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The stern W. E. B. Du Bois was caustic . . . declaring that the book "for

the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth, I feel distinctly

like taking a bath." . . . McKay accused Du Bois of failing  to make the proper

distinction "between the task of propaganda and the work of art."



Books by and about Claude McKay

Home to Harlem  / Banjo  /  Banana Bottom  / Gingertown  /  A Long Way from Home  / Harlem: Negro Metropolis  /  Selected Poems 

Complete Poems / Harlem Glory: A Fragment of Aframerican Life / The Passion of Claude McKay

The Fierce Hatrded of Injustice: Claude McKay's Jamaican Poetry of Rebellion

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Lloyd D. McCarthy, In-Dependence from Bondage: Claude McKay and Michael Manley


Defying the Ideological Clash and Policy Gaps in African Diaspora Relations. (2007)

Edourad Gissant. Caribbean Discourse (2004)  /  Barbara Harlow. Resistance Literature (1987)

Penny M. Von Eschen. Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-19 (1997

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The Life and Times of Black Poet Claude McKay

By  Arthur Edgar E. Smith

 Senior Lecturer of English, Fourah Bay College’

      University of Sierra Leone


Claude McKay who was born in September 15, 1889, as the youngest of eleven children of his peasant parents in Jamaica. is mostly known by his much-quoted sonnet: "If we Must Die" which was popularized during World War II by British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.

Raised in Sunny Ville, in Clarendon Hills Parish by a compassionate mother and a stern father  who passed on to his children much of the Ashanti customs and traditions of Ghana where he hailed from, his poetry demonstrates his undying attachment to his roots and a deep affection for Clarendon where he was born and raised.  Such later pieces as ‘Flame Heart’ and ‘The Tropics in New York’ reveal his nostalgia for Jamaica when abroad. 

His early dialect verse makes nostalgic references to the Clarendon Hills.  His father, Thomas McKay, had always shared with his children the story of his own father’s enslavement seeking thus to instill in them a suspicion of whites that would become particularly evident in the writings of his son. McKay’s profound respect for the sense of community encountered among rural Jamaican farmers and a somewhat skeptical attitude toward religion encouraged by his older brother, an elementary school teacher, left an indelible mark on his literary work.

At seventeen, McKay through a government sponsorship became apprenticed to a cabinet-maker in Brown’s Town. At nineteen, moving on to Kingston, the capital, he joined the Police Force where his gentle disposition received its first great jolt.  For then West Indian Policemen were recruited more for their brawn than their brain, which they were expected to celebrate and honour every hour whilst on the beat.

The Police Force was therefore not the best place for one like McKay who was always upset by human suffering. Two collections of poetry that he published in 1912 emerged largely out of his experience as a constabulary which he found along with urban life in general to be alienating.  He felt uncomfortably located between the Jamaican elite and the great mass of the urban poor.  Many of the concerns that would occupy much of his later work such as the opposition of the city and the country, the problems of exile, and the relation of the black intellectuals to their common folks appear first in these poems.

His second volume of poems of dialect verse Constab Ballads accurately records such experiences.  His first volume of poems Songs of Jamaica was written only to relieve his feelings while in the force.  He calmly keeps reprimanding those responsible for social injustices to his people.  To relieve his feelings, he sought to write of redeeming features in the dark picture.  His gentle nature led him to pity his people’s suffering and to protest against it.  He thus got compelled to relieve himself by celebrating their cheerfulness and other such qualities.  Their interest and vitality as human beings is enriched by their cheerfulness and good humour which vibrates in spite of dispiriting conditions.

His sympathy for the criminals, whom he often considered the victims of an unjust colonial order, could not allow him to work as a police constable beyond a year.  During the ensuing two years back at Clarendon  Parish he was encouraged to write Jamaican Dialect Poetry by Walter Jekyll, an English collector of island folklore with whom McKay had forged a close relationship.  Jekyll had introduced him to English poets such as Milton and Pope

In 1912 McKay published two volumes of poetry Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. Songs of Jamaica with an introduction and melodies by Jekyll celebrates the unpretentious nature and the simplicity of the Jamaican peasants who are closely bonded to their native soil.  Constab Ballads centres more on Kingston and the contempt and exploitation suffered there by dark-skinned blacks at the hands of whites and mulattos.  These books made McKay the first black to receive the medal of the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences with a substantial cash award which he was to use to fund his education at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the United States.

