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American Library Association & Other Full Reviews

American Library Association Review

"Scholars who explore the African American experience have long debated the relative importance of race and class and how black leaders addressed these issues. While W. E. B. Du Bois, Asa Philip Randolph, and Marcus Garvey have received considerable attention in this respect, Hubert Harrison has been curiously neglected. In this thorough account, independent scholar Perry, who preserved and inventoried the Harrison papers at Columbia University, restores Harrison to the pivotal place that he deserves. Harrison, an immigrant from St. Croix (former Danish West Indies), was self-educated and an early street orator in Harlem. A member of the Socialist Party, he broke with the Socialists after 1914 to advocate a race-first position. During WW I, he was, as Perry suggests, the most class conscious of the race radicals and the most race conscious of the class radicals. He advocated a mass-based New Negro Manhood Movement that preceded the Harlem Renaissance and the middle-class arts-based movement usually identified with Alain Locke. This critically important book will do for Harrison what David Levering Lewis did for Du Bois (W. E. B. Du Bois, 2 vols., 1993-2000; vol. 1, CH, May'94, 31-5079) and Arnold Rampersad did for Hughes (The Life of Langston Hughes, 2 vols.; CH, Feb'87; CH, Feb'89, 26-3155). Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries."

by Wayne Glasker
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Camden

Jeffrey B. Perry
Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918
Columbia University Press, 2009. 600p bibl index afp
ISBN 9780231139106, $37.50
Reviewed in 2009, Nov. CHOICE.
47-1628 E185 2008-16976 CIP

Social & Behavioral Sciences History, Geography & Area Studies North America

Reprinted with permission from CHOICE copyright by the American Library Association.

(So That Others May Learn of Hubert Harrison)


Socialism and Democracy Review

"Rediscovering Hubert Harrison: Revolutionary Socialism and Anti-White-Supremacy for Twenty-First Century Americans"
Charles L. Lumpkins

A Review of Jeffrey B. Perry, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883–1918. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. From Socialism and Democracy, 25:1, 266-272

A free thinking race conscious and class-conscious black working class socialist, Hubert Harrison (1883–1927) exerted profound influence among leading intellectual activists in the civil rights, New Negro, Black Nationalist, labor, and socialist movements mainly in Harlem, New York City. Harrison was a dynamic speaker, prolific writer, labor and community organizer, bibliophile, street corner orator, educator, newspaper publisher, advocate of women’s rights, and propagandist. From the late 1900s into the 1920s, he captured the attention of, and in some cases interacted with, numerous prominent individuals including Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, “Big Bill” Haywood, Chandler Owen, Cyril V. Briggs, Marcus Garvey, and Henry Miller. He earned the sobriquet “Father of Harlem Radicalism” from labor leader and socialist Asa Philip Randolph, and he received praise from Joel A. Rogers who wrote that Harrison was “the foremost Afro-American intellect of his time” and that “none of the Afro-American leaders of his time had a saner and more effective program” (1). Harrison ranked high among black intellectuals, grappling to understand the workings of racism and building movements to end white supremacy within both the largest class radical movement (the Socialist Party) and, later, the largest race radical New Negro movement (the Universal Negro Improvement Association).

Harrison is the central subject in the first book of a meticulously documented and critically detailed two volume biography by independent scholar and post office labor union activist, now retired, Jeffrey B. Perry, who received his undergraduate education at Princeton, MA in Labor Studies at Rutgers, and PhD in History at Columbia. (The second volume, tentatively titled, Hubert Harrison: Race Consciousness and the Struggle for Democracy, is scheduled for publication in 2012.) Perry is well-positioned to write the biography because he preserved
and inventoried the Hubert. H. Harrison Papers at Columbia University, and he edited A Hubert Harrison Reader (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). He can be proud to have authored the first definitive biography of Harrison and an established point of reference for interested laypersons and scholars for decades to come.

Harrison emerges as a pivotal figure in the Black Liberation struggle, ideologically blazing paths later taken by Randolph, Garvey, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. But Perry has other objectives besides rescuing Harrison from oblivion and portraying his prominent position in early twentieth century African American history. He stresses that Harrison offered clarity of thought for antiracist Americans hoping to avoid the traps of placing race above class or class above race as they debate about how to proceed from the present stalemate in the fight against racism. Perry might not have thought about Harrison in context of the future of Black Studies, but Harrison and his works speak mightily about Black Studies becoming more liberationist in its political and ideological dimensions.

First, exactly who was Hubert Harrison? A formidable debater and speaker, Harrison, after his premature death in 1927, became unknown among the public and even among most scholars of twentieth century African American history and politics. As Perry demonstrates, Harrison’s life is a window not only into the African American and the Caribbean Diaspora experience, but also into how early twentieth century black intellectuals debated and sought ways to mobilize antiracist movements.

Harrison was one of millions of black people in the first two decades of the twentieth century throughout the African Diaspora who migrated from underdeveloped regions like the rural South or the West Indies to economically developed cities in North America, Great Britain, and elsewhere. These migrants sought a better way of life and worked to make their new environments less hostile to people of African descent. A child of working class parents, Harrison was born on April 27, 1883, on St Croix in the Virgin Islands, which were under Danish rule until the United States acquired them in 1917. Growing up in the nearly all-black Danish West Indies, Harrison developed the foundation for his political activism and understanding of white supremacy. His early life was shaped by the absence of legal racial segregation, the absence of lynching and other forms of racist terrorism, and the Crucians’ rich history of direct action mass struggle. In 1900, when his mother died, the teenage Harrison went to live with his sister in Harlem, an expanding African American enclave that soon developed into the political, intellectual, and cultural capital of black America, if not of the African Diaspora.

