Question of the Month - February

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H-Nationalism’s Question of the Month series offers a forum for discussing the big questions surrounding research, pedagogy, and practice in the field of nationalism studies and the history of nationalism. Use the reply feature to join the conversation! Email Simon Purdue ( of Northeastern University if you’d like to propose a question of you own. If you need technical assistance with logging in and posting comments, please contact H-Net’s Help Desk (  


Dear Scholars,

We hope the new year has started positively and productively for you all. We started 2020 with a great conversation on the role of emotion and affect in the study of nationalism, and we hope to follow it up with another fascinating discussion. This month we are tackling a difficult and controversial question about ideology, essentially asking what nationalism means and what it’s limits are, assessing whether certain movements that identify as nationalist can in fact accurately use that label. To that end this month we are asking:

How do ideologies that package together ideas of transnational racial exclusivity with the language of nationalism (i.e. white nationalism, black nationalism, pan-Asianism, etc) fit into our understanding of how nationalism operates? Can we accurately describe these ideologies as 'nationalisms' or are they something different? What scholarship would you recommend that deals with the question of racial nationalisms?

As always we look forward to hearing your comment and ideas on another interesting Question of the Month.

Kind Regards,

Simon Purdue, series editor

Dear All, 

The question of the relationship between notions of national identity and racial discourses is a good one. It makes me think in particular of our earlier discussion in this series of the current scholarly emphasis on the transnational nature of nationalism--of how it spreads across borders and takes shape from international developments and contexts.

Along these lines... To the extent that the first nationalisms emerged in western European states that were also transatlantic empires with slaveholding colonies built on the expropriation of indigenous lands, I think there is a good case that the social imaginaries of the nation have always been entwined with those of race.  There is of course an important set of debates about how exactly to define race as a historical concept and whether racial discourse necessarily implies a fully-fledged theory of inherited and immutable biological difference. If one accepts that latter definition, it's difficult, I think, to write of "race" as being a powerful idea before the mid 19th century. But it is clear, certainly in the case of North America, that prejudices grounded in notions of bodily difference well preceded the more elaborate theories associated with, say, the polygenists or Darwin.  

So all that is to say that many of the current movements and forms of explicit political consciousness that reference transnational groups associated with putative races represent a much longer history of racial and national discourses being mutually constitutive. In that sense, I think the broader field of nationalism studies has to engage with the history of race. Certainly in the case of this history of the United States, one can see how the modern "white nationalists" and are part of a much longer history running back to the origins of the country in which "American" and "white" were often used interchangeably.  

I am currently teaching a graduate readings course on race and region in colonial North America and the United States, and so have been pondering these issues for the last several weeks. One strategy I have opted in the course is to pair readings on recent history, say Kathleen Belew's Bring the War Home on the white power movement or Peniel Joseph's Waiting 'til the Midnight Hour on black power with articles focusing on the 16th-18th centuries. That makes the coures an exercise in part in thinking about racism's long history, including its imbrication with notions of nationality. 

Kind Regards, 

Dave Prior

Hi David, you mention "the current scholarly emphasis on the transnational nature of nationalism". I would appreciate it very much if you could list some titles of that scholarship. Thank you. Sincerely, L. Ben Rejeb, University of Ottawa.

Dear Lotfi, 

The original discussion on this theme is available interspersed in the comments here:

That doesn't offer a comprehensive bibliography, but might offer some helpful leads. In terms of my own area of research (The Civil War-era U.S.), I could point you to works such as: 

Don Doyle's The Cause of All Nations

Paul Quigley's essay “Secessionists in an Age of Secession: The Slave South in Transatlantic Perspective,” in Secession as an International Phenomenon, ed. Don H. Doyle (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010), 151-173.

