Transcript: 54. Wilson Moses on the Roots of Black Nationalism

Wilson Moses speaks to us about his research into early black nationalism, with reference to Crummell, Douglass, and others.

PA: Today's episode will be an interview about early American Black nationalism with Wilson Moses, who was professor of American history at Penn State before his retirement... So maybe you can start by saying something about this phrase, what do you understand by the phrase "Black nationalism"? 

WM: Well, I should start by saying that I first became interested in this back in the 1960s. And at that time, Black nationalism was associated with a series of figures who were always on television - some of them were very, very militant and some were even on the conservative end of the spectrum, but they were equally militant. In any case, most people thought of Black nationalism as a contemporary event and as a contemporary ideology. And they tended to think of it in terms of figures like Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown and Malcolm X. And so as I began to read up on it, I began to think, well, gee, this does have a history. It's been around for a long time. And it would be sort of as if we were to talk about American nationalism solely in terms of the Vietnam War rather than to think about it in terms of the Mexican War. So I thought, well, gee, why don't I try to do something to correct this idea? And I was particularly interested in W.E.B. Du Bois, but in the process, I became aware of Alexander Crummell as well. And he came to be very much a symbolic figure, mainly, I suppose, because he was the one who most systematically developed it. 

PA: Do you consider the whole idea here to be something like the notion of a nation? This is a phrase you sometimes hear in this context, a nation within a nation, so that Black people or African-Americans constitute a separate nation unto themselves within the wider American nation. Is that really what we're talking about here? 

WM: It could be, although Frederick Douglass famously said a nation within a nation is an anomaly. But I think, yes, that is one way we could talk about it. And that is the way that many people talked about it during the 1960s. I was more inclined to see it as a movement for an actual territorial separatism in my later work. Although in the beginning, I was more inclined to talk about Black nationalism as a broad way of looking at things, as a kind of an emotional thing. And then later, I began to think of it more in terms of its political - I tended to define it more strictly in my later work in terms of the geopolitical aspects of actually seeking a nation state, usually to be located in Africa. But both of those ideas are present. 

PA: And obviously, Liberia would be the kind of main example of that in the 19th century. 

WM: Liberia was the main example of that in the 19th century, although there was considerable flirtation with Haiti, and then, of course, Sierra Leone, which was the British counterpart of Liberia. I visited both countries, and it was interesting to see the parallels and differences. 3.45

PA: In your search for the roots of this ideology, as you just called it, how far back do you go? So do you think of Crummell as like a pioneering figure in Black nationalism, or do you see even Crummell as coming in after, say, a generation or two of developments? 

WM: Well, if we are going to think about nationalism as being a combination of the Greek idea of the polis and the Jewish idea of the chosen people, then I think we could look at the chosen people idea as coming about a little bit earlier than Crummell. There were numerous Christian figures in the 18th century who entertained that idea, the idea of a special mission, a kind of a messianic mission of African American people. And that was preserved, incidentally, all the way up into the 20th century by W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King - the idea of the messianic mission of the African American people. And this could be carried out either from various loci, either in the United States or in other places, but the idea of an actual nation state - that was more associated with people like Henry Highland Garnet and Martin Delany. Although Du Bois, obviously by migrating to Ghana, gave much credence to this idea, and Crummell, by spending almost 20 years in Africa, did so as well. 5.20

So there are different ideas, and it depends on which of these strains we want to pick up if we're going to start attributing the idea to earlier figures. And the earlier figures, I would say, were in the Christian church. Now, what is interesting about some of these earlier nationalists, for example, I think it was Gustavo Vassa [= Olaudah Equiano, ed.], who was quite fascinated with parallels that he could see between the Jewish people and African people, and almost seemed to kind of suggest that there was a migration of Jewish ideas across the northern top of the continent and into West Africa. But that was not a dominant feeling. However, it is interesting to notice this in that one 18th century author. 

PA: So that actually takes us way back over many of the figures we've already covered, Delaney, Garnet, and so on. But you've actually written a book about Crummell quite a while ago. And so maybe we should focus on him. What kind of black nationalist is he? So I suppose an obvious thought would be that he is one of the few figures that we've covered in the podcast, at least, who, as you said, went to Africa and spent decades there. Does he represent for you the kind of turn within black nationalism where it does become a commitment to having a separate political entity outside the United States? 

