Tracing the Chinese Arc of Black Internationalist Feminism: An Archive Story

Ranging from the personal, political, and intellectual affinities between W.E.B. Du Bois and Mao Zedong to multiracial groups of muscular male revolutionaries on the front lines of the global charge against US imperialism, the iconographic and historiographical representations of Afro-Asian solidarity prioritise men’s internationalist activism and homosocial bonds, rarely question the long-normalised link of heteromasculinity with radical coalition-building, and often diminish and simplify women’s role in weaving together those radical traditions (Reddy and Sudhakar 2018; Huang 2018). While such masculinist accounts of Afro-Asian internationalism remain dominant, the recent growth of scholarship on Black left feminism has not only highlighted African and African diasporic women’s contributions to global movements against colonialism and imperialism but also incorporated gender and sexuality as key categories of analysis (Blain and Gill 2019). My current book manuscript stages a conversation between these two bodies of literature to foreground African American women radicals’ engagements with Mao’s China.

Moving Black radical women to the centre of the history of Black internationalism in China has required thoughtful and innovative approaches to existing accessible archival materials. Some Black left feminists spoke prolifically and managed to have their papers and memorabilia preserved in publicly accessible libraries and archives, even though the ‘disorderly distribution’ of their records renders such traditional manuscript collections incomplete (Farmer 2022). But the intellectual activism of others did not primarily take the form of delivering speeches, publishing political commentaries and theoretical writings, or giving interviews, so they did not leave many tangible traces of their lives and ideas, or the collecting and processing of their surviving records has not been completed. Mabel Robinson Williams (1925–96), a central figure in my manuscript, belonged to the latter group. In what follows I offer a brief reflection on my attempt to reconstruct her internationalist activism in China.

Where Were the Black Women in the Afro-Asian Movement?

The forging of Black–Chinese solidarities was a central theme of Mabel Robinson Williams’ radical activism. Travelling to socialist China in 1963 and 1964 and residing there during the radical phase of the Cultural Revolution enabled her to harness the Chinese Government’s anti-imperialist commitments and resources and, in that process, refine and refashion her ideas, while at the same time making it more difficult to disentangle her vision of radical change from that of Beijing. Despite her extensive and complex interactions with Chinese government officials and ordinary people, Robinson Williams is known primarily as the wife and, occasionally, a collaborator of Robert Williams, an African American militant whose internationalist activities in China have enjoyed considerable attention in the growing scholarship on Afro-Asian radical connections (see Frazier 2015: 117–58). Although her friend African American feminist and educator Vicki Garvin (1991) described Robinson Williams as an activist ‘in her own right’, indicating that she and her husband sometimes had divergent experiences and analyses, and several scholars have recognised in passing her leading involvement in some of the most important Black internationalist and Afro-Asian initiatives, thus far only one scholarly article has foregrounded her voice, perspective, and experiences to show that she ‘clearly distinguished herself as a freedom fighter and social reformer’ (Dagbovie 2013: 73). But Dagbovie’s primarily biographical essay on Robinson Williams focuses on documenting her sacrifices, community-based advocacy work, and media activism, especially her crucial role in maintaining The Crusader and Radio Free Dixie, and only scratches the surface of her contributions to the global struggle against white supremacy and imperialism. Her own Afro-Asian internationalist activism in China begs further analysis.

In addition to the persistent scholarly neglect of Black women’s radical activism, the scarcity of archival records relating to Mabel Robinson Williams’ ideas and activities in the 1960s presents a daunting challenge for efforts to situate her within a tradition of Black radical solidarity with China. Indeed, overshadowed by the spotlight on her prolific and media-savvy husband, Robinson Williams’ activist efforts have been viewed as embedded in his political and intellectual activities even before their marriage and after his death. Not unlike the personal papers of many Black women best known as the wives of charismatic leaders, Robinson Williams’ archive is subsumed in that of her husband. The documents in the John C. Williams collection of Robert F. and Mabel Williams Papers, which were added to the Robert F. Williams Papers at the University of Michigan in 2011, contain only limited information about her life after the 1960s. Most of her oral histories emphasise her husband’s radical activism. Perhaps she titled her unpublished memoir ‘Walking in His Shadow’ to indicate how her voice is muffled in the records (Dagbovie 2013: 73). And her memoir, whose forthcoming publication is the result of a collaborative effort involving the Freedom Archives, late historian John Bracey, Jr., and others, offers few details about her experiences in China. Robinson Williams may have been reluctant to disclose the thoughts and feelings she had while in China and to reveal intimate details of her personal life out of a justifiable concern for her and her husband’s public images.

