Confidential Councils : Secrecy, Authority and Legitimacy in Early American Black Nationalism


SMITH Jeffrey Alan

Year of publication 2019
Type Appeared in Conference without Proceedings
MU Faculty or unit

Faculty of Arts

Description When Martin R. Delany called in 1852 for a National Confidential Council of black Americans, elaborating a plan he had begun to sketch years earlier, he did not necessarily mean “confidential” in the modern sense of “secret.” Initially, his “great representative gathering of the colored people of the United States” would be convened by private invitation, but a major part of its purpose would be to establish that African America could act “in a national capacity,” and thus could openly call for the respect and help of other nations toward great projects – notably, the founding of an East African empire that would, at last, make the earth’s nonwhite majority the “lords of terrestrial creation.” As described in this paper, these ambitious aims moved Delany to work out details of a proto-constitution, a careful system of conventions, boards and directorships designed to legitimize his proposed Council’s authority by ensuring that its members would be genuinely representative, that they could operate in the name of – that is, with the “confidence” – of their constituent peoples. Interestingly, though, when Delany went on a few year later to imagine a “Grand Council” of black Americans and Cubans, and to spell out its operations fictively in his only novel, Blake; Or, the Huts of America, it was in fact a truly secret organization, led by a charismatic general planning a war to overthrow white rule. At the end of the century, likewise, Sutton E. Griggs’ first novel, Imperium in Imperio, would further expand an idea similar to the Confidential Council (along with the real-life Freedmen’s Bureaus of Reconstruction) into an entire secret government, literally meeting underground to rule and legislate on behalf of African Americans. Griggs’ fictional treatment – and, another generation after that, George S. Schuyler’s imagined global conspiracy in Black Internationale and Black Empire – would also explore and to some extent struggle with the same issues in black nationalism that Blake’s proposals had first advanced: whether and how a nation explicitly organized along racial lines could establish legitimacy, and thereby act not merely with power but with the kind of public (not secret) authority on which rightful governance ultimately depends.
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