He became an autodidact, blossoming intellectually, voraciously reading popular and scholarly books on history, literature, psychology, race, religion, science, sociology, and other topics, and learning to be fluent in six languages. He secured a post office job, one of the few steady and decent-paying occupations opened to African Americans at a time when white supremacy erected barriers to black economic advancement. Harrison’s job provided income stability for his wife and expanding family. Nonetheless, like most black immigrants and migrants in economically advanced regions, Harrison confronted the glaring paradoxes between well-established, racially restrictive hierarchies and opportunities to destroy such hierarchies and strive toward racial equality. Like most black West Indian immigrants, he found white supremacy in the US aggressively more virulent than the one he left behind in the Caribbean. Hence, Harrison and his Caribbean cohorts, in numbers disproportionate to the overall black population,joined the black American freedom struggle.

Hubert Harrison made political activism his vehicle to oppose white supremacy and quickly realized that the paths he thought most effective were often the ones disapproved of by various black leaders and activists. He made his name known through public discussion forums, letters to newspaper editors, public lectures, and other venues as he forged a critical understanding of the interaction of racism and classism. Harrison certainly made adversaries of those who despised his critical rejections of conservative, moderate, and liberal approaches within the black freedom struggle.

Harrison’s efforts to interject militant and radical analyses into anti-racism movements put him on a collision course with iconic figures in early twentieth century black American life, including Booker T. Washington, educator and founder of Tuskegee Institute, and W.E.B. Du Bois, a co-founder of the Niagara movement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Harrison abhorred Washington’s politics, policies, and programs for not launching assertive challenges against white supremacy. While Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter, and other anti-Washington black leaders weathered attacks from the Tuskegee machine, Harrison lost
his job when Washington’s allies successfully pressured the post office to sack him, plunging him, his wife Irene Louise Horton Harrison, and their children (they would have five) into poverty that remained their daily condition for the rest of his life. This episode was neither the first nor the last time that Harrison experienced the peril of hewing an independent political line in the cause of building an intellectually effective anti-racism agenda. The ever-resourceful Harrison quickly moved into activities that framed his most productive years, first in the socialist movement, then later, with some overlap, in the New Negro movement. He faulted Du Bois for conceptualizing building a black leadership class, the Talented Tenth, arguing instead that the masses needed a rigorous education that stressed modern scientific thinking – with constant reading to train the mind to think freely – and that encouraged them to develop their own leaders.

Harrison’s involvement and disillusionment with the Socialist Party (SP) holds lessons for twenty-first century anti-racism activists who seek to pursue a radical politics that privileges neither race nor class but trumps both. From 1912 to 1914, Harrison worked within the SP, tirelessly advocating socialism. But he became increasingly critical of the party in two major areas. First, he favored militant direct action; this pitted him against conservative socialists who dominated the party’s leadership and ranks. Second, he frequently and sharply confronted the unabashedly racist Victor Berger and other SP leaders for failing to challenge white supremacy and for denying or minimizing the importance of opposing racism in the labor and socialist movements. In addition, Harrison challenged the approach associated with Eugene Debs and other radical white party-members who sought an interracial workers’ movement but failed to recognize the special needs of working class African Americans. Harrison was troubled by these two major areas of deficiency not only because such thinking decreased the party’s appeal to black workers, but also because they turned the party itself into one that reinforced white supremacy. He concluded that race and class were inextricably bound together in the United States, and that racism has rendered leftist movements intellectually and politically impotent, in that radicals have failed to see how race and racism have been used as mechanisms of social and class control.

By calling for militant direct action and greater working class militancy, Harrison tried to move the Socialist Party to attack racism in the labor and socialist movement. Yet, the party thwarted him. Although Harrison was among the party’s premier organizers, speakers, and theorists, he received less pay than did white SP organizers. He initiated a Colored Socialist Club to conduct propaganda and organizing work among black Americans parallel to the party’s activities among women and immigrant workers. Party leaders, however, preferred the opposite course. In addition, Harrison strongly approved the militant anti-racism of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In fact, as an independent and sharply critical freethinker, he often spoke favorably about the IWW and addressed IWW-sponsored events while criticizing the SP’s failure to fight racial injustice.

In 1914, Harrison left the SP and concentrated on developing a race-first consciousness politics. Already known as a leading proponent of the theory that African American working people were the core of an exploited American proletariat, Harrison proposed that if white socialists and labor leaders put the white race first, then black Americans, facing intensifying racial segregation and discrimination and racist terrorism, had no choice but to put their race first:

     By late 1916 and early 1917, his new focus was clear, and his militant, race conscious lectures at The “Temple of Truth”. . .signal[ed] the dawn of a new era – the birth of “The New Negro Manhood Movement,” better known as the “New Negro Movement”. . .a race conscious, internationalist, mass-based movement for “political equality, social justice, civic opportunity, and economic power” geared toward “the Negro common people” and urging defense of self, family, and “race” in the face of lynching and white supremacy (243).

He soon influenced, and to some extent mentored, a younger generation of militantly radical black activists, including Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph. Through his lectures, the Liberty League and The Voice became, respectively, the first organization and the first newspaper of the ‘New Negro Movement.’ Harrison stood at the height of influence as the leading radical black intellectual activist when he convened the Liberty Congress in
June 1918. He rose to be the leading radical against white supremacy after his thorough criticism of Du Bois who called upon African Americans to forget their special grievances and support President Woodrow Wilson’s war policies (385–92). At the congress, Harrison, William Monroe Trotter, and others articulated a program to challenge segregation and discrimination, seek enforcement of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, petition the government to enact a federal anti-lynching law, and demand an end to colonialism through democracy for Africans and Asians.

Perry’s biography has received many highly favorable reviews. Judging from these and from Perry’s website (www.jeffreybperry.net ), a Hubert Harrison revival is in full swing among laypersons and scholars alike. Some reviewers raise friendly criticism, pointing to a few weaknesses in theoretical analysis or whatever. With veiled comments about an educational system that makes people forget about workers, non-whites, leftists, and others who pushed America closer toward an inclusive democracy, other reviewers say that Harrison was forgotten because he was a working-class black man, an immigrant, poor, and a radical socialist. In addition, his criticism stung too many potential allies who would have kept his politics alive; he failed to establish a permanent mass-based organization to advance his ideas; and historically many Americans have preferred to ignore militant advocates of anti-racism, class-consciousness, and socialist revolution. Still, like most commentators, I applaud Perry for meeting his major objectives: restoring Harrison to his place of prominence in early twentieth century American socialist and New Negro movements, making Harrison’s ideas accessible, and wanting to move discussion beyond the Washington vs Du Bois and the Du Bois vs Garvey paradigms. Overall, Perry’s most appreciative readers are those committed to end white supremacy, hungry to learn about Hubert Harrison, and eager to apply his ideas to twenty-first century America.

