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  • The New Black Internationalism
  • Adom Getachew (bio)

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The Fifth Pan-African Congress, held in Manchester, UK, in October 1945 (John Deakin/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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As the civil rights movement picked up speed a few years into the Cold War, the elder scholar W.E.B. Du Bois worried about the price of the ticket. Writing in a Pittsburgh Courier pamphlet in 1950, he cautioned his readers that “the effort of Negroes to become Americans of equal status with other Americans is leading them to a state of mind by which they not only accept what is good in America, but what is bad and threatening so long as the Negro can share equally.” Du Bois penned the words at a moment when the battle lines of the Cold War were hardening, compelling individuals and institutions to make clear their allegiance to the United States. “We may find it easy now to get publicity, reward, and attention by going along with the reactionary propaganda and war hysteria which is convulsing this nation” he continued. But “in the long run America will not thank its black children if they help it go the wrong way, or retard its progress.”

Du Bois’s warning came from experience. In the final months of the First World War, he had defended a version of what Aziz Rana calls “national security citizenship,” in which equal civic membership for African Americans depends on their willingness to defend the nation abroad. In his infamous July 1918 “Close Ranks” editorial, Du Bois called on African Americans to “forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.” He would come to regret this recommendation. White America’s response to the sacrifices of African Americans in the war effort was not gratitude, but racial terror—pogroms, mass murders, the renascence of the Ku Klux Klan.

In the interwar years, Du Bois charted an alternative path, deepening his internationalism and advocating an alliance of the darker nations. Writing in 1936, he argued that “if the coloured world wants to meet the white world on a plane of real equality and effective brotherhood . . . then first of all the coloured world must be a strong world, strong in its own inner organization, strong in its power of thought and defence.” Du Bois sought to build this strength by reframing the American color line as part [End Page 93] and parcel of a global pattern of colonial and racial hierarchy. If African Americans could see themselves as part of this larger group of oppressed peoples, they might be able to develop shared political analyses and strategies.

In pursuit of this goal, Du Bois experimented with various fora. As editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, he covered emerging nationalist movements around the world, but especially in India. He also helped to organize four Pan-African congresses and sought to use new international institutions like the League of Nations and the United Nations to advance an anti-imperialist and anti-racist agenda. Despite these efforts, Du Bois never found the appropriate institutional structure for his internationalist ambitions. By 1950, his leftward shift had marginalized him. He was once again out of the NAACP, which he had helped to found in 1909. And in 1951 he found himself the object of the era’s anti-communist fervor as he stood trial for acting as an agent of a foreign nation.

Half a century later, as a new “war hysteria” gripped the country, Du Bois’s hopes for a united “coloured world” including black Americans seemed all but dead. In 2001, as the United States prepared to invade Afghanistan, African Americans occupied the highest offices of the national security state. It is now easy to see how the centrality and visibility of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell in George W. Bush’s administration, as key architects and defenders of the global War on Terror, as well as the passing of the war baton to Barack Obama, the first black commander in chief, represent the apex of national...


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pp. 92-99
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