Hubert Harrison

Cathy Wilkes, Untitled, 2012, Oil on canvas, 260 x 360mm


Commentary on the biography of the African-American activist written by Jeffrey B. Perry

A true tour de force. Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918–1927, the second part of the ambitious biography written by Jeffrey B. Perry, portrays the last years of what was considered “the father of Harlem radicalism”, completing the trajectory of one of the most important African-American political activists of the beginning of the last century.

The author's task was undoubtedly not an easy one. After all, Perry (who defines himself as a “independent, working class scholar”) took more than a decade to publish volume two of his work. Before that, it took 25 years of research until he released the first volume Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, which came to light in 2008 by the same publisher.

Perry carried out his academic studies at different institutions such as Princeton, Harvard, Rutgers and Columbia (where he completed his doctoral thesis in 1986). The author had his first contact with Harrison's writings in the early 1980s, when he read copies of his books on microfilm, which immediately caught his attention. There was, in fact, a strong identification of Perry with Harrison, who would be, like him, also a working-class intellectual who fought against white supremacy.

Over time, Perry maintained contact with Harrison's children, Aida and William (and later with his grandson, Charles), who gave him access to a vast amount of material from his father (and grandfather), kept in their private collections, documents that were later inventoried by the biographer and are currently in the Library of Manuscripts and Rare Books of the Columbia University (in this case, reading Harrison's diary was of special importance to get to know the character in depth). In other words, to narrate the trajectory of this Caribbean immigrant, who arrived in New York in 1900, at just 17 years old, from the island of St. Croix (his birthplace), a careful survey and accurate consultation of extensive original material, which included articles, notebooks, interviews and correspondence, had to be carried out.

But he went further. In the notes at the end of the work, it is possible to find references to a huge general bibliography and researched documents: books and articles on history (especially, but not exclusively, of the United States) and the “racial” question, research files (such as those of Theodore Draper), archives at universities (such as Emory University) or public (such as New York State Archives, National Archives in Washington, the Department of Justice and the New York Supreme Court Hall of Records), various periodicals (from publications such as The Crusader e Black Scholar to Crisis Magazine and the Chicago Defender, as well as newspapers such as the New York Times, Pittsburgh Courier, Washington Post, Philadelphia Tribune, Boston Herald e new york age, among others) and websites.

For Perry, Harrison, in addition to being a journalist, educator, literary critic, and lecturer on the New York City Board of Education (tutor da New York City Board of Education) was the main organizer, agitator and African-American theorist of the Socialist Party (which he would later leave) and, consequently, for some time,“the leading Black Socialist in America”. That is, this one who was one of the founders of the "New Negro Movement”, in the words of his biographer, must be seen as “one of the truly important personalities of the United States of the beginning of the XNUMXth century”, someone who, due to his refined vision simultaneously on the question of class and the question of race, would be the precursor link between the two main lineages (or trends) of the US black movement in later years, symbolized on the one hand by Martin Luther King and on the other by Malcolm X.

As historian Winston James put it, Hubert was “an intellectual immersed in the work of Marx, who recognized with open arms his analytical power for understanding the bewildering world in which he lived. He shared the vision of classical socialism” (p. 175). Franklin Rosemont, author of Joe Hill: The IWW and the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture,1 would say that the same black activist was among the best “Marxian socialist” theorists in the United States, along with Austin Lewis, Louis B. Boudin and Louis Fraina, in addition to being “one of the most distinguished public speakers of all time” and, in relation to the Industrial Workers of the World (Industrial workers of the world), one of the “unsung heroes” of that organization of revolutionary syndicalism that he supported so much.2 A. Philip Randolph and Owen Chandler, on the other hand, considered themselves his “followers” ​​and great admirers, having confessed that they were greatly influenced by his ideas (although the aforementioned James has stated that Hubert even called them both lackeys and of blaming them for misguiding their black readers by failing to criticize racism within the Socialist Party).

