U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Black American Image in the European Mind (Guest Post by Robert Greene)

(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.[1] And there is a growing literature on the Civil Rights Movement and its relationship to activist movements in Great Britain.[2]

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.[3]

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] And I didn’t even talk about the image of Black American women, which is several books unto itself.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert, thank you for yet another outstanding post.

    When I taught the survey over the summer I assigned Baldwin’s essay, “Stranger in the Village,” which the students read alongside Brown v. Board of Education and some Newsweek articles dealing with Cold War politics and sightseeing adventures for Americans traveling in Europe. Baldwin’s reflections on what it means to be a Black Other to Europeans, as well as an American Other, provide a marvelous frame for understanding not just the early Civil Rights movement in the U.S. but also the burgeoning growth of white-bread suburbia.

    Of course, Baldwin’s essay does not necessarily reveal European ideas about the Other as much as it reveals his experience with and reflection upon those ideas. But Baldwin’s thought and experience, and his fine peerless prose, are as good a place to begin as any.

    In some ways, what you’re proposing here would be a recovery of the particulars of the cultural collision that Baldwin describes in that essay. He gives an impressionistic account of how he as a Black American — so, doubly other — fits into the European imaginary. What you are getting at here is to come at that problem from the other side and seek to recover that conceptual frame into which Baldwin was situated but never quite fitted.

    And I see the nod to Fredrickson in your title. I suppose in a way this inquiry you are sketching out here is “the Other” of his study.

    Good stuff, Robert!

  2. “What I haven’t covered, and what I think needs to be fleshed out more, is the negative image of Black Americans in Europe.”

    This is only one data-point, but:

    I was recently working on a French sociologist named Paul de Rousiers, who wrote an enormous and positive book about the US in the late 1890s. He traveled across the country, interviewed many people, related all sorts of details about everyday life…It’s an encyclopedic work.

    But for him America was primarily Anglo-Saxon, remarkable for the industrial development of the East, and the spread of this ‘civilization’ into the open, empty, West (Chicago and on…). He says at the beginning of the book that he won’t talk about the South. It’s not really part of what’s interesting about America. The war, but also the character of the people that live there (and the implication for him was both white and black), have made it a backwater. On the sidelines of the march of progress.

    So, for instance, the book is full of pictures, but essentially the only picture of African-Americans is one of a funeral procession in Philadelphia. The point being to compare “les noirs” with the Irish (another negative influence on progress), and to point out how they spend too much money on fancy clothes while living in dirty and small houses…None of which is very surprising–what’s remarkable to me is how easy it is for him to simply ignore the existence of Black Americans, how easy to write out that part of the history of the country he’s examining. I wonder if this is part of a broader tendency of the European side of trans-Atlantic progressivism (to which De Rousiers more or less belonged) to ignore, as much as possible, *that kind* of race in America? Not sure. Should probably go read Atlantic Crossings…

  3. Eric, a book that would be pertinent here is Natalie Ring’s The Problem South. Ring explains how the South became a laboratory for Progressivism, how it was viewed as a place in need of intervention/reform, and situates this within a larger transatlantic imperialist discourse. Ring’s argument is that the New South and the Problem South were two sides of the same coin. Through one set of lenses, the U.S. South was viewed / understood in ways that put it in a similar category to the Philippines and other outposts of empire.

    Ring avoids any kind of simplistic colony/metropole binary — she points out that in many ways colonialist discourse would not be applicable to the U.S. South and in some ways might feed into the aggrieved notions of Lost Cause apologists. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which, when compared to the rest of the U.S., the South was often viewed as a backward, backwater region that could serve a a kind of large-scale laboratory to implement Progressive ideas of improvement, rationalization and reform. It’s a good book.

  4. I would also highly recommend “The Problem South” as well. I’m slowly plowing my way through it, reading it during breaks from other class readings.

    The points you’ve both brought up are quite poignant. I’m glad you brought up James Baldwin, Lora, because in some ways he’s probably the foremost author on the European image in the Black American mind (to, once again, appropriate the phrase). Of course, it wouldn’t just begin and end with him; we could also talk about writers in the era of the Harlem Renaissance, and also people such as Richard Wright, who went to Europe partly to escape racism in the United States and partly to find another place to work. Langston Hughes is particularly interesting in this regard: Robin Kelley’s chapter on Black Americans participating in the Spanish Civil War in his book “Race Rebels” features Hughes and his reporting on the war in Spain.

    As for the example Eric brought up, that is quite fascinating. There’s always Tocqueville, of course, and I just thought of Bernard-Henry Levy’s take on the Tocqueville experience in his own book “American Vertigo: Travelling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville”.

    One more element here: European media coverage of American domestic news is a big key here. I wonder if anyone has done a study on that. It would be difficult, to say the least, and if I were to do it I’d probably limit it to just Western Europe (Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium at the max, but at the least Britain and France). But when I was writing about the Rivers of Blood speech, I thought about the fact that the year 1968 doesn’t happen in a vacuum for anyone. I’m sure British subjects and French citizens are not only concerned about crises in their own nations, but had to have been a little surprised at the multiple “long, hot summers” in the United States by 1968, and the ferocity and widespread nature of the MLK Assassination riots in April of ’68.

  5. Yes! Thanks for the book recommendation. This reminds me of another, surely pertinent, book–*Alabama in Africa*, about German imperialists recruiting experts from Tuskegee to help them develop effective agriculture in their west african holdings…really a model of how transnational intellectual//social history ought to be done.

    1968 was indeed not in a vacuum. I think Jean Genet writes somewhere about going to live for a while with the Black Panthers–appreciating above all their style & masculinity, if I am remembering correctly a certain lecture from some years ago…

    • Great recommendation! A very, very well done book. It was certainly eye opening when I first read it.

  6. I just reviewed Nico Slate’s “Colored Cosmopolitanism” about transnational Indian-African American solidarity in the 20th century for S-USIH (the review should be appearing here shortly). Slate has a lot to say about how Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver influenced Mohandas Gandhi. If you haven’t read it Robert, I’m sure you’ll find it of much interest.

    • I look forward to your review! I know it’ll be a thorough and utterly fascinating one.

      And no, I haven’t read that book yet, but it’s on the list now! (What else is new? Heh.)

  7. I think the transformational importance of WWI and WWII in introducing en masse large numbers of (non elite) African Americans to Europe (and vice versa) cannot be underestimated. For many African Americans this was an amazingly liberating moment, to be able to walk down the streets of societies not defined primarily by the color line. Likewise for Europeans these encounters changed the way that America was seen (eg Rossiers, above) from a largely Anglo-Saxon image to a much more diverse and multiracial society (a point the Nazis would read in a negative “mongrolized” way). Much more has been written about how these encounters affected the (African-)Americans than about how they affected Europeans, though.

    Nice image archive here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blackheritage/2522902767/in/photostream/

  8. Excellent post. The title reminded me of a book I read years ago while living in New York, and thanks to the first commenter for reminding me it was George Frederickson.

    I wonder how much the European mind is influenced by its own feelings of guilt. Perhaps Europeans like to look at America and the plight of African-Americans because it makes them feel better about the way they treat their own “Others”.

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