The Misleading of a Nation

So what’s the problem with Black people in America developing a sense of independence, pride and self-determination?

The opinions expressed in this piece are solely that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Black Iowa News.

I can still remember to this day where I was when I heard the opening track to Jay Z’s album “4:44” titled, “Kill Jay Z”. Sitting in my basement-turned-to-bedroom, I listened to Jay Z’s ego die as the sounds of the track crawled across the bedroom walls. I found my guard down in an instant, stripped down to the bare bones of my very identity. Jay Z presented me, and millions of listeners across the country, with a sort of political and economic vision for the proverbial Black America. This vision, wrapped in hypnotizing wordplay and tantalizing 808s, spoke of a future for Blacks in America where we could be united and even liberated through capital investment and by uncovering the conspiracy theories long believed to be at the heart of Black exploitation (“You wanna know why Jewish people own all the property in America?”). 

Mate Bruce on Black nationalism
Matè Bruce. Photo courtesy of Bruce.

The moment was a Black political and cultural epoch. Throughout American history, Black people have always redefined their identity, image and interpretations of destiny in front of the world: but never had this much wealth stood behind the expression. Never did we have a billionaire Black family (and now families); our own Black royalty to speak and advocate for the betterment of the Black nation. 

It would not take long to put this new found paradigm for power into practice. In 2019 Jay Z’s Roc Nation signed a flagship business deal with the NFL, effectively busting the protest campaign being led at the time by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Here we had a moment where we had a true test of ideologies and traditions within our own community; the radical activist tradition clashing head to head with the wealth and power of Black nationalism. In the end we know that Jay Z triumphed, and whether we like to admit it or not, in many ways a direction was chosen for Black America. In the few years following, despite the wave of support for Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of a slew of viral police murders in 2020, Black people have consistently been subjected to a political discussion that has failed to escape the prism of identity politics.

What we are left with is a Black nationalist tradition that can ultimately only lead us away from progress and towards an extremely unclear political future. 

What do I mean by Black nationalism? A nation of people can be defined as having a common historical, cultural and/or ethnic identity, geographical location or origin, a common language and – perhaps most importantly — a common sense of destiny and self-determination. Nationalism is the broad spectrum of political movements by which “nations” of people seek to manifest their common identity into political self-determination. This can often take the form of movements that seek national independence, but doesn’t necessarily have to, as has often been the case in the history of Black people in America. 

The first popularly recognized Black Nationalist movement was Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, UNIA, whose original goal was to create a nation of free Black people on the continent of Africa by uniting the various Black/African people across the Americas and in the Caribbean. Although Garvey was Jamaican, the bulwark of his global political power came from the 40 some odd million Black Americans who were undertaking their first migration from the plantations of the Jim Crow south to the slums of early underdeveloped northern cities. An overlooked political powerhouse, Black people in America were no strangers to discussions of liberation and Garvey’s call for a mighty race to rise against its oppressors and build itself into a free nation captured the imaginations of millions of Black Americans who not only supported Garvey by word or in spirit but by flocking to his organization by the thousands in the early 20th century. Although Garvey never accomplished his goal of creating a free nation-state of expatriated Blacks in Africa, the seeds of Nationalism had been sewn into the very fabric of Black political organizing and thought. 

Marcus Garvey who advocated for a secular form of Black nationalism.
Marcus Garvey. Source: Canva Pro

Around the same time that Garvey advocated a secular form of Black Nationalism, Noble Drew Ali is credited with being among the first people to establish Islam among Black people in America by founding the Moorish Science Temple of America. Though Ali wasn’t as overtly a political nationalist as Garvey, he did teach that Black Americans were Moors with ties to the classical North African Caliphate. This teaching created an independent cultural, religious, racial and historical identity amongst his followers and their political and spiritual descendents.

The likes of some of these descendents turned out to be prominent Black Muslims such as the Nation of Islam’s Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) and even Louis Farrakhan, all of whom, though widely varied in ideology and legacy, also credit Garvey with their early political inspiration. Malcolm X’s father was a preacher in Garvey’s UNIA and was likely assassinated for his participation which radicalized young Malcolm for life. Louis Farrakhan has described Garvey’s image as one of the first Black images he learned to idolize and love at a young age. 

