Reviewed by Denise Lynn
Arise Africa, Roar China: Black and Chinese Citizens of the World in the Twentieth-Century. By Gao Yunxiang. [Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021. 408 pp.]
In Arise Africa, Roar China, Gao Yunxiang sets out to explore the interlocking influences of China on Black American activism and in turn the Black American intellectual influence on China. The book focuses on three well-known Black radical activists whose radicalism took different directions during the long twentieth-century: W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Langston Hughes. Gao also explores Liu Liangmo, a dynamic and well-known figure in both the United States and China who collaborated with Paul Robeson and influenced the mass singing trend still popular in China today.
She introduces us to Sylvia Si-Lan Chen, the most cosmopolitan but least well-known of the individuals explored in the book. Gao argues that the lives of these five individuals reveals the connection between transpacific narratives and Black internationalism even before the advent of the People’s Republic of China. Du Bois, Robeson, and Hughes imagined a postcolonial China as part of the community of nations seeking to free themselves from colonial oppression. Connection with Liu helped Robeson and the wider American leftist community see China as a site for revolutionary fervor. Si-Lan Chen’s travels and multiracial identity was part of the effort to breakdown stereotypes of Black people in China, an effort all five contributed to. Gao shows that the connection between Chinese and Black activists predate the revolutionary period.
The link to China would eventually draw the attention of American intelligence which cast a shadow across all five, as the US positioned itself as a bulwark against revolutionary communism. The consequences would be severe as Du Bois and Robeson found themselves unable to travel, Si-Lan remained for much of her life a citizen without a state, and Hughes would go on the defensive denouncing his previous leftist commitments. Liu emerged relatively unscathed from the US surveillance state and would rise in prominence within revolutionary China. But their experiences with the oppressive state shaped their activism and relationship with the postcolonial world. Gao also explores some of the contradictions these five embodied in their activist work as they would support totalitarian states while simultaneously arguing for the emancipation of the oppressed. What they had in common was their commitment to the emancipation of the colonized and oppressed, and in their work, they helped to break down stereotypes against the Chinese and Black people within the United States and against Black people in China.
Du Bois traveled to China three times in his life and his view of the country changed as his own politics evolved. Du Bois looked to Asia to help unravel white supremacist arguments; he pointed to China’s “old and advanced” civilization as evidence. But in his early years he saw Japanese military power as the most effective counter to white power. Japan’s victory over Czarist Russia in 1905 emboldened many Black Americans as it directly contrasted with white assumptions of superiority. Du Bois remained committed to that view of Japan far longer than others, he defended Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria because, he claimed, the Japanese had no intention of treating Manchurians as inferior. He believed that Japanese imperialism would be an effective counter to European domination. In 1936 he made his first visit to China and the Soviet Union. Gao argues that while in the USSR Du Bois ignored Stalin’s repression, likely because, as with later trips to China, his visit was carefully curated to avoid revealing these aspects of the country. Still while in China he defended the Japanese and argued against Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist government as racist, which others like Robeson would agree with, but Du Bois was largely isolated in his praise of Japanese actions. Du Bois’s affection for Japan did make him one of the few Americans outwardly critical of Japanese American internment after Pearl Harbor.
Du Bois moved to the political left after World War II helped by his friend Paul Robeson and his second wife Shirley Graham Du Bois. China also began to report favorably on Du Bois, ignoring his previous comments on Japan. His books were translated into Chinese and widely circulated. In 1959, Du Bois made his second trip to China, explicitly violating US law since his recently returned passport had not been approved for travel there. Du Bois, long interested in socialism, argued that the liberation of all the oppressed would be facilitated by socialism and he began to admire China under Mao, who he met during his visit. Gao does argue that Du Bois began to view class consciousness as more important than the “color line,” referring to Du Bois’s 1903 comment that the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color line. However, by the postwar years, Du Bois did not see these as mutually exclusive and he began to look to Asia and Africa in hopes that liberation from European and American imperialism would include freedom from oppressive capitalist institutions.
Du Bois’s final trip to China in 1962 cemented his relationship with the country and as Gao highlights, he continued to ignore the conditions there including starvation. Once again, his trip was curated, and he was courted by important figures including Mao and Zhou Enlai, which likely meant he did not encounter the hardships of many in the nation. After Du Bois’s death in 1963, China continued to honor him. Shirley had in the meantime “moved sharply” toward China and eventually died and was buried there.
