The American Historian

Photo by Tim Dennell (https://www.flickr.com/photos/shefftim/49979818136/in/photostream/) under a Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/)

The Struggle to End Racism is Global

Keisha N. Blain

On June 14, 2020, more than 3,500 Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists gathered at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, Japan. Wearing face masks and holding up signs in English and Japanese, the activists embarked on a march through the busy streets of Tokyo, walking from Yoyogi Park to Shibuya’s scramble crossing. This was the third march organized by BLM Tokyo. This chapter was founded by Sierra Todd, a young African American woman at Temple University’s Japan campus. In the weeks following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and other unarmed African Americans, Todd joined forces with Black and Japanese activists in Tokyo to plan several marches to call attention to the devaluation of Black lives in the United States and across the globe. “First and foremost, we want to stand in solidarity with the people who are protesting in the United States right now,” said Todd, “The other goal of the march is to start paving the way to introduce conversations about racism here in Japan.”[1] Todd and other activists openly condemned anti-Black racism and emphasized the importance of activists around the world—of all backgrounds and from all walks of life—uniting to dismantle it. These marches, which joined hundreds of protests that erupted across the globe in the spring of 2020, resembled an earlier rally held in Tokyo on December 6, 2014. Following the grand jury’s acquittal of the police officer who gunned down African American teenager Mike Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, hundreds of activists participated in a march called “Tokyo for Ferguson.” Displaying bilingual signs, activists marched from Yoyogi Park and through the Shibuya and Omotesando areas.[2]

By working collaboratively, Black and Asian activists in Tokyo are advancing a crucial and timely message: the struggle to end racism is global. Although national discussions about antiracism tend to focus on developments taking place primarily in the United States, the protests and uprisings that have swept Japan and other parts of the globe underscore the limitations of such a framing. Contemporary antiracist efforts to forge transnational political solidarities are grounded in a rich and long history of Black internationalism—one that can be traced back hundreds of years.[3] While the vision of Black internationalism is expansive—capturing the diverse ways people of African descent transcend racial, geographic, and cultural lines in historical and contemporary contexts—one significant expression is Afro-Asian solidarity: a distinctive political strategy that aims to unite people of African descent and people of Asian descent for the primary goal of challenging racism and global white supremacy.

During the early twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary Church Terrell, James Weldon Johnson, and several other race leaders encouraged African Americans to identify their interests with Asian people. This was certainly the case for the African American journalist and educator John Q. Adams. Born free in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1848, Adams relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1886, where he became associate editor, and later owner, of the Western Appeal (which became the Appeal in 1889).[4] In an open letter to President Woodrow Wilson in December 1918, which was published in the Appeal in January 1919, Adams promoted Afro-Asian solidarity and called for an end to what he referred to as the “autocracy of color.” Through the pages of the Appeal, Adams articulated his internationalist political vision and emphasized the links between national and geopolitical concerns. In his open letter to President Wilson, Adams demanded the rights and recognition of people of color in the United States and other parts of the globe. “Through the centuries,” Adams argued, “the colored races of the globe have been subjected to the most unjust and inhuman[e] treatment by the so-called white peoples.” Articulating a global vision of antiracism, Adams continued with an appeal to President Wilson to support the political self-determination of India and “all colonies which desire it.” He criticized racist immigration policies and called on the United States to acknowledge the “rights of Japanese and Chinese and Malays to become citizens.[5]

Through the pages of the Negro World, the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s (UNIA) official newspaper, the Jamaican born Pan-Africanist and Black nationalist Marcus Garvey expressed pro-Japanese sentiments and encouraged political collaborations with Japan. In 1918 Garvey publicly endorsed Afro-Asian solidarity, insisting that the “next war will be between the Negroes and the whites.” “With Japan to fight with us,” Garvey argued, “we can win such a war.”[6] In 1919 Garvey praised Japan’s assertiveness and then called for his supporters to anticipate the “great day…of the war of races, when Asia will lead out to defeat Europe.”[7] Black journalist T. Thomas Fortune expressed similar sentiments in the Negro World, praising Japan after a visit to the country. Drawing a contrast between “glorious Japan” and the United States, Fortune noted that he was “very much at home” in the former." [8]

The ideas conveyed by Marcus Garvey, T. Thomas Fortune, John Q. Adams, and others also capture the Black internationalist vision of Madam C. J. Walker, a business pioneer who rose to fame after making a fortune marketing beauty and hair products for Black people. Walker established the International League of Darker Peoples (ILDP) with several other well-known Black activists, including Marcus Garvey, the labor organizer A. Philip Randolph, and the Harlem clergyman Adam Clayton Powell Sr. During World War I, the ILDP provided a platform for Walker and her associates to advocate for the rights and dignity of marginalized groups across the world and to tap into a surging anti-imperialist and anticolonial fervor. In January 1919, Walker coordinated a historic meeting in New York City between a delegation from the ILDP and Kuroiwa Shuroko, the publisher of the Tokyo newspaper Yorudo Choho. At the meeting, members of the ILDP requested Japan’s assistance in advocating for racial equality at the Paris Peace Conference, which was scheduled to take place several days later. They received a favorable response from Kuroiwa and assurances that “the race question will be raised at the peace table.”[9] Although Western officials ultimately sidelined the issue of racial prejudice at the conference, Walker’s actions paved the way for a new generation of Black women activists and intellectuals who sought international support in the decades that followed.

