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)"
“Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.”
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.”