U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ponderings on Black Internationalism

I’m off to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History this weekend to present on Juliette Derricotte’s Christian Internationalism on a panel devoted to black women’s internationalism. I’m very excited that Gerald Horne will be commenting on our papers.

I’ve been batting around the idea of “black internationalism.”This is a continuation of an earlier post thinking about internationalism in general. I had casually defined it as the way people of African descent (particularly American, since that’s what I study) relate to the world outside of their own country. Pan-Africanism would be a sub-theme within black internationalism, but so would students going to graduate school in Europe when they were barred from American universities, or black soldiers being posted in Europe or Asia (who could be like Colin Powell, who is not a race-first thinker).

Marc Gallicchio in The African American Encounter with Japan and China: Black Internationalism in Asia, 1895-1945, defines it very differently. For him, it was the “view of world affairs that drew a connection between the discrimination they [African Americans] faced at home and the expansion of empire abroad.” He argues that this began right around the 1905 victory of Japan over Russia, when blacks started to identify with Japan as a victorious people of color. James Campbell documents the same world view in Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005 in his chapter on Langston Hughes. Prior to the New Negro period, African Americans had traveled to Africa as cultural ambassadors for the western Christian way of life, most commonly as missionaries or settlers in Liberia. But even Marcus Garvey, a paragon of the New Negro era, wanted to create an empire in Africa, led by new world people of African descent–he wrote to all the black people in the world that he was the Provisional President of Africa. “It is a political job; it is a political calling for me to redeem Africa. It is like asking Napoleon to take the world.” I bring Garvey up as an example of why the transition might be later than 1905.

Eslanda Goode Robeson, wife of Paul Robeson, and newly taking a commanding lead in my book, said that before she spent ten years in Europe, she didn’t know anything of Africa. It was only being in Britain, hearing news of the colonies, and interacting with visiting African students and dignitaries that her interest in her “old country,” as she came to call Africa, was piqued.  I’m trying to decide if there is a thesis for the book lying in those words (i.e., I would move from Juliette Derricotte’s Christian Internationalism of the 1920s to Eslanda Robeson’s black internationalism of the 1930s) or if it is the individual experience of a single person. In this case, I’m adopted Gallicchio’s definition. The problem here is that I would be defining the transition towards a focus on common-cause with colonized people as happening in the 1920s, whereas these other authors place the transition earlier.

Du Bois’s leadership has an important place in defining the transition, because he was an early adherent to and prophet of the idea of the “color line.” I guess part of my question is to what extent did Du Bois’ ideas influence those around him and the readers of the Crisis. Derricotte in particular represents a nice halfway point, because in her letters she is sometimes allied with other people of color and sometimes with western culture as epitomized by Britain.

More thinking needs to be done.