Penny Von Eschen’s Race against Empire

Von Eschen, Penny M. Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.


Help her, China!

Help her, Dark People, who half-shared her slavery’

Who knows the depths of her sorrow and humiliation’

Help her, not in Charity

_ W.E.B. Du Bois, I Sing to China


The African American anticolonial movements from the 1930s to 1950s, which Penny M. Von Eschen traces in her book, Race Against Empire, serve to expose the antithetical nature of “blackness” to American national belonging by turning towards a belonging in the world to black diasporas, to colonized subjects, and to the struggling proletariats world-wide. The racialized domination and violence by the West that is experienced by these groups create a feeling of global solidarity. Yet in Von Eschen, this solidarity never seems to manifest into a transnational political project with effective power. The challenges brought to anticolonial politics by the suppression of free speech, the accusations of Marxist influence during the McCarthy era, the changing racial ideologies in the United States and the potent ideological force of nationalism during World War II and its aftermath in the Truman Doctrine, stymie and eventually nullify the movement. Though it may seem that the turn towards a racial globality is ultimately defeated by the forces of nationalism and patriotism, as manifest in the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine, we can also read Von Eschen’s book as an expose’ of the systemic contradictions within anticolonial discourse as World War II and American hegemony shift the meaning of globality and race.

Perhaps the black intellectual most associated with the global turn in racial belonging is W.E.B. Du Bois, whose poem I Sing to China begins this response paper. This poem is cited frequently to galvanize afro-asian support, yet its ironies undergo just as frequent scrutiny, as China’s oppression throughout much of the first half of the 20th Century was not in the trials of the boxers, but in casting off Japanese imperialism in the second Sino-Japanese war and World War II. Von Escher is curiously silent on this issue, as well as the general pitfalls that threaten non-alignment and racial solidarity, to be blunt: the intra-conflict among oppressed peoples. In a movement that promotes racial solidarity, how did the anticolonial movement respond to such intra-conflicts among Asians or Africans whose common enemy was not imperial Europe, but each other? I find the example of Japan especially pertinent on this issue, since Du Bois himself, as many African Americans in his time, was supportive of Japan for casting off the colonial powers from Asia in the name of Asian solidarity, though this seemingly benevolent phenomenon ended in a grab for resources, massacres and the trials of WWII. How did the anticolonial movements deal with this disjuncture? Or are these historical moments just as crucial to understanding the decline of anticolonialism as is understanding the effects of American nationalism?

The appeal to the Indian homeland by diasporic Indians living in South Africa served as a model for Black Americans to appeal to diasporic blacks world-wide, reaffirming membership in a global community with Africa as its ballast. The Indian question and events like it caused tremors in racial formation worldwide, leading black intellectuals like Du Bois to believe that the problem of the color line was overtly a global problem. In his essay “The Souls of White folk” in Darkwater, his examples of racialized oppression range world-wide, from China to India to Africa to Mexico and South America. Yet the oppressors in all of his cases are “white folk,” and even when confronted with the issue of Japan, Du Bois posits that its eventual overthrow was due to the “peril of such ‘yellow’ presumption” to be white. Such an outcome is further extrapolated in his novel, Dark Princess: A Romance, where the Indian Princess Kautilya, who has assisted in organizing a conference that would resemble Bandung, falls in love with a Black American, Matthew Towns, and after many trials and tribulations, bears his son. The joining of the mytho-poetic Indian princess and the Black American Matthew is romantically idealized to the extreme, as their love affair throughout the novel seems to resemble purity, genuine feminization and fecundity, and a common political alignment/enlightenment that serves to awaken their political consciousness for “the Council of the Darker Peoples of the World,” (the name of the conference the princess has come to participate in). Furthermore, according to Alys Weinbaum, for Du Bois, this child represents “a baby cast as the messiah of a new world in which Pan-Asia and Pan-Africa are united in common cause against white world domination” (204). This analysis leads me to my second question: what role does Orientalism and idealism play in these anticolonial movements?  The romantic form of global solidarity against oppression that we find in Du Bois’ novel does not seem limited to the realm of fiction and literary scholarship, but seems related to the weakening of the anticolonial movements. With the formality of being an organization centered on education, the ideological background of the CAA and its intellectuals seem tantamount to discovering the internal problems that may have led to its decline.

While seemingly domestic in their outlook, the intellectuals who came after the anticolonial movements also deserve further inquiry. What was to gain by the radical shift towards domestic policy rather than global solidarity? The hijacking of the Bandung conference by Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who, as Von Escher informs us, was known for “saving” the conference from communist exploitation of the color question, appears as an attempt to elide international criticism of American domestic policy. Men like Powell appear adamant to protect the United States’ domestic reputation with race, and this appearance leads me to my third question: Can the turn towards a more domestic politics during the cold war also be seen as a strategic revitalization of civil rights politics in threatening to expose the oppression of Black Americans to the global public sphere, thereby contradicting first-world propaganda? In other words, what were the strategic advantages of this shift?

Finally, my last question attempts to synthesize all of the above. If the oscillation from transnational to national civil rights politics in the time period that Von Escher is dealing with can be said to have been contingent on historical factors such as World War II, American nationalism, etc., where do we stand, in the contemporary era, for a politics of racial globality and what George Stiglitz calls “inter-ethnic anti-racism”? What external/internal factors are being faced now, for which Escher’s book may elucidate possible strategies to overcome?

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