"Black Skin, White Mask" The Myth of the Homogenous African American




Some thoughts on caste, color, class and status among African Americans. Franz Fanon dealt with this issue within the context of France and French colonies in French West Africa. For Fanon, being black [African] was to be colonized and dominated physically, emotionally and spiritually by whites, and as a result  of this psychological domination, blacks suffered from psychosis and self hatred by hating the vary “blackness” which defined their reality. What it meant to black in Africa was to be colonized by European powers.  What it meant to black in America was to be called a “Nigger,” despised, denied civil rights, segregated, Jim Crowed and lynched for crossing the color line.

Fanon believed that blacks adopting the language and culture of the dominate society had larger implication for one's consciousness: Speaking the language of the colonizers means that one accepts, or is coerced into accepting, the collective consciousness of the person or, which identifies blackness with evil and sin. In an attempt to escape the association of blackness with evil, the black man dons a white mask, or thinks of himself as a universal subject equally participating in a society that advocates and equality supposedly abstracted from personal appearance. Cultural values are internalized, or "epidermalized" into consciousness, creating a fundamental disjuncture between the black man's consciousness and his body. Under these conditions, the black man is necessarily alienated from himself . . . the category "white" depends for its stability on its negation, "black." Neither exists without the other, and both come into being at the moment of imperial conquest. That is, the black man’s acceptance of the definition of his humanity by whites. Thus, the black man internalized and perpetuated his own negative self-image, hating everything black including himself.

Likewise, the notion of a homogenous African American group united by a common African ethnicity and culture is a myth. Many scholar failed to recognize the diversity in language, culture, class and color among African Americans, and how those differences provided one group of African Americans with extraordinary opportunities for higher educational and trade skills  when compared to the general black population.  Historically, there has always been great tension between the “mulatto” and black classes because of the association of “yellow” skin with high status and class within the black social apex.  Slave masters exploited these tensions for their obvious benefits, keeping their mulatto children elevated over the African field worker, and African Americans have continue to perpetuated this system of privilege and discrimination based on light skin long after whites stop make any distinction between light and dark skinned blacks after the Plessey Decision of 1896.  The root to this disparity is the American plantation during the 17th and 18th century.

During the 17th century the African still lived in a world governed by African traditions and values.  By the18th century African Americans on the plantation were as diverse as Euro-Americans emigrating from Europe.  There was no collected ethnic or cultural identity among both groups. Both African and European cultures contributed fairly evenly, given the circumstances, to what was to become America. Culturally, Americans shared many experiences--some born in Europe and some in Africa.

The African house servants learned new domestic skills, including the art of quilting, from their mistresses. They took this European quilting technique and Africanized it by combining it with their appliqué style, reflecting a pattern and form still found in the Akan and Fon textile industries of West Africa.

The culture of the Mande had a profound effect on Euro-Americans by way of the "Big House." It was the planter who witnessed the transmission of European culture to the Africans and African culture to the Europeans. The acculturation process was mutual, as well as reciprocal; Africans assimilated white culture, and planters adopted some aspects of African customs and practices such as the African agricultural method of rice cultivation, African cuisine (southern cooking), open grazing of cattle and use of herbal medicines to cure and treat new World diseases such as smallpox, and African concept of polygamy.

A diversity of Africans, including the Bantu of Central Africa, changed North American culture, contrary to the popular belief that only West Africans contributed. Because West Africans had a great influence on white American culture by their presence in the plantation "Big House.”

Gabriel Prosser the insurrectionist of 1800 organized one of the largest plan slave revolt of its time.  Though he was slave, who hires out his time out, he tried to create a movement that was not political and not race based. Instead he believed that the ideas stemming from the American Revolution would be enough to motivate his base which dwelled in the city of Richmond.  But his troopers lived in the rural areas isolated from the city. Being strong on the rhetoric of the Revolution, and short on religious and ethnic identification he failed because his movement was without a black “Moses,” and he could not link up the city and country folks.  He failed to organized among the various African groups still visible on the plantation.  He believed the rhetoric of the Revolution was enough to transform both country and city blacks.  The reality check was the city belonged to the “Mulatto,” and the “Countryside” to the African.  English was the language of the Mulatto and Gullah was the language of African, and thus because the African and the Mulatto could not communicate in regard to their Affirmative Actions, the movement failed because the periphery and the center could not talk to each other.


The majority of black slave owners were members of the mulatto class, and in some cases were the sons and daughters of white slave masters.  Many of the mulatto slave owners separated themselves from the masses of black people and attempted to establish a caste system based on color, wealth, and free status. According to Martin Delany, the colored community of Charleston City clung to the assumptions of the superiority of white blood and brown skin complexion. 
These mulattoes of the old free Black elite did not attend church with the dark-skinned blacks of Charleston City.  They not only formed congregations which excluded freedmen of dark complexion, but they only married among other mulattoes to “keep the color in the family.”

