When we think of nationalism today, we typically react to nationalism’s negative connotation pertaining to white supremacy which is inextricably tied to the racist history and fabric of the United States. However, What is black nationalism? It is important that we contextualize what it is especially as it pertains to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Therefore, we use an excerpt from Author Tommie Shelby of Harvard University that posits, “ Black nationalists advocate such things as black self-determination, racial solidarity and group self-reliance, various forms of voluntary racial separation… militant resistance to antiblack racism…and the recognition of Africa as the true homeland of those who are racially black. “ (Shelby). This contextualization is important because it will help us identify what constitutes the ideology of black nationalism and will be used as a categorical basis to tie in the arguments of those not necessarily known as black nationalists in the 19th century and demonstrate that they were in fact at least significant contributors to its ideological elements. For example, we know of Marcus Garvey and Nation of Islam as its most notable influencers but we know little of the contributions of David Walker and Lewis Woodson when it comes to their contributions to black nationalism. Thus I will explain how and when black nationalism grew and spread as both an ideology and political practice then examine the lives of its overlooked proponents and conclude on those who have remained significant and notable to Black Nationalism during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
We began by examining the first critical period of black nationalism which is the early 1800’s, a critical period where scholars such as Alphonso Pinkney assert that Black Nationalism spread as an ideology because African’s weren’t viewed as a people. He posits, “ It is quite conceivable that if the Africans who were brought to America had initially been responded to simply as people, the nationalist sentiment would not have developed among them.” (Pinkney) He argues that whites are the colonizers and blacks are the colonized, thus he says, blacks are aware of their conditions of degradation and says they resent it, thus will always use whatever means necessary to escape these conditions. He asserts that black nationalism was thus a means of escape and a final resort to solving their problems. Hence, this is how the advocacy we see for emigration, forming nations within nations, self-determination, controlling one’s own destiny that remains central to black nationalist ideology is borne and spread.
This brings us into the early 19th century where one important name stands out, his name is David Walker. Although Walker is well known for his Appeal, he is not lauded for his contributions to the black nationalist ideology. Thus, I focus on his work in this particular period because it would provide the initial substratum of black nationalist ideology in the early 19th century. Remember around this time, David Walker is inundated with frustrations on the condition of enslaved African Americans which would eventually influence his most notable work, “David Walker’s Appeal”. An appeal lauded as the “first written assault on slavery”, an assault that would essentially “ask of African American slaves to rise up against their slave masters and oppressors and fight back”. (Stuckley). However, it is also in Walker’s Appeal, where we first see remnants of black nationalist thought and his encouragement of blacks to embody the philosophy of self-governance. To corroborate this assertion, Sterling Stuckley, author of “The Ideological Origins of Black Nationalism” argues that Walker’s first formulation of black nationalist ideology was his call for black nationhood, which is published in Freedom Journal. (Stuckley) He then says one of his most explicit calls for such is in his Appeal when he says, “Our sufferings will come to an end….Then we will want all the learning and talents, and perhaps more, to govern ourselves.’ (Walker). Thus, Stuckley who has written Walker extensively demonstrates that although David Walker is overlooked as a very significant contributor to Black Nationalism, the excerpts from his own work demonstrate that his writings are significant in engendering the ideological underpinnings of Black Nationalism and its ideology, that we know of today.
Additionally one of Walker’s most ardent supporters around 1843 is Henry Highland Garnet which is important because it demonstrates just how influential Walker was to Garnet. According to Stuckey, he says that “Garnett and others found Walker’s focus on the need for black autonomy of particular interest.” (Stuckley) Garnet’s similarly made an appeal to slaves to ultimately redeem their power and overthrow their slave’s masters. Garnet also made a case for racial unity, nationhood, and self-reliance in his “Address to the Slaves” when he posited, “ Brethren, the time has come when you must act for yourselves…you can plead your own cause, and do the work of emancipation better than any others.” (Garnet; Marable, pp 59) However, what is not well known and highlighted when discussing Garnet is the fact that he also believed that blacks should move to separate “settlements [and] form their own settlements” and “determine their own destiny as a prescription to their ills”. (Stuckley) Thus, demonstrating that he advocated explicitly for the ideological elements of black nationalist thought in this period.
