Revolutionary Encounters: Feminist and Queer Afro-Asian Solidarities

Endorsed by the OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians’ Collaborative Committee, OAH Committee on the Status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Historians and Histories, Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS), and Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600–2000

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Gender and Sexuality; Nationalism and Transnationalism


Amidst the successive and overlapping waves of decolonization of the twentieth century, people of African and Asian descent mounted concerted revolts against intersecting systems of oppression. While the growing scholarship known as Afro-Asian studies has done much to excavate and preserve the histories of anti-imperialist internationalism to offer lessons of cross-racial solidarity for present and future activists, this panel identifies one glaring limitation of the extant literature that circumscribes its radical potential: many works place exclusive emphasis on straight men’s internationalist activism. And studies that include women’s contributions seldom question the assumed the link of the use of heteromasculine discourses and representational forms with the formation of revolutionary coalitions. Departing from the largely male-dominated scholarship that mirrors the gendered and sexualized hierarchies plaguing such coalitional efforts, this panel presents four feminist and queer Afro-Asian formations: African American moderate women Sue Bailey Thurman’s and Edith Sampson’s engagements with the vexing contradictions of U.S. citizenship in Asia; Black left feminist Shirley Graham Du Bois’s advocacy of Afro-Asian solidarity in the midst of dramatic changes in world politics; Black internationalist feminist Vicki Garvin’s attempts to forge Black solidarity with China and foment Maoist-inspired African American cultural and political activism in the face of Beijing’s Foreign Policy Reorientation in the 1970s; and a problematization of the entanglement between martial arts symbolism and the gender and sexual politics of U.S. imperialism. These papers are organized chronologically. First, Shaun Armstead documents Sue Bailey Thurman’s and Edith Sampson’s trips to Asia to demonstrate the cross-racial and international dimensions of African American women’s struggle for full citizenship rights, even as she shows that these women activists had to grapple with the inherent inconsistencies of liberal democracy and sheds light on the limitations of their activism. Both Yunxiang Gao and Zifeng Liu also reveal the complexities and contradictions of Black women’s internationalism, though their papers focus on the work of Black left feminists. Gao examines how Shirley Graham Du Bois, navigating the shifting waters of domestic and international politics, persisted in linking her own multifronted freedom struggle to China’s socialist construction and anti-imperialist crusade. Liu presents Vicki Garvin’s pro-Chinese advocacy as an example to show to what degree Black women radicals framed Afro-Asian alliances as more than instruments of nation-states for pursuing geostrategic interests, and the extent to which they challenged heteropatriarchal conceptions of gender and sexuality. Finally, Maryam Aziz uses methods from queer of color critique to problematize how Black and Asian male practitioners of martial arts naturalized heteromasculinity that reified Afro-Asian internationalism and anti-imperialist mobilization as a sphere of straight male activity, and how they unwittingly served U.S. imperialist objectives. Collectively, these papers call for a reorientation of Afro-Asian studies from romanticization of anti-colonial solidarity and emphasis on homosocial bonds toward foregrounding insurgent queer and feminist formations that could really realize the radical democratic potentialities of Afro-Asian unity.

Papers Presented

After China: Vicki Garvin, China-U.S. Détente, and Afro-Asianism in the 1970s

The era ushered in by Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972 saw a growing rapprochement between China and the U.S. that culminated in the normalization of the bilateral relationship, but China’s opening to the U.S. in the 1970s, for many, seemed to signal Beijing’s relinquishment of its mantle of leadership in the global struggle against imperialism and capitalism, and in particular disillusioned several Black radicals, who by that time had hailed China as a revolutionary Mecca. Nevertheless, African American internationalist feminist and labor unionist Vicki Garvin (19152007) continued to forge an Afro-Chinese alliance well into the 1980s. After her return to the U.S. from a seven-year exile in China, Garvin, as a member of the newly formed U.S.-China Peoples Friendship Association, contributed by giving formal and informal talks at schools and churches across the nation, organizing and participating in special creative programs, and serving as an editor of the association’s journal New China (19741979). Her various efforts to facilitate Afro-Chinese connections, however, embodied a seemingly contradictory intersection of China-U.S. détente on the one hand, and Afro-Asianist anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism and anti-racism on the other. While helping push for a closer China-U.S. diplomatic relationship, she exploited this geopolitical turning point advance her own progressive agenda. Through linking Black radicalism and in particular transnational Black feminism to Chinese socialism, tracing the history of African American-Chinese radical camaraderie, and, as an “amateur China experts,” painting flattering portraits of life in socialist China, she agitated for sustained internationalist efforts to dismantle interlocking systems of oppression.

