Thursday, December 11, 2008

BOOKSHELF

Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918

Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed
- The most exciting and eagerly awaited title in this season's haul from the scholarly presses is Jeffrey B. Perry's study Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, just published by Columbia University Press. Well, eagerly awaited by me, anyway. . . The world at large has not exactly been clamoring for a gigantic biography of Hubert Harrison - whose name, until quite recently, was little known even to specialists in African-American political and intellectual history. But that started to change over the past few years, thanks to Perry's decades of research and advocacy. . .

A familiar account of African-American culture during the first two decades of the 20th century frames it as a conflict between Booker T. Washington (champion of patient economic self-improvement within the existing framework of a racist society) and W.E.B. Du Bois (strategist of an active struggle for civil rights under the leadership of the black community's "talented tenth"). The life and work of Hubert Harrison does not just complicate this picture; he breaks right through its frame.

A tireless organizer for the Socialist Party at the height of its influence in the years before World War I, he took the idea of solidarity among the oppressed a lot more seriously than did his white comrades. (That is putting it mildly: One prominent member of the party wrote a pamphlet called "Nigger Equality," of which the title was not the vilest part.) He later became active with Marcus Garvey's black nationalist movement, in spite of reservations about it. A prolific critic and essayist, he was also a memorable public speaker and a fierce debater. He lectured for New York City's Board of Education and seems to have contributed to most of the major newspapers and magazines of his day.

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