Black Internationalist Madam C. J. Walker driving a car, 1911.

The 1930s, in particular, gave rise to the proliferation of Black internationalist organizations, which provided platforms from which African Americans could build alliances with Asian activists in the global struggle against racism. Mirroring the views of Garvey, Du Bois, and others, Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, the founder and president of the Peace Movement of Ethiopia (PME), embraced the view that the struggle against white supremacy in the United States was intertwined with the larger struggle against imperialism worldwide. Drawing a direct link between the manifestations of white supremacy in the United States and Asia, Gordon argued that the “destruction of the white man in Asia is the destruction of the white man in the United States.”[10]

Her statements mirrored those of other working-class Black women activist-intellectuals of the interwar era, such as Detroit-based activist Pearl Sherrod during the 1930s.[11] In a June 1934 article, published in the Detroit Tribune Independent newspaper, Sherrod argued that Black people could only increase their political power by building alliances with Japan: “[O]ur minds have been diseased, and we have tried ‘Mr. White’s’ medicine and failed; tried ‘Mr. Black’s’ medicine and failed. Now we must try ‘Mr. Brown’s medicine.” “No doubt he will cure us of the mental disease which was caused from a lack of organization,” Sherrod continued, “then we can develop ourselves.”[12] For Sherrod, like Gordon and many other Black activists at this time, political collaborations with Japanese people were fueled in part by a recognition of the similar problems both groups faced during the period. The racist ‘yellow peril’ ideology, which emerged during the late nineteenth century out of white fears and anxieties over Asian immigration, persisted well into the twentieth century and extended beyond national borders.[13] The negative images and stereotypical depictions of Asian cultures that dominated Western mass media mirrored the pervasive global racist attitudes towards African Americans and other people of color. Activists were not oblivious to these realities—and worked to create meaningful coalitions that would help dull the blade of white supremacy. 

The Afro-Asian political movements that formed in the first half of the twentieth century set the stage for the movements that developed in the latter half of the twentieth century. The 1955 Bandung Conference, held in Indonesia, represented a watershed moment in the history of Afro-Asian relations and a global expression of antiracist resistance as the first large scale Afro-Asian conference. Organized by a small group of prime ministers—Muhammad Ali, Jawaharlal Nehru, U Nu, John Kotelawala, and Ali Sastroamidjojo—the conference brought together representatives from twenty-nine developing and nonaligned nations. The core principles of the conference included human rights, sovereignty, Third World solidarity, mutual respect, and political self-determination. It functioned as a critical site for these leaders to promote Afro-Asian solidarity, agitate for the end of colonialism, and ultimately blaze a path towards liberation and independence. 

While significant, Bandung was by no means the only—or primary—locus for fostering Afro-Asian relations during latter part of the twentieth century. The events of World War II had a significant impact on relations between people of Asian descent and people of African descent. Internment of Japanese in the United States resulted in an estimated 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, primarily living on the West Coast and treated as enemies of the state during World War II, played no small role in strengthening the relationship between Black and Asian activists. The mistreatment of Japanese people and Japanese Americans during the 1940s underscored how racism and discrimination shaped the lives of people of Asian descent and people of African descent. This reality, combined with a long history of political alliances, fueled Afro-Asian social movements during the Civil Rights-Black Power era. In March 1961, for example, Japanese student Yoriko Nakajima—then a graduate student of political science at the University of Michigan—traveled to Monroe, North Carolina, to conduct research where she was a guest of Black radical Robert F. Williams and his family. The visit led to a meaningful relationship between the two, and Nakajima’s collaborative work with Williams helped to shape her later political work. While conducting research, Nakajima spent five months—from March to August 1961—touring the South to learn more about the intricacies of the civil rights movement. When she returned to Japan in December 1961, Nakajima became active in Kokujin Kenkyu no Kai (Black Studies Association)—a group that promoted “a global vision of racial struggles” and emphasized the significance of Black political movements in advancing Third World solidarity.[14]

At the University of California, Berkeley, members of the Asian American Political Alliance joined protests in San Francisco and Oakland to denounce the imprisonment of Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton in 1968.[15] Furthermore, a number of Asian activists were members of the Black Panther Party, which was established by Huey and Bobby Seale in 1966 to combat police violence in Black communities. In Seattle, for example, Guy Kurose, a Japanese American, was deeply involved in the Party, which became a crucial platform for activists to challenge racism and imperialism—in the United States and abroad.[16] During this same era, Japanese American radical Yuri Kochiyama, founder of Asian Americans for Action, worked closely with Malcolm X.[17] After meeting the black nationalist leader in 1963, Kochiyama joined his organization, the Organization for Afro-American Unity, in efforts to dismantle anti-Black racism and advance social justice and human rights on a global scale. 