Presented By
Zifeng Liu, Cornell University

International Pathways to National Belonging: African American Women’s Travels to Asia, 1935–1950

In 1995 Sue Bailey Thurman told an interviewer that she had hoped to represent all Americans, regardless of race, when she ventured to India, Burma, and Ceylon for six months in September 1935. Records from that time call into question this commitment to the nation, revealing that she and her husband, Howard, sought to represent African Americans abroad and forge bonds of solidarity between them and Indians. By 1949, Edith Sampson toured with prominent Americans such as Walter White and Anna Lord Strauss to twelve nations including Pakistan, India, and Japan to challenge notions that communism was superior to liberal democracy. When considered together, Thurman and Sampson reveal a shift in how Black moderate women acted on the international stage. This paper uses correspondence, newspaper clippings, and interview material to examine how black women envisioned global futures without racism and sexism. Centering women like Thurman and Sampson afford the opportunity to see how historical actors related to U.S. citizenship outside the nation, either searching elsewhere for belonging the American nation denied or actively seeking first-rate citizen rights. Scholars have recently reevaluated the significance of Black moderate women’s efforts abroad and international visions for justice and freedom. By focusing on African American moderate women, I respond to this scholarly development by showing that these women regarded national and international realms as inextricably linked.

Presented By
Shaun Armstead, Rutgers University–New Brunswick

Shirley Graham Du Bois and Maoist China

This paper foregrounds Shirley Graham Du Bois’s contribution to the mutual embracement between her and her famous husband W.E.B. Du Bois and the People’s Republic of China. Before the couple’s milestone trip there in 1959, the Chinese people had been aware of her for over a decade. The Chinese translations of her works pioneered in introducing black greatness to the Chinese, who had been used to stereotypical “primitive” athletic and musical personas and the commercialized exoticism of blacks. Graham Du Bois served as a key interpreter of her husband’s vision of China in the couple’s trips there and their aftermath. Her devotion to Chinese state feminism during and after the visits helped Du Bois change his views of China as weak to the new understanding of a developing nation inhabited by robust men and women. Graham Du Bois announced that the advancement of Chinese women was way ahead of their white and black sisters, which her husband echoed. After W.E.B. Du Bois’s death, Graham tilted sharply toward China. She returned to Beijing in 1967, taking an appointment in the Permanent Bureau of Afro-Asian Writers, and settled down there, thousands of miles away from her family. She supported moves to supply African Americans with guns to fight oppression. Despite her strong support for the Cultural Revolution and though the event left her dumbfounded, Graham bent her convictions to support Mao when the Chairman invited Richard Nixon to Beijing in 1972. She died on March 27, 1977 and was buried in the Babaoshan Cemetery for Revolutionary Heroes in Beijing.

