African Americans and Anti-Colonialism

Teaching America’ is a collaborative blog series by the Historians of Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS) and U.S Studies Online that aims to offer readers an insight into the ongoing conversations around teaching U.S. history in higher education. Featuring posts from leading historians the series offers advice on new and established approaches to teaching intellectual, radical and religious history, gender and sexuality in higher education, and race and transnational history, plus much more. Find out what you can expect from the series in the series introduction.

The fourth post in the series is by Dr Nicholas Grant (University of East Anglia), author of the forthcoming monograph ‘We Shall Win Our Freedoms Together’: African Americans and Apartheid, 1945-1960, who discusses his approach to teaching a transnational history of African American Civil Rights.


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Black Panther March in Brixton. Photo credit: Neil Kenlock.

The transnational turn in U.S. history has been driven by the impulse to decentre the nation. Now twenty years old, this methodological shift has been based around the belief that it is impossible to confine history within the borders of the nation state. In response, historians have sought to challenge exceptionalist myths by documenting America’s ties with the rest of the world, as well as the extent to which the U.S. history has been shaped by the movement of people, ideas and technologies across national borders.[1]

As a result, transnational history can sometimes appear unwieldy and impractically broad. I have often encountered these concerns as I have developed undergraduate modules that focus on the transnational dimensions of the African American freedom struggle. Indeed, when I first proposed teaching a final year module on ‘African Americans and Anticolonialism’ a couple of years ago, the module title came under some scrutiny. There was a feeling within my American Studies department that the title (and perhaps even the course itself) was too broad. There was also a slight concern amongst my colleagues that it did not clearly reference the civil rights history that many of our students were already familiar with. In response I renamed the module ‘Global Civil Rights’, a decision that I regret due to the fact that this title did not adequately account for the time period that I wanted to cover (1920s to the present day), or the diverse nature of the political movements that African American activists were engaged with around the world. This isn’t meant as a criticism of my colleagues who have always been very supportive when it comes developing new modules. In fact, this feedback was incredibly useful, serving as an important reminder not to overestimate what I could adequately cover in just eleven weeks of teaching. Instead, I bring this up as I think it sheds light on an important tension that is central to the teaching of transnational history. Namely, how to properly account for the diverse transnational forces that shaped U.S. history, without losing the narrative focus needed for a successful undergraduate module?

In the Americas, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia had a profound affect on people of African descent. Ethiopia was one of only two independent nations in Africa. The invasion inspired strong feelings among black Americans as well as West Indians.

In the Americas, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia had a profound affect on people of African descent. Ethiopia was one of only two independent nations in Africa. The invasion inspired strong feelings among black Americans as well as West Indians.

‘African Americans and Anticolonialism’ (I’m planning on returning to the original name!) requires students to travel long distances and get to grips with a range of diverse, but interconnected, histories. In tracing the anticolonial worldview of African American activists, the course covers key historical flashpoints that have shaped black international activism throughout the twentieth century. These include the African American response to the U.S. occupation of Haiti; Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia; the Indian Independence movement; the Cold War and African decolonization, Black Power in Britain; the revolutionary internationalization of the Black Panther Party, and the Obama administration’s foreign policy towards Africa. I think this is where some of the concerns about teaching transnational history to undergraduates come from.[2] There is plenty to cover here and students have to read widely as we move quickly through the decades. What follows is an attempt to outline some of the strategies I used to try and tie together these subjects and distinct historical moments. I also want to outline the practical steps I took to provide students with the necessary context/historical background needed for each seminar.

First Steps – Theory, Method and Practice

I think it is important to provide a strong theoretical underpinning for a transnational history module. As a result, I spent the first two weeks asking students to get to grips with the key concepts of ‘transnationalism, ‘diaspora’ and ‘black internationalism’. The aim here was to define these key terms from the outset before adding to these definitions throughout the semester. I also wanted students to use this theory to identify key themes that connected particular seminars. For example, I encouraged students to think about the ways in which black internationalism and the development of diasporic identities were gendered. This was raised initially by reading and discussing important theoretical interventions on this subject by scholars such as Michelle Ann Stephens and Jacqueline Nassy Brown in week two.[3] Students were then asked to apply these arguments over the course of the semester, using this work to analyse primary source documents that spoke to both the masculinist politics of black internationalism, as well as the black international feminism of figures such as Eslanda Goode Robeson, Claudia Jones and Connie Matthews.

Each seminar was structured in a way that was designed to give students as much historical context as possible. At the University of East Anglia, most of the final year modules are taught in weekly 3-hour tutorials. In each class I asked students to work in pairs to answer a class question designed to get the group thinking about the political and historical context we were covering. These were on fairly general topics such as: Why was Ethiopia an important political site for many African Americans? How did the Second World War accelerate calls for black freedom in the United States? Or, how did anticommunism shape black international activism? After discussing the presentation and putting aside time for questions, I then gave a short informal ‘lecture’ (20 minutes or so with room for more questions), designed to make sure the class had a good grasp of the domestic and international forces that influenced African American anticolonialism at this time. The remaining two hours were dedicated to a range of exercises that focused on specific events, individuals or conflicts. These were usually based around the analysis of primary source documents, including letters, speeches, pamphlets, newspaper articles and government records, focusing on key black international moments. I sometimes relied on archival materials that I’d collected for my own research – for example, I used a number of articles written by Eslanda Robeson, transcribed from her papers at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, that were fantastic in terms of asking students to think about black international feminism and the gendered language of the black diaspora. I also used some online primary source materials, such as photographs and recordings relating to the British Black Panther Party, curated by Organized Youth in Brixton.

