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Hubert Harrison was an immensely skilled writer, orator, educator, critic, and political activist who, more than any other political leader of his era, combined class consciousness and anti-white-supremacist race consciousness into a coherent political radicalism. Harrison's ideas profoundly influenced "New Negro" militants, including A. Philip Randolph and Marcus Garvey, and his synthesis of class and race issues is a key unifying link between the two great trends of the Black Liberation Movement: the labor- and civil-rights-based work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the race and nationalist platform associated with Malcolm X.
The foremost Black organizer, agitator, and theoretician of the Socialist Party of New York, Harrison was also the founder of the "New Negro" movement, the editor of Negro World, and the principal radical influence on the Garvey movement. He was a highly praised journalist and critic (reportedly the first regular Black book reviewer), a freethinker and early proponent of birth control, a supporter of Black writers and artists, a leading public intellectual, and a bibliophile who helped transform the 135th Street Public Library into an international center for research in Black culture. His biography offers profound insights on race, class, religion, immigration, war, democracy, and social change in America.
Columbia University Press
— Bill Fletcher, Jr.
— Herb Boyd
— Wilson J. Moses
This critically important book will do for Harrison what David Levering Lewis did for Du Bois... Essential.
— Carole Boyce Davies
— Clarence Lang
— Larry A. Greene
— LaShawn Harris
Early 20th-century black liberation activist Hubert Harrison has not received much academic attention, and this initial volume of a projected two-volume biography by independent scholar Perry is the first book-length treatment of his life. Why bother to try to revive Harrison's reputation as a political leader, influential orator and journalist, and philosopher of liberation? Perry argues that Harrison's catholic views (he fought for equality on the basis of class, sex, employment, and immigration status as well as race) have kept history from recalling the influence he had in his own time: he was too independent and complicated to be easily pigeonholed by scholars. Perry attempts to redress this with his carefully researched and finely drawn study. Each aspect of Harrison's early life is delivered in deliberate context, with attention to the minutiae of personality, politics, neighborhood history, and other issues. This slow, rich storytelling style may bore some readers, but Perry's clear prose allows access to a three-dimensional picture of Harrison's life for readers with little intellectual foundation in the period. Recommended for African American history collections and larger general American history collections.
But by then, the source of that echo was long forgotten; Harrison had disappeared from the story of the struggle for racial justice and meaningful democracy. The circumstances are so paradoxical that it hurts. For the very qualities making him such a catalytic force -- independence of spirit, headstrong radicalism, and love of argument for its own invigorating sake -- also made him enemies. There is a price for speaking one's mind, and Harrison paid it. Following his death in 1927, no tribute to him appeared in the country's most prominent journals of African-American thought.
This intriguing figure has been rediscovered only over the past decade or so, thanks almost entirely to the efforts of Jeffrey B. Perry. If ever a scholar has served as recording angel -- rescuing memory from the ruins of time -- it is Perry, who spent decades researching Harrison while employed as a postal worker. In 2001, he edited The Hubert Harrison Reader, which provided a generous selection of writings otherwise scattered in crumbling periodicals, many of them now very rare. His new book, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, is the first part of a two-volume biography.
It portrays not only the life of a complex individual but also the world of a lost civilization. To see Harrison whole means reconstructing an era when self-educated young black intellectuals created literary societies to exchange books and argue over them -- an era when open-air meetings gathered around street-corner orators who lectured on evolution, feminism, and other controversial topics.
Born on the small Caribbean island of St. Croix in 1883, Harrison was in many ways like other immigrants who reached the United States in 1900. He was "thwarted by limited educational, political, and occupational opportunities at home," as Perry puts it, and possessed of both "a desire for more education and a propensity for self-education." He found work at the post office in New York while attending high school classes at night, where he soon won acclaim for his oratorical skills and "exceptionally thorough" command of classical and English literature.
