AFRICANGLOBE – Hubert H. Harrison (1883-1927) is one of the truly important figures of 20th-century history. A brilliant writer, orator, educator, critic and political activist, he was described by the historian Joel A. Rogers, in World’s Great Men of Color as “the foremost Afro-American intellect of his time.” This extraordinary praise came amid chapters on Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter and Marcus Garvey.
Rogers adds that, “No one worked more seriously and indefatigably to enlighten” others and “none of the Afro-American leaders of his time had a saner and more effective program.” Labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph described Harrison as “the father of Harlem Radicalism.” Harrison’s friend and pallbearer, Arthur Schomburg, fully aware of his popularity, eulogized to the thousands attending Harrison’s Harlem funeral that he was also “ahead of his time.”
Born in St. Croix, Danish West Indies, on April 27, 1883, to a Bajan mother and a Crucian father, Harrison arrived in New York as a 17-year-old orphan in 1900. He made his mark in the United States by struggling against class and racial oppression, by helping to create a remarkably rich and vibrant intellectual life among African Americans and by working for the enlightened development of those he affectionately referred to as “the common people.”
He consistently emphasized the need for working-class people to develop class-consciousness; for “Negroes” to develop race consciousness, self-reliance and self-respect; and for all those he reached to challenge White supremacy and develop an internationalist spirit and modern, scientific, critical and independent thought as a means toward liberation.
A self-described “radical internationalist,” Harrison was well-versed in history and events in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, the Mideast, the Americas and Europe and he wrote voluminously and lectured indoors and out (as a pioneering soapbox orator) on these topics. More than any other political leader of his era, he combined class-consciousness and anti-White supremacist race consciousness in a coherent political radicalism.
Harrison opposed capitalism and imperialism and maintained that White supremacy was central to capitalist rule in the United States. He emphasized that “politically, the Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea”; that “as long as the Color Line exists, all the perfumed protestations of Democracy on the part of the White race” were “downright lying” and “the cant of ‘Democracy’” was “intended as dust in the eyes of White voters”; that true democracy and equality for “Negroes” implied “a revolution … startling even to think of,” and that “capitalist imperialism which mercilessly exploits the darker races for its own financial purposes is the enemy which we must combine to fight.”
Working from this theoretical framework, he was active with a wide variety of movements and organizations and played signal roles in the development of what were, up to that time, the largest class radical movement (socialism) and the largest race radical movement (the “New Negro”/Garvey movement) in U.S. history. His ideas on the centrality of the struggle against White supremacy anticipated the profound transformative power of the Civil Rights/Black Liberation struggles of the 1960s and his thoughts on democracy offer penetrating insights on the limitations and potential of America in the 21st century.
Harrison served as the foremost Black organizer, agitator and theoretician in the Socialist Party of New York during its 1912 heyday. He founded the first organization (the Liberty League) and the first newspaper (the Voice) of the militant, World War I-era “New Negro” movement; edited The New Negro: A Monthly Magazine of a Different Sort (“intended as an organ of the international consciousness of the darker races—especially of the Negro race”) in 1919; wrote When Africa Awakes: The “Inside Story” of the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World in 1920; and he served as the editor of the Negro World and principal radical influence on the Garvey movement during its radical high point in 1920.
By: Jeffrey B. Perry