In contrast, Paul Robeson, who never traveled to China in his life, had a lifelong affection for the country and its language. Gao argues that Robeson has often been linked to the Soviet Union, partly because he openly admired the country and because US intelligence linked him to it, but what has been ignored is his ties to China. He was known to the Chinese because of his celebrity. Liu gave Robeson the lyrics to “Chee Lai,” a song written about China’s resistance to the Japanese, which Robeson recorded and performed in Chinese, a language he studied. More broadly, Robeson had “faith” in the relationship between China and Africa, he worked with Chinese artists and activists like Liu, and unlike Du Bois, he celebrated the Chinese resistance to Japan.
Robeson worked with organizations for Chinese aid, and he was part of Madame Sun Yat-Sen’s China Welfare Fund. Eslanda Robeson traveled to China in 1949 without her husband. Upon her return to the US, she gave lectures about her trip. Meanwhile, Paul celebrated the Maoist victory that year, he sang “Chee Lai” in Harlem, and he telegrammed congratulations to Mao, the telegram was published in China. He (and Du Bois) opposed the US war in Korea and Robeson openly supported Chinese intervention in that war. Du Bois and Robeson both signed a letter to demand the end of the war, and the Chinese publicized this support. Of course, this open condemnation of the US in the Korean war and siding with the Chinese only further confirmed for the FBI the danger Robeson posed. He was forced to surrender his passport, which would not be renewed for ten years, effectively hampering his career, and putting him in dire financial straits. This did not dissuade Robeson in his support for China and the Chinese remained devoted to him as well; his speeches were reprinted in Chinese newspapers; and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) condemned official harassment of Robeson accusing the US of violating his human rights.
As Gao argues, though the People’s Republic of China took a hard line against some expressions of popular culture, including jazz, Robeson remained beloved, and he was featured in the press frequently. That is until the Chinese and the Soviet relationship fell apart over the USSR’s move toward peaceful coexistence with the US. Robeson, a vocal Soviet supporter was not mentioned in China or celebrated as he once was. After his death in 1976, Robeson reemerged, once against described as a beloved friend to the nation. In 2008 there were celebrations in China honoring Robeson’s 110thbirthday.
Liu Liangmo was well-known to both US and Chinese audiences. He was a nationalist and a committed Baptist who managed to have communist friends and comrades. Liu worked with the YMCA in China where he started the mass singing movement; the songs he used, like “Chee Lai,” promoted Chinese independence and were used during the war to “lift spirits” of the fighting troops. The communists saw how effective this mass singing was to create a sense of solidarity and to appeal to the unlettered in the country. Liu became committed to a broader emancipation movement when he traveled to the US in 1936 and faced anti-Chinese harassment. He was detained at Angel Island where he was given no bedding and was required to produce a health certificate to prove he was not carrying disease. He reported this treatment to the Chinese embassy. He also collected poems inscribed on the walls at Angel Island, and he emerged from the experience with an understanding of what Black Americans lived with.
In 1940, Liu returned to the US to study theology on a student visa. He decided to stay after his studies to work with United China Relief (UCR) giving speeches to American audiences about the war. Because he had connections to the CCP, the FBI took an interest and began its surveillance in 1941 continuing until 1956, even though Liu returned to China in 1949. Liu was an effective speaker and became popular among US audiences, but he also worked with several American leftists, including Robeson, which kept the FBI’s attention. He wrote a regular column for the Pittsburgh Courier from 1942-1945; his columns included discussion about segregation, racism aimed at the Chinese, and treatment of Black soldiers during WWII (something the FBI were particularly concerned with). He also condemned Japanese interment and the poor treatment of Japanese Americans more generally.
Liu brought his wife and child to the US and continued his work with the United China Relief, but anticommunism led to a general rightward swing in the nation and the organization monitored his activities, partly at the behest of the FBI. The organization leadership did support him when his visa needed to be extended; however, the UCR began to lose money and support during the early Cold War and Liu lost his job there. Meanwhile he had become critical of the increased anticommunism. In 1949 he returned to China where he enjoyed more popularity, because, as Gao demonstrates, he was connected to Robeson. Gao argues that Liu helped to challenge racist stereotypes of Black Americans in the Chinese press and he was seen as an important expert on the US, raising his status further. Today, Liu’s legacy is still felt in the mass singing movement, but he is virtually unknown among Americans because of his radical views and connection to outspoken and marginalized activists like Robeson.
