New Dimensions of Sino-American Relations and Black Internationalism: An Interview about W.E.B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and China

Gao and Philip Luke Sinitiere

Phillip Luke Sinitiere: When did you first encounter the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, and in what context did you begin writing and studying his thought and historical impact?

Yunxiang Gao: My initial curiosity about W.E.B. Du Bois could be traced back to a childhood memory of an old newspaper article and a propaganda poster. In an Inner Mongolia mud hut village, people built a flat net of wires or wood board pasted with old newspapers under the v-shaped roof to block dust from above and keep the heat down. Before the Chinese New Year, a new layer would be added to cover the old, dirty ones. The newspapers were usually purchased on the market according to weight. Since my father was a school teacher, he sometimes brought back old newspapers from his school.

After I started to learn to read and write, my siblings and I would play a game when we all settled down on our spot on the long, mud-brick bed. We would compete to see who could read more of the characters in the titles of the newspaper articles. Right above my head, I happened to read an article titled, “Robert Williams and Madam Du Bois Fervently Acclaim Chairman Mao’s Statement Supporting American Blacks’ Anti-Brutality Struggle.” After I read it daily for around a year, it was inscribed in my head.

Somehow connected with this sentence is the memory of a poster in my little classroom for 18 students of grades one to three. Along with portraits of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Zedong, there was a poster advocating the united liberation struggles of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. I remember the poster featured indignant men and women of various colors in vibrant ethnic clothing charging forward, with a muscular black man holding a gun at the center.

Decades later, while working on my first book, Sporting Gender: Women Athletes and Celebrity-Making during China’s National Crisis, 1931-45 (University of British Columbia Press, 2013), I explored the transnational endeavors of some of the book’s characters. I noted that most scholarship on Sino-African-American history treats America as white by default. While exploring a potential second project when conducting research in the libraries of Beijing University, China National Library, and Shanghai Library during the 2006-2007 academic year, the above-described childhood memory made me curious about Sino-African-American connections. Of course, I do not remember what newspaper was on the ceiling of my childhood home, but I’ll never forget the two names “Robert Williams” and “Madam Du Bois.” So, I started my search for the two names in the database of People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and found numerous hits before I looked them up in other periodicals and found Chinese translations of their works. That’s how I started to work on the article exploring how the Du Boises’ endeavors in Maoist China added new dimensions to Sino-American relations and black internationalism.

Sinitiere: Your 2013 Du Bois Review article offers a signal contribution to understanding W.E.B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois in the context of China and Afro-Asia during the Cold War era. Can you discuss the article, along with the newly translated Chinese-language documents your essay analyzes? How does your transnational, global research in this essay illuminate our understanding of the history and practice of socialism and democracy across the world?

Gao: I encourage readers to examine the full text of my article, “W. E. B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois in Maoist China,” Du Bois Review 10:1 (2013): 59-85. Briefly, I review the trips that W.E.B. Du Bois made first by himself in 1936 and later with his second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois in 1959 and 1962. After Du Bois’s death the following year, Shirley made the People’s Republic of China (PRC) a virtual home throughout the 1960s. Upon Graham Du Bois’s death in 1977, her remains were interred at Babaoshan Cemetery for Revolutionary Heroes in Beijing, thereby making her connection with China permanent. Beyond that broad framework, I discuss the importance of China and Asia broadly on Du Bois’s expansion of his famous theory of the color line and its international political implications. This had been done before most notably by David Levering Lewis in his 2-volume Du Bois biography. Additional studies by Marc Gallicchio, Bill V. Mullen, Nahum Dimitri Chandler, Vaughn Rasberry, Robeson Taj Frazier, and Robin D. G. Kelley illuminated Du Bois’s work on the global color line, as did Gerald Horne’s fine biography of Shirley Graham Du Bois.2 However, those studies rested on English-language sources or in a few widely-circulated translations. As a result, previous works dwelled solely and generally on how China appeared (or did not) in his writings. His trips were dismissed as side shows or examples of the great man’s naiveté.

