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African-American Ideas

African-american Ideologies, Black Nationalist Ideologies, African-american Liberalism, African-american Radicalism

For four hundred years, African-Americans have been engaged in a fierce struggle, a struggle for freedom, justice and equality, empowerment and self-determination, or social transformation, depending on one's ideology and its discourses. The lived African-American experience, in its class, gender, generational, and regional specificity, and the struggle against black racial oppression in the form of black social movements, are the soil from which African-American political and social thought are produced. Different social movements—abolition, the nineteenth-century Great Black March West (1879–1910), the protective leagues during the nadir (1877–1917), the New Negro Movement of the early 1900s, the Depression-era struggles, and the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s—have developed distinct goals and objectives and consequently have evolved quite different strategies, ideologies, and discourses. Contrary to popular opinion, African-American political thought has always been a roiling sea of competing ideological currents. Political scientist Robert C. Smith described ideology as "the enduring dilemma of black politics" because of its variety and vibrancy. The tradition of viewing African-American history through the lens of historical debate underscores the diverse and dynamic character of African-American political discourse. For instance, it is popular to compare and contrast the ideas of Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) and Martin R. Delany (1812–1885), W. E. B. DuBois (1868–1963) and Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), and Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), Ida Wells-Barrett (1862–1931) and Margaret Murray Washington (1863–1953) or, more recently, Martin Luther King (1929–1968) and Malcolm X (1925–1965).

In the popular imagination, African-American political thought has been reduced to two ideological streams, black nationalism and integrationism. Harold Cruse, author of the influential but flawed Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, crystallized this binary framework into a Manichean perspective that characterized African-American history as primarily a conflict between proponents of these two ideologies. Cruse did not invent this conceptualization—August Meier had previously asserted it—but he made it the dominant interpretative schema in black political philosophy.

The binary framework has been challenged on two fundamental premises. One group has sought to complicate the categories of black ideologies. Anthropologist Leith Mullings, historian Manning Marable, and political scientists Robert C. Smith and Michael C. Dawson, among others, have offered more comprehensive frameworks. Adding radicalism to nationalism and integrationism, Smith conceives of three major African-American ideologies: black nationalism, integrationism, and radicalism. Mullings and Marable discern three "strategic visions" in black political thought, which they term inclusion, black nationalism, and transformation. Interestingly, Mullings, Marable, and Smith would acknowledge conservatism as a distinct political perspective; yet, because they do not view it as politically salient before the 1990s, they have not conceptualized it as a major ideology among African-Americans. Dawson's framework, in contrast, includes black conservatism among the six "historically important" black ideologies he identifies: black nationalism, black liberalism, including three streams, black feminism, and black radicalism.

Taking a very different approach, sociologist John Brown Childs eschews the conventional debates over ideology to identify two worldviews, which he argues constitute the "coherent systematic approach" that undergirds political ideologies. Seeking to uncover the "conceptual currents" beneath strategic conflicts among social justice activists, Childs identifies two irreconcilable worldviews, the vanguard and mutuality perspectives. According to Childs, vanguard approaches posit an elite that possesses knowledge of the "way," which they bestow upon the ignorant and impose on the defiant. In contrast, mutuality approaches advocate praxis built on sociohistorical correspondence, communication, diversity, cooperation, (self-) transformation, and openness, and reject notions of a leading group. Despite the potency of Brown's insights, most scholars of black history and politics have continued to chart African-American social movements and individual activist intellectuals via their ideologies, rather than their worldview or organizing approach.

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