African Americans and Chinese Activists in World War II and the Cold War

AHA Session 6
Friday, January 3, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
New York Ballroom West (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Marc Gallicchio, Villanova University
Marc Gallicchio, Villanova University

Session Abstract

Proposal for a Panel:
African Americans and Chinese Activists in World War II and the Cold War

This panel presents new and invigorating scholarship linking African American and Chinese political activists during World War II and the Cold War up to normalization of diplomatic relations between China and the United States in 1979. The panel stems from the fast-emerging field of American black internationalism and Chinese race-based diplomacy. The Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University recently published a useful documentary and scholarly guide to the field at

Participants in this panel offer a mix of broad conceptualization with evocative biography and feature a mix of established and rising scholars. Marc Gallicchio, Professor and Chair of the History Department at Villanova University, will serve as panel chair and commentator. Among many other books, Professor Gallicchio authored The African American Encounter with Japan and China: Black Internationalism in Asia, 1895-1945 (UNC Press, 2000), a seminal study in this field. Presenting panelists include Hongshan Li, Professor of History at Kent State University. Li discusses the black activist Vicki Garvin, who taught at Shanghai Foreign Languages University during the Cultural Revolution, and who lectured on American race relations throughout China from 1964 to 1979. Gao Yunxiang, Associate Professor of History at Ryerson University, presents her study of “Sylvia Si-Lan Chen (1905-1996), a Sino-African Dancer’s Global Citizenship in War and Revolution.” Chen, born of Afro-Trinidadian and Chinese ancestry, was part of a global network of black and Chinese activists that included Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. As the first “modern Chinese/Soviet dancer,” she choreographed war and revolutions in contemporary China, African American struggles against racial oppression, and folk materials from China, Soviet Asia and the Caribbean. While privileged to push the geographic, gender, and racial boundaries during the turbulent years of the twentieth century, Chen struggled and negotiated with racial ambiguity and was often caught among crushing ideological, political, and bureaucratic barriers. Zifeng Liu, a doctoral candidate in Asian history at Cornell University, draws upon Chinese and English sources to illuminate an “Afro-Asian press,” that responding to Mao Zedong’s 1968 statement supporting African American struggle against violent repression, called for an African American Chinese anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist alliance aimed at worldwide emancipation. Liu contends that the press injected black activists’ words and ideas into a Sinified discourse on Afro-Asianism. Keisha A. Brown, Assistant Professor of History at Tennessee State University, calls for a re-centering of the concept “China Hands”, a term which historically has largely described White American political and economic experts from the 1930s into 1949. Recasting of the term pushes for a decentering of Whiteness as it pertains to Chinese foreign policy and will further illuminates the influence and impact of a cadre of African Americans that traveled to and lived in the Peoples Republic of China during the reign and leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party.

The panel will extend and broaden this rapidly developing field.

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