African-American Ideas

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For four hundred years, African-Americans have been engaged in a fierce struggle, a struggle for freedom, justice and equality, empowerment and self-determination, or social transformation, depending on one's ideology and its discourses. The lived African-American experience, in its class, gender, generational, and regional specificity, and the struggle against black racial oppression in the form of black social movements, are the soil from which African-American political and social thought are produced. Different social movementsabolition, the nineteenth-century Great Black March West (18791910), the protective leagues during the nadir (18771917), the New Negro Movement of the early 1900s, the Depression-era struggles, and the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960shave developed distinct goals and objectives and consequently have evolved quite different strategies, ideologies, and discourses. Contrary to popular opinion, African-American political thought has always been a roiling sea of competing ideological currents. Political scientist Robert C. Smith described ideology as "the enduring dilemma of black politics" because of its variety and vibrancy. The tradition of viewing African-American history through the lens of historical debate underscores the diverse and dynamic character of African-American political discourse. For instance, it is popular to compare and contrast the ideas of Frederick Douglass (18171895) and Martin R. Delany (18121885), W. E. B. DuBois (18681963) and Booker T. Washington (18561915), and Marcus Garvey (18871940), Ida Wells-Barrett (18621931) and Margaret Murray Washington (18631953) or, more recently, Martin Luther King (19291968) and Malcolm X (19251965).

In the popular imagination, African-American political thought has been reduced to two ideological streams, black nationalism and integrationism. Harold Cruse, author of the influential but flawed Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, crystallized this binary framework into a Manichean perspective that characterized African-American history as primarily a conflict between proponents of these two ideologies. Cruse did not invent this conceptualizationAugust Meier had previously asserted itbut he made it the dominant interpretative schema in black political philosophy.

The binary framework has been challenged on two fundamental premises. One group has sought to complicate the categories of black ideologies. Anthropologist Leith Mullings, historian Manning Marable, and political scientists Robert C. Smith and Michael C. Dawson, among others, have offered more comprehensive frameworks. Adding radicalism to nationalism and integrationism, Smith conceives of three major African-American ideologies: black nationalism, integrationism, and radicalism. Mullings and Marable discern three "strategic visions" in black political thought, which they term inclusion, black nationalism, and transformation. Interestingly, Mullings, Marable, and Smith would acknowledge conservatism as a distinct political perspective; yet, because they do not view it as politically salient before the 1990s, they have not conceptualized it as a major ideology among African-Americans. Dawson's framework, in contrast, includes black conservatism among the six "historically important" black ideologies he identifies: black nationalism, black liberalism, including three streams, black feminism, and black radicalism.

Taking a very different approach, sociologist John Brown Childs eschews the conventional debates over ideology to identify two worldviews, which he argues constitute the "coherent systematic approach" that undergirds political ideologies. Seeking to uncover the "conceptual currents" beneath strategic conflicts among social justice activists, Childs identifies two irreconcilable worldviews, the vanguard and mutuality perspectives. According to Childs, vanguard approaches posit an elite that possesses knowledge of the "way," which they bestow upon the ignorant and impose on the defiant. In contrast, mutuality approaches advocate praxis built on sociohistorical correspondence, communication, diversity, cooperation, (self-) transformation, and openness, and reject notions of a leading group. Despite the potency of Brown's insights, most scholars of black history and politics have continued to chart African-American social movements and individual activist intellectuals via their ideologies, rather than their worldview or organizing approach.

African-American Ideologies

Several ideologies salient among African-Americans require explication. Here, ideology is considered as a systematic theory of society composed of a relatively coherent set of interdependent concepts and values that adherents construct into historical narratives and contemporary discourses to articulate their interpretation of a social groups' economic, political, social interests, and cultural beliefs to rationalize particular public policies. The emergence and salience of African-American ideologies are conditioned by three broad factors: the sociohistorical context, the contemporary discursive matrix, and the black intellectual tradition. It is important to contextualize African-American ideologies historically because they develop during particular historical moments, and their discourses are designed to resolve or, at least, to respond to historically specific problems. Moreover, sociohistorical context not only shapes the emergence of specific ideologies, it also conditions the form and salience an ideology takes at a particular moment. African-American history can usefully be considered as a succession of different racial formations. Black racial formations represent African-Americans' distinct position within the U.S. political economy, polity, and civil society during particular historical periods.

African-American history can be divided into four periods: (1) slavery, 16191865; (2) the plantation economy, 18651960s; (3) proletarian and urbanization, 1940s1979; and (4) the new nadir, from 1980 on.

