Black Nationalism and Maoism: Revisiting the Relationship

In October 1964, the People’s Republic of China announced its successful detonation of an atomic bomb. From political exile in Havana, Robert F. Williams—a civil rights activist from Monroe, North Carolina, and among the earliest advocates of Black armed self-defence—celebrated the event as a victory for Afro-Asian racial fraternity:

China’s dehumanization of the past, like the Negro’s today, was based on a system of exploitation master-minded by the same racist savages … [China’s bomb is] the Afro-American’s bomb, because the Chinese people are blood brothers to the Afro-American and all those who fight against racism and imperialism. (Williams 1964: 9)

When Malcolm X met with Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere in Dar es Salaam that same month, they bonded over their pride that a non-white nation could acquire so powerful and symbolic a weapon. In Malcolm’s recollection, this three-hour conversation marked a personal turning point, inspiring him to consider ‘socialism as a viable economic strategy of liberation and China as a potentially powerful Third World ally’ (Markle 2017: 35–37). Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian American feminist and communist activist, further endorsed China’s bomb as a major step forward in the global struggle against white supremacy (Liu 2019). And in his memoir, Amiri Baraka, who would go on to galvanise the beginnings of the Black Arts Movement in 1965, categorised the occasion alongside Ghanaian independence as two cataclysmic victories for ‘colored peoples’ (Kelley and Esch 1999: 12–13).

The year 1964 marked the height of synchronicity between Chinese engagements with Black liberation and African American adaptations of Maoism: the year of the bomb also saw the publication of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book—a spiritual atomic bomb—and, within the United States, the crystallisation of calls for armed self-defence and systemic transformation that would soon galvanise the Black Power Movement. The symbolic power that the African American struggle commanded in Chinese rhetoric had been most significant in the early 1960s, when US imperialism figured as China’s greatest foe. But the hold of Chinese socialism on the African American left peaked in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, corresponding with the rise of Black Power. The unevenness of this encounter did not detract from the relationship because it was precisely the revolutionary ideal—whether of socialism fully realised in the Afro-Asian world or of prospective guerilla struggle in the ‘belly of the beast’—that rendered each so appealing to the other.

A Paradoxical Relationship

The confluence of Maoism and Black nationalism had a powerful resonance but also generated ambivalence. Rather than any abiding conviction in Marxism-Leninism, African American support for China in the 1960s and 1970s tended to derive from longstanding commitments to Black nationalism. The principles inherent to Maoism—the righteousness of violent resistance, the urgency of change, and cultural revolution—spoke to Black nationalists as few other political ideologies had done. Moreover, the carefully curated appearance of autonomy and self-determination granted to China’s ethnic minorities heightened the pull of Maoism for Black nationalists, who centred land, space, and power in their visions for liberation. This included cultural nationalists like Ron Karenga, best known for establishing the pan-African holiday of Kwanzaa. In 1977, Karenga travelled to China alongside 20 other organisers of independent Black schools (The Black Scholar 1977). The group especially admired Chinese policies on minority equality and governance, and, at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, Karenga delivered a lecture about Black education in the United States as a function of African American liberation. After the visit, Karenga noted: ‘When we argued the dual character of our oppression … the Chinese did not deny the racial factor, only stressed that in the final analysis, class was determinative’ (Rickford 2016: 255).

China’s own ambivalence about class struggle and national self-determination was reflected in the interpretation of these issues among African American radical thinkers. In effect, the racial rhetoric that the Chinese State intended to form a pathway towards class struggle served as an end in itself, attracting Black nationalists who sought a non-white model of political defiance.

To legitimate Maoism’s ultimate emphasis on class-based solutions to racial oppression, Chinese discourses in the early 1960s—in the form of news reports, public lectures, performances, art installations, and more—sought to demonstrate a deep understanding of the nuances of racism, highlighting China’s own past of colonial exploitation and dispossession in contrast to the negligence of the Soviet Union and Cuba to address the same questions. The unfolding struggle for civil rights received widespread coverage in local, regional, and national newspapers. A documentary film titled 支持美国黑人斗争 (Support the African American Struggle) premiered to great fanfare in Beijing in August 1963. It continued to show around the world, with Malcolm X reportedly attending a viewing held at the Chinese Embassy in Accra, Ghana (Marable 2011: 317).

As I have written about previously (Duan 2019: 1372–78), on the first anniversary of Mao’s August 1963 statement declaring support for US civil rights, everyday Chinese citizens, under the auspices of municipal unions and other civil organisations, gathered for vocal enunciations of solidarity with African Americans. Speakers at these gatherings compared the contemporary social and economic oppression of African Americans to Chinese suffering in semicolonial turn-of-the-century China: both groups of people confronted the twin foes of racial discrimination and capitalist exploitation. Given the temporal sequence of their linked fates, as the Chinese historical experience demonstrated, only a militant class-based revolution could overturn longstanding patterns of race-based oppression. During a time of tremendous political anxiety and upheaval within China, the prospect of African American liberation unfolding in this manner became an important didactic tool for Chinese officials, laying bare to domestic audiences what such a revolution could look like in Maoist terms.

