The Fight for Black Freedom Transcends National Borders

This article first appeared in Made By History. The original can be accessed here.

In a recent news conference, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that “African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.” Many Black Americans understood his statement as an admission that he sees African Americans as fundamentally outside of belonging in the United States. In turn, many Black Americans defended their claim to American identity online using the hashtag “#Mitchplease,” and affirming their status as unqualified U.S. citizens, with some touting histories of military service or consistent voting to emphasize the point.

Such impassioned claims to U.S. belonging and citizenship as a rejoinder to white supremacist rhetoric and policies are nothing new. Black Americans have long sought to demonstrate first-class U.S. belonging through patriotic sacrifice and service. Such efforts showcasing Black contributions have been crucial to Black Americans’ struggle to access U.S. democracy as equal citizens. McConnell’s comments — and the ongoing failure to secure voting rights — may serve as a reminder that, for many White Americans, Black citizenship is conditional. 

This points to the need to recognize that the struggle against white supremacy cannot be won within a national framework. Black Americans have long recognized the global dimension of this project. In fact, African Americans’ visions for racial justice often transcended the fight for first-class belonging to nation. Instead, Black internationalists resisted American racial oppression and imperialist exploitation within and outside the confines of U.S. borders.

National efforts to dismantle racism have often occurred in a global context. For example, abolitionists recognized that systems of slavery transcended borders. To advance abolition, formerly enslaved people often recounted their lived experiences to audiences within the United States and abroad. Britain was a popular stop for those delivering abolition lectures given its prominent antislavery movement, and the entanglement between its empire and slavery. Noted African American abolitionist and minister James W.C. Pennington said in an 1843 address to the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, “What I gain anywhere and everywhere… I gain for every manacled slave in America, and for everywhere benighted African in the world.” 

This tradition of courting international public opinion continued after slavery’s end. The rise of lynching in the late 19th century U.S. South spurred Ida B. Wells to travel to Europe in 1893 and 1894 where she reported on the racial violence White Americans inflicted upon Black people. She anticipated that White U.S. audiences were inured to Black suffering, so she pursued this mission abroad instead. But she thought cultivating global support would help affect change within the United States. 

Black American internationalists continued to link their struggles in the nation to a global politics. Famous scholar and pan-Africanist W.E.B. Du Bois declared in 1900 at the First Pan-African Conference in London that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” His words and the conference connected the ongoing denial of African American political rights to continued European colonial domination in Africa and to global disregard for Haitian, Ethiopian and Liberian national sovereignty. 

Another, more radical iteration of pan-Africanism was Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Though founded in Jamaica in 1914, Garvey and his first wife, Amy Ashwood, moved the UNIA headquarters to Harlem in 1918. Until 1924 it boasted millions of members in 40 countries, including the United States. Promoting racial pride and rejecting white supremacy, the UNIA encouraged diasporic Blacks to return to Africa to spearhead the continent’s recovery from European despotic rule. 

Such ideas survived the decline of the organization, with women such as Chicagoan Mittie Maude Lena Gordon pursuing the cause of Black emigrationism. Admittedly, exuding an imperialist impulse — the idea that Black American settlers would be welcomed as saviors or peers to existing societies motivated some proponents—the politics of Black emigration in this era was committed to imagining freedom and racial justice beyond the American nation. 

World War II and its aftermath sharpened many Black Americans’ sense that racial injustice was a global issue. The Double V campaign inspired antiracist activists to link the domestic fight against racism in the United States with the U.S. mission of defeating fascism and colonialism abroad. African American liberals like Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, understood Jim Crow as a dimension of a worldwide oppressive regime targeting people of color. Indeed, when Jan Smuts’ South Africa discussed annexing Southwest Africa 1945, White likened it to identifying Black Americans in Mississippi as U.S. citizens while “denying them all the privileges of citizenship.” 

Internationalism was central to one of the largest African American women’s federations, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). Mary McLeod Bethune founded the NCNW in 1935 to unite Black women across the United States to acquire political power to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the race. Understanding that working only in the United States was too limiting, they also pursued Black women’s interests at the international level. When applying for consultative status at the United Nations for her organization in 1947, Bethune explained that “the darker women, not only in the U.S., but all over the world have added handicaps” that other women never experienced. 

After Bethune died in 1955, her organization continued to address racism and sexism through national and international channels. They raised funds to provide meals for children in Johannesburg under Apartheid and promoted interracial collaboration in Mississippi during the civil rights movement

Deep international experience primed the group for organizing an international seminar of Black women for the 1975 United Nations International Women’s Year conferences in Mexico City. Now helmed by Dorothy Height, the NCNW received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. State Department to host its seminar. Opening in Mexico City before moving to Mississippi and Florida, the 28-day seminar involved 23 Black women from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean meeting with their Black American women counterparts. Eventually, the seminar supported the passage of the contentious U.S. Equal Rights Amendment in part “to set an example for other nations in the world where such rights have not been legislated for women.” 

Yet, developments in the United States also gradually diminished Black Americans’ focus on the global. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 bolstered U.S. claims of being an exceptional experiment of democracy during cold war competition with the former Soviet Union. Cold war geopolitics had catalyzed a federal response to civil rights activism, and in turn legitimized Black people as American citizens. Yet intense anticommunism also demanded activists moderate their demands, excluding economic injustice from their agenda. Securing de jure first-class citizenship had its price. 

This price was evident after these civil rights successes. In 1965, African American writer Chester Himes published “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” a novel following two Black detectives in New York trying to thwart a fraudulent Back-to-Africa scheme swindling unsuspecting hopefuls. Formerly a legitimate dimension to Black international politics, this novel and subsequent 1970 film adaptation helped reduce such emigration schemes to mockery in the aftermath of civil rights successes. Further, as historians such as Benjamin Talton and Brenda Plummer have described, late- that had long been epicenters of Black international politics.

More recently, many have interpreted the historic elections of Barack Obama and Kamala D. Harris and the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin as evidence of racial progress. The idea that U.S. democracy, if not yet fair, is becoming fairer has turned Black Americans’ attention to national issues. 

Yet as we can see in the ongoing struggles around voting rights, economic equality, police violence and incarceration, and even how systemic racism is talked about and taught, that the ideas of Bethune, Du Bois and White are well worth revisiting today. Each understood how presumptions of the innate inferiority of nonwhite peoples animated domestic injustices as well as global ones. Equally important was their awareness of the limits of grounding Black freedom only in belonging to the American nation. The continued precarity of national belonging demands recommitting to international solidarity to dismantle white supremacy. 

How might we start? One avenue would be acknowledging the relationship between anti-Blackness and unjust U.S. immigration policies. More broadly, Black Americans might ask ourselves the implications of limiting our focus to belonging to a nation with imperialism inextricable from its history. We and our collaborators could pay better attention to U.S. imperial violence abroad and ground responses to white supremacist rhetoric and policies in the language of a shared humanity that transcends nations rather than be defined by them.  then we may fare better by expanding our horizons beyond national citizenship and sovereignty. Our rich history of fighting racism and imperialism alongside people abroad provides lessons and inspiration in this respect. 

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Shaun Armstead

Shaun Armstead is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her dissertation, “Imagined Solidarities: Black Liberal Internationalism and the National Council of Negro Women’s Journey from Afro-Asian to Pan-African Unity, 1935 to 1975,” charts the understudied international activities of one of the largest African American women’s organizations in U.S. history. She considers their efforts to unite with women of color outside the western world to reimagine liberal internationalism as an anti-racist, anticolonial, and antisexist global order. Her work is at the intersection of histories on women’s internationalism, Black internationalism, and Global South Feminisms during the twentieth century.