African American thought has been uniquely influenced by the African love of nature, cruelties of aggression, and an increasing need to adapt to hostile environments and to contribute creatively to overcome the challenges of new worlds, civilizations, and lifestyles tremendously different from the African ancestral heritage. The resistance of Africans to the hardships of life in the new world, including enslavement, sexual exploitation, and cultural genocide was strongly articulated in the works of the succeeding generations of the African American thinkers who purposefully aimed to ensure constructive participation of the black people in community affairs, sciences, and technological advancement by the full enjoyment of civil liberties and the other constitutional rights.
The early writings of Frederick Douglass, Maria W. Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Anna Julia Copper, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B) DuBois, among many others, revealed consistent striving for the observance of social justice, with persistent emphasis on the cause of liberation, unity, and the perseverance of human dignity in the American society. Rooted in the centuries’ spirituality of Africa, the African American thought was largely influenced by spiritual leaders. The use of spiritual principles to uplift the social status of blacks was forcibly applied by Marcus Garvey, a founder of pan-African and a self-sufficiency doctrine for blacks in the diaspora, as well as Elijah Muhammed, the founder of the Nation of Islam, who taught his disciples blacks had been the chosen children of God. The civil rights movement marked the leadership of the Nobel Laureate Martin Luther King Jr., of the southern Christian churches, who taught millions of demonstrators in the civil rights movement era that “character, not color” was the determining criterion for human merits, and the Muslim leader El-Haj Malik El-Shabazz (Minister Malcolm X) of the Nation of Islam, whose teachings impacted the concern of African Americans with the ethics of power.
The African American contemporary thought has been developed by generations of the African American thinkers who continued to develop the centuries-old intellectual-activist tradition in modern times. This included the liberation schools of black thought that adopted both liberal and socialist philosophies in the pursuit for citizenship rights and privileges of the good life within American democracy. Anne Walker Bethune, Na’im Akbar, Angela Davis, Nyara Sudarkasa, Manning Marable, Maulana Karenga, Frances Cress Welsing, and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison introduced new scholarly concepts to strengthen the blacks’ social movement for personal integrity, political activity, and economic prosperity. Toward this end, the African American thought drew heavily from the history of the continent of Africa, the contributions of Africans in the American and Caribbean diaspora, and the need to emulate cultural heritage to reconstruct the image of blacks “in their own interests.” Stressing the deep concerns of African value systems with justice, discipline, and productive behavior, the Kawanza doctrine exemplified the African American concern for unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.
Faced by the challenges of adaptability in the new world, the need for effective social equality and women’s rights occupied a central part of the African American thinking, which further impacted the international literature on social equality and the striving for women’s rights. Early endeavors were greatly initiated by Sojourner Truth and Ida Wells, who called for the eradication of enslavement and all racist attitudes from society with direct public speech and community-based activism. Wells-Barnett (b. 1862) developed a reputation for intelligence, eloquence, and public persona, since she was the first black person to initiate a legal challenge to the Supreme Court’s nullification of the 1875 Civil Rights Bill, regarding Wells’s appeal versus the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad train in May 1884. Wells encouraged the establishment of the national black women’s club movement to advance women’s status, and helped to revive the Afro-American League national organization to promote black unity. She became editor of the Evening Star and another black weekly, called Living Way, as well as editor and part owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. Her early journalistic emphasis was on children and education, but that changed dramatically in 1892 to a strong campaign against lynching, in which she wrote a powerful expose entitled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” and toured the country and eventually Europe to speak against this terrorism, probably in the most radical statements made by an African American leader of the time.
Booker T. Washington’s (1856-1915) “accommodationist” philosophy was expressed in his speech in Atlanta, in 1895: “In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” This was described by DuBois as the “Atlanta Compromise” and noted as socially retrogressive and predicated on “Uncle Tomism” racist discrimination against blacks. Du Bois believed that Washington’s conservatism appealed to white America, whose politicians—both northern and southern—courted him because of his declaration to the world that political and social equality were not priorities for blacks. Instead, Washington recognized the nature of racism in the South, where 90% of black Americans lived, and he suggested that what they wanted—and should be willing to work very hard to get—was economic prosperity, out of which all else might follow.
Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) was a pioneering abolitionist, orator, and journalist, who initiated a school of thought that merged the spiritual activity of church sermons with liberal journalism and a lifelong commitment to political activism. Assisted by antislavery women, his North Star paper helped to promote the antislavery movement with a strong support for an independent, organized movement for women’s suffrage and other rights. In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention in New York, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, discussed the social, civil, and religious conditions and rights of women.
The multiple-perspective activist school of Douglass was diligently developed throughout the 20th century by the distinguished academician W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), the first black to receive a PhD from Harvard University (in history), and a sociologist, writer, and educator who taught Latin, Greek, English, and German. Opting for a vanguard role for African American intellectuals to excel as social change agents in American society, DuBois worked in higher education for the establishment of “The Talented Tenth, developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.” Concerned with the social progress of colored peoples, he pursued scholarly work from his early career to study The Philadelphia Negro (1899), among many other succeeding works. His deep knowledge about the civilization heritages of Africa, coined with a liberal socialist political activism, motivated him to become “the leading intellectual voice of black America,” cofounder and leading participant of the pan-African Movement, cofounder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and editor of its magazine, The Crisis.
Afro centricity, a contemporary African American school of thought, has largely benefited from the earlier emphasis of Black thinkers on the African cultural heritage as a fundamental source to promote the psychological, ideological, and political well-being of black peoples. Molefi Asante reinvigorated the African frame of reference to establish the self-worth and creativity of the African person. Criticizing Western reformist and traditional theories of psychology, Na’im Akbar and Frances Cress Welsing stressed the intellectual repression that had victimized the blacks of America with mental degradation since enslavement times. Welsing provided a new psychological approach, rejecting race supremacy and asking for a healthy code of self-awareness by black males and females for the achievement of justice “in a common effort against injustice to express the strongest possible statement about respect and love for themselves as individuals.” Furthering the tradition of the early pioneers of African American thought, the post-civil-rights era thinkers Anne Walker Bethune, Angela Davis, Nyara Sudarkasa, Manning Marable, Maulana Karenga, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, and hundreds of others shared a renewable concern for the African American present-time and future generations: cherishing the African cultures and the African American heritage, preserving sisterly, extended-family relations, increasing access to high education and jobs, and actively participating in the intellectual search within the democratic life of America for an African-based philosophy and a viable plan of action.
Toward this end, Manning Marable theorized that justice demanded affirmative action based on race and gender to address continuing patterns of inequality. Marable suggested defining a new moral assignment and vision of emancipation. He believed that equality is about social justice and the realities of human fairness, such as health care, education, housing, jobs. Stressing the “consideration of duty to one’s family, community, or society,” Nyara Sudarkasa has noted the vital role that black families consistently played in the advancement of African Americans from racism, gender discrimination, and poverty. Sudarkasa has emphasized the complementary roles of black women and men in the family.
African American concern for the improvement of their social, political, and economic status helped a great deal to bring to light the affirmative action legislation, which can be viewed as a way to help minorities “catch up” by delivering access to the benefits and opportunities historically reserved to white people. The principles of affirmative action continue to be interpreted and refined through court action. Legal opinion on affirmative action is inconclusive. The Supreme Court decided in 1978 that race can be used as a criterion for admission to undergraduate or graduate and professional schools or for job recruitment, as long as race is combined with other criteria and racial quotas are not used. In 1996, however, the University of California Board of Regents decided to eliminate race, but not social class, as a basis for admitting students to its campuses. Also in 1990, in Hopwood v. Texas, a panel of judges of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas ruled as unconstitutional the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Texas, Austin, law school.
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