Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why I've Been MIA

Well my master's thesis is done, and for the edification of my legions of readers I'll be posting it here. It's on the Russian Revolution and the Harlem Renaissance.


In 1925, Alain Locke, assistant professor of Philosophy at Howard University, proclaimed the birth of the New Negro. Writing in a collection edited by himself and entitled The New Negro, Locke sought to “document the New Negro culturally and socially,-to register the transformations of the inner and outer life of the Negro in America that have so significantly taken place in the last few years.” Eschewing any formal attempt at a definition, Locke sought to produce a work of the New Negro, rather than about him. Nonetheless, Locke’s introductory chapter provides a glimpse of what he meant by the term. Above all, for Locke the New Negro represents “a fresh spiritual and cultural focusing,” “an unusual outburst of creative expression.” The New Negro is thus a man of arts and letters, newly concerned with achieving a previously absent self-understanding through the medium of artistic production. That production, in addition to heightening the spiritual and intellectual life of African-Americans, would also lead to “the revaluation by white and black alike of the Negro in terms of his artistic endowments and cultural contributions,” or so Locke hoped. In short, for Alain Locke the New Negro was the Black artist, leading the charge for racial uplift by demonstrating to both Black and white folks the value of the African-American mind.[1]

This conception of the New Negro has remained the dominant one, not only defining the values of Black art in Locke’s time but, as Anthony Dawahare remarks, “to this day…direct[ing] popular views toward African-American literature and life.”[2] In 1925, however, Locke was not so much defining a new term as trying to gain new control over an old one. The term New Negro had been in use since the 1890s, but it achieved new currency in Black America in the years following World War I. These years witnessed the rise of a number of new and radical Black political movements, which described themselves and each other as “the New Crowd Negro” or simply, “the New Negro.” These movements coalesced around a number of shared values and strategies, including self-defense against lynchings, sympathy with international revolutionary movements, and a focus on the Black working class. In the spirit of their militant opposition to political or intellectual passivity, these movements quickly produced their own definitions of the New Negro.

One of the first of these definitions was written by Hubert Henry Harrison. Though little-known today, Harrison was described by his contemporaries as “the foremost Afro-American intellect of his time.”[3] Known as “the Father of Harlem Radicalism,”[4] Harrison’s was the most authoritative voice with which the movement could be described. Situating the New Negro’s rise in the “spirit of democratic striving…making itself felt” all over the world, Harrison declared the death of the “good old days” when “the mere mention of the name Lincoln or the Republican Party” was sufficient to win Black votes. In contrast to this, “[t]he new Negro leader must be chosen by his fellows – by those whose strivings he is supposed to represent.” For Harrison, these strivings consisted primarily of organizing Black Americans into “a politically independent party” in the model of “the Swadesha movement of India and the Sinn Fein movement of Ireland.” Noting that both movements’ names translated to “ourselves alone,’ Harrison proposed that Black Americans should adopt a similar motto. The New Negro would achieve freedom not through artistic expression, but through political struggle.[5]

Just as Locke’s New Negro has displaced Harrison’s in our cultural memory, so a similar displacement has occurred with Marcus Garvey. Today Marcus Garvey is remembered as the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the largest Black nationalist organization in world history. Less commonly known are Garvey’s extensive links to the “Labor Left” of the early twentieth century. While the black, red, and green colors of the UNIA flag are often today explained as "red representing the noble blood that unites all people of African ancestry, the colour black for the people, green for the rich land of Africa,” Garvey himself once argued that the red in the UNIA’s flag “showed their sympathy with the ‘Reds’ of the world, and the Green their sympathy for the Irish in their fight for freedom.”[6] Even Tony Martin, Garvey’s most nationalist biographer, concedes that the Jamaican leader had at least a “cordial relationship”[7] with the Left until at least 1919. As we shall see, Martin’s description greatly underplays the actual degree to which Leftist politics were central to the New Negro movement, of which the UNIA was a major part.

One of the common threads linking the differing wings of the New Negro movement, from Garvey’s nationalist UNIA to the Communist-leaning African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), was a tremendous enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution of 1917. Indeed, neither the New Negro movement itself, nor Locke’s New Negro which followed it, can be understood without a focus on the impact the Russian Revolution had on both the movement’s formation and its dissolution. To use a metaphor often employed by A. Philip Randolph to describe the revolution at the time, the Bolshevik victory was Banquo’s Ghost, a specter which would continue to haunt both the New Negro movement and the Harlem Renaissance which followed.[8]

Though historians of Black radicalism commonly acknowledge the importance of the revolution, no one has yet produced a sustained investigation of its impact in Black America. The most extended discussion of the matter is Winston James’ excellent, although brief, four page examination of the African Blood Brotherhood’s The Crusader and its relation to the Soviets,[9] although fleeting references to the revolution are present in nearly all works discussing the period. This study aims to use the work of scholars like James as a starting point from which to begin a more extended investigation into how the Russian Revolution influenced both the rise and the fall of the New Negro movement.

