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Will Black Nationalism Reemerge?

(Photo: Barack Obama / Flickr)

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Barack Obama.(Photo: Barack Obama / Flickr)In the summer of 2008, a tidal wave of liberal and youth activists began to carry presidential candidate Barack Obama on a journey leading inexorably to the White House. Town halls and campaign stops attracted droves of admirers-with Obama taking on a persona more akin to a rock star than to a senator from Illinois. However, during a campaign stop in St. Petersburg, something unexpected happened. Obama was greeted during a question and answer session by protesters carrying a sign emblazoned with the question, “What about the Black Community, Obama?” After attempting to ask Obama questions, and after getting shouted down by the crowd, Diop Olugbala, one of the protesters, confronted Obama asking, “In the face of the numerous attacks that are made against the African community or the black community by the same US government that you aspire to lead. . . why is it that you have not had the ability to not one time speak to the interests and even speak on the behalf of the oppressed and exploited African community or Black community in this country?”[1] Obama seemed flustered. This was a rare, pointed question about what his campaign would mean for the black community. The young questioner was a member of the Uhuru Movement, a Pan-African organization representing one of the remnants of Black Nationalism in the United States. The incident was laughed off and Uhuru jokingly dismissed. However, as the Obama administration moves through its last term, it’s clear the question posed by Uhuru will not go away, especially as the wider black community faces continued socioeconomic problems. This poses a broader question: Is Black Nationalism relevant in the twenty-first century? And as the crisis facing black America builds, will it reemerge?

Origins/Development of Black Nationalism

The origins of Black Nationalism can’t be separated from the experience of slavery. Since Africans were first brought to the colonies, a common racial oppression produced calls for not only a release from slavery, but for repatriation to Africa, or to some other place where a black nation might be formed. This ideology also embraced Pan-Africanism, or the idea that black unity must be a worldwide affair. Men and women alike championed early Black Nationalism: Paul Cuffee helped ferry formers slaves to Nova Scotia and then to Sierra Leone; Robert Alexander Young wrote the 1829 “Ethiopian Manifesto,” which spoke to the commonality of blacks in the Diaspora; and Maria W. Stewart became the first woman to espouse nationalist ideas in speeches and writings. All of these activists and thinkers represented early yearnings for black autonomy and nation building.

The compromise of 1850 helped reinforce Black Nationalism. This is the beginning of what William Moses-perhaps the foremost scholar on the subject-calls the “Golden Age of Black Nationalism,” which lasted until the imprisonment of Marcus Garvey in 1925.[2] During this period people like Martin Delaney, the “Grandfather of Black Nationalism,” made plans to relocate African Americans back to the Africa. Nationalism also took hold among very educated “elites.” Whereas Black Nationalism in Garvey’s time, and later during the 1960s, came primarily from the working class, some of the most bourgeois and formally educated African Americans in the nineteenth century espoused emigration schemes and black self-sufficiency.[3]

The emergence of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League in 1914 marked the beginning of the largest movement of blacks in American history. Garvey drew on Pan-Africanism and wanted ultimately to move African Americans back to Africa, but he also advanced the idea of black economic self-sufficiency as a principal part of the UNIA platform.[4]Garveyism specifically represented two of the three main strands of Black Nationalism: cultural and political nationalism. Garvey’s Negro Factories Corporation manufactured black dolls, sponsored black beauty contests, and published high-fashion photos of black women.[5] The Negro Factories Corporation also started black-owned neighborhood businesses to provide services to communities like Harlem.

Garvey’s enormous popularity drew the wrath of other black intellectuals-especially W.E.B. Du Bois. However, despite their differences, Du Bois and his rival Booker T. Washington also espoused ideas consistent with Black Nationalism. Washington advocated a “technocratic Black Nationalism” that did not call for political or social integration but instead espoused a “do for self” model of black economic empowerment. [6] Du Bois was much more of a cultural nationalist.[7] Though seemingly mutually opposed to each other, both advocated black pride and support for the growth of black-owned businesses. It was only after the jailing of Garvey-on flimsy charges-and the decline of the UNIA that class issues fractured Black Nationalism. The working class would become the center of future nationalist revivals in the 1930s and 1960s.

Nationalism and Religion

The third main strand of Black Nationalism, religious nationalism, flourished in the years after Garvey’s fall. The Moorish Science Temple gathered a strong following in the 1920s and 1930s. The founder of the temple, Noble Drew Ali, blended Black Nationalism with mysticism and Islamic thought, prefiguring the most successful of the religious nationalist groups-the Nation of Islam. The NOI formed in Depression-era Detroit. Shrouded in mysticism itself, the organization grew in the poorest and most deprived slums of the industrial cities of the north. The group’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, held up blacks as “the original man,” and he called for the creation of an independent black state within the borders of the United States. Despite their ideological and cultural differences, the Nation of Islam, and especially Malcolm X, had a large influence on the Black Power movement of the 1960s.

