Race Against Empire by Penny Von Eschen

In her book Race Against Empire, Penny M. Von Eschen writes of the African diaspora embraced by African Americans in the United States. Von Eschen discusses the anticolonialistic sentiment that began around the year 1937, and changed its course by 1957. Her study begins with a description of the roots of the diaspora at the time of World War II, and concludes with the dissintegration of the diaspora during the Cold War years.

In the 1930’s, African American authors and intellectuals began to voice a feeling of concern over the colonization occurring in Africa, Asia, and the Carribean. This concern was sparked by the global awareness that was brought about through advancements in communication and other technologies. People were able to travel from country to country more easily, which allowed for a better understanding of what was going on in the world outside of the United States. Von Eschen asserts that the growth of the black press was the driving force in the idea of the African diaspora.

Newspapers such as the Pittsburg Courier and the Chicago Defender began to have correspondance with people familiar to the colonization and oppression of African nations, along with other nations by the European imperialist countries. These newspapers dramatically grew in size during the World War II period. Also, black intellectuals of the time such as W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, George Padmore, Max Yergan, and Alphaeus Hunton began to voice their dissatissfaction with colonization, imperialism, and the direction that American foreign policy was headed in. These men argued that the United States foreign policy affected domestic civil rights. They said that a change in civil rights needed to occur globally.

The end of World War II brought about the United Nations. The black intellectuals used this international stage to express their feelings of anticolonization and antiimperialism. Many of the intellectuals felt that the United States was begginning to assume the role of the “dominant world power” a distinction the European nations had held for so long. The men spoke of decolonization and the rights of individual nations to make their own future and form their own governments.

Organizations that were vocally opposed to colonization began to form to express their beliefs. One such group that arose was the CAA, or the Council on African Affairs. The CAA was founded in 1937, and was chaired by the leading advocates of anticolonization and antiimperialists. The council’s main objective was lobbying the United States, the United Nations, and Africans around the world for the reform of colonization laws. The CAA consisted of a wide array of ideals. Members philosophy’s included communism, socialism, internationalism, and just plain civil rights for all. Most members had the same objective, and that was to reform the United States foreign policy and the foreign policy of any nation that was not anticolonistic.

The members of the CAA, along with other organizations that espoused a similar set of ideals, were fearfull of the United States becoming an imperialist power. They viewed capitalism and big business as catalysts for further racism and oppression. Their belief was that with the United States becoming a “global power,” the capitalist nation might begin exploiting minorities and third world countries for profit. These fears were not very far from the coming truth.

After Von Eschen reveals the rise and actions of the diaspora movement during and after World War II, She begins to discuss the suppression of the movement that coincided with the dawn of the Cold War. She writes of the conflict that arose between the United States and the Soviet Union. Also, the author reveals attempts of the United States government to silence any serious opposition to the nation’s foreign policy.

The author presents her point in an explicit manner which is very convincing. The tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union caused the nations to begin an arms race that was harmful to both nations involved. The Cold War was also harmful to any other real concerns that the people of the day may have had, such as anticolonization. Most of the United States foreign policy during the period consisted of attempts to alienate and silence the opposition to their position. Also, the United States position became a blinder to other problems, both foreign and domestic.

As the anticolonists predicted, the Cold War did become an exploitation of smaller and less developed nations, and an attempt at securing the position of world domination. As the Cold War was begginning to heat up, the tone of the civil rights movement and anticolonization began to metamorphasize. The leftist ideals and radical thinking began to relax and become more centered around the domestic civil rights movement. The movement also began to shift from the left to the center.

The pan-African conferences that had been taking place in Europe and elsewhere began to cease, and organizations that expressed a discord for the direction of United States foreign policy began to receive criticism from the government. The CAA was questioned over their support of good relations with the Soviet Union, and certain members who believed in communism as a good system of government. The CAA eventually disbanded under the pressure applied by the anticommunist wing of the United States government. Anyone that attempted to disagree with the governments policies was put under heavy scrutiny.

Von Eschen details the process by which the civil rights movement began to change. She writes of how the Cold War era changed the radical, leftist view that had fought for the end of colonization and imperialism into an acceptance of the policies of the United States. The activists began to center around the domestic issue of civil rights. They accepted the position of the United States as “leader of the free world,” and the capitalist model of economics as the best course. The new civil rights activists had lost the idea of the African diaspora.

People such as Martin Luther King began preaching a message of peace and living in a world of tolerance. The plight of freedom around the wourld and the decolonization of nations was replaced in the United States by the fight for African Americans to reserve the same rights as white Americans. The struggle of civil rights now spoke that the American way was the correct way, but it was not yet a place of total equality for all its citizens.

Most all Americans rallied behind their governments fight against communism and anything else that dealt with foreign affairs. A silent minority still possesed their feelings of the African diaspora, but they were clouded for the most part by the fight against domestic troubles. Anyone that began to express the need for serious change toward colonialism or the dominence of the west over the east was branded as a radical and persecuted by the majority mainstream.

The author describes in her book how the black intellectuals of the 1940’s were not nationalists or capitalists. She describes them as internationalists, or people that did not recognize national boundaries. These activists believed that everyone around the world deserved freedom, not just the Africans in the United States. The original civil rights activists believed in the African diaspora. They knew that their race was being victimized by global oppression. Their struggle was not a personal struggle of freedom, but a struggle of freedom for all of their race against the oppressive, imperialists of the western powers.

Penny M. Von Eschen uses the writings of the times and government archives from around the world to present a valid point. Her point is that the 1940’s possesed a group of black intellectuals that felt pain for all of their people. They understood the nature of the situation, and what needed to be done to correct it. The rise of the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union caused this group to be alienated and their cause forgotten.

The author also does a tremendous job in revealing the suppression of these anticolonialist veiws by the money driven capitalists. She reveals that the United States developed foreign policy not to help people around the world, but to establish her own dominance in a world filled with nations attempting to establish dominance.

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