My main concern here has been directed to what is implicit in Perry’s intentions and to the goal of articulating the significance of Hubert Harrison to the future of Black Studies.{1} With the Harrison biography, Perry accomplishes at least three things that have been a hallmark of Black Studies. First, he works to end scholarly censorship or self-censorship that relegates militant or leftist black women and men to the margins or into the abyss. Second, Perry uses an interdisciplinary approach, in this case intellectual and social history, while keeping black people at the center of discussion. And third, he sees the biography as a service to the black community in particular. Perry, however, joins those who insist that Black Studies must have an orientation. He quotes Harrison saying that “‘African Americans are the touchstone{2} of the modern democratic idea,’ that ‘while the color line exists,’ ‘the cant of democracy’ is ‘intended as dust in the eyes of white voters’ and. . .that true democracy and equality for African Americans implies ‘a revolution. . .startling even to think of’” (395).

Harrison was not alone among major twentieth century black leaders who sought socialism, a social democracy, or something similar. One can recall that Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and a host of other individuals sought alternatives to capitalism. Black Studies, by embracing this tradition, can become the touchstone that Harrison speaks of. This will give it a mission that is more urgent than ever in a nation in which corporatism and militarism have further entrenched themselves in the body politic.

Black Studies entered a new era in 2008 when the majority of the American electorate, many with a sense of euphoria, voted decisively for Barack Obama, who became the first black biracial President of the United States. Various pundits began talking about a post-racial America and a new class of black politicians who speak not just to “black” issues, but to all people. Nonetheless, numerous Americans questioned such pundits who preferred to ignore racial disparities in employment, housing, education, healthcare, the law enforcement and prison systems, and a host of other indices. By 2010, increasing numbers of Americans concluded that Obama, especially with his bailout of banks and corporations, is a tool of the business elites rather than a fighter for the common people, or that he is incapable of ending US military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Some wonder if Obama lacks the leadership skills and deep roots among working class Americans of all colors that are necessary to move the nation firmly on the road toward an inclusive democracy.

Into this atmosphere, Black Studies must do more than recover forgotten voices and events; it must revisit and re-evaluate the historical record in order to emphasize black history and life not only as an arena of resistance and freedom, but also as an alternative representing the highest ideals of emancipation from all forms of political oppression and economic exploitation. Black Studies needs to be a greater contributor to revitalizing the political and social movement that Harrison and other radical black leaders envisioned when they argued that the white supremacy they sought to overcome is part and parcel of the American political and economic system.
{1.} The field of Black Studies has other titles, including African and African American Studies, African American Studies, Africana Studies, Africology, etc.

{2.} A touchstone is a black stone used to test the purity of gold.

Reprinted with permission from Socialism and Democracy, Victor Wallis, editor.
From the special issue of Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 25:1 (March, 2011) on African American Studies. For a copy of the issue Please send $15, payable to: Socialism and Democracy, 411A Highland Ave., #321, Somerville, MA 02144.



Carole Boyce Davies
Review of Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918

          This meticulously-researched book fills an enormous gap in the knowledge of black activist intellectuals in the U.S. in the twentieth century and the tremendous work that went into delivering the African-American community from one of the most oppressive racist systems in the world. Hubert Harrison is thus relocated solidly, by these means, into the scheme of American history leading up to and ushering in the Harlem Renaissance. It was Harrison, we learn, who actually coined the term and provided the philosophical and argumentative basis for the "New Negro Movement," a fact that has been lost to most scholars of the Harlem Renaissance who are more apt to assign this role to Alain Locke, perhaps because of his edited collection titled by this name: The New Negro (New York: Atheneum, 1986, first published 1925). Robert Hayden says, for example, in the preface to the 1986 edition that it is "no exaggeration to say that this book helped to create the movement (ix)." While a book can possibly create a movement, we know from history that it is the activism and the diligent work of a series of actors who seize the historical moment that ushers in a movement.

          Instead we learn from this that one of the principal actors in creating the conditions for the Harlem Renaissance was Hubert Harrison. Chapter 9, "Focus on Harlem. The Birth of the 'New Negro Movement' (1915–1917)" (243–80), provides that necessary piece of information:
By late 1916 and early 1917 his new focus was clear and his militant, race conscious lectures at the Temple of Truth" would signal the dawn of a new era—the birth of "The New Negro Manhood Movement," better known as the "New Negro Movement." It would be a race conscious, internationalist, mass-based movement for "political equality, social justice, civic opportunity, and economic power" geared toward "the negro common people" and urging defense of self, family and "race" in the face of lynching and white supremacy (243).
          Clearly the dates of the birth of "The New Negro Movement," which became known as the Harlem Renaissance, as this indicates, preceded Locke's 1925 collection. Although not to be minimized for its contribution, Locke can be credited with perhaps documenting and therefore providing intellectual shape and legitimacy, as most academic works do, to the creative side of a movement already in process.

          One wonders then how and why Hubert Harrison, this father of Harlem radicalism, was so deliberately erased from major consideration. One of the values of this work by Jeffrey Perry is that it reinstates Harrison into his rightful place in the scheme of African-American history as well as the larger African Diaspora intellectual and activist history. We can even take it further to Caribbean radical intellectual history with its range of already recognized giants and consciously add Harrison. This proves again that there is so much we still do not know about this period and indeed our histories.

          This particular book is the first of a two-volume project based on very careful and detailed research. This volume begins with the available research on his Afro-Caribbean background in St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands, his early days there and migration to New York in 1900 at the age of seventeen, his attempts to finish his education in New York, and his friendships with major figures like A. Philip Randolph, J. A. Rogers, and Richard Moore. His development as a major orator, organizer, and agitator for black rights, his entry into the socialist party, his influence on Marcus Garvey, his struggles as a journalist, and his major organizing principles and vehicles, ending with his formation of the Liberty Congress in 1918, round out an amazing life.