As Gao argues, while the broader American population might not know who Liu is, his relationship with the likes of Robeson means that scholars are aware of his influence in the US and China. The same is not true of Sylvia Si-Lan Chen Leyda, born in Trinidad to a Chinese father and a French Creole mother, she lived in many countries, collaborated with Americans and Chinese, and pioneered blended dancing styles influenced by her ancestry and travels. Si-Lan studied Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union and her dance would reflect her political commitments. She and her siblings worked to wed art and propaganda across several mediums. She had a brother who was an artist, and a sister that worked with the Soviet film industry; their father was also an important figure in Chinese politics, but after their mother’s death, he was a distant figure in their lives. This could have been in part because of Chinese discrimination against his mixed-race children who he counseled at some points to stay out of China to avoid prejudice. Their father’s high-profile kept the family in the spotlight of the Chinese media.
Si-Lan would work to counter racist stereotypes against the Chinese in many of her dances and she featured protests against Japanese aggression in her routines. In the Soviet Union she met American leftists like Langston Hughes, who she would have a brief relationship with, and Jay Leyda, who she eventually married. Despite her mixed heritage and her British citizenship (because she was born in the British colony Trinidad), US officials classified her as Chinese. When she tried to join her husband after his return to the US, she was denied because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. But, as Gao noted, the couple found a loophole that allowed her to enter as a “teacher.” Unfortunately, she was prevented from making an income by immigration laws, so her teaching was voluntary. This left their income up to her husband who found securing work increasingly difficult under the oppressive anticommunist environment after the war. The couple worked with several leftists including Paul Robeson and Charlotta Bass and were outspoken in their opposition to Cold War containment, condemning the Korean war, Marshall Plan, and urging nuclear détente. The Leyda’s would eventually find the oppressive atmosphere too much and moved overseas, for a time to China and then eventually East Germany.
Si-Lan and Langston Hughes’s relationship is an important access point for Gao’s analysis as this relationship is one example of the international friendship embedded in Black radical thought. For Gao, Hughes’s connection to China has been “insufficiently studied;” he saw the Black liberation movement as connected to liberation struggles in Asia, specifically China, and he wrote extensively about the country. Hughes traveled there in 1933 after a film project he was meant to work on in the Soviet Union failed. It was in the USSR that he met Si-Lan who he would have a brief romance with, and a long-term correspondence for years afterward. His trip to China was formative because he witnessed the international districts controlled by European and US officials where segregation against Black people and other colonized was commonplace and tolerated by nationalists. Unlike Du Bois, he recognized a racial hierarchy among Asians perpetuated by the Japanese, and this led him to vociferous criticisms of the country which got him deported from Japan.
Hughes was galled by the treatment of the Chinese in these districts. He also loudly condemned the Japanese invasion and supported resistance to it. During the civil war, he sided with the CCP because he deplored the nationalist’s racism. In China, he challenged the stereotypes of Black Americans, which had largely been influenced by demeaning white depictions. The Chinese also did not understand that being Black in the United States required only “one-drop” of Black blood and Hughes, whose family was mixed race, was not seen as Black. Despite these misunderstandings, Hughes’s writings would be published and distributed throughout the country. But with the anticommunist turn in the United States, Hughes, whose writing career depended on patronage and good relations with institutions, disaffiliated with his radical past. He had been monitored by the FBI for years and eventually called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953 where he disavowed any association past or present with communists; though he did refuse to name others that were communists, which many others failed to do. He did distance himself from some of his former radical associations, including Si-Lan. But as Gao explains, even as he tried to sever his radical ties, Hughes remained connected to China in a “non-political way.”
Arise Africa, Roar China offers many things to readers and the larger history of Black radicalism. The introduction of Si-Lan to a broader audience is an important contribution of the book. Si-Lan worked with US activists and was part of a constituency that was outspoken against the Cold War, a group that has gone largely forgotten because of a tendency to ignore radical thinkers. As Charisse Burden-Stelly argues, intellectual McCarthyism has led to the silencing of these radical Black voices in scholarship, and this would include Si-Lan Chen who engaged with an expansive intellectual and artistic community to formulate her radicalism. The book is also meticulously researched, and its most important contribution is its “multilingual” approach, analyzing and translating documents from Chinese that were unknown to US audiences. Gao’s research provides the Chinese perspective of these individuals that has not been otherwise widely available making the book an important text for scholars and activists.
-Denise Lynn is author of Where is Juliet Stuart Poyntz? Gender, Spycraft, and Anti-Stalinism in the Early Cold War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2021). She is professor of history and director of gender and Africana studies at the University of Southern Indiana.