As a Chinese scholar who was aware from childhood of Du Bois’s importance, I found such interpretations unsatisfactory. Taking advantage of digitalized archives and by searching among dusty, faded copies of Maoist Era magazines and newspapers, and the works of the Du Boises in the Chinese language, I learned that the Chinese took both W. E. B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois very seriously as revolutionary figures and actively sought to engage their works and minds. The CCP regarded the Du Boises as friends and made sure their experiences and travails were widely recognized. The visits themselves were celebrated as major events. For the Du Boises the CCP organized high profile banquets with top political leaders including Mao Zedong and prime minister Zhou Enlai, and broadcasted around the world Du Bois’s epic ninety-first birthday speech in which he said, “Africa arise, and stand straight, speak and think! Act! Turn from the West and your slavery and humiliation for the last 500 years and face the rising sun.”3 Several of his books such as The Souls of Black Folk and John Brown and her books Paul Robeson: Citizen of the World and Dr. George Washington Carver, Scientist were translated into Chinese, with lengthy commentary. In a preface to the Chinese edition of Souls, Du Bois amended his argument about the color line to emphasize the international struggle of the working classes.

Yes, all of this had an ideological bent but the CCP was and remains the government of China and certainly American coverage of Du Bois in the 1950s and 1960s was even more ideologically motivated. What I found surprising is how widespread and deep over the years Chinese journalism and literature covered W. E. B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois. Rather than a one-sided reaction, the CCP and the Du Boises gained mutual benefit from their visits outside of the “arranged reality” of such political tourism.4 The CCP needed Du Bois’s prestige and acumen as they attempted in the 1950s to lessen their dependence on the Soviet Union by seeking strong alliances with Asian and African nations. The Du Boises helped the PRC gain increased legitimacy among African nations as a nation of color. Meanwhile, the CCP facilitated closer contact between the Du Boises and Ghana, where the couple soon settled and obtained citizenship after renouncing their American ones.

Sinitiere: Your latest research continues to examine the important historical relationships between African Americans and China. Please discuss the innovative horizons your new research offers for understanding Du Bois and his legacy.

Gao: My success in finding rich sources about the Du Boises in Chinese led me to further explorations in Sino-African-American contacts throughout most of the twentieth century. My current book manuscript Arise Africa! Roar China!: Sino-African-American Citizens of the World in the Twentieth Century, which is nearly finished, focuses on Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Langston Hughes and their sizable interactions with China and with visiting Chinese artist/activists. They were Christian activist, musician, and journalist Liu Liangmo (1909-1988), actress and writer Wang Yung (1913/1915-1974), and the Sino-Caribbean modern dancer Sylvia Si-Lan Chen (1905-1996). This book combines the study of black internationalism with a Chinese trans-Pacific narrative. Du Bois, Robeson and Hughes were primary actors in the push for African American global contacts. Black internationalism most notably aimed to the continent of Africa, the Anglophone West Indies, and Europe and the Soviet Union, yet China, as we have learned, was also an important target. At the same time, this book sheds rare light on Sino-African-American activism, especially in the period of Jim Crow and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The surveillance activities of the figures covered in this book show that the Federal Investigation Bureau and the Immigration and Naturalization Service communicated effectively with Japanese and Chinese intelligence organs and the British police in Shanghai.

The chapter on Du Bois enriched my previous discussion of the Du Boises’ interactions with China during the Maoist years and expanded beyond those decades. It comprehensively studies the Du Boises’ comments on China, Asia, and blacks within the context of race, colonialism, capitalism and socialism/Communism based on new sources in both Chinese and English. The chapter traces how Du Bois’s views of China and Asia experienced complex evolution within shifting political and ideological contexts, and examines his little-noticed 1936 trip to China more closely. Viewing the Japanese empire and the PRC as the pillar of Asia and beacon of hope for the colored world, Du Bois’s advocating of a joint Pan-Africanism and Pan-Asianism went through various stages. I found that the Du Boises and Chinese intellectuals interacted and did so through most of the twentieth century.

