Introduction to The Negro and the Nation
Justin Rogers-Cooper, LaGuardia Community College, The CUNY Graduate Center, The City University of New York
Editor's Note: This Manifold edition of The Negro and the Nation was created in Markdown language following the typographical style of the original as it is made available on Archive.org. Every effort was made to preserve the original qualities of the publication whenever possible while also affording the benefits of multimedia resources and social annotation made possible through the Manifold platform. - Krystyna Michael, Hostos Community College, The CUNY Graduate Center, The City University of New York
Hubert H. Harrison printed five thousand copies of The Negro and the Nation in August 1917, four months after the United States militarily entered World War I, about one month after the white riots in East St. Louis, and during the midst of the uprisings that would become the Russian Revolution (though before the mass strikes of September and October, and the return of Lenin in early November). These events weren’t incidental. In his preface, Harrison mentions his desire to set the “ideals of the new Manhood Movement among American Negroes” within the “international crusade ‘for democracy,’” which Harrison brackets in quotes for irony. Rather famously, of course, the words were from President Woodrow Wilson, whose Declaration of War in April hypocritically stated the desire to make the world “safe” for democracy at a moment of Jim Crow segregation and social violence, as well as state repression of socialism. When the war ended three years later, in his book When Africa Awakes Harrison remarked: “Negroes want to know if the Peace Congress will settle such questions as those of lynching, disenfranchisement and segregation” (When Africa Awakes 30).
In those years, Harrison was doing more for democracy than Wilson. He was a major voice of what would become the “New Negro Movement,” founding its first organization, The Liberty League, and newspaper, The Voice. The scholar Jeffrey B. Perry, who has perhaps done more than anyone else to bring Harrison’s work and life to our renewed attention, contends that Harrison was a major influence on both Marcus Garvey and A. Phillip Randolph. He was one of the most radical intellectuals working out of Harlem during its Renaissance, and though his influential ideas were decidedly more political than literary in character, they helped to circulate socialist modes of black consciousness and class consciousness in and beyond the United States.
Harrison was a West Indian immigrant, born in St. Croix to working-class parents. He arrived in New York in 1900 at age 17. He was an active reader, writer, speaker, and scholar, and soon part of intellectual circles that included Arthur Schomburg. He read W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and criticized Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt; in fact, he lost his job at the United States Post Office after criticizing Washington (he had the position from 1907-1910). Afterward, Harrison became a prominent member of the Socialist Party of America, campaigned for Eugene Debs’s 1912 presidential run, and founded the Colored Socialist Club. He supported the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and spoke alongside Big Bill Haywood at the 1913 Paterson Strike. Splits in the party beginning around 1912, however, led to Harrison’s increasing isolation, which ultimately he attributed to the anti-black racism affecting the labor movement as a whole. He resigned from the party in 1918. Around the same time he wrote The Negro and the Nation, he criticized the the head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Samuel Gompers, for blaming black workers and citizens for the white riots that killed dozens or hundreds in East St. Louis, and applied the lesson to putting his “the Negro race” first: “Since the A.F. of L. chooses to put Race before Class, let us return the compliment” (Harrison Reader 81).
As he turned from the Socialist party, he became increasingly active in other intellectual circles and concerned with a variety of social subjects, including the Modern School Movement, and especially black cultural and political life. The Liberty League, like the publications he edited such as The Voice and the New Negro, were anti-imperialist and anti-racist, and aimed at promoting black radical consciounsess among black readers and audiences. Harrison critiqued lynching and U.S. military operations in Europe. He advocated for racial equality, black self-defense, and transnational relations among black diasporic populations. In 1920, he edited Garvey’s Negro World, but disagreed with Garvey’s strategy and aim; they would soon go separate ways. His cultural reviews appeared in leading periodicals, and he worked with many prominent organizations and institutions during the 1920s, including the American Negro Labor Congress and the Communist Party (then the Workers Party). In 1924, he founded the International Colored Unity League (ICUL). In 1927, he died of appendicitis at age 44. Harrison’s life should be read not just as an exception for his time period, but through an acknowledgement that his words, voice, and deeds affirm what Stuart Hall sees as the ways “historically marginalized and oppressed peoples...exploit the global proliferation of difference to produce themselves as new subjects” (Hall 124).