WM: Well, yeah, I think he does take that quite seriously. And what's interesting about it is that he's kind of an elitist Christian black nationalism. What is interesting to me is that the black nationalism that I studied led me to notice one thing, that there were numerous fiscal missionaries who, as soon as they were trained in this country, went to Africa. The other thing that I noticed is that there was a very strong strain of high church, that is to say, Episcopal church in particular, Anglo-Catholic, if you will, tendency in these black nationalists. For example, Marcus Garvey, with his Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which he didn't found, and the last time I was in Harlem, it was still there, was actually a very high church of African Orthodox as opposed to being evangelical. But then that term "evangelical" can be so broadly defined too. You can almost find some high church evangelical. But Crummell really did gravitate more towards the more ritualistic, I would say, high church end of the Anglican faith. Now, what was interesting here is that you've got this guy who is very black, very proud of being black, and chauvinistic about not having any white blood. On the other hand, you've got Frederick Douglass, who is of mixed ancestry and except with this period when he's ambassador to Haiti, not really associated with any actual nation that is black. But Frederick Douglass has one characteristic of a nationalist, and that is he is very, very tied to the grassroots. So when you read Frederick Douglass' autobiographies, you see that he knows these chants. He knows these little rhythms. You can almost see him singing doo-wop on the street corner. He really understands the masses of the people in the way that Crummell does not. He's sort of like the Africans that you may meet on any college campus today who are very black and sometimes I think can be rather contemptuous of the ordinary street level black culture. So you don't walk up to some Africans, and I've met a lot of Africans, especially Senegalese, you don't walk up and say, "hey, my man, what's happening, brother?" Because they will get very, very upset with you. They'll become quite indignant. They'll answer you in French if you address them in English. I've met those like that. I'm not saying they are all like that by any means, but Crummell would be as a person who was second-generation, his father was an African and his father had retained memories of Africa. And Crummell was not exactly that kind of guy. In fact, he even tells the story about how he was standing on the street corner with some kids and how they were profaning the Lord's Day in idle and wicked jesting, that sort of thing. 

Whereas I think Douglass really understood, was much more a part of the slave culture, that some scholars like to refer to as a black nationalism as well. And so that's another thing about the way that people study black nationalism. Some people are very interested in the slave culture, the culture of the grassroots, in the blues, more recently in rap and hip hop, and they see black nationalism as very much associated with that, whereas other people would rather associate it as my great Aunt Mary did - to her, although she would never have called herself a black nationalist, she was convinced that the hand of God was in the sinking of the Titanic because those white folks thought they were better than us. 

PA: So Crummell was like your Aunt Mary. 10.40 

WM: He would be more in that Christian puritanical wing, yeah, of black nationalism. 

PA: And how did his approach to this change when he moved back to the United States? Because so far we've got this picture of someone who's gone off to Africa, he wants to create a kind of religiously founded nation abroad, back in Africa, but then he goes back to the United States. And so he has to, in some sense, play the same kind of game that Frederick Douglass is playing so well, or how does that change his approach?

