Nationalism in the United States in the Nineteenth Century
Nationalism in the United States in the Nineteenth Century
Nationalism in the United States in the Nineteenth Century
There have been numerous efforts to define black nationalism, a term that suggests some form of militancy that is somehow different from sit-ins or marches. Some associate the phrase with violence, while others equate black nationalism with some form of separatism, or simply as a counter to integration. One need only take a quick glance at a few anthologies about black nationalism to notice that a number of political projects and personalities with varying aims and ends are described as examples of black nationalism. But how does one go about identifying these as nationalistic? On what basis can one single out the essential features that specify black nationalism?
One possible point of departure can be found in Jeffrey Stout's claim that black nationalism "put the discourses of race and nation together, by projecting an imagined community—a people—for whom blackness serves as emblem" (Stout, 2002. p. 242). This view assumes there is something all black people share as black people—and that is readily recognizable by others. But there are any number of ways to think about this basic assumption.
Black nationalism, for example, is sometimes taken to mean a biological basis of national belonging. Here, the word nation points to a common biological or ontological essence among black people. Often drawing an analogy with a biological organism, this view sees nation as the essential unit in which the black individual's nature is fully realized. Another view holds that the character of a nation is environmentally determined: that there is something about one's place of origin that determines the essential features of the nation. Still, others invoke the phrase to talk of a community of shared ends or aspirations. These ends may vary. Some may seek recognition as a sovereign political unit among the community of nations. Others may simply hold self-determination as the desired end and expect to control the resources of their community or, perhaps, to return to a place of origin. Any number of these views overlap. They range from a kind of piety—a recognition of the sources upon which the existence of black people depends—to a way of imagining a future, something towards which black people aspire. And any of these views of black nationalism can be thought of in economic, political, or cultural terms.
The endless variations on the basic themes of black nationalism make it difficult, if not impossible, to say exactly what black nationalism is, though this is not necessarily a bad thing. Too often, scholarly efforts to use a set criterion to distinguish black nationalism from other political ideologies fall into rather ahistorical accounts of messy politics. If the term is to be helpful at all, one must go instead to the thicket of historical description; and the criterion is whether or not the term black nationalism "aids us in finding our way around the discursive terrain we occupy, which is partly a matter of knowing how to cope with the ambiguities one is likely to encounter there" (Stout, 2002. p. 242). In other words, one can always set aside the question of whether black nationalism has been correctly defined, and ask instead whether the varied practices singled out by the term are worth debate and investigation.
The practices singled out by nineteenth-century variants of black nationalism are, for the most part, rooted in a profound skepticism about the possibility of blacks flourishing in the United States. Already the victims of brutal social dislocation because of the transatlantic slave trade, African Americans, slave and free, witnessed the founding of a nation based on democratic principles and undemocratic practices, on an idea of freedom and the reality of a lack of freedom. John Adams's remarks during the struggle for independence best captures this basic contradiction at the heart of America's beginnings. "We won't be their [Britain's] negroes. Providence never designed us for negroes. I know, if it had it would have given us black hides and thick lips … which it hasn't done, and therefore never intended us for slaves" (Roediger, 1991, p. 28). Adams's understanding of freedom and his articulation of it as a basis for rebellion was predicated on an intimate knowledge of the lack of freedom represented by colonial slavery. For him and many others, African Americans were radically different, and the egalitarian principles of the American Revolution could not wipe those differences away. Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this as well. He wrote in Democracy in America (1835-1840) :
The modern slave differs from his master not only in lacking freedom but also in his origins. You can make the Negro free, but you cannot prevent him facing the European as a stranger. That is not all; this man born in degradation, this stranger brought by slavery into our midst, is hardly recognized as sharing the common features of humanity. His face appears to us hideous, his intelligence limited, and his tastes low; we almost take him for something being intermediate between beast and man. (Tocqueville, 1969, pp. 341–342)
Tocqueville believed that slavery was the most formidable evil threatening the nation's future. And, in the end, doubting that black folk could ever experience the equality so critical to American democracy (they were unassimilable), he concluded that violent conflict between American blacks and whites in the South was "more or less distant but inevitable." The contradiction at the heart of this fragile experiment in democracy, as well as the persistent threat of arbitrary racial violence, led many African Americans to believe that America could never truly be home. Indeed, the precariousness of their conditions of living and the discourses of white supremacy that justified those conditions warranted a preoccupation with protection from racial violence, a demand for the recognition of African-American humanity, and a practical need for association among similarly situated selves.
Protection, Recognition, and Association
A preoccupation with protection, recognition, and association constituted the basis of the rudimentary commitments informing many of the practices labeled as black nationalism in the nineteenth century. Collective humiliation, which the philosopher Isaiah Berlin clearly saw as the constitutive element of nationalisms generally, was the main impetus for African-American uses of the language of nationhood in the nineteenth century. This humiliation yielded a response—like the bent twig of the poet Friedrich von Schiller's (1759–1805) theory—of lashing back and a refusal to accept such conditions of living. As the fiery antebellum minister David Walker (c. 1785–1830) wrote in his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829): "There is an unconquerable disposition in the breasts of the blacks which, when it is fully awakened and put in motion will be subdued, only with the destruction of the animal existence. Get the blacks started, and if you do not have a gang of tigers and lions to deal with, I am a deceiver of the blacks and of the whites." This response involved solidaristic efforts among African Americans—that is, forms of active association predicated on common suffering and aimed at alleviating an oppressive situation. Of course, racial solidarity was thought of in a number of ways during the nineteenth century, ranging from a sense of collective purpose derived from the context of slavery and the reality of racial violence to claims of an essential racial self based in biology. In any case, the point to be made is that a concept of nation or peoplehood (conceived of in a number of different ways) informed much of African-American politics throughout the nineteenth century.
