Black History

Martin Delany: The Father of Black Nationalism

A Visionary During Slavery

As Black people in the United States continue to fight systemic oppression on various fronts, many of the elders in the freedom struggle continue to encourage their younger counterparts to study the readings and actions of a 19th-century figure by the name of Martin Delany.

Delany was a renaissance man who cut a broad path in journalism, military affairs, public affairs and medicine in 19th century America.

For current-day influencers, like Mwalimu K-Q Amsata, Martin Delany’s insistence that Black Americans foster a nationalist identity and unite with Africans in the motherland and around the world still rings true more than 160 years later.

“Sociologically and culturally, we are still a nation within a nation. Martin Delany was the first person to state this in 1852,” said Amsata, coordinator of the North American Pan-African Federalist Movement, one of nine branches of a global effort to politically unite the African diaspora within a decade.

Amsata, a self-avowed Black nationalist, Pan-Africanist, and Garveyite, recounted first learning about Delany as an adolescent in Harlem during the 1960s. He said Delany’s Black nationalist message primed him for activism that started during the Black Power era and continued well beyond graduate school.

Today, more than anything, Amsata describes himself as a Pan-African Federalist, a designation he said aligns with the phrase “Africa for the Africans,” coined by Delany in 1861.

In adopting Delany’s philosophy of Black independence, Amsata designated him as a progenitor to Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Malcolm X and other 20th century figures who called for African unity rather than assimilation.

“It’s not about land, [but] it’s about where we are and where we stand that makes us a nation within a nation,” Amsata told The Informer.

“This brings us to our next step, which Delany recognized as ‘Africa for the Africans.’ Our conditions haven’t changed,” he continued.

“Our existence in the U.S. since 1619 is an interruption in our history of greatness so we tend to get overwhelmed, but we need to keep our eye on the prize and understand when Africa is united, we will resurface as a world power.”

‘Africa for the Africans!’

Martin Delany, an abolitionist, physician, journalist, and soldier, was born in Virginia during the early 19th century to free parents of West African ancestry. His yearning to read and write caused him to break laws forbidding the education of Black people, and later relocate to New York to attend the African Free School.

In the 1850s, Delany espoused Black Nationalism upon the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act that allowed for the capture, or recapture, of Black people living in Northern states. His call of Black repatriation placed him at odds with his contemporary and colleague Frederick Douglass, with whom he worked on The North Star, an abolitionist newspaper started by Douglass.

In acting upon his beliefs, Delany traveled to present-day southwest Nigeria, and coordinated an arrangement through which repatriates could live on settlements formed by chieftains. He also spent time in Canada and Liberia, then a newly formed American settlement for freed Black repatriates.

When the Civil War started, however, Delany returned to the U.S. and served as a major in the U.S. Colored Troops, becoming the first Black field officer in the U.S. Army.

More than 130 years after his death, Black people in the United States, 42 million strong, enjoy some level of political representation at all various levels of government. Even so, this racial-ethnic group suffers from a bevy of socioeconomic and health disparities, especially in portions of the country where Black people are highly concentrated.

The COVID-19 pandemic has since exacerbated these resource gaps.

At this juncture in history, some people like longtime historian Runoko Rashidi have found value in channeling Delany’s energy. Rashidi, who conducts virtual presentations on the Black presence around the world, often mentions Delany as a role model for pioneer African historians.

“Martin Delany strove for racial pride, self-esteem, and knowledge of self. That hasn’t changed at all,” Rashidi told The Informer.

“The need for that exists today. Before Marcus Garvey, Delany gave us the expression ‘Africa for the Africans,’” he continued.

“We need Africa, and Africa needs us. Delany was a remarkable person, but especially considering the life he lived. We can take inspiration from him, the same way we love Garvey, Malcolm X, and Frederick Douglass. They live through us.”

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