Black Power

The Black Power movement of the 1960s seemed to come out of nowhere for many Americans, but Black Power descends directly from the long history of Black Nationalism. Stokely Carmichael, who coined the term Black Power, stated, “…Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close its ranks.”[8] This harkened back to Garveyism, but it opened up the possibility of eventual integration of some kind. Marxism and class analysis also came to influence the Black Power movement. This proved especially true of the Black Panthers, who eschewed nationalism while also representing many of its major strands.

The success of the civil rights movement during the 1960s had little impact on the economic and cultural issues brewing in America’s inner cities. Urban riots were the result of complicated problems the mainstream civil rights movement was unable to address: The NAACP and the Urban League represented an emerging black middle class; street level movements represented a discontented working class. The struggle between the civil rights movement and Black Power moved into the culture as well. “New ways of being black” played a huge role in groups like the Black Panthers, whose emphasis on a “revolutionary culture” were explicitly anti-capitalist. That separated them from both mainstream black organizations and previous Black Nationalist groups. [9] The Black Arts movement and cultural movement slogans such as “Black is Beautiful” also came primarily from Black Nationalist groups. Attempts to build economically self-sufficient black communities, calls for black separatism, and explicit rejections of white culture, continued well into the mid-1970s.

Afrocentrism, “Conscious” Hip Hop, and the “Under Class”

Nationalism faded rapidly after the 1970s. Class fissures and emerging opportunities for some African Americans took the wind out of the movement. It was Afrocentrism, a relic of the cultural nationalist movements of the 1960s that remained vital in the 1980s and 1990s. Scholars of Afrocentrism sought to build an epistemology around African ways of thinking. As political scientist Dean Robinson describes it, these scholars tried “…to denote a new African-centered perspective, one shorn of problematic ‘Eurocentric’ assumptions, and one fashioned to produce more accurate and sympathetic assessments of African life.”[10] Maulana Karenga, whose holiday of Kwanzaa emanated from the cultural nationalist ethos of the sixties, remains the most famous of the Afrocentric scholars. The continued popularity in some circles of Afrocentrism in the 1980s and 1990s partially masked the decline of other forms of nationalism and the structural economic and social inequality affecting African Americans. The promise of the civil rights movement-especially the promise of economic justice-never filtered down to the ghettos of America’s cities. In the 1980s, the emerging musical genre of hip-hop came to reflect many of the ideals of Black Nationalism and Afrocentrism. Hip-hop channeled the frustrations of urban youth who found themselves left out of the economic growth of that decade. In 1980, an effort between Brother D and a group called the Collective spawned what was one of the first “conscious” tracts. The song “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?” represented the beginning of a sub-genre called “conscious hip-hop”, which included many strains of Black Nationalism and Afrocentrism. Adherents of the Five-Percent Nation-an offshoot of the Nation of Islam-were and are well represented in conscious hip-hop. Afrika Bambaataa and the Universal Zulu Nation, Paris, Brand Nubian, and especially Public Enemy, represented core groups that formed a culturally and politically nationalist semi-rebirth that in some ways reflected the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. With the commercialization of hip-hop in the late eighties and early nineties, Black Nationalism and Afrocentrism went underground. Gangsta rap proved more suited to the rampant individualism that pervaded hip-hop and the larger culture in the latter-1990s.

The Working Class and the New Jim Crow

Initiatives taken in the wake of the civil rights movement increased access to jobs in municipal governments and in the public sector for blacks. This formed the backbone of the new black middle class; however, the ghettos that fostered the Black Nationalism of the late sixties remained far behind. America’s deindustrialized urban areas continued to collapse during the 1970s and 1980s. Violent crime, the crack cocaine epidemic, gangs, and the spread of jobless neighborhoods have now devastated several generations of the black working class; and though the cycle has diminished in intensity, it remains a central truth. In the 1990s, historian Michael Katz expounded on the structural reality of poverty and blackness in America: “Because racism directed toward African Americans is so powerful, the contemporary fusion of race and poverty remains the most resilient and vicious in American history.” [11]