Sometimes the relationships among the figures covered in this book were deeply personal such as Liu’s friendship with Robeson. Together they recorded Chinese resistance and folk songs, including Chee Lai, a composition that later became the national anthem of the PRC. After his return to China in 1949, Liu was largely responsible for a spate of Robeson biographies and song collections in Chinese and helped facilitate the reception of the Du Boises and Robeson there. Wang Yung was very close to Robeson, his wife Eslanda, and the Nobel laureate for literature Pearl S. Buck, and connected to the Du Boises through mutual friends. As this book clearly documents, Hughes and Chen’s love affair in Moscow between 1932 and 1933, feelings inscribed later in numerous letters from around the globe, was the major heterosexual amour of his life. As it enabled him to meet several members of Chen’s family and friends including Madam Sun Yat-sen, Hughes’ relationship with Chen had resonance beyond their failed love affair. It further inspired his 1933 trip to China, which made him the first black intellectual to step on China’s soil, stirring the cultural circles there ever since.

The biographies of the famous African Americans and the lesser-known but significant Chinese figures intertwine black American and Chinese culture globally, a process long initiated by Chinese intelligentsia to connect the shared plight of “enslavement” between the Chinese nation as a semi-colony and African Americans through literature and drama such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Again, knowledge of Chinese sources was critical for understanding how Republican China and the PRC considered the three important African Americans and blackness in general, and for completing the biographies of Liu, Wang and Chen. Therein lies a research extension that I will suggest even if I cannot fulfill it. With advances in digitalizing primary source materials, especially media productions, scholars can now do what I did: follow the impact of Du Bois, Robeson, Hughes and other black figures into other national archives beyond the color line. There is recent work on Du Bois in India; research into other black Americans there should follow. The same is true for Africa and Latin America. Robeson was globally popular and famous for his linguistic skills and deep interest in the world outside of North America. With a few exceptions—including Robeson biographies by Lindsey Swindall and Gerald Horne—that aspect of him remains uncovered. Hughes of course was a globetrotter; how did he affect the other places he visited? And so on for other black figures during the age of Jim Crow.

Sinitiere: As we mark the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth, what in your view is most salient about his work and legacy at this particular historical moment? Why should we read and reflect on Du Bois now, and what writings of his or Shirley’s are most important today?

Gao: Du Bois’s oeuvre is so vast that I hesitate to make general suggestions about what is most salient in all his work. Let me modestly suggest a few examples that bear further investigations on his views about China and the Chinese understanding of him. First, Du Bois’s conceptualization of the color line: between 1963 and very recently American scholarship has focused on the promise and fulfillment, or lack of fulfillment, of an integrated society. With the resurgent power of white nationalism, the color line has risen again and some politicians use race to divide Americans. Du Bois decried racism but understood its powers. He sought to find solutions internationally in part because he despaired of what he viewed as intractable solutions at home. I do recommend his report on his visit to China, “The Vast Miracle of China Today: A Report on a Ten-Week Visit to the PRC,” printed in the National Guardian and available today in Bill V. Mullen and Cathryn Watson’s W.E.B. Du Bois on Asia: Crossing the World Color Line (University Press of Mississippi, 2005), 190-195. Derided as naïve by Lewis and even by Mullen, the report indicates Du Bois’s full belief in Chinese Communism. Yes, the Chinese provided Du Bois with a truncated understanding of the true state of Chinese economics. His interpretation of China, however, emphasized the racial equality he saw there, as opposed of course to the harsh hatred he felt in the United States. Moreover, it is in this statement that we can see Shirley Graham Du Bois’s full influence on her husband—the portrait of the female construction worker, “a girl with ribbon braids, running a vast machine.” Du Bois also saw a hint of the future in the closing section of his report: an export exposition in Canton (Guangzhou) where five floors of goods awaited trade with most of the world, “except the ostrich United States, whose ships rot.” Du Bois would have been shocked to learn that after the rapprochement between China and the United States in the 1970s Guangzhou’s exports went mainly to the United States, but he was alert enough to know that China was industrializing for export in 1961. Du Bois finally recanted his contemptuous remarks about China made during his visit in 1936.