Paul-Eslanda-Robeson

Paul and Eslanda Robeson.

Every week, regardless of the events we covered, I made sure we returned to the same questions at the heart of the module – how did African Americans engage with international politics? And how did their global vision shape the black freedom struggle in the United States? This was the through-thread that connected each week and hopefully allowed students to account for the evolution of black international thought over the course of the twentieth century. In practice, I attempted to teach what could be seen as a ‘rooted transnational history’. A module that explored the global contours of the black freedom struggle, but focused first and foremost on the actions and experiences of African Americans. I think this is a fairly standard response to what is a common pedagogical problem, i.e. the need to offer both historical breadth and depth. In some ways transnational history actually lends itself to striking this balance. The emphasis on documenting connections and exchanges across national borders can be used to ground transnational history modules within very specific local spaces and historical contexts.

Questions and Problems

The module also had its shortcomings and there are things that I’m looking to improve when I run it again. The students who have taken the course have been dedicated, engaged and opinionated. As a result, seminars usually went well and I always felt that we made progress when it came to answering the key questions that framed each week. However, there were still times where it was clear that they needed more historical context, weeks where it was obvious that information on the global political climate African Americans were responding to was required. I have some ideas about how I can help with this, but I think the main problem is that I try to cover too much in certain weeks. One way of approaching this would be to narrow the time frame and focus on a specific era or historical moment in more depth. The downside here this is that student’s would not gain as much insight into the ways in which the anticolonial politics of African Americans changed over time. However, I do think I need to cut some material and exercises from certain weeks where students are not that familiar with the specific political or cultural context.

Finally, I was concerned that the module may have ultimately left students with the impression that African Americans always led the way when it came formulating global responses to empire and white supremacy. This wasn’t the case and there is a need to recognize the agency of anticolonial activists around the world, as well as the extent to which they were able to influence black politics in the United States.[4] Seminars were designed to primarily give a voice to African Americans, to document how black America viewed the world. They provided less of an insight into the ways in which the ‘rest of the world’ responded to or indeed initiated these conversations. The aim was for students to be critical of this, to look at how and why African Americans sometimes saw themselves as the natural leaders of the black world, to analyse the disconnections as well as the connections that shaped the politics of the black diaspora, and to ask why we were looking at these global events through a distinctly American lens. We did have some really interesting discussions about this, and some students did acknowledge the need to decentre African Americans within the history of the black diaspora. Overall though, we struggled to really question the U.S. centric focus of the module. Further evidence of this can be seen in the fact that we rarely looked beyond the Anglophone world when tracing the global contours of black activism.[5]

I think this is important to remember when thinking about the possible limitations we face when teaching transnational history. We perhaps need to be wary of some of the more grandiose claims of what transnationalism might be able to achieve, particularly when it comes to bypassing our reliance on national histories. In fact, I think transnational history is often at its most effective when it actually engages the nation and prompts students to question narrow nationalist interpretations of history that often marginalize the experiences of oppressed groups. This was what I wanted to achieve with this particular module – to offer an alternative perspective on national narratives of the long civil rights movement. To expand our understanding of the nation, without ignoring its influence entirely. And finally, to try and bring both African American and United States history into conversation with the global histories of colonialism and imperialism.

Footnotes

[1] For a good overview of the rise of transnational approaches to American history see: Ian Tyrrell, ‘Reflections on the Transnational Turn in United States History: Theory and Practice’, Journal of Global History, 4 (2009), 453–74. It’s important to note that African American scholars have long recognized the global forces that have shaped U.S. history. See: Robin D. G. Kelley, ‘“But a Local Phase of a World Problem”: Black History’s Global Vision, 1883-1950’, The Journal of American History, 86 (1999), 1045–77.

[2] Marc-William Palen at Exeter has written an interesting blog piece about teaching global history to undergraduates: ‘Is Global History Suitable for Undergraduates?’, Imperial & Global Forum <http://imperialglobalexeter.com/2014/05/12/is-global-history-suitable-for-undergraduates-2/> [accessed 24 August 2015].

[3] Michelle Ann Stephens, Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914-1962 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); Jacqueline Nassy Brown, ‘Black Liverpool, Black America, and the Gendering of Diasporic Space’, Cultural Anthropology, 13 (1998), 291–325.

[4] Laura Chrisman makes this point in, ‘Rethinking Black Atlanticism’, The Black Scholar, 30 (2000).

[5] Brent Hayes Edwards has made this criticism in,, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003).

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About Nicholas Grant

Nick Grant is a Lecturer in American History at the University of East Anglia. His research engages with the fields of African American and black international history. He is currently working on a monograph, ‘We Shall Win Our Freedoms Together’: African Americans and Apartheid, 1945-1960, forthcoming with the University of North Carolina Press.
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