The National Character of Black Oppression

W.E.B. Du Bois, 1868-1963.

For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, a small cadre of activist intellectuals sought to understand African American exploitation by analyzing its “national character.” According to this position, Black people in majority-white societies experienced a special type of oppression that was reducible neither to racism nor ethnic discrimination.

Black communist James Ford wrote in 1938, “Because of special forms of oppression—race discrimination, economic distinctions and cultural hindrances—thirteen million Negro citizens occupy the lowest rung in the social life of the United States.” Ten years later, Black revolutionary Harry Haywood concurred, “[T]he stifling effects of the race factor are most strikingly illustrated by the drastic differences in the economic and cultural status of Negroes and whites…any attempt to place the status of southern ‘poor whites’ on a par with that of the Negroes is false. Beyond all doubt, the oppression of the Negro, which is the basis of the degradation of the ‘poor whites,’ is of separate character demanding a special approach.”

Such analysis was fundamentally predicated upon a critique of global capitalism and its particular effects on African descendants. In 1924, African Blood Brotherhood member Otto Huiswoud contended that the future of capitalist accumulation was dependent on the colonization of Africa and other lands inhabited by people of color, and that imperial rivalries would be played out there—an argument that echoed W.E.B. Du Bois’s thesis in “The African Roots of the War.” Harlem-based Black militant and one-time Garveyite Richard B. Moore argued in the “Common Resolution on the Negro Question” in 1927 that the control of land in Africa by Africans, racial equality, the abolition of enforced labor, the right to education, and the right to unionize were prerequisites for the overthrow of capitalist imperialism. Equally important were the organization of political and economic power for Black people through unionization and cooperatives, the coordination of liberation movements, and direct challenge to “imperialist ideology: chauvinism, fascism, kukluxism, and race prejudice.”1

The national character of African American oppression, wrought by U.S. imperialism, paralleled the conditions of peoples colonized by European powers in Africa, the Caribbean, and throughout the Third World. In his 1929 report to the Second World Congress of the League Against Imperialism, Ford explicated this reality. The imperial stage of capitalist development, he explained, was characterized by the consolidation of Africa’s partition and the “complete enslavement of its people,” the arresting of industrialization, which hindered the development of the “toiling masses,” and the relegation of the Continent to a source of raw material, a market for European goods, and a dumping ground for accumulated surplus capital. In the United States, Black people suffered an intensification of exploitation by “white big business” and the “rising Negro bourgeoisie” that supported the subjection of the Black working class. The exacerbation of these conditions by rigid racial barriers, disenfranchisement, and lynching gave Black exploitation its special character: superexploitation. Moreover, the West Indies, subjected to U.S. militarism and occupation, was largely transformed into a marketplace for American goods.

In 1920, Huiswoud and radical poet and writer Claude McKay explained that the condition of Black people in the U.S. was fundamentally an economic problem. As “a race of toilers,” they were the most “oppressed, exploited, and suppressed section” of the international working class. Huiswoud and McKay understood racial antagonism in the United States as a product of interracial labor competition, the “badge of slavery” worn by Black people, and the use of African Americans and West Indians as a source of cheap labor to undercut the working class as a whole.2 Thus, in the United States, the national character of Black oppression was especially manifested in regimes of labor control. African Americans were virtually imprisoned in southern plantation systems through sharecropping and debt peonage, excluded from most industries, reduced to the worst forms of employment with the most dangerous and unhealthy work conditions, and subjected to unequal and extremely low wages. Black Communist leader Claudia Jones argued in 1946, “We kn[o]w that the semi-slavery of the Southern sharecroppers; the inferior status of the Negro people in industry, North and South; the existence of Jim Crow in the armed forces; the Jim Crow practices of New York and Chicago, as well as Birmingham and Tampa…all can be traced back step by step to the continued existence of an oppressed Negro nation within our border.”3

