In the strictest meaning of the term, black nationalism refers to those ideas and movements that are associated with the quest to achieve separate statehood for African Americans. The goal of statehood was especially important during the “classical” period of black nationalism—the time of Marcus Garvey (the 1920s) and of the early activists who preceded him. During the “modern” period, especially after World War II, black nationalism encompasses more broadly both those who favored true political sovereignty through separate statehood, and those who favored more modest goals like black administration of vital private and public institutions—the latter being the common cause of those who invoked the slogan of “Black Power” after 1966. Black nationalism must always be understood in its historical context, therefore, as particular ideas and movements invariably bear the marks of their respective eras.
Classical black nationalists advocated political sovereignty and they insisted that such a goal required the creation of a nation-state with clear geographical boundaries. There was not much support for this idea before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Part of the Compromise of 1850, this act denied captured slaves (or those simply accused of being fugitive slaves) the right to a trial and granted marshals the power to force citizens to assist in the recapture of runaway slaves. It also prohibited testimony by those accused, and thus raised the possibility that free blacks could be captured into slavery. This was an era in which the U.S. political elite defined the meaning of citizenship in “white nationalist” terms. Justice Taney stated this perspective forcefully in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott case. Concerning the phrase “all men are created equal,” Justice Taney commented that “it [was] too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race [was] not intended to be included and formed no part of the people who framed this declaration.” The African race, Taney argued, had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Until the eve of the Civil War, politicians worked to expand and secure rights for the majority of whites (males), while at the same time they increasingly restricted the rights of free blacks with prohibitions against intermarriage, rules that barred the migration of blacks to different states, and laws that denied suffrage and that even established formal segregation. Thus, by the mid-nineteenth century Martin Delaney, James T. Holly, and others began to argue that black people should leave the United States for Canada, Haiti, or other destinations.
What set apart these “nationalists” from other black historical actors of the period were their positions on emigration and nation-building, not their views of culture. As Wilson Moses explains in his Golden Age of Black Nationalism (1978) and other writings, classical black nationalists were Christians, and they believed that Western civilization was the measure of progress when it came to letters, arts, commerce, and governance. All free black Americans of this period shared these views. It was not until after World War II that black (cultural) nationalists began to try to break entirely from Western convention.
Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1918, and built the largest black nationalist movement in the history of the United States. The movement originated in Harlem, New York, and grew out of the social, economic, and political experience of native and foreign-born blacks of the period. Garvey’s nationalism was “classical” in the sense that his final goal was political autonomy, and he was Western in orientation. In terms of ideas and practice, however, the UNIA also reflected developments unique to its era. The 1920s was a period of heightened anticolonial, nationalistic consciousness among many oppressed peoples of the world, and thus in tone, if not in substance, the arguments advanced by supporters of Garvey’s vision was akin to arguments against colonial domination seen in, say, Ireland or India—especially in the Caribbean region, where the UNIA established a number of chapters. The 1920s might also have represented the height of white American nationalism in the United States. The Ku Klux Klan peaked in membership (at several million), by defending “pure womanhood” and opposing immigration and all forms of labor activism. This was also the period when, in 1924, the U.S. government instituted immigration quotas that favored Northern Europeans over all others. In terms of membership numbers and visibility, the UNIA’s apex was congruent with the rise of white American nationalism of its time.
In terms of its program, the UNIA was conservative socially, economically, and politically. Although Garvey initially explained the ambitions of the organization in language that clearly reflected the influence of revolutionary (Bolshevik) thought, as well as anticolonialism, very quickly after the founding of the UNIA his message (in the United States) reflected conventional, even reactionary, thinking about race and political empowerment in the United States. Echoing conventional wisdom about the enduring significance of “racial” identity, Garvey argued for racial purity. While Garvey and his followers articulated a kind of racial chauvinism, a pride in black identity, that few had previously articulated, he nevertheless was reproducing the racist ideology of that period. After all, it was the Klan who argued most forcefully for racial purity. Starting with an organic view of racial identity—which ignored diversity among black people—Garvey eschewed talk of class struggle and union organization and argued for a strategy of building black businesses, believing the race would find redemption in the economic marketplace. The most prominent of the UNIA business ventures was the unsuccessful Black Star Line. Unlike the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Garvey and the UNIA did not devote much effort toward expanding civil rights for blacks in the United States. In this respect, the organization foreshadowed the Nation of Islam, arguably the most successful black nationalist organization in the postwar period.