In discussing the movement’s rise and fall, Raymond Williams’ concepts of the dominant, the residual, and the emergent are extremely useful in differentiating the various degrees of influence the Leftist politics in general and the Russian Revolution in particular had at various points in time. Williams formulated these concepts as a method of breaking from what he called “epochal” analysis, in which “a cultural process is seized as a cultural system, with determinate dominant features,” such as the system of feudal culture. This approach, however, fails to “recognize the complex interrelations between movements and tendencies both within and beyond a specific and effective dominance.” Thus a systemic analysis of capitalist culture, while invaluable to situating the New Negro movement, is itself insufficient to provide a framework with which to examine the contradictions and connections within the movement itself. This is where the concepts of dominant, residual, and emergent are indispensable.[10]

The dominant is perhaps the most self-evident term, referring to the generalized hegemony present in any class society. The residual and the emergent, however, are conceptual tools for both locating different traditions, institutions, and formations within a hegemonic system, as well as elucidating their relationship to dominant structures. For the purposes of this study, I will focus on defining the residual, invoking as it does a certain spectrality of something left behind. Williams is careful to differentiate the residual from the archaic, noting that while the archaic is “wholly recognized as an element of the past,” the residual “has been effectively formed in the past,” but “is still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present.” Williams cites the way organized religion functions in modern capitalist society as an example of the interrelations between the dominant and the residual. While some oppositional values and meanings produced by present day society find expression primarily through residual aspects of religion (“absolute brotherhood, service to others without reward”), other aspects of religion have been incorporated into the dominant culture (“official morality, the social order of which the other-worldly is a separated neutralizing or ratifying component”). Thus traditions, institutions, and formations can contain both residual aspects and ones which have come to serve an essentially hegemonic function.[11]

My own usage of Williams’ terminology is slightly different from his in so far as one cannot speak simply of “the dominant” in reference to African-American life. While aspects of Black ideologies and institutions may serve to reproduce hegemonic relations, they are always tempered by their exclusion from a white supremacist society. Even Alain Locke’s profoundly conservative ideology of racial uplift through artistic achievement is a counter-hegemonic discourse to the official racism of American society. In this work, then, when I refer to the dominant I am referring not to the hegemonic values of white supremacist America, but to the dominant institutions and ideologies within Black America, with the understanding that these structures are always of at least a partially counter-hegemonic character.

The focus of this study, the New Negro movement, was one of the most counter-hegemonic formations in Black American history, taking its place alongside the “general strike” of the slaves which ended the Civil War and the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Before examining the interrelations between the movement and the Russian Revolution, it’s important to have some understanding of the conjunctural determinants which produced such a decisively oppositional movement. Indeed, the New Negro movement aimed at an overhaul of American society the depth of which hadn’t been attempted since the most radical days of reconstruction. In order to understand from where this radicalism emerged, the rest of this chapter will be dedicated to both defining the New Negro movement and examining the determinants which allowed it to form.

Ernest Allen Jr.’s article, “The New Negro: Explorations in Identity and Social Consciousness, 1910-1922,” provides a useful starting point for any attempt at defining the New Negro movement. In tracing the movement’s rise, Allen lists five characteristics shared by all wings of the movement. They are: 1.) an identification with the Black working class; 2.) an insistence upon self-determination for African peoples; 3.) a desire for autonomous African-American organization; 4.) a belief in Black entrepreneurship; and 5.) the “internationalist outlook” of the New Negro activists who refused “to view the African-American struggle for self-dignity and social justice in the United States in isolation from similar struggles occurring throughout the globe.” Commenting on this last characteristic, Allen notes that “[i]t would be difficult to overestimate the impact of these anti-colonial struggles, and especially the Russian Revolution, on New Negro radicalization.” Though obviously the last is of the most importance to the present study, all of Allen’s characteristics are important in differentiating the New Negro activists from the older civil rights leadership. Thus while the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) shared with the New Negroes a belief in entrepreneurship, they did not share either a belief in autonomous organization or a focus on the Black working class.[12]

Although Allen’s definition of the New Negro movement includes a variety of groups and actors, I have chosen to focus on three organizations (and their respective publications) to examine the Russian Revolution’s impact on the New Negro. They are Marcus Garvey’s UNIA and the Negro World, the African Blood Brotherhood (most commonly associated with Cyril Briggs) and the Crusader, and the Black socialists A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen’s Messenger.

While Allen provides an excellent definition of New Negro politics, it lacks a necessary temporal component. The New Negro movement occurred in a specific time period, from America’s entry into WWI until the rise of the Harlem Renaissance. Though the 1960s would see the rise of several Black militant organizations which would fit Allen’s categories, yet this is not an example of a residual social process in which the New Negro movement is still active, but instead a new moment in Black radicalism. It is thus necessary to provide a temporal definition of the movement as well as a political one. The year 1917 marks the beginning of the conjuncture in which the New Negro movement formed. Not only was this the year of the Russian Revolution, but it also was the year of the United States’ entry into World War I. The American declaration of war had a number of consequences of decisive importance to the formation of the New Negro movement, as we will see later in this chapter. Beyond this, however, the American declaration of war provoked a schism in the Black political community, with older leaders supporting the war and a number of younger activists opposing it.[13] This divide would eventually become the divide between the New Negroes and the so-called “Old Crowd” Negroes. Many of the New Negroes came to define themselves in opposition to the traditional Black leadership in the context of the debate over World War I.

If 1917 marks the birth of the New Negro movement, by 1924 it had basically collapsed. As the year of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s death, it symbolically[14] marked the close of a period in Soviet history of unprecedented democracy and working class power[15]. The inspiration New Negro leaders took from the Russian Revolution was decisively changed and channeled by the changes in the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death. On the domestic front, the New Negro movement had also lost most of its internal coherence by 1924. Marcus Garvey had just been convicted of mail fraud (with the help of former New Negro comrades Cyril Briggs and A. Philip Randolph) and was facing time in federal prison. Randolph and Owen’s Messenger was now declaring that neither Russia nor the United States were ready for socialism. And the leadership of the African Blood Brotherhood had by and large dissolved itself into the American Communist Party (then called the Workers’ Party). In short, the New Negro movement had ceased to be a coherent formation, opening the door for Alain Locke’s culturalist strategy to take its place.

