Afro-Asian Collaborations

Manan Desai

Afro Asia
Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections
Between African Americans and Asian Americans
edited by Bill Mullen and Fred Ho
Durham and London: Duke University Press,
2008, 404 pages, $23.95 paper.

AT A MOMENT when the national media are abuzz with predictions of a new era of post-racial politics, Fred Ho and Bill Mullen’s anthology on the intersections of African and Asian Americans remind us of the complex ways that race has shaped and continues to shape our lives in this country. Afro Asia compiles a diverse set of essays that illuminate a repressed tradition, spanning the early 19th century onwards, of “creative political and cultural resistance grounded in Afro-Asian collaboration and connectivity.” (15)

These remarkable collaborations have ranged from shared political struggles against racism and imperialism (Cuba, Korea, China and of course, inside the United States) to cultural partnerships in music, martial arts, film and literature.

Yet barring an academic footnote or two, these stories have largely escaped our popular histories. How many know that Ho Chi Minh spoke in valiant terms of the Black struggle during the 1967 Detroit rebellion? That Mao had issued statements in solidarity with the Civil Rights movement? Or of the powerful collaboration between the Black Panthers and Richard Aoki? Or Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama?  

Ho and Mullen’s collection serves not only as a repository of these important Afro-Asian intersections; it charts out renewed possibilities of solidarity between oppressed nationalities in the United States, without resort to fanciful notions of a “post-racial” world where racial identity is evacuated of all meaning and history. Bill Mullen is Director of American Studies at Purdue and a contributor to ATC; Fred Ho is an activist, writer, and jazz musician.

Threaded through this collection is a broader argument about the social history of race, complicating the simplistic Black-white lens that dominates racial discourse in American society. A central claim made by several of the contributors of this collection is that the distinct forms of racialization experienced by Asian and African Americans have lead to a sort of invisibility of the former, and hypercritical visibility of the latter.

As Ho writes, “In U.S. society, an individual is either white, black, or foreign.  American racism has lumped its Latino, Asian, and even native American groups into ‘other.’” (23) This classification has created critical blind spots, when it comes to the way that racism is perceived to affect Asian Americans.

Spoken word artist Thien-bao Thuc Phi explains that “we, and non-Asians, fail to identify Asian Americans as people of color, or fail to understand the specific ways in which we have and still do suffer from racism.… [I]t is entirely possible that one can be considered by most people in this country to be a progressive or radical without knowing or mentioning a thing about Asian American history or issues.” (296-7)  

The Meaning of “Afro Asia”

What constitutes Afro Asia, then? Ho and Mullen define the tradition as “a strategic intersection for thinking through an internationalist, global paradigm,” creating “an anti-imperialist, insurgent identity… no longer majority white in orientation.” (2-3). In that sense, the tradition of Afro-Asian collaboration exemplifies what Vijay Prashad terms “the polycultural.”

A deliberate echo of multiculturalism, polyculturalism stresses antiracism as grounds for shared struggle, whereas multiculturalism posits a facile diversity, ultimately managing and maintaining difference through cultural essentialisms.

Polyculturalism in short challenges, whereas multiculturalism accommodates.  Indeed, Ho and Mullen argue that along with the decline of the New Left, the majority of anti-racist polycultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which at their best endorsed an “anti-imperialist Third World unity,” had soon thereafter been either repressed or co-opted by the state.  Exacerbated by the conditions of local and global capitalism, a narrow nationalism and ethnic economic protectionism has taken their place.

The authors write, “Between Africans and Asians in the United States, divisions are accentuated through competition over resources and positioning vis-à-vis the institution funding troughs in vastly dissimilar terrains ranging from colleges and universities to inner-city ghettoes.” (7-8)

In the face of this socially constructed disunity, the contributors of Afro Asia attempt to recuperate a repressed radical tradition, exploring  the shared struggles, connections and borrowings between Black and Asian people in the United States, while also addressing some of the real complexities and contradictions faced by both.

From Bandung to Black Liberation

The specter of Mao looms large over the political histories in Afro Asia. Mullen and Ho include both Mao’s brief statements supporting African-American political struggles, the first issued in August 1963 and the second in April 1968, less than two weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King. At the request of Robert F.  Williams — the Black radical and founder of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), who had been spending time in China as an exile — Mao expressed on paper his resolute support and analysis of the Civil Rights movement: “Only by overthrowing the reactionary rule of the U.S. monopoly classes and destroying the colonialist and imperialist system can the black people in the United States win complete emancipation.” (95)  

In the ambitious follow-up essay “Black Like Mao,” Betty Esch and Robin D.G. Kelley contextualize the impact of Mao as a revolutionary symbol, and Maoism as a political ideology, on African-American radical politics between the ‘50s to mid-‘70s, roughly the period between the Chinese Revolution and Mao’s death.  

Aware of the contradictions within Communist China, Kelley and Esch nevertheless point out the symbolic value that China had on Black radicals from Du Bois to Williams, from Harold Cruse to Amiri Baraka:  “China offered black radicals a ‘colored’ or Third World Marxist model that enabled them to challenge a white Western vision of class struggle — a model that they shaped and unshaped to suit their own cultural and political realities” (100).  

