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Rediscovering Hubert Harrison, a Major Influence on Harlem Radicalism

A new book brings to life the forgotten history of crusading black public intellectual, Socialist leader and activist from early 20th cent. Harlem.
 
 
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The most exciting and eagerly awaited title of the winter 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.

The two volumes of essays collected by Harrison during his lifetime have been out of print since the 1920s. A major step forward in his rediscovery came in 2001, when Wesleyan University Press published A Hubert Harrison Reader , edited by Perry, who also prepared a thorough entry on him for Wikipedia. (This can’t have hurt: Where a Google search once turned up a dozen or so pages mentioning Harrison, it now yields thousands.)

Last month, Perry sat down with me for an interview, excerpts from which are available here as an Inside Higher Ed podcast. The night before, he had spoken at a Washington, D.C., bookstore; to judge by the warmth of that talk’s reception it seems fair to say that a wider public is ready to rediscover Harrison now. Besides traveling around giving talks to promote the book, Perry is also busy preparing a digital archive of Harrison’s work, to be made available soon by Columbia University.

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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.

But following his death of appendicitis in 1927, at the age of 44, this public intellectual and activist was almost completely forgotten. One index of this might be Ahmed Shawki’s useful historical survey in Black Liberation and Socialism (Haymarket, 2006), which makes no mention of Harrison. For that matter, in the course of many years spent researching the life and work of C.L.R. James (a figure bearing a number of similarities to Harrison), I never came across any reference by James to his remarkable predecessor. My own appreciation of Harrison’s significance came only when Christopher Phelps, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, published a review-essay on Perry’s Reader in the journal Science & Society .

Reading that piece, it seemed natural to suppose that Perry was a young African-American professor, somewhere. And one in a rather enviable position. After all, it’s one thing to carve out a professional niche — and something altogether more awesome to rediscover a lost continent.

 
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