It's true that Harrison's biography may seem a bit overwhelming to most readers. After all, we are talking about two volumes, the initial one with more than 600 pages and the following one with almost a thousand. For a little-known individual these days (especially outside the US), this is a huge undertaking. On the other hand, Hubert was undoubtedly a very important character, who never received the centrality who deserved. Perry would bridge this gap and finally put this iconic character in a leading role. Thus, in the words of the author, in his introduction, this would be “the first complete biography, in more than one volume, of an Afro-Caribbean, and only the fourth of an African-American, after those of Booker T. Washington, WEB Du Bois and Langston Hughes (p. 1).

Despite this, at times it is possible to find repetitions and overly detailed discussions of texts or episodes that could be narrated more broadly, taking away some of the objectivity of the work (the reader, in certain instances, has the feeling of following the life of of Harrison in real time, every moment, in his daily life, with an overload of information). In other words, at times the author seems excessive (and even tiresome) when portraying his character's routine or when presenting (and transcribing entire excerpts from) reviews and articles written by him (Harrison, who according to Perry, was “the first reviewer constant acting Negro in history”, wrote about the works of many authors, names as varied as Scott Nearing, Robert Kerlin, Thorstein Veblen, George W. Ellis, ED Morel, Stephen Graham, Herbert Spencer, Kelly Miller, Willis J. King and Upton Sinclair, just to name a dozen). Perry's effort, however, paid off.

The book is divided into four parts: the first, in which the author discusses Harrison's contributions to publications such as The Voice e new black, between the years 1918 and 1919; the second, from 1920 to 1922, when the subject worked as a columnist and editor for the Black World; the third (1922-1924), focusing on his side as a writer and speaker; and finally, the fourth and last part, with his role as organizer of the International Colored Unity League (ICUL) and its journal The Voice of the Negro, until December 1927, when he lost his life, two days after surgery to treat a chronic appendicitis, due to complications resulting from the operation (the author believes that the appendix had possibly ruptured, causing generalized infection).

It is true that several leaders, artists and emblematic intellectuals who interacted with Harrison are present in the work, such as Cyrill Briggs, Eugene O'Neill, Otto Huiswoud, Claude McKay, Max Eastman and even Charlie Chaplin, among many others (McKay even arrived , commenting that “Chaplin had met Hubert Harrison at my office and admired his black Socratic head and his precise encyclopedic knowledge”; in another instance, Claude would say that his colleague had become, for a time, “the black hope of the socialists”) (p. 467 and 338). Some relevant names, however, are not discussed in the two volumes of Harrison's biography. One of them is Ben Fletcher, the black unionist and member of the IWW, considered by some to be one of the greatest heroes of the American working class.

Fletcher acted at the same time as Harrison and was a prominent leftist militant (in this sense, it is worth pointing out the new, revised and expanded edition of the book Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly, by Peter Cole, recently released by PM Press). An approximation of the experience and world views of both in relation to racism, militancy and socialism could have been interesting in this case (Fletcher's name appears, apparently, only once, quite unnoticed, almost hidden, in the page 817, among one of hundreds of endnotes, not highlighted).

Perry comments that Harrison proposed, beginning in 1924, "to set aside a section of the United States to be occupied exclusively by blacks who will then have a channel of expression for their racial pride" and that the purpose of the organization he had founded, the ICUL, would be “the harnessing of the energies of the Negro in the United States for the promotion of his self-help and economic, political and spiritual progress”, with the ultimate objective “to found a Negro state, not in Africa, as Marcus Garvey would have done, but in the United States”. States, in one or more of the sparsely populated states of the American Union, where, under institutions, the American Negro might exercise his independent political destiny, and in an American manner” (p. 601). Interesting, in this sense, is the approximation of the ideas of the black American leader with aspects of the Comintern's conception of the same theme (something that could have been further explored by the author), even if the proposals had, of course, different characteristics.

