Recasting China Hands: Sino-African American Relations in Maoist China, 1949–72

Friday, January 3, 2020: 2:10 PM
New York Ballroom West (Sheraton New York)
Keisha A. Brown, Tennessee State University
“Recasting China Hands: Sino-African American Relations in Maoist China, 1949-1972” argues for a recasting of the term China Hands to further illuminate the influence and impact of a cadre of African Americans that traveled to and lived in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) during the reign and leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). China Hands, which originally referred to 19th century merchants in Chinese treaty ports, generally refers to an expert on all things China. Prior to the establishment of the PRC in 1949, China Hands, in the American context, also had a political dimension as these “handlers” fostered U.S.-China relations. The proposed paper calls for a recasting of the term to focus on African Americans in China, including W.E.B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois, Robert Williams, and Eslanda Goode Robeson, to demonstrate how their travels and performativity of race highlights ideas about race, Blackness, nationalism, and transnationalism in China fostered global relations and galvanized support for China. These individuals are China hands because they become experts on aspects of China. Additionally, this cadre fits a niche within the PRC’s foreign policy of legitimacy and acceptance. Moreover, these African American China Hands continue to foster U.S.-China relations in a non-traditional manner as they expose new populations in America to China and attempt to provide a more nuanced perspective of Communist China beyond the McCarthy narrative. In the recasting of this term, the paper pushes for a decentering of Whiteness as it pertains to Chinese foreign policy. By doing so, this scholarship focuses on Chinese relation with non Euro-American nations and makes these relations between China and other colored peoples and nations part of in China’s long-standing engagement and continuous engagement with peoples of color, specifically those of the African diaspora.