Racial Violence and Black Nationalist Politics

Someone recently asked me why the black women activists I study were so determined to leave the United States. It was a question I had been asked many times before. As I often do, I explained the complex history of black emigration, highlighting how these women’s ideas were reflective of a long tradition of black nationalist and internationalist thought. I acknowledged the romantic utopian nature of these women’s ideas. However, I also addressed the socioeconomic challenges that many of these women endured and explained how the prospect of life in West Africa appeared to be far more appealing—especially during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression and World War II. I spoke about black women’s ties to Africa and the feelings of displacement many of them felt as they longed for a place to truly call home. It was the same feeling of displacement to which the poet Countee Cullen alluded when he asked a simple yet profound question: “What is Africa to me?

At a moment when black people in the United States were being denied the full benefits of citizenship, black nationalist women—including those who were active members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the Peace Movement of Ethiopia (PME)—advocated black emigration to West Africa as a legitimate response to racial discrimination and white supremacy. As the works of historians Amy Louise Wood, Crystal Feimster, Kidada Williams, and others have demonstrated, black men and women were routinely subjected to varying forms of racial violence—including lynching, rape, assault and murder—for centuries. Many of the women featured in my work had Southern roots and knew firsthand the terror of white mob violence. For instance, black nationalist leader and Louisiana native Mittie Maude Lena Gordon recalled witnessing the lynching of a black man in 1898, two years after the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision. This horrific incident left a lasting psychological and emotional scar on Gordon. “Since that day,” she insisted, “I have been the most unhappy person that ever lived [sic].”1

During the 1920s, Gordon was active in the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and went on to become the founder of the Chicago-based Peace Movement of Ethiopia (PME), the largest black nationalist organization established by a woman in the United States. At its peak, the PME attracted an estimated 300,000 supporters in various parts of Chicago and across the United States. In the late 1930s, Gordon sent PME recruiters to Mississippi and other parts of the Jim Crow South to convince black men and women to abandon life in the United States for the prospect of a better one in Liberia. While Northern and Western cities appeared to be attractive refuges for black men and women, Gordon and members of the PME could not envision remaining in the United States—especially not when white mob violence was so prevalent. As one of Gordon’s supporters expressed in a poem, “There is fruit in Africa worthwhile eating/ We don’t have to stay here and take a white man’s beating.”2

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