- Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935–1960
Historian Brenda Gayle Plummer has written an admirable history of Black American involvement in US foreign policy during the middle third of this century. Much of the terrain she covers is as unknown to Black audiences as it is to the general public. The role of the Black press in covering African affairs, the increasing numbers of Black professionals working for international organizations, and the strong ties between leaders of the Indian struggle for independence and African Americans are examples of stories seldom told. Moreover, Plummer’s exhaustive coverage of the individuals and organizations directly involved in foreign affairs makes this an indispensable volume. How many would know, for example, of the work of Willis Huggins, a Fordham trained Africanist, who as founder of the Friends of Ethiopia helped develop 106 branches [End Page 195] in the United States in less than half a year in 1935? And how many of those who know that Madame C.J. Walker was one of the first Black millionaires also know that she was a founder of the International League of Darker Peoples?
Plummer frames her detailed historical exploration in a context that distinguishes race from ethnicity. Citing Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan’s influential study Beyond the Melting Pot, she states that ethnic group lobbying in foreign policy was an inseparable and natural part of the group’s political agenda. For Blacks, however, the conviction that they should express no concern about matters beyond US frontiers conveniently hid a mirror side, which was that what happens to them concerns no one outside federal borders.
As the United States confronted Hitler’s Aryan supremacy and sought to play a leading role in establishing a new world order, it was no longer possible to define the minority situation in the United States as a purely domestic issue. The new internationalism even reached down to Black organizations in small southern towns. Plummer reports on an interracial convention at the University of North Carolina to choose student nonconsultant observers to the San Francisco organizing conference of the United Nations. The representatives from some fifty White and Black southern colleges elected an integrated team as observers. In regard to the three official Black consultants to the 1945 conference, Plummer criticizes W.E.B. DuBois and Walter White for excluding Mary McLeod Bethune from their deliberations and for generally ignoring community based activists.
The heightened awareness of international affairs in the Black community in the 1930s creates a new dynamic with domestic ethnics. The invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini, for example, led to open clashes between Black Americans and Italian Americans. Plummer points out the State Department’s double standard in refusing passports to the former, who wanted to fight for Haile Selassie, while condoning the latter’s enlistment in Mussolini’s army. Moreover, the silence of the Catholic Church on Mussolini’s actions did not go unnoticed in the Black community. Following World War II, Italy received American reconstruction aid while Ethiopia was left to recover on its own.
Black indifference to the plight of European Jews does not escape Plummer’s view during this period. Citing Jesse Owen’s praise for Hitler as he campaigned for GOP vice-presidential candidate Alf Landon, she explains his position as a reflection of Blacks’ domestic experience with Jews rather than a broader view of international politics. That is, urban Jews, like Italians, occupied middlemen’s roles in Black communities and often incurred similar resentment.
While these domestic concerns were sublimated during World War II, they surfaced again during the Cold War. According to Plummer, civil rights activists searched for ways to demonstrate that civil rights pertained to the national interest. When they could not make this connection they ignored international linkages as when the NAACP failed to support the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya or the African National Congress in South Africa. A number of African Americans participated in State Department subsidized junkets to Asia and Africa...