African Americans and Maoist China

AHA Session 97
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Bryant Suite (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Charles W. Hayford, independent scholar
Ann Waltner, University of Minnesota Twin Cities

Session Abstract

This panel offers insightful, original papers from two rising and one established scholars that advance historical understanding of the engagement of black American sojourners to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) during the Maoist years. China, ruled tightly by the Communist Party (CCP), was considered a closed society from 1949-1976 with few outsiders admitted. These three papers seek to dismantle that perception by illustrating how black Americans traveled to China and there found unity and alienation in revolutionary ideals. In his paper Matthew Johnson, using original sources form the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, points out that African Americans traveling to China did not always have the same agenda as their CCP hosts. This insight contravenes current perception that black Americans in the PRC were naïve and easily manipulated by the party. Johnson details the major pathways by which African American visitors got to China and how they formed an independent community in Beijing.  Johnson argues for a diverse, though finite, set of ideals and experiences for black Americans in China, a group that foreshadowed a larger Chinese government engagement with African Americans and Africans.

            In her paper, Yunxiang Gao fixes attention on the CCP’s lavish affection for the noted singer and actor Paul Robeson. The CCP first discovered Robeson in the early 1940s, when his massive American popularity peaked. Liu Liangmo, then a close associate to the CCP recorded an album of nationalist and folk Chinese songs with Robeson. The paper shows how Liu, who returned to China in 1949 to become a top cultural officer in the PRC, insured that Robeson’s saga was continually before the Chinese public. Using heretofore unknown Chinese publications of Robeson’s biography and autobiography along with journalism and government documents to illuminate how the PRC used Robeson’s name and image to project black American radicalism and give rise to Chinese public perceptions of African Americans as the “true American radicals.”

            Bill V. Mullen argues in his paper for a “diasporic international” to examine the relationship of famed black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois with the PRC.  Mullen emphasizes the theme of this panel, that black visitors to China were not naïve pawns but dedicated to Third World or Bandung Era politics. Mullen widens the lens of the panel to include the West Indian George Padmore and the Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru in the discussion of non-white visitors to the PRC. Mullen closely analyses the impact of Du Bois and other non-white visitors on Mao Zedong’s famous support for African American national liberation and for the Black Panther Party.

            Presented together, the authors make sizable advances on past scholarship by fusing black American and Asian intellectual and political histories and recovering lost and critical personal associations across the Pacific Ocean.  Ann Waltner, an established scholar of Modern China, will comment. Charles Hayford, also a veteran and respected scholar of Modern China, will chair the panel.

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