Rediscovering Hubert Harrison: Revolutionary Socialism and Anti-White Supremacy for 21st-Century Americans

Jeffrey B. Perry, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

A free thinking race conscious and class-conscious black working-class socialist, Hubert Harrison (1883-1927) exerted profound influence among leading intellectual activists in the civil rights, New Negro, Black Nationalist, labor, and socialist movements mainly in Harlem, New York City. Harrison was a dynamic speaker, prolific writer, labor and community organizer, bibliophile, street corner orator, educator, newspaper publisher, advocate of women’s rights, and propagandist. From the late 1900s into the 1920s, he captured the attention of, and in some cases interacted with, numerous prominent individuals, including Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, “Big Bill” Haywood, Chandler Owen, Cyril V. Briggs, Marcus Garvey, and Henry Miller. He earned the sobriquet “Father of Harlem Radicalism” from labor leader and socialist Asa Philip Randolph, and he received praise from Joel A. Rogers who wrote that Harrison was “the foremost Afro-American intellect of his time” and that “none of the Afro-American leaders of his time had a saner and more effective program” (1). Harrison ranked high among black intellectuals, grappling to understand the workings of racism and building movements to end white supremacy within both the largest class radical movement (the Socialist Party) and, later, the largest race radical New Negro movement (the Universal Negro Improvement Association).

Harrison is the central subject in the first book of a meticulously documented and critically detailed two-volume biography by independent scholar and post office labor union activist, now retired, Jeffrey B. Perry, who received his undergraduate education at Princeton, M.A. in Labor Studies at Rutgers, and Ph.D. in History at Columbia. (The second volume, tentatively titled, Hubert Harrison: Race Consciousness and the Struggle for Democracy, is scheduled for publication in 2012.) Perry is well-positioned to write the biography because he preserved and inventoried the Hubert. H. Harrison Papers at Columbia University, and he edited A Hubert Harrison Reader (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). He can be proud to have authored the first definitive biography of Harrison and an established point of reference for interested laypersons and scholars for decades to come.

Harrison emerges as a pivotal figure in the Black Liberation struggle, ideologically blazing paths later taken by Randolph, Garvey, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. But Perry has other objectives besides rescuing Harrison from oblivion and portraying his prominent position in early 20th-century African American history. He stresses that Harrison offered clarity of thought for antiracist Americans hoping to avoid the traps of placing race above class or class above race as they debate about how to proceed from the present stalemate in the fight against racism. Perry might not have thought about Harrison in context of the future of Black Studies, but Harrison and his works speak mightily about Black Studies becoming more liberationist in its political and ideological dimensions.

First, exactly who was Hubert Harrison? A formidable debater and speaker, Harrison, after his premature death in 1927, became unknown among the public and even among most scholars of 20th-century African American history and politics. As Perry demonstrates, Harrison’s life is a window not only into the African American and the Caribbean Diaspora experience, but also into how early 20th-century black intellectuals debated and sought ways to mobilize antiracist movements.

Harrison was one of millions of black people in the first two decades of the 20th century throughout the African Diaspora who migrated from underdeveloped regions like the rural South or the West Indies to economically developed cities in North America, Great Britain, and elsewhere. These migrants sought a better way of life and worked to make their new environments less hostile to people of African descent. A child of working-class parents, Harrison was born on April 27, 1883, on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, which were under Danish rule until the United States acquired them in 1917. Growing up in the nearly all-black Danish West Indies, Harrison developed the foundation for his political activism and understanding of white supremacy. His early life was shaped by the absence of legal racial segregation, the absence of lynching and other forms of racist terrorism, and the Crucians’ rich history of direct action mass struggle. In 1900, when his mother died, the teenaged Harrison went to live with his sister in Harlem, an expanding African American enclave that soon developed into the political, intellectual, and cultural capital of black America, if not of the African Diaspora.

He became an autodidact, blossoming intellectually, voraciously reading popular and scholarly books on history, literature, psychology, race, religion, science, sociology, and other topics, and learning to be fluent in six languages. He secured a post office job, one of the few steady and decent-paying occupations opened to African Americans at a time when white supremacy erected barriers to black economic advancement. Harrison’s job provided income stability for his wife and expanding family. Nonetheless, like most black immigrants and migrants in economically advanced regions, Harrison confronted the glaring paradoxes between well-established, racially restrictive hierarchies and opportunities to destroy such hierarchies and strive toward racial equality. Like most black West Indian immigrants, he found white supremacy in the US aggressively more virulent than the one he left behind in the Caribbean. Hence, Harrison and his Caribbean cohorts, in numbers disproportionate to the overall black population, joined the black American freedom struggle.

