Black Radicalism in 20th-Century United States
- LAST REVIEWED: 11 May 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0050
- LAST REVIEWED: 11 May 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0050
Throughout the 20th century, African Americans built on the efforts of their 19th-century predecessors to continue to challenge white supremacist patriarchy and their lowly status in the socioeconomic hierarchy. Aware of and active within the transatlantic political revolutions and social transformations that marked the dawn of modernism, black people in the United States conceived various radical political paradigms to redefine their social positions, assert their humanity and political rights, and reconfigure US and Western socioeconomic power structures. Antebellum African American activists had built a radical, gendered politics demanding slavery’s immediate demise and the recognition of their rights as men, women, and citizens. In the wake of emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment, even as segregation was implemented and the New South arose, African Americans continued to shape political discourses to secure their freedom, demand sociocultural respect, and win economic justice. 20th-century black radicalism thus began in the late 19th century with versions of black nationalism, a vision of freedom secured by the dream of the bourgeois, patriarchal black home/homeland/nation/empire. As the 20th century progressed, Marcus Garvey built on this foundation as he transferred his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) from Jamaica to the United States. Simultaneously, other black people within the rural US South as well as the urban US North adapted Marxist critiques of capitalism and imperialism to their cultural outlook and socioeconomic circumstances to challenge their relegation to the bottom of the US economy and their status as the most exploitable and expendable of US laborers. Black activists often blended their Marxism with their nationalism to formulate their own revolutionary imaginary. Likewise, black feminism is often inextricable from black Marxism and black nationalism as radical black women recognized the intersecting oppression wrought by white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and the US state. For most of the 20th century, radical black feminists formulated their politics from within established organizations, challenging sexism while battling racial capitalism and white supremacy. In addition, while most often resident and active in the United States, black American radicals maintained an internationalist perspective, understanding themselves as members of a black diaspora, or pan-Africanist community, oppressed and exploited by intersecting capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy on a global scale. Therefore, black internationalism cuts across black radical ideologies as black people in the United States acted as global citizens and formed imagined and tangible alliances in the worldwide struggle against oppression.
Turn-of-the-Century Black Radicals
The generation of African Americans born to the freed people, those who came of age in the 1880s, 1890s and early 1900s, might be called the Reconstruction generation as they witnessed that era’s rising hopes for full citizenship and the bitter, terrifying disappointments that came along with segregation and white supremacist terrorism in the forms of lynching and rape. Lewis 1993 and Hahn 2005 detail the emergence, from both the upper and lower echelons of society, of a post-emancipation African American political identity that established the race’s roles in shaping modernity. Calling upon longstanding methods of community preservation and self-reliance, this generation of black Americans developed robust forms of nationalism that marshalled patriarchal notions of chivalry and chaste ladyhood to the race’s defense. Mitchell 2004 explains the myriad ways in which African American racial spokesmen and middle-class aspirants of this era sought to shape and reproduce a respectable, unassailable, “righteous” black nation within the United States. From its earliest iterations, 20th-century black nationalism was a deeply gendered and sexualized politics. Furthermore, as Bay 2010, Giddings 2008, and Carby 1987 make clear, the black feminist activists among this generation mustered radical interventions in the Victorian codes of white supremacist patriarchy. The members of the National Association of Colored Women demanded recognition of themselves and their peers as ladies and worthy mothers. To insist upon their status as ladies was to upend the racial hierarchy of Western civilization. Furthermore, radically outspoken activist Ida B. Wells audaciously challenged the racialized sexual discourses that justified the systematic lynching and rape of black people as means by which to maintain their economic and political subordination.
Bay, Mia. To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells. New York: Hill & Wang, 2010.
This historical biography focuses on Wells’s political thought as it diverged from the ideologies guiding both African American activism and the women’s movement of the turn of the 20th century. Bay argues that Wells’s controversial iconoclasm made hers the most radical sexualized racial politics of her generation. It also made her an outcast, ousted from the leadership circles of movements and organizations she helped to initiate.
Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Carby argues that black women used their writing, prose as well as fiction, as sites for proto-feminist critique of white supremacist patriarchy as it shaped black women’s subjectivities and opportunities, both intraracially and interracially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Giddings, Paula J. Ida, a Sword among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign against Lynching. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.
In this lengthy, definitive biography, Giddings places Wells and her radical anti-lynching activism in the full historical context of her generation’s struggle to prevail over white supremacy and claim the promise of citizenship.
Hahn, Steven. A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005.
Hahn argues that African American freed people emerged from slavery fully cognizant of the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship and ready to utilize their longstanding, underground politicized networks to exercise their rights. He posits a complex nationalism shaping political praxes among average, rural African Americans.
Lewis, David Levering. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919. New York: Henry Holt, 1993.
As the title implies, the first volume of Lewis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography posits Du Bois as the quintessential black male leader, voicing both his people’s plight and the solution to the American race problem.
Mitchell, Michele. Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Mitchell provides a gender analysis for the oft-rehearsed story of the emergence of African Americans from slavery and their experience of the imposition of segregation. She shows black nationalism to have been a deeply gendered, sexualized politics reliant on patriarchal codes of familial and communal reproduction.
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