Expressions of Afro-Asian Solidarity During the Cold War

Black American radical intellectuals such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois expressed their solidarity with Communist China to form a worldwide coalition against racial capitalism

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Story Transcript

EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore. Recently, I have been looking at the relationship between African Americans and the Chinese, and the relationship between China and nations of the African continent. Joining me today to give us an overview of that relationship is Dr. Robeson Frazier. He’s an associate professor at Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is also the author of The East is Black: Cold War China in the Black Radical Imagination, which explores Black American political relationship with Communist China during the Cold War. Professor Frazier, thanks for joining me.

ROBESON FRAZIER: Oh, it’s a pleasure to join you today, Mr. Conway. It’s definitely an honor.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, first I’d like to get an understanding. Why did you start studying the relationship between African Americans and China?

ROBESON FRAZIER: The project really emerged out of my passion, and commitment and interest in black radical political ideology, histories of resistance, the ways that ideologies inform praxis. And so, in my studies, I saw that oftentimes people will write about, in terms of black radicals transnational relations, they might write about black radicals in Paris or the role of the Soviet Union and its influence on black radicals in the US. And I was particularly intrigued when I learned about the fact that there were folks in the 1960s, 1970s who were extremely intrigued with developments in China.

Around the same time that I was becoming more aware of this history, I was studying Mandarin, learning how to speak Chinese. And so, this was a connection that I knew nothing about, and so that kind of began my journey into learning more about the influence of Chinese Communist ideology on black radicals, black nationalists in the US, but as well learning about the influence of Black American culture on China throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, well, I’m actually a former member of the Black Panther Party so I’m aware of a lot of that interaction during that period, but can you give us an overview of what was the relationship like during Chairman Mao’s China, and after that in terms of supporting and interacting with the black struggle for independent both in North America and Africa?

ROBESON FRAZIER: Oh, that’s a great question. And yes, I’m aware of your background, sir, and that’s why I said it’s a honor to, as I said, be in communication with you today. So, really, even in the 1940s, I mean, late 1930s, you have Black Americans like Paul Robeson drawing attention to China’s plight for independence to throw off the yolk of Japanese semi-colonialism and imperialism, but as well, the yolk of Western foreign influence and ownership, and use and exploitation of resources in China.

Into the 1930s, you also are seeing these kinds of support for Chinese independence. Really, after the establishment of a independent Communist government in China in 1949, the Chinese government really begins to prioritize expanding its influence, its relationships with national liberation movements in Asia and Africa with kind of newly established independent governments throughout the continent of Africa, and also recognizing the centrality of the emerging radical wave in North America, in North America, but as well as also the emerging kind of radical waves that are emerging in Central and South America too, and prioritizing, establishing some kinds of political ties, modes of communication and support. Rhetorical support, and later into the 1960s and 70s, some economic support, military support.

This is even more so in relation to China’s ties to Africa, but nonetheless, you really see it beginning in the 1950s, China identifying that number one, Black Americans and other Americans of color are seeing and drawing connections between their plight against Jim Crow racial segregation, economic exploitation, lack of access to public spaces and resources, community autonomy that Black Americans are beginning, and not even beginning because they already are, but drawing connections to worldwide movements and China recognizing the importance of being part of that conversation.

EDDIE CONWAY: Well, and I noticed, and of course, now, there’s a celebration around the work and the life of W.E.B. Du Bois, but I noticed that both Robert Williams and Du Bois developed a relationship with the Chinese during that period, and they seemed to be very at opposite ends of the pole. Du Bois, of course, was involved with NAACP while Robert Williams was involved, he was with the NAACP, but actually formed a self defense gun club. How did China interact with both of those kind of personalities?

ROBESON FRAZIER: Well, that’s one of the things actually I talk about in my book. It’s one of the things I think that’s interesting about W.E.B. Du Bois is I think, to some degree, the ways that Du Bois sometimes gets talked about in US popular culture today is similar to some degree to the ways that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gets represented in the kind of national popular imaginary. Folks will refer to Dr. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent civil disobedience kinds of positions but not his more radical anti capitalist workers’ rights positions and his anti war positions towards the latter part of his life.

With Du Bois, we also see the ways that his kind of ties to the NAACP get referred to, but by the time he’s traveling to China in 1959, he’s really kind of shifted far away from his ties to the NAACP and is far more explicit in his support for socialism, for communism. By this point in his life, he’s basically, in the 1950s, he’s basically like a national pariah. He’s had his passport taken away from him. The US Government has prevented him from really earning a living and moving to different parts of the world to advocate in support of movements throughout the world.

So, by the time he travels to China in 1959, it’s really number one, a huge moment in his life. He’s just received his passport back from the US government. He basically travels over the course of a year, and he gets this invitation, he and his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, who’s also an extremely notable, important, influential radical and feminist of that time period, whose name, I think, also, should kind of be constantly referred to when we think about the legacy of radical internationalism that Americans, and especially Black Americans have fostered.

In any case, they traveled to China in the early part of the year of 1959. It emerges out of, the Chinese government has been trying to get Du Bois for years. I mean, when we think about which Black Americans works are most widely read throughout China during that time period, W.E.B. Du Bois, his name is at the top. It’s basically W.B. Du Bois, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and Pearl Buck’s work from the 1940s. W.E.B. Du Bois is someone whose name is really widely known and the Chinese government centers him as an international hero, and as someone that the world should learn from. And he’s treated in China with the reverence, sadly, that he never receives in the country of his own birth.

While there, he and Shirley Graham Du Bois are offered a glimpse into China’s post-revolutionary phase. This is 10 years after the end of China’s kind of civil war and China’s revolution. And he’s basically able to get a sense of China’s first 10 years in terms of trying to become economically independent and autonomous, and sovereign. He’s able to get a glimpse of how the Chinese Communist Party is working to implement and foster a worker’s led, socialist kind of revolution in government.

It’s a particularly kind of unique and distinctive experience for him. He’s also able to interact with delegates from newly independent African governments and national liberation movements. And it’s there that he believes that he’s witnessing everything that was kind of talked about at the Bandung Conference of 1955. He believes that he’s witnessing the possibility of Asian, African solidarity, Asian, African economic mutual reliance, and this is the message that he shares in China as well as in his writings about this experience in the aftermath.