Harrison’s “little book” The Negro and the Nation was a collection of pieces published in radical periodicals like the New York Call (1908-1923), The Truth Seeker (1873-present, but until 1920 a reform ‘freethought’ journal), Die Zukunft (1892-present, but then a Yiddish publication of the Socialist Labor Party), and The International Socialist Review (1900-1918), a Chicago monthly. The first two chapters, which his author’s note states first appeared as articles in The International Socialist Review in 1912, were published the year of Debs’s presidential run on the Socialist ticket. The title alone, “The Black Man’s Burden,” already signals the anti-imperialist perspective that defined his position as a black diasporic author and black immigrant, and anticipates his ironic reversal of white supremacist paternalism captured in Wilson’s “safe for democracy” formulation by turning Kipling’s famous lines upside down.
His definition of citizenship in the section entitled “Political” both looks ahead to Wilson’s hypocritical moralization of world war and allows Harrison to discuss the shallow political defenses made by Jim Crow apologists in denying African Americans the right to vote. His tone is lacerating and sarcastic: “the American republic says, in effect, that eight million Americans shall be political serfs. Now, this might be effected with decency by putting it into the national constitution. But it isn’t there.” He goes on to state quite bluntly how racist repression actually works, in part by pulling back the political cant about racial fitness and eviscerating the quasi-legalistic rhetoric of Jim Crow anti-democracy. Such repression, he says flatly, is the result of “fraud and force.” In one of his many references back toward Reconstruction, he reminds early twentieth century readers, in case they had forgotten, that the “ballot was taken from Negroes by shooting them -- that is, by murder.” Readers interested in additional critiques of Jim Crow voting repression should consult W.E.B. Du Bois’s chapter “The Ruling of Men” in Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil, which collects essays written around the same time Harrison composed those in The Negro and the Nation.
In terms of tone and maneuver, we can hear in The Negro and the Nation earlier echoes of black radicalism, such as David Walker’s 1829 Appeal, which contained Walker’s critique of Jefferson and the Constitution’s hypocrisy, or even perhaps Soujourner Truth’s 1851 speech “Ain’t I a Woman. ” Like Walker and Harrison, Truth pointed to the profound hypocrisy of white Christianity. In terms of its critique of white violence as a mode of social control, we might recall Charles Chesnutt’s 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition, about the white riots in Wilmington in 1898 and New Orleans in 1900. Readers can surely find more such connections. Part of the power of Harrison’s text and argumentation come not only from the force of his claims, but from the ways they evoke the black radical tradition of the nineteenth century (and the twentieth and twenty-first), and in how savvily they conjure histories and events in discourse so opposite the white racist mythologies of Harrison’s time.
Of course, another reason that Harrison’s text still pops with urgency arises from his ability to couple political and economic analysis together, and to situate white racist politics within a rubric of black Marxism. In this respect, his power as an interlocutor between nineteenth century socialism and twentieth century black power is unique. He is at home discussing labor power, ideology (especially its operation in media), and other applications of the “materialist method.” This is especially true when he reads such concepts into the culture of white terrorism and black “economic and social subjection.” He is an important figure in the black Marxist tradition, then, although one not mentioned or cited in the foundational histories by major black Marxist authors of the twentieth century, likely because he was not well known. Ironically, Nikki M. Taylor made a similar observation about Peter Clark (1829-1925), “the first African American to publicly identify himself as a socialist in U.S. history,” who she says “blazed the path” for black socialists, including Harrison (Taylor 5).
Despite the unevenness in the ways black socialists like Clark and Harrison persisted in public memory, we might nonetheless place Harrison in some well known clusters of black radical intellectuals, such as C.L.R James (see The Black Jacobins), W.E.B Du Bois (see Black Reconstruction), Cedric Robinson (see Black Marxism), Walter Rodney (see How Europe Underdeveloped Africa), and Oliver Cox (see Caste, Class, and Race). From another vantage, Harrison might act as a bridge figure between Clark and Stokely Carmichael. On the other hand, we should read Harrison alongside Lucy Parsons, Audley Moore, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Claudia Jones, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Selma James, not to mention Stuart Hall, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, David Roediger, and Nikhil Pal Singh.
Some readers might find it illuminating to read Harrison’s text beside chapter three of T. Thomas Fortune’s 1884 book Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South, which happens to be called “The Negro and the Nation.” Fortune speaks directly to many of the same subjects, with similar though not identical sentiments, in what Seth Moglen calls the “first socialist book written by an African American (Moglen vi). Harrison’s evocative use of Fortune’s words was probably intentional; when he was editing The Voice in 1917, the same year he published The Negro and the Nation, he claimed “no such paper has been seen among Negroes since T. Thomas Fortune edited the earlier Age,” a black newspaper which ran under Fortune’s leadership between 1887 and 1907 (Perry 303).
