Though both lineages have contributed substantially to the Black Freedom Struggle, Black Nationalism is often relegated to the margins as a fringe ideology. However, it is worth noting that “Garvey and Garveyism” produced the largest mass movement among Blacks in the history of this nation. It is also noteworthy that the largest demonstration in the history of the U.S., the Million Man March in 1995, was organized by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. While public intellectuals like Dr. Cornel West have frequently disparaged nationalism as counter-productive, I would argue that Black Nationalism has been and remains an essential/indispensable element in the formula for the survival and development of Africans in America.
At its most basic level, nationalism is simply a call for group unity/solidarity. Nations or groups who are oppressed, disunited or in decline may recall the glories of their history and culture as a means of creating the consciousness and solidarity necessary to revive, resurrect, restore or rebuild the nation or group. Hence, Garibaldi harkened back to the glory days of ancient Rome as he sought to unite disparate ethnic groups in his quest to create an Italian nation. Garibaldi was an Italian Nationalist. Overcoming the devastating effects of the holocaust of enslavement and the British-American system of Chattel slavery required a healthy dose of Black Nationalism to begin the process of creating a new African community from the disparate African ethnic groups kidnapped and brought to America. As Malcolm put it, “we didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us.”
Malcolm also said: “of all the crimes committed by Europeans against Africans, the greatest crime was to take our names.” This is a profound insight because it addresses the devastating impact of cultural aggression on enslaved Africans. Black people from different/distinct African ethnic groups/nations were captured by Europeans, forbidden to practice our native religions, speak our languages, play African musical instruments and taught that our color was a mark of degradation and inferiority. The slave masters attempted to de-Africanize and dehumanize enslaved Africans as part of a process of pacification and control. The goal was to produce a “docile Negro” who would never unite to resist or rebel against enslavement.
Little wonder that the few Blacks who were freed from slavery searched the Bible and the pages of history to discover the legacy of their forebears prior to the holocaust of enslavement. The glory of ancient Egypt, Ethiopia and the great Sudanic Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay gave the likes of Richard Allen, Absolom Jones, David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, Martin R. Delaney and countless other early community-builders the sense that Africans had a heritage/legacy that made them somebody! Armed with the inspiration of these insights, quasi-free Blacks began the awesome task of demanding the abolition of slavery and building and sustaining Black institutions as part of a new African community in the U.S. In the face of the damage done by cultural aggression, an appeal to racial pride and solidarity was essential to the community-building process.
Historically, however, there has always been a tension between those leaders/constituents who preferred to utilize racial solidarity to pursue incorporation/integration into the American body politic as equal citizens as the primary goal of the Black Freedom Struggle versus those who saw the latter option as one possibility in the quest for self-determination. Black Nationalists have always advocated racial solidarity and the maintenance of Black institutions as integral to achieving the goal of self-determination whether that translates into a solidified Black community with full rights inside America, an independent Black nation or repatriation to Africa. Skeptical that the oppressor will ever come to respect and treat the formerly oppressed as equals, Black Nationalists have generally had an oppositional posture towards the American government. Self determination has been the primary goal.
Without question Malcolm X was the most influential apostle of Black Nationalism in the latter half of the 20th century. His ideas had great impact on the architects and advocates of the Black Consciousness, Black Power and Pan Africanist movements which eclipsed the integrationist tendency within the Black Freedom struggle in the 70s and 80s. In his classic 1964 speech Ballots or Bullets, Malcolm articulates three basic tenets of Black Nationalism: “The political philosophy of black nationalism means that the black man should control the politics and politicians in his own community…. The economic philosophy of black nationalism…only means that we should control the economy of our community….The social philosophy of black nationalism only means that we have to get together and remove the evils, vices, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other evils that are destroying the moral fabric of our community.”
In Malcolm’s view the purpose of racial solidarity was to build internal capacity/power for self-development -- to enhance the social, economic and political well being of Black people. As to our relation to the government, Black people must identify and pursue their own interests and amass the power to compel America to do the right thing. Failing that, Black people were not duty bound to hold allegiance to or remain second-class citizens in a racist nation. The goal was/is “freedom by any means necessary.”
As a manifestation of Black Nationalism, the call to Black Power generated a renewed interest in reconnecting with our African roots and working for Pan Africanism, the global solidarity of African people everywhere. It was the call to Black Power that led to the formation of Black caucuses in virtually every predominantly White institution in America or the creation of parallel organizations, e.g., the Congressional Black Caucus, National Conference of Black State Legislators, African Heritage Studies Association, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, National Association of Black Psychologists, National Association of Black Social Workers and Black caucuses within virtually every major religious denomination. Today we take these Black formations for granted without recognizing their Black Nationalist roots.
As we celebrate the Kuzaliwa/birthday of our “Black Shining Prince,” it is important to reaffirm the value of utilizing racial consciousness and solidarity to promote Black interests and aspirations. The persistent disparities between Blacks and Whites in employment, income, wealth, health, education and housing strongly suggest that we still lack sufficient control over the politics, economics and social life of our communities. Notwithstanding the election of the first Black President, structural racism is alive and well in America. Therefore, in the face of the myth of a post-racial and post-racist society, our nationalist impulse must be to maintain an oppositional posture to so called “race neutral” or “colorblind” policy prescriptions that fail to specifically address the crises afflicting Black people. Accordingly, we must unapologetically be “of the race and for the race” in militantly advocating that the full measure of freedom for Africans in America is not privileges for the few but equity and parity for the masses of Black working class and poor people. Indeed, our revolutionary nationalist impulse must be “freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody.” As we remember Malcolm, let us be clear that Black Nationalism, racial solidarity for liberation and self-determination, is still the order of the day for Africans in America!
(Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of An Hour with Professor Ron Daniels, Monday-Friday mornings on WWRL Radio 1600 AM in New York and Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica, New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)