WM: I don't think so. This is very interesting. You know, there was this talk about founding an American Negro Academy, and I think that the real reason why it wasn't founded until after Frederick Douglass had died was that in fact Frederick Douglass was still alive. The creation of an American Negro Academy, which was going to generate within an African-American community, but also in a Pan-African sense, an African high culture, a culture very much that would be very literary and scientific. That idea was something that Crummell was very committed to. And this is, of course, where the young W.E.B. Du Bois met him. And Du Bois was very young when he wrote The Conservation of Races. He is sitting in a room full of these old-fashioned black nationalist Christians, and he formulates this idea about the importance of the conservation of the races, and goes so far as to attack Locke, to attack Adam Smith, to attack the entire 18th century Enlightenment tradition as represented in Jefferson. Neither Crummell and Du Bois had much appreciation for Jefferson. Not because Jefferson was a slaveholder. It was not anything that naive. That was not the basis. As soon as you bring up Jefferson and people think you are going to start talking about slavery and Sally Hemings, no, that wasn't it. They had a systematic ideological objection to Jefferson. Jefferson believed in the idea that governments were created by human beings. And they had this Aristotelian notion that government was fundamentally organic, and they believed in organic state. And Crummell even believed that the idea of democracy existed in the mind of God, and that everything we did would be imperfect, because we couldn't recreate what was in the mind of God. But Du Bois did not believe in this Jeffersonian concept of the local community, or the idea that the state was essentially evil. What Jefferson didn't like about Plato, whom he detested, and of course Crummell and Du Bois loved Plato, but the problem was that Plato had given this talk, or put it into Socrates' mouth, the ideas of the Crito, the idea that the individual owed something to the state, even their life. And that was what Jefferson couldn't stand. And that was something that a guy like Du Bois just might be prepared to accept. But I don't want to oversimplify either one of them. The point is they have very different conceptions about the functioning of the state. And that's what's important to the black nationalist. Whereas I think to the person like Douglass, there is in fact a kind of a commitment to the laissez-faire doctrines that are more intrinsically American. Free the slaves and leave them alone, said Frederick Douglass. Whereas Crummell said, now we've got to come up with a new program, because under slavery, every aspect of the slave's life was controlled in a machine-like way. And we've got to come up with some kind of a system now. 

PA: One thing you mentioned in your book on Crummell is a kind of tension between what you might call a certain cosmopolitanism, which comes out in some of the things you've been saying, right, so these like very high ideals, which might be shared by anybody or at least any Christian, right? 

WM: Yeah

PA: And then on the other hand, the black nationalist project, which by its very nature should be a nation for and by black people. Do you think that's just an irresolvable conflict at the heart of Crummell's thoughts? Or do you think that those two things can somehow be brought together? 14.50

WM: Well, the conflict, of course, is very present in British nationalism as well. It is the idea that you have very strong nationalism that goes hand in hand with the civilizing mission of the British Empire, you know. In France. The idea that, well, the French, for instance, speak of French civilization, but they'll also speak of civilization in general. I think the contradiction is in these ideas. And there are a lot of heavy intellectuals who have talked about this problem of national culture and civilization, and whether there's a conflict of civilizations or a conflict between culture and civilization. But I think what I was trying to do here was just to simply to point up a kind of a paradox that might not have been very apparent to people who were talking about black nationalism at the time. That is, if a person like Malcolm X is going to is going to call himself a nationalist, and yet he belongs to this cosmopolitan movement called Islam, there would seem to be a problem here. And one of the things that I noted, not only in Africa, when I was in Cambridge for a couple of years talking to the African students, that for African Americans, the touchstone of reality is almost invariably, even among conservatives like Clarence Thomas, almost invariably, everyone is drawn back to race. Whereas you might encounter for the African that what is going on here is not so much their race as their religion. When I got there and I saw these guys walking around in some of these beautiful costumes, and of course African Americans were adopting African costume at that time, but I learned very quickly that these costumes were not to be seen as African, not even necessarily as tribal or as having to do with a specific ethnic group, but the costume the guy was wearing was much more a matter of his religious faith than it was of his African-ness, and we as African Americans, I think, tend to ignore this, except that of course we're very much involved in it ourselves. We're very much. 

PA: And that would be really true of Crummell as well, right? Because his project is always very centrally concerned with creating a Christian nation, right? I mean, for him, Liberia is at least as much Christian as it is African, right? 

WM: I think that at some level, both he and Du Bois were aware of this paradox. I'm not aware that either one ever wrote an essay about the paradox, but Crummell and Du Bois were always very concerned with trying to show how this, especially the Victorian sexual morality, was something that was present in the traditional African society, and that any deviation from, for example, the feminine instinct of charity, this was a result of the white man's corruption. This was not black. That idea was completely rejected during the Harlem Renaissance when people began to celebrate - but then of course whites were doing it as well -celebrate the deviation from the Victorian sexual morality. And then of course everything changed. Now of course it was the blacks who had led the way in getting away from this very inhuman and inhumane Victorian sexual morality. For Du Bois and Crummell, it was actually the higher form of sexual morality was this, a ideal feminine chastity, which they celebrated and which they believed was our, I think it was Du Bois who said, ancient African chastity. And you would see more chastity on the streets of London than you would in any African village. 

