 and had lived there less than a year when she penned her work in support of emigrationism, citing “American oppression” and the “odious Fugitive Slave Law” as the two primary factors necessitating emigration. Shadd established her public voice as an authority on Canadian emigration, supplanting others like Henry Bibb, who was vying for political leadership on the question. She gained more prominence as a national theorist when she spoke at the 1855 National Emigration Convention, giving what Frederick Douglass called “one of the most convincing and telling speeches in favor of Canadian emigration I ever heard.”
In the 1850s prominent nationalists such as Mary Bibb, James T. Holly, Martin Delany, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary assembled several emigration conventions to promote viable emigration alternatives for African Americans who were now supporting emigration in increasing numbers. Women were one-third of the participants of the 1854 National Emigration Convention. Holly reported on the advantages of emigrating to Haiti, and Delany, who had recently emigrated to Canada, explored the Niger Valley region in Africa for the purposes of resettlement. Mary Bibb and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, both recent Canadian emigrants and erstwhile friends, encouraged others to repatriate to western Canada. Cary’s Canadian weekly, the Provincial Freeman, served as one of the official organs of the emigration convention movement, and, as Jane Rhodes notes, “argue[d] mightily for Canadian emigration, and fill[ed] the void left by abolitionists in the United States who ignored or denigrated the cause.” Karen Crews has noted that “most female nationalists did not lecture on emigration. They showed their support by moving, primarily to Canada West and Africa.”
While emigration projects were short-lived and most were beset with severe financial shortfalls, they did capture the disappointment of African Americans with America’s promise and simultaneously their fervent desire to control their destiny. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln in January 1863, became the galvanizing document that united black leaders around seeking their common cause in America, and the Civil War turned the attention of all black nationalists to the antislavery cause and their dream of eradicating slavery in their lifetime.
With the failure of Reconstruction and the rise of domestic terrorism in the South, African Americans revived black nationalism by choosing to establish separate institutions in urban areas such as black churches, mutual benevolent associations, and black schools, which they could control to advance their political and social equality. Others opted for territorial separatism, seeking in the 1880s and 1890s to establish all-black towns and cities away from white society. V. P. Franklin notes that in “the face of organized white opposition and terrorism, migration out of the rural South was seen by thousands of Afro-Americans as the only way to achieve individual or collective advancement and self-determination.” Largely through the efforts of grassroots organizers, thousands of blacks saw interstate southern migration and migration to the North and West as ways to express their Pan-Africanist ideals of self-determination. Nell Irwin Painter observes that as the masses caught “Kansas fever,” they caught “Liberia fever” as well.
Those determined to return to Africa embraced the back-to-Africa missionary and secular emigrationism of the period. Of these, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, an AME bishop who envisioned a selective emigration of blacks from America to promote Christianity in Africa, received the support of the masses of blacks in his Liberian emigration efforts. Turner, who was one of the first to raise the issue of reparations for slavery, believed that those monies could support his Christian crusade. Like Edward W. Blyden, Turner saw Christianity as one of the organizing tools for the economic and political development of Africans in the United States and Africa.
But for those who stayed behind, economic nationalism clearly dominated the era. One major thrust of this separate path of economic development was the acquisition of land. Its roots may be traced to the common ownership of land in several African states which still had a pervasive influence on the recently emancipated blacks. Equally compelling was the economic condition of blacks, who either were cheated out of the land that they had purchased or found that the promises of the government’s redistribution of land never materialized; they felt betrayed. Acquiring land in both the North and the South was viewed by blacks as a step toward political access. The emphasis on land, the development of black businesses, the creation of quasi-lending institutions, and “buy black” campaigns all laid the economic foundation in black communities and simultaneously enhanced black pride.