After slavery it was the children of the mullato class that was more willing to cross the color line and to bridge the gap between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks.  Also, a large number of the “new” black leaders in the South came from this class/caste group.  The sons and daughters of black slave masters were educated and resourceful.  In the late 1860s, Frances Rollins, the daughter of William Rollins, a black slave owner of Charleston City, worked as a school teacher in Beaufort County.  She was educated at the Institution for Colored Youth in Philadelphia and was one of four sisters who worked to uplift the newly freed in South Carolina.  Later, she married William James Whipper, a state representative of South Carolina.  Thaddeus Sasportas, the son of Joseph A. Sasportas, a mulatto slave owner, went to Orangeburgh County to aid the ex-slaves and to work as a teacher, where he taught ex-slaves to read and write.

For the first group of African immigrants identification with Africa was strong in both the North and the South.  In the North, African cultural institutions were established in the black governor’s parade during the Pinkster celebration, where African dances and songs were performed.  In New Orleans a corresponding African extravaganza at Congo Square took place every weekend until 1817.  Both these festivals were designated as “African” events.  The were organized and run by Africans, African danced and sung African songs.  They wore African attire and both blacks and whites attended these memorable ceremonies.  This ceremonies illustrated strong African presence.  This would change quickly as the African was slowly being transformed into the African American.  Class, caste and color would become more clear and stratified as more and more were joining the ranks of the mixed.

By the 1830s the term colored was no longer used exclusively by blacks of mixed heritage but was common in black leadership circles that included abolitionists, integrationists and nationalists.  Many blacks sought to disassociate from their African identification because of the activities of the American Colonization Society, which wanted to send free blacks back to Africa.  Fearing both lost status and the possibility of a forced return to an African “homeland,” the black leadership moved away from African identification.  From 1830 to 1860, integration and nationalism began to ascend over the forces of African cultural identification.  A major thrust began to remove the word African from both educational and organizational titles to bolster the fight by African Americans to resist colonization schemes.

Over time the changes in terminology reflect many changes in attitude, from strong African identification to nationalisms, integrations and attempts at assimilation back to a strong cultural identification.  This struggle to reshape and define the African Diaspora in both the concrete and the abstract also reflects the renewed pride of black people in shaping a future based on the concept of one African people living in the African Diaspora.



It is believed that Prince Hall was born free in British West Indies, and that his father, Thomas Prince Hall, was an Englishman and his mother a free black woman of French extraction.  In 1773, he acquired property and was qualified to vote and became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Prince Hall during the 1770s founded the African Grand Lodge of North America, which became known as the Prince Hall Mason in 1791.  He believed that the original masons were black people who built the pyramids of ancient Egypt, and wanted to provide some direct linkages to that heritage, which he associated with his African heritage, even though he looked white. As early as 1787, Prince Hall petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to support efforts by black Bostonians to establish a colony in Africa. He sent a petition to the Legislative Assembly of Massachusetts saying men of African blood continued to suffer discrimination which they feared would continue as long as they lived in North America.  The petitioners urged the Legislature to assist them and other blacks that wished to immigrate back to Africa. The petition was ignored and Prince Hall now turned to fight for civil liberties on American soil. In 1789, the Union Society of Africans in Newport reopened the issue of emigration to Africa and argued that Americans of African decent were treated as strangers and outcasts.  The society drew attention to the “heathenish darkness and barbarity,” which existed in their ancestral homeland.[2]

Prince Hall, like other Boston black leaders, was preoccupied with African identity and linkage to an African homeland.  After fighting in the War of Independence, he mistakenly believed that once African Americans had demonstrated their loyalty by fighting and dying for their country, racism would be removed as a factor in their lives. Prince Hall and the post-Revolutionary black leaders endorsed African American migration and nationalism and believed that African Americans must achieve their own nation either in Africa, Latin American, and the West Indies or somewhere in the American West.

