An African-Vietnamese American: Robert S. Browne, the Antiwar Movement, and the Personal/political Dimensions of Black Internationalism
Wu, Judy Tzu-Chun, The Journal of African American History
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.S. government. In fact, it is precisely his experiences abroad in carrying out U.S. Cold War policies that legitimized his role as a critic of American foreign policy. Consequently, his career may shed light on a larger group of African American civil servants and military personnel who gained greater opportunities for professional advancement during the post-World War II era. In addition, Browne's involvement in criticizing U.S. economic and military intervention in Vietnam beginning in the early 1960s changes the periodization of African American interest in Vietnam that is thought to have arisen in the mid- to late 1960s.
Browne's expansive political networks also highlight three relatively understudied characteristics of black activism, specifically the multiracial, transnational, and interfaith connections that were established. The earlier scholarship on the early 1960s tends to focus on either the black-white and Jewish-Christian coalitions of the civil rights era or the black separatist politics of groups such as the Nation of Islam. While Browne also had contact with these groups, he worked with Vietnamese nationalists in the United States, Southeast Asia, and France. In particular, he focused his efforts on condemning the persecution of Buddhist activists in South Vietnam. His political partnerships expand the existing understanding of the racial, national, and religious composition of antiwar coalitions during that period. This exploration of Browne's activist networks highlights the broader connection between African Americans and Asia, linkages that were also present, but still relatively underexplored, in the Civil Rights Movement and among members of the Nation of Islam. (4)
Finally, the central importance of Browne's marriage and children to his antiwar activism highlights the interconnectedness of the personal and the political. Browne repeatedly highlighted his membership in a Vietnamese family to help foster interracial and international understanding between Americans, particularly African Americans, and Asians. The symbolism of his personal life helped Browne to articulate both a message of international humanitarianism and a political analysis of the shared racialized and colonial status of African American and Vietnamese peoples.
A TRAVELIN' MAN
Throughout his life, Robert "Bob" Browne consistently emphasized two aspects of his identity: his training as an economist and his extensive experience as a world traveler. Both of these factors can be traced to his formative years of living, being educated, and working in the Midwest and the South. While the hardships of the Great Depression sparked Browne's interest in economics, the lack of opportunities due to his race, even after World War II, led him to look overseas for avenues to exercise and develop his intellectual and leadership skills.
In many ways, Browne's early life and education qualified him as a member of W.E.B. Du Bois's "Talented Tenth." Born in 1924 and raised in a family of five, Browne lived and attended public schools in the large African American community that dominated the South Side of Chicago. (5) In their 1945 classic study of the "Bronzeville" neighborhood, social scientists St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton not only documented the predominantly working-class backgrounds of the residents of The Black Metropolis, but also the sizable middle and upper middle classes that constituted approximately one-third of the population. (6) Browne described his father as "a modest functionary of the municipal government." (7) His family lived just a few blocks south of Washington Park, an area where the well off, but not the most elite, residents lived. (8) In his unpublished autobiography, Browne remembered details about his childhood that indicated his family's more privileged status: "We had a telephone, which many people in the neighborhood did not. In fact, a couple of our neighbors would regularly come over and ask if they could use our telephone. Furthermore, we owned a car." (9)
Despite his middle-class background, Bob Browne recalled that coming of age during the depression years made economics particularly fascinating to him:
One evening I saw a newsreel at the local movie house which showed the government dyeing a massive mountain of raw potatoes a deep blue color. Widespread poverty was at that moment subjecting millions of Americans to severe hunger and undernourishment and the streets were filled with beggars, so it made no sense to me that the government would be deliberately rendering vast tonnages of food inedible. The reporter described the action as a means to support higher potato prices so as to aid ailing farmers. I could not grasp this reasoning and when I asked my mother for an explanation, she could only reply that it had something to do with "economics." ... I think it was at that moment that I decided that I would probably major in economics in college. (10)
Browne did pursue the subject when he enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1941. After all, both the Great Depression and World War II were eras of economic experimentation. In college Browne studied "the social security program, the agricultural program, fair labor legislation, and the newly approved National Labor Relations Act." In a 1970s interview with Kalamu ya Salaam, Browne explained that "these were issues of great concern at that time.... The whole idea of setting prices and rationing became the issues people were wrestling with and that was what we studied in school. (11)
During Browne's undergraduate career at the University of Illinois, he claimed he was the only African American economics major. He graduated in 1944 with honors at a time when the "Black Metropolis [was] essentially a community of sixth-graders," and the number of college graduates constituted "about two in every 100 individuals." (12) Browne also joined the black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, an organization whose membership included such luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr. (13) His decision to become a member of the fraternity, however, was partly motivated by practical considerations. As he explained, "The University's host towns of Urbana and Champaign were strictly Jim Crow communities." (14) The Alpha Phi Alpha House, "a run down frame structure [that was] sparsely furnished" and poorly heated, was one of the few places where black male students could live, since they were not allowed to reside in the dormitories. (15) Furthermore, "virtually all the fellows at the Alpha House worked as waiters in the many elegant fraternity and sorority houses which lined the major campuses' roadways."(16) Even being a member of the black elite placed Browne in a position of service to white elites.
Browne's rise through the academic ranks was interrupted in 1944 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. (17) Nevertheless, his honorable discharge in 1946 allowed him to utilize the G.I. Bill to obtain additional education. Browne's ability to access the benefits of this federal legislation was somewhat unusual, considering that the allocation of the G.I. Bill, like other social service programs, tended to privilege white male recipients. (18) However, Browne's residency in the North as well as his educational background gave him certain advantages. In 1947 he graduated with an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, located on Chicago's South Side and close to his family's home. His class included five African American students, an unprecedented number. (19)
Browne's academic successes, however, could not surmount the racial barriers in the labor market for African Americans in the early post-World War II era. Browne later recounted the "traumatic experience" of searching for a position: "Because of my race, the University was unable to obtain an interview for me with a single prospective employer amongst the …
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Publication information: Article title: An African-Vietnamese American: Robert S. Browne, the Antiwar Movement, and the Personal/political Dimensions of Black Internationalism. Contributors: Wu, Judy Tzu-Chun - Author. Journal title: The Journal of African American History. Volume: 92. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2007. Page number: 492+. © 2008 Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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