Black nationalism is a type of nationalism or pan-nationalism in the United States which seeks to promote, develop and maintain a black national identity for people of black ancestry.
Black nationalist activism revolves around social, political, and economic empowerment of black communities and people, especially to resist assimilation into white American culture (through integration or otherwise), and maintain a distinct black identity.
Inspired by the success of the Haitian Revolution, the origins of Black and indigenous African nationalism in political thought lie in the 19th and early 20th centuries with people like Marcus Garvey, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, 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 millions of members. Garvey’s movement was opposed by mainline black leaders and crushed by government action. However, its many alumni remembered its inspiring rhetoric.
According to Wilson Jeremiah Moses, black nationalism as a philosophy can be examined from three different periods. giving rise to various ideological perspectives for what we can today consider black nationalism.
The first period of pre-classical black nationalism began when the first Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves through the American Revolutionary period.
The second period of black nationalism began after the Revolutionary War. This period refers to the time when a sizeable number of educated Africans within the colonies (specifically within New England and Pennsylvania) had become disgusted with the social conditions that arose out of the Enlightenment’s ideas. From this way of thinking came the rise of individuals within the black community who sought to create organizations that would unite black people. The intention of these organizations was to group black people together so they could voice their concerns, and help their own community advance itself. This form of thinking can be found in historical personalities such as; Prince Hall, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, James Forten, Cyrus Bustill, William Gray through their need to become founders of certain organizations such as African Masonic lodges, the Free African Society, and Church Institutions such as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. These institutions served as early foundations to developing independent and separate organizations for their own people. The goal was to create groups was to include those who so many times had been excluded from the (exclusively) white community and government-funded 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 form of black nationalism that stressed the need to separate blacks from non-blacks and build separate communities that would promote racial pride and collectivize resources. The new ideology became the philosophy of groups like the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam. By 1930, Wallace Fard Muhammad had founded the Nation of Islam. His method to spread information about the Nation of Islam used unconventional tactics to recruit individuals in Detroit, Michigan. Later on, Elijah Muhammad would lead the Nation of Islam and become a mentor to people like Malcolm X. Although the 1960s brought a period of heightened religious, cultural and political nationalism, it was black nationalism that would lead the promotion of Afrocentrism.
Prince Hall was an important social leader of Boston following the Revolutionary War. He is well known for his contribution as the founder of Black Freemasonry. His life and past are unclear, but he is believed to have been a former slave freed after twenty-one years of slavehood. In 1775 fifteen other black men along with Hall joined a freemason lodge of British soldiers, after the departure of the soldiers they created their own lodge African Lodge #1 and were granted full stature in 1784. Despite their stature, other white freemason lodges in America didn’t treat them equal and so Hall began to help other black Masonic lodges across the country to help their own cause.(To progress as a community together despite any difficulties brought to them by racists). Hall was best recognized for his contribution to the black community along with his petitions ( many denied) in the name of black nationalism. In 1787 he unsuccessfully petitioned to the Massachusetts legislature to send blacks back to Africa(to obtain “complete” freedom from white supremacy). In 1788, Hall was a well-known contributor to the passing of the legislation of the outlawing of the slave-trade and those involved. Hall continued his efforts to help his community and in 1796 his petition for Boston to approve funding for black schools. Despite the city’s inability to provide a building, Hall lent his building for the school to run from. Until his death in 1807, Hall continued to work for black rights in issues of abolition, civil rights and the advancement of the community overall.
The Free African Society
In 1787 Richard Allen and Absalom Jones black ministers of Pennsylvania and formed the Free African Society of Pennsylvania. The goal of this organization was to create a church that was free of restrictions of only one form of religion and to pave the way for the creation of a house of worship exclusive to their community (which in 1793 they were successful in doing, creating the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church). The community included many members who were notably abolitionist men and former slaves. Allen following his own beliefs that worship should be out loud and outspoken left the organization two years later. With there an opportunity to become the pastor to the church but rejected the offer leaving it to Jones. The society itself was a memorable charitable organization that allowed its members to socialize and network with other business partners, in an attempt to better their community. Its activity and open doors served as a motivational growth for the city as many other black mutual aid societies in the city began to pop up. Additionally, society is well known for their aid during the yellow fever epidemic in 1793 known to have taken the life of many of the city.
African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The African Church or the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was founded in 1792 for those of African descent, as a foster church for the community with the goal to be interdenominational. At the beginning of the church’s establishment, its masses were held in homes and local schools. One of the founders of the Free African Society was also the first Episcopal priest of African American descent, Absalom Jones. The original church house was constructed at 5th and Adelphi Streets in Philadelphia, now St. James Place, and it was dedicated on July 17, 1794, other locations of the church included: 12th Street near Walnut, 57th and Pearl Streets, 52nd and Parrish Streets, and the current location, Overbrook and Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia’s historic Overbrook Farms neighbourhood. The church is mostly African American. The church and its members have played a key role in the abolition/anti-slavery and equal rights movement of the 1800s.