Paul Cuffe also shared this mindset.  One can argue that the Back-to-Africa movement officially materialized with Paul Cuffe, the son of an Asante father and Wampanoag Indian mother. Paul Cuffe was born near New Bedford, Mass.  He became a prosperous New England sea captain and wealthy ship builder and landlord. As a successful shipbuilder and owner, he accumulated an estate worth more than $20,000. In 1797, he purchased a farm on which he built and opened the first integrated school in Massachusetts because his own children had been denied access to the public school. Paul Cuffe believed that African American colonization of Africa was the way to end the Atlantic slave trade, spread Christianity to Africans, and create a refuge for free black people.  On New Year’s Day, 1811, Paul Cuffe and a crew of nine black seamen sailed from Philadelphia aboard his flagship, the Traveller.  This was his first trip to Sierra Leone to investigate the feasibility of establishing a colony for blacks in West Africa. While in Sierra Leone he made careful plans for emigration. During his three-month visit to the west coast of Africa, he met with government officials and local chiefs, and visited schools and attended Methodist meetings where he distributed Bibles. He tried to establish friendly relations and open a dialogue between continental and Diaspora Africans.  As an example of his good faith, he purchased a house in Freetown, which symbolically was to signal his return.[3] 

While in Sierra Leone, Paul Cuffe accepted an invitation by an English abolitionist to visit London, Liverpool and Manchester. He was received as an honored guest by members of Parliament, including the Duke of Gloucester, who was nephew to the king and president of the African Institution, an organization of abolitionists, who were dedicated to “promoting the civilizations of the people of Africa.” Near the end of his visit, the Liverpool Mercury published a “Memoir of Captain Paul Cuffee [sic] which described his early life and notable achievements for a black man.

In 1815, he made his second trip to Sierra Leone, taking about 34 African Americans settlers to the British free black colony of Sierra Leone in West Africa at his own expense.  Paul Cuffe would probably have settled in Sierra Leone, but his Native American wife, Alice Pequit, refused to leave her homeland. Upon his return to America, he urged descendants of Africans in Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Westport to support colonization in Africa.  Paul Cuffe had planned more trips to Africa, but his health failed and he died in 1816, ending the first black initiative for migration, but his plan was picked up by the American Colonization Society in 1817.  Their goal and purpose was to send any Free black person or slaves emancipated for the purpose of migration back to Africa.

            The emigration of Africans emancipated was supported by both missionaries and slave holders.  The American Colonization Society bore the main responsibility for organizing and funding the project.  Southerners supported emigration to Africa in order to get rid of the free Black population whom they believed represented a major threat to the institution of slavery.  For the best of reasons and the worst of reasons, they supported African emigration.

Numerous African societies began to grow because early Boston was the center of the black world in North America. Traditional African culture had a series of balances to help people in need.  The black community in Boston modeled on African institutions which had created mutual aid societies.  They provided for members’ burial and medical expenses, and supported the widows and children.  In 1780, Newport, Rhode Island, organized the first black mutual aid society.  In 1787, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones established the Free African Society in Philadelphia. 

From the 18th century through the first third of the 19th century, black religious and educational organizations used the prefix African in their names, providing a sense of cultural integrity and a link to their African heritage.  The first black religious organization established in Savannah in 1787 was the First African Baptist Church.  The second oldest black denomination in North America, founded in 1787, was the African Methodist Episcopal.  In 1806, blacks constructed the first African Meeting House in Boston.  Other educational and political organizations included the African Free School and the Sons of Africa.  The first mutual beneficial societies that had direct roots in African secret societies called themselves African as late as 1841.  One such society was the New York African Society for Mutual Relief. The idea of Africa was so important to African Americans that it would continue to be used by them as their preferred term for identification until the American Colonization Society had adopted this plan.  This preference would dominate the black experience until 1817 when the American Colonization Society was established to send free blacks back to Africa.  As a result, the black elite began to distance themselves from any identification with Africa out of fear that they would be deported back to Africa.

Eighteenth century African Americans struggled to maintain identities with Africa as a homeland, but found it increasingly difficult to be associated with Africa and Africans, and at the same time be considered Americans. The most important black intellectual who emerged during the 18th century as forerunners to the movements for Pan African Diasporic connections were Martin R. Delany (1812-1885), Alexander Crummell (1822-1898), and Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912). Delany was born in the southern United States, moved to Pennsylvania in his youth and was the first black American to enter Medical School at Harvard.  He was forced to leave before completing his studies because white students refused to work alongside him. 

Martin Delany became a medical doctor by apprenticeship method and was also a journalist, novelist, explorer, anthropologist and military officer during the Civil War. Delany believed that African Americans should control their own destiny.  He stressed strong identification with Africa as a homeland and wanted black people to become independent from the white majority, and to depend on their own resources in order to elevate themselves and their culture.  Delany at first believed that African Americans could work within the system in order to transform it. The dominant society demanded cultural acculturation and the adopting of the “white man ways.”  Martin Delany would emerge after the Civil War as the new leader of the Black homeland identity movement. Prior to the Civil War, African Americans still believed that it was possible to have a connection with a “historic homeland” and an “adopted homeland.”

