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Rediscovering Hubert Harrison

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by Scott McLemee, MRzine

hubertharrisonbookThe most exciting and eagerly awaited title in this season’s haul from the scholarly presses is Jeffrey B. Perry‘s study Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918, just published by Columbia University Press.  Well, eagerly awaited by me, anyway. . . .  The world at large has not exactly been clamoring for a gigantic biography of Hubert Harrison — whose name, until quite recently, was little known even to specialists in African-American political and intellectual history.  But that started to change over the past few years, thanks to Perry’s decades of research and advocacy.

The two volumes of essays collected by Harrison during his lifetime have been out of print since the 1920s.  A major step forward in his rediscovery came in 2001, when Wesleyan University Press published A Hubert Harrison Reader, edited by Perry, who also prepared a thorough entry on him for Wikipedia.  (This can’t have hurt: Where a Google search once turned up a dozen or so pages mentioning Harrison, it now yields thousands.)

Last month, Perry sat down with me for an interview, excerpts from which are available here as an Inside Higher Ed podcast.   The night before, he had spoken at a Washington, D.C., bookstore; to judge by the warmth of that talk’s reception it seems fair to say that a wider public is ready to rediscover Harrison now.  Besides traveling around giving talks to promote the book, Perry is also busy preparing a digital archive of Harrison’s work, to be made available soon by Columbia University.

A familiar account of African-American culture during the first two decades of the 20th century frames it as a conflict between Booker T. Washington (champion of patient economic self-improvement within the existing framework of a racist society) and W.E.B. Du Bois (strategist of an active struggle for civil rights under the leadership of the black community’s “talented tenth”).  The life and work of Hubert Harrison does not just complicate this picture; he breaks right through its frame.

A tireless organizer for the Socialist Party at the height of its influence in the years before World War I, he took the idea of solidarity among the oppressed a lot more seriously than did his white comrades.  (That is putting it mildly: One prominent member of the party wrote a pamphlet called “‘Nigger’ Equality,” of which the title was not the vilest part.)  He later became active with Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist movement, in spite of reservations about it.  A prolific critic and essayist, he was also a memorable public speaker and a fierce debater.  He lectured for New York City’s Board of Education and seems to have contributed to most of the major newspapers and magazines of his day.

But following his death of appendicitis in 1927, at the age of 44, this public intellectual and activist was almost completely forgotten.  One index of this might be Ahmed Shawki’s useful historical survey in Black Liberation and Socialism (Haymarket, 2006), which makes no mention of Harrison.  For that matter, in the course of many years spent researching the life and work of C.L.R. James (a figure bearing a number of similarities to Harrison), I never came across any reference by James to his remarkable predecessor.  My own appreciation of Harrison’s significance came only when Christopher Phelps, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, published a review-essay on Perry’s Reader in the journal Science & Society.

Reading that piece, it seemed natural to suppose that Perry was a young African-American professor, somewhere.  And one in a rather enviable position.  After all, it’s one thing to carve out a professional niche — and something altogether more awesome to rediscover a lost continent.

As luck would have it, I ran into a guy handing out fliers for Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism at a conference at Columbia University last month.  He was a retired postal worker (white like me) and prone to considerable animation as he talked about the book, which, it turned out, he had written.

I say “it turned out” because Perry is strikingly unproprietary about his book.  He displayed very little ego regarding it.  Starting to say something about the thoroughness of his research on this or that topic, he would catch himself, seem embarrassed at the presumption, then insist that younger scholars were bound to discover more than he had.  (Having gone over his footnotes, I want to wish them luck with that.)

After a while, this began to seem less like shyness than a matter of absolute concentration on Harrison himself.  But I wanted to find out how it had come to pass that Perry discovered Harrison — let alone persuaded Columbia University Press to publish a two-volume biography.  (The second part, covering the final decade of Harrison’s life, is now in progress.)

It’s neither a short nor a simple tale.  Perry graduated from Princeton in 1968 and attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education for a year or so — making straight A’s, he says, “until I had an opportunity to travel by land through the Americas and took it.  I went to Argentina and back.”  In 1974, he took a job at the New Jersey International Bulk Mail Center and joined the postal workers’ union.  He retired in June 2007.

Clearly his years in postal work had their share of both drama (including a major strike in 1978) and danger (some of Tony Soprano’s friends were union leaders).  He edited a couple of mail handlers’ newspapers, and received an M.A. in labor studies from Rutgers University.  And while doing graduate work in history at Columbia University in the late 1970s — initially with an eye to writing a dissertation on how socialist and communist groups had understood “the Negro question,” as the old expression put it — Perry made a discovery that now looks like destiny.

