Tuesday, June 10, 2008



Alain Locke’s attempt to wrest control of the term “New Negro” away from the radicals was indebted to the Russian revolution in two key ways. First, the revolution was a major force behind the formation and radicalization of the New Negro movement, the growth of which was the primary explanation for the term’s widespread usage after World War I. Without the movement of A. Philip Randolph, Marcus Garvey, and Cyril Briggs, the New Negro would not possess nearly the cultural resonance which Locke sought to harness. Similarly, the tremendous energy for change in Black America which Locke was addressing would have been of a markedly different character without the movement’s inspiration. Second, as long as the New Negro movement represented the dominant politics of Black America, Locke’s attempted redefinition of the term could not succeed. It would take the movement’s decomposition before Locke’s preferred strategy of racial uplift through cultural achievement could attain hegemony. As I have shown, that decomposition was influenced in no small part by the movement’s different wings’ reaction to the Russian Revolution. Locke’s shift of the New Negro away from Bolshevism was, ironically, dependent on Bolshevism.

If Locke’s (unacknowledged) dependence on Bolshevism was ultimately a negative one, the New Negro activists’ engagement with it was far stronger. As this study has demonstrated, the Russian revolution was a key factor in the formation of New Negro movement, a source of the movement’s internal coherence, and ultimately a factor in its dissolution. Publications like the Negro World and the Messenger used the Russian revolution to further their own goals, even as the revolution’s allure shifted those goals. For Cyril Briggs, the revolution’s agent in the United States, the Communist Party, eventually became a more attractive means of racial liberation than his own African Blood Brotherhood. The Russian revolution changed the careers of all these activists.

For all of the depth with which the New Negro movement engaged with the Russian revolution, the time in which that engagement occurred was quite brief. This study has focused on a mere seven year period, a miniscule conjuncture in the four hundred year struggle for Black freedom. However, despite its brevity, the New Negro’s turn towards the East had ramifications well beyond its own short life. As I have indicated, the movement’s formation and demise were both crucial to the development of the Harlem Renaissance. That the Renaissance itself was characterized by a very different political strategy does nothing to diminish its debt to the New Negro movement. In further studies I hope to trace in greater detail the residual processes by which the revolution continued to exert influence on the Renaissance.

Even stronger than the revolution’s legacy in the Harlem Renaissance was its impact on the radical wing of the Black freedom struggle, for here is the revolution’s primary legacy in Black life. The entry of the African Blood Brotherhood’s leadership into the Communist Party, inspired by the Russian Revolution, gave the Party its first core of Black leadership. This core would eventually expand into a Black membership of one-tenth the total Party at its height. In addition to providing a base for further recruitment of African Americans, the ABB cadre and other Black Party members pushed the CP to take up Black demands in a far more militant manner than it previously had. In the 1920s, the Party would take a stand for full social equality for Blacks, a position the NAACP hadn’t even yet adopted. As other scholars, led most recently by Glenda Gilmore in Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, the legacy of those activists inspired by the Russian revolution extends well into the “mainstream” civil rights movement.

Though Alain Locke’s redefinition of the New Negro established its dominance in a more complete fashion than the movement from which he took the name, that emergent movement exerted still effected major changes in Afro-American life. Today, as racial discourse has become increasingly obfuscated by the dominance of “color blind” ideology and charges of reverse racism, perhaps we can look to the legacy of the New Negro radicals as a political resource for the present. We could do worse than to begin with the Messenger’s inversion of Wilsonian discourse: “To make the world unsafe for hypocrisy!”