Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Looking for Malcolm

By Charles Henry



A popular theory of Black Nationalism (broadly defined) contends that during periods of relative racial harmony in American history, Blacks are welcomed into mainstream society. However, during periods of racial hostility when doors of advancement are shut, Blacks retreat to their own institutions and organizations. According to the theory there have been at least four such periods of heightened Black Nationalism in U. S. history.

The first period occurred after the Revolutionary War when it became apparent that the promises of the Declaration of Independence would not apply to enslaved Blacks. With the three -fifths compromise of the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, Black status was fixed. In response free Blacks turned inward. Rejected by White society, Prince Hall formed the first Black Masonic lodges and Richard Allen established the first Black church denomination. Black Quaker Paul Cuffee even provided a ship to return Blacks to Africa but the overall emphasis was co-existence within a segregated society.

A second period of Black Nationalism took place in the decade before the Civil War as Congress, through the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, permitted the expansion of slavery in the West and cracked-down on escaped slaves. The Supreme Court’s decision in the 1857 Dred Scott case that boldly stated “the Black man has no rights the White man is bound to respect” in denying citizenship to Blacks led to a wave of efforts, led most prominently by Martin Delany, to find a new home for the oppressed in Africa, Canada or South America. Even Frederick Douglass briefly considered emigration.

The end of Reconstruction and the rise of “Jim Crow” led to a third period of Black Nationalism highlighted by the internal movement of African Americans. Many moved from the South to the North while others, Exodusters, moved West forming all-Black towns in Oklahoma, Texas and even California. Communities became more cosmopolitan as Blacks moved from rural to urban areas. Recent migrants from the South and from the Caribbean formed the base for Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association that eventually had branches throughout the African Diaspora in the 1920s and 1930s.

Although the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties is generally seen as a time of great advancement in race relations, its most visible events were in the South. Northern Blacks saw little progress in their communities leading King to shift his focus to the North in 1965. However, the leader that spoke the language of Black grievance in the nation’s urban ghettos was Malcolm X.   Black power manifested itself in every area of life from professional associations to the boxing arena and Congress.

The rise of conservatism since the Reagan administration has not produced the same nationalist response of earlier eras, although it did stimulate Jesse Jackson’s bid for the presidency in 1984 and 1988. In fact, it has produced its own very small but visible group of Black neoconservatives some of whom express an admiration for Malcolm X. The election of Barack Obama seemed to some to usher in a new post-racialist America. Yet Obama found that he could only discuss race in terms of Black pathology and several studies indicate race relations worsened during his eight years. At the same time, Black institutions such as the Black church, civil rights organizations, historically Black colleges, the Black press and the Congressional Black Caucus appeared to be in decline.

A significant sector of White America now sees itself as victims. The United States, although the greatest power the world has known according to many, is the victim of Canada, Mexico, China, and the European Union. A White male billionaire from New York now sees himself as the victim of the media, the Democrats, establishment Republicans, professional athletes, the judicial establishment and anyone else who objects to his policies. Black public space has been severely constrained as African Americans are challenged for grilling, swimming, selling lemonade, studying, driving, jaywalking, checking utility meters and a host of other daily activities. All of Africa and the Caribbean have been dismissed as worthless countries. Will the overt White Nationalism of Donald Trump lead to a new period of Black Nationalism?