When in 1912 McKay left Jamaica for the U.S.A., it was inevitable that this should lead to an eruption of Negro verse from his pen.  For here was a man with a proud sense of his race, who had seen his people suffering in Jamaica and had fled an evergreen land with its luxuriantly waving palms bending to the force of the persistent tropical winds in quest of more opportunities in a more open world.

And he goes to America to meet unimaginable Negro suffering.  But rather than return to the less demanding life of Jamaica, he felt a compulsion to remain and join the struggle, for he was already bound with the American blacks in their bondage. And no wonder.  For McKay’s early years in New York were a time of growing racial bitterness, with the stiffening of the South. Negro disillusionment with Booker T. Washington and a consequent adjustment of the Negro attitude; the increase in white hysteria and violence, which was to become even harsher after the war which had been fought by them as well as in defence of democracy and the rise of Garveyism and the hostility between Garvey and the N.A.A.C.P. and others – all such factors combined to bring about the Negro Renaissance, of which McKay became an integral part.

McKay however maintained for a long time a sober reaction to his new and disturbing environment.  Determined to maintain the dignity of his poet’s calling, he refused to allow the quality of his reaction as a poet to be warped.  He equally refused to allow his ambitions and status as a human being to be destroyed. His verses remained virile keeping with the prevailing atmosphere then, for those early years in America were really crucial years for the Black cause. But the virility of his verse is based on more than mere bitterness.  It includes and depends on a certain resilience – or stubborn humanity traceable to McKay’s capacity to react to Negro suffering not just as a Negro, but as a human being. For as he maintains, the writer must always retain this capacity for a larger and more basic reaction as a human being to maintain his humanity.

In so doing he would avoid stunting his emotional growth and his stature as a human being. By identifying with his own race, a writer can proceed to that greater and more meaningful identification based on his humanity thus qualifying him to handle "racial" material. When a Negro writer’s work wins recognition, McKay states, it creates two widely separate bodies of opinion, one easily recognizable by the average reader as general and the other limited to Negroes and therefore racial. 

This racial opinion, he goes on, may seem negligible to the general reader, but it is a formidable thing to the Negro writer.  He may pretend to ignore it without really being able to escape its influence, for very likely he has his social contacts with the class of Negroes who express this opinion.

This peculiar racial opinion constitutes a kind of censorship of what is printed about the Negro. This originated from the laudable efforts of intelligent Negro groups to protect their race from the slander of its detractors after emancipation and grew until it crystallized into racial consciousness.  But unfortunately these leaders of racial opinion being also artistic and intellectual arbiters distinguish between the task of propaganda and the work of art.


I myself have lived a great deal in the atmosphere of this opinion in America, in sympathy with and in contact with leaders and groups expressing it and am aware of their limitations.

A Negro writer feeling the urge to write faithfully about the people he knows from real experience and impartial observation is caught in a dilemma [unless he possesses a very strong sense of esthetic values] between the opinion of this group and his own artistic consciousness.  I have read pages upon pages of denunciation of young Negro poets and story tellers who were trying to grasp and render the significance of the background, the fundamental rhythm of [Afroamerican] life.  But not a line of critical encouragement for the artistic exploitation of the homely things – of Maudy’s wash tub, Aunt Jemima’s white folks,  Miss Ann’s old clothes for work and wages, George’s Yessah-boss, dining car and Pullman services, barber and shoe shine shop, clothing and corn-pone joints–all the lowly things that go to the formation of the [Afroamerican} soil in which the best, the most pretentious of [Afroamerican} society still has its roots.

My own experience has been amazing.  Before I published HOME TO HARLEM I was known to the Negro public as the writer of the hortatory poem: "If We Must Die."


If we must die, let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot

While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,

Making their mock at our accursed lot.

If we must die, O let us nobly die,

So that our precious blood may not be shed

In vain; then even the monsters we defy

Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!

O Kinsmen!  We must meet the common foe!

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one death blow!

What though before us lies the open grave

Like men we’ll face the murderous cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying but fighting back.

"If We Must Die" immediately won popularity among Afroamericans, but the tone of the Negro critics was apologetic.  To them a poem that voiced the deep-rooted instinct of self-preservation seemed merely a daring piece of impertinence.  William S  Braithwaite whom McKay described as the dean of Negro critics denounced him as a "violent and angry propagandist using his poetic gifts to clothe [arrogant] and defiant thoughts." Whilst another disciple characterized him as  "rebellious and vituperative."