Figure 1: The Williamses studying Mao Zedong’s works, 12 March 1967. PC: People’s Daily.

Unearthing a Radical Life

Often confronted with this challenge of archival lack, previous feminist and queer studies scholars have mined cultural works for information about non-heteronormative lives and ideas (Reddy and Sudhakar 2018). Indeed, despite the dearth of primary sources and academic studies about her, a ringing poem, ‘Transition’, cited in its entirety in the biographical article mentioned above indicates Robinson Williams’ belief in the possibilities of Afro-Asian unity (Dagbovie 2013: 83). Composed almost as a battle cry a few weeks after her relocation to China in 1966, ‘Transition’ urges diasporic Black people and particularly African American activists to draw inspiration and guidance from Africa and enlist in the emerging global crusade against white supremacy: ‘Oh Black and lovely creatures of the earth Mother Africa … Oh Whose hearts that beat in unison at the Sound of the drums of Mighty Africa Rise up and throw off the heavy yoke of bondage … merge with the Mighty tide of history.’

Given that Mabel Williams now called China home, her appeal to her Black comrades to ride ‘the Mighty tide of history’ also reflects, perhaps implicitly, her enthusiasm about the possibilities of Afro-Asian solidarities that would wash away racism and imperialism. In other words, given her own intellectual-activist trajectory and the sociopolitical milieu in which she sounded this call to arms, the voice that emerges from this poem is that of a radical who was abreast of the revolutionary currents swirling around the globe at that time and at the centre of conjoining radical Black internationalism and Maoism. Robinson Williams’ poetic affirmation of her own commitment to pan-African liberation and Afro-Asian solidarity thus points to the usefulness of the expressive and the aesthetic as sites at which to uncover insurgent connections and radical visions of those absent from official archives.

The poem’s clear articulation of Robinson Williams’ radical politics also sparked my interest in finding out whether all evidence of her explicit attempt to link Chinese and Black radical movements had eluded history workers. While she did leave some traces in the interstices of her husband’s processed, mostly masculinist archive, very little information on her travels and relocation to China can be gleaned. To fill this gap, I primarily use recently declassified documents from Chinese state archives and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda material to assemble a transnational, multilingual archive. Although her husband’s activities still dominate such source material, I was able to read against the grain to centre and piece together, at least partially, Robinson Williams’ experiences enlisting her hosts in the global struggle against white supremacy within a radicalising political landscape. Additionally, bearing in mind the limitations of archival documentation and how the historical record structures and is structured by racial, gender, and sexual power hierarchies, I viewed the available evidence as containing not only clues to her engagement with Chinese history and politics but also hints of the gendering and sexualising strategies necessary for fostering a certain internationalist common sense among a transnational public. Thus, in tracing Robinson Williams’ appearances in the primary sources, I interrogate the gender and sexual terms on which she entered and was erased from the archive.

That is, through reading the government reports and news media texts separately and alongside each other, I not only brought to light Robinson Williams’ internationalist activities in China and explored how, in formulating her own blueprint for forging Afro-Asian solidarities, she matched and diverged from her husband and the CCP. I also exposed the silencing mechanisms in the Chinese-language documents that rendered Robinson Williams visible only in certain ways and examined what visions of world order were enabled by her depiction therein—in particular, showing that her archival representations reveal that both the Chinese Party-State and Robert Williams sought to normalise masculinist conceptions of anti-imperialist solidarity. Ultimately, I sought to suggest that Robinson Williams’ contributions to Afro-Asian internationalism cannot be contained by the masculinist archive and exceed its boundaries through challenging assumptions that reify international politics as a sphere of male action. I thus attempted—to use Saidiya Hartman’s (2008: 12) words—to emphasise ‘the incommensurability between the prevailing discourses and the event’ and amplify ‘the instability and discrepancy of the archive’.

