This essay examines an often overlooked moment in the career of James Weldon Johnson, the novelist, poet, songwriter, journalist, civil rights activist, and diplomat known as the "Renaissance man" of the Harlem Renaissance, and addresses the provocative issue of African American accountability in the discourse of the black Pacific and imperialism. Johnson in his autobiography Along This Way (1933) navigates for a black internationalism—a route that reaches beyond U.S. borders, the Caribbean, and Europe, to embrace the Pacific in the penultimate chapter, and in the process to locate two (otherwise seemingly distinct) memories of the Pacific Rim nations of Nicaragua and Japan on a continuum. Using a sequence of events that constitutes a narrative on the resonance of imperialism along the Nicaragua/Japan nexus, I discuss how Johnson's complicity in U.S. empire-building in Central America was entangled with contemporary discourses of "colored" imperialism. With its movement along both east-west and north-south vectors, Johnson's internationalism ironically emerges in Along This Way as contiguous and continuous with imperial modes that traverse color lines and geographical divides in the Pacific. Johnson in his autobiography performs his remembering of the past even as the past continues to shape the present and future, and painfully takes on his own implication in—and accountability for—the globe-carving imperialism that he denounces.
On the morning of October 18, 1929, a ship carrying James Weldon Johnson, the novelist, poet, songwriter, journalist, civil rights activist, and diplomat known as the "Renaissance man" of the Harlem Renaissance, docked in the harbor of Yokohama, Japan. A tumultuous crowd of reporters greeted, interviewed, and photographed Johnson, a delegate to the third biennial conference of the Institute of Pacific Relations, as he was gathering his luggage to go ashore. The following day, Johnson's VIP arrival made headlines in the English-language dailies in Japan, startling readers into an anxious sense that African Americans were emerging as integral members of the Pacific community.
The host of the conference that Johnson was to attend in Kyoto was the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR). The mission of the IPR, which was founded in 1925 in Honolulu, U.S. Territory of Hawai'i, was to promote a new, American-led regionalism, embodied in the notion of a Pacific community, as well as to "study the conditions of the Pacific peoples with a view to the improvement of their mutual relations."1 The IPR was a nongovernmental international organization that envisaged a Pacific-centered perspective on the world that would pose (if implicitly) a challenge to the Eurocentric bias of the League of Nations, along with a corollary reoriented view of U.S. maneuvering in the Caribbean and Central America, as well as in Asia, as mutually constitutive of the affairs of the Pacific. A grasp of the paradigm shift in the conception of the world order reflected in the emergent conviction among IPR members that the Pacific was to be "the stage where shall meet all the races and cultures of the world"2 is crucial to understanding the route that Johnson navigates for a black internationalism in his autobiography Along This Way (1933)—a route that reaches beyond U.S. borders, the Caribbean, and Europe, to embrace the Pacific in the penultimate chapter, and in the process to locate two (otherwise seemingly distinct) memories of the Pacific Rim nations of Nicaragua and Japan on a continuum, as I discuss below. [End Page 79]
Germane to Johnson's internationalism across the East/West oceanic divide is recent theoretical discourse involving George Lipsitz, Andrew F. Jones, Nikhil Pal Singh, Gerald Horne, Bill V. Mullen, and others who have staked out a new critical frame of reference often styled the "black Pacific" (and its mutant-variant, Mullen's "Afro-Orientalism") that extends Paul Gilroy's black Atlantic model.3 In this discourse, the racialized Pacific that emerged...