“In the course of my research,” he told me, “I came across microfilm copies of Hubert Harrison’s two published books The Negro and the Nation and When Africa Awakes: The “Inside Story” of the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library in Harlem.  I was immediately arrested by the clarity of Harrison’s thought and the perceptiveness of his analysis.  I knew that I had encountered a writer of great importance, and, within a short while, I decided to change my dissertation topic to a biography of Harrison.”

Digging through the available sources, Perry was several hundred pages into his project when, in 1983, mutual contacts put him in touch with Harrison’s daughter, Aida Harrison Richardson, and son, William Harrison.  The family “had preserved the remains of Hubert Harrison’s once vast collection of papers and books in a series of Harlem apartments.  After several meetings and discussions of their father’s work, they very generously (before William’s death in 1984) granted me access to some of their father’s materials, which were in a room in William’s Harlem apartment.”

Perry worked to preserve and inventory the material, much of it in fragile condition, and he helped the family to place the collection with the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University.  “I then worked with the Columbia staff,” he said, “to develop a finding aid.”

In 1986, his dissertation was accepted at Columbia University.  By that point, Perry felt reasonably confident that he had examined all of Harrison’s papers.  To celebrate the completion of his Ph.D. work, he took Harrison’s daughter — then 75 years old — out to dinner in New York.  At the end of the meal, he says, “she reached into her bag and handed me his diary. . . .  For a biographer, research efforts don’t get much better than this.  After going through the extraordinarily insightful and revealing diary, many new avenues of research were opened and I was fully convinced that I had a two-volume biography on my hands.”

As he completed his dissertation, Perry was an elected labor official at a 4,000 worker postal facility while also editing and writing for The Mail Handlers’ Voice, a newspaper challenging the mobbed-up union leadership.  His articles appeared under pseudonyms.  Otherwise it might have been, so to speak, a publish-and-perish situation.  (Here, his activism echoed his scholarship: Harrison had edited a paper called The Voice.)

“I did not feel under the pressures often faced in the academic community to publish as a step related to employment and tenure,” Perry recalls.  In the early 1990s, he submitted a manuscript to a university press that, all things considered, should probably go nameless.  “It was volume 1 of my proposed two-volume Harrison biography and it received extraordinarily positive reviews.  I was asked to rework the manuscript, to make it shorter, and to turn it into one volume if possible.”

While making revisions, Perry found still more Harrison material, then re-submitted the manuscript — insisting, once more, that it would be the first of two volumes.  “Again, the reviewers’ comments were extremely favorable,” he says, “and again no decision on publication was ever made.”  This kind of back-and-forth continued for more than a decade.

“The Harrison biography was in limbo. . . .  Essentially, I think that the publisher was confronted with the question of whether or not it wanted to go with a two-volume biography of an unknown subject by an unknown author.  It was undoubtedly a daunting proposition for them.”  Perry eventually asked to be released from his contract.

Along the way, however, his dissertation from the mid-1980s came to the attention of Winston James, now a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, who wrote about Harrison in his book Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth Century America (Verso, 1998).  James introduced Perry to Peter Dimock, an editor at Columbia University Press — which is how the first volume of this Harrison biography came to be published in its present form.

In an e-mail note, Perry describes “the hunger to write about and discuss Hubert Harrison that I have encountered, especially in some younger Black historians.”  He mentions the example of Ousmane Power-Greene, an assistant professor of history at Clark University, who eagerly discusses Harrison with his colleagues.  “Power-Greene suggests that Harrison is already beginning to enter ‘the canon’ in an important way,” says Perry.  “And since Harrison touches so many areas — politics, history, the arts, science, religion and so on — he will continue to attract increased attention.”

The forthcoming digital edition of Harrison’s collected works (running to some seven hundred articles) will certainly help with that.  Perry also notes that the younger Harrison-minded scholars he has been in touch with “often benefited from non-university mentors . . . and are attracted to intellectuals like Harrison who are visible in the community and haven’t received the attention they, or their work, merit.”

In that regard, Perry is being a bit autobiographical: his own mentor was the late Theodore W. Allen, another working-class historian and author of the two-volume study The Invention of the White Race.  He now has the responsibility of handling Allen’s posthumous papers, including some book manuscripts that sound more or less ready for publication.  While readers may look forward to the second volume of the Harrison biography, we probably shouldn’t start holding our breaths just yet.

Unless, of course, some far-sighted cohort of graduate students is ready to help the man out by serving internships with him.  I think hanging around Jeff Perry for a while would be an education in itself.

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Written by Symphony

December 16, 2008 at 8:08 am

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