Delany became active in the Pittsburgh Anti-Slavery society and worked in the Underground Railroad helping enslaved Africans escape bondage.  He settled down and married Catherine Richard, the daughter of a well-to-do black butcher.  He named all his children after black historic figures: Toussaint L’Ouverture, (the black leader of the Haitian Revolution) Alexander Dumas (the French novelist who had African ancestry), Ramses II   Saint Cyprian, Faustin Soulouque, Charles L. Redmond, and their daughter, Ethiopia Halle.

Delany’s writings in the 1850s clearly reveal the mixture of the motives and methods that characterized early Black Nationalism.  He wanted to end slavery, and to put black people into a position to be eligible for citizenship.  He also looked toward Africa as the hope and promise where African Americans could produce cotton, he hoped, and would undercut the economy of the American South.  He sought to build black nations, and he wanted to build black business enterprise. In his words: Africa, to become regenerated, must have a national character, and her position among the existing nations of the earth will depend mainly upon the high standards she holds compared to them in her moral, religious, social, political and commercial relations.[4]

Delany argued that a black nation should be built with black resources only. Other blacks held similar views.  Edward W. Blyden and Alexander Crummell emigrated to Liberia as a place to start the advancement of black nationhood.  Africanus Horton attempted to build black nationhood from his base in his native Sierra Leone.

In 1852, Delany published The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States in which he articulated his views on Black Nationalism. Only in a country without white people could black people flourish.  “We are a nation within a nation.”  He went on to state that people of African descent should abandon the United States and migrate to Central America, South America, or Hawaii.  Delany was now getting involved in the “Back-to-Africa” movement and he became one of the key figures in organizing the National Emigration Convention in Cleveland in 1854.

Delany and Robert Campbell, two competing black nationalists, left independently of each other to survey the Niger region of West Africa for possible African American settlement. Delany, in this search for a place for African Americans, first arrived in Liberia where the reception was courteous, but not enthusiastic because he was known as an opponent of the American Colonization Society that preceded him.  As Delany traveled through Liberia in the Egba-Yoruba region from Lagos to Ilorin, he never lost sight of his mission—to develop an African American nation in the heart of Africa, and thus establish a permanent linkage for Africans and their descendants in the New World. Delany’s mission was clearly a search for a homeland, and it is this homeland image, which served as the foundation for his identity as a black man.  Frederick Douglass, when speaking about Martin Delany, said: “I thank God for making me a man, but Delany thank Him for making him a black man.”

In his Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploration Party (1861), Delany wrote after he returned from Africa that the continent of Africa is “our fatherland.” He argued that its regeneration required the development of a “national character,” and that Africa should be for the African race.”[5] Next to Paul Cuffe, this is the earliest Diasporic connections by African Americans.

Alexander Crummell was born in New York and the first African American to study at Cambridge University in England, becoming an ordained Anglican priest.  He had already been living in Liberia for two decades when he met Delany on his visit to that country in 1859.  In The Future of Africa (1862), in a collection of essays and lectures written while in Liberia, he developed a vision of an African Diaspora with Africa as the Motherland for all peoples of African descent.  He argued further that God had given black divine providence and that it was Christian of free black men in America to convert their ancestral continent to Christianity.

In the essay, “The Relations and Duties of Free Colored Men in America to Africa,” Crummell laid out the racial philosophical basis for the Diaspora.  He defined black identity based on race, land and culture.  He saw black identity as “a compact homogeneous population of one blood ancestry and lineage.

Throughout the Civil War, the African identification with the homeland continued.  African Americans believed that the war had removed most obstacles for black achievement. Martin Delany’s homeland identity movement was a failure because the times had changed with the end of the Civil War.  The majority of African American and West Indian migration to West Africa occurred before the Civil War.  One cannot dismiss this movement as inconsequential because thousands of African Americans heard Delany’s call and emigrated from the Western Hemisphere to Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Niger River area.  Delaney demonstrated the importance of a homeland in building self-esteem for Africans in the Diaspora and accepting and appreciating their blackness, now as define by an association of black skin and a black continent.

Bishop Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915) was a contemporary of Martin Delany.  He was born free near Abbeville, South Carolina. He was converted to Christianity at the age of 20 and was licensed as a traveling evangelist for the Methodist Episcopal Church.  He preached to both black and white audiences throughout the South until 1858 when he joined the AME.  In 1862, he moved to a church in Washington D.C., where congressmen attended to hear his fiery sermons.  Along with Martin Delany and Frederick Douglass, he agitated for putting black troops into the Civil War. Later, he became the first black chaplain to be commissioned in the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln.

