The idea of nationalism has been used in history as both a destructive force and a liberatory one. Some think of nationalism, and they think of a xenophobic, bigoted worldview that espouses superiority. Nationalism has also been a driving force in anti-colonial and anti-racist movements. Black nationalism, in particular, has a long and complicated history here in the United States.
What is Black nationalism? According to the Oxford Language Dictionaries, it “is advocacy of or support for unity and political self-determination for black people, especially in the form of a separate black nation.” Many would accept the former part while the latter might be contentious depending on how you view the role of a state in a revolutionary process.
Theoretically, Black nationalism is a blank slate that is defined simply as the idea of a Black political identity that emphasizes Blackness not just as a mode of oppression but as self-identity and bounding together common political destiny. Meaning we can fill it in with what we like. It goes both ways. We can adopt reactionary politics that serve some mythos, capitalism, and oppression or it can be progressive motivating Black people to fight against all forms of injustice.
Some try to compare Black nationalism with White nationalism, which is intellectually dishonest. White nationalism, historically, has always meant White superiority. White nationalists have always maintained that it’s *them* who are oppressed because of their race. The very premise and foundations of White nationalism is based on falsehood. America not living up to its supposed ideals of racial harmony, continued discrimination, and historical precedent makes a logical case for Black nationalism. Black nationalism can represent a sort of pessimism with the greater society but one that is justified based on historical precedent. White nationalism’s entire philosophy is based on antisemitism, anti-Black racism, and white supremacist fantasy. Black nationalism can be justified by the realities of America, while White nationalism can’t.
The assumption that Black nationalism is necessarily against other people of color says much more about the person saying it than its actual history. People who look at Black nationalism as necessarily reactionary or conservative don’t know its history and/or narrowly define it to its worst stereotypes. Black nationalism is often equated with hatred or indifference towards other oppressed peoples.
Black nationalism has a long history of cross-racial solidarity with colonized people around the world. Groups like the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Revolutionary Action Movement, and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (who defined themselves as Black nationalists at the beginning of their history) all saw themselves as not only a part of the Black revolution but also a part of the general anti-colonial revolution that was happening in the mid-20th century. Even forms of early 20th-century nationalism were not exclusively for Black people. Marcus Garvey said “If Lenin and Trotsky were able to do that for Russia”, Garvey said, “you and I can do that for Africa. Therefore, let no man, let no power on earth turn you from this sacred cause of liberty.” Despite not trusting American communists because they were predominantly white, Garvey extended his solidarity to the October revolution and saw it as an example of what Black people could do.
The African Blood Brotherhood espoused a socialist and Black nationalist worldview of anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, and Black self-determination. The Revolutionary Action Movement saw themselves as apart of a global revolution that include colonized people in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
Nationalism has historically been linked to capitalism and sexism as the concept of the nation-state arose during a time of capitalist hegemony and patriarchal social norms and the use of women’s bodies as vehicles for forming the nation while subjugating them socially, economically, and politically. Nationalism has also been used for anti-colonial purposes to fight off greater powers. Anti-colonial nationalisms have extended solidarity with other oppressed peoples and have often but not always rejected supremacist notions. Black nationalism as with any other nationalism has to be seen as apart of the political moment it was articulated in like any other political philosophy.
Detractors of Black nationalist thought and writers of Black nationalist movements have understated the role of women in Black nationalist movements. While there has been much valid criticism of the historic sexism in Black nationalist organizations, many have ignored Black women nationalists who challenged certain assumptions of male supremacy within their communities and organizations. According to Lisa Levenstein, “Many women in the OAAU, such as Betty Shabazz and Louise Moore, expressed what Ula Taylor has termed “community feminism,” a terrain of “feminist and nationalist paradigms” that allowed for women’s roles as both leaders and helpmates. Women were not only crucial to the intellectual and physical labor of the OAAU, but they actively redefined black womanhood and manhood and debated the role of women in black liberation politics within these contexts.”
Religious nationalist movements like the Nation of Islam and Hebrew Israelites have historically stayed on the path of Male domination, homophobia, gender essentialism, while the more politically oriented Black nationalist organizations have been more contentious. Black Women have historically embraced the politics of self-determination while criticizing male chavunism in movements and organization, not accepted the laid down roles given by men in the organization.
Is Black nationalism always reactionary, conservative or regressive?
The idea that Black nationalism is inherently conservative is false. Many forms are more conservative than others, but there are also progressive forms that are revolutionary. Black nationalism, like all nationalisms, has been used as a way to overthrow imperialism or colonialism. Anti-colonial struggles were often nationalist and adopted communism along the way. The idea to kick out your oppressors and get back your land is a nationalist type idea. Nationalism, however, can turn into something that oppresses and turn people inward.
It’s about organizing people to fight against oppression, the right of self determination, and to do it in a framework that’s not only anti capitalism but pro socialism. It’s not only white oppression that we should focus on but the economic framework. How capitalism & racism reinforce each other is integral to how we go about fighting for liberation. Organizing models of resistance and alternative institutions like cooperatives as well as fighting around the issue of state power and Black people need to control all institutions that effect them.
Does self-determination necessarily involves have a state of your own?
It doesn’t have to mean taking over the state. But how theory meets reality. These structures are the ways in which capital creates structure to control people. There are transnational bodies. It isn’t through the nation state where it happens all the time, anyway. It could be a form to struggle through things. We could take over bodies of land and resources and that shouldn’t be ruled out. It can turn right wing and conservative but everyone has to be aware of these dangerous, communists, socialists, or even anarchists have to be careful of the bodies are created.
“Narrow nationalism” as well as the form of pro capitalist black power and nationalism are dangerous to the revolutionary potential that nationalism has. Black Nationalism can easily fall within those dangerous. That nationalism is captured by capital. If we look at the Black power movements in the 60s and 70s and how they became about black businesses. But those businesses of themselves at their heart were about making money.
Why self-organize as Black people?
Black people here in America have experienced oppression in particular ways. We have a history and culture. We have to control resources, institutions, and organizations. Black people can’t trust people to do things in our best interests as a people comrade or not. It doesn’t exclude solidarity, allies, comrades, etc. Would we tell Palestinians how to fight their struggle? No. There are other struggles around white working class and folks of color and we can work with that. Its complementary. We have to do things in our best interests. But the fight for self determination has to be led and control by black folk but it isn’t true liberation. We can’t depend on the kindness of others for freedom and liberation, and it never works.
By Kamau Franklin & Sankara L.