Within the realm of ideation, African-American political thought evidences the dynamic interplay between African-American discourses and the dominant and emergent ideas circulating during particular historical periods. Contemporary events and discourses present in the United States and the world establish the contemporary examples and discursive matrix with which these African-American ideological discourses engage. Perhaps more pertinent, however, is knowledge of past debates among the black counterpublic and how previous black intellectual traditions have influenced historically specific policy formulations.

Because racial oppression is a system constructed around a matrix of domination, discrimination, and degradation, an appraisal of African-American political and social thought reveals that black activist intellectuals have mainly engaged two issue clusters: those that revolve around questions of identity and those concerning questions of liberation: "Who are we?" and "What is our present situation, and what should be done about it?" During slavery, the system of racial oppression attempted to destroy African identities, ethnic memories and cultural practices, and the collective and personal identities that derived from them. Since slavery it has sought to make African-Americans nonpersons, requiring, therefore, the search for and (re)assertion of new identities woven from the residue of African survivals and self-interested adaptations, a process that transcends the limits of what is derisively called "identity politics." Identity questions for oppressed racialized communities are fundamental to the pursuit of liberation. These overarching questions about identity, the present situation, and what should be done to create conditions of freedom, self-determination, and social transformation have elicited different answers from different groups of black activist intellectuals.

Allowing for terminological differences, most scholars of black history and politics would agree that African-American activist intellectuals have justified their political action via an interpretative repertoire drawn from one of the following five interrelated ideological approaches: (1) autonomic, (2) incorporative, (3) black conservatism, (4) black radicalism, and (5) black feminism.

Black Nationalist Ideologies

Black nationalist, or autonomic, strategies are the oldest ideological approaches developed by African-Americans. The slave revolts, especially those before the nineteenth century, that aimed to create maroon societies modeled after remembrances of African social organizational patterns perhaps best reflect the anteriority of black nationalism among African-American ideologies. Autonomic approaches are also the most varied and complicated of African-American ideologies, but they can be divided into two broad categories: protonationalism and separatism. Protonationalism refers to strategic visions that emphasize autonomy in the realm of civil society, the desire to reside in semiautonomous towns and regions, and the preference for preserving distinct cultural practices. Richard Allen's (17601831) creation of the African Episcopal Methodist Church in 1794 and W. E. B. DuBois's call for blacks to build on their group strengths in the 1930s or the 1960s era campaigns for "community control" of African-American communities are examples of protonationalism.

Separatism has a more delimited terrain, encompassing emigration and efforts to create an independent African-American nation-state within the United States, such as Martin R. Delany's and others' proposals to emigrate to Africa, Canada, or South America during the 1840s and 1850s; Marcus Garvey's 1920s plan to repatriate to Liberia; or the Republic of New Africa's 1960s desire to create an African-American nation-state in the U.S. South.

Autonomic discourses are shaped by their sociohistorical context; they tend to surge and ebb in relationship to the economic and political position of blacks in U.S. society. As a rule, black nationalism swells during sustained economic downturns. Autonomic philosophies are also sensitive to the interplay of dominant and emerging ideologies. This is particularly true regarding questions of cultural difference. For instance, between 1850 and 1925, the era historian Wilson Moses terms the golden age of black nationalism, nationalists were ambivalent toward African culture and rejected Africanisms or cultural carryovers. Like the social Darwinists of the day, they often viewed Africans and African-Americans as "underdeveloped" or even "backward," although they usually ascribed environmental or religious, rather than genetic, causes. Consequently, they preferred European-American high culture. To a large extent, black power, the protonationalism that developed during the "turbulent sixties" (19551975) was predicated on Africanization, the adoption of actual or imagined African cultural values and practices.

Evidence from several years of the National Black Politics Study from 1979 to 1992 suggests that protoblack nationalism remained the predominant perspective of the majority of African-American people in the late twentieth century. For instance, political scientists Darren W. Davis and Ronald Brown discovered that 84 percent of African-Americans believed blacks should buy from black-owned businesses; 83.3 percent believed blacks should be self-reliant; 73.8 percent wanted blacks to control their communities' economics; and 68.3 percent believed blacks should govern their communities. Another 70.7 percent thought black children should learn an African language, and 56.5 percent advocated participating only in all-black organizations.

African-American Liberalism

Liberalism is the second oldest black ideology. Scholars often insert "liberal" as an adjective to describe the political values associated with the incorporativist perspective in order to distinguish this set of discourses from conservative and radical approaches, which also advocate incorporation into U.S. society, albeit for radicals into a fundamentally transformed society. And some variants of nationalism and feminism are decidedly liberal in their political social perspectives. Here incorporative should be understood as synonymous with liberal pluralism.