Enrico Dal Lago's The Age of Lincoln and Cavour

Timothy Mason Robert's Distant Revolutions

Andre Fleche's The Revolution of 1861

And, with humility, my own Reconstruction in a Globalizing World ( Between Freedom and Progress ( 

I'm not sure those will line up with your own interests, but they are the works that come most readily to my mind. 

Kind Regards, 




Thank you, Dave. Much appreciated.

Dear Subscribers,

As you may be aware, last month we launched a new feature as part of the Question of the Month seres. In addition to our usual conversation, we will also be featuring an interview with an emerging scholar in the field. This gives us the opportunity to dive a little deeper into our question and to showcase some outstanding work in the field. This month we are interviewing Daniel Hanglberger. Daniel is a research associate at the Institute of Modern and Contemporary History at the Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, where he is working on his doctoral thesis, which is entitled "The Evolution of a Nation: Socio-cultural Roots of Black Nationalism as a Mass Movement (1865-1930)". We hope you enjoy the interview!

SP: Firstly, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for our Question of the Month Series. To start off with, could you tell us a little about your current research and how it relates to race and racial nationalism?

DH: Working on Black nationalism in the United States, what intrigued me the most was that since the Declaration of Independence and throughout the 19th century, Black nationalism had always been an at best marginal phenomenon but 'suddenly'—as most research portrays it—the Black nationalist Garvey movement erupted in the aftermath of World War I, organizing chapters throughout the US and in the African Diaspora—yet, the Black nationalist heartland always remained in the U.S. Most research asserted that it was the frustration of African Americans having fought for Democracy in WW1 and finding themselves still discriminated at home that fueled Garveyism, as it was called. There are, however, two main problems with this: Many Blacks in the U.S. have always, on the one hand, held hopes for inclusion on equal terms but, on the other hand, they have always been the object of discrimination and worse. So, that does not suffice to explain Black nationalism's development into a mass movement after WW1. Secondly, it cannot explain why there was no Black national mass movement before. There was an elite Black nationalism in the 1850s in the urban North, but that quickly subsided when Lincoln issues his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Even though there is much research on “Becoming Black” or “Becoming African in America” etc., one of the key problems of research on Black nationalism still is that racial group consciousness is taken as a given. So, concerning how my research relates to race: Black nationalism is always a nationalism that is based on an African/Black race as its ethnic core, equivalent to German ethnie as the core of German nationalism. However, while the concept of a Black race had existed for some time, and Blacks self-identified as belonging to the “African race,” the idea that they are a community that should organize in regard to politics and social life exclusively along racial lines did not follow automatically. Thus, based on Anthony D. Smith’s emphasis on ethno-genesis, in my research I analyze the change in the meaning of race for Blacks over time and under different social environments—in particular the change in the meaning of race for normative conceptions of political and social behavior in the late 19th and early 20th century. In short, many freedpeople in the 1870s did not think of themselves as members of a global Black community that should organize and work towards a common goal, e.g. enforcement of Black self-determination or the establishment of a Black nation-state—the main goals of all Black nationalisms. Yet, after World War I exactly that idea attracted hundreds of thousands or even millions of Blacks in the U.S. and in the Diaspora. I argue that it was a longue-durée process that finally produced that result.

SP: In the wake of Garveyism—and as Black Nationalism developed as an ideology through the inter-war and post-war years—how do you think the idea of 'nation' was constructed within the Black Nationalist movement?

DH: Understanding the nation as a normative concept of society in which social, cultural, and political boundaries are supposed to be congruent, for the idea of (a Black) nation to be constructed on a large scale, that many can see it as a plausible, the national concept has to be matched by some degree with social reality.

