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From W.E.B. Du Bois to the Panthers: A History of Black Americans in China

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This month marks the celebration of Black History in the United States. In the spirit of Black History Month, let’s take a moment to remember Black Americans who have been recognized as friends of China, and shaped China’s early understanding of the United States.

Modern China had been introduced to the struggle of Black Americans through early translations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These translations were not done based on words from the actual text, but were orated to writer Lin Shu, who then wrote his own interpretation. Because of this, scholars such as Keisha Brown hold the belief that the translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin portrayed Black suffering in a similar manner to that of China at the hands of Western colonialists. This put Black Americans under the category of oppressed people of color that were primed and ready for liberation. Lin Shu might have been on to something: during the early years of China’s formation, Black Americans would provide numerous forms of support.

In fact, it was Black American singer and songwriter, Paul Robeson, who was responsible for introducing China’s current national anthem, “March of the Volunteers” (aka “Qi Lai”) to the United States. Robeson expressed support for China in its efforts against imperialism as early as the 1930s. Chinese intellectual and exile Liu Liangmo heard about Robeson’s sympathies to China’s resistance movement, and made contact, asking Robeson to sing a song about China’s revolutionary movement. Robeson responded by asking Liu to sing a few songs to him, and was particularly drawn to “Qi Lai.”

Weeks later, Robeson sang “Qi Lai” in West Harlem’s Lewisohn Stadium. In 1941, Robeson recorded his rendition of “Qi Lai” for the gramophone, promising that the proceeds of the album would go towards China’s resistance movement. He would go on to perform the anthem to stadium audiences in New York and Washington, D.C. throughout the 1940s.

Paul Robeson – CheeLai (via Popsike)

Although Robeson was unable to come to China before his death, his wife Elesanda Goode Robeson would travel to China a mere two months before the Communist Revolution began. “Qi Lai” was ultimately designated the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s national anthem upon the Communists’ victory in 1949, and was formally added to the PRC Constitution in 2004. Upon Robeson’s death in 1981, a tribute was written in his honor in the Chinese government-backed national newspaper People’s Daily, which called Robeson “a true friend to the people of [China].”

Black Americans continued to aid China after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took over in 1949. In the late 1950s, fostering connections with Black American leaders in the U.S. became a part of the CCP’s internationalist strategy. Though Black Americans didn’t have their own nation-state, the CCP saw it fitting to reach out directly to Black American internationalists who identified with their cause.

W.E.B Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois arrive in Southern China, 1959 (photo credit: UMass Amherst/Digital Commonwealth)

W.E.B. Du Boi and Mao Zedong (photo credit: UMass Amherst

Writer and intellectual W.E.B Du Bois was an obvious choice. He had openly revealed himself to be an internationalist that was against colonialist and capitalist governments. Du Bois had been to China in 1936, when the nation was under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek. Upon his return, he spoke unfavorably about the treatment of Chinese people by European and Japanese troops, saying that it “reminded him of Mississippi.”

He was invited back to China under Mao Zedong’s leadership in 1959. While in China, Du Bois met with Mao, Zhou Enlai, Ding Xilin, and Chen Yi. When Du Bois died in 1963, he was honored by Mao Zedong as a friend of China.

Upon his return to China 1959, W.E.B. Du Bois spoke unfavorably about the treatment of Chinese people by European and Japanese troops, saying that it “reminded him of Mississippi”

Du Bois’ presence in China inspired other Black intellectuals to visit the country. Among these were Robert F. Williams, former NAACP leader, advocate of armed resistance, and author of Negroes with Guns.  After Williams was falsely accused of kidnapping in 1961, he fled the U.S. for Cuba with his family in tow. In 1965, Williams was offered asylum in China at the invitation of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. While in China, Robert F. Williams openly condemned the U.S.’s treatment of Black Americans, and introduced the idea of Black Power to the CCP, stating in 1966: “Black Power is the vehicle by which we hope to reach a stage wherein we can be proud Black people without the necessity of an apology for our non-Anglo-Saxon features. The dominant society in racist America is reactionary, imperialist, racist, and decadent and we wish to disassociate ourselves from it.”

Robert F. Williams and Mao Zedong (photo via Jeremiah Jenne’s blog)

Robert F. Williams also crossed paths with other Black American exiles during his time in China, including Vicki Garvin, former Vice President Executive of the New York chapter of the National Negro Labor Council. Garvin’s chapter had crumbled under pressure from the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1960, facing increasing pressure from McCarthy Era policies, Garvin fled the U.S. for Nigeria, and spent the following years traveling throughout Africa to learn about Third World revolutions. Her work brought her in contact with the Chinese ambassador to Ghana, Huang Hua, whom she also introduced to Malcolm X.

In 1964, the Ambassador Huang invited Garvin to China, and W.E.B.  Du Bois encouraged her to make the move. Vicki Garvin spent the next five years teaching English in Shanghai and establishing the Shanghai Foreign Language Institute’s first course on Black American history.

Vicki Garvin in China in the 1960s (photo credit: Aaron J. Leonard – Heavy Radicals)

Years later, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (aka the Black Panthers) would receive their own invite to China. The party’s founding members had an ideology developed from that of the CCP. In particular, the Black Panthers championed grassroots liberation efforts and armed self-defense in Black communities. In the early years of the Black Panther Party, founding members Huey Newton and Bobby Seale sold Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong — better known as the Little Red Book — in the streets to earn money to purchase arms for the Black Panthers. They also aimed to “serve the people,” as the CCP had, and set up a free school lunch program that drew inspiration from the CCP’s People’s Communes. These efforts would be the impetus for the free lunch programs that exist in American public schools to this day.

Huey P. Newton meets Zhou Enlai, 1971 (photo via The Marxist-Leninist)

In 1971, Black Panther leaders Elaine Brown and Huey Newton were invited to China as a delegation. On the trip, the Panthers met with Zhou Enlai and stood in front of the CCP’s Central Committee, petitioning them to “negotiate with… [then-president] Nixon for the freedom of the oppressed peoples of the world.” The petition was formally accepted by Zhou Elai. Huey Newton later revealed that he was offered political asylum while in Beijing, but declined, stating: “my struggle is in the United States.”

Though Black Americans have been developing connections with China since before the founding of the PRC, memories of this history have faded in the decades since the United States normalized diplomatic relations with the PRC, beginning with Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing. If you were to ask someone about Black figures that they recognize in China today, many would mention Stephon Marbury or Barack Obama rather than W.E.B. Du Bois or Huey Newton.

As China increases its stature on the international stage, it is important that we revisit and remember the history. As we recall the history and efforts of Black Americans this Black History Month, let’s also remember the Black internationalists who helped shape early relationships with China, and early Chinese attitudes about America.

Cover photo: A Black Panther Party delegation visits the Great Wall of China, 1971 (source: Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University)

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Alexandria S. Williams
    Alexandria (aka 兰兰) is a tech worker and documentarian of the Black American experience in the PRC. In her spare time, she enjoys creating video content about hot topics in China that are accessible to audiences across the world. Follow her on Instagram and Youtube.