Posted on March 8, 2007

Black Nationalist Beliefs

Black Nationalism, also known as black separatism, is a complex set of beliefs emphasizing the need for the cultural, political, and economic separation of African Americans from white society. Comparatively few African Americans have embraced thoroughgoing separatist philosophies. In his classic study Negro Thought in America , 1880-1915, August Meier noted that the general black attitude has been one of “essential ambivalence.” On the other hand, nationalist assumptions inform the daily actions and choices of many African Americans.

Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, Black Nationalists have agreed upon two defining principles: black pride and racial separatism. Black Nationalism calls for black pride and seeks a unity that is racially based rather than one grounded in a specific African culture or ethnicity. Thus the basic outlook of Black Nationalism is premised upon Pan-Africanism. Historian Sterling Stuckey argued that this Pan-African perspective emerged as an unintended byproduct of the institution of slavery. Slaveholders deliberately mixed together slaves of diverse linguistic and tribal backgrounds in order to minimize their ability to communicate and make common cause. In response, African slaves were forced “to bridge ethnic differences and to form themselves into a single people to meet the challenge of a common foe. . ..”

Those espousing nationalist or separatist philosophies have envisioned nationalism in quite different ways. For some, Black Nationalism demanded a territorial base; for others, it required only separate institutions within American society. Some have perceived nationalism in strictly secular terms; others, as an extension of their religious beliefs. Black Nationalists also differ in the degree to which they identify with Africa and African culture.


Black pride has also involved an insistence on distinctly black standards of beauty (see Hair and Beauty Culture). Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), deplored black acceptance of white standards of beauty, for example, in preferring straight hair or a lighter skin color. During the 1920s he refused to place advertisements for hair straighteners or purported skin whiteners in Negro World, the UNIA newspaper. In the 1960s black nationalists embraced the political slogan Black Power, but they also proclaimed that “black is beautiful.”


The most consistent proponents of Black Nationalism were those who advocated emigration or colonization. Delany , Garnet, Turner, and Alexander Crummell all endorsed colonization and insisted that African Americans’ greatest hope lay in the establishment of all-black settlements or colonies, most often planned for Africa . Emigration or colonization entailed blacks leaving the United States to establish an African American settlement abroad, often in the hope of creating an independent black state.

In 1815, for example, Paul Cuffe led a group of 38 African Americans to found a settlement in Sierra Leone , which the British government planned to use for the repatriation of slaves freed in its colonies. Free African Society founders Richard Allen and Absalom Jones endorsed Cuffe’s plan. Garvey’s UNIA was the most powerful back-to-Africa movement of the 20th century. But emigrationists differed among themselves over an appropriate destination and, in the case of emigration to Africa, in their attitudes toward the African people with whom they intended to settle.


Black Nationalists seek racial separation but differ on the degree and nature of that separation. Some have sought a specific territory that could be reserved for and controlled by blacks. Others have advocated separate black social, religious, economic, or political institutions within the existing white society. Territorial nationalists have differed on an appropriate location. Those calling for a return to Africa have most commonly suggested the territories of such present-day West African nations as Liberia , Sierra Leone , and Nigeria .

Others proposed creating a separate black nation in the Americas , often viewing Haiti as a likely possibility. Still others believed that a part of the United States should be set aside as a separate black state. In the late 1920s white radicals of the Communist Party of the United States of America( CPUSA) viewed African Americans as an internal colony of American imperialism and demanded recognition for a Negro Nation that would be located within the Black Belt counties of Mississippi , Alabama , and Georgia .

Many African Americans implicitly acted on nationalist principles. In the 1870s, for example, black ” Exodusters ” fled the South to found all-black settlements in Kansas . African Americans established other all black towns-, including Eatonville , Florida , the childhood home of Zora Neale Hurston . Hurston and such prominent African Americans as Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois also expressed attitudes that at times resembled or drew upon Black Nationalism. Hurston’s writing, notably Their Eyes Were Watching God (1938), portrayed a black world in which whites rarely intruded and mattered little.


W. E. B. Du Bois—one of America ‘s foremost black intellectuals and a leading figure in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People( NAACP)—had strong ties to Africa . In 1919 he organized the first Pan-African Congress (see Pan-African Congress of 1919). During the 1920s he traveled to Africa . Yet for most of his life, Du Bois rejected Black Nationalism. In the 1920s he opposed Marcus Garvey and the UNIA. During the 1930s, as Du Bois grew more radical, he turned to socialism and internationalism rather than to Black Nationalism. But during the harsh anticommunism of the Cold War era, Du Bois lost his faith in American society. In 1961 he abandoned the United States and settled in Ghana , where he died two years later, shortly after taking Ghanaian citizenship.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Black Nationalists maintained a low profile. In 1935 Garvey failed to resurrect the UNIA, despite the hardships that many blacks endured during the Great Depression. Apart from Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam’s relatively obscure leader, there was no Black Nationalist who could supplant Garvey. Although Hurston , Robeson , and Du Bois were significant figures, they were not principled separatists.

The 1960s, by contrast, were a high point for Black Nationalist thought. In some respects, it became a radical extension of the Civil Rights Movement. Many blacks grew impatient with the slow pace of change and broke with the movement’s principles of passive nonviolence. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) contributed an important expression of Black Nationalism through its slogan Black Power. SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael ( Kwame Ture ) and political scientist Charles Hamilton wrote Black Power (1967) to elaborate that slogan into a philosophy and political program.

In 1966 Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party, which advocated militant self-defense and Black Nationalism. The Black Panther Party, like SNCC Black Power advocates, embraced a Black Nationalism that was primarily secular and political. By contrast, Nation of Islam leaders Elijah Muhammad and the charismatic Malcolm X grounded their goals of racial separation in religious precepts. Black Muslims sought to establish separate economic enterprises, finding a religious justification for a racially separate business life.

As of the late 1990s African American attitudes and beliefs continued to reveal the significance of Black Nationalism, although less as a political philosophy than as a cultural attitude. It is difficult to weigh this cultural impact, but its manifestations can be seen throughout African American society. For example, a growing number of black parents give their children African names. Since the 1970s African-style clothing has been a recurring feature in black fashion. Likewise, the celebration of Kwanzaa emphasizes African Americans’ distinctly African heritage.


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