Within this premise, a discussion about Harry Haywood (the communist militant, author of Black Bolshevik), without a doubt, it would have been very interesting to broaden the debate on this topic. Other names could at least have been mentioned, characters, in some cases, considered apparatchiks, but who, nevertheless, were, in their own way, involved with the black question in the United States, among them József Pogány (John Pepper), the Hungarian leader and author of American Negro Problems, who later became the director of the Bureau of Information of the Comintern, a member of the Commission on Blacks (CN) and who would help set up the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC), an organization idealized, proposed and nationally structured by Lovett Fort-Whiteman, with which Hubert worked (Fort-Whiteman even said, in a letter, that Harrison, on the ANLC committee in New York, would be one of its officers) or George Ivanovich Safarov, who headed the CN and prepared the first document of the Communist International that formulated a position on the black question, in addition to other names, such as Charles Nasanov, representative of the Communist Youth International; the Finnish Otto Kuusinen, later chairman da Black Commission of the VI Congress of the Comintern; Otto Hall (Harry Haywood's older brother); the Magyar exile in Moscow Endre Sik (one of the first and most prominent experts in African history in the Soviet Union, which had a fair amount of influence on some black communist militants in the US); and James W. Ford, who would become, according to Harvey Klehr, “the main black leadership of the PCEUA”3 (this was in the period immediately after Harrison's death). Even Fort-Whiteman, William Pickens and Richard B. Moore (who are mentioned at different times in the work) could have been given more prominence.

It is worth remembering that even before, the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, in 1922, would be important, as it indicated that a strong black movement in the United States could influence the revolutionary movement in all places where “men of color” were oppressed by imperialism, suggesting, moreover, increasing communist involvement in union work among African Americans (a few years later, this deliberation was reinforced by Profintern general secretary Solomon Abramovitch Lozovsky, something that would have brought Harrison even closer to the ANLC and the workers party, the name used by the PC at the time). The discussions culminated, in 1928, in the VI Congress of the Communist International, with the proposal of the right to self-determination of blacks, especially in the Black Belt (in part of the southern states that made up the former confederate territory where, according to the Communist International, they would be majority), which would later lead to the Comintern Executive Committee resolution of 1930, which spoke of an "oppressed nation", insisting that African Americans could, if necessary, establish a "Black Soviet Socialist Republic". in that region (by that time, Hubert had already died; nevertheless, in previous years, according to his biographer, he treated the situation of blacks in the South of the United States as oppressed subjects, which allows parallels and distinctions to be made with the Communist International’s conception of “oppressed peoples or nationalities”). That is, even if Harrison did not personally know or relate directly to some of the aforementioned personalities (who were active in his time or who stood out shortly after his death), Perry could have commented on their existence, ideas and activities, as well as having given more details about the different approaches and deliberations made in the period, perhaps to enrich the political and theoretical background of the book.

Perry comments that Harrison's texts were read and discussed in the USSR by members of the Third International, which shows the relevance of his writings at the time. A search of the Russian archives might have been interesting. It is worth remembering, however, that in a well-known book by Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Kyrill M. Anderson, The Soviet World of American Communism,4 which contains a reasonable diversity of original CI documents relating to the PCEUA and which, according to the authors, were consulted in Moscow at the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History (RTsKhIDNI), which had more than 4.300 files of material between 1919 and 1944 about the association (including about militants who participated in discussions about the black issue),5 Harrison's name does not appear at any time (according to Klehr, Haynes and Anderson, the CPUSA collection was not complete, but the records between 1922 and 1936 were apparently intact; in any case, even if the authors have placed in their work all the documents, many of them, significant, are in their pages, but there are no indications, at least in this specific volume, of an appreciation of Hubert in that material).6

It does not hurt to remember that Harrison had in his private library the book The Color Question in the Two Americas, by the Cuban author Bernardo Ruiz Suárez, who defended the constitution of an independent black party in the United States and spoke about the creation of a “nation of blacks” within the territory of the US, showing that the thought of an intellectual from the Mayor of the Antilles may have been an important influence on the ideas of the Harlem activist, who was then constantly monitored by the Bureau of Investigation (BOI or, as noted in the book, BI). In addition, Hubert even proposed a Colored International, envisioning an approximation of the darker races at an anti-imperialist congress to fight against “capitalist imperialism”.

Harrison attended a lecture by Albert Rhis Williams and Louise Bryant, and taught at the Workers School, directed by Bertram D. Wolfe, an institution that aimed, in the words of Rebecca Grecht, “to intensify its educational efforts to make its organizations true parties of Lenin, and to extend communist influence among the masses”, in addition to “disseminating the teachings of Marx and Lenin to develop a Bolshevik ideology”, as well as to “train comrades to become active leaders both in the various party cells, factories and trade unions (Harrison’s course would discuss “the black question in relation to imperialism , recent changes in black racial movements [and] the effect of the changing South on blacks”) (p. 646-647).