Protestors in Sheffield, England, hold an image of George Floyd, June 6, 2020. Credit: Photo by Tim Dennell (https://www.flickr.com/photos/shefftim/49979818136/in/photostream/) under a Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/)

The long history of solidarity practices between Black and Asian activists in the United States exemplifies one crucial aspect of internationalism and anti-racist organizing. During the twentieth century, African American activists worked to build meaningful collaborations with people of Japanese descent. People of Japanese descent worked to strengthen these ties in return, recognizing that the racism they endured closely mirrored the experiences of their African American counterparts. The relationship between African Americans and Asian activists has not been without its challenges, complexities, and even contradictions. Yet, as the June 2020 BLM marches in Tokyo reveal, alliances between Black and Asian activists remain at the bedrock of Black internationalism and antiracist organizing. 

By coordinating a series of marches in Tokyo, BLM activists are calling attention to the problem of anti-Black racism and working to eradicate systems of oppression that continue to limit Black life. For BLM leader Sierra Todd and her affiliates, the struggle to end anti-Black racism cannot fall squarely on the shoulders of Black people. To the contrary, the dismantling of anti-Black racism requires a global effort, including a myriad of political collaborations and networks across geographic and racial lines. In reflecting on the police killing of George Floyd in the United States, Todd and other BLM Tokyo leaders remain hopeful that change is possible “with the extermination of the disease that is racism.” “Hate speech and police brutality are the facilitators of this disease,” they explained. “We implore our Japanese comrades and the Japanese government to stand up and take decisive action against this sickness,” they continued, “and to be an example for justice and equality on the world stage.”[18] Their urgent call for Afro-Asian solidarity as a strategy to resist global white supremacy is one that has long reverberated throughout history.

Author

Keisha N. Blain is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and the president of the African American Intellectual History Society. Blain is the author of the multi-prize-winning book: Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (2018).

Notes

[1]Ryusei Takahashi, “Black Lives Matter Spreads to Tokyo as 3,500 people march to protest racism,” Japan Times, June 14, 2020.

[2]Martin Leroux, “Tokyo for Ferguson,” Metropolis, Dec. 24, 2014.

[3]Michael O. West, William G. Martin, Fanon Che Wilkins, eds., From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution (2009), p. xi.

[4]David Vassar Taylor, African Americans in Minnesota (2002), 24-26.

[5]John Q. Adams, “End Autocracy of Color,” The Appeal, Jan. 4, 1919.

[6]Quoted in Ernest Allen, Jr., “When Japan was Champion of the ‘Darker Races’: Satokata Takahashi and the Flowering of Black Messianic Nationalism,” The Black Scholar 24 (Winter 1994), 29.

[7]Quoted in Robert A. Hill, Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, Vol. II (1983), 422.

[8]T. Thomas Fortune, “Some Dream Hours in Glorious Japan,” Negro World, June 14, 1924.

[9]A’lelia Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker (2001), p. 258.

[10]Keisha N. Blain, “‘The Dark Skin[ned] People of the Eastern World’: Mittie Maude Lena Gordon’s Vision of Afro-Asian Solidarity,” in Toward an Intellectual History of Women’s International Thought, eds. Patricia Owens and Katharina Rietzler (2020).

[11]Keisha N. Blain, “’[F]or the Rights of Dark People in Every Part of the World’: Pearl Sherrod, Black Internationalist Feminism, and Afro-Asian Politics in the 1930s” in Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society, 17 (June 2015), 90-112.

[12]Mrs. P.T. Takahashi, “Development of Our Own,” Detroit Tribune Independent, June 16, 1934.

[13]Erika Lee, “‘The ‘Yellow Peril’ and Asian Exclusion in the Americas,’’ Pacific Historical Review, 76 (Nov. 2007), 537–562.

[14]Yuichiro Onishi, Transpacific Antiracism: Afro-Asian Solidarity in 20th Century Black America, Japan, and Okinawa (2013), p. 121; Yuichiro Onishi, “Yoriko Nakajima and Robert F. Williams: Reasoning with the Long Civil Rights Movement” in Onishi and Fumiko Sakashita, eds., Transpacific Correspondence: Dispatches from Japan’s Black Studies (2019), 23-56.

[15]Diane Fujino, Samurai among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life (2012), 173.

[16]Peniel Joseph, The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era (2006), p. 210.

[17]Diane Fujino, Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama (2005).

[18]Black Lives Matter Tokyo, “Where do we go from here?”