On the Shoulders of Others: Three Black Giants for Today

The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois. Introduction by Jonathan Scott Holloway

2020 edition, 202 pp, $7.95

Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918–1927, by Jeffrey Perry

Columbia University Press, 2020, 1000 pp, $36

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X,  by Les Payne with Tamara Payne

Liveright, 2020, 612 pp, $35

A re-issued classic and recent biographies of two Black radicals—one obscure, one world-famous—remind us again of the cancer of U.S. racism and the overlaps of socialism and Black nationalism. An obvious reference point on any geography of the African American Left is W.E.B. Du Bois. By now, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois’s 1903 collection of essays, has been reprinted in more than twenty editions. The latest, with a lively introduction by Jonathan Scott Holloway, the first Black president of Rutgers University, rehearses the immensity of Du Bois’s singular contributions. Speaking at the 1963 March on Washington, Roy Wilkins, the least radical of black leaders, urged attendees to “go back and get a volume of The Souls of Black Folk.” A Pan Africanist and Marxist (and even Communist!) in his latter decades, “W.E.B.” remains, even now, the author ready-made to teach a new generation of socialists.

The Souls of Black Folk offers so much. We find in these pages a saga of Du Bois’s own childhood and intellectual growth; his early teaching experience in the rural South; the excruciating narrative of his young son’s death; a devastating critique of Booker T. Washington; the story of nearly forgotten Black nationalist Alexander Crummell; as well as Du Bois’s comments on African American life, culture, prospects, religion, and sorrows. Its contents cannot even be summed up because their full value will be found by each reader in the stirring prose, as well as the arguments. 

Famously, to Du Bois, “being a problem is a strange experience,”  and not a good one.  Du Bois understood, even though he was in sharp disagreement, that the vast movement around Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey was driven by this sentiment. Garvey proclaimed preposterous things on many subjects, including the number of his followers, and proposed an even more preposterous mass return to Africa.  But the energy that he, his newspaper, and his organization roused across African American life was like nothing seen before. That it arrived more or less simultaneously with Harlem as the Black metropolis of the world, and with the Bolshevik Revolution, meant it could not fail to be a crucial development within the U.S. Left.

Garveyism was larger than Garvey, even if it faded with his pursuit by the FBI and his deportation from the United States. Around its edges could be found not Du Bois himself, but much of the rest of the existing Black Left. Enter Hubert Harrison, an Anglophone Caribbean, like many of the significant figures around Garvey.

Jeffrey Perry, who can be said to have devoted a large chunk of his life to Harrison, knows his subject well and across thousands of pages in several volumes. The latest, covering the period between 1918 and 1927 mines every detail known about Harrison. This is all the more remarkable because Harrison died young, at 42, and became largely forgotten within just a few years.

By birth a “Crucian”—that is, born and raised in St. Croix, then a possession of Denmark, unique for its undiluted West African bloodlines—Harrison was a prodigious intellect, nourished in a remarkably unsegregated school system. He arrived in the United States in 1900, a “seventeen year old orphan” in the words of the author. He first found himself politically in the connections between socialism and Black self-assertion. By 1912, he would be properly described as the foremost Black agitator in the Socialist Party, admittedly one of a relative few.

Fired from a Post Office job after criticizing Booker T. Washington’s strategies, Harrison became a full-time employee of the Socialist Party, agitator, writer, and organizer, founder of the Colored Socialist Club. He proposed that the ultimate test of socialism’s sincerity was the color question and announced that the Party had failed the test. Harrison moved on to the Industrial Workers of the World, engaged in its last great struggles on the East Coast, and began teaching in the Modern School, heavily inflected by anarchist and other heterodox ideas. He continued his popular street corner or “soapbox” speaking, part of a Harlem tradition that continued into the 1960s

Harrison focused his considerable writing and organizing energies on militant Black nationalism, founding the earliest newspaper (The Voice) and organization (The Liberty League) directed to that cause. By contrast to the NAACP, begun with socialist backing, the new organizations would not rely upon any white support, and there was one more decisive difference: they would represent West Indians as well as African Americans. This was more than crucial for the direction of the movement. Moving through a series of organizations and publications in the following few years, Harrison merged his activities into the Garvey movement, served as editor of Negro World, and drafted the Garveyite “Declaration of the Rights of Negro Peoples of the World.” In a few years, he had broken with Garvey, founded yet newer publications and organizations, and worked to develop what would become the Schomburg Center at the New York Public Library. He also wrote for leading newspapers of the day, mainstream and African American, not only about politics, but also literature and theater. No wonder Harrison would be regarded as the single, crucial figure educating the swelling population of Harlem about the prospects and dangers in front of them. By 1927, he was dead..

Perhaps he wore himself out. Harrison never escaped poverty, struggling to provide for his family with one project after another while ignoring his own health. Perry argues that Harrison’s early death, the absence of any surviving institution in his name, and the slow scholarly recognition of left-wing Black nationalism all play a role in his obscurity.  

This latest volume fills out the saga as far as any one biographer can expect to do. The scrupulous, painstaking scholarship will reward any reader interested in the grand subject of Black nationalism and the Left. During the rise of Black Studies in the 1960s, C.L.R. James predicted that Du Bois would come to be seen as a major figure in U.S. life at large and not solely as a Black author or a leader of the Black movement. Hubert Harrison now joins the famed W.E.B. in the larger story of Back radicalism, very much including Malcolm X. 

The Dead Are Arising is a tribute to the decades-long dedication of a father and daughter. Les Payne, more journalist than historian, spent an almost unimaginable amount of time interviewing survivors and poring over archival material (often newly available thanks to the Freedom of Information Act), to get the real story of Malcolm’s life and decades of investigation—make that persecution—by various authorities. Payne died before he could finish the book, and his daughter Tamara Payne completed it, with spectacular results.

The facts of Malcolm X’s life are fleshed out here with fuller detail than ever before. We understand his father’s attraction to the Black nationalism of the Garvey movement as the definite precursor of Malcolm’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam. For him, NOI was more than a political cause: it was his vehicle to reorganize his life, even his personality. The degrading and criminal elements here seem far less relevant than the ways in which Malcolm’s native ability to organize came out of the web of community contacts in the culture of an impoverished and downtrodden people, exploited and oppressed for centuries.  Malcolm keenly identified the psychological element as problem and solution, by whatever means of uplift came to hand. 

Readers familiar with the scholarship will find nothing remarkably new here, but for a book intended for a wide readership, The Dead Are Arising is wonderfully lucid and compelling. At the end, the only grand mystery remaining is the blindness of white Americans. Why cannot we grapple, why have we not grappled with the very deepest dilemma in our history and culture? Racism is no more a “mistake” in the current day of white rioters and supporters in high places than it is a regrettable detail of the U.S. saga. Understood properly, its cure will not be found short of the end of the profit system that spawned the racial divide so long ago.