Smith has argued that liberalism, or incorporativism, is not so much an ideology as a strategy. Applying the logic Anthony Bogues used regarding Quobna Cugoano's Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery to the work of Douglass, DuBois, Charles Johnson, Alain LeRoy Locke (18861954), Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall (19081993), Mary Frances Berry (b. 1938), and Lani Guiner (b. 1950), among others, illuminates how their critiques of U.S. society stretched the boundaries of liberal pluralism and provided alternative theories of American democracy.

Incorporative approaches advocate structural integration into the U.S. state and political economy, arguing that the inclusion of African-Americans in traditionally white institutions in and of itself constitutes a significant transformation. This is the view that undergirded the legal strategy Charles Hamilton Houston (18951950) designed for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the 1930s and of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Incorporativists are more ambivalent toward inclusion in European-American civil society: they tend to oppose restrictions barring access to traditionally white institutions, but usually oppose dismantling African-American institutions. For instance, Martin Luther King, Jr. never imagined the dissolution of the black church. Historically a few incorporativists, such as Frederick Douglass, have advocated biological assimilation as well as structural integration. Incorporative approaches generally encourage acceptance of bourgeois European-American cultural values and practices, viewing them as quintessentially "modern," even though privately many incorporativists often continue to practice the styles and idioms of African-American culture.

While tension exists between the core components of white liberalism and black incorporativism, particularly regarding individualism and notions of equalityequal opportunity versus equality of resultsincorporativists generally share their white colleagues' views on the power of knowledge, the value of diversity, and economic enterprise. Incorporativists are also skeptical of American liberalism's assertions of pluralism, especially the assertion that the U.S. state is neutral regarding racial and ethnic disputes. Although incorporativists are often critical of the practice of American liberalism, they tend to accept most of its values.

African-American Radicalism

Perhaps more than any other ideology, black radicalism is sensitive to the sociohistorical context. During the slavery period, the radical black perspective advocated the immediate destruction of slavery and the extension of full civil rights to black people. After slavery, as most African-Americans were being incorporated into the semicapitalist plantation economy, things became more complex. Confronting sharecropping, black radicalism required more than the advocacy of black landownership. Circumstances required that black radicals develop a critique of the capitalist system that maintained the plantation economy. Whereas during slavery Frederick Douglass and Martin R. Delany were radicals, during Reconstruction and the first nadir (18771917) Douglass became the quintessential black liberal while Delany descended into conservatism. This hypersensitivity to sociohistorical context derives from the general premises of radicalism: transformation of the fundamental structural and ideological elements of a society. Black radicalism has consisted of philosophies and practices that sought the essential transformation of the system of racial oppression and the social system that institutionalized it.

Peter H. Clark, the first modern black radical, joined the Socialist Party in 1877, during the first nadir. Ironically, Clark's reasons for leaving the socialists probably affected the construction of black radicalism more than his reasons for joining. (Clark left the Socialist Party because it did not confront the specificity of race and racial oppression, preferring to view race as subordinate to class.) The outlines of a distinct black radical perspective, however, did not appear until after World War I, after Hubert H. Harrison (19001945), Cyril V. Briggs (18881966), and the African Blood Brotherhood (c. 1920s) examined the state of African peoples and the relationship of black and white radicals in the United States. Black radicalism was a unique effort to merge and remake classical Marxist theory and black nationalism into a race-conscious socialist theory. Although Ralph Bunche (19041971) and Abram Harris (18991963) were radical blacks during the 1930s, unlike W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes (19021967), Claudia Jones (19151964), and C. L. R. James (19011989), their ideas might be too orthodox to be considered foundational for black radicalism. Black radicals, according to Anthony Bogues, are either heretics or prophets.

Heretics, usually highly educated in European-American radicalism, use subjugated knowledge from black experiences to challenge white radical orthodoxies and to rework them into theories that can accommodate black experiences and perspectives. Bogues's prophets come from the realm of religion. They are often undereducated by U.S. standards. They tap subjugated knowledge from sources outside the mainstream academy: the Bible, the Koran, particularly esoteric interpretations of both. In addition to derived religious sources, prophets articulate, in Hobsbawm's terms, an inherent ideology, one drawn from the murkier repositories of African survivals and popular culture. Noble Drew Ali (18661929) and the Moorish Science Temple, Elijah Muhammad (18971975) and the Nation of Islam, and Prince Asiel Ben Israel and the Original Black Hebrew Israelite Nation represent this type of black radicalism. (Note that, by this author's criterionopposition to the dominant mode of productionthey would not be considered black radicals.)