Garvey is known for his “back to Africa” philosophy, but his organization was working for selective emigration, not mass return. Garvey argued that full equality in the United States was illusory at best, and so he supported a “Negro Zionism.” Black people in the Western hemisphere, he argued, should support the creation of an African nation in the eastern hemisphere (his choice was Liberia); by ensuring the development of the Negro Zion, black people in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa would elevate their status. This reasoning was similar to that of James T. Holly and others of the antebellum period.
Black nationalism must also be understood with a number of spectra in mind. Since the second decade of the twentieth century, there have been disagreements among nationalists on “social” issues like “racial purity,” and religious belief. There have also been differences in terms of economic philosophy—specifically whether black equality could be achieved under capitalism. Nationalists have differed over political tactics—for example, they have argued over whether black people could win emancipation through lobbying and electoral strategies or only through armed insurrection. During the 1920s, the UNIA vastly dwarfed another organization, the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), which combined racial nationalism with a socialist critique of capitalism. The ABB’s founder, Cyril Briggs—a native of St. Kitts in the West Indies—argued that black people constituted a separate nation, but unlike Garvey he sought to establish political sovereignty by revolutionary means. The Fenian Irish Republican Brotherhood was the likely model for the ABB. At its peak, the organization claimed several thousand members. It was eventually absorbed by the Communist Party.
Of the “modern” black nationalist organizations operating in the postwar period, the National of Islam (NOI) has been the largest and most enduring. The Nation of Islam expanded in size and significance largely due to the efforts of one convert, Malcolm X. Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm X converted to Islam while in prison, abandoned his slave name, and adopted the X to represent the African name lost as a result of slavery. Malcolm X’s organizing skills and street savvy helped to expand the organization and vastly increase its visibility in the United States, while his oratorical gifts helped spread Elijah Muhammad’s message. In some respects this message was a form of neo-Garveyism: It endorsed black pride, self-help through economic enterprise, and the creation of a separate territory in the American South. However, the NOI’s unique, heretical interpretation of Islam—Elijah Muhammad was believed to be a prophet—set the organization apart from other black nationalist groups of the period. The NOI established mosques in cities across the country. Among their business activities were laundromats, restaurants, and a newspaper, Muhammad Speaks. The NOI also established separate schools for the children of its members.
The fact that the organization eschewed political engagement might have been its most striking feature. The late 1950s and 1960s was the period of civil rights struggle, and the NOI did not participate in any of the major campaigns of the era. Indeed, in his Autobiography (1965) Malcolm X makes it clear that he was bothered by the common criticism of NOI—that it was all talk, and little action. After leaving the organization, he spent the final years of his life seeking to fashion a secular, and engaged version of black nationalism that was represented in his short-lived Organization for Afro-American Unity (OAAU). The OAAU called for black control of the various institutions that touched black life. Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965, might have had his greatest impact in death. Most nationalists of the Black Power era (post-1965) drew inspiration from the life and martyrdom of Malcolm X—especially his explicit rejection of integration as a goal of the black freedom struggle, and his questioning of nonviolence as a political strategy.
Among the groups operating during the 1960s and early 1970s that adopted and 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).
These organizations and activists were influenced by the anticolonial struggles of the 1950s, and especially the independence of a number of sub-Saharan African nations, starting with Ghana in 1957. Part of the inspiration came out of the fact that black activists in the United States and around the African Diaspora had long embraced Pan-Africanism—the idea that black people of the African Diaspora shared a common destiny. For nationalists of the period, the significance of these anticolonial struggles was also theoretical. First, activists understood anticolonial efforts as analogous to the struggle for civil and economic rights in the United States: Throughout the Diaspora, “African” liberation meant transforming, if not rejecting, Western social, political, and economic beliefs. Second, the nature of anticolonial struggle informed discussions of tactics within the United Sates. In some cases independence came peacefully. In other cases Africans gained political sovereignty through armed and bloody confrontation.