These temporal markers, combined with Allen’s political demarcations, form a basis by which to define the New Negro movement. Necessary as definitions are, however, I find determinations to be more interesting. The determinants of the New Negro movement allow us to explain why it is defined in the way it is. The remainder of this chapter will thus be spent examining the six crucial determinants that allowed the New Negro movement to form. They are 1.) the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North; 2.) the immigration and radicalism of Caribbean immigrants to Harlem; 3.) the postwar disillusionment of Black veterans; 4.) the explosion of class struggle in the United States following the war; 5.) the “Red Summer” of 1919, in which African-Americans were lynched in nearly unmatched numbers; and 6.) the impact of the Russian Revolution and the global revolutionary movement.

The Great Migration

The “Great Migration”[16] of African-Americans out of the American South in the first decades of the twentieth century has been a consistent feature of African-American historiography for decades now, and with good reason. Over the course of the twentieth century, Black migration from the South has completely transformed the nation’s racial geography. In 1900, a mere 740,000 African-Americans lived in the North, 8 percent of total Black population. From 1900 to 1920, almost 640,000 Black folks left the South, nearly doubling the amount living in the North. Immigrants from the South overwhelmingly settled in urban areas. Chicago’s Black population increased by 148.2 percent from 1910 to 1920. In the same period, Black Detroit grew by 611.3 percent. It was the same throughout the North: Indianapolis, 59 percent; Cincinnati, 53.2 percent, and Pittsburgh, 47.2 percent. Similarly, Manhattan went from a Black population of 60,000 in 1910 to about 300,000 in 1923, a fivefold increase. [17]

The roots of this migration were many. James Gregory has argued against the “hydrological” impulse in migration studies, which reduces migration to a balancing out of economic opportunities. While the increased economic opportunities of the North were certainly a factor in promoting Black migration, they are “a context, not an explanation.”[18] David Levering Lewis points out the powerful role the Chicago Defender had in encouraging migration from the South; nearly 1.3 million Black Americans were reading the paper’s national edition every week. Stewart Tolnay and E.M. Beck has drawn attention to the intimate link between lynching and migration in the South, calculating that each lynching could be predicted to produce a definite outflow of African-Americans.[19] In short, the Black migration from the South cannot be reduced to a matter of economics.

That said, economics were a powerful motivation for leaving the South. In the North, Black wages averaged between $3.00 and $3.60 a day, with steelworkers earning up to $4.50. Less than four percent of Black folks in the South could expect $3.00 a day. Even top-tier Southern Black workers, such as steelworkers in Birmingham, only made $2.50 a day.[20] The roots of this flowering of Black economic opportunity in the North were the massive restriction of international immigration brought on by World War I. From 1.2 million foreign workers entering the country in 1914, immigration levels sank to only a little above one hundred thousand in 1917. With industrial production accelerated to meet war needs, Northern capitalists opened up jobs to Southern African-Americans for the first time. Even here, however, where economics were undoubtedly a large factor, the hydrological metaphor of immigration flows fails. The Northern industrialists seeking African-Americans to fill their positions often went out of their way to cajole workers North, sending agents South to promote the jobs and even going so far as supplying transportation for entire families moving North.

Black radicals were a part of this migration. Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph, for example, were both transplanted Southerners, Randolph from Florida and Owen from North Carolina. The factors above contributed to them meeting each other in Harlem in 1915. More than simply increasing the chances of radicals meeting each other, the Great Migration led to a concentrated population of African-Americans in Harlem, allowing radicals both unprecedented audiences as well as opportunities for collaboration. Joyce Moore Turner and W. Burghardt Turner summarize the geographical result of this concentration on the New Negro movement:

It was a matter of steps between the offices of Randolph and Owen’s Messenger at 2305 Seventh Avenue, William Bridges’ Challenger at 2305 Seventh Avenue, Cyril Briggs’ Crusader at 2299 Seventh Avenue, and Marcus Garvey’s Negro World at 56 West 135th Street, and no more than a few blocks to homes, soapbox corners, and meeting halls of the African Blood Brotherhood, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Liberty League, and other militant organizations.[21]

Without the population growth brought on by the Great Migration, the New Negro movement would never have been able to cohere.

Caribbean Migration

Southerners seeking to escape Jim Crow jobs and justice weren’t the only ones heading to Harlem in the early twentieth century. Caribbean immigrants were increasingly looking to the United States as a refuge from the combination of natural disasters and poverty in the islands. A cursory look at the leaders of the New Negro movement reveals just how central of a role these migrants played: Marcus Garvey, from Jamaica; Wilfred Adolphus Domingo, editor of the Negro World, also from Jamaica; Richard B. Moore, member of the ABB and later Communist Party, from Barbados; Cyril Briggs, editor of the Crusader, from St. Kitts; and Hubert Henry Harrison, from St Croix.

