Afro-Asia and Cold War Black Radicalism

Reviewed by Robeson Taj Pl

Marc Gallicchio, The African American Encounter with Japan and China (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

Gerald Horne, Race War!: White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire. (New York: New York University Press, 2003).

Vijay Prashad, Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).

Bill Mullen, Afro-Orientalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

Afro-Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African Americans and Asian Americans. Eds. Bill Mullen & Fred Ho (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).

Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London: Verso, 2006).

AfroAsian Encounters: Culture, History, Politics. Eds. Heike Raphael-Hernandez & Shannon Steen. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

The importance of considering African American identity and history through a transnational and diasporic frame is hopefully no longer debatable. There are countless works that detail the history and current status of global African American thought, activism, and policy, and that show how various foreign ideologies, movements, personalities, and forms of cultural production have helped shape black life. Included in this analysis are studies focusing on African Americans’ collaboration with various Asian populations against their mutual oppressions during the 20th century.1 Key works have probed how race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and geopolitics mediated, impacted, and curtailed Afro-Asian solidarity, and several theories have been offered to describe these relationships of cross-cultural exchange and intercultural communication.

Marc Gallicchio’s The African American Encounter with Japan and China (2000) provides an informative history of African American support for Japan and China during the first half of the 20th century. Gallicchio details the altering lens through which Japan and China were identified by black activists, organizers, church groups, and foreign correspondents up until the end of World War II; and examines how African Americans’ reflections on the two nations was at some points a challenge to, while at other times in tandem with, US foreign policy. Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905, its call for the League of Nations to establish an international policy promoting racial equality, and its willingness to confront Euro-American hegemony were all factors that fueled African American interest and conversely Euro-American fear about Japan’s impending advancement. Yet while large numbers of African Americans, with the exception of African American Communists, believed Japan might overthrow the imperialist system, they were frequently indifferent, at times disapproving, of China, a nation ravaged by Western imperialism after the Opium War and the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. According to Gallicchio, segments of the African American population deemed China as “a kind of ‘uncle Tom’ of Asia” (65), and consequently endorsed Japan’s occupation of China in 1931 because they believed Japan’s invasion might unite Japan and China against Western imperialism in China and other parts of East Asia. It is in these sections that Gallicchio’s analysis becomes especially intriguing. Gallicchio lays out the various negative depictions through which Japan racialized other Asian populations such as Koreans and Chinese, and how African Americans overlooked these policies. He also examines how African Americans, Chinese, and Asian Americans too created stereotypes of each other and how and why this contradicted their efforts to build solidarity.

There are several conceptual and methodological issues to consider relative to this book. At the beginning, “black internationalism,” the study’s central heuristic device, is defined as the belief “that color (or race) determined world politics…the existence of a color scheme to international affairs…” (2). But because Gallicchio never explicitly defines “race,” his definition of black internationalism reduces African Americans’ participation in global affairs to having been motivated by an uncritical, ahistorical conception of race and international relations. This one-sided construction of early-to-mid-20th-century African American activism as, according to Gallicchio, “resistant to other theories of international relations” (63) sounds somewhat similar to late 20th-century right-wing attacks, in that both cite black activism as being prompted simply by “identity politics.” In addition, Gallicchio’s definition collapses the divergent viewpoints constituted within black internationalism. It is thus implied that conservative, moderate, liberal, and radical black internationalisms are equivalent. Gallicchio also devotes too few pages to situate and/or problematize black newspapers’ constructions of Japan and China in relation to representations circulated in more mainstream US publications. Lastly, a significant omission in the text is analysis of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and how its newspaper, The Negro World, depicted Japan and China. Seeing that The Negro World’s distribution network extended throughout the entire US, the Caribbean, Central America, Canada, Europe, and Africa, it is odd that Gallicchio does not address or excavate its representations of Japan and China.