PA: So that's an example of how the kind of Africanness and the Christianity would come together in Crummell's mind, right? If we can maybe step back from Crummell for the last couple of minutes and look at some of his other contemporaries, although we've been talking about them anyway. I'm particularly interested in what you would have to say about Frederick Douglass relative to black nationalism, because he has a lot of disagreements with people like Garnett and Martin Delaney, in fact Crummell as well. And a lot of these are about a variety of issues, for example, whether violence should be used in the resistance of slavery and so on. But if we just think about his attitudes towards black nationalism, is he an opponent of black nationalism or can he also be construed as a nationalist in some sense? 19.10

WM: Well, that's why it's good to make a distinction between nationalism and nationalist. A nationalist can be defined in numerous ways and so can nationalism. But I would say that some variety of nationalism can at some point in the biography of just about any black of any prominence, some variety of nationalism can be detected in them at some point in their career. I remember at one point I was at a meeting and there was a woman who represented, it was sponsored by a conservative group, and this black woman said, we don't need Afrocentrism because we know that Africans invented algebra. And this is the kind of thing, and she was a conservative who had been brought there to attack Afrocentrism. And I thought that was so amusing because here she was, spotting an Afrocentric line and not even aware of it. So a person like Frederick Douglass does make it his business to visit the pyramids and he does make it his business to describe his mother as resembling a drawing that he had seen of one of the pharaohs in one of the anthropology books that he had encountered. So you might say that not only Afrocentrism, but even a variety of Afrocentrism that would be highly approved by some of our contemporary Afrocentrists who put a great deal of emphasis on Egypt. And I think that's certainly present there. But I think that his appreciation for the grassroots culture is something that I would say is there. Now, as far as emigrationism is concerned, he claims that he was on the verge of investigating the possibility that might exist for a possible, conceivable migration to Haiti at the moment that he heard of the firing on Fort Sumter. How much biographical accuracy we may attribute to that statement, I do not know. 

PA: It sounds a little bit too good to be true, the timing. 21.10

WM: Anything that's too good to be true probably is. 

PA: Then just finally, maybe we can look ahead to some of the figures we haven't covered yet in the podcast. And so we can't expect our listeners to know very much about them. But it still might be interesting to think about how someone like Crummell would compare with so-called Pan-Africanists. Also here, I'm thinking of figures like Blyden and especially Garvey. Is he a kind of forerunner of them or is it a very sharp distinction? 21.40

WM: He was a friend of Blyden and they taught together at Liberia College in the days when their careers there overlapped. He and Blyden agreed on several things, except that Blyden said that as Ishmael came before Jesus, so too Islam may be the agency that prepares people for monotheism and therefore could prepare the way for Christianity. And Crummell didn't accept that idea. But they shared and they were both belong to the same party while they were there in Liberia. That is the party that disassociated itself from the Virginia repatriates. It was the party that was not associated with the mulatto elite. And so they were comrades in arms during the period that they were both in Liberia. Afterwards, when the American Negro Academy was being founded, I don't know if Blyden was invited. I can't recall if he was. I know that when Du Bois began his work on the Encyclopedia Africana, he did contact Blyden and exchanged correspondence with him at the point when he was 20, used the word Afrocentric and said he wanted to create an Afrocentric encyclopedia. And of course, other people who were associated with Garvey did have some association with Blyden and with Blyden's ideas. They were certainly aware of Crummell. Some of them actually had been friends of Crummell. And so they were disciples of Crummell, like William H. Ferris, who became an editor of Marcus Garvey's newspaper. And I think it was Duse Mohamed as well. You're asking me to remember things I wrote 40 years ago. But I think it was Mohamed who had a connection. I know he did with the American Negro Academy and Orishatukeh Faduma, these various people who overlapped with Garvey also overlapped with Crummell. They certainly knew of each other. 23.35

PA: So we have really a very strong sense of continuity. In fact, if we go back to the very first things we talked about, in a way, this goes all the way back to the 18th century and everyone's connected in this period. 


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