A Soul as Vast as the World: African Americans, Decolonization, and Third World Radicalism

AHA Session 137
Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Penny Von Eschen, Cornell University

Session Abstract

Throughout the history of the United States—from 19th-century Liberian emigrants, to Cyril Briggs’s African Blood Brotherhood, to the Pan-Africanists who organized in defense of the sovereignty of Ethiopia in the 1930s—Black Americans have placed their own struggles for self-determination in the context of global, anti-colonial, ‘Freedom Dreams’. At the height of the Cold War, demands for black freedom began to dovetail with the critique of liberal capitalism offered by the student New Left. A generation of radicals began increasingly to draw inspiration from China, Algeria, Cuba and other nations of the ‘Third World’, who—often in the wake of successful wars of liberation—charted political courses independent from both American capitalism and Soviet Communism. In this encounter with the Non-Aligned World, African American activists and intellectuals could adapt the cultural and political programs of anti-colonial radicalism to their own contexts, or seek to export American understandings of racial political organizing into the Third World.

Our panel explores the ways in which the Black Freedom Movement engaged with transnational anti-colonial discourses during the Cold War. In doing so, we echo the theme of the conference, illustrating the ways in which questions of race and nation were employed by Black Americans to make demands on state and federal governments, to assert a shared cultural heritage, and to articulate a shared political destiny. While focusing primarily on United States actors, our panel illuminates the importance of material connections across national borders and understandings of global events in the making of American and international racial politics in the second half of the twentieth century. We further investigate how attempts to frame U.S. Black politics globally reverberated onto the histories of radicalism, liberalism, and conservatism within the U.S. nation-state.

Each member of the panel will be presenting on an element of the history of African-American Third Worldism in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Merve Fejzula explores the ways in which the American Society of African Culture’s insistence on the tools of Cold War social science imposed American categories of understanding onto black political subjects. Ben Feldman reconsiders debates between Harold Cruse, James Boggs, and Paul Sweezy over the Freedom Now Party platform as a key moment in the intellectual history of the Third World Left. Sam Klug traces the contested language of decolonization among thinkers of the Left and Right through the mid-1970s, and Robert Greene illustrates the ways in which anti-racist activists in the American South identified their own struggle with the fight against white supremacy in South Africa and Rhodesia from the 1960s to the end of the Cold War. 

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