Hubert Harrison Biography Has Much to Offer Us Today


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This brief description of the two-volume Hubert Harrison biography (Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883–1918 and Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918-1927 ) by Jeffrey B. Perry is written because I think it will be of special interest to the Z-Net audience and others. Influenced in the 1960s by the civil rights and Black Liberation Movements, the anti-war movement, and the student movement, I went into the workplace (a 4,000 postal worker facility in Jersey City, NJ) and was then active on a wide range of issues at the branch, Local Union, and National Union levels for the next 33 years. While being very politically active, I also went to graduate school where I studied Labor Studies under Welles Keddie and then American History under Nathan Huggins and Hollis Lynch. In my historical work I sought to address the issue of “Why No Socialism in the U.S.” Influenced by the work of Theodore W. Allen, I paid particular attention to the factor of white supremacy as a retardant to social progress. Almost forty years ago, while doing my research on radical activists and organizations from the beginning of the twentieth century I came across the name Hubert Harrison in writings by Joel A. Rogers, Richard B. Moore, and Philip S. Foner. I went to the Schomburg Center in New York City, printed out copies of Harrison’s two books (The Negro and the Nation and  When Africa Awakes: The “Inside Story” of the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World) was struck by the clarity of his thought, and met his children who entrusted me with his Papers. I then set about writing his biography and also committed to getting a significant portion of his Papers (which now also includes his Diary) online as a Hubert H. Harrison Digital Collection at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The Columbia University Press publication of “Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918” (December 2020, 1000 pp.) by Jeffrey B. Perry follows “Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism. 1883-1918” (November 2008, 624 pp.)  This two-volume biography, based on extensive use of the Hubert H. Harrison Papers and diary, is believed to be the first full-life, multi-volume, biography of an Afro-Caribbean, and only the fourth of an African American after those of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Harrison, born in St. Croix, Virgin Islands (to a Barbadian immigrant mother and a born-enslaved Crucian father) and based (after 1900) in Harlem — was a brilliant, autodidactic, working-class, race- and class-conscious writer, orator, editor, educator, book reviewer, political activist, and radical internationalist.

The historian Joel A. Rogers described him as “perhaps the foremost Aframerican intellect of his time,” and the labor and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph described him as “the father of Harlem radicalism.”

Harrison played unique, signal roles in the largest class-radical movement (socialism) and the largest race-radical movement (the “New Negro”/Garvey movement) of his era. He was a major influence on the class radical Randolph, on the race radical Marcus Garvey, and on other militant New Negroes and “common people” in the 1910s and 1920s. Considered the most class conscious of the race radicals and the most race conscious of the class radicals amongst African Americans in those years, Harrison is a key link in two great strands of the Civil Rights/Black Liberation struggle—the labor and civil rights movement associated with Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. and the race and nationalist movement associated with Garvey and Malcolm X.

Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883–1918 detailed how from 1911 to 1914 Harrison was a pioneer Black activist in the freethought and birth-control movements and served as the leading Black theoretician, speaker, and activist in the Socialist Party of America.

He maintained that “politically, the Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea. The presence of the Negro puts our democracy to the test and reveals the falsity of it . . . [True democracy and equality implies] a revolution . . . startling to even think of.”

He also asserted that “the mission of the Socialist Party is to free the working class from exploitation, and . . . the duty of the party to champion . . . [the Negro’s] cause is as clear as day. This is the crucial test of Socialism’s sincerity.”

Socialist Party statements and practices, however, caused him to leave the party in 1914. After departing, he offered what is arguably the most profound but least heeded criticism in the history of the United States left—he felt that Socialist Party leathat Socialist Party leaders, like organized labor leaders, put the “white race” first, before class, that they put “Race First and class after.”

Within two years Harrison turned to concentrated work in the Black community. Beginning in 1916, he served as the intellectual guiding light of the militant New Negro Movement”—a race-conscious, internationalist, mass-based, autonomous, militantly assertive movement for “political equality, social justice, civic opportunity, and economic power.” This movement, represented by his newspaper, The Voice, and his organization, the Liberty League, involved many outstanding activists and viewed itself as consciously breaking from the “old time leaders.” It also laid the basis for the growth of the Garvey movement, and was a precursor to later developments, including the Black Power movement, the antiwar and anti-imperialist movements, and (with its calls for enforcement of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and for federal antilynching legislation) the Civil Rights movement.

Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918–1927, details the extraordinary last nine and one-half years of Harrison’s life, which were lived at the edge of poverty in a United States shaped by capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy.  Harrison had been a leader in struggle against those forces, but he had found that the left and labor movements put the “white race” first, before class. In that context, he deemed it a priority to work at developing an enlightened race consciousness, racial solidarity, and radical internationalism among Black people—especially the “common people”—in struggles for political equality and true democracy, against white supremacy, and for radical social change.

The second volume is presented in roughly chronological order. It begins when Harrison returns to New York after co-chairing (with William Monroe Trotter of Boston) the Liberty Congress, a major Black national protest effort during WWI, and it has four broad sections:

  • Part 1 (1918–1919)covers Harrison’s pioneering, seminal, and long-ignored writings (particularly in The Voice and the New Negro of 1919) and work that gave direction to the militant New Negro Movement that he had founded in 1916.
  • Part 2 (1920-–1922)details Harrison’s outstanding contributions and impact as a writer for and editor of Marcus Garvey’s Negro World and discusses his important differences with Garvey and makes clear that Harrison’s writings and literary influence (including editorials and “Book Review,” “Poetry for the People,” “West Indian News Notes,” and theater review columns) contributed significantly to the climate leading up to Alain Locke’s influential 1925 publication The New Negro.
  • Part 3 (1922–1924)focuses on Harrison’s prolific and wide-ranging writing and speaking efforts as an independent “Free-Lance Educator,” including his work as a public lecturer with the New York City Board of Education and as a regular columnist for the Boston Chronicle.
  • Part 4 (1924–1927)examines Harrison’s innovative and more broadly unitary efforts in his last years, including the founding of The International Colored Unity League and its organ, The Voice of the Negro, and his lecturing on “World Problems of Race.”

 

While telling the important story of his life between 1918 and 1927 (when he died unexpectedly from an appendicitis related condition) this second volume aims to deepen the growing appreciation of Harrison and his work.

It examines his interactions with major figures such as Garvey, Randolph, Rogers, W.E. B. Du Bois, Cyril Briggs, W. A Domingo, Richard B. Moore, Claude McKay, John E. Bruce, Eugene O’Neill, Elizabeth Hendrickson, D. Hamilton Jackson, Rothschild Francis, Casper Holstein, Alain Leroy Locke, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Augusta Savage, William Pickens, Willis Huggins, Williana Jones Burroughs, Arthur Schomburg, and other prominent individuals and organizations as he agitated, educated, wrote and organized for democracy and equality from a race-conscious, radical internationalist perspective.

Drawing from his writings, talks, diary, scrapbooks, correspondence, and other primary- and secondary-source materials, it offers important insights on the period in which he lived and on a wide array of political and literary subjects.

This biography demonstrates how Harrison’s life and work continue to offer profound insights on race, class, war, religion, literature, theatre, immigration, democracy, and social change in America.

Harrison’s most personally revealing document is his diary. While he wrote his diary for himself, there is no doubt from its content and occasional marginal comments that it was also written for those who would come after him to read and learn from. He was aware of the importance of the work he undertook, and he thought it important that a more complete record of his thinking and actions, as well as the period in which he lived, be recorded — “as it comes so must it be set down.” The biography, reinforcing the importance and value of Harrison’s approach, and in an effort to allow him to speak to current and future audiences, often cites (and links online to) his diary, papers, writings, and talks.

In its approach the biography also draws insight from comments by three of Harrison’s contemporaries—Eugene O’Neill, J. A. Rogers, and Arthur Schomburg.

O’Neill, a future Nobel Prize in Literature–winning author, wrote to Harrison that “the only propaganda that ever strikes home is the truth about the human soul, black or white.  Intentional uplift . . . never amount[s] to a damn—especially as uplift.  To portray a human being, that is all that counts.”

The historian Rogers, offered: “Harrison was not without his faults. . . — ‘No man is a hero to his valet.’” In Harrison’s case, however, Rogers emphasized, this is no reason to “deny” his “essential greatness.”

At Harrison’s massive funeral in 1927, Schomburg, an extraordinary bibliophile of the Black experience, with great historical perspective and knowing how immensely popular and important Harrison was in his day, stated simply: “He came ahead of his time.” With these words, Schomburg highlighted Hubert Harrison’s importance for current and future generations.

Schomburg’s words prompt us to become familiar with Harrison’s extraordinary life and work, his radical internationalism, and his important insight that in the U.S. — “politically, the Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea and true democracy and equality implies “a revolution . . . startling to even think of.”

 

The two volumes of the Hubert Harrison biography can be ordered from Columbia University Press at 20% discount by using code “CUP20”

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