Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Early 20th Century Harlem Radicalism

Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Early 20th Century Harlem Radicalism (Columbia University Press, 2010)
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In the article below independent historian Jeffrey Perry discusses his 2008 book on early 20th Century Harlem activist Hubert Harrison.

Hubert Harrison (1883-1927) is one of the truly important figures of early twentieth-century America. A brilliant writer, orator, educator, critic, and political activist, he was described by the historian Joel A. Rogers, in World’s Great Men of Color as “the foremost Afro-American intellect of his time” and “one of America’s greatest minds.” Rodgers adds that “No one worked more seriously and indefatigably to enlighten” others and “none of the Afro-American leaders of his time had a saner and more effective program.”

Born in St. Croix, Danish West Indies, in 1883, Harrison arrived in New York as a seventeen-year-old orphan in 1900. He made his mark in the United States by struggling against class and racial oppression, by helping to create a remarkably rich and vibrant intellectual life among African Americans, and by working for the enlightened development of the lives of “the common people.” He consistently emphasized the need for working class people to develop class consciousness; for “Negroes” to develop race consciousness, self-reliance, and self-respect; and for all those he reached to challenge white supremacy and develop modern, scientific, critical, and independent thought as a means toward liberation.

A self-described “radical internationalist,” Harrison was extremely well-versed in history and events in Africa, Asia, the Mideast, the Americas, and Europe. More than any other political leader of his era, he combined class consciousness and anti-white supremacist race consciousness in a coherent political radicalism. He opposed capitalism and maintained that white supremacy was central to capitalist rule in the United States. He emphasized that “politically, the Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea”; that “as long as the Color Line exists, all the perfumed protestations of Democracy on the part of the white race” were “downright lying”; that “the cant of ‘Democracy’” was “intended as dust in the eyes of white voters”; and that true democracy and equality for “Negroes” implied “a revolution . . . startling even to think of.” Working from this theoretical framework, he was active with a wide variety of movements and organizations and played signal roles in the development of what were, up to that time, the largest class radical movement (socialism) and the largest race radical movement (the “New Negro”/Garvey movement) in U.S. history. His ideas on the centrality of the struggle against white supremacy anticipated the profound transformative power of the Civil Rights/Black Liberation struggles of the 1960s and his thoughts on “democracy in America” offer penetrating insights on the limitations and potential of America in the twenty-first century.

Harrison served as the foremost Black organizer, agitator, and theoretician in the Socialist Party of New York during its 1912 heyday; he founded the first organization (the Liberty League) and the first newspaper (The Voice) of the militant, World War I-era “New Negro” movement; and he served as the editor of the Negro World and principal radical influence on the Garvey movement during its radical high point in 1920. His views on race and class profoundly influenced a generation of “New Negro” militants including the class radical A. Philip Randolph and the race radical Marcus Garvey. Considered more race conscious than Randolph and more class conscious than Garvey, Harrison is the key link in the ideological unity of the two great trends of the Black Liberation Movement–the labor and civil rights trend associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the race and nationalist trend associated with Malcolm X. (Randolph and Garvey were, respectively, the direct links to King marching on Washington, with Randolph at his side, and to Malcolm, whose parents were involved with the Garvey movement, speaking militantly and proudly on street corners in Harlem.)

Harrison was not only a political radical, however. Rogers described him as an “Intellectual Giant and Free-Lance Educator,” whose contributions were wide-ranging, innovative, and influential. He was an immensely skilled and popular orator and educator who spoke and/or read six languages; a highly praised journalist, critic, and book reviewer (reportedly the first regular Black book reviewer in history); a pioneer Black activist in the freethought and birth control movements; a bibliophile and library builder and popularizer who helped develop the 135th Street Public Library into an international center for research in Black culture, and a promoter and aid to Black writers and artists. In his later years he was the leading Black lecturer for the New York City Board of Education and one of its foremost orators. Though he was a trailblazing literary critic in Harlem during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance, he questioned the “Renaissance” concept on grounds of its willingness to take “standards of value ready-made from white society” and on its claim to being a significant new re-birth. (He maintained that “there had been an uninterrupted,” though ignored, “stream of literary and artistic products” flowing “from Negro writers from 1850” into the 1920s.)

Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 is the first volume of my two-volume biography and I began work on it over twenty-five years ago. My ancestral roots are entirely among working people, I was afforded the opportunity to attend college, and, like millions of others, I was deeply affected by the civil rights struggle-inspired movements for social change in the United States. These factors, and many related experiences, have led me towards a life in which I have tried to mix worker-based organizing with historical research and writing. My major preoccupation has been with the successes and failures of efforts at social change in the United States. In that context, I have focused on the role of white supremacy in undermining efforts at social change and on the importance of struggle against white supremacy to social change.

These influences and interests provided me with a certain openness to the contributions of working class and anti-white-supremacist writers and intellectuals. It was in this context, in the early 1980s, while researching a proposed Columbia University doctoral dissertation that I first encountered the work of Hubert Harrison. When I first read microfilm copies of Harrison’s two published books I was arrested by the clarity of his writing and the perceptiveness of his analysis. I knew that I had encountered a writer of great importance and within a short while I decided to write on Harrison. I made contact with his daughter, Aida Harrison Richardson, and son, William Harrison, in 1983. After several meetings and discussions of their father’s work they very generously (before William’s death in 1984) granted me access to some of their father’s materials and, over the years, I was provided access to additional materials by Aida and then (after she passed in 2001) by her son Charles Richardson. While working full-time in the union movement I proceeded to preserve and inventory the Hubert H. Harrison Papers and, when the family requested, I worked with them to place the Papers at Columbia University.

I was influenced toward serious study of matters of race and class in America through personal experiences and readings and through the work of an independent scholar and close personal friend, the late Theodore William Allen (author of the two-volume work, The Invention of the White Race), whose papers I am similarly preserving and inventorying. Allen’s writings on the role of white supremacy in United States history and on the centrality of the struggle against white supremacy disposed me to be receptive to the life and work of Harrison, another independent, autodidactic, anti-white-supremacist, working class intellectual.

After completion of my doctoral dissertation in 1986, Harrison’s daughter Aida surprised me by presenting me with his diary (which I did not know existed). This opened up many new avenues of investigation and convinced me of Harrison’s extraordinary importance and of the fact that I had a two-volume biography on my hands. The first volume focuses on Harrison’s Crucian roots, his early intellectual growth, his Socialist Party years, the founding of the Voice, the Liberty League and the New Negro movement, and the wartime Liberty Congress. The second volume will focus on Harrison’s editing of the New Negro, his relationship with Garvey and his editing of the Negro World, his relationships with Socialists, Communists, and other organizations, his efforts at building a Liberty Party and the International Colored Unity League, his activities during the Harlem Renaissance, and his truly extraordinary last decade of prolific writings and public speaking. I think the two volumes will leave no doubt as to Harrison’s importance as a major figure, his life story will lead to much new interpretation of early twentieth century events and individuals, and many of his writings and ideas will be found to offer important insights for today.