An Island Accent to 20th-Century Black Radicalism

By James, Winston | American Visions, August-September 1998 | Go to article overview

An Island Accent to 20th-Century Black Radicalism


James, Winston, American Visions


In Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America (Verso, 1998), Winston James provides far and away, the most detailed account yet of the extraordinary Caribbean contribution to the socialist and nationalist struggles in the United States, particularly in the movements' formative years, around World War L In the process, James uncovers yet another chapter in the "hidden history" of the African diaspora. Among the joys of his book are his treatment of the hitherto little-explored peculiarities of the Afro-Hispanic impact on radicalism in the United States, his examination of the role of women in Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, and his accounts of the contributions of several lesser-known black radical figures. Central to James' work is the disproportionate impact of the Caribbean-born on the two principal streams of 20th-century black militance: an explicitly race-conscious black nationalism and a revolutionary, socialist perspective that saw the struggle of the race as an element of a larger progressive movement.

How are we to account for this impact? Below is an excerpt from one of the book's chapters, "Coming at Midnight: Race and Caribbean Reactions to America," in which James examines the differences in the places of race in the social structures of the United States and the Caribbean islands. The contrasting responses of black Americans and Caribbeans to each other's homelands constitute James' starting point for answering the question above; in subsequent chapters, he refines his quest by treating the differences between the Caribbean islands.

In order to understand the radicalism of Caribbeans in the United States, not only do we need to be aware of who these migrants were, we also need to know about the America that they entered in the early part of the 20th century and, in addition, we need to be able to gauge their reaction to American society. So how did they react to the new environment?

The lynchings in the Southland, the segregation, the calculated as well as the routine and unthinking humiliation of black people in their everyday life, primarily in the South but also in the North, appalled and shocked Caribbean migrants. Even those, such as Claude McKay, who, prior to migration, had read and had been told (including by black American visitors to Jamaica) about these aspects of American society were unprepared for the raw and merciless racism that they encountered. Writing in 1918, six years after his arrival in the United States, McKay spoke for many others when he reported that "it was the first time I had ever come face to face with such manifest, implacable hate of my race, and my feelings were indescribable. ... I had heard of prejudice in America but never dreamed of it being so intensely bitter."

Upon arrival in America, McKay was shocked and alarmed to find "strong white men, splendid types, of better physique than any I had ever seen, exhibiting the most primitive animal hatred towards their weaker black brothers. In the South daily murders of a nature most hideous and revolting, in the North silent acquiescence, deep hate half-hidden under a puritan respectability, oft flaming up into an occasional lynching--this ugly raw sore in the body of a great nation."

Those like McKay (Jamaica), Hubert Harrison (Virgin Islands), Wilfred A. Domingo (Jamaica), Richard B. Moore (Barbados) and Marcus Garvey (Jamaica), who had migrated to the United States in the early part of the 20th century, had entered the country at its racial nadir--socially, economically and politically.

The years between Harrison's arrival (1900) and Garvey's arrival (1916) were indeed dark times for black America. Four years before Harrison disembarked in New York City, the Supreme Court, in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, had enshrined racial segregation in law under the doctrine of "separate but equal. …

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