The prominence of Caribbean migrants within Harlem radicalism was the product of an extraordinary wave of immigration from the West Indies into the United States that paralleled the Great Migration from the South. While in 1899 only 411 Black migrants (80% of whom were Caribbean) came to the United States, by 1924 12,000 were arriving annually. This influx of people changed the racial landscape of Harlem such that by 1930 nearly a quarter of its Black population was of Caribbean origin.[22]

In tracing the roots and routes of this migration, I must acknowledge my debt to Winston James’ groundbreaking Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia. What follows is primarily a summary of James’ arguments, although I cannot hope to approximate the detail or rigor of his discussion. James sets forth two primary avenues of explanation for the predominance of Caribbeans in early Black radicalism: why there was such a massive wave of Caribbean immigration in the early twentieth century, and why those migrants had tendencies towards radical leadership. Both of these arguments are necessary for understanding the Caribbean role in the New Negro movement.

In tracing the causes of Caribbean migration, James draws an important differentiation between the various islands in order to caution against overbroad generalizations. Those leaving Jamaica did not necessarily leave for the same reasons as those from Barbados. However, both islands, the two major sources of Caribbean immigrants to America, did share a commonality in the ruin sugar cultivation brought to their laboring classes. The monocultural sugar economies of the two islands were nearly brought to ruin in the eighteenth century by a variety of factors, most notably competition from Brazilian and Cuban plantations and subsidized beet sugar from England. The collapse of the islands’ sugar trade brought different responses from both islands, though both served to instill their workers with a desire to leave. In Jamaica, sugar was replaced by bananas, an irrigation heavy crop which brought a highly increased risk of malaria. In addition, the banana boom further concentrated land ownership such that “by the mid 1890s, 81 individuals had become the owners of no less than 97 percent of the area of rural land offered by the government.”[23] The unavailability of land provided a strong incentive for migration. The Barbardian ruling class had a simpler solution to the crash in sugar prices: work laborers harder and pay them less, a strategy similarly conducive to emigration.

In addition to changes in the islands’ political economy, the Caribbean also suffered an almost freakishly concentrated series of natural disasters (compounded by unnatural social relations which exacerbated their impact) in the late nineteenth century. In the two hundred and ninety years between 1685 and 1975, Jamaica was hit by hurricanes on average once every 7.8 years. Between 1915 and 1917, three hurricanes hit, a frequency usually requiring a period of at least twenty years. Hurricanes combined with drought and tropical storms to wreak havoc on the island’s banana crop. In 1907, an earthquake hit Kingston, causing two and a half million pounds worth of damage. As James concludes, “[r]arely have so many catastrophes…followed one another with such rapidity and desctructiveness.”[24]

Migrants seeking to escape the deprivation of the Caribbean shared an unusual disposition towards radicalism, so much so that Howard University professor Kelly Miller once (half) jokingly described a Negro radical as “an over-educated West Indian without a job.”[25] Though exaggerating, Miller was identifying a real tendency. A whole host of circumstances came together to shape Caribbean migrants’ proclivity for radicalism. Though again I cannot do justice to Winston James’ work on the subject, his analysis does yield several important identifiable factors.

First is the racial downgrading Black Caribbeans experienced upon entry to America. Raised in majority Black countries where color lines were not nearly so rigid, Caribbeans were almost universally amazed at the depth of American racism. Not used to the tactics of racial survival gleaned from life on one side of the veil, Caribbean migrants could be “suicidally frank” when dealing with American white supremacy. This refusal to “mask” ones’ rage at an oppressive social system helps explain the emphasis many Caribbean New Negroes placed on active self-defense and retaliation for lynching.[26]

Second, Caribbean migrants had no historic attachment to either of the bourgeois political parties in America. As members of the party of Lincoln, Republican politicians thought that they were simply entitled to Black votes (in the North). This entitlement was reciprocated by Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee machine, the most powerful Black political institution in early twentieth century America. The Tuskegee machine sought to use its leverage to silence any Black voice attempting to go beyond Washington’s narrow political vision. Hubert Henry Harrison, for example, found himself fired from his post office job after criticizing Washington in a letter to the New York Times.[27] Caribbean migrants coming from outside the hegemony of the Washington machine were more likely to attempt to go beyond its political limits.

Finally, migrants from the British Caribbean retained an essentially Victorian conception of virtue which included a heavy emphasis on culture as cultivating ones’ knowledge. This translated into an extraordinary bibliophilia on the part of many migrants. Richard B. Moore, for example, built “a considerable library” in his home, stuffing the china cabinets of his dining room with books.[28] Hubert Harrison claimed to regularly read six books a day, sleeping only three hours at night.[29] This extraordinary passion for reading predisposed Caribbean migrants towards leadership positions in the radical organizations they joined. Harrison, for example, became known as the Socialist Party’s most brilliant orator, able to speak for hours on any subject, while Cyril Briggs was known for his masterful polemical writing.

To summarize, Caribbean migrants to the United States played a crucial role in the development of the New Negro movement. This role was a result of both the massive influx of Caribbean immigration to the United States, and the predisposition of those migrants towards radical politics.

Postwar Disillusionment

While many New Negro activists came of political maturity in opposition to World War I, the broad radicalization in which they took part was partially influenced by the disappointments of those who had supported the Great War. W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, supported the American war effort in the (unrealized) hope that African-American bravery abroad would win better conditions at home. Relentlessly attacked by New Negro leaders for this stance, Du Bois shifted to the left after the war ended, writing his editorial “Returning Soldiers:”

Under similar circumstances, we would fight again. But by the God of heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.

We return.

We return from fighting.

We return fighting.

