Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883–1918, by Jeffrey B. Perry (Columbia University Press, 624 pp., $37.50)
If you were a black Harlemite in the late nineteen-teens, your favorite black leader was likely a short, coal-black West Indian famous for blazingly eloquent orations on street corners and in meeting halls. Before radio and television, soapbox oratory amounted to much more than the small-change affair it usually is today; speaking didactically at great length in the open air was how one got his message out. And as a young Henry Miller recalled, “there was no one in those days who could hold a candle to Hubert Harrison.”
Harrison, notes Jeffrey B. Perry in his new biography, offered a new message to blacks who had recently migrated from the South and the brutalities of Jim Crow. He came, seemingly, out of nowhere—more specifically, plantation poverty and single parentage on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. Arriving in America at 17, he was outraged by practices such as lynching, unknown in the majority-black West Indies. Educating himself voraciously in educational facilities run by black churches, he worked with the Socialist Party but grew disenchanted with its lack of interest in fighting for black causes. He founded the Liberty League in 1917, committed it to a new revolutionary paradigm for black America, and edited its house organ, The Voice.
Harrison gave America its first taste of what we now call black nationalism. Booker T. Washington (who died in 1915) had counseled blacks to work upward from menial labor to earn whites’ respect. W. E. B. Du Bois urged a “talented tenth” to speak for the masses and protest discrimination—but to do so from within the system, rattling pans only so loudly. Harrison took a much harder line, arguing that the American capitalist system was fundamentally based upon a “white supremacism” that the black proletariat must revolt against.
To Harrison, mainstream organizations like the NAACP, with their acceptance of compromise, were merely preaching “the servile virtues of acquiescence and subservience.” He demanded that blacks have the right to vote 40 years before it became a mainstream platform of black protest. He called for a black political party; counseled armed response to violent provocations from whites; explored the idea of a separate black nation within the U.S.; and urged blacks toward solidarity with the world’s non-white people, especially Africans. Harrison also advocated a positive black identity, distinct from white identity, in an era when blacks usually sought to convince whites how much the races had in common. Today, Harrison’s militant stance is much more familiar, common among black academics and preached as “hip-hop politics.” But back then, just a few generations past slavery and only decades removed from Plessy v. Ferguson, Hubert Harrison was big news.
The gushing blurbs on the jacket of Perry’s book paint Harrison as “powerfully influential” and declare that his life constitutes an “epic tale.” Yet this is the first Harrison biography since his death 82 years ago. Kwame Anthony Appiah’s and Henry Louis Gates’s encyclopedia Africana doesn’t even have an entry for him, nor did Wikipedia until last year (and Perry wrote it). If Harrison was beloved enough that thousands of Harlemites attended his funeral, then why has almost no one heard of him today?
One reason is that he had no interest in celebrity. In his copy of a book on philosopher Herbert Spencer, he marked observations on Spencer’s character that he considered applicable to himself, including this one: “Even such notoriety as could not fail to be associated with his name was distasteful, leaving him to go out of his way to avoid the manifestations of it.” By contrast, Marcus Garvey sat at Harrison’s feet for a spell in his Liberty League, was transformed by his oratory, and fashioned himself into the helmet-headed cult figure who has lived on in legend. Garvey extolled a proud black identity as Harrison did and called on blacks to resettle in Africa, a variation of Harrison’s teachings. By the early twenties, Garvey was making the newsreels while Harrison was quietly penning magazine articles.
It also didn’t help that, despite imposing erudition (he wrote much of his diary in Latin), Harrison never wrote a book, aside from two indifferently edited essay collections. Perry gives still other reasons for Harrison’s obscurity. He never belonged to one organization for long, including, since he was an atheist, a church—a traditional conduit to stardom for black public figures. And he died in 1927, far too early to participate in the signature civil rights victories of the fifties and sixties.
But equally decisive in Harrison’s obscurity was that his ideology largely constituted a dead end. Perry would have it that Harrison was “a key unifying link between the two great trends of the Black Liberation Movement: the labor- and civil-rights-based work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the race and nationalist platform associated with Malcolm X.” This formulation, however, is a bit of a stretch: it makes Harrison the primum mobile behind, for example, the Montgomery bus boycott that King spearheaded in the fifties, and it assumes that mainstream protest organizations like the NAACP really were the tiptoeing milquetoast outfits that Harrison denigrated. In his short life he did see an NAACP, with its white founders, wary of blacks’ “going too fast,” and he also saw Du Bois, in one of his lowest moments, writing an editorial urging blacks to serve in World War I in order to get himself a military commission. But for all of its “acquiescence,” the NAACP was instrumental in making modern black America: a little something called Brown v. Board of Education comes to mind. And A. Philip Randolph, though first inspired in his young socialist years by Harrison, worked closely with the NAACP in forging the Fair Employment Practices Committee in the forties, which broke down barriers to black employment.
King adorns our postage stamps for making America live up to its ideals; he had little interest in assailing the entire American system for its “white supremacy.” True, the line from Harrison did lead to Malcolm X—but for all of Malcolm X’s rock-star status on the left, it’s not clear what his hostility to “the white man” had to do with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act the following year, or the burgeoning of the black middle class in the years that followed. Harrison’s orations would have gone over splendidly with Stokeley Carmichael and the Black Power movement of the late sixties, which today lives on as gesture, language, and style. Yet if black people had never happened to sport big Afros, and no one had ever heard of Biggie Smalls or Kanye West, it’s plausible to suppose that the number of blacks living in poverty would have decreased since the sixties just as rapidly as would have the median gap between white and black earnings and college degrees.
Hubert Harrison was, in the end, the grandfather of dashiki politics. His was a reasonable proposition 90 years ago, when black men were being hanged from trees. Forty years ago, after the outlawing of Jim Crow, the proposition was at best histrionically diverting. However, the histrionics in question were central in instilling white guilt in residents of what we now call the blue states. As such, Harrison can be seen as the spark of a sentiment crucial in Barack Obama’s election as president: a vote for him was a gesture against America’s racist past. But white affection for Obama involved a rejection of racism, not capitalism, which Harrison had also targeted. Black thinkers still hoping for action against the market system are by now a fringe contingent; some wax eloquent on Perry’s book jacket, elated that a black radical has finally garnered a biography.
Harrison was less the tragically unsung civil rights pioneer that Perry implies than an adherent of a paradigm that black America turned out not to need. Certainly Perry’s rescue of Harrison from near-oblivion is a good thing. But so is the fact that black America has achieved so much since Harrison’s day that only a rarefied few see “Burn, Baby, Burn” ideology as a useful game plan for a people now so close to the mountaintop.