Presented By
Yunxiang Gao, Ryerson University

Fighting Fists and Queer of Color Critiques: Rethinking Black and Asian Martial Arts Solidarity during the Cold War

This paper uses queer of color critique to reanalyze Afro-Asian solidarity around martial arts. Within Afro-Asian studies, many works mobilize the image of 1970s youth watching Jim Kelly and Bruce Lee defeat capitalist interests in the film, Enter the Dragon. These analyses focus on transnational performances of hypermasculine defiance. They upset the narrative that the racially polarizing riots of the 1990s best represent Afro-Asian connections after the Black Power Movement. In doing so, scholars cite martial arts practice as a symbol for positive solidarity between Black and Asian subjects during the 20th century U.S. Using film and audience reception as sources, some analyses inaccurately contend that the dream of Third World triumph manifested in kung fu films initiated martial arts practice in Black communities. By decentering cinematic representation, I highlight the state’s role in facilitating Black martial artistry through Cold War occupations in Asia. Deploying methods from queer of color critique, I look at how the U.S.’s relationship to empire, heteronormativity, and racial triangulation fundamentally revises martial artistry’s symbolism. Through examinations of oral histories, autobiographies, and military studies, I also explore how Black and Asian men replicated normative, militaristic notions of manhood in their usages of unarmed self-defense. I hope to understand how this replication forces us to think more seriously about what historical forces allow solidarity to form and what is lost without deeper engagements with the Afro-Asian Archive. These engagements not only problematicize readings of men's solidarity, but they also relocate women's roles in transnational martial artistry.

Presented By
Maryam K. Aziz, University of Michigan

Session Participants

Chair: Elisabeth Armstrong, Smith College
Elisabeth Armstrong teaches courses on gender and movements for social, economic and environmental change, emancipatory cultural studies and feminist archives. Many of her courses are community-based research courses linked to basic needs community movements around land, food and self-determination in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Her second book, Gender and Neoliberalism: The All India Democratic Women’s Association and Globalization Politics, describes the changing landscape of women’s politics for equality and liberation during the rise of neoliberalism in India between 1991 and 2006. Based on long-term ethnographic research on Tamil Nadu and Haryana, two agriculturally rich states in the south and north, this book charts the rise of an extraordinary socialist women’s organization: the All India Democratic Women’s Association.

Armstrong’s first book, The Retreat From Organization: U.S. Feminism Reconceptualized, re-examines ideologies of politics and political subjectivity in U.S. feminism from the early 1960s to the 1990s.

A winter 2016 article in Signs describes solidarity methods developed in the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) and the anti-imperialist pan-Asian women’s movement from 1942 until the mid 1960s. An ongoing research project, called Organizing Nephews and Uncles, explores the daily lives of feminist activists in India. Armstrong is an editorial board member of Kohl: Journal for Body and Gender Research in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. She is also on the executive advisory board of the journal Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism.

Presenter: Shaun Armstead, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
Shaun Armstead is a doctoral candidate in the Rutgers History Department. As a specialist in black women’s internationalism, her dissertation, “Toward a Universal Human Family: African American and Asian Women Activists and Their Visions for a New World Order, 1935-1975,” considers African American women’s efforts to forge bonds of solidarity with their Asian counterparts to dismantle racism, sexism, and imperialism globally. In addition to her research, Armstead has served on the Research Committee for Slavery and the Disenfranchised at Rutgers for the Scarlet and Black project, co-authoring several essays for its first two volumes.

Presenter: Maryam K. Aziz, University of Michigan
Maryam Aziz is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in African American Studies from Columbia University and a Master of Arts Degree in American Culture from the University of Michigan. Her research constructs a social and cultural movement history of martial arts practice during the mid to late 20th century. Her work also traces how the learning of said martial arts practice was facilitated by US military activity and imperialism in Asia. Her Dissertation, Built with Our Empty Fists: The Rise and Circulation of Black Liberation Martial Artistry during the Cold War explores the role of martial arts practice as a facet community organizing and liberation schooling for Black activists of the Cold War Period. It analyzes how and why East Asian and West-Central African-based martial arts were taught within Black Power, Black Liberation, and Black Feminist spaces. Moreover, it asks how martial arts practice contributed to certain Black Power and Black Feminists groups strategies for radical liberation and social progress and Black freedom struggle organizing. In order to orient martial arts practices within Black community development and freedom struggles, Aziz theorizes “martial arts” as 1) embodied health practices for the mind and soul, 2) self-defense practices, 3) aesthetic, culture practices, and 4) Pro-Black, athletic achievements for progress. You can read more about her research at the Martial Arts Studies Blog, Kung Fu Tea: To date, Maryam Aziz has conducted over 15 hours of original oral histories with Black martial arts instructors. Additionally, her work was showcased in the 2017 exhibit Black Power! at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, for which she was a research assistant, a contributing writer, and the curator for the section on Popular Culture, Blaxploitation film, and martial arts. Parts of the exhibit can still be viewed through the public scholarship research guide on the New York Public Library’s website ( Lastly, Maryam Aziz is also the Chief Learning Officer and Chief Self Defense instructor for the Women's Initiative for Self-Empowerment. She teaches Anti-Hate Crime/Anti-Islamophobia and Self-Esteem and Mind/Soul Enhancement Self Defense Seminars. She has taught them at colleges such as the City University of New York-Queens College, Beloit College, and Eastern Michigan University, and has partnered with community organizations such as Muslim American Youth, the Center for Anti-Violence Education, and the Arab American Association of New York.

