Blog Post

The Internationalization of African Americans

Gerald Early

Martin Ritt’s jazz movie, Paris Blues (1961), with Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll is the sole film I can remember from my childhood that showed black American characters abroad and interacting with a foreign culture. That film made me think about black Americans in some sort of international context, as expatriates.  As Barbara Savage pointed out during the Q and A for this panel: black soldiers stationed abroad were part of the internationalization of African Americans.  Yet it has only been recently in such films as Red Tails (2012) and Miracle at St. Anna (2008) where black servicemen were shown actually involved with people from another country.  Earlier war films that shown black soldiers in a heroic light such as  Red Ball Express (1952) and All the Young Men (1960), or classic WWII films like Sahara (1943), Bataan (1943), Crash Dive (1943), and Home of the Brave (1949), or Korean War films like Steel Helmet (1951) did not give a sense of blacks being abroad, only a depiction of a black soldier isolated in combat. The pop culture shift in portrayal and context reveals how seeing the black American experience liberated and authenticated through global interaction has become increasingly important.

To be sure, David Levering Lewis, the panel’s chair, was right about the very obvious subjects that this panel did not deal with: the Pan African conferences, of which seven were held (1900, 1919, 1921, 1923, 1927, 1945, 1974, 1994); the Negritude movement that linked the Harlem Renaissance with francophone intellectuals of the 1930s; the Afro-Asian Unity Conference held in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955, whose most famous American observers were Richard Wright (Color Curtain) and Carl Rowan (The Pitiful and the Proud); and the emergence of independent Ghana and the rise of Nkrumah in the black American imaginary (see, for example, Richard Wright’s Black Power: A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos).  Lewis might have added Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the black Panther engagement with the radical Third World in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Louis Farrakhan’s relationship with Muammar Gaddafi; and the interaction of black American and black Latino players in the Negro Leagues that was bolstered by black American players playing games in Cuba, Mexico, and other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America, not to mention the international experiences of black jazz musicians, or black Americans who converted to Santeria or Yoruba religion.  And this list merely scratches the surface.

Of the four papers presented, two (Myers and Savage) were biographical accounts of three noted black American women (Communist and Pan Africanist fellow traveler Victoria Holmes Garvin, bourgeois Pan Africanist and writer Addie W. Hunton who wrote an invaluable account of black soldiers abroad during World War I, and diplomatic historian Merze Tate) who had been profoundly shaped by life abroad and by internationalist ideas but whose lives and work—Tate particularly, as she was an accomplished scholar—have been neglected.  Myers’s overall paper was far too ambitious for this conference, but she made several telling points, including the observation that black internationalism is not simply the invention of black writers (Hughes and Baldwin come to mind immediately here), and that blacks on the whole were more informed about international affairs than they are commonly credited for.  She also pointed out how often black sections of America were compared to portions of colonial Africa.  Anderson’s paper was a vignette about how the NAACP spearheaded opposition to western financial aid to South Africa during the early years of the cold war, adumbrating the successful divestment movement of the 1980s that resulted in the collapse of the racist regime.  Sidbury’s paper is a departure from the others, examining the attempt at constitutional self-determination by a group of Nova Scotians as they called themselves (black colonists who had been loyal to the Crown during the revolution, relocated to Nova Scotia, and then ultimately to Freetown in Sierra Leone) during the 1790s in their fight against paying quit rents to the company that had financed the start-up of the colony.  The settlers’ constitution, never enacted, represents a vision of “non-elite” governance that reveals how different the U.S. Constitution might have been had people who put it together been more representative of the people who were to be governed by it, how that document might have built around “a vision of a fair and moral society.”  On the whole, this paper is informative but a bit of an outlier compared to the others, although Sidbury did a nice pivot in mentioning biblical politics and connecting the settlers’ constitution to matters of religious rhetoric discussed in the earlier panel on black religion. 

The Q and A included Lewis posing a question about the contradiction between patriotism and pacifism to Myers in looking at the lives of Hunton and Garvin.  An audience member chided the panel for not including anything about African American culture in a panel that had culture as part of its title.  Another audience member remarked that the internationalization poses a particular challenge to a national museum such as the new National Museum of African American History.  I concur with Myers that there should have been a separate panel dealing with the internationalization of African American culture.


Gerald Early is Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University in St. Louis.



SESSION 6: Internationalization of African American Politics and Culture