Transcript: 76. Michael Dawson on Garvey and Black Nationalism

An interview with Michael Dawson, who explains Marcus Garvey's black nationalism and how this and other political ideologies, like socialism and liberalism, have fared from the time of Garvey down to the present day.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to be talking about Garvey and Black nationalism, as I've just said. So we better start by saying what Black nationalism is. Can you define the term?

Michael Dawson: Black nationalism is an ideology. It's a set of social movements. It's a historical phenomenon, which in the U.S. has meant several things. One is that racism is the organizing principle of the world, not capitalism, not various groups. Its racist self is the organizing principle of society, the economy and the political institutions of the United States. And for some, such as Garvey, the global role structure itself. Second is an ideology where consequently, political movements should be built around the concept that Black people as a people must organize for themselves and take that as their primary responsibility, duty, and goal. And the liberation of Black people is the global goal for all Black people, regardless of whether they're in the Americas, whether they're in Europe, or whether they're on the African continent. There are many varieties of Black nationalism. Garvey has a fairly conservative version, although a Pan-Africanist version. There are others that are much more focused within the nation states, such as Black nationalism in the United States often has been. There's also forms that combine socialism with nationalism, which were very popular in the early 20th century in the United States and then the 1960s and 70s as well.

Peter Adamson: OK. So that's great. So this has started with a kind of understanding of where we are. That's Black nationalism. Now, Marcus Garvey. So he's obviously a major figure in the history of this ideology, as you're calling it. What was his role in Black nationalism, I mean, as a proponent of the ideology, also as an organizer and community leader?

Michael Dawson: So Garvey was a Jamaican who spent some time in the United Kingdom, and then actually migrated to the United States, with this idea of working with Booker T. Washington. But Washington passed away the year before Garvey arrived in this country. And what happened was that he organized a number of chapters of his organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), not just in the United States, but throughout the world. But in the United States, he organized the largest urban Black movement in U.S. history.

Peter Adamson: Still until today?

Michael Dawson: Until today. And not only did it have a very strong base among the lower-middle-class shopkeepers and the like, but it also had a fairly strong base in the South among farmers. It also had a base among urban workers, and it also attracted some intellectuals. It certainly attracted activists across the political spectrum, as many African American activists, some of whom might have socialist leanings, for example, were very much attracted to the idea of putting Black people at the center of a revolutionary struggle. Now, the Garvey movement has several weaknesses, and Garvey himself, we will talk about more in terms of his own ideology, had some drawbacks as well. One of the weaknesses at the moment was that it was apolitical to an extreme. Garvey's view was that we should not deal with politics from the United States. Black people's home was in Africa. We should try to build a united Africa under his reign. I make the comparison to him and Machiavelli in the sense that he wanted to found a state with a prince, a Black prince, that prince being him outside the borders of the United States. Another weakness was that some of his advisers were not trustworthy and got him into trouble with the authorities, who were looking for a reason to break up the movement, which they did eventually. And three, his nationalism was extreme even by Black nationalist standards. For example, he would speak on the same stage with the Ku Klux Klan, a white terrorist organization because both organizations were anti-miscegenationists. In other words, they do not believe in intermarriage or interracial relationships between Black and white men and women. And they also both believed in the removal of Africans from the shores of the United States. And during this time when African Americans were being lynched by the Ku Klux Klan, where there was rampant terror against Black communities, appearing on the same stage as the Ku Klux Klan was seen at best as extraordinarily foolish, more often as a betrayal of Black people as well. So there were both transcendent weaknesses to his movement. He was very, very good at manipulating cultural symbols that resonated within the Black community. That was one of the reasons that he was able to organize people.

Peter Adamson: Let me just follow up on one thing you said there, which is that interesting comparison you make to Machiavelli and some of your work, which is that, as you said, he really envisions a kind of autocratic governance with a prince at the top, at least in the first instance him, Garvey himself. And that seems a little bit strange in a way because he's also running a kind of grassroots community project, right? So how do we resolve that tension between the ambition of having top-down governance and the actual practice of having a kind of bottom-up grassroots political strategy?

