As the civil rights movement picked up speed a few years into the Cold War, the elder scholar W.E.B. Du Bois worried about the price of the ticket. Writing in a Pittsburgh Courier pamphlet in 1950, he cautioned his readers that “the effort of Negroes to become Americans of equal status with other Americans is leading them to a state of mind by which they not only accept what is good in America, but what is bad and threatening so long as the Negro can share equally.” Du Bois penned the words at a moment when the battle lines of the Cold War were hardening, compelling individuals and institutions to make clear their allegiance to the United States. “We may find it easy now to get publicity, reward, and attention by going along with the reactionary propaganda and war hysteria which is convulsing this nation” he continued. But “in the long run America will not thank its black children if they help it go the wrong way, or retard its progress.”
Du Bois’s warning came from experience. In the final months of the First World War, he had defended a version of what Aziz Rana calls “national security citizenship,” in which equal civic membership for African Americans depends on their willingness to defend the nation abroad. In his infamous July 1918 “Close Ranks” editorial, Du Bois called on African Americans to “forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.” He would come to regret this recommendation. White America’s response to the sacrifices of African Americans in the war effort was not gratitude, but racial terror—pogroms, mass murders, the renascence of the Ku Klux Klan.
In the interwar years, Du Bois charted an alternative path, deepening his internationalism and advocating an alliance of the darker nations. Writing in 1936, he argued that “if the coloured world wants to meet the white world on a plane of real equality and effective brotherhood . . . then first of all the coloured world must be a strong world, strong in its own inner organization, strong in its power of thought and defence.” Du Bois sought to build this strength by reframing the American color line as part and parcel of a global pattern of colonial and racial hierarchy. If African Americans could see themselves as part of this larger group of oppressed peoples, they might be able to develop shared political analyses and strategies.
In pursuit of this goal, Du Bois experimented with various fora. As editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, he covered emerging nationalist movements around the world, but especially in India. He also helped to organize four Pan-African congresses and sought to use new international institutions like the League of Nations and the United Nations to advance an anti-imperialist and anti-racist agenda. Despite these efforts, Du Bois never found the appropriate institutional structure for his internationalist ambitions. By 1950, his leftward shift had marginalized him. He was once again out of the NAACP, which he had helped to found in 1909. And in 1951 he found himself the object of the era’s anti-communist fervor as he stood trial for acting as an agent of a foreign nation.
Half a century later, as a new “war hysteria” gripped the country, Du Bois’s hopes for a united “coloured world” including black Americans seemed all but dead. In 2001, as the United States prepared to invade Afghanistan, African Americans occupied the highest offices of the national security state. It is now easy to see how the centrality and visibility of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell in George W. Bush’s administration, as key architects and defenders of the global War on Terror, as well as the passing of the war baton to Barack Obama, the first black commander in chief, represent the apex of national security citizenship.
In recent years, the terrain has begun to shift. The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) has developed an incipient language and vision of black internationalism, building on earlier traditions and identifying a shared field of political struggle with anti-imperial and progressive forces around the world. The promise of this internationalism is far from realized. But emerging out of concrete material connections, especially in shared struggles against state violence, it has the potential to remap America’s place in the world.
By the time Rice, Powell, and Obama came of age, the Faustian bargain Du Bois diagnosed had already been struck. As they rose to power, each narrated their political success as affirming a creedal faith in America as the land in which the principle of equality—“all men are created equal”—had finally been realized. They employed this national story in their justifications of America’s imperial ventures in the rest of the world.
Rice’s biography is exemplary of this narrative arc. Born to a Presbyterian minister and teacher in Birmingham, Alabama, Rice was just eight years old when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing her playmate Denise McNair along with Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley. In her 2010 autobiography, she remembers the bombing as the turning point in the struggle for civil rights. Its brutality, she recalled, “seemed finally to rock the nation’s conscience” and set the stage for the federal government to “intervene to change the South.” Rice’s family felt that their “fate was completely in the hands of the Kennedys.”
While Birmingham was an epicenter of the civil rights movement, the Rice family did not participate in the desegregation campaign of mass meetings, direct actions, and sit-ins, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous arrest. Rice’s father did, however, join an armed neighborhood watch established after a string of bombings. Rice cites this experience as foundational to her own commitment to the Second Amendment’s gun rights protections. He also struck up an unlikely and enduring relationship with Stokely Carmichael. He admired Carmichael for his strident critiques of racism even as he rejected the younger man’s radicalism. Above all, he disdained the pan-African internationalism Carmichael and others advocated. “Africa doesn’t belong to us or us to it,” he told his daughter; he was glad to be American. Rice echoes a similar perspective early in her autobiography when she takes issue with the term African American. For Rice, it obscured the differences between her, a descendant “of slaves from the old confederacy”; Obama, the son of a Kenyan student; and Powell, the child of West Indian immigrants. Unlike recent migrants, black Americans were part of the “founding populations” of the United States, and America, Rice’s father told her, was “the freest and most prosperous country on earth.” Now that Jim Crow was defeated, the country could finally live up to its own ideals.