The legacies of these movement’s rest not only in their cultivation of a distinct identity amongst the Black people within their organizations but the large impacts the various leaders and spokespeople of the Nation of Islam and other Black Nationalists have had in critical moments during American and Black American political development. Elijah Muhammad built a small economic powerhouse amongst a largely impoverished base of Northern Blacks in the early 19th century following the Great Depression. Having trucking, shipping and cargo companies, bakeries, schools, a vibrant religious mission, a small security force and more Muhammad’s NOI was able to legitimize its nation-building ethos with concrete results. Malcolm X furthered the political discussion when he used the tenets of Black Nationalism and self-determination to challenge the philosophy of domestic political integration that mainstreamed the civil right’s movement. (Although, it should be noted that both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. became largely sympathetic with internationalist and anti-capitalist movements towards the end of their lives and careers). Louis Farrakhan’s revival of the Nation of Islam after Malcolm’s split and the passing of Elijah Muhammad preserved the principles of the Black nationalist ethic such as a common sense of communal unity, preservation of an authentic Black culture and pride in Black heritage and history. 

Farrakhan is oftentimes seen as a prominent thought leader and political reference for the early Hip Hop scene of the late 80s and early 90s. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that his reign of political influence has extended easily into the contemporary era as I have heard Farrakhan referenced and sampled by many artists across generations such as Public Enemy, Ye, Jay Z and 2 Chainz. Furthermore, the teachings of the Moorish Science Temple of America, Nation of Islam and many other Black Muslim offshoots laid the foundation for a Black Nationalist ethos that undergirded the development of the early hip hop scene, providing a sort of spiritual and political doctrine for early successful hip hop groups such as Brand Nubian and the Wu-Tang Clan. A radical sense of cultural pride and social/historical truth telling inspired a new generation of Blacks who were left to grapple with their destiny in the wake of the destruction of the Black Power movement which was much more internationalist and anti-capitalist in nature. Although the Black power movement did allude to certain aspects of nationalism such as a common sense of pride, culture and identity, ultimately the self-determination of the people was taught to rest in humanity’s struggle against systems of oppression and not necessarily being tied to the prosperity of any one or single nation. However, the large majority of the most prominent Black radicals during this period in the late 60s and early 70s were either jailed, exiled or assassinated. The aftermath of which was the war on drugs and the rapid deindustrialization of the urban centers of America which led to a social, cultural and political fallout.

City of Des Moines
Des Moines. Source: Canva Pro

It is a small miracle we retained any political tradition that can be recognized at all really as COINTELPRO was one of the most violent and extensive espionage programs ever produced by the U.S. Nevertheless, cultural icons such as Chuck D, Tupac, Jay Z, Queen Latifah, NAS, Wu Tang Clan and yes, even (and especially) Kanye West and Kyrie Irving have recently drawn on the more deeply rooted Black nationalist ethic in order to establish and build their own platforms.

Black women marching.
Civil Rights March in 1963 Washington, D.C. Source: Canva Pro

So what’s the problem with Black people in America developing a sense of independence, pride and self-determination? Well, on the surface level and maybe even in moderation, not much. However, the case has been historically that under the right circumstances nationalism can and will lead to fascism, which is a sort of ultra-nationalist movement in which the fate of a nation is believed as being in the hands of one supreme leader or resting in the defeat of a foreign enemy. In such moments, nationalism can be manipulated in order to actually lead people to reinforce incredibly harmful ideas, behaviors and systems. As Garvey himself said “We [the UNIA] were the first fascists,” in reference to the rise of Mussolini’s fascist Italy, who Garvey believed he proceeded in principle. “We were the first Fascists, when we had 100,000 disciplined men, and were training children, Mussolini was [still unknown]. Mussolini copied our Fascism.” Garvey himself also alleged that his organization was destroyed from within by leftist revolutionaries and commonly dissented with the self-proclaimed socialist W.E.B Du Bois.  

Ties to fascist and white nationalist movements within America also exist in the complex history of Black nationalism. It is not commonly known that George Rockwell, who led the American Nazi party in the 1960s, spoke multiple times at Nation of Islam rallies at the behest of Elijah Muhammad himself who believed conspiracy theories about Jewish people commonly supported by the Nazi party such as the Jewish financing of the slave trade and Jewish control of financing, real estate and later media (starting to sound familiar?). 

One of the easiest and most effective ways to stoke the flames of nationhood is to raise the image of a common enemy. This enemy commonly takes the form of various social minorities in America. In the course of Black nationalist thought no minority is chosen as a target more often perhaps than the American Jew. Maybe it is the shared history of exile and exploitation that has caused some sort of a cognitive dissonance within this stream of thought. I tend to think it is more so the fact that antisemitic conspiracy theories have found themselves at the heart of some of the world’s most dynamic nationalist/fascist movements. In other words, just as with anti-blackness, sexism and classism; if you need a common scapegoat, antisemitism is one that is proven to work.