Make way for democracy! We saved it in France, by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.[30]

Activists like Du Bois (members of the traditionally conservative Black political class) reacted to the continued denial of rights at home with a newfound determination to win their equality.

Beyond intellectuals like Du Bois, many Black veterans also reacted to war’s conclusion with increasing radicalization. Chad Williams, in an excellent article on the role of veterans in the New Negro movement, argues that “the warlike nature of American race relations in the aftermath of World War I prompted many [B]lack veterans to question the meaning of their service and to seek new strategies for achieving racial justice.”[31] Black American veterans were joined by Caribbean veterans of the British military, both contributing decisively to the radicalization of the New Negro movement.

Black American veterans were prominent members of many New Negro organizations. Harry Haywood, a veteran of 370th Infantry regiment, was a leader of the African Blood Brotherhood and later the Communist Party. Victor Daly, the business manager of the Messenger, was a recipient of the French Croix de Guerre for his service abroad. Many of the officers in the UNIA’s paramilitary African Legion were also veterans of World War I.

The experience of fighting for democracy abroad while they were denied it at home highlighted for many Black veterans the contradictions of being in the United States armed forces. One veteran wrote that his service “made me realize my task which for me was here in America…after the fighting and my return to this country [the] U.S., it made me wonder why can’t all men be treated equally? What did we fight for? Democracy. Are we living it?”[32] The rhetoric of fighting for democracy had the unintended effect of raising Black troops’ expectations for the same at home.

In addition to providing a stimulus to radicalization, the veterans’ experience also served as a resource with which to fight for their goals. Victor Daly’s story is instructive of how New Negro veterans used their service as a resource. In responding to a self-described descendent of “black abolitionists” who accused the Messenger of being “deceived by the insane ravings of any Bolshevist,” Daly immediately invoked his status as a veteran, citing his two years of service and receipt of the “Croix de Guerre.” Daly’s reply declared “[C]lassify me…a former United States Army Officer, as a Bolshevist.”[33] Black veterans also used the skills they gained abroad as tools with which to defend their communities from rioting whites. Harry Haywood recounts how he and his Black comrades used their military training to establish defensive positions in Black neighborhoods during the riot of July 1919[34]. Black servicemembers’ experiences abroad served as both a strategy for legitimizing their criticisms as well as a foundation for self-defense efforts in the community.

Black Caribbean veterans similarly were radicalized by both their experience in war and their treatment upon returning home. While citizens of the British Caribbean signed up for the war in large numbers, their treatment reflected the value with which they were viewed both as soldiers and fellow citizens of the British empire. One veteran recalled how he and his comrades were reprimanded by white soldiers for singing “Rule Britannia.” The white soldiers asked them “Who gave you niggers authority to sing that?...Clear out of this building – only British troops admitted here.” Such treatment was not taking passively by Caribbean soldiers, who mutinied against their officers, starting a riot. When these veterans returned home to the islands, they frequently “led labor revolts and protests,” “which shook the colonial structure to its very foundation.” Many of the veterans who led these revolts later emigrated to the United States, where they became “among the earliest converts to Garveyism.”[35]

Black veterans were radicalized both by their experience in a racist military and their treatment upon returning home. They were encouraged in this by a Black bourgeoisie frustrated by its failure to secure the rights it hoped service would procure. The encouragement of leaders like Du Bois, however, would pale in comparison to the inspiration New Negro radicals would take from the labor insurgency of the postwar years.

The Postwar Labor Upsurge

In the same way that World War I created the conditions for a dramatic increase in Black militancy, it also created the conditions for a massive labor insurgency, which broke out shortly after the end of the war. The resulting strike wave affected the New Negro movement in two ways. First, it emboldened those Black radicals, such as A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, who already had an orientation on working class politics. Second, since such a large proportion of the strikes were wildcats, unauthorized by union leaders, the upsurge placed a racist union bureaucracy on the defensive, allowing greater space for Black unionists to press their demands. Their success convinced large sections of the Black political class, previously ambivalent (at best) towards the labor movment, that militant organized labor deserved another look.

The postwar upsurge had its roots, ironically, in a deal the American Federation of Labor (AFL) leader Samuel Gompers struck with American business to prevent strikes during World War I. The mobilization of the national economy towards the war demanded an end to the ‘anarchy of production’ which had characterized American business since the end of Reconstruction. Now, all production was to be geared towards the war effort. This transformed the American economy “overnight to a system of state-coordinated planning and management.”[36] This statization of the economy coincided with a drastic drop in immigration from Europe brought on by the outbreak of war. These two events together placed labor in a stronger position than any point since the construction of the railroads. In order to combat the potential for labor to press its demands, the state, acting at the behest of employers, offered the AFL the opportunity to unionize all workplaces under government jurisdiction in return for a no-strike pledge for the duration of the war. Samuel Gompers, eager to increase his organization’s membership, quickly agreed.

