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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.1 (2003) 1-9

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Guest Editors' Introduction

In an autobiographical account of his journey to the Far East in 1933, the African American poet Langston Hughes relates the following anecdote:

I reached the international city of Shanghai in July, with the sun beating down on the Bund, the harbor full of Chinese junks, foreign liners and warships from all over the world. It was hot as blazes. I didn't know a soul in the city. But hardly had I climbed into a rickshaw than I saw riding in another along the Bund a Negro who looked exactly like a Harlemite. I stood up in my rickshaw and yelled, "Hey, man!"

He stood up in his rickshaw and yelled, "What ya sayin'?" We passed each other in the crowded street and I never saw him again.1

Our pleasure in such an "unlikely" story rests on the assumption that both Hughes and the Harlemite are somehow out of place here, that their fleeting encounter is no more than an accident or an anomaly, assimilable neither [End Page 1] to our conventional notions of Chinese cultural life in Shanghai nor our standard narratives of African American intellectual, artistic, and political history. Yet what emerges from Hughes's full account of his journey, is a series of clues that helps us to unravel a tangled web of trans-Pacific cultural transaction and political collaboration that might shed new light on both. In Shanghai, Hughes immediately found himself welcomed into a large and vibrant community of African American jazz musicians and entertainers who had made the passage in order to play the cabarets of the "neon-lighted Dragon city of the East"—a city whose people, Hughes remarks, were "much like colored folks at home" in terms of both their temperament and their subjection to colonial color lines.2 He dined with Madame Sun Yat-sen, met with one of the most outstanding Chinese writers and social critics of the twentieth century, Lu Xun, and was feted by and featured in the leading modernist literary journal of the day, Les contemporains [Xiandai].3 Expelled from Japan weeks later because of his leftist sympathies and outspoken opposition to Japanese imperialism in China, Hughes went on to write anticolonial poetry on East Asian themes, such as his celebrated 1937 piece "Roar China!":

Break the chains of the East,
   Little coolie boy! Break the chains of the East,
   Red Generals!
Break the chains of the East,
   Child Slaves in the factories!
Smash the iron gates of the Concessions!
Smash the pious doors of the missionary houses!
Smash the revolving doors of the Jim Crow Y.M.C.A.'s
Crush the enemies of land and bread and freedom!
Stand up and roar, China!4

The poem's animating rhetoric of anticolonial and antiracist solidarity across the Pacific may have provided an especially ironic satisfaction for Hughes, for he had once complained that the prospects of black writers in the United States were shadowed by publishers who considered their writing "exotic, in a class with Chinese or East Indian features."5 [End Page 2]

Hughes's anecdote is not so much an anomaly, then, but a cipher for a multitude of unsung and unlikely Afro-Asian connections, a cipher that, in its very indeterminacy, alerts us to the existence of unknown and as yet unsounded historical depths. With this special issue of positions, we ask not only how we might begin the task of charting the history of the Black Pacific traversed by Langston Hughes in the interwar years, but also, as Françoise Vergès suggests in her commentary on the Indian Ocean as a creolized space of Afro-Asian encounter, how we might begin sketching a "new cartography of possibilities" that can break out of the enclosures of neocolonial color lines and the insularity of ethnonationalist identity politics.

Such insularity has long been reinforced by our own practices of knowledge production. The gaps in the historical record that render Hughes's Shanghai encounter so tantalizingly illegible to us today are...


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