In Rice’s telling, the nation’s redemption and her own assent were entangled. As she was sworn in as secretary of state, she recalls looking up at Benjamin Franklin’s portrait. “What would he have thought of this great-granddaughter of slaves and child of Jim Crow Birmingham pledging to defend the Constitution of the United States, which had infamously counted her ancestors ‘three-fifths of a man?’” Rice writes. “Somehow, I wanted to believe Franklin would have liked history’s turn toward justice.”
As a foreign policy adviser to Bush’s presidential campaign, Rice outlined a vision for “Promoting the National Interest” in the pages of Foreign Affairs. There, she chastised the Clinton administration’s genuflection to international “norms” (her quotes) and multilateralism, including signing the Kyoto Protocol. She favored a more explicit defense of American national interest but insisted that this project was not in conflict with democratic ideals. “American values are universal,” she declared. “People want to say what they think, worship as they wish, and elect those who govern them; the triumph of these values is most assuredly easier when the international balance of power favors those who believe in them.” According to this view, America’s national interest and that of the wider world were in fact one and the same. Still, in 2000, Rice rejected extensive military engagements that aimed at regime change. She would change her mind eight years later, when the certainty of quick victories in Afghanistan and Iraq had dissipated. In 2008, Rice embraced Bush’s “Freedom Agenda,” which advocated for the use of military and soft power to export democracy. The Freedom Agenda, Rice has argued, constituted a “distinctly American realism” that linked American interests and American values.
For Rice, the universality of American values was born out of the struggle for racial equality at home. As secretary of state in 2005, she returned to Birmingham to honor the victims of the 1963 bombing. With the British foreign secretary in tow, she visited the once-segregated primary school she attended and addressed an audience at the University of Alabama where she linked the civil rights struggle with U.S. standing in the world. “Across the empire of Jim Crow, from upper Dixie to the lower Delta, the descendants of slaves shamed our nation with the power of righteousness, and redeemed America at last from its original sin of slavery,” she said. “By resolving the contradiction at the heart of our democracy, America finally found its voice as a true champion of democracy beyond its shores.” Suturing the exemplarity and moral authority of the civil rights movements to the administration’s wars in the Middle East, Rice sought to quiet criticism and deflect from international and domestic crises, including the 2004 revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib and the administration’s inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina just months earlier.
The silencing of critical voices, especially black progressives and radicals, would only become more pronounced during the Obama years. As scholar Brandon M. Terry has noted, a “deep freeze” set in among black intellectuals and elites, particularly in Obama’s first term. This freeze, Terry wrote, “stemmed from strategic concerns about Obama’s reelection prospects and political standing, genuine outrage at the intransigence and hostility he has faced from some Republicans, broadly shared affective investments in his and his family’s symbolic import, and an optimism born of the improbable fact of his electoral success.” At times it took the form of self-censorship. At others, it was a direct request of the administration. When, for instance, members of the Congressional Black Caucus publicly questioned Obama’s plans to launch missile strikes in Syria, the caucus chair asked members to “limit public comment” in what appeared to be a partial gag order.
The internationalism Du Bois advanced never fully dissipated. Even after the end of the Black Power era, forms of internationalism persisted. Black activists and intellectuals in the United States stood in solidarity with South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, in opposition to the Reagan administration’s interventions in Central America, and in defense of Palestinian liberation.
In recent years, as the allure of national security citizenship has faded in the context of rising economic inequality, limited social mobility, and persistent racial violence, a new form of internationalism has emerged. The War on Terror revealed anew the entanglements between conflicts abroad and those at home. In the racist surveillance and repression to which Muslim Americans have been subject since 2001, activists identified a jarring echo of the long history of black criminalization. And when the M4BL protested state violence in American cities, they were confronted by police armed with military equipment and trained by the Israeli Defense Forces.
The 2016 Vision for Black Lives platform is the most comprehensive articulation of this new internationalism to date. The document, written by representatives from organizations in the M4BL coalition, lays out an alternative path for U.S. foreign policy. It builds on Du Bois’s earlier mission, articulating connections between black people’s struggles at home and wars abroad. “As oppressed people living in the US, the belly of global empire,” it argues, “we are in a critical position to build the necessary connections for a global liberation movement.” It calls for cuts to the military budget of 50 percent and for resources to be shifted from “war-making institutions” to institutions that sustain the well-being of communities, including healthcare, housing, and education. Following the model of Divest/Invest, the platform emphasizes redirecting resources toward building a green society, for instance, by retraining and deploying military personnel in the United States to “rebuild the country’s polluting and crumbling infrastructure.”