          In my own work, Left of Karl Marx. The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Duke, 2008), on another influential figure who was also erased from a variety of histories, I demonstrate that there were a number of radical intellectuals who saw socialism as not being able to deliver fully because of the inability of its theorists and activists to deal with race. Some major black socialists and communists would leave the party for this reason, finding it not radical enough for the kind of work that needed to be done to liberate black communities. Hubert Harrison is definitely one of these figures—clearly an active socialist involved in party work in the Socialist Party, which would later on become the Communist Party USA by the time of Claudia Jones. Harrison is identified as writing a review that challenged the leading Marxist theoretician of the time. According to Perry, Harrison's review showed clearly that he had a deep and subtle understanding of Marxism. He was neither blindly dogmatic nor rigidly mechanical. . . . The review also demonstrated that Harrison, who had openly criticized a leading party theoretician, was clearly an independent individual who could and would challenge party leaders (197).

          It is significant as well that Harrison also worked with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, speaking on the same platform with her on May 19, 1913 during the Silk Strike in Paterson, New Jersey. A photograph of Harrison in the company of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn appears, and a description of their joint activities in union organizing around this strike is available (203–4). Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Claudia Jones would later work together on the Women's Commission and would actually be incarcerated in Alderson W. Virginia together. In this way, Gurley Flynn provides a necessary link between a Claudia Jones and a Hubert Harrison, knowing and working with both of these Afro-Caribbean intellectual-activists over the span of her very dynamic life. Harrison is identified as being gender conscious and is on record as speaking on behalf of women's rights on several occasions.

          What is most wonderful about this work is that it provides many of the missing links in our piecing together of this period and the kind of detail that clarifies at every turn. One major clarification it provides is around the "race first" formulation, which had been hitherto assigned to Marcus Garvey and is clearly identified as originating with Harrison and in some ways co-opted and made to serve the Garvey Movement's singular emphasis on black nationalism. Harrison's argument for "race first" was based on his reasoning that white people, including socialists, always put their race first, and therefore until that changed, black people were obligated to put their race first as well.

          At first, in the early stages from perhaps 1915 through around 1920, Harrison advocated the propagandistic doctrine of race first. He considered it "propaganda" and described it as a "response to the Class First of the Socialists" and the "America First" put forth by Woodrow Wilson. Harrison emphasized to the socialists: "We say Race First, because you have all along insisted on [white] Race First and class after when you didn't need our help" (277). Thus, J. A. Rogers explained that since white American socialists "habitually thought 'White First,' Harrison's slogan "became 'Race First'—in opposition to his earlier socialist one of 'Class First.' " Though he still considered himself a socialist at this time—he simply refused to put "either Socialism or the [the Socialist] party above the call of his race" (277–8).

          Harrison, unlike Garvey, saw race consciousness as a self-defense measure against capitalist white supremacy and not an end itself. Harrison's activism among black communities prior to Marcus Garvey is significantly documented in this book, which provides additional complexity to what is often reduced to the struggle between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois over the nature and future of black people's way out of racial doldrums. Harrison, we learn, ran afoul of the Booker T. Washington machine in his critique of Washington's conservatism and even lost his livelihood through the machinations of the Washington machine.

          But in the end, he was also very critical of W. E. B. Du Bois because Du Bois was then trying to get a commission as a captain in Military Intelligence (385) and also because he found Du Bois' "talented tenth" position untenable. Harrison would write about this in a piece called "The Descent of Dr. Du Bois," an exposé that correctly challenged this retrogressive move of one of the nation's major black leaders.

          Interestingly as well, prior to this, Harrison initially saw himself as a major supporter of Du Bois but became disenchanted with Du Bois's then "talented tenth" orientation. Thus, advancing a position that married socialism with race consciousness, Harrison was able to attain legitimacy as a leader and thinker who had more political credibility than both of these men; thus, by 1918, he would be recognized as "the most class conscious of the race radicals and the most race conscious of the class radicals (394)." Relocating Hubert Harrison in this period further interrupts the facile limitation to only Booker T and W. E. B. and provides additional contours to this movement, adding as well an important Caribbean contribution to black activism in the U.S. Harrison is another Afro-Caribbean who saw the U.S. as the major site of struggle for black rights internationally.

          Jeffrey Perry's work performs a worthy service here. It is painstaking, well-documented archival work which as good history has copious sources available. Additionally, the writer does not gloss over Harrison's personal foibles as his private family life is identified as always neglected, his children sometimes hungry, his wife frustrated and angry. Several affairs are also identified and Harrison never seemed to be able to make it financially, his newspaper The Voice suffering at times because of his principles, at times because of poor financial management.

          What is significant is of course his major contribution to the activism that ushered in and surrounded the Harlem Renaissance and his life as a Harlem organizer and a popular soap box orator. Additionally this work provides important information on the early generation of Caribbean migrants to the U.S. and the coterie of activists that they formed and above all their instantaneous identifications with black struggles in the U.S. Hubert Harrison. The Voice of Harlem Radicalism 1883–1918 is a welcome addition to the pool of literature that documents that period in African-American history.

Perry, Jeffrey B. Hubert Harrison. The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883–1918. Columbia University Press, 2008. 624 pp. US$ 37.50 (hardcover).

Reprinted with permission from WORKING USA, Immanuel Ness, editor.

Alberto Benvenuti and Tilman Kulke review "Hubrt Harrison:

The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918"

(Columbia University Press) for "Shepunkte"

This long awaited first part of a double biography dedicated to Hubert Harrison is a very important book for those who are interested in US history and African American history in particular. The author Jeffrey B. Perry, a socialist independent scholar, dedicated a great part of his life to the study of Harrison, "the voice of Harlem radicalism". Perry not only places Harrison in the Olympus of the most influential African American activists of the Twentieth century, but sheds new lights on the black radicalism of the Tens, which paved the way for both the Garvey movement and the Harlem Renaissance.