Mabel Robinson Williams in the Chinese Public Sphere

In 1961, Mabel Robinson, Robert Franklin Williams, and their two children were forced into exile. The Williamses’ insistence on retributive violence and commitment to militant politics led to them becoming targets of white terror and racist injustice in their hometown of Monroe, North Carolina. Ultimately, a trumped-up charge of kidnapping prompted the Williamses to leave the United States and relocate, first, to Castro’s Cuba and then to Mao’s China (Rucker 2006; see also Tyson 1999). While exile hampered Robinson Williams’ direct involvement in the intensifying Black freedom struggle in the United States, the promise of transnational mobility and expanded networks offered hope for exploring alternatives to the civil rights mainstream’s liberal and nation-centred reformism and fostering internationalist solidarities. Visiting and moving to China allowed her to more effectively link the country’s socialist construction projects with anti-imperialist, anti–white supremacist struggles in the United States and globally and to promote the merits of her revolutionary politics, including the strategy of armed resistance.

As the CCP’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, reported, the Williamses made their first visit to China in the autumn of 1963 amid unprecedented global fanfare (see NCNA 1963a). Intensive coverage by national and local Chinese media of their participation in a series of political and cultural activities enabled me to reconstruct Robinson Williams’ itinerary. A week before China’s National Day on 1 October, they landed at the Beijing airport as state guests to a grand welcome from leaders of the Chinese Peace Committee and other CCP-led mass organisations, representatives of ordinary Beijingers, and US exiles in the capital (NCNA 1963a). Robinson Williams and her husband were then launched on a seven-week whirlwind of banquets, receptions, meetings, rallies, and tours of schools, factories, museums, and historical sites. The Chinese press closely followed the couple’s tour, which took them to Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Wuhan. This flurry of activities enabled them to establish contacts and friendships with not only Chinese politicians and intellectuals but also revolutionaries from the decolonising world stationed in or also visiting China. They were thus able to gain a better understanding of China’s social construction and global anti-imperialist movements and more effectively forge radical transnational solidarities (NCNA 1963b, 1963c, 1963d, 1963f, 1963g, 1963i; SMA 1963b).

Chinese archival and media representations of Mabel Robinson Williams exemplified a heteromasculinist notion of political struggle. For instance, a day before the couple’s arrival in Beijing in late September 1963, Chinese Peace Committee officials cobbled together a biography of her husband with details of his civil rights radicalism and view of the CCP, but perfunctorily introduced Robinson Williams as a ‘housewife’ in the plan for receiving them (SMA 1963a). Furthermore, while Robert Williams’ speeches and conversations with China’s national and local leaders were given prominent media attention, Robinson Williams’ perspectives were subsumed under her husband’s. Her efforts to steer Chinese deliberations on world revolution towards forging an alliance with African American radicals were largely sidelined, if not completely unacknowledged. At the same time as her husband was profiled as a bona fide revolutionary and one of the most committed and influential leaders of the US civil rights movement, she was cast in supporting roles as his wife, assistant, helpmate, secretary, and proxy.

The People’s Daily and other news outlets broke the news of her participation in a series of meetings at which Robert Williams and Chinese male leaders expressed mutual admiration and forged Afro-Asian bonds of comradeship, whereas she and other women remained silent or silenced. For example, in People’s Daily coverage of a mass gathering in Shanghai attended by the couple, local leaders, and more than 1,000 residents from all walks of life, only the words of Robert Williams and Jin Zhonghua, president of the Shanghai chapter of the Chinese People’s Committee for World Peace, found their way into print and were used to highlight the homosocial bonds between the two men; Robinson Williams was not given a voice (NCNA 1963h). As we read in the article, Jin, ‘along with the people of Shanghai, pledges resolute support for the Black American freedom struggle’ and Robert Williams ‘resolves to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Chinese people in the struggle against US imperialism’.

