The Illusion of Afro-Asian Solidarity?: Situating the 1955 Bandung Conference

richardwright**This is the final installment of my series on Afro-Asia, examining the cultural and political exchanges and historical connections between people of African and of Asian descent. This month, I invited Dr. Tamara Nopper to share a modified and condensed version of the introductory remarks she delivered at the 2005 forum, The State of Black-Asian Relations: Interrogating Black-Asian Coalition 50 Years after Bandung, held in Philadelphia. Dr. Nopper has a PhD in Sociology and her publications and teaching focus on Asian American communities, Black-Asian conflict, Asian immigrant business ownership, the racial wealth gap, immigration, and social policy. She has served as an international business consultant and a small business consultant. She is also an editor, who specializes in working with academic and non-fiction authors. Please click here to read the speech in its entirety.

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On the first page of his book The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference, African American writer Richard Wright described first hearing about the Afro-Asian Conference that was held in Bandung, Indonesia in April 1955. An expatriate residing in Paris, Wright recalled the headline that leapt from the newspaper he had been sifting through: “Twenty-nine free and independent nations of Asia and Africa are meeting in Bandung, Indonesia, to discuss ‘racialism and colonialism.’”

The headline was an exciting discovery for Wright. As he continued to read about the conference and who was expected to attend his mind began to race:

“A stream of realizations claimed my mind: these people were ex-colonial subjects, people whom the white West called ‘colored’ peoples…Almost all of the nations mentioned had been, in some form or other, under the domination of Western Europe: some had been subjected to for a few decades and others had been ruled for three hundred and fifty years…The despised, the insulted, the hurt, the dispossessed—in short, the underdogs of the human race were meeting. Here were class and racial and religious consciousness on a global scale. Who had thought of organizing such a meeting? And what had these nations in common? Nothing, it seemed to me, but what their past relationship to the Western world had made them feel. This meeting of the rejected was in itself a kind of judgment upon that Western world!”

Upon reading about the upcoming gathering at her husband’s insistence, Ellen Poplar Wright exclaimed, “Why, that’s the human race!” To which Wright responded, “Exactly. And that is why I want to go.”

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Richard Wright in Paris, c. 1949

Wright’s book The Color Curtain was originally published in the United States in 1956 and was one of the few books written and circulated at the time—and even to this day—about the 1955 “Bandung Conference.” Bandung convened ten years after World War II ended and the United States emerged as the world’s superpower. It was during this period that the goals of the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference—including the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development—began to be institutionalized. And of course it was the beginning of the Cold War. It was in this context that a third world emerged. While the term third world was an analytical concept coined by the economist Alfred Sauvy in 1952, it meant much more to those who convened in Bandung with the hopes of creating what would later become the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), an effort to neither align with the first world or the second world. Not surprisingly, the US did not take well to neutralism and saw it as similar to aligning with the enemy or being ready to do as much. And so it was within this context that twenty-nine African and Asian nations convened in Bandung, Indonesia in an effort to denounce colonialism and what they termed “racialism,” maintain neutrality, promote economic and cultural cooperation, and critique nuclear weapons. In doing so, participants of Bandung were issuing a mighty challenge to the both the west and the east, a challenge that has great significance and meaning for the many of us who did not or could not attend Bandung but who can identify with its goals.

Only six out of the twenty-nine countries formally represented at Bandung were African nations or regions: Egypt, Ethiopia, the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Liberia, Libya, and Sudan. Out of these six African countries, a third was of the Arab world and the Gold Coast and Sudan were not yet independent. The Central African Federation, which was comprised of what is now present day Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, would have been the seventh African country but could not attend because it was still engaged in a struggle of decolonization. Thus, despite its emphasis on “Afro-Asian” solidarity, the majority of Sub-Saharan Africa was not present at Bandung.

Moreover, the location of Bandung, Indonesia was not incidental to the gathering given that Indonesia was one of the five countries that organized and ran the Bandung Conference. Actually, all of the organizing nations that also played key roles at the conference were of Asia: Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Burma (now Myanmar), and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In 1953, the Indonesian Prime Minister delivered a statement to the Indonesian Parliament encouraging cooperation between Africa and Asia. In 1954, the Prime Minister of Ceylon invited the heads of the other Asian nations who would eventually become the Bandung organizers to a meeting in Colombo, Ceylon to discuss an Afro-Asian Conference. Based on the proceedings of the Columbo meeting, the five Asian nations began to discuss the possibility of a gathering with other African and Asian nations. The Columbo Powers, as they were dubbed, met in Bogor, Indonesia at the end of 1954 to plan what would eventually be the Bandung Conference, a process that involved determining who would be invited. At the time, the majority of Africa was still colonized and therefore, not “inevitable,” so to speak, given that the emphasis was on independent nation status.