Invocations of peoplehood during this period involved varied appeals to solidarity based in what can be called a Black Christian imagination (i.e., a set of religious meanings specific to African-American life emerging out of the slave quarters and the condition of second-class citizenship). These appeals, often involving claims about civilization and moral respectability, ranged from calls for emigration from individuals, such as the shipowner Paul Cuffe (1759–1817) and the sail manufacturer James Forten (1766–1842), who advocated a back-to-Africa movement, to the formation of independent black churches by figures such as Richard Allen (1760–1831), the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and James Varick (1750–1827) and Abraham Thompson, founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. To be sure, many African Americans found in the Christian gospel not only resources to imagine themselves as individually saved, but also ways to imagine themselves as collectively saved. African Americans often read the story of Hebrew bondage in Egypt and God's eventual deliverance of his chosen people as if they were the main characters: America was Egypt; they were the Israelites. In addition, many invoked Psalms 68:31—"Princes shall come out of Egypt, Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God"—as evidence of the inevitable liberation and flourishing of African-descended peoples. Such uses signaled a conception of African-American collective identity. By appropriating the Bible, African-American Christians gave voice to their own sense of peoplehood and secured for themselves a common destiny and history as they elevated their experiences to biblical drama. This black Christian imagination influenced much of African-American life in the nineteenth century and produced manifold meanings about the conditions of African-American living, which became paradigmatic for the construction of black identity and politics.
African-American politics have seemingly been forever stamped with this Christian imprimatur, and black religious vocabularies informed black nationalism throughout the nineteenth century. However, what was distinctive about its use during the early nineteenth century was that racial solidarity and ideas of racial obligation were not based on some specious notion of race. That is to say, figures like David Walker, the enigmatic Robert Young (author of The Ethiopian Manifesto ), the newspaper editor Samuel Cornish (1795–1858), and Bishop Richard Allen did not invoke a form of racial solidarity based in what the historian Wilson Moses describes as "a belief in consanguinity, a commitment to the conservation of racial or genetic purity, a myth of commonality and purity of blood" (Moses, 1996, pp. 4–5). Nor did these figures, and many like them, invoke the idea of solidarity in the name of forming a distinctive territorial unit based on such notions. Instead, the battle was engaged on the basis of common suffering and involved a set of responses on the part of a people acting for themselves to alleviate their condition.
Certainly, the period between the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the end of the nineteenth century involved competing conceptions of racial solidarity and nation. The convulsions of the nineteenth century fundamentally transformed how individuals and groups understood themselves. The rising influence of science and the new technologies it created, the impact of large-scale industry, the rise of new states, and the waning authority of Christianity all contributed to a different sort of preoccupation with the search for origins. The meanings of words like race and nation shifted, and those shifts settled into common sense. Supported by the rising authority of science, race came to signify not only a common descent but also a way of marking, in nature, radical Otherness. Uses of nation assumed the importance of language, ethnicity, and territory in defining the boundaries of "the people" to extend beyond earlier uses. The focus was now on a set of common interests rather than a set of opposing interests.
African Americans were certainly not exempt from all of this. To be sure, the context of African-American living remained precarious. The Fugitive Slave Act, the failed promises of Reconstruction, and the sedimentation of Jim Crow reinforced the belief among many African Americans that America was not home and that liberty was the sole possession of white individuals. The desire for protection, recognition, and association remained and grew stronger in light of the repressive realities of the period. But the articulation of solidaristic efforts to resist such conditions drew on conceptions of race and nation that reflected the shifts mentioned earlier. Figures like Martin Delaney, Edward Blyden, Alexander Crummell, Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, W. E. B. Du Bois, and, eventually, Marcus Garvey sought to create political units reflective of a people bound to one another not only because of their common condition but also because of their race. Biology now mattered.
This is not to suggest that the older forms of thinking about racial solidarity fell away. Those ideas stood alongside the new ones and often commingled with them in what sometimes seemed a muddled and confused politics. Perhaps this is the source of much of the conceptual confusion in the study of nineteenth-century black nationalism. However, by turning one's attention to the actual practices singled out by the phrase, one sees African Americans groping for protection from arbitrary racial violence, demanding recognition of their humanity in the face of state-sanctioned apartheid, and finding comfort and solace among those similarly situated. All in the search, perhaps, for a place they could truly call home.
See also Afrocentrism; Allen, Richard; Black Power Movement; Blyden, Edward Wilmot; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Cornish, Samuel E.; Crummell, Alexander; Cuffe, Paul; Delany, Martin R.; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Forten, James; Garvey, Marcus; Labor and Labor Unions; Turner, Henry McNeal; Varick, James; Walker, David
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Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America (1835–1840). Translated by George Lawrence. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969.
Van DeBurg, William, ed. Modern Black Nationalism: From Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
West, Cornel. Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism, vol 2: Prophetic Reflections: Notes on Race and Power in America. Monroe, Me: Common Courage Press, 1993.
eddie s. glaude jr. (2005)