Those who analyzed the national character of Black oppression posited that Black people in the United States were a “nation within a nation,” or an “internal colony.” For Du Bois, African Americans were best understood as a nation within a nation given the entrenchment of their economic, political, social, and educational dispossession at the hands of whites. The latter, he argued, had little interest in ensuring the survival or future of Black folk if it entailed freedom, self-assertion, and equality. As such, Black empowerment must include a concentration of efforts along racial lines based on cooperative economics, voluntary segregation, and group unity and loyalty.4 Haywood, offering an alternative interpretation of domestic colonialism, named the relationship between Northern absentee corporate and financial entities and the Black Belt “industrial imperialism.” This was because eastern banks’ credit systems were used to finance southern plantations, capitalist families like the Mellons, Fords, and Rockefellers controlled the majority of coalfields in the South, and natural gas and electric companies were in the hands of Northern financial institutions.

In the 1960s, these analyses were extended and applied to Black folk in urban ghettoes by revolutionary nationalists including Harold Cruse and Kwame Turé. They held that, similar to European colonies, in colonies internal to the U.S., ownership of labor, resources, and institutions resided outside of the Black community, a cadre of elites collaborated and identified with colonial-imperial powers for their own personal gain, and resources (particularly in the form of labor) were extracted from the Black periphery to develop the “core” society.

Analyzing the national character of Black oppression centered the role of racial capitalism in the dispossession and denigration of African Americans. It also linked the latter’s condition to that of other African descendants throughout the world. It helped to illuminate that, in the final analysis, the superexploitation of African Americans was a labor relation, a form of racial subjection, and the basis for global solidarity with other oppressed workers of the world.

  1.  Richard B. Moore, “Statement at the Congress of the League Against Imperialism and for National Independence,” in Richard B. Moore, Caribbean Militant in Harlem: Collected Writings, 1920-1972, ed. Richard B. Turner et al., (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1992), 144-146.
  2. Hakim Adi, “The Negro Question: The Communist International and Black Liberation in the Interwar Years,” in From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International Since the Age of Revolution, ed. Michael O. West, William G. Martin, and Fanon Che Wilkins (Chapel Hill: The Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2009), 160.
  3. Claudia Jones, “On the Right to Self-Determination for the Negro People in the Black Belt,” Political Affairs 25, no. 1 (January 1946): 62.
  4.  W.E.B. Du Bois, “Keeping Blacks and Whites Apart,” February 9, 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. This draft was published as “A Negro Nation within a Nation” in Current History in June 1935.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Charisse Burden-Stelly

Charisse Burden-Stelly is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Carleton College. She received a PhD in African Diaspora Studies in 2016 from the University of California, Berkeley. Her areas of specialization include race and political economy, Black political theory, antiblackness and anti-radicalism, and Black radical thought.

Comments on “The National Character of Black Oppression

  • I appreciate this discussion by Dr. Burden-Stelly but I have some questions about the conclusions reached and some of the historical gaps. For instance, there is no mention in her discussion of organizations like the Republic of New Africa/New Afrikan independence movement which took the “nation within a nation” analysis to its logical conclusion, i.e. the creation of an independent “New Afrikan state”. Within this context global solidarity with “other oppressed workers of the world” was an ethical strategy towards this ultimate goal. In addition, the “national question” was raised by Black social movement organizations who weren’t overtly critical of capitalism like Marcus Garvey/UNIA and the Nation of Islam. Also, the African Blood Brotherhood was influenced by Black nationalism as much as it was influenced by Marxism as a tool of analysis. Cyril Briggs was a UNIA member. Finally, the “national question” emerges not simply because of exploitative “labor relations”. Amilcar Cabral is instructive in this regard, situating labor relations within the broader context of “culture”. This also has contemporary relevance for our understanding of the contradictions that still exist in countries like Cuba where racism persists (pre and post the Special period), despite the transformation of exploitative labor relations following the revolution in 1959. Just some thoughts to consider.

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