As a result of this deal, union membership doubled between 1914 and 1920, vastly increasing the labor movement’s potential power. The war also served to push these newly organized workers towards militancy. The inflation by which the government paid for the war served as a depressor of workers’ living standards, while a situation of nearly full employment demonstrated to workers the extent to which they were necessary to the American economy. When the war ended on November 11, 1918, “the class struggle exploded once more.”[37]

In the following year over four million workers went out on strike. Labor parties were started in forty states.[38] 350,000 steelworkers walked out, halting production in one of the United States’ core industries. In Seattle, which saw a four hundred percent increase in union membership from 1915-1918, a general strike broke in February of 1919. Business in the city ground to a halt as the General Strike Committee (composed of three members from every striking union) became the effective municipal government. One correspondent recounts “the mayor himself” dropping by “to discuss the situation and ask the approval of the committee for this or that step.” In the fall of that year Seattle longshoremen refused to ship weaponry to the White counterrevolutionary forces in Russia, beating up scabs who crossed their picket lines.[39] The Wall Street Journal, observing the state of the country, declared that “Lenin and Trotsky are on their way.”[40]

This upsurge had a tremendous impact on the New Negro radicals. The Messenger’s September 1919 edition carried editorials which give an idea of how its writers viewed the strike wave. One of these, entitled simply “STRIKES,” was an argument for Black workers in the South to join unions. Randolph and Owen hoped that “[t]he present order of strikes ought to impress the millions of Negro workers in the South.” They went on to argue that since cotton picked by Black folks in the South powered the textile mills of England, Black workers would be able to leverage the British ruling class into pressuring the American government into granting concessions. Beyond hoping to influence unorganized Black workers, the editorial also gives an indication of how deeply the strike wave affected Randolph and Owen themselves. After reporting that police unions were forming in Boston and New York, the editorial glowed “truly the end of capitalism is at hand.”[41]

Particularly noteworthy about the postwar strike wave was the degree to which it was not supported by the union bureaucracy. In 1920, more than half of the workers who struck that year did so without the authorization of union leadership.[42] One union official who visited Pittsburgh in the midst of a steel strike left in despair, reporting that the strike was “too turbulent to be exploited by the A.F.L.”[43] Beyond this, many strikes which did receive union recognition were de facto wildcat strikes which received authorization at the last minute.

This massive increase in union militancy served to put a complacent union bureaucracy on the defensive. The bureaucracy had long been a defender of the rights of locals to discriminate against Black workers, so its sudden retreat marked an opening for Black unionists to press their demands. Black workers seized upon this opportunity to pressure the AFL. The 1919 convention in Atlantic City had a larger contingent of Black delegates than any in the federation’s history. These delegates introduced a series of resolutions, ranging from requests for Black Southern organizers to demands that the federation require all of its unions to admit Black workers. Though the Committee on Organization, to which the resolutions were referred, sought to bury them, the resolutions did produce a “sharp confrontation” on the committee floor. The Committee hoped to ameliorate the effects of this confrontation by listing sixteen AFL unions which did admit Black workers. When the Committee chair asked if there were any other unions which wished to be added to the list, John Lacey, a Black unionist from Norfolk, Virginia, rose to speak. Lacey made an emotional speech in which he reminded the convention of African-American loyalty from the Revolutionary War to World War I. In asking to be admitted to unions, Lacey argued, Black workers “ask for the same chance to earn bread for our families at the same salary our white brothers are getting…equal rights as you have to earn bread for your families.”

Lacey’s speech, in Phillip Foner’s words, “broke the dam the Committee on Organization had constructed against [B]lack militancy.” Forty union officials went on to add their unions’ names to the list the Committee had begun. The Committee, while still ignoring the resolutions put forward by Black unionists, did pass a resolution calling for special emphasis on organizing Black workers.

This simple resolution carried tremendous weight within the Black community. The New York Age, one of the oldest Black newspapers, wrote “If carried out towards its logical conclusion, it should mean the loosening of the shackles that have encourage peonage and industrial dependency of all kinds.” William Monroe Trotter’s militant Guardian compared the convention to a new Reconstruction, declaring that it had “open[ed] the gateway to real American life for the first time in more than half a century.” By pressing their demands at a time when the union bureaucracy was already on the defensive, Black unionists helped create a new confidence in the ability of workers’ organization to win real victories for Black struggle.[44]

The postwar labor upsurge thus both heightened the confidence of those already committed to Black working class politics as well as convincing others that such a strategy held real promise.

Red Summer 1919

The explosion of class struggle in 1919 was not the only reason it would come to be known as a “Red year.” The year 1919 witnessed racial violence on a scale not seen since the “Redemption” of the South in the 1890s, culminating in what James Weldon John would call “Red Summer.” The white violence of 1919 convinced the leaders of the New Negro movement that more militant tactics than those associated with traditional Black leadership organizations were needed if African-American lives were to be preserved.

Red Summer had its roots in several of the same processes as other factors shaping the New Negro movement. As the Great Migration brought African-Americans into cities in extraordinary numbers, urban whites began to view them increasingly as competition for jobs and housing. During the war, the same inflation that drove workers to collectively resist the depredations of capital also drove white workers to a far less noble form of collective action: race riots. As Black soldiers returned home to claim the democracy for which they had fought, white mobs convinced that they could attain a better living for themselves by terrorizing Black folks attempted to ensure that they would retain some advantage over African-Americans through the use of mob violence.

