Black Nationalism: A Lesson from History


Black nationalism is a socio-political movement that propagates the separation of blacks and whites, and self-governance for black people. Martin Delany, an African-American abolitionist, is regarded as the grandfather of the movement. He was also one of the first three black people to be admitted to Harvard Medical School. He worked alongside Fredrick Douglass to publish North Star, a 19th Century anti-slavery newspaper that was published in Rochester, New York.

Black Nationalism particularly stressed on the resistance against the assimilation of blacks into white culture and methods. This basic definition, though, forms a foundation of the course of the movement, provides very little detail on the origins, causes, and the effects of the movement. The various aspects of the movement must be observed with respect to their time periods, due to the marks they carry from their respective eras. Black nationalism as a movement can be categorised into two periods, namely the classical period and the modern period.

The classical era of the movement is the earlier one, during the time of Marcus Garvey, Martin Delany, and other early thinkers. It began stemming when the first Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves, and grew until before the Revolutionary War. During the 1920s, when the sentiment against slavery, and other aspects of racial discrimination was burning within every one of the oppressed, accompanied with a sense of self-deprecation among the blacks, by their own community, Marcus Garvey founded the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914. He stated in one of his essays that it was ‘‘organized for the absolute purpose of bettering our condition, industrially, commercially, socially, religiously and politically.” The UNIA promoted black emigration, and the setting up of black businesses, notably the Black Star Line.

The modern period can be characterised by the emergence of the NoI- Nation of Islam- founded by Farrad Muhammad, and propagated by Malcom X, in the post-World War 2 who encouraged black pride, self-help through economic enterprise, and the creation of a separate territory in the American South. It notably also stressed upon the achievement of these goals through governance by Muslim faith. Though it was inherently an Islamic organization, it played a role in the shaping of the modern phase of the black nationalism movement. Some other groups active during the ‘60s and ‘70s that propounded an explicitly nationalist agenda were the post-1965 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Mualana Ron Karenga’s US organization, the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP).

The causes of the movement are much obviously the oppression, slavery and the discrimination of the African-Americans. One can say that the oppression and discrimination had a twin effect. On the one hand, it created an air of self-hatred and characteristic underestimation of their community by themselves. On the other hand, it inspired some of them to fight back, and assert the grim reality of brutal law enforcements, human rights violations and social condemnation. Slavery was one of the major causes for the rapid development and spread of the movement. The movement was also shaped by the emergence of literature that either enforced the ideals of black nationalism or referred to it directly to keep the spirit and knowledge of it alive. Even today, historical records are written to emphasise the effect that the movement left behind.

Black nationalism in itself was a short-lived movement. Due to its propagators diverting themselves to different agendas, either through the Nation of Islam, or through a change in their beliefs. Many thinkers, in their ideologies, shifted the objective of black nationalism from demanding a separate state to only stressing upon full self-governance and autonomy in deciding their affairs. They also stuck to the classic ideologies of abolition of slavery and termination of white prejudice.

Although the movement didn’t achieve its objective, like most other social movements, it left behind an impact. Literary black nationalism in the United States was a strength drill in its own way, because even though the movement dissolved within itself, it left a mark that writers and thinkers could look back to, and sometimes even look up to. Unlike many other social movements across the world, this movement was monumental not because it opposed a practice as repulsive as slavery, but it because it was the first time that the United States of America drew from the African counterparts, and the world saw unity among cruelty.

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