The voice of Harlem radicalism

July 6, 2009

A recent book by author Jeffrey Perry aims to help a new generation of activists rediscover the Black radical Hubert Harrison.

THE CONTRADICTIONS of racism in Barack Obama's America has sparked a serious re-examination of African American politics. A Black family moved into the White House, but nationwide, too many Black-owned homes are in foreclosure. A Black man runs the American Justice Department, but the justice system still feeds disproportionately on Black bodies.

How is that possible? What will the struggle against racism look like in this new era? Increasingly, people are looking to the study of Black history for answers.

Jeffrey Perry's new book, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 (the first of two volumes) has not even received an academic review, and yet is already in its third printing. Certainly anyone who has seen his slide presentation (he has been a tireless and ubiquitous speaker in the New York and New Jersey area over the last 12 months) will understand that Perry's combination of an encyclopedic mind and infectious enthusiasm are factors here.

But it doesn't take anything away from Perry to point out that the timing couldn't be better. As the old saying goes, history is always about the present.

So who was Hubert Harrison, then? Why are people so keen to learn about him now?

Harrison was many things: an author, editor, public speaker, educator and activist. He was born on a plantation in St. Croix, and shortly after he arrived in New York in 1900, he was quickly recognized as a "Negro student genius." He was self-taught, could speak or read in six languages (in his diary, Harrison recorded the most salacious details of his love-life in Latin!) and was rumored to be able to devour several books a day.

Although Harrison has been relegated to virtual obscurity since his early death in 1927, he schooled, promoted, and trained many whose names are much more widely known: Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph are but two examples.

Harrison honed his intellect in Harlem's independent, free-thinking debate societies. He sparred and studied with serious bibliophiles who challenged religion and sought to popularize the teaching of Black history. With his close friend Arthur Schomburg, Harrison helped to develop Harlem's prestigious Center for Research in Black Culture that today bears Schomburg's name.

What else to read

Jeffrey Perry's Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 is an indispensable guide for those interested in rediscovering Harrison's radicalism.

A collection of Harrison's writings is available in A Hubert Harrison Reader.

Perry also has posted number of Harrison's writings on his Web site. You can also find a listing of Perry's upcoming television and radio appearances, as well as speaking engagements, on his Web site.

In December, Jeffrey Perry sat down for an interview with Scott McLemee of Inside Higher Ed.

But there's something else about Hubert Harrison that warrants attention: He was for the "emancipation of the wage slave." Harrison felt simply that capitalism, or any system "in which those who work have least while those who work them have most, is wrong."

Yes, Hubert Harrison was a socialist.

HUBERT HARRISON joined the Socialist Party (SP) in 1911 and quickly became one of its most popular speakers. From June through August of 1913, Harrison was paid by the party to give seven speeches a week.

Over the years, Harrison would lecture on a wide variety of topics, from "Socialism: What Is It, and Why Is It?" to "Industrial Unionism," and "A Materialistic Interpretation of Morality (with special reference to sabotage and free love)" and "Charles Dickens: the Novelist of the Common People."

Harrison was a popular lecturer--indoors and out. It's quite rare to see street speakers today that are able to hold anyone's attention. Harrison regularly spoke to crowds of hundreds on the street. Once Harrison traveled to Rochester to speak on a street corner, and 1,500 people came out to hear him. As you might imagine, such "meetings" were not infrequently disrupted by the police.

A young Henry Miller (the writer known for the novel Tropic of Cancer) grew up listening to Harrison's street lectures in midtown Manhattan. "There was no one in those days," Miller remembered, "who could hold a candle to Hubert Harrison." He noted:

With a few well-directed words, he had the ability to demolish any opponent. He did it neatly and smoothly too, "with kid gloves," so to speak. I described the wonderful way he smiled, his easy assurance, the great sculptured head which he carried on his shoulders like a lion...Yes, he was a man who electrified one by his mere presence. Besides him, the other speakers, the white ones, looked like pygmies, not only physically but culturally, spiritually.

But Harrison was ultimately too radical for the Socialist Party. Perry describes Harrison as "the most class conscious of the race-radicals, and the most race-conscious of the class radicals."

By the time of Harrison's membership, the Socialist Party was an organization at odds with itself. It contained some of the best American radicals of the day (and since), such as Eugene Debs. Debs was an anti-racist who refused to speak in front of segregated audiences (Harrison stumped for Debs' presidential campaign).

Meanwhile, the party also contained Victor Berger, who was an out-and-out racist. Berger believed that socialism could only succeed by keeping America a "white man's country." Tragically, real control of the party lay with the spiritual pygmies like Berger.