In light of the fact that in the 1910s and 1920s most of those who became Garveyites, even those that came north during the Great Migration, grew up and were socialized in the South, I argue that the idea of nation was not mainly constructed in the post-war years, but that these events complemented developments African Americans had experienced in the South, in particular social segregation and political exclusion justified by an alleged racial difference (i.e. essentialized culture). Since the end of Reconstruction and in particular since the 1890s, with the codification of Jim Crow, racial segregation became not just a custom or a social tendency, but the state-sanctioned and state-enforced norm of society as a whole. This development was not incidentally accompanied by the exclusion of Black men from politics via revised state constitutions. In the South, Blacks gradually came to live in such an environment.. The exclusion of Blacks in the South on white nationalist grounds already provided all ingredients for the possibility to conceive of Blacks as a nation—social and political organization along boundaries of race and the legitimation of that practice by the formulation of cultural incompatibility due to alleged racial difference.

When Blacks moved to the North, which was initially perceived as less racist, they saw that the strife of races existed there as well. They found themselves thronged into ghettos, fell victim to fatal race riots, and were confronted in those years with open debates in the Northern legislatures on the prohibition of interracial marriages (the ultimate statement of inequality). In addition, after having fought “to make the world safe for democracy” they experienced that neither the North nor the federal government were willing to give in to their demands for equal participation in American democracy, that social segregation and political discrimination was not peculiar to the South, and that therefore the U.S. as a whole could be understood as a “white man’s country.” Thus, the Black nationalist interpretation that Garvey offered seemed plausible. Hence, the idea of “nation” within the Black community evolved as a result of developments in the North and South that converged in the early 20th century.

SP: Based on your own research, how do you think the understanding of what it meant to be a Black Nationalist specifically evolved, and how was that nationalism constructed by activists?

DH: Nationalism as a form of collective identity, always has a significant subjective element. Therefore, it is difficult to give a definite answer regarding what it meant to be a Black nationalist for the individual. While Garveyism was the most famous Black nationalist of the time, there were also others, such as Hubert Harrison or Cyril Valentine Briggs who combined their Black national consciousness with a socialist/communist class analysis, the latter establishing the African Blood Brotherhood whose members in the 1920s became some the earliest Black members of the CPUSA.

Garveyism, however, was the most successful Black nationalist organization, creating close to 1,000 Divisions in the U.S. and several hundred in other countries. Actually, as Garveyism found followers throughout the U.S. among Blacks that lived in very different environments (urban, rural, industrial, agricultural), it seems its success might in fact be attributed to its flexibility.

While it overlapped with large-scale social conditions in the U.S. (and on a global scale characterized by white imperialism) it provided enough room to flourish in very different settings. On the one hand, Garvey propagated the existence of a global Black community that had to be organized to achieve a common goal, thus providing a national vision that gave meaning to their existence irrespective of their local conditions. On the other hand, Garveyism provided strategies for small-scale progress in each community by creating Black businesses and organizations that connected the local community with the larger organization that embodied the race as a whole. In the North, the practical effects of such exclusively Black organization might have been more significant, while in the rural South, where life was already organized along boundaries of race, interpreting their conditions in a Black national light gave a larger meaning to their experiences and offered psychological relief.

SP: In my own work on racial nationalisms the one thing that has really stood out is the transnational and international focus of the ideologies. Whether it be a pan-continental ideology, a sense of trans-oceanic unity based on race, or even just a conversation between groups on other sides of the world, this kind of ideology is very rarely restricted to a single national context. In your research have you come across transnational elements to this ideology, or a transnational/international outlook?

DH: Here I would like to make two points: 1) the global perspective is an almost obligatory element of Black nationalism; and 2) Black and White nationalism are not exact opposites of each other, even though the terminology makes that conclusion understandable.