This work is the result of thirty years of research. It is divided into three sections in which Perry reveals the life and struggle of this eclectic black intellectual via an significant array of primary sources, such as letters, newspaper articles, and personal diaries.

Hubert Harrison (1883-1927) lived during an extremely important period for the black struggle in the US: on the one hand, the period of the First World War, which improved the social position of African Americans; on the other, the Harlem Renaissance, a pivotal cultural movement, was born in Harlem, the "black Mecca" of the US. At that time the intellectual black activity was led by two of the most influential African American intellectuals of the twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. However, it was Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), not Du Bois, who managed to attract the poor black masses. The present study helps us to understand the importance of Harrison in paving the way for this this form of Garveyism', both in introducing Garvey to black audiences in New York and in spreading a new sense of black pride among African Americans, which became fundamental to this massive movement.

Perry takes from the years when Harrison was a brilliant essayist to the moment when he became, in the words of historian Theodore G. Vincent [1], "the man most responsible for the building of black street oratory". After a complex bibliographical reconstruction of Harrison's early life, focused on his childhood in the Caribbean Virgin Islands, Perry dedicates the second part of the book, titled Socialist Radical, to the conflicting relationship which the activist had with the American socialist world. Hubert Harrison was one of the first intellectuals to identify the racial question as a central issue in the socialist debate of the second decade of the twentieth century by pointing out that African Americans were the "most ruthlessly exploited working class group in America" and that the "Negro problem is the great test of American Socialists". Who, asked Harrison, was more proletarian than the American Negro? Perry suggests that Harrison openly challenged American socialists to endorse the Afro American cause, in order to demonstrate their complete color-blindness. In addition, he was also one of the firsts black radicals to understand the linkage between economic exploitation, capitalism and racial segregation.

 It emerges that Harrison was a man ahead of his time who had a strong racial consciousness and a great knowledge of American society, which allowed him to "inspire and educate the masses of Afro Americans then flocking into Harlem". (12) He was convinced that black communities had the right to take up arms in order to defend themselves from the violence of white racists. During the years of the First World War he became very critical towards the Wilson administration, especially when the President decided to intervene in the European conflict. Harrisson pointed out that the US should have solved its own democracy problem first by allowing African Americans to go to the ballots. On some occasions he used the slogan 'make the South safe for democracy', an obvious reference to Wilson's 'make the world safe for democracy'. In Harrison's view the USA could not promote itself as the champion of global democracy without solving the Afro American problem.

Perry argues that Harrison challenged the intellectual hegemony of W. E. B. Du Bois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Harrison disagreed with the idea of controlling the black masses from above (with the institution of the Talented Ten, a group of gifted leaders that should have led the African American people): "to attempt to unite the intellectuals at the top is not the same thing as uniting the Negro masses". (271)

The third part of the book is dedicated to the New Negro Movement. Perry argues that "The Voice", the newspaper of Harrison's association (the Liberty League), gave an essential contribution to the development of this movement. "The Voice" became the first newspaper of the "New Negro Movement", better known as the Harlem Renaissance. In this section Perry consecrates Harrison as the man responsible for the awakening of the hearts and minds of the African American people during the war years, proclaiming him the real father of black radicalism. In Perry's opinion Harrison's work was fundamental to Garvey's success in the twenties.

With this book Perry has cleverly shed light not only on Hubert Harrison, one of the most important and largely unknown black American activists, but also on the Harlem Renaissance and the origins of the Garvey movement. However, two important questions remain open. The first is how did the passage of leadership of the black masses from Harrison to Garvey happen in the years following WWI ; the second is, considering the fact that many black nationalists of the Sixties - Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams, Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Power movement - seem to have been influenced by Harrison thoughts, is it possible that they had direct contact with his writings? But for these answers and others, we should wait for the second part of the biography, which will focus on the last ten years of Harrison's life.


[1] Theodore G. Vincent: Black Power and the Garvey Movement, San Francisco 1972.



Larry A. Greene
“The Life and Times of Hubert Harrison: A Forgotten Synthesis of African-American Socialism and Black Nationalism,” Review of Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 by Jeffrey B. Perry (Columbia University Press, 2009), New Politics, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Whole Number 49, 150-154.

          Hubert Harrison emerged in the first two decades of the twentieth century as one of the leading voices of Harlem radicals rejecting American claims to an egalitarian democratic heritage and commitment to such a future based on the undeniable persistence of massive racial and class inequalities. Jeffrey Perry’s exhaustive biography of Hubert Harrison elevates the lesser-known Harrison to the stature he so richly deserves as one of America’s most perceptive public intellectuals on the critically intertwined issues of American democracy, race relations, and class structure. Harrison, a St. Croix immigrant from the Virgin Islands, was one of the first to combine the divergent strands of socialism and Black Nationalism. Hubert Harrison emerges as the principal black spokesman for the Socialist Party in its heyday in the early twentieth century. His ability to articulate a coherent philosophy synthesizing essentially a class and racial analysis was unique among Harlem radicals and “soap box orators” on its major thoroughfare of 125th Street. A future second volume will explore Harrison’s life from 1919 through the apex of the Garvey movement and the Harlem Renaissance till his death in 1927.