Hubert Harrison made political activism his vehicle to oppose white supremacy and quickly realized that the paths he thought most effective were often the ones disapproved by various black leaders and activists. He made his name known through public discussion forums, letters to newspaper editors, public lectures, and other venues as he forged a critical understanding of the interaction of racism and classism. Harrison certainly made adversaries of those who despised his critical rejections of conservative, moderate, and liberal approaches within the black freedom struggle.

Harrison’s efforts to interject militant and radical analyses into antiracism movements put him on a collision course with iconic figures in early 20th-century black American life, including Booker T. Washington, educator and founder of Tuskegee Institute, and W.E.B. Du Bois, a cofounder of the Niagara movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Harrison abhorred Washington’s politics, policies, and programs for not launching assertive challenges against white supremacy. While Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter, and other anti-Washington black leaders weathered attacks from the Tuskegee machine, Harrison lost his job when Washington’s allies successfully pressured the post office to sack him, plunging him, his wife Irene Louise Horton Harrison, and their children (they would have five) into poverty that remained their daily condition for the rest of his life. This episode was neither the first nor the last time that Harrison experienced the peril of hewing an independent political line in the cause of building an intellectually effective antiracism agenda. The ever-resourceful Harrison quickly moved into activities that framed his most productive years, first in the socialist movement, then later, with some overlap, in the New Negro movement. He faulted Du Bois for conceptualizing building a black leadership class, the Talented Tenth, arguing instead that the masses needed a rigorous education that stressed modern scientific thinking – with constant reading to train the mind to think freely – and that encouraged them to develop their own leaders.

Harrison’s involvement and disillusionment with the Socialist Party (SP) holds lessons for 21st-century antiracism activists who seek to pursue a radical politics that privileges neither race nor class but trumps both. From 1912 to 1914, Harrison worked within the SP, tirelessly advocating socialism. But he became increasingly critical of the party in two major areas. First, he favored militant direct action; this pitted him against conservative socialists who dominated the party’s leadership and ranks. Second, he frequently and sharply confronted the unabashedly racist Victor Berger and other SP leaders for failing to challenge white supremacy and for denying or minimizing the importance of opposing racism in the labor and socialist movements. In addition, Harrison challenged the approach associated with Eugene Debs and other radical white party-members who sought an interracial workers’ movement but failed to recognize the special needs of working-class African Americans. Harrison was troubled by these two major areas of deficiency not only because such thinking decreased the party’s appeal to black workers, but also because they turned the party itself into one that reinforced white supremacy. He concluded that race and class were inextricably bound together in the United States, and that racism has rendered leftist movements intellectually and politically impotent, in that radicals have failed to see how race and racism have been used as mechanisms of social and class control.

By calling for militant direct action and greater working-class militancy, Harrison tried to move the Socialist Party to attack racism in the labor and socialist movement. Yet, the party thwarted him. Although Harrison was among the party’s premier organizers, speakers, and theorists, he received less pay than did white SP organizers. He initiated a Colored Socialist Club to conduct propaganda and organizing work among black Americans parallel to the party’s activities among women and immigrant workers. Party leaders, however, preferred the opposite course. In addition, Harrison strongly approved the militant antiracism of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In fact, as an independent and sharply critical freethinker, he often spoke favorably about the IWW and addressed IWW-sponsored events while criticizing the SP’s failure to fight racial injustice.

In 1914, Harrison left the SP and concentrated on developing a race first consciousness politics. Already known as a leading proponent of the theory that African American working people were the core of an exploited American proletariat, Harrison proposed that if white socialists and labor leaders put the white race first, then black Americans, facing intensifying racial segregation and discrimination and racist terrorism, had no choice but to put their race first. “By late 1916 and early 1917, his new focus was clear, and his militant, race conscious lectures at The ‘Temple of Truth’ … signal[ed] the dawn of a new era—the birth of ‘The New Negro Manhood Movement,’ better known as the ‘New Negro Movement’ … a race conscious, internationalist, mass-based movement for ‘political equality, social justice, civic opportunity, and economic power’ geared toward ‘the Negro common people’ and urging defense of self, family, and ‘race’ in the face of lynching and white supremacy” (243). He soon influenced, and to some extent mentored, a younger generation of militantly radical black activists, including Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph. Through his lectures, the Liberty League and The Voice became, respectively, the first organization and the first newspaper of the ‘New Negro Movement.’