Michael Dawson: We’ve seen that model of having a very centralized top-down model with grassroots organization in a couple of places. Some of the feminist parties were organized along the same ways, where you would have dispersed sales and factories and communities and the like, but a very centralized, sometimes not very democratic leadership. Certainly you saw that in the United States in a number of Black organizations. And with Garvey himself, he thought you had to organize the masses of Black people, but under a leadership – he wanted to be Napoleon of Black people. And he saw no contradiction. He himself said that democracy failed. Democracy was not a model that was suitable, a model of governance for Black people in this world.

Peter Adamson: Yeah. He actually said Africa needs a Napoleon and he meant himself, right?

Michael Dawson: Yes, he did.

Peter Adamson: Right. Okay. So one other question I have about this whole ideology, also, I mean, I guess the whole history of Black nationalism, but maybe starting with Garvey himself, isn't there a problem here that the Black community in America, but also worldwide, is actually very diverse? So how would they respond, how would Garvey or other nationalists respond to the criticism that they're overlooking the diversity within the African American community?

Michael Dawson: There are two ways I respond to that. One is empirical, one is more philosophical. Philosophically, Garvey would argue, as with most Black nationalists, is that race itself, what they mean by that differs. But some would say the essentialist aspects of being Black overcame any differences between Black people. Others would argue, including some contemporary liberal philosophers, that the common oppression, the common circumstances of Black people were enough to overcome those differences. The work that I've done empirically has, for example, shown that the great majority of Black people think that what happens to Black people as a whole affects their own material life and that of their family, or 70 to 80% still. And particularly in an era where there's lynching, Jim Crow, a form of apartheid within the United States that existed for quite a long time, rampant segregation in labor markets, housing markets, consumer markets, backed up by both a racial state and by civil society, those differences were muted. They were still there, but they were muted. And I actually think empirically that was true if you look at the period between, let's say, the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s and 1880s, depending on what state you're talking about, to the advent of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the middle of the 20th century. The common oppression of Black people certainly gave a basis for unity that, even given ideological and class differences and other types of social divisions among African Americans, there was a strong basis for political unity.

Peter Adamson: But presumably there's room here for a feminist critique of this ideology, right? Because the ideology says, well, whether you're a Black woman or a Black man, the point is your race, namely that you're Black. And so you, by definition, have the same interests. And a feminist critic might say, no, that's not true because the interests of Black women may not always align with those of Black men.

Michael Dawson: So Black feminist critics, for example, the Combahee River Collective would argue that there was certainly some unifying oppression that Blacks had to deal with as a race, and women had to deal with in terms of gender. And that there were particularities, particularly sexism within the Black movement, and racism within the women's movement, that needed that call for the advent of Black feminist organizing. Even then they, and for example, Black Marxists, when they think about class, thought there was still enough racial oppression in the United States, at least in the 20th century, to justify Black organizations. For example, the Black Panther Party, which I would call a revolutionary nationalist party, although they also considered themselves a socialist party, a Marxist party, said, we're a nationalist organization, but we're a socialist in outlook. And I think there are Black feminists who are arguing, we are nationalists in how we organize around Black feminism, but we're also feminists in terms of our outlook and our worldview. Now what Garvey would say, though, is slightly different. First of all, he did have a gender analysis. Men had to be in the lead. So he had a very, very blunt, very, very central patriarchal view of how society, families, politics should be organized. So it wasn't about a question about which cleavages, which set of oppressions were important. It was that men were going to lead. So it was very simple for him. And yes, and Black feminists would have very strong critique of his view.

Peter Adamson: Right. And the critique is pretty obvious. I guess I wonder whether it follows from what you said that just empirically, there was maybe more to be said for a kind of race-centered Black nationalism at the time that Garvey was alive than there might be now. So for example, as you've had class differentiation within the American Black community increase since then, you could argue that, for example, like a Marxist might have a pretty good basis for saying that nowadays the interests of, let's say, upper-class Black Americans might not align with those of lower-class Black Americans. And certainly their perspectives wouldn't align. Whereas in Garvey's day, perhaps those differences weren't so salient.