While proponents of black nationalism all pondered the same general questions during the 1960s, they arrived at different conclusions. Karenga, US, and “cultural” nationalists of the period believed that liberation was tied to the recovery of an “African” identity. Karenga therefore urged his followers to learn and speak Swahili, to dress in traditional African garb, and to live according to seven principles (the Kawaida) that distilled elements of an African cosmology. The Black Panther Party hoped to topple capitalism, and rejected the view that black equality could be achieved by changes in lifestyle that did not directly change political and economic realities. To help change those realities, they published a newspaper and established schools, health clinics, and free breakfast programs. US and the BPP were fierce rivals, and this rivalry (which in part was fueled by the FBI) proved deadly in 1969 when members of US shot and killed a member of the Los Angeles chapter of the BPP.
Both organizations, along with other black nationalist groups of the era, were active in what is known as the “Black Power” phase of the civil rights struggle. “Black Power,” first proclaimed as a slogan in 1966, had as many definitions as it did adherents. At base, its meaning was captured by another popular slogan of the time—“black faces in previously white places.” The basic idea—that blacks as a group should organize and pursue power collectively as other “ethnic” populations had done previously—was elaborated in Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s Black Power (1967). Black Power demands for control of school curricula and city administrations coincided with the rioting (or urban rebellions) that marked the era—outbreaks that affected hundreds of cities across the United States. By the early 1970s, however, it was clear that Black Power represented conventional tendencies far more than radical ones. For a number of reasons, starting with the success of U.S. intelligence in undermining the strength of radical black nationalist organizations, Black Power soon looked more like “ethnic pluralism” than like a programmatic orientation that could transcend the terms of and limitations of urban politics in the United States (Allen 1970).
In the post–civil rights context, the NOI has been the principal representative of black nationalism as a political movement. After the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, one of his sons, Warith Deen Muhammad, took control of the organization and adopted Sunni Islamic beliefs and practices. This meant, among other things, that the organization was no longer racially separatist, nor working toward political sovereignty. Louis Farrakhan subsequently led a group of defectors out of that organization and reestablished the NOI along traditional lines.
Farrakhan enjoyed considerable popularity among black Americans, especially during the early to mid-1990s. He drew large audiences to hear his lectures/sermons. Farrakhan organized the Million Man March in 1996, which drew upward of 750,000 black men to Washington, D.C. The Million Man March was intended to serve as a catalyst for the creation of a broad-based political movement that would tackle the problems that continued to plague black America—disproportionately high levels of unemployment, high rates of incarceration, unequal access to capital, and so on. However, the fundamental theme of the march was “atonement,” and so—unlike the famous march on Washington of 1963, which demanded “Jobs and Freedom”—it demanded nothing but greater black male responsibility. It did not trigger a new wave of grassroots mobilization, and indeed might have had the opposite effect. By maintaining a view of political action that depends on “group consciousness” and eschews collaboration with movements that cross racial and class lines, such as organized labor, the NOI has not been able to transcend limitations that have hampered the organization from its inception.
Less overtly political, but also quite visible during the late 1980s and 1990s was the academic push for an “Afrocentric” paradigm. Afrocentric had once been synonymous with Pan-Africanist, but by the 1990s the term had developed a narrower connotation. Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University was the chief architect of this new usage. He insisted that to study “African” people—be they black Americans in Detroit, black West Indians in Barbados or Dominica, or the Wolof of Senegal—scholars must look to “classical” Africa, by which he meant ancient Egypt, or “Kemet.” Just as Ancient Greek thought provides the basis of Western philosophy, so too, he argued, did ancient Egypt serve as the basis of “African” philosophy. For Asante, this was more than an intellectual point. Rather, this counter-epistemology was a first step toward black empowerment. In this regard, Asante and proponents who shared his views extended the arguments of cultural nationalists of the 1960s—and of the NOI—who had insisted that black empowerment depended on an embrace of a lost cultural identity. Asante was not the first to emphasize an understanding of black or “African” history, nor to suggest that proper knowledge of identity could be emancipatory; however, Afrocentricity as Asante and other proponents spelled it out added ingredients of its time—especially the theoretical bent toward “poststructural” modes of understanding. In the end, though, his was only an attempt at a counter-epistemology. Despite Asante’s claim that Afrocentricity was a first step toward black empowerment, the conservative aspects of this ideology should be clear: This was fundamentally an intellectual, as opposed to a political, movement.