By the end of the war, Turner was assigned to the Freedmen’s Bureau in Georgia, but later resigned to recruit African Americans for his Church, and later to organize them for the Republican Party, which was trying to gain a foothold in the South. Turner participated in the Georgia Constitutional Convention of 1868, and later was elected to the legislature.  However, whites refused to seat the black legislator, and Turner was appointed postmaster at Macon, Ga., and then customs inspector at Savannah.  In 1876, he was elected manager of the AME Book Concern, and in 1880 he was elected Bishop of the AME.[6]

During the 1870s Bishop Turner became disillusioned with America due to his experiences in Reconstruction politics. He wrongly believed that the Civil War would remove all the obstacles for black uplifting and would open the door for blacks participating in the political, economic, social and racial reconstruction of America. He now became more nationalistic, and believed that only blacks themselves could contribute to their own liberation and freedom, and that none of these goals could be guaranteed because the white man would never let the black man become a part of the system because of institutional racism. Bishop Turner now believed that a homeland needed to be created for African Americans.  In 1871, he argued for black migration out of the South and first suggested Haiti as a possible place for black emigration.  Three years later, he proposed that the federal government reserve New Mexico Territory for African American settlement. Turner now turned toward Africa as a potential homeland for African Americans.   He urged talented young blacks to establish a nation in Africa to give pride and encouragement to blacks of African descent. To accomplish this goal, he argued, the federal government should pay reparation to people of African descent for slavery.

In order to accomplish his emigration plan, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner formed an alliance with white segregationist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. For him, this move was not contradictory with his ideology because both groups wanted the same thing—the removal of blacks from the United States.  In 1878, Turner became the vice president of the white-dominated American Colonization Society, whose purpose was to provide free passage to any African American who would leave the United States. Turner believed that emigration to Africa was the best opportunity for blacks to prosper and advance.

In Atlanta, Bishop Turner founded the Southern Recorder (1888), the Voice of Missions (1892), and the Voice of the People (1901).  He also published a catechism, a hymnal and The Genius and Theory of Methodist Polity (1885).  He was an supporter of self-protection and in the Voice of Missions March 1897 issue, advocated African American to acquire firearms and “to keep them loaded and prepared for immediate use” against white lynch mobs.

Bishop Turner’s nationalism led him to African emigration. During the 1890s, Turner made four trips to Africa, visiting Liberia, Sierra Leone British South Africa, and the Transvaal to publicize his “Back-to-Africa” emigration plan. In 1893, he summoned a national convention of black leaders to protest lynching and political attacks on blacks and to find support for his emigration movement. As a theologian, Bishop Turner was the first to introduce the concept of a black theology of liberation.  He argued that God is a black man created in the image of the Creator, and that black people needed to stop worshiping a God who is white-skinned, blue-eyed, compressed-lipped, and who is in the image of a finely robed white gentleman. He argued that the oppressed are God’s chosen ones, and that no one is more oppressed that the black man, who was created in God’s image. He would go on to say that even the African knows that their God looks like them. He urged blacks to reject everything the white churches said about black inferiority and believe in the 11th commandment: “Love thyself with all thy heart and with thy entire mind.”  Turner underscored the role of the black church in instilling racial pride and black consciousness among African Americans and in uplifting the black masses through a theology of black freedom and liberation from the white man’s world.[7]

Like other black nationalistic movements, it was elitist in that he wanted to attract well-to-do African Americans, who had the necessary resources to build a black state from where Diasporic streams could emanate.  The reality of his movement was that only poor dirt farmers, who had no stake in the American dream, became the real disciples for emigration to Africa.  Clearly, the sum total of his early work was a worldwide strategy for African and African American manhood by making a direct connection with one’s African ancestors and redeeming Africa for Africans and her descendants.

 Paul Cuffe, Martin Delany, Robert Campbell, Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, Edward Blyden and Alexander Crummell were the intellectual fathers of the Pan African Movement. However, W.E.B. DuBois was the first to conceptualize the ideal into what he called Pan Negroism. While Pan Africanism as an intellectual movement begins with these founders, the history of Pan Africanism starts with Henry Sylvester Williams, a London lawyer born in Trinidad.  His dream was to bring together people of African origin from around the African Diaspora in 1897.  There was a preliminary conference in 1899 where the term Pan Africanisms was adopted.  The first official conference took place in London in 1900.  Four African representatives were present from Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Gold Coast (later Ghana), and DuBois showed up from the United States. Another 11 representative came from the West Indies and five from London.

The purpose of the first meeting was to allow blacks to discuss the conditions of blacks in colonial Africa and in the Americas.  W.E.B. DuBois was responsible for organizing the first Pan African Congress in 1919 in Paris, which brought together for the first time people of African descent from the Americas, Europe and Africa. DuBois remained instrumental in the two Pan African Congresses until Kwame Nkrumah and the continental Africans joined to link the African struggle for independence and the African American struggle for Civil Rights.

