Nationalism in Black and White

Chimamanda Adichie confronts the dangers of a single story by describing her journey from childhood to celebrated Nigerian writer. Like Adichie, Haitian-American writer Roxane Gay deconstructs overly simplistic explanations for privilege by confronting her lived experiences as a black woman raised in an affluent home.

Interrogating race, social class, and gender, both Adichie and Gay speak to the inherent flaws with how these statuses historically and currently shape inequity and injustice in the U.S. Recently that has manifested itself in a renewed concern for nationalism, as demonstrated in the violence witnessed in Charlottesville, VA.

However, there is no single story about nationalism in the U.S.—especially if we consider the reasons behind nationalism movements in their historical contexts.

While political and media narratives try now to frame white nationalism and those who resist it as equal forces, let’s recall that Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement and black nationalism as espoused by the Nation of Islam (NOI)—through Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X—prompted much different responses from mainstream white America.

Garvey’s efforts drew support from white racists, in fact, but the NOI and especially Malcolm X were strongly rejected as violent and a national threat—unlike the more welcomed and carefully orchestrated embracing of Martin Luther King Jr. as a passive radical.

Regardless of valid or baseless criticisms of either Garvey or Malcolm X, the story of black nationalism throughout the early and mid-twentieth century is incomplete without understanding why blacks have supported separating from white America.

Those reasons are grounded in a recognition among blacks that democracy, capitalism, Christianity, and the American Dream had failed them in profound ways that simply could not be reformed since these elements of the U.S. are inherently prone to inequity and injustice.

Malcolm X’s “History proves that the white man is a devil” represents a provocative but concise justification for black skepticism about white intentions. And James Baldwin confronted in 1979 the fact of white consciousness about race and racism in the U.S.:

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,’ but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

Black nationalism, then, has been grounded in the evidence of history and contemporary inequity and injustice. And these lessons remain to this day when blacks are disproportionately killed by police, officers who then go unpunished, and blacks with some college often have the same employment opportunities and pay as whites who dropped out of high school.

This is 2017, as Edward E. Baptist explains:

In a review of my book about slavery and capitalism published the other day, the Economist treated it the same way that the tourist enslavers treated the testimony of Frederick Douglass on that slave-era ship long ago. In doing so, the Economist revealed just how many white people remain reluctant to believe black people about the experience of being black.

Only the single story viewed through white consciousness in the U.S. is allowed.

The paradox of the single story through white eyes only is that is allows a nuance for white behavior while continuing to demonize black lives for any claimed flaw, no matter how singular (consider Colin Kaepernick).

The result is claiming “some good people” are among white nationalist protests and rallies—a claim that fails to investigate why white nationalists exist.

Unlike black nationalist movements, white nationalism is grounded solely in corrupt ideologies well refuted by evidence—beliefs in white superiority (often coded as “European”) and mythologies built on white heroes and white actions that are partial stories as best.

White nationalism as refuge for racists, fascists, and Nazis survives because of the single story codes of the exact sort of white tyranny black nationalists have been confronting for a century.

This is a failed story, a horror story in fact.

Black nationalism, however, has offered a powerful and true story that the U.S. refuses to confront: democracy, capitalism, Christianity, and the American Dream have failed blacks, and thus, failed us all, but they likely cannot be reformed since they are inherently drawn to inequity and injustice.

The single white story of the U.S. suffers from a fatal lack of imagination to construct a new story because white America will not let go of its lies.