Michael Dawson: I've argued exactly that point empirically in my work that there's far less basis for the type of nationalist organizing today than there was. But there's still some basis for that. And a fairly strong basis, because as we see African American progressive movements, particularly youth movements such as the Movement for Black Lives, BYP100, and others mobilized, they're still organizing along racial lines, even though they have a queer and class-based outlook because what they see as, one, continued racial oppression in the United States, particularly in poor, but not exclusively in poor Black communities, and two, the fact that in progressive organizations, whether they're feminist, Marxist, liberal, or social democratic, that without Blacks organizing independently, the argument goes, Black interests get downplayed. So there's far less basis than there was. There's certainly more cleavages along the lines of gender politics, class politics, and the like. In fact, one of the articles I've written recently with my co-author, Megan Francis, neoliberalism has really taken a hold as an ideology among Black elites, but there's still a basis for organizing along lines of racial oppression,and people still do with very progressive outlooks.

Peter Adamson: Okay. So since you just mentioned liberalism there, or neoliberalism, maybe we should actually take a step back and talk about what other alternatives would be to Black nationalism. So let's start with Black liberalism, what's the difference between the Black liberal approach and the Black nationalist approach?

Michael Dawson: So the main competitors that Garvey had were a social democratic liberalism within Black communities that very much wanted to ameliorate the worst aspects of capitalism, wanted to fight racism, wanted to fight for inclusion within the American system. And that's one massive difference with Garvey, that you're fighting for inclusion within the American system, the system that he wants Black people to leave, and also saw themselves as fighting for democracy, again, a political system of governance that Garvey rejects. So A. Philip Randolph, W. E. B. Du Bois, there's a number of liberal figures from that period and organizations that have really criticized Garvey, but also have had strong throughout the 20th century critiques of Black nationalism. The other major competitor at the time was Black leftists – most of them became Black Marxists, and many of them eventually joined the Communist Party of the United States in the 1920s and 30s – who had, again, wanted to fight for Black liberation, but also had a very strong class analysis and were looking for allies internationally, such as, at the time, the Soviet Union. Those are his main competitors. He saw both wings as sellouts, as assimilationists, as selling out Black people for either the white working class or the white bourgeoisie. What I left out of that analysis, because it wasn't as strong an organizational force at the time, but would become a strong organizational force in the 1960s and 70s, was Black feminist critique of Black nationalism.

Peter Adamson: And that wasn't really on the map at all during his time.

Michael Dawson: There were individuals going back to the 19th century …

Peter Adamson: Yeah, we've covered some of them.

Michael Dawson: … who were Black feminists, but they didn't have the same organizational force at the time, as they would later.

Peter Adamson: To what extent does this kind of conflict between these different approaches just come down to a kind of empirical question about what it will be possible to get the dominant white culture to concede? I mean, I could imagine that someone might say, well, yes, Black liberalism, this is a very lovely project. And of course, it would be great if we could get white people to accept Black people as equal partners in a democratic project. But look, that's never going to happen. So that's why I'm a Black nationalist. So is it really, in a way, a difference of how optimistic they are? Or is it a difference of some kind of deeper principle involved?

Michael Dawson: I think it varies across Black nationalists, for example. So a central question in Black politics is who are your friends and who are your enemies? So on one hand, there were, between a liberal and a Marxist and a nationalist, there were very different answers to those questions. And the nationalists would argue that we could not trust white people. Some nationalists say we can't trust anybody but Black people, although that was a relatively uncommon view, but one that did persist within some strands of Black nationalism. But for some, it was a deeper question of principle. We as Black people should organize for ourselves. That is the moral thing to do. It's not a question about whether we can organize with other people. We should organize for ourselves because that's the right thing to do. So there's those two different tendencies within Black nationalism.

Peter Adamson: And I guess in a way, it goes back to the very first thing you said, which is that their fundamental unifying conceptual tool is race. And so ultimately, the goal of kind of obliterating the distinction between Black and white races in a single democratic alliance or community is just antithetical to the ideology itself.

Michael Dawson: Well, it depends on which version of Black nationalism you're talking about. If you believe that race is not necessarily morally an organizing principle of society, but you're pessimistic, you still might decide that the only way to go is through a nationalist strategy. But there are those, such as Garvey, who believe that each race has its own mission. And therefore, we will organize around race, even if there are available allies outside the Black race.

