Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review on Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918

Book Review: Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918
Author: Jeffrey B. Perry
Publisher: Columbia University Press, New York, 2009

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

This is the first volume of a definitive political biography of the much-neglected radical socialist and nationalist leader Hubert Henry Harrison whose involvement in the Socialist Party, the Garvey Movement, the Liberty League and other organizations set a standard that would heavily influence black and left activism and thinking for decades to come. Harrison was born in the Danish-controlled Caribbean and moved to the U.S. in 1900 plunging into nearly three decades of organizing and intellectual work that was halted with his untimely death in 1927 at the age of 44.

Born in the Caribbean nation of St. Croix in 1883, an island colonized by Denmark and later the U.S., Harrison grew up as a poor agricultural laborer on a plantation. His mother was an immigrant worker from Barbados and his father was born in St. Croix.

Despite Harrison’s poverty he was able to attend school, where through the influence of a good teacher, acquired excellent reading and writing skills. His literary competency as well as a strong identification with the working class and poor would prove pivotal in his political career that blossomed after he immigrated to the U. S. in 1900.

The United States stood at a crossroads politically and economically during the years at the turn of the 20th century. It was a period of tremendous growth through immigration domestically and internationally in New York City and other urban centers across the country.

Over the next two decades there would be the rise of the assembly line, the motor vehicle industry, mass transportation and the explosion in mass media through newspapers, films and eventually radio. Politically the first two decades of the 20th century would become noted for the emergence of larger social movements that sought to address the continuing racism and class oppression in the U.S. and around the world.

In 1909, the NAACP was formed as an alliance of both African Americans and white liberal and social democrats. Several years earlier in 1901, the Socialist Party came into being out of a coalition of various left and radical formations.

According to the author of the biography, Jeffrey B. Perry, “Harrison served as the foremost Black organizer, agitator, and theoretician in the Socialist Party of New York during its 1912 heyday; as the founder and leading figure of the militant, World War I-era New Negro movement; and as the editor of the Negro World and principal radical influence on the Garvey movement (described by the historian Randall K. Burkett as ‘the largest mass-based protest movement in Black American history’) during its radical high point in 1920.” (p. 5)

Perry points out that Harrison’s “views on race and class profoundly influenced a generation of New Negro militants, including the class-radical socialists A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, the future communists Cyril Briggs and Richard B. Moore, and the race–radical Marcus Garvey. Considered more race conscious than Randolph and Owen and more class conscious than Garvey, Harrison in the key link in the ideological unity of the two great trends of the Black Liberation Movement—the labor and civil rights trends associated with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the nationalist trend associated with Malcolm X.” (p. 5)

Harrison was an avid reader and book reviewer. He began his literary career by writing letters to the editor of the New York Times and other publications.

J.A. Rogers, the renowned self-taught historian and anthropologists, pointed out that Harrison was not only a political organizer but a brilliant orator, writer and scholar whose encyclopedic knowledge and debating skills made him a powerful figure in New York during the early decades of the 20th century. Harrison was an advocate of free-thought, family planning and an opponent of the conservative philosophy of Booker T. Washington, the most popular and establishment-recognized leader within the African American community between the turn of the century and 1915 when the founder of Tuskegee Institute died.

Socialism and Black Liberation

Harrison gained employment with the postal service in New York but was later terminated due to his outspoken political views. In 1910, he wrote two letters to the editor of the New York Sun criticizing the views of Booker T. Washington and this was attributed to him losing his job with the postal service.

After his termination from the postal service, Harrison began to work full-time for the Socialist Party of America and would become the leading Black proponent of the organization during this period. Under the banner of the Socialist Party, he would lecture broadly against capitalism and become a campaigner for the 1912 presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. Harrison would initiate the Colored Socialist Club which is reputed to be the first major effort to recruit African Americans into the Socialist Party.

Later Harrison would write a regular column for the New York Call and the International Socialist Review entitled “The Negro and Socialism.” He would emphasize that it was essential for the Socialist Party to seriously address the national oppression of African Americans and that if this was not done, it would limit the overall program of the party.

Harrison remained on the left even inside the Socialist Party and would affiliate with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He would often speak alongside IWW leaders Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Carlos Tresca and Patrick Quinlan.

However, Harrison fell out with the Socialist Party over its refusal to militantly fight racism among its members and within the broader U.S. society. His criticism derived from the continuation of segregated locals in the South as well as racist positions on Asian immigration. He would conclude by 1914 that the Socialist Party was putting the interests of its white constituents ahead of those of the African Americans and Asians.

In 1914-15 he would continue with his activism as a free-thinker and would affiliate with the Modern School Movement, which was formed by the Spanish anarchist/educator Francisco Ferrer. In addition, he would create the Radical Forum where he would lay the basis for the New Negro Movement, a predecessor of the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

During World War I Harrison formed the Liberty League and the Voice as an alternative to the more liberal and moderate views of the NAACP. The program of the Liberty League advocated internationalism, political independence for the colonized countries in the Caribbean and Africa, anti-lynching legislation, the full enforcement of the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution along with armed self-defense and mass organizing.

Garveyism and Communism

By 1920, Harrison would be appointed as the editor of the Negro World, the widely-circulated newspaper of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded by Marcus Garvey in 1914. Garvey would re-locate from Jamaica in 1916 and settle in Harlem where the UNIA would grow into a mass-based organization throughout the U.S., the Caribbean and Latin America and the African continent.

Nonetheless, after 1920, Harrison would become disenchanted with Garvey and criticized his program from the left. He continued to write for the Negro World until 1922 but would become involved with other organizations such as the American Negro Labor Congress and the Workers Party (later known as the Communist Party).

By 1924 he would set out to form a united front among African Americans by forming what he called the International Colored Unity League (ICUL). Harrison, through this organization, would advocate for political rights, economic and social justice and the creation of a separate African state in the U.S.

Prior to his death in 1927, Harrison would edit the publication for the ICUL, the Voice of the Negro. He announced publicly that he would be treated for appendicitis and later died on the operating table.

Harrison’s funeral was well attended in Harlem yet his legacy has remained obscure among younger generations of activists and intellectuals. This book written by Jeffrey B. Perry is a well-deserved contribution to the literature on the intersection between African American political movements and social philosophies and that of the emerging socialist and communist movements inside the United States during the first three decades of the 20th century.

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