Meticulously staged photographs of the Williamses conversing with top Chinese leaders, circulated via the People’s Daily, presented Afro-Asian internationalism in similarly gendered ways. In many of these photographs, Robert Williams and Chinese male leaders, discussing world revolution, are highlighted front and centre, whereas Mabel stands in the background listening attentively. For example, the picture of the couple’s audience with Mao Zedong, in which Robinson Williams stands behind her husband while Mao and Robert exchange solidarity handshakes, visually reflected a gendered hierarchical relationship of authority that often structured expressions of African American–Chinese solidarity (see Figure 2; NCNA 1963f). This and other images indicate the Party-State’s normalisation of the gendered—and unequal—division of roles in revolutionary struggles that positioned men as powerful and effective leaders and relegated women to secondary and supplementary tasks.

Figure 2: The Williamses meet Mao on 2 October 1963. PC: NCNA (1963f).

During her second tour of China in the autumn of 1964, Mabel Robinson Williams’ previous and current participation in building Afro-Asian solidarities received little Chinese media attention. The Williamses’ growing rapport with the Party-State since their 1963 visit, as evidenced by the increasing frequency of Chinese media quotations, translations, and circulations of Robert Williams’ writings and remarks (but not Mabel Williams’), was strengthened as Chinese government leaders and ordinary citizens again met with, feted, wined, dined, and eulogised them. Although Robinson Williams’ presence at the receptions, meetings, mass rallies, and visits to state socialist institutions at which discussions of Afro-Asian alliances took place is confirmed by Chinese newspaper accounts, she entered China’s print-centred public sphere only as the wife of Robert Williams; her involvement in forging solidarities was reduced to accompanying her husband and her words were lost to readers (NCNA 1964a, 1964b, 1964c, 1964d, 1964e, 1964f). In October 1964, the working group tasked with receiving the couple in Shanghai, having known Robinson Williams for about a year, noted that she had ‘served as president of the Monroe branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when Robert Williams was suspended’, but still identified her as a ‘housewife’ and, more implicitly, as her husband’s secretary (SMA 1964a).

These and other highly publicised narratives, images, and performances of Afro-Asian brotherhood revealed the often heteropatriarchal underpinnings of Afro-Asian internationalism. The Chinese media’s and state archives’ limiting of Mabel Robinson Williams to her roles as the wife and helpmate of Robert Williams reinforced the link between the normalisation of heteronormative couplehood and sexist divisions of labour in liberation movements and the forging of Afro-Asian solidarities. Robinson Williams’ virtual invisibility in discourses about Black internationalism and Afro-Asian solidarity in part derives from her conscious deployment of dissemblance and acceptance of masculinist assumptions embedded in the Black radical tradition (for more on the politics of dissemblance, see Clark Hine 1994: 37). Nevertheless, the fact that Robinson Williams’ analysis of the dialectic between race and class, which was largely drawn from her activist experiences in the United States, and her efforts to cultivate Sino–African American solidarity were not completely lost on the Party-State—information that I gleaned from recently declassified Chinese government documents—indicates that her disappearance from the pages of the People’s Daily and other Chinese publications had more to do with the Party-State’s intentional reinforcement of heteromasculinist notions of political struggle than her own self-erasure.

 

The Silencing of Black Radical Female Voices

Although still overwhelmingly privileging her husband’s ideas and activities, classified reports—within which the couple’s tour companions, guides, and interpreters occasionally recorded and commented on the details of her observations and responses to China’s socialist nation-building and her attempts to secure the Chinese Government’s commitment to supporting Black freedom struggles—reveal Robinson Williams as a vocal activist committed to Afro-Asian solidarity and a close political collaborator with her husband. Therefore, aware that simply drawing on the Chinese news media’s coverage of the couple’s visits would limit my efforts to restore her to the history of Afro-Asian solidarity to broad-brushstroke descriptions of her and her husband’s shared itineraries, I turned to those government documents to excavate and centre Robinson Williams’ voice and perspective as much as possible.