Peter Adamson: I see. So what unifies the nationalists then is that race is the organizing principle. And some might say, that's a shame, but we're stuck with it. And some might say, this is great, we should go with it. But that's what they do, at least agree that that's the fundamental analysis.

Michael Dawson: And the third version, which you see particularly, I would say, in the 60s and 70s, is, for example, let's say the Black Panther Party is that at this time, we have to organize around race, but there will be a future where that won't be as central, particularly if we do our job correctly.

Peter Adamson: OK. One other question about the liberal tradition, the Black liberal tradition, how would you compare it to the liberal tradition more broadly? I mean, maybe we should constrain ourselves to the United States here. So how does Black liberalism in particular relate to and compare to American liberalism?

Michael Dawson: So Black liberalism in the United States is, I used to joke, although the joke is no longer funny if it ever was, Black liberals were the perfect Swedish Social Democrats a la 1975. So very much believed in a strong central state, redistributive state with very strong social-welfare programs. And that is antithetical to much of American liberalism, which is much more based on individualism, concepts of freedom that don't allow for a lot of collective role for the state, doesn't allow, for example, for workers to have a strong collective voice in governance in the way that, let's say, the trade unions did in, for example, the United Kingdom until relatively recently. So what's Black about liberalism in the United States is that it looks much more like Continental social democracy.

Peter Adamson: You mean European Continental?

Michael Dawson: Yeah.

Peter Adamson: So is that part of the thinking behind that, that they want strong central government because there's a kind of risk of the tyranny of the majority, and the majority is white. And so they want the central government to stop the white majority from oppressing the Black minority through liberal democratic institutions?

Michael Dawson: That's part of it. And certainly, if you look at the period, let's say between 1876 and 1980, often the federal government wasn't a reliable ally, but local governments were actively involved in enforcing segregation, enforcing racial terror, and the like, both in and outside of the South, forcing housing discrimination, although the federal government was involved in that as well. So part of it was pragmatic. But the other part of it was that a strong, deep belief among the majority of African Americans – and this is where some nationalists would have problems – in an egalitarian society, where the society and the state would collectively help those who are less well off.

Peter Adamson: Right. One of the things you mentioned briefly is the critique by the Black nationalists of these other ideologies. And so I'm wondering – you mentioned that they would critique the liberals for being assimilationists. So I mean, that sounds like it could just be a kind of insult. Is there a...

Michael Dawson: There's a lot of insults going back and forth.

Peter Adamson: Right. As in all political debate. But I mean, what's the kind of underlying principled accusation? What's wrong with being assimilationist, the liberal might say.

Michael Dawson: So if you take the Garvey version, which is a strong version of Black nationalism, there'd be several problems. One is that it shows a lack of self-love. That we should be able to love ourselves, love each other, and not need to go outside of the race to find that type of love. I don't get to me in terms of finding partners, but I mean in terms of finding allies as well. Two, according to the strongest version, it also shows a lack of faith in Black capability. That Blacks on their own had all the resources, all the wisdom, all the brilliance necessary to form their own states, to form their own – now I'm really quoting Garvey, paraphrasing Garvey quite directly – their own armies, their own navies, their own air forces, their own science. That's three, and this is some of the cultural nationalist versions, it showed a disrespect for the history of African-descended people's culture to be looking for a culture outside of that of Black people, whether it's you're turning to Marx and trying to understand it. So what they would say, Marx was a racist, and he was actually, but as some of us argue, we should understand that, but also see what's useful. But they would say, with some justification, that the entire Enlightenment was built by people who had very strong racial hierarchies. So by turning to that set of philosophical principles, you're resting your philosophical edifice on a racist quicksand. So there's a number of cultural, philosophical, historic, and epistemic critiques of the desire to look outside of one's culture, whether it's for culture, whether it's for philosophy, whether it's for politics and political organization, or whether for friends, allies, and lovers.

Peter Adamson: Okay. So that's a comprehensive view of this ideology. Just in closing, let's talk a little bit about the legacy of Garvey. Something that's been distinctive about a lot of your work is, something you've mentioned also in passing, that there's a kind of strong empirical dimension. And one of the things you've been interested in is to what extent these ideologies have actually prevailed in the Black community in America. So maybe just sticking to the 20th century for now, which of these three approaches was more successful? So you've got nationalism, liberalism, and radicalism.