Harrison’s black socialist perspective afforded him a productive way to read recent history, and he does so to make larger theoretical arguments with continuing relevance. For example, in a rejoinder to arguments after the U.S. Civil War about “forty acres and a mule,” which stood in for larger questions about the meaning of political freedom without economic resources in the wake of post-emancipation, Harrison flips the logic, writing that “[p]olitical rights are the only sure protection and guarantee of economic rights.” For Harrison, white supremacist political repression isn’t simple racism against black bodies, but an extension of class war and what Marx calls primitive accumulation. Conversely, we might think carefully about the dialectic of democracy and socialism alongside Angela Davis’s claim that “‘democracy’ loses whatever substantive meaning it might have…[when it] is confined to the formality of exercising the right to vote” (Davis 84).
Just as importantly, Harrison’s approach actually leads him into a justified criticism of the white labor movement, and racism within labor unions. Notably, his economic interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction actually appears before Charles Beard’s 1913 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, and well before the Beards’ two volume 1921 History of the United States, and at least fifteen years before W.E.B Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction. His narration of the Civil War and Reconstruction through the lens of “bastard democracy” and “mutilated manhood,” aside from deflating the myth of Lincoln as the great emancipator, should be required reading for students of American studies.
Just as provocatively -- certainly for 1917 -- is his contention that “systematic peonage” in the south, the post-emancipation sharecropping experienced by the majority of black Americans prior to the Great Migration, was “slavery unsanctioned by law.” The seriousness of Harrison’s charge here begs the question of formal and conceptual arguments about the nature of slavery, but also deepens his critique of the law by positioning its racism as at least partly a function of its economic logic and class power. On the one hand, Harrison will later return to the claim that Jim Crow “simply changed one form of slavery for another.” (Readers interested in similar argumentation about the relation between power, slavery, wage slavery, and starvation should see Frederick Douglass’s “West India Emancipation Speech,” made in Elmira, New York on August 1, 1880; for an additional Marxist interpretations of Reconstruction, see James S. Allen, Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy, 1865-1876, and Peter Camejo, Racism, Revolution, Reaction, 1861-1877).
On the other hand, Harrison is also keen to show how racist law wasn’t simply an expression of hate: it served to uphold a racist police state that leveraged racism for cheap labor and corporate profits. Jim Crow was an accumulation regime, and not merely a system reflecting the social anxieties of, say, white men with fears about black men and white women. Whether or not contemporary readers feel this analysis adequate to Harrison’s confrontation with lynching should be a point of discussion, and perhaps read together with his analyis of the origins of slavery, fugitive slave laws, and what he calls capitalism’s need for “alien blood.” In work on immigration restriction and exclusion during the late nineteenth century, especially against Chinese and other Asian Americans, scholars such as Beth Lew-Williams have been attentive to how “alien” can be “used cautiously to describe a particular legal and social status,” which Lew-Williams prefers for its historic specificity to contemporary terms like noncitizen (Lew-Williams 8). Posing Harrison’s figurative and theoretical notion of “alien” next to Lew-Williams’s careful sensitivity to the concept’s current cultural dissonance might provide some students of American studies with an inviting tension for further thought.
The power of Harrison’s black Marixst perspective isn’t formulaic, then, however much we might pause at his claim that “this system doesn’t care whether the slaves who are bound in this new way [wage slavey and peonage] are white or black.” While some might rightfully question a critique of anti-black racism that depends, as Harrison’s does, on a top to bottom model of dissemination and diffusion from the white ruling class to the white middle and working classes, Harrison also draws upon his own observations of racism to generalize and theorize the nature of class conflict - and by extension racism -- in ways that provide insights into the social manifestation of racial hatred as a perversion of desire. “In every case that we know of where a group has lived by exploiting another group,” Harrison claims, “it has despised that group which it has put under subjection.” In Stony the Road, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explains how such hatred could emerge from the white North, not just the white South: “it was entirely possible for many in the country, even some abolionists, to detest slavery to the extent that they would be willing to die for its abolition, yet at the same time to detest the enslaved and the formerly enslaved with equal passion” (Gates 11). Harrison’s notion that exploitation and subjection can propel racial hatred explains how Gates’s observation can be true: while the North didn’t subject black Americans to chattel slavery after the Civil War, they subjected black Americans to the cruelities of the wage system, not to mention tolerated, financed, or exploited institutions of convict leasing, as well as condoned white riots. For Harrison, these new forms of subjection produced new forms of racial hatred in addition to sustaining the forms of hate in circulation during the antebellum period, in both cities and plantations. His speculation is wide enough to perhaps provoke insights into histories of anti-Semitism, nativism, and Islamophobia, while also opening up new threads for discusion within various traditions of Marxism. We might think about Etienne Balibar and Immaneul Wallerstein’s contention, for example that “racism is not an ‘expression’ of nationalism, but a supplement of nationalism or more precisely a supplement internal to nationalism” (Balibar 54).