Even if these campaigns carried an instrumental aim in the Chinese context, they often resonated with Black audiences outside China. Reflecting on his second month-long tour of the country—on which he embarked in the autumn of 1964 alongside his wife, Mabel, and their two teenage sons—Robert Williams singled out China’s understanding of race as uniquely praiseworthy, even more so than the concurrent economic and technological advancements he witnessed. Williams cited the increase in road traffic, the rapid move away from natural gas and towards gasoline as fuel for vehicles, and the wide availability of consumer goods. Yet, none of this left as profound an impression on him as the expressions of solidarity from the Chinese people. As he recalled: ‘Even the most isolated peasants in the remotest reaches … keep abreast of current affairs … They display a great insight into the U.S. race issue and express great sympathy for their oppressed Afro-American brothers’ (Williams 1965: 6). This presented an explicit contrast to his travels in the Soviet Union, about which Williams had this to say to his Chinese hosts back in 1963:

The people there knew very little about [our] struggle, and in speaking with the African students [there], we found that they hadn’t heard of [the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing] in Birmingham. The Soviets had moved news of this struggle to the backburner. (Shanghai Commission of the Chinese People’s Association for World Peace 1963)

Discursive Shifts

In 1966, the entire Williams family relocated to Beijing, with their decision to depart Cuba facilitated by open disagreements with Cuban perspectives on race and Black nationalist resistance (Cohen 1972: 282–318). But Chinese narratives, by this time, had also begun to downplay the racial particularities of African American freedom movements, opting instead for the formulation of a broad-based anti-imperialist and anticapitalist front in the United States. The statement that Mao Zedong released after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968 mirrored this trend. In the declaration, Mao commended African American activists for ‘winning sympathy and support from increasing numbers of white working people and progressives in the United States’, predicting that the African American struggle ‘is bound to merge with the American workers’ movement, and this will eventually end the criminal rule of the US monopoly capitalist class’ (People’s Daily 1968). In this interpretation, African Americans were no longer regarded as the vanguard of an impending revolution—a position that allowed overlaps with calls for Black nationalism and Black Power—but only as a participatory element in a generalised working-class formation.

Figure 2: Robert and Mabel Williams in Shanghai in 1964, in front of posters proclaiming China’s support for the African American struggle. Source: Robert F. Williams Papers, The Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Few photographs capture the paradox of African American and Afro-diasporic activists taking inspiration from Maoism as Chinese engagement with African American radicalism waned as effectively as an image of the African National Memorial Bookstore in Harlem, New York, taken in 1970 (see Figure 1). Essentially one of the most famous reading rooms of the civil rights movement, the bookshop once hosted W.E.B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois, Malcolm X, and Kwame Nkrumah. That the definitive relevance of China lay in its emphasis on racial and cultural nationalism is embodied by the placement of Mao’s portrait next to those of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba—iconic figures in genealogies of pan-Africanism. For a generation of Black radical activists in the United States, Maoism was attractive as a third way because it spoke to enduring desires for racial self-determination.

By the late 1970s, the high tide of political solidarity between African Americans and China had retreated. Clashes between African and Chinese students roiled Chinese university campuses beginning in 1979, culminating in mass anti-African protests in 1988–89 in cities including Nanjing, Hangzhou, Beijing, and Wuhan. Triggering factors for these altercations included Chinese student outrage that their African counterparts dated Chinese women and jealousy at the economic privileges they received from the Chinese State. Chinese students at Zhejiang Agricultural University hurled the insult that their African peers were carriers of AIDS (Sautman 1994: 415–29). At Hehai University, in Nanjing, Chinese students marched to chants of ‘Beat the black devils!’ after a false rumour spread that a Chinese man had been killed by Africans. Two years earlier, in 1986, African embassies in Beijing had received a letter from an unidentified Chinese ‘student association’ decrying the allocation of national resources to educate ‘backwards’ races rather than being used to help China catch up with the West, complete with a call to learn from US history valuable lessons in about how to ‘curb’ its Black citizens (Sullivan 1994: 445–50).

The shift is due to the fact that political, ideological, and discursive priorities had changed. They were no longer about the liberation of people and races, but about the liberation of productive forces and material development. The project of racial solidarity as part of a broader internationalism and Third-World solidarity was a thing of the past, and Chinese representatives and official channels no longer championed anti-racism to counter popular expressions of prejudice, as they once did with vigour in such varied ways. In fact, in 1956, after reports had surfaced that some citizens refused to shake hands with and kept their children away from Black visitors to Shanghai, a municipal memorandum had circulated to implore civilians to act in a respectful manner, reminding them of the history of Black oppression under colonialism (Liu 2013: 136).

Deconstructing the Encounter

Race and racism remain controversial within China today, especially as new patterns of migration and investment between China and Africa take hold. Popular conversations about Afro-Chinese connections often lean either of two ways: recalling a romanticised past of anticolonial and anti-racist alliance or referring to anti-Blackness in Chinese society as a decontextualised and ahistorical phenomenon. But neither set of discourses reflects the full truth. Histories of Third-Worldism are always more complex than they seem. In the 1960s, Chinese narratives promulgated a linear vision of Black militancy that would join forces with the white working class, while Black Power activists engaged with Maoism as a theoretical framework for a Black nationalist—and sometimes separatist—politics that did not necessarily aspire to interracial and anticapitalist coalition-building as its goal. To deconstruct the terms of this encounter, however, can lend insight into processes through which Maoism and, by extension, contemporary Chinese politics and identities have been constructed in relation to ideas and visions of Black nationalist and pan-African resistance across the Pacific.


Featured Image: Lewis Michaux at the African National Memorial Bookstore he owned in Harlem, New York City, in 1970. Source: Jack Garofalo—Paris Match/Getty Images.


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Ruodi Duan

Ruodi Duan is an Assistant Professor of History and East Asian Languages and Cultures at Haverford College, Pennsylvania. Her broad research and teaching interests include modern Chinese social and political history, comparative ethnic studies, China–Africa relations, and international histories of the Cold War.

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