From A Hubert Harrison Reader
Edited by Jeffrey B. Perry


A Hubert Harrison Reader collects critical writings by the “father of Harlem radicalism”.

Book Cover INTRODUCTION

A brilliant writer, orator, educator, critic, and political activist, Hubert Harrison (1883–1927) is one of the truly important, yet neglected, figures of early twentieth-century America. Harrison was described by Joel A. Rogers, in World’s Great Men of Color, as “the foremost Afro-American intellect of his time” and “one of America’s greatest minds.” Rogers adds (after insightful chapters on Booker T. Washington, William Monroe Trotter, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey), “No one worked more seriously and indefatigably to enlighten his fellow-men” and “none of the Afro-American leaders of his time had a saner and more effective program.”

Variants of Rogers’s lavish praise were offered by other contemporaries. The novelist Henry Miller, a socialist in his youth, remembered Harrison on a soapbox as his “quondam idol” and as an unrivalled, electrifying speaker who “had the ability to demolish any opponent.” William Pickens, field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a former college dean, and an oratory prize winner at Yale, described him as “a plain black man who can speak more easily, effectively, and interestingly on a greater variety of subjects than any other man I have ever met in the great universities.” W. A. Domingo, the first editor of Marcus Garvey’s Negro World, underscored the fact that Garvey, A. Philip Randolph, and the leading Black activists of their generation “all followed Hubert Harrison.”

During his relatively short life, Harrison made his mark by struggling against class and racial oppression, by participating in and helping to create a remarkably rich and vibrant intellectual life, and by working for the enlightened development of the lives of “the common people.” His political and educational work emphasized the need for working-class people to develop class consciousness; for Black people to develop race consciousness, self-reliance, and self-respect; and for all those he reached to develop modern, scientific, critical, and independent thought as a means towards liberation.

More than any other political leader of his era, Harrison combined class consciousness and (anti white-supremacist) race consciousness in a coherent political radicalism. He opposed capitalism and maintained that white supremacy was central to capitalist rule in the United States. He also emphasized that racism was not in white workers’ class interests, that Blacks must not wait on whites while struggling to shape their own future, and that Americans should oppose U.S. imperialist intervention abroad. He served as the foremost Black organizer, agitator, and theoretician in the Socialist Party (SP) of New York during its 1912 heyday; as the founder and leading figure of the militant, World War I-era “New Negro” movement; as the editor of the Negro World; and as a principal radical influence on the Garvey movement during its radical high point in 1920.

Among African American leaders of his era Harrison was the most class conscious of the race radicals and the most race conscious of the class radicals. His views profoundly influenced a generation of “New Negro” militants that included the class-radical socialists A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, the future communists Cyril V. Briggs and Richard B. Moore, and the race radical Marcus Garvey. Considered more race conscious than Randolph and Owen and more class conscious than Garvey, Harrison is a key link in the ideological unity of the two great trends of the Black Liberation Movement—the labor and civil rights trend of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the race and nationalist trend of Malcolm X. (Randolph and Garvey were, respectively, the direct links to King marching on Washington (with Randolph at his side) and to Malcolm (whose father was a Garveyite preacher and whose mother was a writer for the Negro World) speaking militantly and proudly on Lenox Avenue.)

In the era of World War I, as the center of national Black leadership shifted from Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee, Alabama, headquarters to New York City, Harlem increasingly became an “international Negro Mecca” and “the center of radical Black thought.” In this period Harrison earned the title “The Father of Harlem Radicalism.” During the 1910s and 1920s he either created or was among the founders of “almost every important development originating in Negro Harlem—from the Negro Manhood Movement to political representation in public office, from collecting Negro books to speaking on the streets, from demanding Federal control over lynching to agitation for Negroes on the police force.”

Harrison was not only a political radical, however. Rogers describes him as an “Intellectual Giant and Free-Lance Educator” whose contributions were wide-ranging, innovative, and influential. Rogers’s appraisal is accurate. Harrison was an immensely popular orator and freelance educator; a highly praised journalist, editor, and book reviewer who initiated the first “regular book-review section known to Negro newspaperdom”; a promoter of Black writers and artists (including Rogers, Andy Razaf, Claude McKay, Charles Gilpin, and Augusta Savage); a pioneer Black activist in the freethought and birth control movements; and a bibliophile and library popularizer (who helped develop the 135th Street Public Library into an international center for research in Black culture). In his later years he was the leading Black lecturer for the New York City Board of Education and a trailblazing literary critic during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance.



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