In contrast, there are two names often overlooked but that have been responsible for contributing to the ideological foundations of black nationalism around the 1840s. The first name we know little of is, Alexander Crummel who is another firm subscriber to Walker’s call for self-autonomy and self-governance in the 1830s and 40’s. Crummel is known for his writings while in Liberia but is important because he created what is called Pan-Africanism, which is an ideology that calls for the unification of African’s all over the globe. This can be substantiated in his writings in The Future of Africa, where he posits the following,” believing that all men hold some relation to the land of their fathers, I wish to call attention to the sons of Africa in America, to their relations and duty to the land of their fathers.” (Crummel)This is very important to highlight because it demonstrates the ideological elements of Black Nationalism in regards to calling for unity. Arguably one of the most important figures and contributors to black nationalism that we know little of is Lewis Woodson who was most significant in influencing the father of black nationalism, Martin Delany. Lewis Wilson of mixed race was born a slave and garnered his freedom later in life began to analyze “the political and social plight of African Americans… an all-encompassing spiritual and economic program directed toward mitigating their oppression. “(Tate, pp.213) According to Stuckey, “Woodson contributed to the development of black nationalist ideology significantly between 1837 and 1841.”(Stuckey). Lewis Woodson according to Stuckley, was a leading figure that not only comes before Delany but will also eventually go on to influence Martin Delany’s work, yet we know so little of his contributions. One of the reasons may be because he went by a pseudonym called “Augustine” when he published one of his most notable writings entitled, “Moral Work for Colored Men”, where Woodson posits the following, “ So as long as we admit of other’s taking the lead in our moral improvement and elevation we can never expect it to be of our wish and/or desire.” (Stuckley) This demonstrates his focus on self-reliance. Furthermore, the most striking fact about Woodson, is that although Martin Delany is often lauded as the father of black nationalism, historian Floyd Miller considered Lewis Woodson the Father of Black Nationalism because he viewed Woodson as the forerunner of black nationalism while also being Delany’s teacher when he posits the following, “ Martin R. Delany, a recent arrival to the city, was one of Woodson’s first students.” (Miller). The implications here in regards to Woodson and Crummel demonstrate the conflicting nature in regards to whom which scholar viewed as most significant for contributing to the ideology of black nationalism.
Now that we have painted a much more complete picture of those who had an influence on the ideological elements of black nationalism, we move forward into the work of Martin Delany who is lauded as a renaissance man, known for his works in scholarship, medicine, activism, and politics. According to Manning Marable editor of “Let Nobody Turn Us Around”, Martin Delany would also become known as “a major theoretical and political architect of what we call today black nationalism”. (Marable). However the question still remains, why is Martin Delany lauded as the father of black nationalism, when so many significant scholars came before him and influenced him? The answer is vague but it could be because he worked alongside Fredrick Douglas and this could have resulted in his work being distributed on a larger scale. For instance, after Delany becomes convinced that Blacks and Whites cannot co-exist, it compels him to write and publish his most notable work entitled, “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered” in 1852. In this published work, he holds that” blacks could never achieve equality with whites in the US.” Because he says, “Our elevation must be the result of self-efforts, and work of our own hands. ” (Marable, pp. 72) His notoriety could also be because of his association with the National Emigration Convention where he would ultimately call for emigration from the US to Central America because he posits that if Africans relocate to Central America it would then give them a chance to build new lives. Consequently, one of Delaney’s most stringent opponents would be the American Colonization Society which consisted of a society of abolitionists who focused on buying and freeing slaves and sending them to Liberia. Delaney vehemently opposed their work because he viewed their focus on the deportation of free blacks to Liberia as a way of maintaining the system of slavery and keeping free blacks dependent. Overall, this incredible body of work could speak to why Delany was possibly more known than those before him.
Lastly, transitioning into the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, the work of those aforementioned would all ultimate into the work of Bishop Henry M. Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal church. When Delany died, he became the leading spokesman for the resettlement of blacks to Africa because he was angered about the failure of reconstruction and implementation of Jim Crow laws. Turner thus became a harsh critic of the United States and urged blacks not to join the army or form any allegiance with the country. Turner also supported a bill which was a governmental effort to provide transportation for any African American wanting to become a citizen of a new country because he posited that “it will allow a thousand self-reliant black men to go where they can work out their own destiny.” (Marable pp.31) Which ties him directly to the black nationalist ideology. Turner’s opposition was Booker T Washington because of Washington’s accommodationist leanings he declared in his “Atlanta Compromise” in 1895. Washington asked blacks to tolerate racism and discrimination and opposed Emigration whereas Turner was for Emigration and opposed Washington’s accommodationist worldview.
In summation, now that we have familiarized ourselves with the ideological origins of black nationalism, what its proponents advocated for, the names of those we often overlook when discussing contributions to black nationalism, we get a full picture of all of those who have had a vital and significant role in their contribution to and influence of black nationalists ideology, even down to their opposition. Their contributions, arguments, conflicts, all led to the expansion of the ideological elements of black nationalism during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Looking forward, according to Alphonso Pinkney, he posits that even after the civil war, if the wrongdoings exacted on African Americans in the United States were redressed and attended to, that Black Nationalism wouldn’t have continued to persist but it unfortunately has. Thus, demonstrating that Black Nationalism will continue to exist just as long as the wrongdoings of African Americans in the US and globally are not addressed. It also speaks to how the contributions discussed in this essay were all essential to influencing the work of contributors like Marcus Garvey and the NOI, who are most notable for Black Nationalism today.