Gerald Horne’s Race War! White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire (2003) provides a scrupulous examination of Japan’s challenge to US-British hegemony. Horne challenges the standard, moralistic World War II narrative by offering an alternative assessment of the war’s stakes. He views arguments about race and anxieties about the demise of white supremacy as essential elements of the war. Hoping to distinguish the Pacific front from its Atlantic counterpart, Horne emphasizes the Pacific front as an attempt to eradicate European colonialism. Throughout the work, Horne explicates the fragility of Euro-America’s conception of national identity and whiteness to demonstrate just how close these conceptions, and the regimes of power that they helped sustain, came to being displaced by a foreign force of color. Japan’s “flip of the script” (viii), as Horne comically refers to it, was embodied in Japan’s seizure of Hong Kong in 1941, its bombing of Pearl Harbor, and its policy of internment and racial discrimination against Europeans and Euro-Americans living in Japanese-controlled areas. This attack on global white supremacy, Horne attests, played a primary role in white supremacy’s devolution and the shape it would take in the post-World War II international political climate. The US and British “retreat from the dictates of white supremacy” (ix), according to Horne, was made manifest in the US’s repeal of its laws and customs sanctioning Jim Crow racial discrimination and Britain’s dissolution of its empire.

Drawing on research conducted in five continents, Horne accomplishes a great deal in 430 pages. He begins by detailing the history of racial segregation in Hong Kong from 1842, when the territory was seized by the British at the end of the Opium War, to 1941, the year of Japan’s invasion and occupation. His argument demonstrates how localized ideas about race in Hong Kong were entangled with and influenced by global discourses about race. Cloaked behind discourses of “pure European descent,” Euro-American articulations of whiteness and white supremacy often mirrored racial inequality in the US.  Racial chauvinism, class prejudice, anxieties about interracial relationships and miscegenation, and the state’s use of violence sustained a stratifying divide between Hong Kong’s white Western European inhabitants and its Chinese and Asian residents. Nonetheless, this dividing line of race, ethnicity, and power and the currency of Whiteness was also deeply influenced by class: Scottish and Irish settlers, European prostitutes, and elements of the British lower class were also episodically discriminated against in Hong Kong. It was in this context, Horne explains, that both racially and geopolitically, “Japan became the touchstone, the lodestar, for matters local and global” (45). Japan’s reversal of Hong Kong’s racial status quo, according to Horne, was a result of: 1) the nation’s shift towards a “militant right wing nationalism” (39), 2) its ability to obtain support from colonized populations of color worldwide (including African Americans, West Indians, Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maoris, Indians, Vietnamese, Malaysians, and Koreans), and 3) British and US policies of racial imperialism and conquest.

Race War! does a superb job of engaging the multiple and complex ways “white supremacy shaped the global context” (xvii). Horne successfully relays that the mid-20th-century geopolitical rivalry between Japan and the Great Britain-US nexus was also an interracial rivalry. Japan’s efforts to become the hegemonic force of the Pacific thus worked hand-in-hand with its racial appeals to colonized populations of color. For many downtrodden populations of color, Japan supplied the possibility and vision of a new racial order. Nonetheless, Horne affirms that “Japan’s claim to be “champion of the colored races” was fraudulent in no minor way” (ix). The Japanese government’s declaration of a transformed, global racial status quo belied a harsh and brutal anti-white racism and right-wing nationalism. At Stanley Camp in Hong Kong and other Japanese-run internment camps, where thousands of Europeans and Euro-Americans were detained for three years, mayhem and inhumane treatment were the norm. Moreover in the camps, disputes among the internees were often based on ethnic and national divisions, rifts that the Japanese government exploited to its advantage. Still, Horne concludes that the Pacific War weakened and drastically altered the face and shape of white supremacy globally by helping bring about the collapse of the British Empire’s imperium in Asia and adding fire to an evolving Third World viewpoint whose increasing momentum called for the upending of Western domination.

Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II and the 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) opened the way for Communist China to emerge as Japan’s successor in confronting global white supremacy in the East. From the 1950s through the mid 1970s, the PRC was a premier international political force, capable of challenging Western influence and willing to assist less powerful governments and liberation movements in becoming autonomous, self-determining, and modern. Consequently, activists, radicals, and militants throughout the Third World began to orient themselves towards China.