In the early 1880s, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, by then a resident of Washington, DC, worked with other women through the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association to secure suffrage for women, equal job opportunities for women, and more independent or collectively owned businesses owned and operated by women. Their elaborate plans for accumulating the funds—each member investing one dollar a month—to purchase land and establish agricultural, grocery, dry goods and millinery, and men’s clothing store ventures, with black women having controlling power, did not come to fruition. But their focus on collective economic development was indicative of the main ideological thrust of late-nineteenth-century black nationalism.
This focus on economic development as the key to community self-empowerment was the central idea put forth by Maggie Lena Walker in the early twentieth century. Walker’s business acumen, which was shaped by a consciousness of “gender and race work,” spearheaded a number of business initiatives, including the Women’s Union, a female insurance company; the St. Luke Emporium, a department store; and the widely known St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. Walker, chief officer of the Independent Order of St. Luke and president of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank,
questioned the fact that while the white community oppressed the black, “the Negro...carries to [its] bank every dollar he can get his hands upon and then goes back the next day, borrow and then pays the white man to lend him his own money.”...Walker considered such behavior racially destructive and believed it necessary to break those ties that kept “the Negro...so wedded to those who oppress him.” (Brown, p. 627)
As a black Virginian, Walker consistently spoke out against disfranchisement, and her economic determinism eventually led her to combine her talents with other black leaders for independent political action.
A moderate feminist-nationalist movement, the black women’s club movement was organized in 1896 under the umbrella of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The NACW supported collective self-help programs, moral uplift of black women, social uplift of the masses, and institutional separatism, all contemporary nationalist ideas of the era. Mary Church Terrell, Fannie Barrier Williams, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Anna Julia Cooper, Addie Hunton, Margaret Murray Washington, Adella Hunt Logan, and others led the organization in challenging the precepts and myths of black womanhood. In redefining the moral integrity and ethics of black womanhood, black women defied the patriarchal system that made them vulnerable to sexual exploitation and debasement in society. Positioning themselves in the debate on strategies of racial uplift,
the National Association of Colored Women became the black woman’s primary vehicle for race leadership.... Since, in their minds, “a race could rise no higher than its women,” they felt that when they improved the condition of black women, they necessarily improved the conditions of the race. When they spoke in defense of black women, they automatically spoke in defense of all black people. (White, p. 24)
Leaders such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who spearheaded the antilynching crusade, reflected the clubwomen’s political independence from either the ideology of Booker T. Washington or that of W. E. B. Du Bois.
Contemporary Nationalist Movements, 1916-2003
Contemporary nationalist expressions combine Pan-Africanism and economic, religious, and cultural nationalism as sources of black empowerment. The pervasive nationalist ethos may be attributed to charismatic leadership, nationalist organizations, the independence of African nations, and worldwide liberation struggles. While the persistence of racism is most certainly a decided factor in the continuance of black nationalism, important factors that sustain it include the resurgence of black conservatism, which seeks to destabilize the post-civil rights leadership cadre and the gains from the movement; the crisis or vacuum in black leadership on the national level; and the renewed interest on the part of African Americans in the diaspora. The diasporan focus at the beginning of the twenty-first century is reflective of the Pan-Africanism of the early twentieth century and very much indicates the ebb and flow of nationalist sentiments.
