Blurring the Color Line: Black Diplomacy in the Middle East and North Africa during the Early Cold War

AHA Session 127
Friday, January 8, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 309/310 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Carol Anderson, Emory University
Tim Borstelmann, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Session Abstract

This panel explores how African Americans engaged with the other color line - the Arab-Israeli conflict during the 1950s and 1960s. While, W.E.B. Du Bois' prediction about the 'problem of the color-line' for the twentieth century was both prescient and largely vindicated, the creation of Israel in 1948 and the advent of decolonization across the Middle East and North Africa posed a serious challenge to the solidarities between 'non-whites' envisioned by Du Bois and others. These papers examine how African Americans leaders were confronted with questions of race, religion, and politics in this blurred region of the color line. At the intersection of the global Cold War and the emerging Non-Aligned movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict complicated ideas of belonging for African Americans committed to the global race revolution and ending colonialism. Unlike the black/white divides of white settler colonialism and European imperialism versus African liberation or American segregation versus black freedom movements, both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict laid claim to the mantle of liberation struggle. As representatives and/or critics of the United States, these African Americans were attractive to both the Israeli and Arab states as a perceived means of legitimating these claims. Yet, African Americans often struggled to balance these expectations with pressures from home. These papers trace the global and regional migrations of these African Americans, highlighting how this conflict between neighboring peoples and states provides new insights into the solidarities and challenges of Black diplomacy.

Athan Biss’ paper examines the travels of Edith Sampson, an African American attorney from Chicago and an American goodwill ambassador in the Middle East in the 1950s.  As a representative of American Cold War policy, Sampson struggled to balance fostering non-white female solidarities with bolstering American prestige abroad, especially in the face of the Arab refugee crisis and American domestic racial discrimination. Aaron Dowdall’s paper traces how the Israeli General Federation of Labor recruited African Americans to tour Israeli development projects in the late 1950s and 1960s, highlighting Israeli work in Africa. These prominent black civil rights and labor leaders struggled with the potential of Israeli development as a solution to Deep South inequality versus the plight of the Palestinian refugees and non-Jewish Arabs in Israel. Zoe LeBlanc’s paper focuses on the experiences of Shirley and David Graham Du Bois, the family of W.E.B. Du Bois, in the United Arab Republic in the 1960s as they attempted to bridge the Sahara and realize pan-African unity. From Cairo, the Du Boises attempted to Israeli efforts in Africa as neo-imperialism, but struggled to realize continental solidarities in the face of Cold War tensions. With the 50th anniversary of the civil rights legislation, this panel furthers our understanding of the global black freedom and civil rights movements, and builds upon the seminal works of Mary Dudziak, Brenda Gayle Plummer, James Meriwether, Kevin Gaines, and Penny Von Eshen through exploring the broader scope of Black Diplomacy during the Cold War in the blurry conflict between Israel and the Arab world.

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