In the wake of Michael Brown’s heinous murder, news of protests and social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, captured the attention of viewers around the globe. In the Middle East, Palestinians took to social media to express solidarity with Ferguson’s protesters by sharing advice on how to protect themselves from state-sanctioned tear gas attacks. In response, Ferguson’s protesters acknowledged Palestinians’ solidarity by chanting and holding up signs reading “Free Gaza” on the front lines.1
Global political solidarity between African Americans and Third World or Global South peoples—both subjugated minority groups at the mercy of hyper-militarized police forces—is not new, however. Throughout the 20th century, and especially during the Cold War, African Americans often aligned themselves with anti-totalitarian and Third World freedom struggles, linking the projects of racial desegregation at home with decolonization abroad.
Vaughn Rasberry’s capacious, ambitious, and meticulously researched study, Race and the Totalitarian Century: Geopolitics in the Black Literary Imagination, traces “African Americans’ enhanced attention to African and Third World developments” in response to totalitarianism and decolonization following World War II and the onset of the Cold War. Rasberry expands the contours of the black geopolitical imagination to include not only Africa and its diaspora but Russia, the Middle East, and Asia as well. In this way, Race and the Totalitarian Century illuminates under-attended-to geographies of black internationalist thought at mid-century and—by foregrounding the life and work of Shirley Graham—makes a significant contribution to black women’s intellectual history as well.
More generally, by centering black artists’, intellectuals’, and diplomats’ strategic alliances with Russia, the Middle East, and Asia—the foci of much contemporary geopolitical angst and debate—as they searched for tools to dismantle liberal modernity, Race and the Totalitarian Century resonates with and provides important insights for our current geopolitical moment, particularly the rise of Islamophobia, white nationalism, and the ways in which the condition of blackness has always necessitated a moving within and against the nation-state to imagine alternative and more just futures.
Set between 1945 and the early to mid-1960s, Race and the Totalitarian Century aims to situate African American and Third World writers on an even footing with the “democratic and communist spheres in the world-historical framing of totalitarianism.” Bringing together political and military history with literary history and criticism, Rasberry explores how black writers and intellectuals critiqued the totalitarian practices at the heart of democratic liberalism, such as plantation slavery and Jim Crow in the United States, and colonialism and imperialism in Africa and the Caribbean.
A Black Power Method
Writing against the commonly held belief that “black political actors” in the postwar period embraced either US liberalism or Communism, Rasberry suggests that they translated the strategy of political nonalignment (deployed by Third World political actors) into a “writing of nonalignment” (a phrase he borrows from Guy Reynolds) to imagine “a transformative vision of the postwar order.” Importantly, this black public sphere—comprised of an array of African diasporic artists, intellectuals, journalists, and state actors—did not advance a “unitary black anti-totalitarian front.” Rather, they engaged in sharp debate and held wide-ranging views on desegregation, decolonization, the achievements and limits of democratic liberalism, and ultimately the (im)possibility of socialist modernity in the Third World.
Rasberry lays out the study’s discursive terrain—i.e., the inextricability of race and totalitarianism within the black geopolitical imagination—by using the figure of the black soldier in US film and literature to link Nazism and fascism with Jim Crow and colonialism, illuminating how Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright established slavery and Jim Crow as totalitarian institutions in the United States, as well as how colonial experiments in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries set the stage for totalitarian violence in Europe in the mid-20th century.
The Suez Canal Crisis, in particular, produced a “robust counter-discourse” on race and totalitarianism in the black public sphere. Numerous (though certainly not all) African American intellectuals championed Gamal Nasser’s efforts to wrest control of the canal from Western powers, linking his display of anticolonial self-determination with anti-segregation efforts in the United States. The geopolitical dissonance between the United States (which initially backed its Western allies) and its black citizenry elucidates how race often fractured and subsequently refracted black thinkers’ allegiances to the nation-state during the Cold War.
Furthermore, the Suez Crisis demonstrated how black writers deployed a “writing of nonalignment” as a crucial anti-totalitarian strategy. Though they celebrated the Soviet Union’s support for Egypt, for instance, they remained ambivalent about and ultimately objected to the Soviets’ colonial practices in Eastern Europe, and thus resisted formal affiliation. Rasberry demonstrates this “writing of nonalignment” through “condensed intellectual biographies” of W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham, and Richard Wright. By excavating their less popular works, he proposes to provide “another entrance to reconsider black writers whose careers apparently flagged during the 1950s,” and elucidates how they crafted dynamic geopolitical imaginings of “socialist modernity in the Third World.” In essence, they sought to locate within Third World anticolonial projects tools and models for dismantling the shared totalitarian logics undergirding fascism and democratic liberalism.
Rasberry expands the contours of the black geopolitical imagination to include not only Africa and its diaspora but Russia, the Middle East, and Asia as well.
Taking up Du Bois’s unpublished manuscript “Russia and America,” Rasberry examines his curious support for the Soviet Union at mid-century. Despite evidence of violence, repression, and illiberalism following the Russian Revolution, Du Bois’s support for Russia, Rasberry contends, stemmed from his belief in scientific experimentation applied to the project of revolution and nation-building: if scientific advancement is based on “experimentation and failure,” Du Bois suggested, then Russia, “after surviving long centuries of serfdom, a total revolution, and the staggering losses of the Second World War … had earned the right to fail.”