Twenty years after 9/11, such arguments for reducing the military budget have gained wider backing. Recent polling shows 56 percent of Americans support decreasing the defense budget to pay for healthcare, housing, and other domestic programs, with only 27 percent opposed. What remains distinctive about the internationalism of the Vision for Black Lives, however, is that it refuses to frame the benefits of ending American militarism solely in national terms. As a result, the platform also includes “reparations to countries and communities devastated by American war-making, such as Somalia, Iraq, Libya and Honduras” and demands that the United States contribute to stabilizing regions from Central America to the Middle East where its actions have contributed to political and economic insecurity. As a starting point, this would involve ending U.S. military assistance that helps to fuel authoritarian regimes. More ambitiously, it would entail committing America’s unprecedented wealth and resources to these societies on the model of the Marshall Plan. From this vantage, the United States is not the exceptional city on the hill claiming global preeminence, but a country whose past and present actions in the world require redress.
The Vision for Black Lives and the wider movement signal the reemergence of a black internationalism that eschews the choice between isolation and imperialism, while advancing solidarity with the world’s oppressed peoples. But the road toward building transnational analyses, forging broad-based coalitions and alliances domestically and internationally, and creating enduring structures that can sustain internationalism will not be a straightforward venture. Significant ideological and political roadblocks remain. On the one hand, even as the M4BL has advanced an internationalist perspective, its rise has coincided with a renewed and widespread African-American exceptionalism that views anti-black racism in the United States as a system of oppression without analogy. Whether in the nativist form of the American Descendants of Slavery—a group seeking to ensure that affirmative action, reparations, and other forms of racial redress are limited to black Americans to the exclusion of recent African and Caribbean immigrants—or in the circulation and popular appeal of Afropessimism, which views blackness as a distinct form of subjection coterminous with slavery and incapable of meaningful redress, such exceptionalism short-circuits the tasks of identifying shared political terrain that Du Bois argued was necessary.
On the other hand, the contemporary global order has shifted dramatically since Du Bois’s time. Throughout the twentieth century, black intellectuals and social movements forged alliances with national liberation movements. The political entities that resulted are now organized into states, many of which are run by authoritarian governments. Attention to the inequality and hierarchies that structure interstate relations and place the United States at the apex of global power is a necessary part of any contemporary anti-imperialism. Moreover, U.S.-based internationalists must place an analysis and critique of U.S. foreign policy at the center of their agenda. But such a perspective must avoid falling into the trap of unwittingly defending repressive and violent regimes and reducing anti-imperialism to non-intervention. Recent statements on the Ethiopian civil war by the Black Alliance for Peace warning of the possibility of a U.S./NATO intervention on the model of Libya, for example, misdirect our attention from the actually existing purveyors of violence on the ground—the Ethiopian government and its allies—and allow the state to shroud itself as the victim of “Western” aggression.
This has been a recurring challenge for black internationalists. In his time, Du Bois endorsed Japanese imperialism as a counterpoint to global white supremacy and defended the sovereignty of Liberia while sidestepping the domination of indigenous Liberians by Americo-Liberians, the descendants of former slaves in the United States who emigrated and founded the state of Liberia. Later, Black Power activists like Carmichael issued apologetics for authoritarian regimes in defense of postcolonial sovereignty. Developing meaningful and horizontal people-to-people, movement-to-movement linkages can counteract this tendency.
Finally, Du Bois’s challenge of identifying or creating appropriate institutions to foster internationalist consciousness and solidarity remains a pressing dilemma. The decline of black institutions, especially an independent black press, has narrowed a once vibrant counter-public sphere where black activists and writers developed and disseminated critiques of global white supremacy. Moreover, the institutions required to build a far-reaching anti-imperial domestic coalition and to sustain transnational solidarities between the activists in the United States and their global counterparts have yet to be built.
These challenges can only be addressed and overcome in the context of political struggles and practices. The global mass mobilizations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year, and the revival of the decades-long history of black solidarity with Palestine earlier this year, illustrated how overlapping experiences of state violence have created material grounds for new solidarities. The deepening of these connections could give rise to analytical, institutional, and political innovations that revive the tradition of black internationalism in the present.
Adom Getachew is author of Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton University Press, 2019) and co-editor, with Jennifer Pitts, of the forthcoming Du Bois’s International Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2022).