The reality of ghetto poverty today is as powerful a force as ever, and one of the strongest reinforcing mechanisms for it is the prison system. Sociologist Loic Wacquant sees the modern or “hyper ghetto” as part of a symbiotic relationship with the prison system, or a “kinship,” as he calls it. [12] Since the 1970s the American prison system has gone from being about 70 percent white to about 70 percent non-white, with blacks making up forty percent of state and federal prisoners.[13] Michelle Alexander succinctly dubs this system the “New Jim Crow.”[14]

Wacquant argues the failure of the urban ghetto to contain African Americans in the late 1960s led to, by way of “Law and Order” campaigns and the War on Drugs, the affinity between the hyper ghetto and the prison system. According to Wacquant, “They (whites) extended enthusiastic support for the ‘law-and-order’ policies that vowed to firmly repress urban disorders connately perceived as racial threats. Such policies pointed to yet another special institution capable of confining and controlling if not the entire African-American community, at least its most disruptive, disreputable and dangerous members: the prison.” Black Nationalist groups were firmly among the groups considered most dangerous to the state in this scenario.

Liberalism and the Failure of the Second Reconstruction

The failure of liberalism and the stalled Second Reconstruction leave African Americans in an increasingly precarious position at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The promise of the historic election-and re-election-of Barack Obama has proved illusory. As Obama moves into his second term, black unemployment is actually worse than when he was sworn in. Almost every socioeconomic measure from education to homeownership shows wide disparities between whites and blacks. White median household wealth is 20 times greater than that held by black households.[15] Almost 30 percent of African Americans live below the poverty line, and 40 percent of black children are in poverty. [16] Urban sociologist Patrick Sharkey calls “the failure to complete the progression towards full civil rights” one of the four main trends keeping neighborhood level inequality in place.[17] Yet, no real programs to address urban poverty and disadvantage have existed since the Model Cities initiative of the 1970s. All this leads to the “inheritance of the ghetto” from one generation to the next.

The Remnants of Nationalism

Surviving the decline of Black Power and Black Nationalism in the 1970s, the Nation of Islam continues to be the principle Black Nationalist organization in the country. After the death of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation came under the leadership of his son, Wallace Muhammad, who sought to integrate the organization. The fallout over Wallace’s rule split the group. A dynamic speaker named Louis Farrakhan reformed the Nation-bringing it back into line with Elijah Muhammad’s original message. Farrakhan entered the national spotlight in the 1980s, becoming primarily known for his often-controversial comments and his efforts to build black economic power. In 1995, Farrakhan and the NOI organized the largest gathering of African Americans in history at the Million Man March.

The Nation thrives working in the most depressed urban areas in the country. Converting ex-convicts and recruiting prisoners was a part of the organization from the very beginning, with Malcolm X being only the most famous of the prisoners turned Muslims. Providing security for troubled public housing projects and policing dangerous streets endeared Farrakhan’s organization to residents in areas all but abandoned, or in conflict with, the police. Last summer, as Chicago’s homicide rate soared, the Nation organized community patrols and outreach efforts. The well-respected anti-violence organization CeaseFire claims the Nation is becoming intimately involved in combating street violence in Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. [18]

Economic nationalism is also still a crucial part of Farrakhan’s plan today. The Nation owns 1,500 acres of farmland in Georgia and is apparently looking to buy thousands of more acres in the Midwest, possibly also including vacant land in places like Detroit. Farrakhan continues to call for blacks to save money, invest in property, and build communal economics. All this comes at a time when median wealth for black families is about $5,600. [19]

Other Black Nationalist movements are either very small or local, or are fractured and ineffectual. The New Black Panther Party, formed in 1989, has garnered major headlines in recent years for its rhetoric and protests at various racial hot spots in the country-including a much ballyhooed voter intimidation case in 2008 that was seized on by the right. The NBP also hosted a “Black Power Convention” in 2010 that attracted ex-politicians like Cynthia McKinney and a variety of entertainers from Erykah Badu to Andre 3000. In September the party will hold a “Million Youth March” in Harlem to address the needs of black youth, especially in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin murder. The party’s chairman Malik Shabazz described the effort by saying, “The whole purpose of these events is to establish a strong Black Power Movement across America and the world specifically for the youth.” [20] It’s unclear, however, how many social programs the NBP has or what level of support it enjoys in the black community.

Black Women and the Middle Class

The patriarchal trappings of the Black Power movement drew a large degree of criticism from black female intellectuals. However, it must be remembered that women from Amy Jacques Garvey to Angela Davis championed key tenants of Black Nationalism. Despite that fact though, black women face an “intersectionality” of both racial and gender oppression.