Vijay Prashad’s Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity (2001) examines over five centuries of intersecting connections and transnational exchange between Asians and blacks. Prashad investigates the impact of race as a social construct on India due to its colonial relationship with England; affirmative action’s impact on Asian Americans and their responses to it; neo-conservative discourses of colorblindness versus liberal discourses of multiculturalism and the failures of both; the impact of 20th-century black nationalism and radicalism on Asian Americans and Asians abroad; and the consumption by African Americans of Asian cultural products such as films starring Bruce Lee.

Prashad’s work is superbly provocative because it pushes scholars to attend to the multiplicity of people’s lives and experiences in a more rigorous way than that proposed by the discourse of multiculturalism. Prashad critiques multiculturalism as a liberal project that merely attempts to account for identities as disparate pieces of a unified and diverse whole. Appropriating Robin Kelley’s concept of “polyculturalism,” Prashad contends that it, better than multiculturalism, engages how people live varied and complex lives and as a result generate identities that are deeply multifaceted. Efforts to fix those identities or play into essentialist notions that stress “beginnings” and “origins” delimit and ignore the range of factors, identifications, and lineages that are comprised in that identity. Prashad agrees with Kelley’s contention that people’s lives are not “easily identifiable,” and asserts that in order to better understand cross-cultural exchanges you must comprehend the uniqueness and range of modern-day identities. Furthermore Prashad maintains that polyculturalism is forged in difference. It acknowledges that an ever-present feature of intercultural collaboration and solidarity is the negotiation of group and individual differences.

Bill Mullen’s Afro-Orientalism (2004) also examines 20th-century political interaction and activism between Chinese, Asian Americans, and African Americans and tags these relationships as examples of “Afro-Orientalism,” an indigenous American counter-discourse that is both liberating and oppressive. Through black radical newspapers, journals, autobiographies, and other works of literature, Mullen examines the influence of China and Maoism on the transnational correspondence, activism, and radical theory of organizations such as the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the Republic of New Africa (RNA), the League of Revolutionary Workers, and the Black Workers Congress as well as on individuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Robert F. Williams, James and Grace Lee Boggs, and Fred Ho. Mullen argues that black radicals, while embracing China as an alternative model, have nevertheless made Asia into their fetish. He asserts that they have suffered from “the tendency to conjure Asia primarily for the purposes of delineating Occidental problems and desires” (xii).

A key shortcoming of Afro-Orientalism is Mullen’s limited attention to political economy and geopolitics. He does not flesh out how ongoing shifts in the world system and global affairs impacted China or black radicals’ viewpoints of China. What geopolitical and cultural gains did China obtain by linking itself to African Americans’ struggles in the US? In what ways did shifts in communication technologies and travel create new means and opportunities for Afro-Asian exchange and solidarity? What role did China’s willingness to invest in foreign infrastructure development without economic or political stipulations play in increasing political and cultural currency of the Chinese development model among Third World nations?  I agree with Graham Garfield, who sums it up best when he states that after reading Afro-Orientalism, “It is far from clear what the relationship of the Afro-Orientalists to broader anti-colonial movements was.”2

Afro-Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African Americans and Asian Americans (2008), an anthology edited by Mullen and saxophonist and activist Fred Ho, fills in some of Afro-Orientalism’s conceptual gaps. Twenty-three essays, encompassing historiography to short story to autobiography to polemical essay to poetry, illuminate the myriad exchanges connecting the African and Asian Diasporas. Robin Kelley and Betsy Esch’s contribution, “Black Like Mao,” to date provides one of the most valuable overviews of African American radicals’ study and interrogation of Chinese communism and Maoist thought. This essay, published originally in Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society in 1999, and in sections of Kelley’s Freedom Dreams (2003), concisely historicizes the intellectual debates and activism of an exhaustive list of organizations and individuals including the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), the Provisional Organizing Committee (POC), the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the California Communist League, the Congress of African People (CAP), Robert F. Williams, Vicki Garvin, Harold Cruse, Nelson Peery and Huey P. Newton. Also included in Afro-Asia are two official statements issued by Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong in 1963 and 1968 that established the PRC’s support for African Americans’ struggles against US racial discrimination and that linked the black freedom struggle to the global anticolonial liberation movement.