One of the most controversial decisions from the organizers was to not invite either the United States or the USSR. Also not invited were South Africa, North Korea, South Korea, and Israel. No European countries formally participated, with the exception of Turkey, whose racial identity was not yet European in a pre-European Union era.

Despite today’s tendency to describe the coming together of “people of color” as inherently revolutionary, it does not appear that the US government was convinced that Africans and Asians were steadfastly united in some primordial sense of brotherhood. Rather, research suggests that the White House was more concerned with what they anticipated to be certain Asian countries’ efforts to make participants look to the east and away from the west. In other words, it appears that the White House was not too concerned with a real possibility of solidarity between Africans and Asians. Rather, evidence suggests that the US really feared that certain Asian countries were using the platform of solidarity in order to achieve Asian self-determination. This of course would undermine US and Western interests in controlling the Asian region and its people. Further, the specter of Asian nationalism and regional cooperation was driven by the specter of cooperation between Asia and the USSR. Ostensibly, the US worried that the platform of Afro-Asian solidarity was really a ruse to turn the Black and Asian worlds into what can crudely be labeled “communist dupes” vis-à-vis a strategic discourse of self-determination and anti-colonialism.

While the possibility of widespread African decolonization and independence of course threatened the sensibilities of the US—particularly its pro-segregationists—it was one that reflected its racist belief that Africans and African Americans were incapable of self-actualization and self-determination. Hence the White House’s concern that Asian countries would dupe other participants at Bandung to go red and therefore initiate a worldwide communist struggle in which Black Africans would be controlled by Asia or the USSR. In other words, the US was threatened by the specter of Asian nationalism and Asian-USSR control over Africa.

The US government’s preoccupation with Asian nationalism is congruent with their vehement denial of white supremacy in general because it suggested that Blacks had no legitimate reason to rebel or to side with Asians and that Asians were getting Blacks “riled up” about racism in order to win them over to an Asian version of communism. As Thomas Noer demonstrates, white supremacists in the US believed that Africans and African Americans were incapable of self-determination or self-governance and therefore believed that Blacks were constantly vulnerable to being used by others for their own (communist) agendas. In some cases, and consistent with popular discourse of African/Black leadership today, Africans and African Americans were viewed as politically corrupt and therefore unable to govern themselves in a way that did not result in anarchy or moral turpitude. Many pro-segregationists came to believe that both the decolonization movements in Africa and the African American Civil Rights Movement were largely communist conspiracies. Thus, Blacks were subject to a global racist ideology that posited they had no basis for complaint and that whatever protest they did engage in was because they had been manipulated to do so. In this way the White House was definitely threatened by Black independence—whether at “home” or abroad—but, given its racist assumptions, did not assume that Blacks were capable of initiating such movements without white—or in the case of Bandung, Asian—leadership pulling the strings.

Given these concerns about the rise of Asian nationalism, the growing energy of what would result in the Civil Rights Movement, and violent decolonization battles being waged worldwide, the US government debated privately how to handle the Bandung gathering. When asked about his opinion on the upcoming Bandung Conference at a press conference in 1955, President Eisenhower feigned ignorance stating that his administration was not too familiar with the event. The White House was of course lying but did not want to take a public stand against Bandung. Doing so would suggest that Bandung was important and on the White House’s radar. And they did not want to publicly dismiss Bandung for fear of being accused of racism. Such a critique would hurt the US’ efforts to push its agenda worldwide in the face of growing global criticism of US racism that was gaining momentum and also being strategically exploited by the USSR…

As described by Carey Fraser, it was US Ambassador to Indonesia Hugh Smith Cumming, Jr. who helped the US government craft a strategy to address Bandung. In a January 2, 1955 telegram to Secretary Dulles, Cumming wrote: “The most useful line to be taken both diplomatically and publicity wise would be one of general sympathy, hope for the conference’s success, and moderate expressions, short of condescension, of approval of this example of the growth of a sense of responsibility to and in the world of these new nations, even though we may not agree with their methods or all of their aims. In other words, encourage[ment,] not discouragement.”

