Lecture Notes: Wilson Jeremiah Moses and Nationalism

I reluctantly chose to use Wilson Jeremiah Moses’ important foray into the interstices of Black nationalist thought, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (1978), for my course entitled “19th Century Black Social and Political Thought.” This hesitance is one that stems from his methodological proclivity to link African American ideas to “native” European traditions. A move which was popular in the era in which this text was offered, and obviously one that remains popular. In the text, Moses not only attempts to establish that there was a conservative tradition within the boundaries of nationalist thought, he does so by building a bridge between Black thinkers and the intellectual paradigms of Western philosophy and religion. Du Bois is a neo-Herder; Crummell is a Christian humanist; Delany a Hegelian romanticist. While these connections are not consistently made explicit throughout the text, the tone of the volume exudes the idea that what Black thinkers in the nineteenth century were doing were reformulating the best of the Western tradition to meet their objectives.

This is an intellectual move rife with the potential to seriously derail attempts to extract “native” African traditions that were also, if not more prominently, carried by the nationalist figures discussed in Moses’s work. This extraction of African Deep Thought from the ideas and positions of Africans “when and where they find themselves” is arguably the central hallmark of Africana Studies, a discipline which cannot afford to consider African social and political thought as rooted in Western thought (at least not completely or naturally). Yet figures associated with this discipline (or those who claim to) continuously fight, as a primary methodological concern, the unwinnable battle of finding common epistemological ground between the Black radical tradition and Western ideas.[1] It is as if in order to be human, one must define their humanity in Western terms—and who doesn’t want to be human?[2] This is an Enlightenment-derived position, one which Moses excoriates the nationalists for holding, yet one, in making his argument, he nevertheless takes.

What, then, are the normative bounds of Black nationalist thought from an Africana Studies perspective? How do we link the prominent nineteenth century thinkers to intellectual traditions more familiar to the cultural traditions that they either emerged from or intended to represent and embody? Is this even possible? These foundational questions must be answered by the next generation of Africana Studies scholars as there is a paucity of work on the figures of the nineteenth century that gives due respect to the ways in which intellectuals actually embodied the “deep thought” of their enslaved brethren. [3] In the balance of the works that exist, it is almost as if “freed” status eviscerated any former trace of culture (assuming for a moment that the normative historiographical position is that African culture survived even for the enslaved Africans). What Moses’s and other less sympathetic studies in this area portend is the negation of an analysis that considers that nationalist thought was indeed complicatedly, but assuredly, a rhythmic iteration of African deep thought. That injected into the words, the historiographies, the philosophies, and even the Christianity, of Black nationalism was a cultural logic that was deeply imbued with an African orientation toward knowledge. And it must be stated that that such a statement would even need to be said is a reflection of the terms of legitimate discourse within the academy.

As we deal with Moses’s position, we are doing so armed with the methodological perspective of Vincent Harding. In his There is a River (1981), Harding constructs a narrative history of Black radicalism that is line with the idea that Black thinkers in the nineteenth century were indeed offering social and political reasoning from a discrete epistemological origin. But we are also armed with the work of Jacob Carruthers. In Chapter One of his Mdw Ntr (1995), Carruthers examines what Harold Cruse calls “the rejected strain.” For Carruthers, these thinkers are the “Champions of African Deep Thought,” they are the creators of a project to secure the African intellectual tradition from its “inevitable” erasure from social memory (this erasure is a paradigmatic position in “slavery studies” gestured to above). As we explore Moses’s work the implications for reconceptualizing the nineteenth century on these terms will naturally arise. So it remains the case that the discipline of Africana Studies must seriously consider the ways in which intellectual genealogies of Africans are written and recorded, and also to appreciate them for what they are, but to also contemplate the nature of how to construct more representative depictions of these venerable ancestors. It is necessary that the ideas of individuals like Wilson Moses, who comes from an important segment of African American intellectual life, be read with the works of thinkers like Anderson Thompson. It makes the circle complete.

[1] A good start for uncovering this proclivity are the historical records of Africana Studies debate, juxtaposed to contemporary iterations of these issues. See Nathaniel Norment, Jr, ed., The African American Studies Reader (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2007) and Delores Aldridge and Carlene Young, Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2000).

[2] There are many forays into this question available. A recent one that intrigued me was Andrea Smith’s “The Problem with ‘Privilege’.” http://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/

[3] This is the question of a formative article in my intellectual development, Greg Carr’s “Toward an Intellectual History of Africana Studies: Genealogy and Normative Theory,” in The African American Studies Reader, ed. Nathaniel Norment, Jr., 438-452.


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