          In this volume, Perry explores the interaction, cooperation, and conflicts between intellectuals and radicals such as A. Philip Randolph, John E. Bruce, Arturo Schomburg, Cyril Briggs, and others in pre-Marcus Garvey Harlem. Against this background of contending local leaders and intellects in the cultural capital of black America, Harrison will distinguish himself as a preeminent thinker analyzing the philosophical and tactical positions of nationally known black leaders like the Harvard trained historian W.E.B. Du Bois and the president of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington. He examines the protest-oriented philosophy of Du Bois and the less militant, more accommodating approach of Washington to segregation, political disfranchisement, and lynching. While critical of the Du Bois concept of the “Talented Tenth” of a college educated elite leading the black masses into the promised land, Harrison was even more critical of the accommodationist approach of Washington, which he saw as little more than collaborationist. Harrison, throughout his debates with his Harlem counterparts and the “Tuskegee Machine,” remained true to his core beliefs of socialism, race consciousness, and committed “free thinker” unfettered from the confines of orthodox religious thought. As Perry so cogently notes, Harrison was “more race conscious than Randolph [a socialist] and more class conscious than Garvey [a nationalist]” and was the “key link in the ideological unity of the two great trends of the Black Liberation Movement — the labor and civil rights trend associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the race and nationalist trend associated with Malcolm X.” (p.5)

          Harrison became the chief black organizer, activist, and theoretician of the Socialist Party in New York City during its peak in the 1912 election. He was the only black speaker at the landmark Patterson Silk strike that had such leftists and International Workers of the World (IWW) notables as “Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Carlo Tresca, and Patrick Quinlan. Eventually, Harrison will part company with the Socialist Party over their failure to aggressively address the issue of white racism both within the party and nationally as well as their indifference to the recruitment of black workers into the party. As Winston James noted in his excellent study of Caribbean radicalism in twentieth century America, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia, “American socialism did not keep faith with Hubert Harrison, Harrison kept faith with socialism.”1 The Socialist Party, according to James, “did not keep faith with the radical egalitarianism of Marx,” and for some black socialists like Harrison, “black nationalism was the last resort of a black socialist in a racist land where race is elevated above social class in politics as well as in social life.”2 One of the many strengths of the Perry biography is the detailed exposition of the transformation of Harrison from a socialist to both a socialist and Black Nationalist, who while not rejecting socialism will put race first in the organizing of black workers and the black community.

          The Perry study is a comprehensive biography of Harrison which explores his genealogical and educational roots in St. Croix and his early intellectual development in St. Benedict’s Lyceum, a Roman Catholic church, with an interracial congregation and St. Mark’s Lyceum, a black Methodist Episcopal church, after his 1900 arrival in New York. It was through the lyceums that Harrison deepened his exposure to the philosophical and historical traditions of Europe, America, and Africa. Through Perry’s detailed analysis of the Harrison critique of capitalism and racism in the United States, we witness the maturation of a serious working class intellect and his intellectual evolution toward socialism. Of particular importance is a five part series of articles beginning in 1911 that Harrison wrote for the Call, the Socialist Party newspaper in New York, which contains some of his most trenchant writings on racism, capitalism, and socialism.

          In his first article entitled, “The Negro and Socialism,” Harrison asserts that the so-called “Negro Problem” is not one of “social adjustment” or social control of relationships, and he rejected the argument of a biological basis for racism based on the idea of superior and inferior groups. Rather, Harrison found the roots of racism, like that of the class struggle, in economic relationships related to the means of production. Harrison clearly asserts a “materialist” basis for the emergence of white supremacy ideology rooted in slavery and the need to rationalize that exploitative superior ordinate and subordinate nature of black-white relationships derived from that institution. The contradictions between the democratic rhetoric of the Enlightenment as manifested in the founding documents of American republic — the Declaration of Independence and Constitution — necessitated the designation of blacks as racial inferiors undeserving of the democratic and egalitarian rights of the nation and consigned by God and nature to slavery.

          In his second article, “Race Prejudice,” Harrison argued that racism had economic causes and that capitalists deliberately fostered race prejudice, which divided workers along racial lines to the benefit of capitalism and the detriment of workers. It was in the interest of employers to maintain the inferior economic status of African-American workers and to use them as a source of cheap low wage labor to threaten the unionization and striking tactics of white labor. This pitting of black and white workers against each other, according to Harrison, kept the wage level as low as possible. In asserting this line of analysis, Harrison challenged the defenders of white supremacy who maintained that racial prejudice was innate and based on a natural aversion of the superior white race to the intellectual and moral degeneracy of the inferior races as seen in African-Americans. Certainly, this belief system was manifest in the speeches of southern politicians like James K. Vardaman, writers like Thomas Dixon in his novel, The Clansman (1902), and in D.W. Griffith’s movie, Birth of a Nation (1915).

          Harrison’s third article, “The Duty of the Socialist Party,” in the Call series called upon the party to condemn racial prejudice and reject what he termed “southernisms” or the ideology of Southern Jim Crow with its demands for racial segregation, disfranchisement of black voters, and anti-black pogroms throughout the South. The historic mission of the Socialist Party was to unite all workers across racial, ethnic, and religious lines. This duty involved the reeducation of white workers about the threats to their economic well being from racism, and it dictated that the party reach out to and aggressively recruit black workers. Harrison did not believe that socialism would immediately remove all racial prejudice, but he did think it would reduce the oppression on white workers and their susceptibility to racist propaganda and use as a tool to repress blacks. Perry cogently notes, Harrison considered this “duty” of the Socialist Party to be sacred and virtually a litmus test of sincerity, commitment, and ideology. In a following article, “How to Do It — And How Not,” Harrison gave advice warning against paternalism and condescension in addressing and recruiting black workers and urged party members to treat them as they would any white workers. In “Summary and Conclusion,” the fifth and concluding article in the series, Harrison believed that a trans-racial workingclass movement held out the promise of a socialist victory over capitalism and racism. In 1911, Harrison was optimistic and saw social, economic, and racial justice on the horizon. Perry’s close reading of the writings of Hubert Harrison results in a clear and through analysis of his political philosophy.

          In the following presidential election year of 1912, Perry explores the evolving political thought of Harrison in a discussion of a new set of articles by Harrison which appeared in the Chicago based International Socialist Review amid a growing, but not fully manifest tension between Harrison and the Socialist Party, which masked his simmering disillusionment with the party. In an article taking off on Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” Harrison’s “Black Man’s Burden” depicted the suffering of African-Americans under white over-lordship. Over eight million African-Americans were disfranchised in sixteen Southern states by fraud and force, lacking political rights to protect their economic rights (i.e. property and jobs). Part two of the “Black Man’s Burden” demonstrated how the southern state school segregation laws contributed to the underfunding, creation of industrial education or “labor-caste schools” and miseducation of African-Americans. In these two articles, Harrison aimed a devastating critique at the accommodationist philosophy of Booker T. Washington, which publicly eschewed voting rights and a liberal arts college/university education. Washington’s lieutenants had successfully conspired to obtain the removal of Harrison from his $1,000 a year job at the post office for two anti-Washington articles in the New York Sun newspaper, thus causing great economic hardship to Harrison’s family. Harrison’s final article in the International Socialist Review, “Socialism and the Negro,” was based on an earlier pro-IWW speech, in which he asserted African-Americans rather than constituting a reactionary hindrance to socialism, as some socialist theorists like Algie Simmons and Charles Vail claimed, were indeed the key component in the struggle by the American proletariat without which socialism in America stood little chance.