Furthermore, he pointed out that many of the failures and atrocities attributed to Soviet Russia—“mass death tolls, concentration camps, and repressive techniques”—were true of liberal democracies as well and were often exacted against “racialized minorities and colonized subjects.” Thus, Du Bois insisted that experimentation and failure are essential for the production of “new knowledge” and a new world order.
One of the book’s most valuable contributions lies in its thorough treatment of Shirley Graham. Whereas the wives of prominent black male intellectuals and activists are often overshadowed by their husbands’ legacies, Rasberry grapples with Graham as an activist-intellectual and geopolitical thinker in her own right, separate and apart from her husband, W. E. B. Du Bois. As such, Rasberry contributes to the growing fields of black women’s intellectual history and internationalism.
According to Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage in their new anthology Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, black women “have rarely received attention as producers of knowledge.” Similarly, in Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women, Brittney Cooper challenges readers to move beyond the “recovery imperative” within black women’s intellectual history, to engage “with the content of what Black women intellectuals actually said” and not only “what they did.” This is precisely what Rasberry sets out to do through his robust engagement with Graham’s geopolitical and intellectual thought.
The Devil Wears Pravda
He attributes Graham’s marginalization in literary studies to the fact that she was a writer of propaganda, “a genre that many literary critics tend to overlook or regard as unworthy of sustained critical attention,” as well as to her tendency to lapse into hagiographic portraits of male charismatic leaders in ways that depart from typical “narratives of black feminist internationalism.” In response to this misreading, Rasberry asserts that Graham used the genre of literary propaganda, including heroic and didactic depictions of postcolonial leaders, to counter disillusionment with postcolonial conditions. Further, he suggests that her commitment to Pan-Africanism was the basis of her geopolitical imagination and internationalist thought.
From serving as director of television in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana to working as an “editorial writer” in Nasser’s Egypt, Graham weighed in on international developments across Africa and the Middle East (including the Israel/Palestine conflict), seeking to “create a blueprint for socialist modernity in the Third World.” In Egypt, rather than being an uncritical adherent to Nasserism, Graham sought to “massage official doctrines in accordance with her own geopolitical vision,” which was rooted in a Pan-African sensibility.
As such, she enacted “literary partisanship” or “textual revision”—as seen in her selective readings of Nasser’s Philosophy of the Revolution—“to restore and amplify the Pan-African element in the Egyptian leader’s vision” over and above his identification with the Arab world and the Middle East. Despite her ideological inconsistencies and hagiographic tendencies, then, Graham’s wholesale denouncement of liberal capitalism and commitment to Pan-Africanism are the unifying threads of her broader geopolitical and intellectual projects.
As with Du Bois and Graham, Rasberry maintains that the paradoxes within Richard Wright’s late writings on Africa and Asia are also “best understood in terms” of totalitarianism. He attempts to parse Wright’s commitment to secular enlightenment and modernity with his suggestion that non-secular forms such as Islam in the Middle East and traditionally totalitarian practices such as militarization in Africa held the potential for “the Third World to avoid the traps of totalitarianism.” In other words, despite religion’s totalitarian tendencies, Wright believed that “Islam possessed a global appeal to rival the century’s grand ideological systems,” i.e., “Western secularism,” in part because it had not been infiltrated by Christian missionaries, as African tribalism had.
black writers and intellectuals such as Wright, Graham, and James Baldwin believed that because “Islam belonged to the Third World,” it “could be harnessed for anti-imperialism.”
Similarly, Wright promoted militarization as a tool to “keep pace with Western modernity” and to protect against the threat of “resubjugation by nuclear-equipped powers,” as the military could safeguard the Third World’s immense resources from foreign domination. Despite the totalitarian tendencies inherent in both religion and militarization, then, Wright, much like Du Bois and Graham, sought to identify within Third World liberation struggles alternatives to “liberal capitalism’s default status as the political norm defined in opposition to fascism and communism.”
As a significant contribution to black internationalism and black women’s intellectual history during the Cold War, Race and the Totalitarian Century will also appeal to readers concerned with historical alternatives to the racial and ethno-religious bigotry undergirding contemporary American geopolitics. Although white nationalists are aligning themselves with Russia today, a little more than half a century ago, Rasberry suggests, there was a mutual “love affair” between black people and the Soviet Union. Black socialists such as Du Bois celebrated Russia’s anti-racism and refusal of whiteness, and Russians “loved” and forged solidarity with black people because they epitomized Western liberal democracy’s internal contradictions, i.e., racism.
Furthermore, in contrast to the egregious Islamophobia that pervades our contemporary, post-9/11 moment, black writers and intellectuals such as Wright, Graham, and James Baldwin believed that because “Islam belonged to the Third World,” it “could be harnessed for anti-imperialism.” Thus, just as Ferguson’s protesters and Palestinians recently found solidarity in their respective fights against oppression, black anti-totalitarian writers and intellectuals at mid-century vigorously engaged Third World freedom struggles to illuminate democratic liberalism’s failure to interrogate its own totalitarian practices and logics and ultimately to imagine a new and freer world order.
- For a fuller account, see Megan French Marcelin’s essay, “Linking Violence in Solidarity: Ferguson, Gaza, and the US State,” Jadaliyya, August 18, 2014. ↩