The violence that followed was of an astonishing scale. Race riots broke out in over twenty cities, including one in Washington, DC, which occurred nearly on the White House lawn. The year also saw seventy-six lynchings, about twenty more than the years on either side of it. A small survey of the incidents of that year reveals the extent of the terror white mobs sought to inflict on Black Americans. [45]

In May of 1919 there was a sailors’ riot in Charleston, South Carolina where two African-Americans were killed and seven wounded. In Chicago the race riot which drove Harry Haywood and his comrades to take up arms started when Eugene Williams, a Black youth, crossed the invisible line dividing the white section of the beach from the Black section. A white man threw a stone at Williams, who was struck on the head and drowned. African-Americans who complained to the police were arrested. The event sparked off a racial conflagration which lasted five days, after which twenty-three African Americans were dead and over a thousand left homeless by white arsonists. Finally, in Washington, DC, a riot broke after a white mob of sailors lynched a Black man near Pennsylvania Avenue. The violence was encouraged by the Washington Post, which announced “a mobilization of every available [white] service man…has been ordered for tomorrow evening…The hour of assembly is nine o’clock and the purpose is a ‘clean-up’ that will cause the events of the last two evenings to pale into insignificance.” At the end of the Washington riot, over a hundred Blacks were wounded and six dead.[46]

The lynchings of 1919 were equally brutal, although unlike the riots they were overwhelmingly concentrated in the South. In 1919 Dixie executed one African-American roughly every five days. In Ellisville, Mississippi, a Black man wounded by a posse was kept alive overnight by a surgeon so he could be lynched the following day. Newspapers took advantage of this early notice to spread word about the event. Three thousand whites attended the eventual lynching. In Texas, a Black physician who had reported on the murder of a young Black man found himself under assault by a mob. When the doctor escaped, the mob lynched his father-in-law.[47]

The New Negroes responded to this wave of violence with a steadfast affirmation of the rights of Black folks to self-defense, a sentiment crystallized by Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die.” All three wings of the New Negro movement I will be examining placed self-defense against white violence as a priority for Black Americans. Marcus Garvey, in 1919, urged UNIA members to “have a white man lynched for every Negro who was lynched.”[48] A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen wrote a lengthy editorial in the Messenger entitled “How to Stop Lynching.” They encouraged their readers to

act upon the recognized and accepted law of self-defense. Always regard your own life as more important than the life of the person about to take yours, and if a choice has to made between the sacrifice of your life and the loss of the lyncher’s life, choose to preserve your own and to destroy that of the lynching mob.[49]

The African Blood Brotherhood took self-defense as absolutely central to its purpose, going so far as to organize itself along military lines. In a letter to the New York World, Cyril Briggs defined his organization as “a Negro protective organization pledged to mobilize Negro thought, and organize Negro man power to a defense of Negro rights and lives wherever and by whomsoever attacked.”[50]

The New Negro movement responded to the violence of Red Summer with an increased militancy that often terrified white authorities. Their shared determination to resist the onslaught of white violence by whatever means necessary provided one of several important points of unity between the movement’s different branches.

The Russian Revolution

The Russian Revolution also provided a key point of unity between the different wings of the New Negro movement insofar as shared enthusiasm for the Revolution and its spread allowed activists like Garvey and the Black socialists to think of themselves as part of the same general tide of history. The remainder of this study will be devoted to examining how the Russian Revolution influenced the different wings of the movement as well as its ultimate dissolution. Before moving into those specifics, however, it’s important to note that the Revolution also had an impact on many of the factors listed above. The Russian Revolution was thus also crucial in the movement’s birth.

This is most obvious in the case of the postwar labor upsurge. Just as the Wall Street Journal looked to the leaders of the Russian Revolution with fear, so many American workers looked to those leaders for inspiration[51]. The success of workers in establishing their own government in Russia provided American strikers with concrete proof that they could do a better job running the country than their employers. The most succinct and accurate description of the revolution’s impact on American labor was provided by the Interchurch World Movement’s Report on the Steel Strike of 1919, which wrote

The Russian Revolution was likely a bloody business and Bolsheviks are doubtless dangerous and wild, but the Russian Government is a laboring man’s government and it has not fallen down yet. Two years of newspaper reports that the Russian republic was about to fall seem to have given workingmen, even here, a sort of class pride that it hasn’t fallen.[52]

The influence of the revolution can also been seen in the pamphlets strike committees put out during the Seattle general strike, declaring to workers, “The Russians have shown you the way out. What are you going to do about it?”[53]

The revolution was also a factor in the radicalization of Caribbean migrants. Winston James describes how Hubert Harrison was “as ecstatic about the Bolshevik Revolution and its socialist promise as any radical in America.”[54] Though Harrison was certainly already a radical by 1917, the revolution provided him additional support for his anticapitalist beliefs. For the younger radicals, the revolution provided a decisive argument for a class-based radicalism in addition to the nationalism many developed after experiencing American racism.

Even the race radicalism inspired by Red Summer was affected by the revolution. The militant response to the riots was facilitated in part by the understanding New Negro radicals had of the riots. In lengthy articles in the Messenger, W.A. Domingo, who also edited the Negro World at that point, argued that the cause of the riots was in economic rivalry and that the riots could only be stopped by the destruction of the economic system which caused them. This approach allowed the New Negro radicals to bypass the handwringing with which older Black leaders confronted the riots. While the Crisis took pains to caution African-Americans against “vengeance” or becoming “blind and lawless,” New Negro radicals realized that no amount of purity of arms would stop the riots[55]. The only solution was to defend Black lives and work for the revolution.

The revolution’s centrality in the New Negro movement continued after the movement’s foundation. In the following three chapters, I will explore the different role the revolution played in the three primary wings of the movement, using the activists’ newspapers as the primary means by which to trace their relationship with the new workers’ state.

[1] Alain Locke. “The New Negro” and “Foreword” in The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Alain Locke. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. pgs xxv, xxvii, 15.

[2] Anthony Dawahare. “The Specter of Radicalism in Alain Locke’s The New Negro.” In Left of the Color Line:Race, Radicalism, and Twentieth Century Literature of the United States. Ed. Bill V. Mullen and James Smethurst. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2003. pg 67.

