An African-Vietnamese American: Robert S. Browne, the Antiwar Movement, and the Personal/political Dimensions of Black Internationalism

Article excerpt

  Like most Americans of my generation, I had learned little about
  Indo-China in my schooling. To me, it was a vaguely recalled blob of
  purple on the map of Asia, clinging to the southeastern border of
  China.
  Robert S. Browne (1)

  This [the year of 1963] has proved to be the summer of "Vietnam" as
  well as of civil rights! I have been rather busy with the former.
  Robert S. Browne (2)

African American economist Robert Span Browne (1924-2004) is not widely recognized among the pantheon of black liberation movement leaders. However, during the decade of the 1960s, he was among the first public figures to criticize U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and also emerged as a major spokesperson for black separatism, reparations, and decolonization. He helped inaugurate the teach-in movement on U.S. college campuses in 1965, often serving as the leadoff speaker and sharing the stage with prominent antiwar activists such as historian Staughton Lynd and Dr. Benjamin Spock. He also traveled to Vietnam multiple times to bring back eyewitness accounts of the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. Browne even attempted to negotiate terms for peace with the Vietnamese National Liberation Front in Paris in 1968 as part of a delegation that included playwright Arthur Miller. Although Browne moved away from the antiwar movement during the late 1960s, he became a dedicated activist on behalf of black nationalist causes and African independence.

This essay seeks to draw attention to the underrecognized political vision and career of Robert S. Browne. A focus on Browne's early life and involvement in the antiwar movement provides a unique opportunity to examine the global and personal influences on the reemergence of black nationalism and internationalism in the late 1960s. From 1955 to 1961 Browne was stationed in Cambodia and South Vietnam as a foreign aid advisor under the auspices of the U.S. government. There he witnessed firsthand the decolonization of these former French colonies, even as he served as an agent of U.S. Cold War policies. In addition, Browne married a woman of mixed Vietnamese and Chinese ancestry during his stay in Southeast Asia, an action that ultimately led to his removal from his government post. He and his wife subsequently raised a multiracial family of four children in the Untied States as Browne became a visible spokesperson against U.S. economic and military intervention in Indochina and a leading advocate for Black Power.

To analyze the international and familial influences on Browne's political activism, this essay will focus on three aspects of his life. The first section examines how Browne's early frustrations with American race relations, which were intricately connected to economic inequalities, led to his interest in travel and his desire to live abroad. The second segment analyzes how race shaped Browne's work and family life during his stay in Southeast Asia. The final section describes how Browne utilized his international experiences and multiracial family to construct his political identity as a critic of U.S. intervention in Indochina.

This study of Robert S. Browne seeks to contribute to the growing scholarship on black internationalism. (3) Browne's life and politics suggest a different trajectory than those explored by earlier scholars. Some studies have focused on how African Americans perceived international events, and how these global events shaped the development and reception of black freedom struggles within the United States. Other studies have analyzed African American leaders and cultural figures who traveled and lived abroad. However, these individuals tended to either make brief visits such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, or lived abroad for an extensive period of time due to their status as political exiles such as Robert F. Williams and W.E.B. Du Bois. In contrast, Browne resided and worked in Southeast Asia for six years as an agent of the U. …