Race against Empire

Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957

Penny M. Von Eschen
Copyright Date: 1997
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
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    Race against Empire
    Book Description:

    During World War II, African American activists, journalists, and intellectuals forcefully argued that independence movements in Africa and Asia were inextricably linkep to political, economic, and civil rights struggles in the United States. Marshaling evidence from a wide array of international sources, including the black presses of the time, Penny M. Von Eschen offers a vivid portrayal of the African diaspora in its international heyday, from the 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress to early cooperation with the United Nations.

    Race against Empiretells the poignant story of a popular movement and its precipitate decline with the onset of the Cold War. Von Eschen documents the efforts of African-American political leaders, intellectuals, and journalists who forcefully promoted anti-colonial politics and critiqued U.S. foreign policy. The eclipse of anti-colonial politics-which Von Eschen traces through African-American responses to the early Cold War, U.S. government prosecution of black American anti-colonial activists, and State Department initiatives in Africa-marked a change in the very meaning of race and racism in America from historical and international issues to psychological and domestic ones. She concludes that the collision of anti-colonialism with Cold War liberalism illuminates conflicts central to the reshaping of America; the definition of political, economic, and civil rights; and the question of who, in America and across the globe, is to have access to these rights.

    Exploring the relationship between anticolonial politics, early civil rights activism, and nascent superpower rivalries,Race against Empireoffers a fresh perspective both on the emergence of the United States as the dominant global power and on the profound implications of that development for American society.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7171-1
    Subjects: History, Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Penny M. Von Eschen
    (pp. 1-6)

    On New Year’s Day in 1940 Americans thrilled to Paul Robeson’s singing of “Ballad for Americans” over the CBS airwaves. The son of a former slave and an internationally renowned singer and Shakespearean actor, Robeson had the extraordinary artistic talent and the capacity for empathy to express the hopes and dreams of a country just emerging from the Great Depression and facing the prospect of war. Using the same imagination with which he embraced the world’s music, languages, and peoples as his own, Robeson projected in music a vision of a prosperous America not divided by race, ethnicity, or creed....

    (pp. 7-21)

    The sense that African Americans shared a common history with Africans and all peoples of African descent had long been an important part of African American thought, but the global dynamics unleashed by World War II brought it to the forefront of black American politics and animated political discourse at an unprecedented level. Many African American political leaders and journalists analyzed the war through a prism of anticolonialism. A new political constellation emerged as anticolonial issues acquired a new prominence and stood side by side with domestic demands in the political agendas of leading African American protest organizations.¹

    From the...

    (pp. 22-43)

    The outbreak of World War II accelerated the already heightened sensitivity to colonialism among people of African descent in the diaspora. As scholars of Pan-Africanism have argued, the war raised in sharp relief such issues as the nature of liberty, the powers of the state, the rights of the individual, and racial prejudice.¹ Since World War I, nationalists and Pan-Africanists had trenchantly critiqued and debunked myths of white supremacy and the civilizing mission and had challenged the political and economic order on which they rested. In the 1930s especially, the scholarship of C. L. R. James and W. E. B....

    (pp. 44-68)

    In 1946, following a general strike of Nigerian workers, the British banned a chain of militant pro-independence newspapers sympathetic to the strikers. Featuring the striking workers and the fight for the freedom of the press, theBaltimore Afro-Americanquoted Nnamdi Azikiwe, editor of the banned papers: “With our back to the wall, we have solemnly pledged our lives to the redemption of Africa, and are determined to face imprisonment or exile or a firing squad . . . . As we fight back with every constitutional energy at our disposal, if we must die, we shall repeat, to our last...

    (pp. 69-95)

    In a letter to Mayor William O’Dwyer of New York City in 1946, the Community Progressive Negro Painters Union and the New Harlem Tenants League invoked their membership in a community of “400 million black people scattered all over the world” to legitimize their own local claims to jobs and decent housing. Just as striking is their sense of audience. In addressing demands to “all you White Imperialist Rulers of the world,” including the President of the United States, King George VI of England and Winston Churchill, the organizations named their oppressors not as arbitrarily exploitive and cruel individuals or...

    (pp. 96-121)

    The irony of giving a speech on freedom and human dignity in Mississippi in 1947 may have been lost on Dean Acheson, but it was impossible for black American leaders at the end of World War II not to read proclamations about freedom and democratic institutions abroad in the context of domestic politics. This was especially so in Mississippi, the state with the highest recorded number of lynchings, five hundred and thirty-nine, of black Americans.¹ By 1946 a sharp rise in violence against returning black soldiers echoed the disillusion of the post-World War I period: heightened expectations followed by brutality,...

    (pp. 122-144)

    Despite the fragmentation of anticolonial alliances and the split of the Council on African Affairs in 1948, remaining CAA leaders such as Hunton, Robeson, and Du Bois continued to support African liberation movements and to monitor American corporate initiatives in Africa.¹ The CAA’s African Aid Committee, chaired by Du Bois, raised money in 1950 for striking coal miners at Enugu, Nigeria, and the Nigerian National Federation of Labor.² Hunton followed the activities of Edward R. Stettinius Jr., the former secretary of state who, Hunton contended, controlled virtually the entire economy of Liberia through his Liberia Company.³ Alarmed by these activities,...

    (pp. 145-166)

    In 1954 W. E. B. Du Bois complained that the post–New Deal American Negro leadership had no interest in Africa.¹ On the face of it, this comment may seem incompatible with the rapt attention of black American journalists to the negative publicity and reaction that segregation in America was provoking in Asia and Africa. Civil rights leaders were deeply aware of the response around the world to American Jim Crow policies and sought to exploit it to their own advantage. As Mary Dudziak has argued, foreign policy concerns played a critical role inBrown v. Board of Education.² But...

    (pp. 167-184)

    After the most repressive years of the Cold War, discussions of international politics began to open up, but on radically different terms from those of the 1940s. International gatherings such as the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, and the 1956 Congress of Colored Writers and Artists in Paris were surrounded by controversy. Who could travel, and who could not? Who could speak for America and its foreign policy? In Robeson’s passport case the latter question was made explicit and by the mid-1950s continued to receive direct if unexpected answers. With Du Bois and Robeson barred from international travel, the...

    (pp. 185-190)

    After The McCarthy era, the towering figures of anticolonialism in the 1940s—Du Bois, Robeson, and Hunton—were never again to have a voice in American politics. But although these individuals were marginalized in U.S. and African American politics, the issues for which they had fought—most fundamentally a conception of democracy that embraced political, economic, and civil rights on a global scale, and a radical democratic critique of American foreign policy—were once again debated in the 1960s. Critical discussion of American policies in Africa involving attention to political economy began to revive at the end of the 1950s...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 191-252)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 253-260)