After W. E. B. Du Bois revived the Pan-African Congress, interest in Pan-Africanism persisted. Ironically, while Du Bois and Marcus Garvey were at loggerheads, Garvey and Garveyism had a corresponding national and international development as the Pan-African Congress rose in prominence. Certainly these efforts fueled the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, where literary expressions of cultural nationalism captured Africa as the source of racial pride, kinship ties, and regeneration in the poet’s imagination. Marcus Garvey’s multifaceted organization for the black masses, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), transported the nationalist foundation, organizational apparatus, ideology, and vision of greatness of the African continent into the twentieth century. Gayraud Wilmore argues that
the UNIA was an organization of many facets—political, religious, social, recreational, cultural, and economic—serving a wide range of needs of those who were disappointed with traditional Christianity, bitter about ostracism from the rising black middle class, and looking for a new black savior who could give their lives meaning and direction. (Wilmore, p.147)
With the underpinnings of Pan-Africanism, Garvey wove economic, religious, and cultural nationalism into a comprehensive ideology that appealed to Africans throughout the diaspora. The tenets of Garveyism, including international economic linkages with Africans, African Caribbeans, and African Americans; an end to European imperialism; creation of an African identity; and the vision of an independent African nation, resonated with millions of Africans throughout the world. While Garveyism was promoted throughout the diaspora by a coterie of international orators, principally Audley “Queen Mother” Moore and Henrietta Vinton Davis, and UNIA’s publication, the Negro World, the intellectual center of the movement was Harlem. Garvey’s economically based, multimillion-dollar business enterprises sustained the economic development of the Harlem community, enabling many recent migrants from the South and the West Indies to survive with dignity. Yet his cultural nationalism, which fostered racial pride and unity through ancestral ties to Africa, was his greatest contribution to the black masses. As Audley “Queen Mother” Moore commented,
when Marcus Garvey came on the scene, then of course a deep consciousness was awakened in me....[H]e raised in me a certain knowledge of me belonging to people all over the world, the African people, and he gave me pride, and he gave me a great knowledge of the history of the wealth of Africa. (Gilkes)
Despite the patriarchal vision of Garveyism, UNIA was an intellectual and political training ground for black women, including some who would later employ their skills in other female-centered organizations. Amy Ashwood paved the way for female leadership to emerge in the movement, and black women were spokespersons and organizers as well as being pivotal to the economic arm of UNIA, particularly the Black Cross Nurses, who provided the unemployed with food and housing. Despite the lack of an official title, Amy Jacques Garvey was clearly the most influential woman in the Garvey movement, serving as editor of the women’s page in the Negro World. But as Jacques Garvey transformed her political consciousness, moving from simply espousing her husband’s philosophical ideas to becoming a Pan-Africanist intellectual combining black feminism and nationalism, she played a crucial role in shaping the ideology of Garveyism.
Other Garveyite women included Henrietta Vinton Davis, one of the founding members of UNIA, who used her oratorical talents throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America in the cause of black liberation. Davis drew large crowds and urged her audiences to understand that being black should not entail being politically, socially, or economically oppressed. She argued that being black was a resource through which black people could draw the strength and determination they need to fight injustices and remain unified regardless of nationality. Audley “Queen Mother” Moore also emerged as one of the leaders of the Garvey movement, although she is more widely known as a member of the American Communist Party and a founder of the Ethiopian Coptic Church in North America and the Universal Association of Ethiopian Women, which was a tributary of Wells-Barnett’s antilynching crusade.
Despite Garvey’s deportation in 1927 and the decline of Garveyism in the United States, UNIA and the influence of Garveyism still resonated in black communities around the world. Economic nationalism and racial solidarity persisted in female-centered organizations into the 1930s. The development of housewives’ leagues and “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns represented a continuing form of black nationalism. In Jamaica, Una Marson and Adina Spencer were Garveyites who not only were members of women’s organizations but also articulated concerns for black female workers.
By 1960, the diasporan connection gained renewed impetus when the prime minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, who had spent his summers in Harlem when he attended Lincoln University, invited educated and skilled blacks to emigrate to Africa. In the same year, Amy Jacques Garvey was invited to visit Nigeria and Ghana in West Africa and while there spoke to large audiences on the legacy of Garvey and Garveyism. Since Nkrumah had been heavily influenced by Garvey’s nationalism and a UNIA branch had been established in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1920, Amy Jacques Garvey was in every sense coming home. Although Garvey’s “back-to-Africa” component of Garveyism was never given serious attention by many scholars, Taylor notes that the Garveys “argued that an Africa redeemed from colonial rule would give New World Africans international influence and strength to demand fair and equal treatment for themselves wherever they lived.”
