African Americans in the International Imaginary: Gerald Horne's Progressive Vision

By Plummer, Brenda Gayle | The Journal of African American History, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

African Americans in the International Imaginary: Gerald Horne's Progressive Vision


Plummer, Brenda Gayle, The Journal of African American History


The figure of W. E. B. Du Bois has become the exemplary model for black scholars in the United States and beyond. Historian Gerald Horne numbers among those who have captured some of Du Bois's sensibility--his learning, his energy and self-discipline, and his commitment to the progressive transformation of society. African American Studies, in his hands, is a discipline that interrogates the presumptions of the West, especially its claims to order, reason, and stability, through recovery of complex narratives of resistance to racism and imperialism. At a moment in time when we are paying the price for the disastrous, accreted choices made by political and economic elites, Horne's histories serve to remind us of what we have forgotten or never known: the richness and diversity of African American history, its global presence, and its participation in worldwide chronicles of freedom and resistance.

The primacy of the nation-state has tended to obscure the transnational mobility and ubiquity of African Americans. The desire to recover this occluded history has led Horne to extensive international, multi-archival research and exhaustive study of secondary material. This scholarship, uncontained by national frontiers, joins the concerns of other scholars who raise questions about the ability of national histories to adequately frame and delineate transnational movements. Richard Iton has written, "the ability of actors in the cultural realm, intentionally and at times inadvertently, to resist the definition of politics as solely that which happens within state borders, or in the name of the nation, represents a significant means by which these norms might be denaturalized." Horne's exegesis of a global history of racism unconfined by the particular practices of specific empires but deployed by all, escapes the strictures of national history and preserves the contours of a transcendent global black presence. This is Iton's "illusory but meaningful space between the national and the imperial, where black subjects understood broadly are made," and where "are to be found those most likely to recognize the convenient disarticulation of liberal and colonial regimes and their representation as benign and past tense, respectively." (1)

When Home occupies this space, he succeeds in defeating the presumption that African American experiences and worldview can be neatly contained within U.S. borders. International activism has been a strategy that African-descended people have employed historically to address their oppression in the United States. By skillfully uncovering these activities, Horne has made it virtually impossible to revive a reformist and purely domestic African American history. He has debunked the idea that African American pursuits abroad were only rhetorical, or that they met with few positive responses from other peoples of color. Substantial evidence of many kinds of collaboration across racial and ethnic lines, including some that were egregious, is richly compiled in Black and Brown: African Americans and the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920 (2005); The End of Empires: African Americans and India (2008); and The White Pacific: U.S. Imperialism and Black Slavery in the South Seas after the Civil War (2007), and other works. (2)

Several themes pervade these texts and Home's exhaustively researched and eclectic body of work generally. One of them is the contention that the ideological conformity of U.S. civil rights leaders indirectly helped sustain anti-communism and rationalize continued political repression in the Third World as well as in the United States. For example, the era of African American collaboration with India, Home argues, ended soon after 1947 as black leaders were forced to accept the official Cold War vilification of India as a Soviet ally. He describes the victory of Cold War liberalism over radicalism as one in which white elites conceded to African Americans on the question of color in exchange for their support of centrist public policies, but fatally damaged African Americans' class position through attacks on the militant trade unions that had defended their right to a decent living. …

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