U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Black Internationalism–the Class

James Baldwin in Turkey. Photo found at Northwest African American Museum

I am teaching a “Topics in US History” course next semester and I need to get my course description approved this week. I’m planning to teach the course on “Black Internationalism: African American Engagement with the World.” I’m going to use James Campbell’s compelling book Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa,1787-2005 as the anchor to the course.  It has the advantage of moving forward 20-40 years in each chapter and also draws readers in by discussing big ideas through the lens of a single or at times a handful of individuals. I am going to pair the different chapters with relevant primary sources, such as Martin Delaney’s Blake, Alexander Crummel’s essays, Du Bois editorials from The Crisis, global Hip Hop songs, etc. (Lisa Lindsay has a lovely syllabus that uses Middle Passages in an honors course about US relations to Africa). There are 9 chapters, so for the other 6 weeks of the course, I’m going to concentrate on other parts of the world. So far the course is Europe and Africa heavy, so I need to think about bringing in Asia and Latin America. I had thought about assigning Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, but perhaps I will do something from Nico Slate’s Colored Cosmopolitanism instead. Perhaps I will pair the Langston Hughes’ chapter in Middle Passages with his autobiography The Big Sea. That will bring in Europe in the 1920s, so then I could use the week I had devoted to that topic to bring in African Americans in Haiti.

I could start thinking about daily topics instead of weekly topics, which would give me more room in the schedule. The problem is that I don’t know whether the class will be a MWF or a TH and I find that fairly dramatically changes the way I schedule.

I often like to include something from NPR, the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, or other intelligent but not scholarly sources to show students that there are myriad ways to stay connected to ideas past their graduation. For this course, I’m thinking of assigning the New Yorker’s “‘Another Country’ James Baldwin’s flight from America” by Claudia Roth Pierpont.

Here’s my course description. Any suggestions?

How does travel change a person’s understanding of themselves? What happens when a person facing discrimination at home feels greater freedom abroad, like most of the African Americans who traveled abroad in the 19th and 20thcenturies? This course will explore different ideas of internationalism, both political and personal, among African Americans. Travels abroad, physically and textually, have been essential to the process of building an African American identity. African Americans approached their journeys with many different philosophies, including Black Nationalism, Pan-Africanism, cosmopolitanism, Christianity, pacifism, and militancy. They developed ideas of missionizing Africa as well as joining with Africans to challenge white supremacy. They criticized inequality in Asia, rejoiced in the Japanese triumph over Russia in 1905, and eventually built a spirit of common cause with other colonized peoples. Ideas about internationalism transformed over the two hundred and fifty years since the United States and Haitian revolutions; this course will interrogate those changes and their influence on global politics and personal identities.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. i know i’m always recommending Saidiya Hartman to you, but this summer i read *Lose Your Mother*, and quite enjoyed it. it’s narrative, very readable, about her experiences going to Ghana to do research on the memory of the slave trade. there’s a middle chapter, i think, that does a good job boiling down what she’s doing–would be good for students–particularly having to do with the ambiguities and disappointments of african americans who moved to ghana in the 1960s, those who came back, who didn’t…

    not sure if you’ve got time, but the material would fit–

  2. Perhaps the Africa chapters from Marable’s wonderful bio of Malcolm X? On Cuba and African-Americans, Guridy’s Forging Diaspora is groundbreaking. There has to be interesting stuff out there on African Americans in Cuba under Castrismo, but nothing comes to mind.

  3. Great course to think about…

    I would encourage you to emphasize as much memoir/primary documents as you can – which is the direction you seem to be heading. I know you’re reserving the Marable book for graduate students but as an example I’d opt for the Autobiography over Marable’s biography. (It’s a fine book and I’m a fan of Manning Marable but I don’t get how that book has excited people so much, besides of course the controversy over documents with the family. It seems to be an annotated version of the Autobiography with many missed opportunities. Forgive my bad taste for criticizing a recently posthumous text.)

    ANYWAY, other things to consider (in no particular order):

    -World Expos and black responses to them. Consider especially Paris 1900 and the extraordinary exhibit that Du Bois and crew put together, especially the photographs. There are a couple books about the photo exhibit and some (spare) scholarly reflections on why the reception to the exhibit was better in Europe than in the U.S.

    -Campaign against the Belgium Congo “Free State” (esp George Washington Williams and William Sheppard)

    -Angela Davis’s autobio (esp portions on her college summer years and study abroad in Europe)

    -Mary Dudziak’s “Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall’s African Journey”

    -Civil Rights activists’ study of Gandhi and international discourse on nonviolence. King writes a fair bit about Gandhi’s influence on him (see, for example, “Why We Can’t Wait” about Birmingham 1963). King also visited India in the 50s and wrote reflections about his trip in a 1959 essay “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi” which I can email you.

    -Various oral histories and first-hand accounts of African American veterans (San Juan Hill, Philippines, Hellfighters, Tuskegee Airmen, Vietnam, etc.)

    I’m sure there’s more but a deadline is looming… It sounds like you’re putting together a great course.

    • Fantastic ideas! The veterans especially are an important piece that my syllabus is lacking.

      I’m also thinking about the role of African and Caribbean immigrants to the US. I’m hoping my students can do an oral history with a student from Africa, or a child of African immigrants. Also, there is evidently some archival documents about Namibian students being brought to Luther in the late 1980s as a anti-apartheid outreach to train black leaders. I’m planning to use that in my J-Term global anti-apartheid course as well. I do love getting the students into the archives!

      And yes, Gandhi! Very important.

  4. Finishing a unit on Zora Neale Hurston in my own syllabus, I have to add one more that may fall into the “obvious” category:

    Zora Neale Hurston on Jamaica (Part I of Tell My Horse) and Haiti (Parts II and III of Tell My Horse and end of Mules and Men).

  5. I second the recommendation for Peggy Von Eschen’s Race Against Empire. I would also suggest Winston James’s Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia as a way of working in the experience of West Indians in the early 20th century. I’m a big proponent of having African-American be read as “Africans in America” (or the less catchy “those of African descent in the Americas”), and James makes a strong case for it I believe. Black West Indians are an integral aspect of the development of the radical tradition within black/African-American (U.S.) politics as James sees it. As I was typing, Tyler Stovall’s Paris Noir and Brent Hayes Edwards’s Practice of Diaspora popped into my head. Edwards is very theory heavy and would probably be best for a graduate-level course.

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