In a very broad sense, black nationalism and Black Power are not uniquely American phenomena. South Africa and more recently Brazil are other countries where activists have pushed for a consciousness about (black) identity as a way to catalyze and organize for social change. However, a proper understanding of black nationalism in any context requires special attention to the specificity of a given political and historical context. Simple analogies between movements that emphasize black or African identity invariably miss crucial differences. When scholars who revisit the Black Power era in the United States, or Black Consciousness in South Africa, focus on what activists did as well as what they said, the significance of local context becomes clear. Analogies to anticolonial struggle, or Pan-African solidarity, or black pride do not change the fact that black nationalists ultimately face the challenge of building social movements within national boundaries.
SEE ALSO African Americans; Afrocentrism; Black Conservatism; Black Panthers; Black Power; Blackness; Capitalism, Black ; Dred Scott v. Sanford; Garvey, Marcus; Ku Klux Klan; Malcolm X; Marxism, Black; Nation of Islam; Nationalism and Nationality; Pan-African Congresses; Pan-Africanism; Reconstruction Era (U.S.); Separatism; U.S. Civil War
Allen, Robert L. 1970. Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles V. Hamilton. 1967. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Random House.
Hill, Robert A., ed. 1983. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Malcolm X, with Alex Haley.  1992. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 1st Ballantine Books ed. New York: Ballantine Books.
Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. 1978. The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850–1925. Hamden, CT: Archon Books.
Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. 1990. The Wings of Ethiopia: Studies in African-American Life and Letters. 1st ed. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
Pinkney, Alphonso. 1976. Red, Black, and Green: Black Nationalism in the United States. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Robinson, Dean E. 2001. Black Nationalism in American Politics and Thought. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Dean E. Robinson
"Black Nationalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/black-nationalism
"Black Nationalism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/black-nationalism
BLACK NATIONALISM. The idea that black people should establish a nation-state that would manifest their social and cultural aspirations can be located in the thought of African Americans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While the particulars of the nationalist idea have changed with shifts in the political and social climate, four elements consistently surface in dialogue about the proposition: assumptions about racial traits and black identity, the prospect of a territorial homeland, the self-help emphasis, and antiwhite ideology.
As white hostility toward free blacks increased throughout the North during the first half of the nineteenth century, black communities launched many self-help institutions such as churches, schools, and benevolent associations. But as political steps taken to disenfranchise free blacks in Northern states spread rapidly, many blacks abandoned the hope of meaningful freedom in the United States and turned their attention to the possibility of migration to Africa, Canada, or other countries.
Expressions of nationalism in this period were grounded in the contemporary ideas about "race" and "nation." Proponents of emigration and a sovereign state assumed that certain inherent values, abilities, and temperaments of black people would provide the cultural and social cohesion necessary to mold a new and just nation. From the perspective of the theories about racial traits characteristic of Western social thought at the time, the goal of a sovereign state seemed logical, if not practical. But leaders like Frederick Douglass rejected the claim that there were inherent differences between blacks and whites and questioned the notion of a nation organized around racial group membership. Douglass conceded the need for blacks to act collectively and aggressively against racial oppression, but he held forth for racial justice on American soil.
The annual Negro Conventions that met from 1830 to 1861 thoroughly debated the merits of colonization and racial separatism. Blacks in several Northern cities launched programs to relocate blacks outside of the United States. In 1816 an ideologically eclectic group of whites formed the American Colonization Society (ACS) to promote and orchestrate colonization of the free black population in Africa. The ACS could claim limited success when, in 1821, despite strong opposition in urban black communities, 17,000 blacks voluntarily migrated to Liberia on the west coast of Africa.
Through the abolitionist 1850s, few blacks opted to seek well-being abroad. Yet some of the best-educated blacks, including Edward Wilmot Blyden, Alexander Crummel, and Martin Delaney, continued to press for a black nation on African soil. Emancipation and the defeat of the slaveholding South produced a surge of optimism in black America. A significant number of blacks elected to acquire land in the Midwest and establish all-black towns, under the rubric of state and regional authorities. But as political and economic conditions worsened for blacks at the end of the nineteenth century in the North and South, the ideological seed of racial nationalism found an effective host in Marcus Garvey.