The 1960s were a time of contradictions, and black nationalism became pivotal in the latter part of the decade as African Americans countered their disillusionment over the tentative steps toward integration with a new political focus on black self-determination. By mid-decade, the hope for equality of opportunity to follow the civil rights campaign was beginning to fade into disappointment. This disappointment was deepened by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the presidential candidate, Robert F. Kennedy, both of whom blacks felt were supportive of their civil rights cause. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were viewed as victories of struggle, they were far less than black activists wanted, as black communities were still confronted with unemployment, inferior schools, impoverishment, substandard housing, deteriorating health conditions, and police brutality. The growing chasm between the black middle class and poor blacks, material deprivation, police brutality, and the dismal gains of the civil rights movement became catalysts for urban uprisings and rebellions in the inner cities for much of the decade.
Black activists, who were seeking new ideological moorings, were already shifting the center of protest to neglected northern cities. The rise of the Black Power movement in the mid-1960s, with El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X) as the ideological fountainhead of the movement, embodied the black nationalist ideological shift. The resurgence of black nationalism in this period, while full of the potential to create and sustain a black destiny apart from the dictates of white society, also embraced the cynical view that whites would never concede equality of opportunity to blacks. By the time of the assassinations of Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the Black Power movement was in full sway.
“Black Power,” a term initiated by the SNCC activist Willie Ricks in 1966, which engendered fear, apprehension, and ambivalence in the largely white society, captured the moment. Popularized by Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power was an evolving nationalist perspective that included turning a political lens on the political, economic, and social empowerment of black communities in contrast to pursuing integration initiatives that yielded meager gains at best. Most black nationalist organizations founded during this period grounded their critiques of American society in revolutionary black nationalism, with blacks and whites advocating the overthrow of the capitalist system; or Pan-Africanism, with all diasporan blacks uniting to combat a common oppression by racism and imperialism; or cultural nationalism, which reinforced African heritage and traditions, racial pride and solidarity, and the goals of black liberation through spiritual and artistic expressions. African dress and hairstyles also denoted evolving black consciousness, as did black protests on white campuses for departments and programs of black studies.
A proliferation of nationalist organizations on the national, state, and local levels reflected this nationalist consciousness, and black women were involved in every phase of development. The vanguard movement, the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), founded in 1962 by a group of black Ohio students, shaped the revolutionary political agenda of the growing black consciousness. Largely an underground movement with chapters all over the country, RAM emphasized the social and economic development of black communities—freedom schools, guerilla armies, and farming cooperatives—as well as advocating socialism to replace the moribund capitalist system. It planted the seeds for the program of the Black Panther Party.
Founded in 1966, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which drew some of its founding members from RAM, achieved national prominence by appealing to black urban youth with strident rhetoric, open challenges against police brutality, armed self-defense for the protection of black communities, and paramilitary black garb. The party emphasized community-based programs such as its free breakfasts, day-care centers, and schools, and sought to make black communities safe centers. The Black Panther Party’s approach to black nationalism was akin to Garveyism, and some scholars believe that advocating the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and working in interracial coalitions to effect social change identify it as a Marxist organization. This combination is also indicative of the black radical tradition of revolutionary black nationalism, similar to El Hajj Malik El Shabazz’s Organization of Afro-American Unity, founded in 1964, in which the emphasis was on black community uplift and political liberation, and on simultaneously promoting interracial cooperation and global liberation efforts as well.
Although the Black Panther Party focused on male-centered leadership, black women remained pivotal to its organizational functioning and leadership. Many women, including Regina Jennings, Ethel Paris, Leslie Johnson, Afeni Shakur, and Carol Rucker, served in positions such as organizing the breakfast program and selling the Black Panther Party newspaper, the Black Panther, in the community to finance their operations as well as to raise the political consciousness of the community. Black Panthers were also required to participate in political education classes taught by such key members as Erika Huggins, one of the first women to be on the Central Committee, so that they could develop their philosophical perspectives and outreach programs. Other prominent women members included Andrea Jones, who was captain of the Boston branch of the Black Panther Party; and Barbara Sankey, Ann Campbell, and Yvonne King, who all held important decision-making positions in the Illinois Black Panther Party.