In the final volume of the Black Flame trilogy, Du Bois’s character recalls his observation of a six-year-old white child ordering meek Chinese adults off the sidewalk, which reminded him of Mississippi. He famously asked Chinese business leaders in Shanghai during his 1936 trip if they would not be better off under Japanese rule than suffering from western imperialism, as had been the case for over a century. In the 1961 book, the third text of the trilogy, Mansart recollected being “deeply ashamed of calling this conference and asking these questions because he came to realize how abysmally ignorant he was of China and her history.” Mansart was unaware that the CCP had just started the Long March. Suddenly humbled, Mansart (Du Bois) realized that his rude questioning of Chinese leaders must have made them wonder “whether he was a fool or a spy.” For several pages after that, Mansart (Du Bois) revised his opinions of China.5

In addition, I found useful the section on Africa and Asia in The World and Africa, in which Du Bois argues for ancient lineages between Asians and Africans, as echoed by Paul Robeson.6 Last, and this may seem speculative, but I propose that readers consider Du Bois’s masterpiece, The Souls of Black Folk, as a saga of the Chinese people themselves. They broke free from colonial oppression, suffered failed hopes in the 1930s and early 1940s, and more disasters in the radical Maoist years, but ultimately created a united nation, industrialized and urbanized, all while maintaining a folk identity close to that of American blacks moving up from the southern states to the northern American cities. I suggest that it could be a worthwhile, parallel read.

1 Phil Sinitiere conducted this interview in November 2018 via email. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

2 Marc S. Gallicchio, The African American Encounter with Japan and China: Black Internationalism in Asia, 1895-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Bill V. Mullen, W. E. B. Du Bois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line (London: Pluto Press, 2016); Bill V. Mullen, Un-American: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Century of World Revolution (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015); Robin D. G. Kelley, “‘But a Local Phase of a World Problem’: Black History’s Global Vision, 1883-1950,” Journal of American History 86/3 (1999): 1045-1077; Nahum Dimitri Chandler, X—The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014); W. E. B. Du Bois, The Problem of the Color Line at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: The Essential Early Essays, ed. Nahum Dimitri Chandler (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), especially the Introduction; Nahum Dimitri Chandler, “A Persistent Parallax: On the Writings of W. E. Burghardt Du Bois on Japan and China, 1936-1937,” CR: The New Centennial Review 12/1 (2012): 291–316; Vaughn Rasberry, Race and the Totalitarian Century: Geopolitics in the Black Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 187-304; Robeson Taj Frazier, The East is Black: Cold War China in the Black Radical Imagination (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 23-71.

3 W. E. B. Du Bois, “China and Africa,” in W. E. B. Du Bois on Asia: Crossing the World Color Line, eds. Bill V. Mullen and Cathryn Watson (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), 196.

4 For more on this “arranged reality,” see China Central News and Documentary Films Studio, “Welcome W. E. B. Du Bois!,” W. E. B. Du Bois Papers Digital Archive (Identifier mums312-b246-i002); Joe Lockard, “W. E. B. Du Bois and China—1959,” American Studies Eurasian Perspective 1/2 (2016): 99-109; and Keisha A. Brown, “Blackness in Exile: W.E.B. Du Bois’ Role in the Formation of Representations of Blackness as Conceptualized by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Phylon 53/2 (Winter 2016): 20-33.

5 W. E. B. Du Bois, Worlds of Color (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007 [1961]), 40.

6 See Chapter IX, “Asia in Africa,” in W. E. B. Du Bois, The World and Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007 [1947]), 113-127.