Cold War Black Internationalism and the Translation of African Culture

Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:30 PM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Merve Fejzula, Cambridge University
Just as the Bandung Conference was the clarion call for the “Third World,” Alioune Diop wished for a “cultural Bandung” for the black world. Publisher of the journal Présence Africaine, Diop was part of a group of black intellectuals that were hoping to inspire black political awakening through culture. While a rich historiography exists on Présence Africaine within black Francophone circles, its African American connections have not been fully explored. Numerous African American intellectuals (most notably Richard Wright) not only published in the journal, but launched initiatives from its example.

This paper will explore the primary among these: the American Society of African Culture, founded in 1957, modeled after the Société africaine de culture. While SAC retained a cultural focus driven by the recovery and dissemination of what they termed “Negro-African” cultural traditions, AMSAC approached African culture in the social science mode. This is in keeping with an abundant literature on the social science turn that externalized Africa and the concomitant Cold War turn that domesticated African American politics, and the scarce literature on AMSAC has examined it within this context. However, a closer examination suggests a complex strategy of negotiation with the State Department (AMSAC was a CIA-front organization), one that insisted on analytical approaches to Africa to combat primitivizing development narratives. In suggesting themselves as the ideal black interlocutors to “translate” a rapidly decolonizing Africa for a white American policymaking audience, AMSAC members traded on an understanding of African society that their correspondence with SAC suggests was unfounded. This history can not only shed light on the neglected role of Cold War racial liberals in crafting American modernization theory; the fissure between black Francophone and African American intellectuals can also reveal the contested conceptual terrain of black “culture” as a form of political solidarity in black internationalism.

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