Despite the international and national vision and political agenda of most nationalists organizations during the 1960s, black women’s voices could be muted in male-dominated hierarchical structures. Black nationalists espoused traditional conservative gender relations between men and women, frequently stifling female leadership. Some women remained in nationalist organizations and confronted the sexism while they simultaneously held leadership and functional positions inside the organizational structure; others sought different black political and cultural organizations where they could play a more active leadership role; and still others went into the women’s movement. Many female activists belonged to several different organizations at one time while others, as they evolved politically, adopted different ideological expressions. Assata Shakur (JoAnne Chesimard), Elaine Brown, Kathleen Cleaver, and Angela Davis were all prominent members of the Black Panther Party, although Davis later joined the Che Lumumba Group, an all-black collective arm of the American Communist Party. Claudia Jones and Charlene Mitchell were earlier black Communists who worked with revolutionary nationalist cadres and shaped much of the thought, activism, and organizational expertise of young black progressives of that era.
Each phase of black nationalist development engenders a corresponding phase of cultural renaissance. In the 1960s, these artists raised the political awareness of black communities around social issues. Dubbed the Black Arts Movement, these poets and playwrights provided through their work a trenchant analysis of American democratic ideals while articulating African and African American traditional cultural values of racial pride. These poets, essayists, and playwrights raised the level of political consciousness in black communities as they advocated social change. The poets Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Imamu Amiri Baraka, and Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) and the playwright Ed Bullins were important in the development of the Black Arts Movement as a cultural arm of the nationalist movement.
Ron Karenga’s US Organization, a political movement founded in the same period, focused on the cultural renewal of African Americans. Largely drawing on varied African religions, rituals, ceremonies, and philosophies, US represented an amalgamation of African and African American cultural traditions that could be utilized in an African American cultural renaissance. Part of the emphasis on cultural nationalism is the retrieval of African history to influence the pride and dignity of African Americans. Other organizations, such as the Republic of New Africa, the Black Political Assembly, and the African Liberation Support Committee, geared their programs of liberation toward the black masses. The Congress of African Peoples, founded in 1970, emphasized cultural unity as a vehicle for black liberation. At the turn of the twenty-first century, an emerging new field of African women diasporan studies sought to unite nationalist and African feminist thought, as many black female political thinkers did at the turn of the twentieth century, in a critical examination of gender, race, and class in the Americas and Africa.
Black nationalist expression experienced another resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s, and at the dawn of the new century. In this post-civil rights era, African Americans witnessed, alongside the rise of political conservatism, the dismantling of civil rights gains and a general political retraction of inclusion in the body politic. The persistence of poverty, drugs, lack of health care, substandard housing, hunger, and underemployment had devastating consequences on African American communities. This cycle of impoverishment and the disillusionment with the gains of the civil rights movement have generated a new impetus of nationalist sentiment for native African garb and artifacts, separate institutional development, cultural expressions, and a reexamination of black-nationalist thought that embraces all levels and classes of African Americans.
The component of black nationalist thought that gained marked prominence in the last two decades of the twentieth century and steadily made its way into the new century was Afrocentrism. Although susceptible to a variety of interpretations, Afrocentrism embodies the concept that the worldview of Africans and African Americans is African-centered. From this African-centered focal point of thought, knowledge, and culture, one assesses the pivotal role that Africa played in the development of world civilizations. Molefi Kete Asante, one of the scholars who popularized Afrocentrism, notes that the “Afrocentric enterprise is framed by cosmological, epistemological, axiological, and aesthetic issues. In this regard the Afrocentric method pursues a world voice distinctly African-centered in relationship to external phenomena.” Despite its elements of radicalism, the conservative elements of Afrocentrism that emphasize traditional African-derived roles for men and women, homophobia, and attacks on black feminism have drawn fire from a number of critics. On balance, the black nationalist positions of traditional gender roles, homophobia, and invalidating black feminist or womanist activism, in the wake of the new global economy as well as the contemporary material realities of all classes of blacks, may prove divisive and untenable in black community life. While many black women advocate varied aspects of black nationalist sentiment, they simultaneously embrace feminist or womanistphilosophies as well.