One way the US enforced its “encouragement, not discouragement” strategy was to push African and Asian countries they identified as cooperative or allies to attend. The US especially encouraged the attendance of Japan, who emerged out of the bitter ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be a junior partner of the US. The White House also pushed for members of the now defunct Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) to go. SEATO was an alliance established in 1954 that included Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States. It is important to point out that despite the inclination to see Bandung as a gathering driven by feelings of kinship, some suggest that the Columbo powers who organized Bandung (which included SEATO member Pakistan) actually hoped Bandung would prove an important counterpart to SEATO. Additionally, Brenda Gayle Plummer points out that the US discouraged white run countries such as SEATO member Australia from attending the Bandung Conference so that white Soviet Union would not have an excuse to attend.

Basically, the US was, on the surface, either keeping its critiques of Bandung to themselves or feigning support for the all colored gathering while conducting power plays behind the scenes to insure its dominance. As Fraser puts it, “The United States was thus participating in the Afro-Asian conference although it had not been invited.”

One way in which the US participated in Bandung was through the strategic use of African Americans. While it revoked (or in some cases had revoked) the passports of certain Black radicals—most notably Du Bois and Paul Robeson— and was in the process of deporting Trinidadian-born Black communist Claudia Jones, the US also encouraged and/or helped to fund the participation of certain African Americans who could gather intelligence for the White House. In the case of Richard Wright, the US was still involved in the affairs of the African American expatriate. As it was later revealed and (debatably) unbeknownst to Wright at the time, the CIA had helped to fund his trip under the guise of the “Congress for Cultural Freedom.”

The US also encouraged African American journalist Carl T. Rowan, a correspondent with the Minneapolis Tribune, to cover the Bandung Conference. Rowan had already traveled on behalf of the US State Department to report on South and Southeast Asia in January of 1955. The State Department hoped that Rowan’s ability to get Asian people to talk to him candidly because he was not white would allow Rowan, under the guise of journalism, to gather intelligence on its behalf at Bandung.

Ethel Payne in Shanghai

Ethel Payne in Shanghai

Another African American journalist, Ethel Payne, attended Bandung, which would be her first foreign affairs assignment. Payne, who worked as a correspondent for the widely circulated Black publication The Chicago Defender, discussed her trip to Bandung years later in a 1987 interview with Kathleen Currie for the Washington Press Club Foundation. Upon arriving in Bandung with Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. —both having flown in from Manila with the Philippine delegation—Payne was bombarded by a group of Indonesians who were so intrigued about her experiences of being an African American. Feeling left out because he was not recognized as Black, Powell, who was attending Bandung as an observer,  put his arm around Payne and said, “Me colored too.” Like Payne, Powell described his experience as a Black person among Asians as positive one, even remarking that it was a “badge of honor” to be a Negro at Bandung—a phrase that would generate much debate about its meaning in Black newspapers in the US.

Overall, though, African American participation in Bandung never occurred on a diplomatic level but was limited to the status of observer or journalist. The lack of African American representation at Bandung can be easily attributed to the repression of the US government towards African American mobility and politics. But we must also consider the paucity of African Americans to be indicative of a lack of insight on behalf of the Columbo Powers to adequately grapple with the African American experience and how it relates to the very issues of colonialism and racialism addressed at Bandung. While African Americans were welcomed to attend Bandung, and as the testimony of those who went reveals, treated quite well when they were there, African Americans were never invited to the conference as a class of people despite their intimate knowledge of colonialism and racialism or sustained albeit varied critiques of white supremacy and western imperialism. Indeed, the parameters of the Bandung Conference, which emphasized nation building and movement towards independent nation status, could not adequately address the African American situation. In many ways, Bandung did not even really address or seek to radically include Africans despite its public commitment to Afro-Asian solidarity. Perhaps this is why Richard Wright would remark in The Color Curtain that “Africa was barely represented.”

