Black Nationalism/Pan-Africanism – Rhetorical Exercise or Practical Reality?

For purposes of this paper I will use the definitions of Black Nationalism and Pan- Africanism presented by Dr. Maulana Karenga in his celebrated work:

“KAWAIDA THEORY: An Introductory Outline.”

(Black) Nationalism: “…the concept and conviction that we are a distinct people with a distinct historical personality and that therefore, we should unite in order to gain the structural capacity to define, defend, and develop our interests as a people.”

Pan-Africanism: “…the totality of theories and practices designed to define, defend, and develop the interests and image of African peoples throughout the world.”

The central premise of this paper is that Black Nationalism/Pan-Africanism have been appropriated by academia and the Black intelligentsia, and have become unintelligible to the masses of our people at the grass-roots level. Despite a long and praiseworthy history in this nation and the western hemisphere, and a series of notable advocates/practitioners, these concepts have failed to gain parity of stature and influence with the opposing ideologies of accommodationism and integrationism among the rank-and-file of our people. Except for the Garvey Movement (Universal Negro Improvement Association) and the Nation Of Islam led by the Honorable Elijah Muhammed, Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism have not produced any mass-based organizations comparable to the Black Church, NAACP, Urban League, SCLC, etc.

Except for the UNIA and NOI, nationalism has gained the ascendant position over its competitors only in chance situations. The most recent such occurrence was during the 1960s when a series of “long, hot, summers” led to widespread dissatisfaction with the ‘snail’s pace’ civil rights movement typified by the NAACP. The nationalistic Black Power movement led by SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) and later joined by CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality), was actually a reaction to white liberals’ refusal to share leadership in those two organizations with Black members. There appears little evidence to indicate that Brothers (Stokeley)Carmichael of SNCC, and (Floyd) McKissick of CORE, were nationalists or Pan-Africanists prior to their disaffection with their former white liberal colleagues over the leadership issue.

Nationalists of long standing were unprepared to seize this opportunity to promote our cause and recruit new converts to our ranks by the tens of thousands as was possible at that time. Instead, leaders who were themselves new to the ideology emerged as its most prominent spokespersons and theoriticians. Such novices were thus required to lead the troops into battle while still undergoing ‘basic training’ themselves. They received on-the-job-training if you will. Where were the remaining vestiges of the UNIA and African Nationalist Pioneer Movement (ANPM) when we needed them? Mostly on the sidelines criticising those on the front lines. The bottom line was that no legitimate nationalist or Pan-Africanist organization emerged from the 1960s to build on the concept of nationhood among and for our people. SNCC no longer exists; the non-nationalist son of the great and noble founder has succeeded to leadership of the NOI and changed it into an integrationist organization; the Congress of African People (CAP) which offered so much promise as the likely successor to the UNIA legacy, was rent asunder in the mid-1970s when its key leadership acknowledged being Marxists/Leninists, causing a massive exodus of young idealists from the ranks of our ideological movement.

Roy Innis, National Director of CORE is still on the scene, but has never been able to secure the prominence or widespread influence of the Barakas, Carmichaels, Rustins, Wilkins, Jordans, Kings, Jacksons, etc. He’s also been severely hurt by defections of key aides and highly publicised charges of misuse of funds. All this is unfortunate in view of the fact that Mr. Innis is the only head of a national organization who acknowledges being a Garveyite (follower of the teachings and programmatic concepts of the Honorable Marcus M. Garvey – in this writer’s opinion, the greatest of all Pan-Africanists).

Minister Louis Farrakhan is carefully rebuilding the Nation Of Islam along lines developed by his beloved leader and teacher, Mr. Muhammed, but only time will tell how successful his efforts will be. It is also questionable how large a membership is likely for a Muslim group which seeks members among Christianity-bound Black Americans.

Reverend Albert Cleage of the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Detroit has developed what at least conceptually could be a Christian counterpart to the Nation Of Islam. Cleage’s Black Christian Nationalism (BCN) movement however, suffers from lack of a charismatic, articulate national spokesperson who would be to Rev. Cleage what Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan were to Elijah Muhammed. Until and unless this happens, BCN is destined to remain local or regional in scope and influence.

Except for these three organizations (CORE, NOI, and BCN), all other nationalist/Pan-Africanist activities are localized or philosophical only. In fact, it is not unreasonable to speculate that nationalism/Pan-Africanism is in serious danger of being reduced to a philosophical concept of interest only as a subject for academic research and analysis, and intellectual debate. Less than fifteen years removed from the inspiring 1960s, few among the rank-and-file of our people know even minimally what Black Nationalism or Pan-Africanism mean. Those who are old enough and were involved enough to know what it is about would seem to prefer not to be reminded in the wake of the Marxist/Leninist cooptation previously mentioned.

A local establishment Black once said in my presence that …”(Black) nationalism is a beautiful theoretical concept, but totally inappropriate for practical application.” I suspect that many other middle class and upwardly-mobile Blacks share this opinion, which serves to justify their failure to become part of our movement. Thus our struggle is denied the talents of those best suited to organize, implement, and administer structural institutions of our own derivation, and financed and controlled by our own people. Without such institutions we cannot create employment for our people, thus reinforcing the view that nationalists and Pan-Africanists are capable only of grandiose rhetoric.

If we are to regain credibility as a viable and practical alternative to accommodationism/integrationism, nationalist MUST prove we can do more than conceptualize, theorize, and wax eloquently about nationhood and self-determination. Even the language many of us use is unintelligible to grass-roots Blacks. While integrationist groups like the Urban League, NAACP, and SCLC do not engage in institution-building or developing pride and self-esteem, they at least have and exercise influence with whites in high places on behalf of a limited number of Blacks who manage to be in the right place at the right time. Nationalists have little or no such influence with the ‘power structure,’ and the unity we espouse so ardently has eluded us. Yet, such unity is essential if we are to develop institutions as befits those advocating nationhood for our people.

The Pan-African Graduate Students’ Association at the University of Rochester should take the initiative to organize a national Black Nationalist/Pan-Africanist Unity Conference to take place in the Spring of 1985 at an appropriate location. This must be a working conference, predetermined to produce tangible results, not just a series of resolutions destined to gather dust in some soon-forgotten place. Participation of grass-roots delegates should be assured by design, including financial assistance for those who could not otherwise afford to attend.

The objectives of such a conference should be stipulated at the outset of planning: to develop a practical plan for united ACTION among nationalist groups and individuals. Well known and not so well known nationalists should be encouraged to endorse the conference and promise their participation.

Conferences similar to this have been proposed periodically in the past with less than desirable results. A notable recent example was the convention to establish the National Independent Black Political Party (NIBPP). What started out as a nationalistic endeavor soon fizzled due in no small part to the inability to reconcile basic ideological differences between nationalists, Marxists/Leninists, and integrationists. At some point in time all three of these schools of ideological thought among Black Americans must come together and coalesce for the good of the race as a whole; but before that happens, nationalists must first demonstrate our ability to unify amongst ourselves.

Let the integrationists have their own convention, and the Marxist/Leninists theirs if they desire to; but for God’s and our people’s sakes, let those of us who profess to be nationalists and Pan-Africanists get down to the business of organizing ourselves for effective nation-building.

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