Harrison rightly recognized that the Negro struggle for rights and equality was the "touchstone" of American democracy (a touchstone, Perry recently reminded an audience, is a stone that you rub against gold to test its purity), and a crucial test of the sincerity of the socialist movement. "Southernism or Socialism" was the choice facing the party, Harrison wrote:

Someone must call a halt to the spread [of white supremacy], and Socialism by its very nature is better able to do this than anything else. For Socialism is the one gospel that cannot afford to endorse Southernism. As soon as Socialism trims and temporizes it dies as Socialism, whatever else it may be transmogrified into.

Harrison wrote three major articles for the International Socialist Review (from which the current ISR magazine takes its name) on the Negro struggle. In the final article, he called the Socialist Party out for failing to make special appeals to Blacks:

So far, no particular effort has been made to carry the message of Socialism to these [Negro] people. All the rest of the poor have had the gospel preached to them, for the party has carried on special propaganda work among Poles, Slovaks, Finns, Hungarians and Lithuanians.

Here are 10 million Americans, all proletarians, hanging on the ragged edge of impending class conflict. Left to themselves, they may become as great a menace to our advancing army as is the army of the unemployed, and for precisely the same reason: they can be used against us, as the craft unions have begun to find out...

You may depend on it, comrades, the capitalists of America are not waiting. Already, they have subsidized Negro leaders, Negro editors, preachers and politicians to build up in the breasts of black people those sentiments which will make them subservient to their will.

TODAY, A socialist group would be ashamed to not put the fight against racism front and center, but at the time the SP was possibly more embarrassed by Harrison's support for strikes and other forms of industrial "sabotage." Harrison spoke publicly alongside Industrial Workers of the World members Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn at a rally in solidarity with textile strikers in Patterson, N.J., further drawing fire from Socialist Party officials.

Harrison left the SP, and you can hardly blame him. But he retained his orientation to the international working class movement; he saw in the Russian Revolution's liberation of Jews in 1917 an important blow for oppressed people everywhere. And Harrison retained a radical perspective on the nature of racism: that racism was not innate, and that race itself was a socio-historical construction. Harrison wrote:

Had it been innate, it would not be necessary to teach it to children by separate schools or to adults by separate cars. And every single fabric in the great wall of segregation which America is so laboriously building is an eloquent argument against the belief that race prejudice is innate.

"Historically," Harrison argued, "the roots of the problem are to be found in slavery." He added:

Since the Negroes were brought here as chattels, their social status was fixed by that fact. To the credit of our common human nature, it was found necessary to reconcile the public mind to the system of slavery. This was effected by building up the belief that the slaves were not really human: that they belonged to a different order of beings.

After the abolition of chattel slavery, racism served as a means to divide and weaken the power of wage labor. As Harrison noted:

It is therefore to the interests of the capitalists in America to preserve the inferior economic status of the colored race, because they can always use it as a club for the other workers. They are interested in keeping the average wage as low as possible so they pit the workers, white against black, to keep the lowest wage level as low as possible.

One hundred years later, with a Black man sitting in the White House, Harrison's analysis holds up (and perhaps is even plainer to grasp)--racism is institutional, not just a matter of personal attitudes.

AFTER LEAVING the Socialist Party, Harrison continued his efforts to bring radical ideas and organization to people in Harlem. Given the racism he encountered in the socialist movement and the unions, Harrison concluded that Blacks needed to put "race first", and organize by themselves until such time as a broader multiracial class struggle might be possible. He therefore described himself not as a nationalist or a separatist, but as a "radical internationalist."

Harrison wrote, spoke and agitated on a wide variety of issues. The organization Harrison founded, the Liberty League, fought for federal anti-lynching legislation when the NAACP would not. Harrison started his own newspaper, The Voice, which, in the wake of the East St. Louis race riot, defended the right of Blacks to arm themselves in self-defense. The real political progenitor of the New Negro Movement, Perry rightly points out, was Hubert Harrison.

In Harrison, Perry further argues, we can see a common political ancestor of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King--the militant race-consciousness of Malcolm, and the labor movement orientation of Martin. That these two trends in the Black freedom struggle were once fused in Harrison suggests the possibility that they might become fused again.

Thanks to Perry's meticulous research, Hubert Harrison will finally take his rightful place in African American history--and not a moment too soon. It is fitting that we should rediscover this brilliant socialist just as capitalism is wracked by crisis.

And it is portentous that we are learning about this militantly race-conscious activist just as the first Black president takes office. If we're willing to learn what Harrison is trying to teach us, the greatest chapter in Black history may just be the one that is not yet written.

Further Reading

From the archives