Michael Dawson: So the most successful, the most popular through most of the 20th century was Black social democracy, particularly after the Garvey organization fell apart. There were certainly strong challenges from the Black left. We can argue about which was most important after 1968. I'll say why in a second. But Black social democrats through the civil rights movements, through a variety of other organizations, captured the modal set of attitudes that constituted Black ideological perspectives on politics. The reason I qualify that by looking at 1968 is that's when Martin Luther King was assassinated, on April 4th, 1968. And at that moment, probably a majority of African Americans gave up on liberalism and turned to much more radical ideologies, whether they were revolutionary Black nationalists, Marxists, or other forms of radical ideology. That played out, and I would argue that a social democratic orientation once again reestablished itself, until neoliberalism started pushing Black political attitudes more to the right.

Peter Adamson: And how was the hard left doing during this whole period? So do you have any kind of real traction with Black communists, so to speak?

Michael Dawson: In the early 20th century, the African Americans who had a leftist perspective mostly found themselves within the Communist Party and actually had some very large chapters in places like New York and Chicago, did organizing in Alabama, as Robin Kelley, the historian, has written about, and others too. And the Communist Party had some moments where it was very strongly supported within the Black community. I'm not saying everybody wanted to become communist, certainly not, but their work was supported to a significant degree, around cases like the Scottsboro Boys. But that was squandered in the 1930s, for a variety of reasons leading up to and through World War II. The suppression of the left in the United States after World War II, the so-called Red Scare, meant there was a break within Black leftist politics. What emerges in the middle 1960s and through the 1970s is a much more diffuse Black radicalism that has a lot of different flavors, but particularly after 1968, very, very powerful within Black communities.

Peter Adamson: All right. Okay. So it's not like the only way of being a Black radical in the 1960s is to be a Black Panther?

Michael Dawson: No. There's a number of different leftist organizations, there are a number of social democratic organizations, and there are some very strong nationalist organizations as well.

Peter Adamson: And what happened sort of towards the end of the 20th century as we're approaching today?

Michael Dawson: Well, partly due to mistakes that these organizations made on their own, but also due to massive state repression, the Black radical organizations, both nationalist and leftist, disappeared. Not totally, but certainly as an organizational force, as they had been throughout most of the 20th century, were no longer that strong. And the ideology of neoliberalism, which emphasized individual responsibility, economic entrepreneurship over political involvement, voting over mass organizing, as those became the organizing principles and ideological principles that many Black elites in many different domains adopted, we've seen a drift among African Americans to the right. Although even a couple of years ago, the only population within the United States that majority said they supported socialism was African Americans. Now, what that socialism is, I think people don't know anymore. You don't have a 10-point program, for example, the Black Panther Party, this is what we mean. But there is still some support for a more radical alternative than what mainstream American politics normally presents.

Peter Adamson: Yeah, there's another word that's sometimes just thrown around as an insult without much content. Okay, last question. So we've seen you now throughout this interview with your historian hat on, but you're also just kind of like a straight-up political scientist. So basically, I'm going to ask you now what the right answer is. So you've espoused something you've called pragmatic utopianism. What does that mean, first of all? But also to what extent does that draw on Black nationalism or these other ideologies we've discussed?

Michael Dawson: One of the moves that a lot of us have made is not to be overly worried about which ideological basket you're in these days. So I think you can find some aspects of social democracy and non-dogmatic version of Black leftism that influences my thinking at this point. But what I mean by pragmatic utopianism is two things. The utopian side is that we should look – and this is something that African Americans have done throughout history politically – you're told that, no, we can't get rid of segregation. It's utopian to think that we can have racial equality in the United States. There's a lot of goals that African Americans have that they were told were utopian. And one of the aspects of neoliberal ideology is to narrow the scope of what the vision of what's possible politically. So the utopian aspect is to say, let's not think about what's possible. Let's imagine what type of world we want to live in. That gets you to the pragmatic component, how do we get there? And African Americans, in terms of politics, have usually been very hard-headed, very realistic about these are the political steps we have to take, some of which are very hard to get to the goal of a society that we want to live in and that we can all flourish. 


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