Black Nationalism Essay

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Often misunderstood and misplaced historically, Black Nationalism (most often directly or indirectly interwoven with Pan-Africanist thought and practice) has its U.S. origins in the 19th century with Paul Cuffe’s (1759-1817) “Back to Africa” voyage of 1815, whereby he sailed to Sierra Leone and founded a colony with 38 free African Americans. This form of self-determination received further emphasis over the following 100 years with the works and lives of several key Black Nationalists: David Walker (1795-1830), Martin R. Delany (1812-85), Henry Highland Garnet (1815-82), Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912), and Bishop Henry McNeil Turner (1834-1915). However, unlike those who wanted to resettle in Africa, Walker felt a strong desire for his people to stay and fight in North America. He contended that African Americans contributed to its growth and development and deserved to be rewarded for that labor and human misery.

Moreover, Frederick Douglass (1818-95) and, later, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) could not be deemed separatist Black Nationalists, as they spent much of their lives fighting for the democratic rights of African Americans to have a stake primarily in U.S. society. However, they each provided impetus to the Back to Africa discussion and debate. Indeed, Du Bois would eventually become a prominent player in the Pan-Africanist movement.

Black Nationalism and its key ideas in the Back to Africa and Black separatism themes often coexisted with appeals for integrationist strategies for African American progress. In other words, some Black Nationalists argued for a homeland back in Africa, whereas others argued for integration into the U.S. mainstream. Black Nationalists thus do not fit into a tidy theoretical box.

Arguably, Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a gifted Jamaican orator, encapsulates the breadth of modern Black Nationalism. Garvey led the largest movement involving the black masses (both urban and rural) on a global scale in the 1920s. In 1914, he established the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the African Communities League to unite peoples of African descent. His attempts to provide Africans in the Diaspora with a passage back to Africa and an African continent free from European colonial rule, promote black pride and knowledge of black history, and argue for economic independence and empowerment emboldened subsequent generations of Black Nationalists.

The legacy of Black Nationalism and its meandering path includes Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975), a Garveyite who would model much of the Nation of Islam on the methods used to build the Universal

Negro Improvement Association, and Malcolm X (1925-65), whose father was a staunch Garveyite, who articulated the need for black economic, cultural, and political empowerment in black communities throughout the world. Finally, the mid-20th century brought forth the independence movement in Africa, led by Kwame Nkrumah (1909-72), and the Black Power and Black Panther movements, led by Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael, 1941-98), Bobby Seale (1936- ), Huey P. Newton (1942-89), Angela Davis (1944- ), and many other activists. Crucially, then, Black Nationalism today represents an evolution of thought and practice in the notion of African American self-determination.


  1. Abraham, Kinfe. 1991. Politics of Black Nationalism: From Harlem to Soweto. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
  2. Christian, Mark, ed. 2002. Black Identity in the 20th Century: Expressions of US and UK African Diaspora. London: Hansib.
  3. Essien-Udom, E. U. 1962. Black Nationalism: A Search for Identity in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. Van Deburg, William L., ed. 1997. Modern Black Nationalism: From Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan. New York: New York University Press.

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