There has been reluctance by Black Nationalist movements to deal effectively with sexism, misogyny, and homophobia within their own ranks. Historian E. Francis White calls for an expanded and less constrained vision of blackness, one that could accommodate differences of gender and orientation. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins writes of a nationalism that adapts itself to feminist sensitivities. Strides made by black feminists and the gay rights movements will make problematic the rise of any nationalist movement that discounts the desirability of these groups.

The question of the class divide is one that goes back to the days of Garvey or even further. Capitalism has integrated, to a certain extent, the black middle class. Black political power blossomed in many cities and states after the civil rights era, and much of the black bourgeoisie enjoyed an upward mobility unknown to them in the era of segregation. In 1999, over half of African Americans could fit comfortably into the middle class. [21] Yet at the same time the black middle class was in a precarious position.

In a recent groundbreaking book, sociologist Mary Pattilo shows the black middle class tends to live in neighborhoods with substantially higher poverty rates than middle class whites. They also tend to be spatially closer to, or often adjacent to, ghetto neighborhoods. [22] When the sub-prime mortgage crisis hit, most of the hard won gains of the middle class were wiped out. Now even the white middle class is under siege, which means even more pain for the black middle class. Marian Wright Edelman, co-founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and a veteran of the civil rights movement, recently said of the emergency facing all of black America, “We face the worst crisis since slavery.”[23]

Returning to Black Power?

Shortly before he died, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) said in an interview with C-Span, “Black Power has not been arrived at; we don’t have Black Power yet.”[24] There is no political will to deal with the catastrophe facing black America. The recent bankruptcy of Detroit, the largest majority black city in the nation, is a potent reminder of that. Indeed, black political power is fading, ironically in the age of the first black president.

Liberal electoral politics by themselves cannot and will not solve these problems, As Dr. Brittney Cooper pointed out after the fiftieth anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom: “Black liberal advocacy in this country for more jobs, less poverty, more education, less prisons, more life chances and less gun deaths doesn’t have a fighting chance without a visible radical alternative.”[25] Where will this all lead?

Austerity, continued stagnation, and the refusal to address urban and suburban poverty, puts black America at a crossroads. It’s unclear what impact the disappointing Obama legacy will have for the future of black politics. Still, regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican occupies the White House in 2017, it’s doubtful any agenda addressing black communities will be discussed, much less enacted. In the months and years ahead, it is possible that we will see the rebirth of a new, almost certainly unique and unexpected version of Black Nationalism. If so, it will come at the darkest hour, and if it does-look for it in the whirlwind.


[1] Greg Wallace, “What about the Black Community, Obama,” ABC News, August 1, 2008, under “Politics,” (accessed August 20, 2013).

[2] See Wilson Jeremiah Moses, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (North Haven: Archon Books, 1978)

[3] Ibid., 100.

[4] Tony Martin, Race First: the Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Westport: Greendwood Press, 1976), 33.

[5] Ibid., 13.

[6] Golden Age, 28.

[7] Theodore Draper, The Rediscovery of Black Nationalism (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 49.

[8] Roderick Bush, We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century (New York: NYU Press, 2000), 10.

[9] Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 270.

[10] Dean E. Robinson, Black Nationalism in American Politics and Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 129.

[11] Michael Katz, “Underclass as Metaphor” in The Underclass Debate: Views from History, edited by Michael Katz, 11. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.)

[12] Loic Wacquant, “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration,” New Left Review 13 (January/February 2002) (accessed August 21, 2013).

[13] Ibid.,

[14] See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010)

[15] Rakesh Kochar, Richard Fry, and Paul Taylor, Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics (Center for American Progress, 2011) (accessed August 20, 2013).

[16] George E. Condon Jr., “Has Obama Done Enough for Black Americans?”, May 30, 2013, (Accessed August 20, 2013).

[17] Patrick Sharkey, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Towards Racial Equality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 21.

[18] Sophia Tareen, “Farrakhan Focuses on Economics in Chicago Speech,” Associated Press,February 24, 2013. August 29, 2013).

[19] Thomas Shapiro, Tatjna Meschede, and Sam Osoro, The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide(Institute on Assets and Social Policy, 2013).

[20] PR Newswire, “Million Youth March 15th Anniversary, Yahoo Finance, September 6, 2013 (accessed September 1, 2013)

[21] Steven Gray, “Can the Black Middle Class Survive,”, September 3, 2012 (accessed August 30, 2013)

[22] See Mary Pattillo-McCoy, Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)

[23] ibid.,

[24] C-Span, “The Life and Career of Kwame Ture,” April 15, 1998.

[25] Brittney Cooper, “Marches Won’t Cut it Anymore: Why This Week’s Feels Like a Funeral,”, August 27, 2013

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