The Pan African and identity Movements were a response to racial discrimination, as were the series of Pan African Congresses.  Writers who have most influenced the literature on Pan Africanism are George Shepperson, who emphasized the African American contributions to Pan African thought; Immanuel Geiss, who distinguished modern and nostalgic Pan African thought; J. Ayodele Langley, who focused on ideologies of liberation within the tradition of Pan African thought; and P. Olisanwuche Esedebe, who focused on the Africans instead of the colonizers.[8]

The first continental African to join this Pan African Movement which called for blacks to emigrate back to their African homeland was Chief Alfred C. Sam.  He sought to create a Diasporic connection between West Africans and African Americans by establishing a shipping line between the United States and the West Indies (as Garvey later did, however without much success). After being frustrated by the American and the British governments, he turned to recruitment of the Oklahoma black farmers.

In the summer of 1913, Chief Alfred C. Sam began selling stock in his company, Akim Trading Company Limited, and advocating for African American emigration to the Gold Coast, where he was a chief and owned some land. Chief Sam appealed to the residents of several all-black towns, the remnants of E. P. McCabe’s settlement projects. The Oklahoma black community was ripe for emigration with increasing disfranchisement and state racism. Numerous blacks had fled to Oklahoma from southern states trying to escape Jim Crow. Now, in their despair they embraced Chief Sam’s emigration plan and invested their money accordingly with the hope of going to Africa.  Chief Sam purchased a steamship and christened it “Liberia.” He sailed from Galveston with 60 emigrants and an all-black crew.  Several hundred black Oklahomans who had gone to Galveston in the hope of sailing the first voyage were left behind. Hundreds more waited in Oklahoma for Chief Sam to return.   A few did arrive in and settled in the Gold Coast, but they were too few in number and resources to build an African American state in the heart of West Africa. Financial and political problems cost him the “Liberia” and his plan to build a state run and organized by continental Africans and their descendants from the United States.[9]



The Noble Drew Ali was one of the most influential Black Nationalist leaders of the century.  He strongly influenced the growth and development of Black Nationalist identity between 1913 and the 1930s.  His movement combined black Messiah feelings, Black Nationalism, and a theology of deliverance from the white man’s world, culture and religion. His movement was a direct response to Jim Crowism and exclusion of blacks from participation in the American Dream.  His ideas and philosophy have contributed to, and have made possible the rise of black Messianic figures such as Father Divine, Sweet Daddy Grace and others.

Moorish Orthodoxy is not a new religion.  Historically, it had its beginnings with the message of the American prophet Noble Drew Ali.  In 1913, Noble Drew Ali established the Moorish Science Temple in Newark, N.J., and began to teach a synthesized version of orthodox Islam, Garveyism, Christianity and various extractions from oriental philosophy.  From Newark, Ali’s teaching spread to the northern cities of Detroit, Harlem, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and various cities in the South, eventually embracing an estimated membership of between 20,000 and 30,000.

Born in Moor County, South Carolina, in 1886, Noble Drew Ali was raised by Cherokee Indians.  At the age of 16, Ali joined a circus performing magic tricks, and later became a merchant marine, traveling to Egypt where he received self knowledge and direction as a high priest, the last of the cult of magi practiced for centuries in the pyramid of Cheops.  At the pyramid of Cheops, the priest asserted that Ali was the reincarnation of former leaders of cult.  Hence, a prophet materialized.  Ali learned the messages of the Circle Seven Koran and returned to North America where he was told in a dream to become the founding father of a religion that was intended to “uplift the fallen mankind.”

Although his first mosque was in Baltimore, Ali and his followers were forced to move to Chicago because they declined to fight in WWI.  It was here that his movement, the Moorish Science Temple, began to grow.  Jealousy was prevalent amongst the members, and several times Ali’s life was threatened.  In 1935, the prophet announced that he was about to leave his present body and foretold the hour of his death.  At the same time that this was announced, violent police raids on his mosque took place, and it is presumed that he died later at the hands of police brutality, or more than likely, was poisoned by members of his organization.  Ali named his son his successor, but soon his chauffeur claimed to have dreamed that Ali had declared him the successor.  The chauffeur formed a splinter group, which today has more adherents than the “Mother” mosque.

The mystic side of Moorish Science was stressed and included symbols, music and words from all the religions of the world.  A concept of ritual aid is practiced.  This means that those of all cultures who have found and expressed the way provide aid.  Art, music, religious literature, poetry, medicine, physics, herbalism and yoga are all part of Moorish Orthodoxy.  The rule of life in Moorish Orthodoxy is spiritual expediency.  Followers of the Moorish Orthodoxy religion have close ties with the Sufi movement, both ancient and modern.