[3] Qtd. In Jeffrey B. Perry. A Hubert Henry Harrison Reader. Middleton: Wesleyan UP, 2001. Pg. 1.

[4] Jervis Anderson. A Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. pg 80.

[5] Hubert Henry Harrison. “The New Policies for the New Negro.” The Voice (September 4th, 1917). Reprinted in Perry, A Hubert Henry Harrison Reader, pgs 139-140.

[6] Qtd. In Manning Marable. W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986. Pg 117.

[7] Tony Martin. Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1976. Pg. 317.

[8] In invoking such “hauntological” rhetoric, I consciously place this study in a tradition which extends from the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto to Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx to Barbara Foley’s recent Specters of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro.

[9] Winston James. Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth Century America. London: Verso, 1998. Pgs 164-168.

[10] Raymond Williams. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977. Pg 121.

[11] Ibid 123.

[12] Ernest Allen, Jr. “The New Negro: Explorations in Identity and Social Consciousness, 1910-1922” in 1915: The Cultural Moment, ed. Adele Heller and Lois Rudnick. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991. Pgs 53-54.

[13] Some historians have attempted to downplay the degree of debate within the Black community over World War I. For example, David Levering Lewis writes that “[t]here was never any likelihood that” Black Americans would oppose the war in significant numbers, since “[p]atriotism was as Afro-American as religion.” Leaving aside the long tradition of Black contestation of American patriotism (most notably Frederick Douglass’ “Fourth of July Oration”), this assertion is belied by substantial evidence of Black skepticism towards the war cause. James Weldon Johnson, for example, recounts being practically laughed out of a barber shop when he inquired if his barber was going to join the military. His barber replied “The Germans ain’t done nothin’ to me, and if they have, I forgive ‘em.” See Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue, pg 8 for his argument, as well as Jervis Anderson, This Was Harlem, pgs 103-109 for evidence to the contrary.

[14] In practice this period had been ending for some time, due primarily to the Soviet Union’s incredible immiseration after the Russian Civil War. For a fascinating discussion of Lenin’s role in the aftermath of the Civil War, see Ernest Mandel’s introduction to Paul LeBlanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party.

[15] There are, of course, plenty of claims that such a period never existed. However, there are numerous problems with an interpretation of Soviet history which seeks to draw a straight line from Lenin(ism) to Stalin(ism). Most obvious, perhaps, is that Stalin had all of Lenin’s closest collaborators killed. Stephen Cohen admirably puts forward the rest of this case in his essay “Bolshevism and Stalinism” in Robert Tucker’s collection Stalinism: Essays in Historical Interpretation.

[16] It’s important to note that although the term “Great Migration” generally refers to only Black migration from the South, white migration out was in fact of a much greater volume. See James N. Gregory, The Southern Diaspora, Ch. 1.

[17] James N. Gregory. The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2003. Pgs 15-24. David Levering Lewis. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. Pgs 20-21, 26-27.

[18] Gregory 21.

[19] Stewart E. Tolnay A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930. Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

[20] Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue, 21. Phillip Foner Organized Labor and the Black Worker 1619-1981. New York: International Publishers, 1982. pg 129.

[21] W. Burghardt Turner and Joyce Moore Turner. Richard B. Moore, Caribbean Militant in Harlem: Collected Writings 1920-1972. London: Pluto Press, Pg 31

[22] James, pg 12.

[23] Ibid 20.

[24] Ibid 33.

[25] Ibid 2.

[26] Ibid see pages 110-114 for a fuller discussion.

[27] Ibid 124-125.

[28] Turner and Turner, Pg 46.

[29] James, Pg 124.

[30] Qtd. In Lewis pg 15.

[31] Chad L. Williams “Vanguards of the New Negro: African-American Veterans and Post-World War I Racial Militancy.” Journal of African American History. Summer 2007, 92.3 Pgs 347-348. The similarity between Du Bois and others’ hopes that demonstrations of Black bravery would be a blow to oppression and Alain Locke and James Weldon Johnson’s view that the demonstration of Black artistic accomplishment in the Harlem Renaissance would be the same is striking, as is the degree to which both proved incorrect.

[32] Qtd. In Williams 351.

[33] Messenger October 1919. Pg 29-30.

[34] Harry Haywood Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Chicago: Liberator Press, 1978.)

[35] James 56-66.

[36] Jeremy Brecher. Strike! San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1972. Pg 102.

[37] Sharon Smith. Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006. pg 89.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Brecher 105-108.

[40] Ibid 116.

[41] Messenger September 1919, pg 5.

[42] Smith 92.

[43] Brecher 119.

[44] Foner 151-153.

[45] Philip Dray. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. New York: Modern Library, 2003. pg 254.

[46] Lewis When Harlem Was in Vogue 18-19.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Marable 117. This militancy contrasts sharply with Garvey’s later collaboration with the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan.

[49] Messenger August 1919 8-9.

[50] Robert Hill "Racial and Radical: Cyril V. Briggs, THE CRUSADER Magazine, and the African Blood Brotherhood, 1918-1922." Introductory Essay to THE CRUSADER. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1987.

[51] For a sample of how widespread American support for the revolution was, see Phillip Foner The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Impact on American Radicals, Liberals and Labor New York: International Publishers, 1967.

[52] Qtd. In Brecher 104

[53] ibid 111.

[54] James 126.

[55] Crisis September 1919, 231.