At the start of the twenty-first century, black nationalism increasingly expressed its ideals of racial solidarity or Pan-Africanism. Kwanzaa, an African-inspired cultural celebration that millions of African Americans embrace as a source of family and African solidarity, has found its way into museums, schools, and the media in urban areas in the 1990s. The emergence of Malcolm X once again as the ideological fountainhead of black nationalism for a new generation has paved the way for the national and international influence of Minister Louis Farrakhan. With Minister Farrakhan’s rising prominence and the eclipse of the prestige of many of the post-civil rights leader, there has been a noticeable increase in the rise of separate black institutions as well as a more dramatic increase in membership in the Nation of Islam and other Islamic groups. Most of these groups emphasize traditional Islamic roles for men and women, although a growing number of women are seeking to find their own voices in the Islamic movement and are rapidly gaining visibility in the new century.
Connected to Pan-Africanism, diasporan blacks, and Islam were the vast trading networks that emerged in the 1990s in black communities in urban cities. Daily reminders of the African connection and the study of Islam were provided by transatlantic networks of African traders living in black communities when in the United States and frequently returning to Africa to replenish their inventories. African female traders became increasingly prevalent in this international trading network, leading Paul Stoller to comment, “Between 1992 and 1998, there were also a few female traders at the Harlem markets, mostly middle-aged Wolof women from Senegal, who sold dolls, jewelry, and cooked food.” As African Americans and Africans come together in the halls of academe, professional organizations, national organizations, local movement centers for social change, African craft markets in urban cities, student collectives, and neighborhood associations, these connections reflect their organizing for political and economic empowerment via nationalist channels.
See also Black Arts Movement; Cary, Mary Ann Shadd; Davis, Angela; Garvey Movement Women; Moore, Audley “Queen Mother”; Stewart, Maria W.; and Walker, Maggie Lena.
Ye Daughters of Africa
How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles? Until union, knowledge and love begin to flow among us. How long shall a mean set of men flatter us with their smiles, and enrich themselves with our hard earnings; their wives’ fingers sparkling with rings, and they themselves laughing at our folly? Until we begin to promote and patronize each other. Shall we be a by-word among the nations any longer? Shall they laugh us to scorn forever? Do you ask, what can we do? Unite and build a store of your own, if you cannot procure a license. Fill one side with dry goods, and other with groceries. Do you ask, where is the money? We have spent more than enough for nonsense, to do what building we should want. We have never had an opportunity of displaying our talents; therefore the world thinks we know nothing. And we have been possessed of by far too mean and cowardly a disposition, though I highly disapprove of an insolent or impertinent one. Do you ask the disposition I would have you possess? Possess the spirit of independence. The Americans do, and why should not you? Possess the spirit of men, bold and enterprising, fearless and undaunted. Sue for your rights and privileges. Know the reason that you can attain them. Weary them with your importunities. You can but die, if you make the attempt; and we shall certainly die if you do not. The Americans have practiced nothing but head-work these 200 years, and we have done their drudgery. And is it not high time for us to imitate their examples, and practice head-work too, and keep what we have got, and get what we can? We need never to think that anybody is going to feel interested for us, if we do not feel interested for ourselves. That day we, as a people, hearken unto the voice of the Lord our God, and walk in his ways and ordinances, and become distinguished for our ease, elegance and grace, combined with other virtues, that day the Lord will raise us up, and we shall begin to flourish.
Excerpt from Maria W. Stewart ’s Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality (1831).
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