Scholars of the 1960s and 1970s New Left movement have also pointed to the rise of Maoist thought among black nationalists and radicals, and it is Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air (2006) that has best captured the essence, ethos, and revolutionary vigor of the period.3 Elbaum analyzes US social conditions during the 1960s and the rise of Third World Marxism to affirm that the upheavals of the New Left post-1968 were deeply impacted by both national and global social forces. This rich and comprehensive account provides the perfect backdrop for the rest of the work, which examines the theoretical debates, political alliances and divisions, mobilizing efforts, coalitions and collaborations, and developing and altering relationships between revolutionary nationalists, Third World Marxists, and New Left Marxist-Leninists. Elbaum supplies a broad historiography, giving ample attention and analysis to black radical and nationalist organizations including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the League of Revolutionary Workers, the Black Workers Congress, the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC), BPP, CAP, and major individual activists. He concisely explicates that throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, group and ideological tensions between the black liberation movement’s cultural nationalist, revolutionary nationalist, and Marxist-Leninist lines gave way to a “hegemonic discourse of Black radicalism” that explicitly merged nationalism and Marxism. (85)  

With the exception of Afro-Asia and Bill Mullen’s analysis of Fred Ho in Afro-Orientalism, most of the works reviewed here draw their research and construct their narratives from archives composed predominantly of textual documents and interviews/oral histories. The dominant use of textual archives means less attention to historicizing and theorizing instances of Afro-Asian cultural exchange manifested through music, radio, television, and film. For example, the conjured images of China and the East in black militant and propagandist Robert Franklin Williams’ Radio Free Dixie radio shows, in his film about Chinese development, and in the poetry contained in his newsletter The Crusader are untouched subjects in these studies. It is hoped that future work on Afro-Asian interconnections and collaboration will move in other methodological and conceptual directions to consider the role that practices of sound, visual representation, and other mediums of popular culture have played in establishing, circulating, and constructing Afro-Asia. One example of this type of project is the anthology, AfroAsian Encounters: Culture, History, Politics (2006) edited by Heike Raphael-Hernandez and Shannon Steen. Contributions such as David Stowe’s “‘Jazz That Eats Rice’: Toshiko Akiyoshi’s Roots Music,” and Deborah Elizabeth Whaley’s “Black Bodies/Yellow Masks: The Orientalist Aesthetics in Hip Hop Culture,” relate a variety of artistic endeavors and aesthetics reflecting Afro-Asian fusions of culture that until recently have gone uncharted in conventional historiography.

Still, the reviewed works convey what historian Nikhil Pal Singh calls “the autonomous dimensions of black political discourse” and its diverse diasporic trajectory whose plurality often prevents it from being easily located and situated.4 These books remind readers that dynamic social movements have not just been national phenomena, but also the products of global developments. They also document the history of African American attentiveness to foreign affairs and developments in East Asia and establish that blacks and Asians at specific points in time have considered themselves to inhabit a space of commonality based on racial domination and economic exploitation. Made more transparent is the reality and the multiplicity of spaces, places, social movements, ideologies, and cultural forms with which African Americans have identified in making demands on the local, national, diasporic, and international levels. Paraphrasing a point made by scholar Brent Hayes Edwards, the dialectic that exists between black internationalism and transnationalism is brought to life in these texts, where what becomes more obvious is the ever-changing ways black radicalism and internationalism transform when traveling through transnational circuits.5


1. Andrew F. Jones and Nikhil Pal Singh edited a special issue of positions dedicated to examining and theorizing Afro-Asian connections. See positions: east asia cultures critique, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 2003, Special Issue: The Afro-Asian Century.

2. Graham Barnfield, review of Bill Mullen, Afro-Orientalism, in Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture Issue 5.2 (Spring 2005).

3. For other works see, A. Belden Fields, Trotskyism and Maoism: Theory and Practice in France and the United States (New York: Praeger, 1989); Robert Alexander, Maoism in the Developed World (New York: Praeger, 2001) and Maoism in the Developing World. (New York: Praeger, 1999); Jeffrey Ogbar, Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Pres, 2005).

4. Nikhil Pal Singh, Black is A Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 57.

5. Brent Hayes Edwards, “The Uses of Diaspora.” Social Text 66, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring 2001, 50-51.