Black Nationalism in Historical Context

Staff writers at The Nubian Message were not alone in adopting tenets of Black Nationalism as they critiqued social and political developments in the 1990s. As Africana Studies scholar Melanye Price argues, Black Nationalist thought is "one of the oldest and most enduring ideological constructs developed by African Americans to make sense of their social and political world."[1] Yet, Black Nationalism has manifested itself in different ways in different historical eras. Understanding the development of Black Nationalism over time helps to situate The Nubian Message's views within a broader historical context. In turn, identifying Black Nationalist influences on The Nubian Message reveals that America was hardly a "post-racial" society in the 1990s. On the contrary, ongoing racism and political conservatism continued to push African Americans, including The Nubian Message staff, to embrace Black Nationalist ideologies.

As J. Herman Blake writes, Black Nationalism emerged in the early nineteenth century because African Americans felt a disconnect between American ideals--liberty, independence, democracy--and the everyday realities--slavery, racism, oppression--that they faced because of their skin color. Early proponents of Black Nationalism were often free blacks struggling to make their way in a white-dominated society. These individuals argued that the American system of slavery and racial hierarchy would never allow for political equality and justice for African Americans, so the only hope was for African Americans to establish a separate country of their own elsewhere. When the Civil War ended slavery in the United States, Black Nationalists ended their calls for emigration and looked forward to exercising the new political freedoms they gained in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Constitutional Amendments.[2]

Booker T. Washington

But African Americans still faced discrimination in education, employment, housing, and other areas after the war, and in the South especially, African Americans were still disenfranchised thanks to poll taxes, literacy tests, and other Jim Crow efforts to exclude them from voting.[3] Some African Americans, including Booker T. Washington, advocated for an economic version of Black Nationalism as a solution to African Americans' plight. Washington and others argued that white Americans would view African Americans as worthy of equal treatment if African Americans could prove their usefulness in areas such as industry and agriculture. White Americans would also see African Americans differently if the latter raised themselves out of poverty, either through industrial and agricultural education or through black businesses that supported self-sustaining black communities. Both strategies involved racial solidarity and self-help in economic activities; unlike political nationalism, both strategies also emphasized integration into mainstream American society.[4]

Although economic nationalism succeeded in strengthening internal bonds within the African American community, it made few inroads into ongoing discrimination against African Americans in the early to mid-twentieth century. Once again, Black Nationalists turned to a different strategy: cultural nationalism. This view promoted pride in African American history and culture as a way to develop racial pride and identity. It was also thought that promoting historical accomplishments of Africans and African Americans would show white America that black people had made significant contributions to world history and therefore deserved equal rights in contemporary society.[5]

Marcus Garvey, 1887-1940

After World War I, writer and activist, Marcus Garvey, integrated these three themes--political, economic, and cultural nationalism--into one ideology that rejected white values and embraced blackness on its own terms.[6] In the mid-twentieth century especially, this integrated form of Black Nationalism often served as a counterpoint to racial integration movements. Black Nationalists in the 1960s and 1970s included Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, as well as Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, founders of the prominent Black Panther Party. These groups and individuals frequently emphasized Black people's right to self-determination, or their right to decide their own form of government and control their own lives. In the process, they encouraged individuals to hold leaders, Black, white or otherwise, accountable for their decisions. Like their predecessors, Black Nationalists in the 1960s and 1970s also emphasized independence from Anglo-American culture, and promoted a shift towards (or back to) African society and culture (a movement known as Pan-Africanism).[7]

"Soldiers of the (Mechanized) Artillery, 40. Infantry Division (California Army National Guard) patrol the streets of Los Angeles, USA"

Even after the political decline of the Black Panther Party in the 1980s, Black Nationalist thought continued to influence African American activists well into the 1990s, thanks to ongoing publications of the Party's newspaper, The Black Panther, and other literature.[8] Changing demographics in the U.S. and the political threat that new groups posed sparked a conservative backlash against multiculturalism, affirmative action, and other policies intended to promote diversity.[9] At the same time, events like the 1992 Los Angeles riots sparked anger over racial profiling, white police brutality, and judicial prejudice.[10] Ongoing racism and political conservatism frustrated many African Americans who had hoped that the 1990s would usher in a new era of improved race relations. As Kevin Blue's article in The Nubian Message reveals, the rise of Black Conservatism, which emphasized individual self-improvement, economic development through free enterprise, and integration within mainstream American society as the keys to African American success, particularly angered African Americans who thought that such views betrayed the African American community's interests as a whole. The Conservative movement galvanized individuals like Carolyn Holloway of The Nubian Message to call for African Americans to unite in the face of political opposition and collectively voice their concerns and interests.[11]

In addition to reviving elements of Black Political Nationalism in the 1990s, individuals disillusioned with the state of race relations in the U.S. also responded by adopting Black Nationalist views about African American history and culture.[12] The hope was that cultural nationalism could unite African Americans once again in the face of outside racism by providing common bonds of history and heritage. The Nubian Message's calls to adopt an alternate spelling of "Africa," reject "white" materialism and definitions of success, and receive "strong doses of Afrocentric material" can be seen in this light.[13]

The persistence of Black Nationalist thought in The Nubian Message and other publications is evidence that African Americans in the 1990s continued to feel that "though they are in this country, they are not a part of this country."[14] American history, too often "whitewashed" of African American influences, only confirmed this feeling for many African Americans.


[1] Melanye T. Price, Dreaming Blackness: Black Nationalism and African American Public Opinion (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 3.

[2] J. Herman Blake, “Black Nationalism,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 383, Protest in the Sixties (March 1969): 15-17.

[3] Stephanie Cole and Natalie J. Ring, eds., The Folly of Jim Crow: Rethinking the Segregated South (College Station: Published for the University of Texas at Arlington by Texas A&M University Press, 2012).

[4] Blake, 15-17.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Colin Grant, Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[7] Algernon Austin, Achieving Blackness: Race, Black Nationalism, and Afrocentrism in the Twentieth Century (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

[8] Jane Rhodes, “The Black Panther Newspaper: Standard-Bearer for Modern Black Nationalism,” Media History 7, no. 2 (2001): 151-158.

[9] Peter Kivisto and Georganne Rundblad, eds., Multiculturalism in the United States: Current Issues, Contemporary Voices (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2000).

[10] Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[11] Kevin A. Blue, "The New Black Plague," The Nubian Message 5, no. 27 (April 10, 1997): 7. Digitized by the Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC.; Carolyn Holloway, "Are You a Member of The Talented Tenth: Faculty, Staff and Students?", The Nubian Message 4, no. 13 (April 11, 1996): 7. Digitized by the Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC. For more on Black Conservatism, see Christopher Alan Bracey, Saviors or Sellouts: The Promise and Peril of Black Conservatism, from Booker T. Washington to Condoleezza Rice (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008); Molefi K. Asante and Ronald E. Hall, Rooming in the Master’s House: Power and Privilege in the Rise of Black Conservatism (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011).

[12] Ray Block, Jr., “What about Disillusionment? Exploring Pathways to Black Nationalism,” Political Behavior 33 (2011): 27-51.

[13] Haki R. Madhubuti, From Plan to Planet: Life Studies--The Need for Afrikan Minds and Institutions, in "Four Reasons for Using 'K' in Afrika," The Nubian Message 2, no. 9 (January 27, 1994): 3. Digitized by the Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC; Danny Byers, "What's the Next Step?", The Nubian Message 3, no. 2 (September 22, 1994): 10-11. Digitized by the Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC.

[14] Blake, 25.