That Harrison did not continue to university studies is something of a puzzle. But it is clear that Harrison found ample exercise for his talents in African-American literary circles, and in the growing Socialist Party, which by its peak in 1912 had elected hundreds of candidates to office around the country. He wrote theoretical essays showing a deep interest in contemporary social thought, bourgeois and Marxist alike. And he kept up a vigorous schedule of lectures, often holding more than 1,000 listeners rapt as he spoke for two hours or longer.
A memorable description of Harrison in this period comes from Henry Miller -- a profoundly apolitical writer but one who, decades later, recalled being awestruck when the speaker mounted his soapbox. "There was no one in those days," Miller recalled in his autobiographical novel Plexus, "who could hold a candle to Harrison.... He was a man who electrified one by his mere presence. Beside him, the other speakers, the white ones, looked like pygmies, not only physically but culturally, spiritually." When interrupted by a question or a diatribe from the crowd, Harrison "always retained his self-possession, his dignity." He would cock his ear "to catch every last word" then smile broadly and reply -- "always fair and square," wrote Miller, "always full on, like a broadside." (How he would fare today, in an era of sound bites and fractional attention spans, is a melancholy thought.)
Harrison's range of interests was encyclopedic, but he found his center of gravity as a thinker and activist in the fight for African-American rights. He occupied a distinctive -- and, apparently, rather uncomfortable -- position within the debates of his era. Harrison had no use at all for Booker T. Washington's program of slow economic improvement and patient accommodationism. The struggle against racism and for full equality could not be postponed. (Perry documents that Harrison lost his job as postal clerk through the efforts of Washington's cronies.) Yet he was also at odds with the perspective of Washington's most prominent critic, W.E.B. Du Bois, who championed a struggle for civil rights under the leadership of the black community's "talented tenth."
As a socialist, Harrison advocated class struggle as the necessary basis for real change. But here, too, he ran into conflict. Blacks were excluded from all but a few unions. Some leaders of his own party were unabashed white supremacists, and socialist newspapers ran racist jokes and cartoons. Harrison fought to make the party take seriously its own professed commitment to solidarity among all workers, but it was a losing battle.
Driven out of the party in 1914, Harrison set off to create a "New Negro Movement" that attracted wide support in Harlem. One of its adherents was a newly arrived Jamaican immigrant named Marcus Garvey, whose own black nationalist organization would soon outstrip Harrison's efforts. Perry's second volume will cover the final years of Harrison's short life (he died at the age of 44), which included a complicated relationship with the Garveyite cause.
While it is unlikely that either Martin Luther King or Malcolm X ever heard of Hubert Harrison, he would have recognized each of them as an inheritor of his own efforts. As for Barack Obama -- well, I suspect Harrison would give the president a hard time, in a good-natured but serious way. It is difficult to picture Hubert Harrison overawed by the trappings of office, and impossible to imagine him biting his tongue for anyone. --Scott McLemee
Scott McLemee writes the weekly column "Intellectual Affairs" for Inside Higher Ed. He is a member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.
List of IllustrationsPreface and AcknowledgmentsA Note on UsageIntroductionPart I. Intellectual Growth and Development 1. Crucian Roots (1883—1900)2. Self-Education, Early Writings, and the Lyceums (1900—1907)3. In Full-Touch with the Life of My People (1907—1909)4. Secular Thought, Radical Critiques, and Criticism of Booker T. Washington (1905—1911)Part II. Socialist Radical 5. Hope in Socialism (1911)6. Socialist Writer and Speaker (1912)7. Dissatisfaction with the Party (1913—1914)8. Toward Independence (1914—1915)Part III. The "New Negro Movement" 9. Focus on Harlem: The Birth of the "New Negro Movement" (1915—1917)10. Founding the Liberty League and The Voice (April—September 1917)11. Race-Conscious Activism and Organizational Difficulties (August—December 1917)12. The Liberty Congress and the Resurrection of The Voice (January—July 1918)Appendix: Harrison on His CharacterAbbreviationsNotesSelect BibliographyIndex
Columbia University Press