This rhetoric is especially insidious given the common Black historical miseducation that takes place in America.

In this way the nationalist fervor can be used to coax its adherents past the irrationalities of conspiracy theory by inserting misinformation that the target audience, who is inherently trusting of its Black national leaders, is particularly vulnerable to accept as the truth. 

This leads us to a world where many times our dedication to a sense of common identity and destiny can lead us awry. Today we are inundated with constant messages about Black empowerment, Black business, buying Black and Black excellence. Perhaps the most pervasive of these rhetorical points is the myth of Black buying power or the Black dollar which asserts that in white and other model minority communities the proverbial dollar circulates more and for a longer period of time than a dollar spent by a Black person in a Black community would. Not only has this theory been proven several times over as demonstrably false, it also does the work of legitimizing the ethics of capitalism and nationalism rather than placing an emphasis on undoing the systems at the heart of inequality.

Despite having once had a legitimate nationalist political framework, Black people are now vulnerable to the very system they once sought independence from which is now able to use Black nationalist rhetoric to lead Black people into reinforcing the status quo. 

When we spread anti-semitic conspiracy theories in the name of Black identity or nationhood, we are supporting a global and historical status quo. When we protect abusers and predators under the guise that defending the Black man is essential to the prosperity of Black America, we are supporting a patriarchal status quo. When we encourage each other to simply mimic a capitalist system which has entrenched Black people in near-permanent second class economic status, we are supporting an economic status quo, rather than challenging it. When we allow our Blackness or complex relationship to the American political system to justify our sitting on the rhetorical sidelines during international crises, we are supporting the status quo. 

Black Lives Matter
Source: Canva Pro

Thus, with the revolutionary vanguard of previous generations effectively silenced and Black history thoroughly whitewashed, it’s no surprise that our own understanding of Blackness has become inadequate as a basis for forming a political movement. The most recent attempt at pro-Black political organization came from the Black Lives Matter movement. However, I would argue that even during the height of the protest movement the anti-police and anti-racist foundations of the movement never dominated contemporary Black discourse for a substantial amount of time in the 2010s and early 2020s in the way that Black nationalist thought has. In my experience it is oftentimes the youngest and most radical elements of the Black community supporting explicitly antiracist movements as they are oftentimes based in broad interracial coalition building and anti-capitalist organizing which does not necessarily emphasize the importance of developing community institutions.

In my time as a street activist, I found that most Black people were much more interested in building their own institutions, even in moments of high resistance, than they were in actually challenging the foundations of oppression. 

Graphic of Martin Luther King Jr. who battled with Black nationalism.
Source: Canva Pro

I don’t think this is necessarily a malicious instinct especially given the various and widely documented leadership failures and corruption that existed at the top of BLMs national organizations. Nevertheless, I do think it leaves us without a clear direction for ourselves and also for the country. Ultimately the problems Black people face in America are not unique to the world or history though we do love to believe so. Given that truth it becomes logical to assume that our destiny might be tied to people outside of our immediate community and therefore the solutions to our problems are best solved by humanistic rather than racial problem solving.

Martin Luther King Jr. who battled his whole life with Black Nationalist rhetoric himself said, “However much we pool our resources and Buy Black this cannot create the multiplicity of new jobs and provide the number of low cost houses that will lift the [Black community] out of the economic depression that has caused centuries of deprivation. Neither can our resources provide a quality integrated education. All of this requires billions of dollars which only an alliance of liberal-labor-civil-rights forces can stimulate. In short, the [Black community]’s problem cannot be solved unless the whole of American society takes a new turn towards greater economic justice!”

It is important we remember our role in not only leading ourselves but America and humanity. The Black identity has been a dynamic vehicle for producing some of the most progressive ideologies and political movements in modern political history. For a time, the rise of a Black nation did make the world a more equitable place, but we have long had the chance and opportunity to broaden the proverbial borders of our political thought from our own domestic situation towards understanding the entire human condition through our own experiences. It’s time we ditch our allegiance to nationalism for something altogether more bold and more broadly inclusive and critical of the status quo. It’s not only humanity that requires it, but most of all, ourselves.

Photo credit:

NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 11: *Exclusive* Jay-Z and Kanye West perform at Madison Square Garden on September 11, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

Leave a Reply

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top