Garvey, born in Jamaica, was an activist for workers' rights and racial justice in his native land and later in London. He formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914 in Jamaica to promote black self-help programs in the West Indies, Africa, and in the United States, to which he moved in 1916.
Garvey found a receptive audience for his race pride and self-help message. The virulent racism of the first decades of the twentieth century heightened the racial consciousness of the urban black masses. Many Southern blacks had migrated to the industrial North seeking economic gains, yet found themselves relegated to low-paying and irregular employment. Black soldiers returned from World War I and the European theater only to again confront racial hostility. The contrast between the degree of liberty black soldiers enjoyed in Europe and the social climate they were expected to weather in the United States was dramatic. The agendas of mainstream black organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) reflected priorities of the nascent black middle class, rather than the concerns of laboring black masses. The UNIA spoke to these needs. It became the largest black mass organization in American history.
Garvey confronted the "race"/"nation" conundrum in an interesting way. He urged that blacks every where consider themselves part of a black nation and take aggressive steps to build institutions and enterprises to enhance the well-being of blacks. This formulation dodged the question of a sovereign territory, yet encouraged a "race-first" or Pan-Africanist development. Garvey's foray into territorial separatism led to his downfall. A project to organize a steamship line to build trade with Africa and relocate blacks in Africa ran into management difficulties. Garvey's foes—black and white—pressed to remove him from the political equation in America. He was convicted for mail fraud and served three years in federal prison before receiving a pardon from President Calvin Coolidge and agreeing to leave the country. When the charismatic Garvey was deported, the UNIA declined in both membership and impact
The next forceful expression of racial nationalism came from the Nation of Islam (NOI) under Elijah Muhammad. The NOI (whose members are often referred to as Black Muslims) blended key elements of the Garvey self-help program and demanded land in the South on which to found a black nation. They considered the requested land as reparation for the economic and social subjugation of blacks during slavery. Unlike Garvey, Muhammad's nationalism was religiously grounded in Islam and contained a robust strain of antiwhite ideology that appealed to poor urban blacks. Buoyed by the potential of racial self-sufficiency, the NOI created farms, fisheries, and other businesses designed to break links of dependency with "the white devils." Elijah Muhammad's protégé Malcolm X emerged in 1962 as a militant and charismatic voice for NOI-style nationalism.
In the mid-1960s, the optimism of the Southern civil rights movement collapsed in the face of white indifference. Youthful black-consciousness advocates steered many blacks and intellectuals away from the integrationist ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights campaigns. The term "black nationalism" quickly made its way into the American lexicon, but unlike the earlier land-based nationalism, the term spread into literature, music, and the arts. Paralleling the pan-racial vision of Garvey, cultural nationalists like Amiri Baraka spoke about the "oneness" of African people wherever they were. Arguments about the existence of a black aesthetic leavened the social and cultural thought of the period.
At the start of the twenty-first century, black nationalists had all but abandoned hope for a sovereign state. Yet blacks from across the political spectrum endorse the idea of group self-help even as they debate the government's obligation to ameliorate black disadvantage. Continuing patterns of racial inequality and oppression guarantee that a significant number of black people will remain estranged from white society. The national dialogue has now shifted away from polarizing approaches to "blackness" and its meaning, but racial pride and consciousness have veered toward nationalism in times of sharp social conflict. The future of black nationalism is uncertain.
Evanzz, Karl. The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad. New York: Pantheon, 1999.
Franklin, Vincent P. Black Self-Determination: A Cultural History of the Faith of the Fathers. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill and Company, 1984.
Fredrickson, George M. Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
McCartney, John. Black Power Ideologies: An Essay in African-American Political Thought. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992
Moses, Wilson Jeremiah, ed. Classical Black Nationalism: The American Revolution to Marcus Garvey. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
Vincent, Theodore G. Black Power and the Garvey Movement. Rev. ed. Berkeley, Calif.: Ramparts Press, 1972.
"Black Nationalism." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/black-nationalism
"Black Nationalism." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/black-nationalism
black na·tion·al·ism • n. the advocacy of separate national status for black people, esp. in the U.S. DERIVATIVES: black na·tion·al·ist n.
"black nationalism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/black-nationalism
"black nationalism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/black-nationalism