Leaders: Several notable African-Americans recognized that establishing a base in western Europe was a useful tactic in the struggle to improve conditions in United States


February 23, 1997|By Gerald Horne

MARYLAND HAS had the good fortune of being the home of two of the best of African-American leaders of the past two centuries. The example provided by Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois - most notably their global outlook - continues to provide instructive lessons for today.

Douglass, born a slave, spent his early years in Maryland before moving on to Massachusetts and New York. Though a noted orator and writer, perhaps his major contribution to the struggle for freedom was his frequent trips abroad to rally support for the anti-slavery struggle here. At times, this was a question of convenience. After the white abolitionist John Brown launched an armed attack against slavery in Harpers Ferry, Douglass concluded that the better part of wisdom was to spend time abroad rather than face the wrath of slave owners who suspected that he too might have had a hand in the attack. Thus, his travel to western Europe was not just an effort to rally support for his people but a temporary exile as well.

Since the 1850s, many African-Americans have seen fit to emulate Douglass' example. Richard Wright, author of "Native Son," and a former communist, finally tired of U.S. racism and moved to Paris, where he continued to campaign against white supremacy in writing some of his most stirring though little-known works, such as "White Man, Listen!" Josephine Baker, the St. Louis-born dancer and singer, also moved to Paris, where her heroic activity against fascism and racism was honored by the French government. Reginald Lewis, the fabulously wealthy African-American businessman who had roots in Baltimore, also lived periodically in Paris, where he made some of his earliest business deals.

Like Douglass, Wright, Baker and Lewis recognized that western Europe was not Shangri-la when it came to race; however, all recognized that for various reasons racism against African-Americans was not as extensive there as in the United States and establishing a base abroad was a useful tactic in assaulting the citadel at home.

This basic lesson was also recognized by that other pre-eminent leader who maintained a home in Maryland: W.E.B. Du Bois. Though he is generally associated with his birthplace in Massachusetts (where he was born in February 1868) or New York City (where he lived while toiling for the NAACP) or Atlanta (where he taught intermittently), for years he maintained a home in Baltimore and was often to be found there. [See Expatriates, 6f]

However, like Douglass, he understood the struggle for freedom was a global one. This came to him when he studied at the University of Berlin in the 1890s and saw parallels between anti-Semitism and anti-black bias.

This reality also came clear in the 1890s with the reaction to the lynching of Italian-Americans in New Orleans. The stiff protest of the Italian government helped to forestall the gradual spreading of this bestial and violent practice beyond the usual victims - African-Americans. If a strong Italian government could aid in halting bias against its compatriots, could a strong Africa do the same for African-Americans?

This realization undergirded Du Bois' role in launching the Pan-African movement at the turn of the 20th century. The perception was that Africans, be they in North America or on the continent itself, found themselves at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Consequently, a strong Africa could mean improved life chances for African-Americans.

This was part of the reason for his fabled dispute with Booker T. Washington.

In Du Bois' view, not only did Washington's attempt to train hod-carriers and brick masons underestimate the complexities of increasingly technological age and the racism that hindered acceptance of blacks in unions; he also felt that the attempt by the Tuskegee Wizard to build black institutions on this continent could not be successful as long as Africa itself was under siege and that only political power could prevent the erosion of economic gain.

Still, the reason Du Bois continuues to be viewed as the lodestar of black leadership is that he was not afraid to refine or even to change his viewpoints if conditions warranted. Thus, in 1934, he was forced to leave the organization he had founded - the National Association for the Advancment of Colored People - because he had moved closer to ideas he had spurned when they had been espoused by Washington and Marcus Garvey; i.e. Du Bois maintained stoutly that race-based economic cooperatives could be instrumental in the campaign to uplift Africans and African-Americans and could provide a foundation for a political movement.

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