McKay goes on to point out the lapses and failings in respectable Negro opinion and criticism. This in turn brings in distortions and evasions in their representation and interpretation of the social realities informing the texts.

They seem afraid of the revelation of bitterness in Negro life.  But it may as well be owned and frankly by those who know the inside and heart of Negro life, that the Negro, and especially the Afroamerican, has bitterness in him in spite of his joyous exterior.  And the more educated he is in these times the more he is likely to have it.

The spirituals and the blues were not created out of sweet deceit.  There is as much sublimated bitterness in them as there is humility, pathos  and bewilderment.  And if the Negro is a little bitter, the white man should be the last person in the world to accuse him of bitterness.  For the feeling of bitterness is a natural part of the black man's birthright as the feeling of superiority is of the white man's.  It matters not so much that one has had an experience of bitterness, but rather how one has developed out of it.  To ask the Negro to render up his bitterness is asking him to part with his soul.  For out of his bitterness he has bloomed and created his spirituals and blues and conserved his racial attributes - his humor and ripe laughter and particular rhythm of life.      

This brought  about the apparent ambivalence in his love-hate relationship with America. 

Having had no illusions about America and the experience of its Negroes, he could at the same time pay her the tribute she deserved: one reflecting both its appeal as well as its bitter dejection. which he still endures  as a necessary test of his resilience.  In paying her this tribute he  triumphs  through his successful resistance to the threat of spiritual corrosion America’s ‘hate’ threatens to start within him. He could thus "stand within her walls with not a shred / Of terror, malice, not a word of fear." Or as in "Through Agony," he refuses to meet hate with hate. McKay thus continued his admiration for America despite the pain which she caused.

McKay  sees not only the violence done to his own people, but that which the whites inflict on themselves as well.  McKay is touched by misery: in "The Castaway" where, standing in a beautiful park, he is attracted not by the visible delights of nature but by  "the castaways of earth," the lonely and derelict, and turns away in misery.  And it is mot clear and does not matter if they are black or white.  In "Rest in Peace" his tender heart responds   to the suffering of his people as he bids farewell to a departed friend.

McKay meets America’s challenge as man and poet.  He meets the challenge which America’s hate sets for his humanity, and in his resistance he flings back his challenge to the forces of hate in "America."  As poet and man he  enforces self-discipline which gives to his pain a dignity through which his verse sometimes transcends racial protest and becomes human protest.

McKay’s poetry certainly reflected another aspect  of Negro reaction.  This reaction is a new consciousness of the African connection following Marcus Garvey’s "Back to Africa" appeal.  Intellectual Negro poetry was thus moving nearer to Africa spiritually.  Garvey’s call for a black man’s religion was paralleled in sophisticated verse,  So was his insistence on the past glories of the Negro race.  So was the new pride he encouraged in Negro beauty and indeed in everything black, ideas of which he sometimes put into rather indifferent verse romanticizing Africa. McKay does the same in poems like "Harlem Shadows."

When McKay arrived in America he disrupted his studies at Tuskegee Institute after only two months there and out of frustration started studying agricultural science.  Then after two years in this he resumed his career as a writer. Like Hughes he left for Harlem.  Whilst familiarizing himself with the literary scene in New York, he supported himself as a waiter and a porter.  His first break came in 1917 when Waldo Frank, a Jewish radical novelist and cultural critic published two of his sonnets "The Harlem Dancer" and "Invocation" in the December issue of The Seven Arts, a highly respected avant-garde magazine. 

Short- story writer Frank Harris who published several of McKay’s poems in Pearson's  seems also to have made a major impression on the young poet.  Unlike later black writers, McKay did not rely primarily on such periodicals as the Crisis and Opportunity as outlets for  his verse.  Though he wrote for black magazines occasionally, his literary ties were mostly with white publications, particularly with the leftist magazines based in Greenwich Village.  Indeed, Max Eastman, the dean of the American literary left in the early twentieth century, published McKay’s "The Dominant White" in the April 1919 issue of The Liberator and nine more of his poems in the July issue.  McKay later served as Eastman’s editorial staff contributing essays and reviews as well as poetry.  He also befriended the famous white American poet Edward Arlington Robinson.

In 1919, he met George Bernard Shaw the British playwright whilst visiting England.  G.K Ogden included nearly two dozen of McKay’s poems in the summer 1920 issue of Cambridge Magazine.  I.A. Richards, one of the foremost English literary critics of the twentieth century, wrote the preface for McKay’s third book of verse, Spring in New Hampshire.  According to Richards, McKay’s was among the best works being produced in Great Britain then.