          Perry’s detailed description of the Socialist Party failure to confront racism within its own ranks and nationally is quite convincing and explains Harrison’s continued criticism and his eventual suspension by the party in 1914. Despite the logic of Harrison’s analysis of the intertwined race and class problem in America, the Socialist Party was moving in a more conservative and even racist direction. The Socialist Party right wing triumphed over the left IWW members in the party, ended the Colored Socialist Club in New York, pushed through majority and minority reports at the 1912 party convention, which banned Asian immigration, and refused to take aggressive action in support of African-American recruitment. Southern white socialists supported segregated organizing and Harrison’s relentless denunciation of what he called “southernisms” placed him on the collision course with the party.

          From this experience, Harrison will enter a Black Nationalistic phase in his political evolution in which he will place “Race first” before class as an organizing principle in the black community. Harrison will play a founding role in the organization of the Liberty League and its weekly publication, The Voice. He will embrace black self-determination, organizational autonomy, and black leadership for black organizations, unlike the predominantly white-led National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Harrison’s involvement in the “New Negro Manhood Movement,” a belated precursor to the Harlem Renaissance, as a cultural theorist and literary reviewer is examined by the author. Perry’s work covers new ground in demonstrating Harrison’s role in establishing some of the ideological principles of Harlem newcomers and fellow public orators, Marcus Garvey, and his nationalistic Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and young socialists, A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen. Garvey’s Negro World newspaper and the Randolph and Owen magazine, The Messenger, both borrow from Harrison. Harrison will be eclipsed by the more dynamic Garvey and although for a time will assume an editorial role at the Negro World, Harrison will continue to harbor some repressed resentment at being superseded by Garvey in the hearts of the Harlem masses.

          The author, in exploring with great thoroughness the political evolution of Hubert Harrison from Socialist Party spokesman and organizer to Black Nationalist activist, has raised significant questions about the ineffectiveness of the left in America and the estrangement of some its more devoted followers. Harrison’s suspension and disconnect from the Socialist Party parallels the estrangement of later black intellectuals like George Padmore and Harold Cruse from the Communist Party. Caribbean radicals did not arrive in New York with a socialist orientation. It was the more blatant and intense racism that they experienced in the United States as they moved from a majority status to a minority status compared to the Caribbean that steered many in this direction and generated the desire to form ethnic political alliances, according to Joyce Moore Turner in her highly informative study of Caribbean activists in Harlem.3 Certainly, the 1910s and World War I years were radical times of assertive dissent. Yet, the estrangement of black socialists and later black communists suggest that the left did not always hear their black members, either out of a myopic ideological commitment to a political analysis that did not consider the interplay of both class and race factors in shaping the American political landscape, or a kind of racial arrogance that relegated black members to the periphery of the policy making process. For some black members, this estrangement resulted in the integration into the American political mainstream, and for others, it meant the pursuit of another strain of political radicalism, Black Nationalism. Harrison is different from some of the disillusioned in that his embrace of Black Nationalism did not mean a rejection of socialism, but a rejection of the Socialist party.

          Scholars and students of Harlem, Afro-American, and Afro-Caribbean history in the United States are indeed indebted to Jeffrey Perry for this magisterial study of Hubert Harrison whom A. Philip Randolph called the “Father of Harlem Radicalism.” Volume one of this biography should be read in conjunction with Perry’s edited volume of Harrison’s writings, A Hubert Harrison Reader.4 Readers will eagerly await volume two of Perry’s biography as he takes the Hubert Harrison saga from 1919 to his death in 1927, covering Harrison involvement with Garvey, the Harlem Renaissance, and other political and cultural currents in black America.


1. Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth Century America (London: Verso, 1998), 126.
2. Ibid., 127,128.
3. Joyce Moore Turner, Caribbean Crusaders and the Harlem Renaissance (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 43.
4. Jeffrey Perry, ed., A Hubert Harrison Reader (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001).

LARRY A. GREENE is professor of history at Seton Hall University. A Fulbright Fellow at the University of Muenster in Germany during 2005-2006, he is the co-editor of Slavery: Its Origins and Legacy, co-author of The New Jersey African-American Curriculum Guide, co-editor of the forthcoming book, German and African-American Encounters.

Reprinted with permission from NEW POLITICS.



“Restoring the Past to Serve the Future:
Some Comments in Review of
A Hubert Harrison Reader,
ed. and intro. by Jeffrey B. Perry
(Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001)
and Jeffrey B. Perry,
Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2008)"

by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson

“Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.”
George Santayana

To advance correctly, an oppressed people must be correctly oriented in today’s and tomorrow’s struggles. To do this they must get the history right.

The masses of New Afrikan/Black People have long suffered a condition of historical amnesia, which has stagnated our development economically, politically, culturally and in matters of our collective security. This has allowed those who have kept and mean to keep us in a state of subjugation and repression, the power to mold and manipulate our every thought and belief. And as Carter G. Woodson once stated, when you control a people’s thinking you control them. You don’t have to tell them to use the back door; they will do it automatically. And when there is no back door they will cut one for the purpose.

The cause of our amnesia is a lack of historical continuity. We’ve forgotten -- and by design – where we came from, where we’ve been, how we got where we are, and the obstacles we met along the way. Our body is covered with scars that we don’t remember how we got. In fact many of us don’t recognize ourselves as an organic part of a common body.