In a later section, Harrison revisit nineteenth century threads of nativism, including against the Irish, Jews, and Italians. Near the end of his book, Harrison leaves implicit how racism circulates against both black Americans and other immigrants and communities of color. We might also note that these are moments where it would have been easy to extend his claims to women, including white women, black women, and women of color. Incidentally, in the essay in Darkwater, “The Damnation of Women,” Du Bois speaks directly to the black women’s particular experiences, including their struggle for equality in terms of gender and class. Any absence of gender analysis in Harrison’s text, however, shouldn’t necessarily negate how we might consider his materialist method for questions of women and gender. There are several moments in the text that demand we take Harrison beyond Harrison, as it were, such as when, in his concluding remarks, he assigns special blame to newspapers for outbreaks of violence against black Americans.
Readers encountering The Negro and the Nation might also be struck by its continued relevance for U.S. politics in the age of Trump. Indeed, Harrisons’s question about whether “Southernism or Socialism” would reign triumphant in American life still seems pertinent and descriptive of continuing political and social crises. Harrison saw part of his text’s purpose as one that forces the question of socialism and anti-capitalism -- a purpose that retains significant power. For sure, his logic cuts through to the question that still faces liberals who lack a critique of capitalism: if capitalism depends on racism, then how can one construct a post-racist nation if the nation is capitalist? Indeed, Harrison hesitated about whether or not the “abolition of capitalism” would “be permitted” by the mode of U.S. government, which appears to still be a daunting, and urgent, question for readers today.
In another glance forward at Du Bois’s thesis about abolition democracy and the general strike of the enslaved in Black Reconstruction, Harrison seems confident that withholding “labor power...at the point of production” was a genuinely productive step by which a “voteless proletarian” could propel a movement toward such an abolition. If capitalist nations ultimately produce forms of racism, then movements for social justice and reparation might ultimately need to address general modes of capitalist economy, not just the specific instances of racial hatred. Extending Harrison’s logic a little, then, we might also ask whether even a voting population in the United States, especially under this form of representative government, might not also consider general strikes -- not necessarily just the ballot box -- as a legitimate and even necessary tactic for reconstructing American politics towards abolition democracy.
Bibliography and Works Cited
Allen, James S. Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy 1865-1876. International Publishers, 1963.
Balibar, Etienne and Immanuel Wallerstein. Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. Verso, 1991.
Camejo, Peter. Racism, Revolution, Reaction, 1861-1877. Pathfinder, 1976.
Davis, Angela. Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture. Seven Stories Press, 2005.
Douglass, Frederick. Selections from the Writings of Federick Douglass. Ed. Phillip Foner. International Publishers, 1968.
Du Bois, W.E.B. Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil. Dover, 1999.
Fortune, T. Thomas. Black And White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South. Introduction by Seth Moglen. Washington Square Press, 2007.
Hall, Stuart. The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation. Ed. Kobena Mercer. Harvard University Press, 2017.
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. Penguin Press, 2019.
Harrison, Hubert. The Negro and the Nation. Cosmo-Advocate Publishing Co., 1917.
Harrison, Hubert. When Africa Awakes. With New Introduction and Notes by Jeffrey B. Perry. Diasporic Africa Press, 2015.
Harrison, Hubert. A Hubert Harrison Reader. Edited with Introduction and Notes by Jeffrey B. Perry. Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
Lew-Williams, Beth. The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and The Making of the Alien in America. Harvard University Press, 2018.
Perry, Jeffrey B. Perry. Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918. Columbia University Press, 2009.
Smith McKoy, Sheila. When Whites Riot: Writing Race and Violence in American and South African Culture. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2001.
Taylor, Nikki M. America’s First Black Socialist: The Radical Life of Peter H. Clark. University Press of Kentucky, 2013.