On his return to the US, McKay continued to work for and contribute to a number of publications including that of his fellow Jamaican, Marcus Garvey, Negro World.  The next year in 1922, he published his most important poetry collection, Harlem Shadows, thus virtually inaugurating the Harlem Renaissance.  That book was a means through which he could place the militant "If We Must Die" inside of a book.   This sonnet inspired by the racial violence that racked America in 1919  interpreted as a war-like cry by black radicals later served  as one of the unofficial rallying cries of the ALLIED Forces in World War II,  particularly after being recited in an emotionally charged speech before the House of Commons in response to Nazi Germany’s  threat of invasion during World War II.  Harlem Shadows marked a point of no return for several literary figures in Harlem who saw in McKay’s masterful treatment of racial issues evidence that a black writer’s insights into matters of race could serve on more than on occasional basis as suitable subjects for poetry.  

In 1923, in Moscow McKay addressed the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, as a black poet sympathetic to the Soviet cause. He achieved instant popularity among the proletariat as well as with Communist Party officials of the USSR. He was introduced to the Soviet leaders and had his poem "Petrograd May Day, 1923" published in translation in Pravda.  Nevertheless, dismayed by the rigid ideological requirements of the Communist Party concerning all artistic productions, and perhaps a little tired of being treated as a novelty, and having  to subjugate his art to political propaganda, he left for France where his first novel  Home to Harlem  was produced in 1928 and work on his second Banjo was started.  This last novel was completed  during his travels in Spain and Morocco in 1929.

In these two novels of the 1920s McKay investigated how the concepts of race and class worked in a world dominated by capitalism and colonialism, and how cosmopolitan and rural black communities can be reconciled to each other.

Home to Harlem. the first bestseller novel by an African-American, was reprinted five times in two months.   It was more commercially successful than any novel by an African American author to that point. For it satisfied a consuming curiosity among Americans for information about the nightlife and the lowlife of Harlem.  The novel examines two characters who literally take the reader on a tour of Harlem.  Jake, an African American  longshoreman, a hedonist, and a World War 1 veteran, deserts the army and returns to his beloved Harlem where he falls in love with a whore after she affectionately and surreptitiously returns the money he has paid her. 

Through Jake we are introduced to Ray, a Haitian intellectual expatriate who worries constantly and feels isolated from the African American community as a result of his European education. He thus envies Jake who is more spontaneous  and direct. As for Ray, his own desire to become a writer interferes with his enjoyment of life. The stern W.E.B. Du Bois was caustic in denouncing McKay’s presentation of Harlem, declaring that the book "for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth, I feel distinctly like taking a bath."  In response, McKay accused Du Bois of failing  to make the proper distinction "between the task of propaganda and the work of art."

Ray appears again in Banjo with another "natural" black character, the African American musician Lincoln Agrippa Daily. Set in the old French port of Marseilles, this second novel of McKay features a shifting group of black longshoremen sailors and drifters from Africa. As in his first, McKay articulates the need for the exiled black intellectual to return to his common black folks.

McKay’s third novel, Banana Bottom regarded generally as his finest fictional achievement takes the theme of the two previous novels even further. It depicts also a black individual in white western culture juxtaposing two opposing value systems – Anglo-Saxon  civilization versus Jamaican folk culture.  It  tells the story of a Jamaican peasant girl, Bita Plant, who is rescued by white missionaries after being raped. In taking refuge with her new protectors she also becomes their prisoner with all their cultural values being foisted upon her and her introduction to their organized Christian educational system.

All this culminates in a bungled attempt to arrange her marriage to an aspiring priest.  But Bita escapes from him as he attempts to rape her.  But later overcoming the memory of rape she returns to the people in their native town of Jubilee where she eventually finds happiness – fulfillment. She ends up thus rejecting European culture and the Jamaican elite, choosing to rejoin the farming folk. This novel did not make much of an impression on the reading public then.

After twelve years wandering through Europe and North Africa, McKay returned to Harlem.  Three years later in 1937 he completed  his autobiography, A Long Way from Home, in a futile attempt to bolster his financial and literary fortunes. His interest in Roman Catholicism which was growing significantly during the 1940s after his repudiation of communism and officially joined the church in 1944.  Though he wrote much new poetry then, he failed to publish any, a failure he blamed on the Communist Party in the U.S.  By the mid 1940s McKay’s health had deteriorated and after enduring several illnesses, he died of heart failure in Chicago in 1948.

