In 1970, Black Panther Party Leader Eldridge Cleaver led a delegation of American journalists and activists on a tour of North Korea, the Peoples Republic of China, and North Vietnam. Critical of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, these self-described anti-imperialists sought direct, people-to-people, contact with America’s cold war enemies. This talk focuses on the four people of color on the delegation, specifically Eldridge Cleaver and Elaine Brown of the Black Panthers, Alex Hing of the San Francisco-based Red Guards, U.S.A., and Pat Sumi from the Movement for a Democratic Military. The backgrounds of these individuals, their experiences in and perceptions of Socialist Asia, as well as their relationships with one another shed light on the ways in which people and ideas traveled across national borders to shape political subjectivities and inspire social movements.
The anti-imperialist delegation offers a case study of how the experience of travel both confirmed preexisting beliefs in and promoted new forms of Third World internationalism among black and Asian American activists. Also, the composition of the delegation provides a window onto the frequently complex multi-racial dynamics of 1960s activism, particularly between African Americans and Asian Americans, two groups who ostensibly appeared to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Third, the anti-imperialist delegation constitutes an opportunity to examine how gender and sexuality shaped inter-racial and inter-national encounters. Finally, this tour of socialist Asia allows for the exploration of a phenomenon that I have identified as “radical orientalism.” Delegation members continued the practice of cultivating visions of the East as the polar opposite of the West and using that dichotomization to more clearly define themselves. To critique the perceived corruption of western society, they highlighted the differences between revolutionary Asia and mainstream America. However, instead of denigrating the East, they sought inspiration from Asian countries and peoples. As a source for alternative cultural and political values, the radical Orient assisted black and Asian American activists in imagining the creation of new identities and new societies.