Martin R. Delany (1812–1885) has been called the “Father of Black Nationalism,” but his extraordinary career also encompassed the roles of abolitionist, physician, editor, explorer, politician, army officer, novelist and political theorist.
Despite his enormous influence in the 19th century and his continuing influence on Black nationalist thought in the 20th century, Delany has remained a relatively obscure figure in U.S. culture, generally portrayed as a radical separatist at odds with the more integrationist Frederick Douglass. Moonstone Arts Center Director Larry Robin is leading the local commemoration of Delany’s 200th birthday in May.
“He is just the most amazing character to have been ignored by history,” Robin said. “He is incredibly important because while there were lots of people that were anti-slavery, he’s the first person, I think, who challenges the thinking behind it. He says the thinking is wrong. The whole paradigm of white supremacy, of race, is wrong. What he does, and the reason why he is the ‘Father of Black Nationalism,’ is that he embraces his Blackness.”
Delany was one of the first Black men to found a Black newspaper; be admitted to Harvard Medical School; negotiate a treaty with the Yoruba chiefs so African Americans could emigrate to Africa; write a novel and be an officer in the Union army.
“The arch of the idea of these 20 programs is here is a guy who is neglected by most history books,” Robin said. “But there’s more than that because now with DNA research we know there’s no biological basis of race, so what does that do to those definitions? What does that do to the concept of white supremacy? What does that do to the concept of Black Nationalism — if there is no race? But there is racism, and we still need to confront that.”
Moonstone Arts Center hosts Martin Delany Week which begins May 3. The “150 Years Challenging Racism” program speakers include Molefi Asante, Bill Ayers, Erica Armstrong, Robert Levine, Frank Meeink, Alondra Nelson, Ewuare Osayande, Clarence Page, Sonia Sanchez, Linn Washington and Tim Wise. Details on all this and more about Delany is available at www.moonstoneartscenter.org/martindelany or (215) 735-9600. There is also printed material at the Philadelphia Free Library.