Here at Moxie, themes change suddenly without warning. (Other bloggers will catch the double meaning here). Today, I’m back to black nationalism. Or is it Black Nationalism? Historians do not agree.
This morning, I thought I would offer you a definition of “classic black nationalism” in my own words via a small excerpt from one essay in my comprehensive graduate exam. (Keep in mind I was locked in a room with no notes and a finite amount of time while I wrote this, so please be gracious in all stylistic critique.)
Side Bar: When writing the words African and American together, the phrase is only hyphenated if it is an adjective. African Americans‘ relationship to….vs. African-American identity.
Peniel Joseph in Waiting ‘Till the Midnight Hour describes defining black nationalism as trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks; it is slippery and difficult to grip. However muddled and complicated it may be, there are concrete ways in which black nationalism can be understood. As Africans were transported across the Middle Passage, they began the process of creating a common racial identity; the slave ships served as a racial incubator. As they arrived in the United States, they saw that the people in power were generally white, and the people forced to work were generally black. Since that moment, black Americans have struggled to create a unified identity. Over the course of many generations, competing theories about how to organize have shaped black nationalism, and conceptions about African Americans’ relationship to Africa have played a major role in formulating political thought and action. Since race is socially constructed, cohesiveness and unity of purpose has proven difficult, if not impossible. Historical study shows that one of the greatest barriers to unity has been the formation of class. In each era of black nationalism, there have been two main streams of thought: one for the elite blacks, which tended to be more assimilationist, and one for the masses, which tended to be more pluralistic.
Typically, 1850-1920 can be classified as “classic black nationalism.” In his work Golden Age of Black Nationalism, Wilson Jeremiah Moses makes the case that Christian ethic and Anglo-Saxon values formed the backbone of black nationalist thought during this period. Strong black leaders, often referred to as “Black Moses'” due to their claims to save their people from slavery, characterized this period. Alexander Crummel, a missionary in Africa exemplifies this character with his conservative and narrow views of what African-American identity should be. Often this authoritarian collectivism took the shape of one black man speaking for and leading “his people.” Moses’ view of black nationalism tends to speak only for the elite blacks; the ones who benefited from adopting “white” culture, and the ones who believe that the race will rise up through assimilation.
Contrary to this view, Sterling Stuckey in Slave Culture asserts that retention of African culture was stronger than historical analysis has previously allowed. Through citing specific examples of ways in which African-American culture reflected African cultural practices, Stuckey’s work speaks for the masses of African-American society. For example, Stuckey explores how the dancing and shouting type worship often seen African-American Christian churches can directly correlate to the “ring shout,” a practice seen in some traditional African cultures. Although they look like they are practicing Christianity, Stuckey claims they are really practicing a culture of dissemblance and hiding their true religion. However, this type of worship tends to be more characteristic of the “masses” of African-American culture rather than the educated middle class, who might more likely be found in a more traditional Episcopal church, like Alexander Crummel.
In general, classic black nationalism had a patriarchal view of Africa. After the Berlin Conference divided up Africa into various pieces of pie for European nations to devour, African Americans saw African people as needing help. They saw themselves as uniquely qualified to help, not only because of their racial connection, but also because they had ideas and ways of living that could improve the lives of Africans. The missionary movement gained momentum in the late nineteenth century. The AME Episcopal Church was very influential in sending missionaries to help their brothers and sisters in Africa. The Christian Recorder, a publication of the church, gives insight into rhetoric characteristic of this movement. African Americans saw themselves as called by God to bring salvation to heathen peoples of Africa. By planting churches and starting schools, they could restore God’s plan for this fallen continent. They even used the concept of Ethiopianism, the idea that God had a specific plan for Africa, as Biblical backup of their calling (Psalm 68: 31). However genuinely they meant to help, African-American motives in Africa were always muddled with economic incentives in Africa, and a longing for a place where they could be in charge and free from oppression. The missionary movement represents the late nineteenth century elite population.