Whether due to the emphasis on nation-building or the geopolitical interest in developing Asian nationalism, the planners of Bandung did not seem to consider that African Americans have a unique situation in the world due to being a people without claim to a land base and a people without a government except that which enslaved them. Or as musician Louis Armstrong would later declare as he expressed his displeasure with then President Eisenhower’s slowness in enforcing Brown v. the Board of Education: “It’s getting so bad a colored man hasn’t gotten any country.” Simply put, while African Americans are routinely chastised for being “nationalist,” it is Africans in the Americas that are the only non-white group to exist globally without access to legitimate land claims. Basically, they are the only group without a nation or a land base that is morally recognized, even if the identity of that land base is contested by more powerful nations.

Overall, then, Bandung may be an event that was largely a gathering of good intentions on the surface and a developing albeit highly fractured pan-Asian nationalism. Asian nations controlled the planning and the proceedings and dominated in both numbers and importance. Africa was hardly present. And the African American presence was limited to observers and journalists. While the US government was indeed threatened by the rise of Asian self-determination and racially opposed to it, there was recognition from the White House that Asian nations may actually be capable of self-rule and that this possibility could change the tides of history or at least seriously challenge the status of the west. As such, white supremacists begrudgingly negotiated with Asia as a partner of sorts—albeit in a hierarchical relationship—in a larger movement towards modernity and actualization of Enlightenment ideology. The same cannot be said for Africa or African America.

While some will suggest that I am looking at Bandung pessimistically, I am really attempting to interrogate it and not enshrine it in history without examination and reflection…We cannot look at Black-Asian coalition today or the obvious imbalance in power, prestige, wealth, authority, and value between Africa and Asia, between African Americans and Asian Americans, unless we trace the trajectory of that imbalance. And this requires looking critically and honestly at gatherings such as Bandung and the subsequent NAM while simultaneously attempting to appreciate what Bandung meant to the world…Thus, I look at Bandung neither to memorialize or destroy it but rather to situate it within a larger history and trajectory of what it means to be Black and Asian in the modern world. 

We live in interesting times.

This is a strange moment. On the one hand, the last several years have witnessed a truly remarkable change in the nation’s approach to same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court’s Friday decision seals one of the most rapid transformations in American public opinion in memory, ending with the creation of nothing less than a new constitutional right to marriage equality. Yea, equal protection!

On the other hand, we are sliding far backwards on matters such as voting rights, the police state, and substantive economic change. It’s thus worth clearly tagging one of the implications of President Obama’s Friday eulogy of Clementa Pinckney, the state senator murdered (with eight others) by a white supremacist terrorist on June 17. In calling for the open and public acknowledgment that the Confederate flag stood for slavery, Obama lent great momentum to a vital re-interpretation of American history in our public life.

“For many — black and white — that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. . . . As people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge, . . . the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. . . . Removing the flag from this state’s capitol . . . would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong.”

This interpretation has gained such ground that it emerged, a bit oddly, as the key consequence of the Charleston massacre. Some have expressed concern that the flag issue has diverted attention from the true concerns the tragedy raises. While I find that critique valid, it does not obviate the significance of what is happening. We are, I suspect, witnessing one of those moments when a new consensus is emerging about how we make sense of an important part of our past.

For years, flag wars have raged, as historian Robert Bonner has pointed out. For just as long, proponents and opponents of displaying symbols of the Confederacy have existed in an uneasy detente, with occasional flare-ups. By and large, it’s been a stalemate. Flags have remained over many southern statehouses, and Confederate heroes’ names continue to adorn public property.

Consider what headway has looked like under these circumstances. In 1995, a statue of black tennis star Arthur Ashe (who died of AIDS in 1993) was added to those of five Confederate heroes adorning Monument Avenue in his native Richmond. The move provoked a firestorm of protest, mostly by those fearful of offending “the historic sensibilities of Richmond’s Confederate-American population.” Instead of honoring Ashe, one critic complained, “they ought to honor the blacks who fought for the Confederacy.”

The “black Confederates” argument was a canard even in 1995, but it is facing tough battles today (kudos to Kevin M. Levin’s Civil War memory blog for frequently spearheading this fight). So, too, the entire Confederate heritage movement. I can’t recall a time when so much public pressure has been arrayed so forcefully against the flag and other symbols of Confederate history. “Heritage, not hate” is simply not cutting it anymore. When a Republican governor in South Carolina grudgingly acquiesces to removing the flag, something important has happened.

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