(Editor’s Note: this is the fifth in a series of weekly guest posts that Robert Greene will be doing for us. — Ben Alpers)
Reading Andrew Hartman’s piece on his time in Denmark so far, one line in particular caught my eye. It was a quote from David Nye on the Danish outlook of the United States: “Danes have taken an increasing interest in American popular culture, which seems to them an exotic mix of personal freedom, informality, creativity, extreme wealth and poverty, glittering skylines, crime, oppression, African-American struggle, circus-like elections, rock and roll, religious fanaticism, the Wild West, and rags-to-riches success.” The three bolded words, in particular, caught my eye.
When talking and writing about American history there is one, iron-clad belief that I have always espoused: the centrality of the African American experience to understanding American history. This is in no way to minimize the many important stories within American history about a wide variety of peoples. It’s difficult to mention American history however, especially that of the 20th century, without talking about the “Black experience.” That term, “Black experience”, says very little about the rich diversity of African American history. It encapsulates so much as to nearly say little or nothing about figures as different as W.E.B DuBois, Hubert Harrison, Booker T. Washington, George Schuyler, Martin Luther King, or Ida B. Wells. But, I suppose, “Black experience” will have to do. At the very least it allows for exploration of the ways in which Black Americans came to grapple with their place in the American body politic. My posts a few weeks ago were an attempt to talk about a particular aspect of that “grappling”, if you will, when it comes to sports and civil religion.
Today, however, I’d like to deal with a different aspect of how Black Americans are perceived as part of the United States. The focus will be on European ideas and concepts of Black Americans. I think it’s important, in light of recent posts on transatlantic history especially, to give this concept serious attention. Already, many scholars have focused on the links between the Soviet Union and African Americans, a list that includes literature on DuBois, Paul Robeson, and other radical Black Americans. And there is a growing literature on the Civil Rights Movement and its relationship to activist movements in Great Britain.
Still, the image of Black Americans in Europe is a highly contested one. You could go back to the end of the 18th century and the terms “freedom”, “slavery”, “republicanism”, and then consider the debates around slavery in the Anglo-American Atlantic in that context. Black Americans were not on the sidelines for these debates, whether it was Martin Delany or Frederick Douglass making the case for Black freedom to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Issues of slavery and Black emancipation also came up in the writings of Karl Marx, especially those that were before and during the American Civil War.
Moving into the 20th century, Black Americans were still an important part of the larger image of America on a world stage. I’d argue that a continuity through the late 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries is that the Black image in Europe was a Janus-like visage of freedom and slavery/racism. For Americans, it has always been imperative to present the best possible image of Black Americans to overseas audiences. This became extremely important during the Cold War, but in many ways it has been a feature of American relations with Europe, especially in the “color-line” racked 20th century.
That image has also been heavily affected by popular culture. People like Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Louis Armstrong, Michael Jordan, and Barack Obama have become not just symbols of Black American culture, but of American culture (with the exception of poor Jack Johnson, who still was a symbol of, at the very least, resistance to American culture in a way the other figures weren’t or aren’t). And with the exception of President Obama, none of these men held political office of any sort. Their centrality to American culture helped them to become symbols in Europe and elsewhere of Black Americans. Of course, Louis and Armstrong were promoted that way by the American government, while Jordan is a perfect symbol of corporate power in the latter half of the 20th century in shaping race and American symbolism.
This is really only an attempt to think out loud about a few of these concepts. What I haven’t covered, and what I think needs to be fleshed out more, is the negative image of Black Americans in Europe. Mostly, what comes to mind is Nazi propaganda from before and during World War II. But I wonder if there are other examples, especially once the influx of darker immigrant populations to Europe takes off? While Martin Luther King was praised all over Europe, I have to wonder how you square that with, at a concurrent moment, events like Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech. After all the images of America in the 20th century quickly spread all over the world thanks to the power of media, and events like the “long, hot summers” of the 60s had to have affected Powell, and other, European leaders just starting to deal with immigration.
Image, at times, can be everything. Here, image of Black Americans in the European mind can tell us not just what they thought of Black Americans but, in some sense, what they thought of “the Other”. I end, though, with this caveat: the image of Black Americans in European minds may have been positive, but it in no way made up for problems of racism and anti-Semitism also endemic in Europe.
 Just a quick rundown, but I’m thinking in particular of the extensive bibliography of Gerald Horne, best shown in books such as Black and Red: W.E.B. DuBois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944-1963, as well as Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950, by Glenda Gilmore, among others.
 See especially the recent American Historical Review article by Stephen Tuck, “Malcolm X’s Visit to Oxford University: U.S. Civil Rights, Black Britain, and the Special Relationship on Race,” February 2013, 104-130.
 And I didn’t even talk about the image of Black American women, which is several books unto itself.