Hubert Harrison at Temple

by Carl Dyke

At the conference I met Jeffrey B. Perry, whose work is on the history and consequences of white supremacism. Jeffrey is currently doing a lecture circuit with his talk and slide presentation on “Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918.” He is at UMass-Boston this afternoon and will be at Temple University in Philadelphia on Thursday. See his website for details.

Although I’ve got some self-taught familiarity with the more famous players in the history of critical race theory, I had not heard of Hubert Harrison until running into Jeffrey between conference sessions. The Columbia UP page for Jeffrey’s book on Harrison offers this compelling capsule:

Hubert Harrison was an immensely skilled writer, orator, educator, critic, and political activist who, more than any other political leader of his era, combined class consciousness and anti-white-supremacist race consciousness into a coherent political radicalism. Harrison’s ideas profoundly influenced “New Negro” militants, including A. Philip Randolph and Marcus Garvey, and his synthesis of class and race issues is a key unifying link between the two great trends of the Black Liberation Movement: the labor- and civil-rights-based work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the race and nationalist platform associated with Malcolm X.

The foremost Black organizer, agitator, and theoretician of the Socialist Party of New York, Harrison was also the founder of the “New Negro” movement, the editor of Negro World, and the principal radical influence on the Garvey movement. He was a highly praised journalist and critic (reportedly the first regular Black book reviewer), a freethinker and early proponent of birth control, a supporter of Black writers and artists, a leading public intellectual, and a bibliophile who helped transform the 135th Street Public Library into an international center for research in Black culture.

Jeffrey has also edited and introduced a collection of Harrison’s writings among numerous other scholarly contributions. His is clearly an extraordinary labor of love and honor.

We met up when my early Sunday morning panel was letting out and his mid Sunday morning talk was about to begin. I was struck by his passion and immediate self-identification as an independent, working-class scholar. I was also struck by his assumption that he had been placed disadvantageously on the program because he was an outsider bringing unwelcome knowledge. He saw a pattern of marginalization there. In contrast, I thought my paper had gotten dumped into the Sunday whatsits (Sunday is when most conference participants leave, so those panels are often loosely organized and sparsely attended) because I had submitted it solo and it hadn’t matched up at a glance with the main themes of the conference.

I suggested to Jeffrey that putting together a coherent panel and targeting it to the conference rubric might be a way to achieve a more favorable placement and reception for his important work. His dismissal of this unsolicited advice was firm and monosyllabic.

I’m glad to know about Hubert Harrison and grateful for Jeffrey’s work.

3 Comments to “Hubert Harrison at Temple”

  1. ooh. thanks for posting this, excited to find/read more about harrison. hope conference went well 🙂

  2. And it’s interesting to ask what impact privilege has on both the panel placement AND the interpretation of panel placement. If, for example, one’s experience has been that different panel descriptions enable one to get placed more advantageously, then one may be more likely to conclude that a “bad” placement is (a) due to one’s own panel description and (b) “fixable.” If one’s experience is that one is always disadvantageously placed, and one is implicitly or explicitly questioning the criteria by which placement is decided, then one might well conclude that the bad placement is, again, due to one’s panel description but NOT “fixable.”

    Of course, you’ve probably already thought about this.

    I do remember how tiresome it became, while I was in grad school, to try to explain male privilege to the sea of men in which I was operating.

  3. Hi CC, nice of you to check in! The conference went as well as can be expected, I’d say; perhaps I’ll do a post to explain what I mean.

    Narya, yes thanks, these were the issues I had in mind. My compliments on your navigation of the sea of men. In the scenario under investigation here there are some interesting nests of bias, including as you point out on my own relatively privileged side.

    So – I’m pretty used to being marginalized in academe as a low-level professional with no personal or institutional name appeal, uncompelling credentials and a disposition toward goofy topics. There’s something self-fulfilling about all of that, but it’s much easier to parse as ‘choice’ because I’m a white fella. In principle I have the option to fully leverage my gender, race and class privileges (among others) by hooking into the hot topics, doing a lot of publishing, and bootstrapping up the prestige-o-meter. Of course there’s still an element of fortune, as Machiavelli might say, and seats in the front of the bus are scarce no matter what, but there’s not a lot of mystery about how my kind get to sit up there.

    We’d have to look deeper into why I do not make this choice. Perhaps I’m conceptually and/or ethically ambivalent about a more central placement; perhaps there are also some identity confirmation/ disconfirmation issues in play. Perhaps I am drawn to relatively disqualifying topics by some combination of these. In terms of others’ reception of my dead voles, clearly enough my whiteboyness is not an absolute but a relative qualifier. It feeds back with other factors that amplify or damp it to create a dispersion-range of possible outcomes. Disqualifiers like workingclassness may be absolute or relative, amplified or damped as well. Of course workingclassness is a qualifier on different scales of access and whiteboy not.

    Anyway, in my case I’m happy enough to say that I can’t complain about Sunday or my general life-position because I haven’t done those things that are under my control that might enhance my chances of access to a different placement. I think that’s a pretty good general rule. If the disqualifiers are not absolute, and I’m not aware of any that are nowadays, I don’t know whether things are fixable until I try to fix them. Deciding not to may be a choice with some integrity, but it does not supply a useful data point in a discussion of real chances.

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