Personalities such as Nicolai Bukharin (to whom some North American communist leaders of the time were close in political-ideological terms), Leon Trotsky (one of the most important figures of the October Revolution, well known among Marxists in the USA, especially in New York, where he had lived for a few months) and Joseph Stalin are not addressed (and, even less, analyzed) in Perry's book (Bukharin's name, for example, is only mentioned on page 645, even though it is not included in the name index at the end of the work). The importance of Moscow in background of discussions about the black issue in the US at that time, who knows, it could have been further explored by the author. As Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon recalls: “The socialist movement, out of which the Communist Party was formed, never recognized the need for a special program on the Negro question. It was seen purely and simply as an economic problem, part of the struggle between workers and capitalists; nothing could be done about the specific problems of discrimination and inequality by socialism in these parts [the US] [...] just for American communists, who reacted directly – but for everyone else concerned about the issue. […] The Russian intervention changed all that, drastically, and for the better. Even before World War I and the Russian Revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks distinguished themselves from all other tendencies in the international socialist and labor movement by their concern for the problems of oppressed nations and national minorities, and their assertive support for their struggles for freedom. , Independence and the right to self-determination. The Bolsheviks sincerely and resolutely gave their support to all "peoples without equal rights", but there was nothing "philanthropic" about it. They also recognized the great revolutionary potential in the plight of oppressed peoples and nations, and saw them as important allies of the international working class in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism.”.7

For the intellectual of the Fourth International, “after November 1917, this new doctrine – with special emphasis on blacks – began to be transmitted to the North American communist movement with the authority of the Russian Revolution”.8 Cannon believes that the new position of the American communists coincided with the profound changes taking place in the USA after the First World War. That is, after a large-scale migration of African Americans from the agricultural regions of the South to the industrial centers, their participation in the European conflict and the creation of the new black movement, more radical and assertive.9

Anyway, as commented Winston James, in his article “Being Red and Black in Jim Crow America”,10 summarizing Hubert's trajectory and role within this context: “he advocated a defensive policy of 'race first', but he never abandoned or renounced his deeply rooted Marxism. He was hugely admired by all the black radicals in Harlem. Even those who later disagreed with him acknowledged his debt to Harrison and his pioneering effort. […] Harrison must be credited with having undertaken the first systematic analysis of the class position of black people in the United States and of the coincidence of black interests with anti-capitalist projects. […] Harrison, therefore, was the great pioneer, and others followed in his footsteps”.11

Perry has undoubtedly produced a book as detailed as few others. He went down to the smallest detail to compose his character, unraveled his articles, lectures and speeches and masterfully reconstructed his personal and social relationships. This is, in fact, a monumental work that rescues an activist and intellectual who was very relevant to understanding the developments of the black movement in the United States in later years and who still needed a biography to match his political dimension.

* Luiz Bernardo Pericas He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of Caio Prado Júnior: a political biography (Boitempo).

Originally published on Boitempo's blog.



Jeffrey B. Perry. Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918–1927. New York, Columbia University Press, 2021, 998 pages.



1 See ROSEMONTE, Franklin. Joe Hill: The IWW and the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture. Oakland and Chicago: PM Press/CH Kerr Company, 2015.

2 Ibid, p. 467, 490 and 492.

3 See KLEHR, Harvey. The Communist Experience in America: A Political and Social History. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2010, p. 95.

4 See KLEHR, Harvey; HAYNES, John Earl; ANDERSON, Kyrill M. The Soviet World of American Communism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.

5 Ibid, p. xv.

6 Ibid.

7 See CANNON, James P. The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement. In: CANNON, James P. The First Ten Years of American Communism. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973, p. 230, 233 and 234.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid, p. 234-235.

10 See JAMES, Winston. Being Red and Black in Jim Crow America. souls, autumn 1999, p. 45-63.

11 Ibid, p. 51 and 54.


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