McKay’s work  as a poet, novelist, and essayist has been widely seen as heralding several of the most significant moments in African American culture.  His protest poetry was seen by many as the premier  example  of the "New Negro" spirit.  His novels were sophisticated considerations of the problems and possibilities of  Pan-Africanism at the end of the colonial era, influencing  writers of African descent throughout the world.  His early poetry in Jamaican patois and his fiction set in Jamaica are now seen as crucial to the development of a national Jamaican literature.             

posted 24 June 2007

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Arthur Smith a Senior Lecturer of English, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone and editor Sierra Leone PEN is available for public lectures as well as speaking tours. He also writes extensively. Visit him at his website at:

Arthur Smith: Why We Should All Love America?

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Arthur Edgar E. Smith was born and grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He attended  Holy Trinity Boys Primary  and proceeded to the Prince of Wales Secondary School. He did his sixth form at Albert Academy and  went up further the hill to Fourah Bay College. He has taught English since 1977  at Prince of Wales, Milton Margai College of Education  and now at Fourah Bay College again he has risen to the rank of Senior Lecturer of English. Mr Smith is widely published both locally as well as internationally.  

He was one of 17 international scholars who participated in  a seminar on contemporary American Literature sponsored by the U.S. State Department from June to August 2006. His thoughts and reflections of this trip which took him to various sights  in Kentucky, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C.can be read at His other publications include:  Folktales from Freetown, Langston Hughes: Life and Works Celebrating Black Dignity, and 'The Struggle of the Book in Sierra Leone'. He holds a Masters in African Literature from Fourah Bay College.  A recent story of his could be read at .

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“American Girl" By Ta Nehesi Coates

Video: "South Side Story"

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#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
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#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

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#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

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#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

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#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

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#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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The Price of Civilization

Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

The Price of Civilization is a book that is essential reading for every American. In a forceful, impassioned, and personal voice, he offers not only a searing and incisive diagnosis of our country’s economic ills but also an urgent call for Americans to restore the virtues of fairness, honesty, and foresight as the foundations of national prosperity. Sachs finds that both political parties—and many leading economists—have missed the big picture, offering shortsighted solutions such as stimulus spending or tax cuts to address complex economic problems that require deeper solutions. Sachs argues that we have profoundly underestimated globalization’s long-term effects on our country, which create deep and largely unmet challenges with regard to jobs, incomes, poverty, and the environment. America’s single biggest economic failure, Sachs argues, is its inability to come to grips with the new global economic realities. Sachs describes a political system that has lost its ethical moorings, in which ever-rising campaign contributions and lobbying outlays overpower the voice of the citizenry. . . .

Sachs offers a plan to turn the crisis around. He argues persuasively that the problem is not America’s abiding values, which remain generous and pragmatic, but the ease with which political spin and consumerism run circles around those values. He bids the reader to reclaim the virtues of good citizenship and mindfulness toward the economy and one another.

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Word, Image, and the New Negro

By Anne Carroll

The author's analysis of how the illustrations amplify and create tension with the writing and how they empower and sometimes disempower their subjects is the first critical work in this important area. Generously illustrated. Highly recommended.— Choice

In tracing the formation of the idea of the New Negro through the vital interplay of literature, art, and social criticism, Word, Image, and the New Negro makes a superb contribution to scholarship on the Harlem Renaissance, the history of African American publishing, and modern American culture.—Eric J. Sundquist, author of To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature 

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Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro

By Barbara Foley

A carefully argued, nuanced presentation of the genesis of the Harlem Renaissance. Foley's breadth of knowledge in American radical history is impressive.—American Literature

Foley's book is a lucid and useful one... A heavyweight intervention, it prompts significant rethinking of the ideological and representational strategies structuring the era.—Journal of American Studies  

Foley does a masterful job of analyzing the racial and political theories of a wide range of black and white figures, from the radical Left to the racist Right... Students of African American political and cultural history in the early twentieth century cannot ignore this book. Essential.—Choice

In our current time of crisis, when ruling classes busily promote nationalism and racism to conceal the class nature of their inter-imperialist rivalries, one can only hope that readers will not be daunted by Foley's dedication to analyzing the ideological milieu of the 1920s that contributed to the eclipse of New Negro radicalism by New Negro nationalism.—Science & Society

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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In-Dependence from Bondage