Therefore, every few generations we find ourselves repeating the same processes, treading the same paths, falling over the same obstacles, and suffering the same injuries in our quest for liberation. In fact, we keep struggling with the same questions, including trying to determine what liberation actually is. So we don’t even know what we are struggling for, nor who and what our true enemies and friends are, with the result that many of us exhaust ourselves reacting blindly and thrashing around, while many others don’t struggle at all beyond treading water and floating with the current. But even treading water becomes exhausting too . . . so we drown.

Jeffrey Perry’s labors in excavating the history of the work of Hubert Harrison represent an important step towards restoring our collective memory. One need make but a cursory study of Hubert Harrison’s life and work to recognize his invaluable contribution to the struggle for New Afrikans/Blacks -- in particular as we developed from the stifled conditions of a rural peasantry (sharecropping, peonage, etc.) into the worldly conscious urban proletariat.

Hubert Harrison’s was a great critical mind – perhaps one of our greatest – that pondered and sought out practical solutions to all aspects and trouble of the New Afrikan/Black experience at a critical stage of our awakening and development. And he pulled no punches. He questioned, challenged and sought to organize us and against not only the external forces that oppressed his people, but also the opportunists amongst us who for personal gain played on the People’s desperation, insecurities and need of genuine liberatory leadership. He even challenged the most influential institution of New Afrikan/Black society, namely the church.

Like those genuine popular based leaders and organizations that came after him, such as Malcolm X, Mao-Tse-tung, Amilcar Cabral, the Black Panther Party, etc., Hubert Harrison was a teacher, leader and organizer who based himself among the people and committed his work and energy to serving them. He used his mind not for personal gain, but to serve and uplift the downtrodden, the poor and the oppressed. He was a true working class intellectual, and like many of our great independent New Afrikan/Black leaders (e.g. Huey P. Newton, Malcolm X, George Jackson, James Yaki Sayles aka Atiba Shanna, etc.), he was self-educated.

Hubert Harrison was the founder of the “New Negro Movement,” the “Black Power Movement” of the early 1900s, and influenced every radical current in the greatest period and place of our cultural awakening – the Harlem Renaissance. Indeed, he was called the “Father of Harlem Radicalism.” And no one contributed more than he to the development of the New Afrikan/Black press during that era, which in 1926 was called “the greatest single power in the Negro race.”(1)

He was among the first New Afrikans/Blacks: to recognize that we constitute not merely a race but a distinct historically developed nationality of people and preceded the Comintern in calling for an “independent Negro nation” in the U.S.; to advance our right to organize armed self-defense against lynching and racial violence, and lead the fight for federal anti-lynching laws; to lead the fight for New Afrikan/Black voting rights; to develop a left orientation on Pan-African unity and struggle; to see our condition in America as connected to that of other peoples across the world oppressed by capitalist imperialism. It was his work and mass based approach to teaching that made Marcus Garvey’s UNIA-ACL the single largest New Afrikan/Black organization to date. He was among the first to recognize white racism as the principal obstacle to revolutionary class struggle in Amerika, and he struggled with both the white Left and amongst his own People to counter this impediment. And consistent with this important realization, Jeffrey Perry has linked excavating Hubert Harrison’s work with also advancing that of Theodore Allen, who has given greater and clearer historical and political study, analysis, and insight to racism as a capitalist divide and conquer strategy, that has been used and refined with the greatest effect since the latter 1600’s to prevent united struggle of the laboring and oppressed classes.(2)

In many respects, Hubert Harrison was more comprehensive and advanced than most radical leaders we’ve had to date, many of whom would undoubtedly have avoided and conquered many of the obstacles that have thwarted our struggles, had they been exposed to and built upon his contributions. Indeed, his was such a powerful, controversial and uncompromising beacon that, from his day until now, those who serve as the historical and cultural gatekeepers of the imperialist system and other institutions of exploitation, consciously wrote him out of history.

By reviving the life and work of this monumental leader, Jeffrey Perry is restoring to us all suffering people a large chunk of forgotten history, from one of the most important stages of New Afrikan/Black development with which we can today discover who we are, where we’ve been, how we got here, and what obstacles to avoid and how, in our ongoing struggle for genuine liberation. In fact we can begin to answer and understand collectively what liberation really means.

We can’t overstate the importance of Hubert Harrison’s work and life, nor the service Jeffrey Perry is rendering to a long oppressed people, in restoring this missing link to our collective memory.

Dare to Struggle Dare to Win!
All Power to the People!

Kevin “Rashid” Johnson

1) Edwin Mims, Advancing South: Stories of Progress and Reaction (Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1926), p. 262.

2) Jeffrey B. Perry, “In Memoriam: Theodore W. Allen,” Cultural Logic, Vol. 8 (2005); Jeffrey B. Perry, “Introduction,” in Theodore W. Allen, Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race (The Center for the Study of Working Class Life, SUNY, Stony Brook, 2006) in Cultural Logic, Vol. 9 (2006); see also Jeffrey B. Perry, “Introduction,” The Invention of the White Race, Vol. I; Racial Oppression and Social Control, (New York: Verso, 2012) and Vol. II: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (New York: Verso, 2012); Jeffrey B. Perry, “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy,” Cultural Logic (2010).

Kevin “Rashid” Johnson is Defense Minister of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party – Prison Chapter (not to be confused with the “New Black Panther Party”). He is the author of Defying the Tomb: Selected Prison Writings and Art, Featuring Exchanges with an Outlaw (2010), "Political Struggle in the Teeth of Prison Reaction: From Virginia to Oregon,", Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 27, No. 1 (2013), 78-94, other articles in Socialism & Democracy (nos. 38 and 43), and many other works available online. Address: Kevin Johnson, no. 19370490, Snake River Correctional Institution, 777 Stanton Blvd., Ontario, OR 97914.

He writes of this review – “I was delayed in getting this review written due to wanting to complete all the books . . . sent, (specifically Allen’ books), and the uniforms had the first version of the review in my stored property and I hadn’t been able to access it . . . still haven’t, actually. In fact, they took all my books a couple of months ago, so I’ve just gone ahead and rewritten the review . . . rather than keep putting it off.”