            The contentions of Noble Drew Ali’s religious nationalism, which were the key to the salvation and liberation of African people in the United States, lay in the discovery and acceptance of their national origin as Moors.  Islam was the only instrument for black unity and advancement.  Whites were the opposite and negative to blacks and were soon to be destroyed.  The need to obey the law set by the government and religion outweighed any radicalism.  The essentiality of love, harmony and peace in the world, especially among African Americans, was relevant to his message that urged his followers to struggle to build a better world.  The Noble Drew Ali urged his followers to struggle to be righteous and to build a better world.[10]

In summary, Noble Drew Ali’s basic contentions and principles laid a basis for the Nation of Islam, which grew out of the Moorish Temple Movement.  The stress of name change both of land and of nationality created a division of the world into dark and white people.  The political conservatism and the conception of divine retribution of Allah toward whites found a new expression in the ideology and practices of the Nation of Islam.

While we know very little about his life, we know that his movement influenced the rise of consciousness of African-Americans as they attempted to cope with Jim Crow Laws.  As a direct response to Jim Crow, he provided African Americans with an identity based on identification with Africa.  He remains the most mysterious of African American religious leaders but his legacy continues to live on in the black identification movement of today.  He contributed greatly to the racial pride movement and the elevation of black identity, culture and heritage with Africa.  Ali laid the foundation for African Americans to rediscover their lost history, heritage, culture and stolen identity.



Marcus Garvey was born on the West Indian island of Jamaica in 1887.  He worked as a printer, labor organizer, and later as a newspaper publisher.  He attempted to expose the racial situation inside Jamaica and give the darker colored Jamaicans fairer treatment.  After becoming dismayed by the living conditions of workers and the exploitation by white and mulatto overseers, Garvey tried in vain to persuade Jamaican officials to intervene.  In 1912, he was exiled from Jamaica to London by the British Colonial government.  There he met Duse Mohamed, a black Egyptian who was promoting the defeat of European colonialism everywhere.  He worked on Duse Mohamed’s magazine Africans Times and the Orient Review.  There he met Africans and studied about the continent, and became Pan African nationalist.  Strongly influenced by Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery, he returned to Jamaica in 1914 and set up an organization called the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the African Communities League (UNIA) to unite people of color all over the world.

Garvey moved to New York in 1916 and resided in Harlem.  He recruited during the war years but was not successful because the economy was good.  However, with WWI ending, the race riots of 1919 swayed many African American ex-soldiers to join his organization.  Garvey was able to increase his numbers through his brilliant analysis of the world situation and blacks in relations to the new economic and political trends.  For instance, WWI, in Garvey’s view, “had been a fratricidal war among Europeans for control over colonies in Africa and throughout the nonwhite world.”  He reasoned that future Africans in the Western Hemisphere would find themselves in rapidly declining circumstances.  The unskilled labor poor blacks would become obsolete in the work force with advancing technology.  The black intelligentsia would face frustration in societies that reserved the privilege of advancement for whites.  If left unchanged, Garvey’s world would consume the populations of Africa as the industrialized nations competed over its mineral wealth.  Like Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, central to Garvey’s philosophy was the need to unite all black people and to give them a racial self-confidence that would enable them to throw off white oppression.        Economic independence was another factor in the UNIA plan.  Garvey was one of the first blacks to urge his followers to “buy black—to patronize their own businessmen,” similar to Booker T. Washington’s stress on self-sufficiency.  The UNIA opened several business projects, including the Negro Factories Corporation to assist black businesses.  Garvey founded the Black Star Steamship Line to serve as a commercial and spiritual tie among black people everywhere.  Like Bishop Turner’s shipping attempts, the Black Star Ship Line stocks were sold to blacks only and Garvey promised stock buyers that they would not only be helping their race, but might also make a profit.  Garvey collected enough money between 1919 and 1925 to buy four secondhand ships and to begin trade in the Caribbean.

For Garvey, the only path to economic independence and black pride was the redemption of “Africa for the Africans.”  According to Garvey, the black man must organize the world over and build up for the race a mighty nation of their own in Africa.  In August, 1920, the Garvey movement was at its peak.  In New York City, 25,000 African Americans attended a month-long convention.  Black Nationalism and an African homeland was the focal point.  Garvey was designated the “Provisional President of the African Republic.”