In more recent times, Huey P. Newton (19421989) and the Black Panther Party (1960s), especially their theory of intercommunialism, the Revolutionary Action Movement (late 1960s), and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (late 1960s) have represented the black radical perspective. Since the late twentieth century, the Black Radical Congress has represented this ideological tendency.

Black Feminism

Like modern black radicalism, black feminism is of comparatively recent origins, although its roots reach back into the nineteenth century. The earliest foreshadowings of this ideology are found in the slave-era speeches and writings of Maria Stewart (18031879), Sojouner Truth (c. 17971883), and Frances Ellen Watkins (18251911). The ideas that would ultimately become the ideology of black feminism developed to a large extent during the first nadir through the speeches, writing, and practices of Ida Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell (18631954), and Anna Julia Cooper (18591964). While black women activists, especially women associated with the U.S. Communist Party, such as Esther Cooper Jackson and Claudia Jones, engaged in practices and advocated philosophies that amounted to black feminism, the theory was not formally visible until the 1960s.

According to Linda Burnham, contemporary black feminism, with its emphasis on the simultaneity of overlapping oppressionsrace, class, gender, sexualityis a product of the transition from the civil rights to the black power movement. She locates the origin of this iteration of black feminism with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's (SNCC) Black Women's Liberation Committee and later the Third World Women's Alliance, in both of which Frances Beal (19001987) played a leading role. This stream of black feminism has become a core component of contemporary black radicalism. It can be sharply contrasted with another stream of black feminism, womanism, as articulated by Clenora Hudson-Weems, which is more correctly viewed as a tributary of conservative black nationalism.

African-American Conservatism

Black conservatism has a long history and includes a large number of prominent African-Americans. Nevertheless, it has never become a salient ideology for a significant number. Jupiter Hammond (1711c. 1800) during the slave period, William Hooper Council (18481909) during the first nadir, George Schuyler (18951977) during the 1940s and 1950s, as well as A. G. Gaston (18921996) during the 1960s, represented conservative ideologies. However, none of these individuals shared the virulent antiblack positions of contemporary black conservatives. Black neoconservatives differ from previous generations of black conservatives in that they are often alienated from the black community and divorced from its institutional networks, especially political organizations.

Black conservatism articulates better with its mainstream equivalent than do the other black ideologies. Conservative approaches are premised on white American cultural values, particularly notions of individualism, which advocate colorblind individual incorporation into the U.S. political economy, polity, and mainstream white civil society. According to psychologist William Cross, Jr., race and the history and continuing practice of racial oppression are either denied or viewed as not salient by black neoconservatives in constructing their identities. Twenty-first-century black neoconservatives, Thelma Duggin, Clarence Thomas, Gwen Daye Richardson, and Ward Connerly, share the assumptions, interpretations, and goals of the leading white neoconservatives. Black neoconservatives blame the dislocations endemic to poverty on welfare and government subsidies. They claim the Great Society programs, instituted in the 1960s by President Lyndon Johnson, created a "culture of dependency" among the black poor. According to this perspective, instead of providing a social safety net, the Great Society created dependent personalities and an antiachievement culture in the black community. Perhaps more fundamental than the adoption of European-American cultural values is their reduction of African-American culture to a composite of pathological behaviors. Conservatives, including autonomic conservatives, generally reject the African cultural survival thesis.


The five major ideological expressions of social thought by which African-Americans have sought to reconstruct their racial/ethnic identity, to contemplate the structures, ideologies, and functions of racial oppression, and to envision a future free from that oppression constitute an extraordinarily complex body of evolving political theory. All are shaped by dynamic interaction with their sociohistorical experiences and the dominant and emerging ideologies and discourses in U.S. society and the world, especially pan-African ideas and the black intellectual tradition.

See also Afrocentricity ; Assimilation ; Black Consciousness ; Civil Disobedience ; Class ; Conservatism ; Critical Race Theory ; Diasporas: African Diaspora ; Discrimination ; Diversity ; Equality: Racial Equality ; Feminism: Africa and African Diaspora ; Liberalism ; Negritude ; Pan-Africanism ; Philosophies: Feminist, Twentieth-Century ; Political Protest, U.S. ; Segregation ; Slavery ; Womanism .


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Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua


African-American Ideas