A closer perusal of her travel companions’ reports reveals that Chinese officials clearly recognised her political acumen. According to one report, compared with her husband, who was ‘not familiar with diplomatic etiquette’ and ‘not a skilled public speaker’, Robinson Williams was more ‘cultured and articulate’ (SMA 1963c). The fragments of Robinson Williams’ words and experiences culled from declassified government documents also demonstrate that she at times articulated political and ideological positions diverging from Maoist lines. Working groups tasked with receiving the Williamses in Beijing and Shanghai noted how she disagreed with Mao’s privileging of economic class over race as the fundamental axis of exploitation and solidarity. Their superiors then instructed them to raise her class consciousness by taking the couple ‘on tours and conversing with them sincerely and patiently’ to ‘convince them that national struggle, in the final analysis, is a matter of class struggle’ (SMA 1964a).

Generally, however, the erasure of Robinson Williams’ voice and subsumption of her political activism in that of her husband are threaded throughout both the news media texts and the government reports. Her archival representation indicates the Party-State’s persistent inscription of a heteropatriarchal conceptualisation of revolution and of women’s responsibilities and roles in the common social imaginary of socialist progress and world revolution. As Wang Zheng (2017: 18) shows, even Chinese state feminists had to fit their agendas with and never openly challenge the dominant gender and sexual norms that ‘extolled the womanly virtues of modesty, hard work, self-effacement, self-sacrifice, and a lack of desire for power and fame’. Mabel Robinson Williams’ relative obscurity thus reflected and reproduced the gendered hierarchies in China, which were deemed an essential part of the socialist common sense.

The Party-State’s silencing of Robinson Williams’ voice in the creation of the archive of Afro-Asian solidarity was matched by her husband’s frequent trivialisation and dismissal of her concerns and activism during their visits. As the couple toured Shanghai, Williams’ husband often relegated her to a subordinate role in their patriarchal family and Afro-Asian solidarity projects. For example, according to the Shanghai working group’s report, Robert Williams suggested ‘sending his wife to represent him at international conferences if he could not attend’ (SMA 1964b emphasis added), assigning Mabel Williams a subordinate role as proxy for him. In another instance, her husband ridiculed Robinson Williams for wanting to buy a silk umbrella. As their tour guide reported, he asked her ‘to only buy things not available in Cuba’ and jokingly commented to the Chinese official that ‘women don’t know how to save money’ (SMA 1963b). These trivial manifestations of familial patriarchy, if considered in relation to the radical political purposes of their visits, also reflected Robert Williams’ heteromasculinist assumptions about Black revolutionary struggle.

The transnational and transracial alliances that radical internationalists sought to forge were often stratified along gender and sexual lines. A feminist consideration of Mabel Robinson Williams’ representation in China’s media and state archives illuminates the reinforcement of heteropatriarchy in the production of archival records, which inevitably leads to the circumscription of the radical potential of Afro-Asian solidarity in historical accounts. Reading against the archival grain to centre the contributions of Black women like Mabel Robinson Williams not only contributes to addressing this blind spot in the processes of coalition-building and historical knowledge production but also helps us better appreciate how difficult it was for Black radical women to break out of the dominant epistemic and political straitjacket. They bumped up against prevailing notions of gender and sexuality, even as they were often complicit in reinforcing normative, masculinist discourses and power structures. The study of Black internationalism in China can thus benefit from an interrogation of the gendered and sexual ways in which even radical solidarities have been structured both historically and historiographically and a centring of women’s and feminist concerns.

 

Featured Image: Robert and Mabel Williams pictured in Cuban exile. Source: Freedom Archives.

References

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Zifeng Liu

Zifeng Liu is an intellectual historian of the twentieth-century Africana world with specialisations in Black internationalism, anticolonial thought, and Afro-Asian solidarity. His current book project traces a history of African American women radicals’ engagements with China in the age of Bandung. He is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Africana Research Center at the Pennsylvania State University and an incoming Assistant Professor of History at Hong Kong Baptist University.

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