Commentator: Kevin Kelly Gaines, University of Virginia
Kevin K. Gaines is the Julian Bond Professor of Civil Rights and Social Justice, with a joint appointment in the Corcoran Department of History and the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies. The new professorship was created to honor the legacy of Bond, the civil rights champion and former University of Virginia professor. Gaines’ current research is on the problems and projects of racial integration in the United States during and after the civil rights movement.

He is author of Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture During the Twentieth Century (University of North Carolina Press, 1996), which was awarded the American Studies Association’s John Hope Franklin Book Prize. His book, American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era (UNC Press, 2006), was a Choice Outstanding Academic Title. Gaines is a past president of the American Studies Association (2009-10).

His current research is on the integrationist projects of African American activists, artists and intellectuals, interventions that redefined blackness and acknowledged the relationship of structural and ideological forms of racism to racial capitalism, patriarchy, and homophobia.

Presenter: Yunxiang Gao, Ryerson University
Dr. Yunxiang Gao’s is Associate Professor of History at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She has taught Asian history there since 2005, the year she earned her doctorate in history from the University of Iowa. Her research focuses primarily on trans-Pacific cultural history in World War II. She has published articles in The Du Bois Review, Gender and History, The Journal of American East-Asian Relations, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, and Sport in Society. Several of her articles have been translated into Chinese. Her book, Sporting Gender: Women Athletes and Celebrity-Making during China’s National Crisis, 1931-1945, appeared in 2013 with the University of British Columbia Press. Currently, she is finishing three books: Her manuscript “Arise, Africa!, Roar, China!: Sino-African-American Citizens of the World in the Twentieth Century” is currently under peer review with two leading university presses. The manuscript focuses on the lives, political activism, and global interactions of W.E.B Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, founder of mass singing and Christian activist Liu Liangmo, and modern dancer-choreographer Sylvia Si-lan Chen; The second project is a biography tentatively entitled “Soo Yong (1903-1984): A Hollywood Actress and Cosmopolitan of the Asian Diasporas;” The third one is a biography tentatively entitled “Wang Yung—From Child Bride, Shanghai’s ‘Literary Star,’ to the Transpacific ‘Drama Queen.’”

Presenter: Zifeng Liu, Cornell University
Zifeng Liu is a doctoral candidate in Africana Studies at Cornell University. A Sage Fellow, he studies Black transnationalism/internationalism, the African diaspora, Black radicalism, Black feminism, and anticolonial thought. His dissertation, entitled “Redrawing the Balance of Power: Black Radical Women, Mao’s China, and the Making of a Political Imaginary,” uncovers the manifold gendered modes of conscious interconnection between the African American freedom struggle and the Chinese socialist construction of modernity from 1949 through 1978.His essays and reviews in English and Chinese on African American literature, politics, and history have been published and forthcoming in the Journal of Beihang University, Journal of African American History, Journal of Intersectionality, Initium Media, and SINA News. Currently, he is a visiting scholar in the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the Graduate Center, CUNY.