“Since 1960 St. Thomas has been involved in the local and national civil rights movement through its work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Union of Black Episcopalians, the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), Philadelphia Interfaith Action, and The Episcopal Church Women. Most importantly, it has been at the forefront of the movement to uphold the knowledge and value of the black presence in the Episcopal Church. Today, that tradition continues with a still-growing membership through a host of ministries such as Christian Formation, the Chancel Choir, Gospel Choir, Jazz Ensemble, Men’s Fellowship, Young Adult and Youth Ministries, a Church School, Health Ministry, Caring Ministry, and a Shepherding Program.”
Nation of Islam
Wallace D. Fard founded the Nation of Islam in the 1930s. Fard took as his student Elijah (Poole) Muhammad, who later became the leader of the organization. The basis of the group was the belief that Christianity was exclusively a white man’s religion, while Islam was the way for black folk; Christianity was a religion that, like slavery itself, was forced upon the people who suffered at the hands of the whites during their enslavement. The beliefs of the members of the Nation of Islam are similar to others who follow the Quran and worship Allah under the religion of Islam. Founded on resentment of the way Whites historically treated people of colour, the Nation of Islam embraces the ideas of black nationalism. The group itself has, since the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, recruited thousands of followers from all segments of society: from prisons, as well as from black pride and black nationalist movements. Members of the Nation of Islam preached that the goal was not to integrate into White American culture, but rather to create their own cultural footprint and their own separate community in order to obliterate oppression. Their aim was to have their own schools and churches and to support each other without any reliance on other racial groups. The members of the Nation of Islam are known as Black Muslims. As the group became more and more prominent with public figures such as Malcolm X as its orators, it received increasing attention from outsiders. In 1959 the group was the subject of a documentary named The Hate that Hate Produced. The documentary cast the organization in a negative light, depicting it as a black supremacy group. Even with such depictions, the group did not lose support from its people. When Elijah Muhammad died, his son took on the role as the leader of the Nation of Islam, converting the organization into a more orthodox iteration of Islam and abandoning beliefs that tended toward violence. This conversion prompted others to abandon the group, dissatisfied with the change in ideology. They created a “New” Nation of Islam in order to restore the aims of the original organization.
The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the Nation of Islam as a hate group, stating: “Its theology of innate black superiority over whites and the deeply racist, antisemitic and anti-LGBT rhetoric of its leaders have earned the NOI a prominent position in the ranks of organized hate.” Louis Farrakhan currently leads the group.
Elijah Muhammad was famously known as the successor of Wallace Fard, the founder of the Nation of Islam. He was born in Georgia on October 7, 1897. He led the group from 1934-1975, being very well recognized as one of the mentors to other famous leaders such as Malcolm X. He lived until February 25, 1975, in Chicago, and the leadership of the organization passed to his son.
Marcus Garvey encouraged African people around the world to be proud of their race and see the beauty in their own kind. This form of black nationalism later became known as Garveyism. 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 unite under their own shared history. He was heavily influenced by the earlier works of Booker T. Washington, Martin Delany, and Henry McNeal Turner. Garvey used his own personal magnetism and the understanding of black psychology and the psychology of confrontation to create a movement that challenged bourgeois blacks for the minds and souls of African Americans. Marcus Garvey’s return to America had to do with his desire to meet with the man who inspired him most, Booker T. Washington but unfortunately, Garvey did not return in time to meet Washington. Despite this, Garvey moved forward with his efforts and two years later, a year after Washington’s death, Garvey established a similar organization in America known as the United Negro Improvement Association otherwise known as the UNIA. 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 his pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm X believed that African Americans must develop their own society and ethical values, including the self-help, community-based enterprises, that the black Muslims supported. He also thought that African Americans should reject integration or cooperation with whites until they could achieve internal cooperation and unity. He prophetically believed that 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 returned from Mecca with moderate views that included 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 secular Pan-Africanist group patterned after the Organization of African Unity), and he inspired some aspects of the future Black Panther movement.
In the 1967 Black Power, Stokely Carmichael introduces black nationalism. He illustrates the prosperity of the black race in the United States as being dependent on the implementation of black sovereignty. Under his theory, black nationalism in the United States would allow blacks to socially, economically and politically be empowered in a manner that has never been plausible in America history. A black nation would work to reverse the exploitation of the black race in America, as blacks would intrinsically work to benefit their own state of affairs. African Americans would function in an environment of running their own businesses, banks, government, media and so on and so forth. Black nationalism is the opposite of integration, and Carmichael contended integration is harmful to the black population. As blacks integrate to white communities they are perpetuating a system in which blacks are inferior to whites. Blacks would continue to function in an environment of being second class citizens, he believes, never reaching equity to white citizens. Stokley Carmichael uses the concept of black nationalism to promote the equality that would begin to dismantle institutional racism.
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 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 The Wretched of the Earth where Fanon analyzes the role of class, race, national culture and violence in the struggle for decolonization. In this 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 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.
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 violence when other 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.