1) We see in the various developments of Black nationalisms over the 1850s in the U.S. (Martin R. Delany, James T. Holly, Henry Highland Garnet, etc.), during the late 19th century (Henry McNeal Turner [also U.S.] and Edward Wilmot Blyden, who first formulated an “African Personality” long before Senghor’s Négritude), and in the 20th century (Marcus Garvey and those that came after him) a consistent imagining of the Black nation as a community of the whole race worldwide, in Africa and the diaspora. Even though their efforts started in certain localized places or were intended to create limited Black states somewhere in the Americas or in Africa, the eventual goal was the uplift and emancipation of the entire “African race.” For that purpose, Black nationalisms intended to unify the scattered populations of Blacks wherever they lived, in whatever state or colony. Thus, in the case of Black nationalism I would refrain from calling Black nationalism an international or transnational phenomenon. In these movements, there was only one Black nation. They did not perceive Black populations in Jamaica (where Garvey came from), the U.S., or Africa as Blacks with different national backgrounds, they all belonged to the Black nation. Yet, due to the reality of descendants from Africa being scattered all over the world, in particular in the Atlantic region, Black nationalism always was inherently a trans-/interstate or trans-/inter-colonial movement. Thus, for Black nationalists in the Garvey movement, it was not a contradiction that much of its New York based leadership, such as Garvey himself, originally came from the Caribbean. In fact, the Caribbean background and experience of migration to the U.S. seemed to further the idea of a Black nation when they arrived in the U.S. with its strict racial dichotomy, realizing that Blacks everywhere, even in the allegedly free United States, were oppressed.

2) Therefore, I would make a distinction between Black and White nationalism: Black nationalisms see one Black nation that is scattered worldwide and that is to be eventually unified politically, i.e. by creating a Black nation-state, even if it is only a small state such as Liberia. However, the motivation is always the emancipation of the entire race—it is emancipatory.

White nationalisms, to my knowledge, do not imagine a political unification of the white race in one state. Rather, white nationalism arises in existing nation-states and its function is not to create a bond between the scattered white populations throughout the world, in Germany, France, Australia, and the U.S., and it does not envision their coalescing in one state. Even to a German white nationalist, a person who is white yet only holds a British passport would be unimaginable as a German chancellor. White nationalism is the instrument for enforcing racial hierarchies within existing nation-states—as such one might say its terminology is fraud, as it means rather American, British, German ethnic/racial nationalisms whose goals are to exclude the other races from power within these existing nation-states.

SP: What future research would you like to see scholars tackling in this field?

DH: There are several areas in which future research might be fruitful.

In the case of racial nationalisms/political movements, I’d think that more comparative approaches, analyzing the various Pan-isms could provide insights into the global dimension of race, nation, and globalization processes. It is conspicuous after all that many of the Pan-isms (Pan-Africanism, Pan-Americanism, Pan-Europeanism, Pan-Asianism, Pan-Slavism, etc.) were formulated at roughly the same time in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In addition: The culturalist critique of modernist explanations of the emergence of nations virtually brought a stop to attempts to explain the emergence of nations in the modern era. However, that the national model of social organization as we know it was not the norm for most of human history, yet that it came to dominate the world and seems almost natural today, still requires an explanation. Therefore, especially in a time when nationalism is on the rise again, I would call for new research in that direction that integrates the critique that Anthony D. Smith and others have formulated.

SP: Are there any books, articles or sources that you would recommend to anyone looking into this topic?

DH: As Black nationalism is a multi-faceted phenomenon that arises in very different societies, and in very different social environments at different times, and that sometimes protagonists vacillate between demands for integration into the larger society and calls for separatism, to analyze Black nationalism and its causes it helps to have some familiarity with the literature that deals with the theory of nations and nationalisms. Therefore, I would still recommend to put Ernest Gellner on one’s reading list, less for his modernism in regards to industrialization and more for his emphasis on the function of culture in nation states in comparison to feudal and pre-modern societies. Concerning theory, I would as well recommend Jan Assmann’s “Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination.” Even though he deals with ancient civilizations, it is an excellent treatise on the connection of culture and its institutionalization for the purpose of maintaining collective identities. Regarding the global impact of Garveyism, I would recommend Adam Ewing’s “Age of Garvey.”

As always we encourage our subscribers to read and engage with this interview, and we welcome all comments. We look forward to seeing this conversation develop over the next few days.