Ho adds that the East Coast Asian-American movement was also affected by the Chinese revolution and Maoism.  The emergence of China from its semi-colonial status to a “nonwhite” socialist state in 1949, Ho explains, presented an anomaly to “Eurocentric Marxist formulations” and offered an alternative model of socialism to the increasingly “social-imperialist” Soviet Russia.

Esch, Kelley and others have pointed out that during the period after World War II, when a wave of colonized African and Asian nations had gained their independence, many African-American activists, intellectual, and cultural workers looked towards these Third World nationalist movements as a way of thinking about “internal colonialism” in the United States. Robert F. Williams’ RAM developed a theory of “Bandung Humanism” or “Revolutionary Black Internationalism,” echoing the Three Worlds theory, which, in its myriad forms, pit the then-recently decolonized nations against Western Imperialism (of both Capitalist and State Socialist varieties) as the key contradiction of its time.

Richard Wright, who reported on the Bandung Conference of 1955, similarly expressed this triangulation, collapsing the distinction between capitalist America and Soviet Russia, and positioning African Americans as part of the “colored” nations in opposition. Mullen and Ho earlier write that “Bandung informs and haunts any and all efforts to theorize Afro Asia.  It is both the watershed and high-water mark of black-Asian affiliation and the unfinished and imperfect dream of a road still being pursued and paved by the authors in this book.” (5)

 One of the limitations of Afro Asia is that, because of its enormous breadth in types of contributions, the contradictions within “Afro Asia” (within Bandung’s “imperfect dream,” or the influence of Maoism) are not rigorously analyzed. For one, what were the consequences of Black and Asian-American radicals adopting Maoism? Did subjugated communities within these Third World nations forge connections with oppressed nationalities in the United States? While a great number of inspirational narratives are uncovered in Afro Asia, subsequent scholarship must expand on this groundbreaking anthology by facing the contradictions that did exist within these collaborations.

To be sure, contributions by Ho and Lisa Yun, specifically focused on Asian-American labor, do address these contradictions by providing historically grounded accounts that explain the roots and consequences of these divisive racial identifications.

Yun’s essay, “Chinese Freedom Fighters in Cuba,” narrates the history of Asian coolie laborers (largely from China and colonial India) who were brought to Cuba to replace the less “economic feasible” African slaves, as well as to divide laborers racially in order to subvert the chances of another Haiti. In ironic and unintended consequence: Chinese laborers fought against imperialist power in three early Cuban wars for independence.

 Similarly Ho’s previously published essay, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” looks at the different histories of racialization which effectively divided communities, when there were possibilities of unification.

 Ho draws attention to the way Asian Americans have seen their “oppression codified in law” over the years, first through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and later Japanese Internment during World War II. And while the post-Reconstruction period saw the proletarianization of African-American workers, who joined (not without enormous hardships, along the way) the ranks of trade unions, Chinese and Asian laborers were “effectively denied proletarianization,” largely due to a hostile white labor movement. (25)

Collaboration in Afro Asian Arts

Mullen and Ho dedicate a great number of pages to the long history of cross-cultural collaborations between African Americans and Asian Americans in the arts.  Essays by Ishmael Reed and Cheryl Higashida trace the tight web of writers of color who were involved in producing the foundational 1974 Asian-American issue of Yardbird Reader (of which Reed was a part) and the East Coast-based feminist women of color press Kitchen Table.

Given Ho’s unique position as a jazz musician, whose own Afro Asian Music Ensemble uniquely attempts to forge “a vision of unity between the cultural-socio-political struggles” of Blacks and Asians, several pieces look at music a forum for exchange. Ho profiles saxophonist, scholar and activist Bill Cole, who adopted Asian double reeds into his musical repertoire from an early stage in his career; royal hartigan describes how early musicians from early Chinese settlements along the Mississippi introduced African-American drummers to percussive instruments, which have now become staples of the drum set.

In the stirring piece “Yellow Lines,” Thien-bao Thuc Phi examines the racist images of Asians that circulate in Hip Hop, and the specific inroads that Asian Americans could take in re-defining our own identities, and in turn, transforming Hip Hop culture itself.  Addressing the challenges that face Asian Americans in developing a pan-ethnic identity, Phi writes in ways that could also address the spirit of Afro-Asian collaboration.

“Asian Americans have the added challenges of pan-ethnicity: How do we signify to a culture that is already so richly varied and complicated?  […] But this is both an advantage and disadvantage: it is a disadvantage because we are already divided and confused within the definition of what it is to be Asian American; it is an advantage because we have the power to shape it.” (304)

Sansei writer David Mura and African- American writer Alexs Pate seize this point, demonstrating how, for them, artistic collaboration has enabled an honest exploration of the contradictions within and between our communities. Mura and Pate narrate their experience of producing Secret Colors, a performance piece in part inspired by the images of violence between Korean and Black Americans after the Rodney King verdict.  

Addressing class conflict between communities, their varied histories of racial subjugation, and the distinct forms of racial identity formation both have experienced, their narrative never eschews nuance for convenient sloganeering. Mura writes,

“That movement — across the lines of color, across the lines of identity, across the barriers within and without — is what our collaborative work […] is all about.  It’s work we continue to do, through the performances and talks we give together, through our writings, and through our friendship — a friendship whose possibilities America has yet to recognize but must and will.” (330)

Afro Asia itself — a collaboration among Ho and Mullen and all the contributors in the volume — constitutes a meaningful step towards that mutual recognition.

ATC 138, January-February 2009