Harrison stood at the height of influence as the leading radical black intellectual activist when he convened the Liberty Congress in June 1918. He rose to be the leading radical against white supremacy after his thorough criticism of Du Bois who called upon African Americans to forget their special grievances and support President Woodrow Wilson’s war policies (385-392). At the congress, Harrison, William Monroe Trotter, and others articulated a program to challenge segregation and discrimination, seek enforcement of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, petition the government to enact a federal anti-lynching law, and demand an end to colonialism through democracy for Africans and Asians.

Perry’s biography has received many highly favorable reviews. Judging from these and from Perry’s website (www.jeffreybperry.net), a Hubert Harrison revival is in full swing among laypersons and scholars alike. Some reviewers raise friendly criticism, pointing to a few weaknesses in theoretical analysis or whatever. With veiled comments about an educational system that makes people forget about workers, nonwhites, leftists, and others who pushed America closer toward an inclusive democracy, other reviewers say that Harrison was forgotten because he was a working-class black man, an immigrant, poor, and a radial socialist. In addition, his criticism stung too many potential allies who would have kept his politics alive; he failed to establish a permanent mass-based organization to advance his ideas; and historically many Americans have preferred to ignore militant advocates of antiracism, class-consciousness, and socialist revolution. Still, like most commentators, this reviewer applauds Perry for meeting his major objectives: restoring Harrison to his place of prominence in early 20th-century American socialist and New Negro movements, making Harrison’s ideas accessible, and wanting to move discussion beyond the Washington vs Du Bois and the Du Bois vs Garvey paradigms. Overall, Perry’s most appreciative readers are those committed to end white supremacy, hungry to learn about Hubert Harrison, and eager to apply his ideas to 21st-century America.

My own main concern here has been directed to what is implicit in Perry’s intentions and to the goal of articulating the significance of Hubert Harrison to the future of Black Studies.1 With the Harrison biography, Perry accomplishes at least three things that have been a hallmark of Black Studies. First, he works to end scholarly censorship or self-censorship that relegates militant or leftist black women and men to the margins or into the abyss. Next, Perry uses an interdisciplinary approach, in this case intellectual and social history, while keeping black people at the center of discussion. And third, he sees the biography as a service to the black community in particular. Perry, however, joins those who insist that Black Studies must have an orientation. He quotes Harrison saying that “African Americans are the touchstone2 of the modern democratic idea,’ that ‘while the color line exists,’ the cant of democracy’ is ‘intended as dust in the eyes of white voters’ and… that true democracy and equality for African Americans implies ‘a revolution… startling even to think of’” (395).

Harrison was not alone among major 20th-century black leaders who sought socialism, a social democracy, or something similar. One can recall that Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and a host of other individuals sought alternatives to capitalism. Black Studies, by embracing this tradition, can become the touchstone that Harrison speaks of. This will give it a mission that is more urgent than ever in a nation in which corporatism and militarism have further entrenched themselves in the body politic.

Black Studies entered a new era in 2008 when the majority of the American electorate, many with a sense of euphoria, voted decisively for Barack Obama, who became the first black biracial President of the United States. Various pundits began talking about a post-racial America and a new class of black politicians who speak not just to “black” issues but to all people. Nonetheless, numerous Americans questioned such pundits who preferred to ignore racial disparities in employment, housing, education, healthcare, the law enforcement and prison systems, and a host of other indices. By 2010, increasing numbers of Americans concluded that Obama, especially with his bailout of banks and corporations, is a tool of the business elites rather than a fighter for the common people, or that he is incapable of ending US military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Some wonder if Obama lacks the leadership skills and deep roots among working-class Americans of all colors that are necessary to move the nation firmly on the road toward an inclusive democracy.

Into this atmosphere, Black Studies must do more than recover forgotten voices and events; it must revisit and reevaluate the historical record in order to emphasize black history and life not only as an arena of resistance and freedom, but also as an alternative representing the highest ideals of emancipation from all forms of political oppression and economic exploitation. Black Studies needs to be a greater contributor to revitalizing the political and social movement that Harrison and other radical black leaders envisioned when they argued that the white supremacy they sought to overcome is part and parcel of the American political and economic system.

Notes

1. The field of Black Studies has other titles, including African and African American studies, African American Studies, Africana Studies, Africalogy, etc.

2. A touchstone is a black stone used to test the purity of gold.

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