Challenging injustice, seeking a better world

Jeffrey B. Perry Correspondent
Diasporic Africa Press has just published a new, expanded edition of Hubert H. Harrison’s ‘When Africa Awakes: The ‘Inside Story’ of the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World”. This new edition includes the complete text of Harrison’s original 1920 volume including his “Introductory” and over fifty of his articles from publications that he edited in the 1917-1920 period. Those publications include: “The Voice – A Newspaper for the New Negro” (1917-1919), the first newspaper of the “New Negro Movement”; “The New Negro: A Monthly Magazine of a Different Sort” (1919), described as “A Magazine for the New Negro” that was “intended as an organ of the international consciousness of the darker races – especially of the Negro race”; and the “Negro World” (1920), the globe-sweeping newspaper of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (which was a major component of the “New Negro Movement”). This new edition, expanded from the original 146 pages to 274 pages, also offers a new introduction, a biographical sketch, a “Note on Usage,” a lengthy supplementary notes section, and an index that make it ideal for classroom and/or study group use.

The book offers first-hand testimony to social, political, literary, educational, and internationalist aspects of the World War I-era “New Negro” movement and to Harrison’s role in its development. The need for new interest in the life and work of Harrison is even more pronounced today among the many people challenging injustice and seeking a better world.

“The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the Colour Line. But what is the Colour Line? It is the practice of the theory that the colored and ‘weaker’ races of the earth shall not be free to follow “their own way of life and allegiance,” but shall live, work and be governed after such fashion as the dominant white race may decide. Consider for a moment the full meaning of this fact. Of the seventeen hundred million people that dwell on our earth today more than twelve hundred million are coloured – black and brown and yellow. The so-called white race is, of course, the superior race. That is to say, it is on top by virtue of its control of the physical force of the world – ships, guns, soldiers, money and other resources. By virtue of this control England rules and robs India, Egypt, Africa and the West Indies; by virtue of this control we of the United States can tell Haytians, Hawaiians, Filipinos, and Virgin Islanders how much they shall get for their labor and what shall be done in their lands; by virtue of this control Belgium can still say to the Congolese whether they shall have their hands hacked off or their eyes gouged out – and all without any reference to what Africans, Asiatics or other inferior members of the world’s majority may want.

“It is thus clear that, as long as the Colour Line exists, all the perfumed protestations of Democracy on the part of the white race must be simply downright lying. The cant of ‘Democracy’ is intended as dust in the eyes of white voters, incense on the altar of their own self-love. It furnishes bait for the clever statesmen who hold the destinies of their people in their hands when they go fishing for suckers in the waters of public discussion. But it becomes more and more apparent that Hindus, Egyptians, Africans, Chinese and Haytians have taken the measure of this cant and hypocrisy. And, whatever the white world may think, it will have these peoples to deal with during the twentieth century.”

The book is divided into nine chapters on such topics as the beginnings of the “New Negro Movement,” “Democracy and Race Friction”, “The Negro and the War,” “The New Politics”, “The Problems of Leadership”, “The New Race-Consciousness” international consciousness, education, and book reviews and it concludes with Harrison’s December 1915 poem “The Black Man’s Burden (A Reply to Rudyard Kipling)”. Individual articles discuss subjects such as the Liberty League, the East St Louis “pogrom”, labor unions, lynching, “The White War and the Coloured World”, The Peace Congress, Africa, the Caribbean, the “Colored World”, Woodrow Wilson, The Grand Old Party, “white friends,” NAACP leaders Joel E. Spingarn and Mary White Ovington, W.E.B. Du Bois, radicalism, the Socialist Party, “Negro women”, “A New International”, J. A. Rogers and T. Lothrop Stoddard. The book reviews are especially noteworthy and they come from the Harrison-inaugurated book review section of the Negro World, which he later described as “the first . . . regular book-review section known to Negro newspaperdom”.

St. Croix, Virgin Islands-born, Harlem-based, Hubert Harrison (1883-1927) was a brilliant, class- and race-conscious, writer, educator, orator, editor, book reviewer, political activist, and radical internationalist. Historian J. A. Rogers in “World’s Great Men of Colour” described him as an “intellectual giant” who was “perhaps the foremost Aframerican intellect of his time”. Labour and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph described him as “the father of Harlem radicalism”.

Harrison played leading roles in the largest class radical movement (socialism) and the largest race radical movement (the “New Negro”/Garvey movement) of his era. He was a major influence on the class radical Randolph, on the race radical Garvey, and on other militant “New Negroes” in the period around World War I and he is a key link in two great trends of the Civil Rights/Black Liberation struggle – the labour and civil rights trend associated with Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. and the race and nationalist trend associated with Garvey and Malcolm X.

From 1911 to 1914 Harrison served as the leading Black theoretician, speaker and activist in the Socialist Party of America. When he left the party he offered what is arguably the most profound, but least heeded, criticism in the history of the United States left – that Socialist Party leaders, like organised labour leaders, put the “white race” first, before class, that they put the [“white’] “Race First and class after.”

Beginning in 1916, he served as the intellectual guiding light of the militant “New Negro Movement” – a race conscious, internationalist, mass based, autonomous, militantly assertive movement for “political equality, social justice, civic opportunity, and economic power.” This Harrison-led “New Negro Movement” involved many outstanding activists, viewed itself as consciously breaking from the “old time leaders”, fertilised the soil for and laid the basis for the growth of the Garvey movement, and was a precursor to later developments including the Black Power movement, anti-war and anti-imperialist movements, and (with its calls for enforcement of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and for federal anti-lynching legislation) the Civil Rights movement. With Harrison’s literary influence (including important book review and “Poetry for the People” sections in the publications that he edited), the “New Negro Movement” also contributed significantly to the climate leading up to Alain LeRoy Locke’s 1925 publication “The New Negro”.

Harrison’s leading role in this “New Negro Movement”, though often ignored (or presented in a way that removes from view his seminal influence), is well documented in this work. In August 1920 he explained that for some time he had planned to write a book “on the New Negro”, which would “set forth the aims and ideals” of the new movement among American Negroes, “which has grown out of the international crusade ‘for democracy – for the right to have A VOICE in their own government.’” “When Africa Awakes: The ‘Inside Story’ of the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World” is the book that Harrison had planned. As suggested by its subtitle, it offers first-hand testimony to social, political, literary, educational, and internationalist aspects of this World War I-era “New Negro” movement and to Harrison’s role in its development.

It is in this setting that this new edition of ‘When Africa Awakes: The “Inside Story” of the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World’ is being published by Diasporic Africa Press. The fact that Diasporic Africa Press has chosen to publish very reasonably priced paperback and Kindle editions of Harrison’s work makes possible outreach to a much wider domestic and international audience. It is also a fitting tribute to Harrison who, in the period covered by this book, did some pioneering writing and speaking on “Africans of the dis-persion” and Africans and “their dispersion” — subjects that would begin to draw much greater attention later in the 20th century.

In ‘When Africa Awakes: The “Inside Story” of the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World’ Harrison is “speaking to us again”. He is offering insights through his words and through the struggles that he and others waged. Hubert Harrison has much to offer people whose “stirrings and strivings” – like those of the “New Negroes” of his day – insist on challenging injustice and seeking a better world. – Pambazuka

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