A Century of African-American Internationalism

— Regennia N. Williams

Afro-Orientalism
by Bill Mullen
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. 240 pages, $18.95 paper.

"The problem of the twentieth-century is the problem of the color line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea." —W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

THE BELIEF THAT African Americans are members of a global community of color is over 100 years old. Yet recent articles (in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Village Voice and other publications) expressing the need for Black Studies programs to reinvent themselves by starting to focus on Black internationalism, the African Diaspora, or the Black Atlantic.

It appears that at least in some academic circles, a reiteration of the long history of Black American participation in global affairs is in order.

In Afro-Orientalism Dr. Bill Mullen, Director of American Studies at Indiana University-Purdue, rises to this challenge, providing readers with a thought-provoking analysis of some of the international ties that continue to bind Black Americans to African and Asian-descended participants in global struggles for change in cultural, social, political,and economic affairs. Students of history, educators at the post-secondary level, and others interested in this topic have much to gain from a consideration of Mullen’s text.

With sources ranging from creative literature to analyses of political theory, this study focuses on the lives and legacies of six 20th century Americans: William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, Richard Wright, Robert F. Williams, Grace Lee and James Boggs, and Fred Ho.

Mullen defines Afro-Orientalism as “a signifying discourse on race, nation, and global politics constituting a subtradition in indigenous U.S. writing on imperialism, colonialism, and the making of capitalist empire.” (xv) In bringing together the ideas of this diverse group of writers, Mullen encourages 21st century readers to consider the enduring linkages between Asia, Africa, and the Diaspora in the more than 50 years since the Bandung Conference.

It makes sense that Mullen’s study begins with the writings of Du Bois, a prolific scholar, respected educator, and world renowned Pan-Africanist.

Du Bois almost single-handedly — and some critics suggest, “heavy-handedly” — edited and managed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Crisis Magazine for almost a quarter of a century, while championing civil rights, racial justice, education and economic opportunities.

Mullen’s analysis of Du Bois’ written works, including the Crisis articles, reveals a growing interest in anti-colonialism in Asian nations throughout his tenure at the NAACP. Du Bois was also a traveler, having lived and studied in Berlin, traversed the United States for teaching, research, and countless speaking engagements; participated in the Pan-African congresses in Europe, and visited China on several occasions. These experiences helped him acquire a world-class self-education in Chinese commitment to self-determination.

After the defeat of Japan during the century’s second global conflict, Du Bois witnessed the writing of a new chapter in China’s modern history. At the conclusion of the Civil War between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Guomindang (GMD) in 1949, the victorious CCP declared a new national government, the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Mao Zedong later welcomed Du Bois and his wife Shirley Graham Du Bois as special guests.

As Du Bois witnessed China’s transformation, he also experienced a major transformation in his thinking about the problem of the twentieth century. The socialist ideas evidenced in his writing in the 1930s came to fruition in the 1940s and 1950s when he stated, “the one hope of American Negroes is socialism.”

To quote historian and Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis, “His [Du Bois’] American Negroes, once the vanguard of the darker world, were now imprisoned in a militant capitalism cutting them off from the progressive trends of the day.(1)

Du Bois’ recognition of the need for struggle along international color and class lines in also reflected in his creative writing.  Mullen devotes many pages in Afro-Orientalism to Du Bois’ 1928 novel Dark Princess, which chronicles the efforts of an African-American man, a princess from the Indian sub-continent, and their associates to “unite Pan-Asia and Pan-Africa.”

In chapters focusing on literary giant Richard Wright and jazz musician Fred Ho, Mullen continues his examination of the ways in which 20th century social thought and political ideologies are reflected in works of art.  For the most part, however, Afro-Orientalism, concentrates on historical rather than fictional or creative writing.

NAACP activism and Black internationalism were central themes in the written works of another of Mullen’s subjects. In the second chapter, “Transnational Correspondence: Robert F. Williams, Detroit, and the Bandung Era,” Mullen focuses on Williams’ evolving role as a writer and spokesperson for Black radicalism.

While serving as NAACP branch president in Monroe, North Carolina during the 1950s, Williams fought for equal rights for all of the community’s citizens. When he advocated armed self-defense — “meeting violence with violence” — in an African-American district that was the frequent target of Ku Klux Klan terror, the NAACP’s national body removed him from the leadership position in Monroe.

Robert Williams, his wife Mabel, and fellow activist Ethel Azalea Johnson launched The Crusader newsletter, a publication dedicated to “advancing the cause of race pride and freedom.”

During a period of intense racial unrest in 1961, the Williams family fled the United States and was given asylum in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, where they resided from 1961 to 1965. While in Cuba, they launched “Radio Free Dixie,” a broadcast that was heard throughout the United States. In 1962, the story of Williams’ persecution and exile — and his classic statement on the need for armed self-defense — was published with the title Negroes with Guns.

In 1965, the Williams family relocated to China, where they were guests of Mao. Throughout their lengthy period of exile, Robert and Mabel continued to produce the Crusader. Mullen’s analysis of the transnational focus of the Crusader shows that, even in exile, Robert Williams’ writings inspired a new generation of young activists in the Black Panther and the Black Arts Movement, who also studied the revolutionary writings of Mao Zedong.

James and Grace Boggs

Mullen uses the fourth chapter in Afro-Orientalism to highlight the work of another writer-activist, Grace Lee Boggs, who helped call national attention to Robert Williams’ battles with the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s. Grace Lee and her late husband James Boggs, a Detroit auto worker and revolutionary, are two of the influential leaders in the history of the African American freedom struggle. Their publications, most notably Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century (1974), suggest that class struggle has shaped the course of American history in countless ways. Grace Boggs tells their story in her 1998 autobiography, Living for Change.

Mullen’s chapter “Philosophy Must Be Proletarian” considers James and Grace Lee Boggs’ thoughts on social, political and economic change in the 20th century. James Boggs remained constantly in touch with the workers, activists, and other members of the African-American community and his family in the United States, even as he studied ideas about “revolution” and “evolution” across the globe.

For James Boggs, revolution began at the most basic level of human relations, and nations were thereby transformed one human being as a time through personal struggles to make self and society better. The Boggses’ writings envision a new revolutionary age, the age of “dialectical humanism,” when men and women are being challenged to define what it means to be human beings.(2)

An Important Work

Afro-Orientalism comes at an important moment. Beyond academic debates, recent developments in China’s diplomatic and trade relations with Africa suggest that Afro-Orientalism will be a topic of discussion for some time to come, Mullen’s book reminds us of just how long Black Americans have been interested in this topic.

In 2001, Lexis-Nexis made copies of the Robert F. Williams’ papers available to libraries as part II of its Black Power Movement series. This collection contains transcripts from Robert and Mabel’s “Radio Free Dixie” shows, photographs of them in Cuba and China, and other important documents. In 2004, Wayne State University Press released a new edition of Williams’ Negroes With Guns, and California Newsreel is currently distributing a new video documentary by the same name.

Coming on the heels of Timothy Tyson’s Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power and David Leveing Lewis’s award-winning, two-volume biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, Mullen’s book is yet another welcome and challenging addition to a lively discourse on Black internationalism and Black Studies.

Notes

  1. David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000), 558.
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  2. Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change: An Autobiography (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 123.
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ATC 126, January-February 2007