Garvey was aware that most of Africa was still under colonial rule.  He also felt that Africans would need to be brought into the 20th century.  Using Liberia as a base, Garvey proposed sending a limited number of African Americans with skills, professions and capital (20,000 to 30,000 families to begin with) to settle in Liberia.  Liberia was the only independent Republic in West Africa at the time.  Liberia was experiencing a financial crisis and needed funds to pay off a national debt.  Garvey offered the money in exchange for settlement of his people in Liberia.  After 1920, several teams of Garvey’s representatives visited Liberia to lay the groundwork for Garvey’s plan.  The United Stated had sent Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois to represent the State Department and to counter Garvey’s plan.  The British were also concerned about Garvey’s policies on African liberation.  Du Bois made the UNIA seem like a threat to the Americio-Liberians (an elite group of descendants of African Americans from North America).  The Americo-Liberians were convinced that Garvey had a secret plan to take over the country, which he did.  To the delight of the United States and the European colonial powers which felt threatened by Garvey’s Africa for the African policy, Liberia broke off negotiations and refused to allow any UNIA members to settle in Liberia after accepting five million dollars from the Garvey movement.

Garvey had promised to liberate Africa through his African Legion and Black Flying Eagles.  Many of the affluent African American leadership opposed Garvey and the UNIA.  The black elite—businessmen and intellectuals—resented Garvey; similar to the way Bishop Turner was resented.  A. Philip Randolph of the Messenger, a socialist journal, thought Garvey’s Africa would be a reactionary dictatorship, not a democracy.  Robert Abbott, of the influential Chicago Defender, arranged to have Garvey harassed for selling stock in Illinois without a license.  African American Churchmen resented Garvey’s establishment of an African Orthodox Church, which threatened to win members from them.  W.E.B. DuBois, editor of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, accused Garvey of being the worst enemy of the Black race.  He attempted to work on a number of Pan African Conferences to bring together intellectual blacks and upper-class blacks whose aim was to push for the independence of Africa away from Colonial control.

Pan Africanism in the 19th and 20th centuries was not about the artificial dreams of unity, but instead, encompassed progressive views that provided Africans and their descendants in the New World, a foundation upon which to build economic, political and racial unity based on a common ancestry and common problems in a white world.  Through political mobilization and cultural pride, Africans and African Americans would be able to protect black interests in Africa and North America. Booker T. Washington best articulated the accommodation wing of the economic Pan African philosophy.

Pan Africanism began as an emigration envisioned by Paul Cuffe to relocate enslaved Africans in an African homeland.  The purpose was to provide a place where blacks could be masters of their own faith and destinies. Out of Pan Africanism grew Black Nationalism as it took an intercontinental and radical form in response to racial discrimination and Jim Crow in America.  The foundation of Pan African unity lay not so much on the rejections and repression of African Americans by whites, but on the things that united blacks living in the Diaspora. The experience of enslavement, colonial rule and racial segregation united Africans living in the Diaspora. Pan African thought and philosophy for Africans and people of African descent resulted in a struggle that would give birth to the African independence movements in Africa, and the struggle for Civil Rights in the United States. 


[1] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Mask (1952).

[2] Joseph A. Walkes, Jr., Black Square and Compass – 200 years of Prince Hall Freemasonry. Macoy Publishing and Masonic Supply Co.  Richmond, Virginia, 1979, p.8; Prince Hall Masonic Directory, Conference of Grand Masters, Prince Hall Mason, 4th Edition 1992.

[3] Hollis R. Lynch, “Pan-Negro Nationalism in the New World Before 1862.” In August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Eds. The Making of Black Americans, Vol. I (New York: Athenaeum, 1969), 46.

[4] Martin R. Delany, Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party, reprinted in Howard H. Bell, ed., Search for a Place (Ann Arbor, 1969), 111.

[5] See Search for a Place: Black Separatism and Africa, 1860. The University of Michigan Press, 1969.  It contains Martin R. Delany’s original Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party and Robert Campbell’s A Pilgrimage to My Motherland: An Account of A Journal Among the Egbas and Yorubas of Central Africa in 1859-60.

[6] Edwin S. Redkey. Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back-to-Africa Movements 1890-1910 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969.

[7] See. E. S. Redkey, Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890-1910 (1969); E. S. Writing and Speeches of Henry M. Turner; Mungo M. Ponton, Life and Times of Henry M. Turner (1917).

[8] George Shepperson, “Notes on Negro American Influences on the Emergence of African Nationalism, Journal of African History 1 (1960), 299-312; Immanuel Geiss, The Pan African Movement: A History of Pan Africanisms in America Europe, and Africa, trans. Ann Keep (New York, 1974); J Ayodele Langley, Ideologies of Liberation; P. Olisanwuche Esedebe, Pan Africanism.

[9] W. Bittle and G. Geis, The Longest Way Home: Chief Alfred D. Sam’s Back to-Africa Movement (Detroit, 1964); “Chief Alfred Sam,” in Robert A. Hill, ed. The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers, vol. 1 (Berkeley, 1983), 536-547.

[10] See Herbert Booker’s The Noble Drew Ali and the Moorish Science Temple Movement. Publisher: New World African Press, Northridge, 2000.