Penny Von Eschen’s
Race Against Empire

— Clarence Lang

Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957
by Penny M. Von Eschen
Cornell University Press, 1997 189 pp.+ notes and index. $17.95 paperback

This is a revised version of a review published in ATC 84 (January–February 2000). Clarence Lang is a graduate student in history at the University of Illinois and a member of the St. Louis Organizing Committee of the Black Radical Congress. For technical reasons we are unable to include the endnotes here. Write to AGAINST THE CURRENT if you’d like to receive them. [1]

SCHOLARS IN RECENT years have begun reinterpreting the foundations and legacies of McCarthyism in the United States. More work, however, remains to be done on the impact anticommunist fear and hysteria had on the developing Black freedom struggle of the late 1940s and early 1950s. In Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957, historian Penny M. Von Eschen contributes toward understanding the intersections among pan-Africanism, Afro-American politics, and the U.S. Cold War front during this period.

At the center of her narrative is the rise and fall of a broad left-liberal coalition of Black scholars, artists, journalists, politicians and labor leaders. Many of them were aligned, with varying degrees of closeness, to the Popular Front strategy of the American Communist Party.

This coalition, she argues, cohered not only around an anti-imperialist project, but also around the domestic fight against U.S. racial apartheid. Articulating a “politics of the African diaspora,” it sought to redefine the individual and group rights of Asians, continental Africans, and African descendants in the Caribbean and the Americas-all within an international context created by World War II and its immediate aftermath. (2)

According to the author, the guiding nucleus of this wartime Black political front in the United States was the International Committee on African Affairs, later renamed the Council on African Affairs (CAA). At its core were Communists and “fellow travelers” like W. Alphaeus Hunton, Max Yergan, W.E.B. and Shirley Graham DuBois, and singer Paul Robeson.

At its high point, the council drew within its ranks individuals like U.S. congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., New Dealer Mary McLeod Bethune, and sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. As Von Eschen suggests, the council was in no sense a Communist front, and certainly, individuals’ affiliations to the party did not determine CAA activities, or split its membership along sectarian lines.

“Until 1948,” she writes “... most conflicts within the CAA concerned the question of how to work effectively on anticolonial issues—with those close to the CP often lining up on different sides.” (20)

Largely a fundraising entity, the CAA provided the link between international anti-colonial networks, and African liberation groups. Further, it lobbied the U.S. State Department and United Nations for support in African decolonization, and generated reports about the continent’s economic landscape.

In documenting the CAA’s activities and campaigns, Von Eschen argues that the shape of the postwar globe—far from being set in concrete—was in violent flux. Thus, pan-African activists and intellectuals had an open window of opportunity in which to successfully contest for the political, civil and economic rights of those struggling under the yoke of colonialism, and those oppressed as national minorities in the West.

However, with the rapid crystallization of U.S. political, economic and military hegemony during the Harry Truman administration, radical Black anti-colonialists found themselves increasingly repressed by the state, discarded by former allies, and in Von Eschen’s view, driven to the sidelines of African-American political culture.

Cold War liberal leadership, positioning itself as the sole paradigm in Black politics, influenced the limited aspirations and strategies of the early Civil Rights Movement. This turn of events mirrored the marginalization, across the board, of left-leaning activists who gave momentum to the Popular Front.

Garveyism to Pan-Africanism

Although the CAA’s growth and development forms a centerpiece of the book, Von Eschen devotes considerable attention to the many long- and short-term conditions that influenced the form and content of a diasporan identity in the 1940s.

This included, most fundamentally, the legacy of nineteenth-century pan-Africanism established by Martin Delany, Edward Blyden and Alexander Crummell. Against this backdrop, scholar W.E.B. DuBois played a powerful role in convening a series of Pan-African Congresses in 1900, 1919, 1921 and 1927.

It was the Marcus Garvey movement, however, that expanded pan-Africanism beyond a small elite and brought it within reach of a mass, working-class audience, though as Von Eschen convincingly argues, Garveyism itself embraced many of the ideals of Western imperialism. In contrast, the left internationalism of the 1920s and ’30s (represented by individuals like C.L.R. James, then a Trotskyist, and George Padmore, a former Communist) helped infuse pan-Africanism with a militant anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism that later proved significant.

Like numerous scholars, Von Eschen views fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 as a flashpoint in the history of pan-Africanism and African nationalism, giving rise to the formation of the International African Service Bureau, which later became the Pan-African Federation.

Formed by a core of individuals that included Padmore, James, I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson, and Jomo Kenyatta (future leader of Kenya), the federation represented another pillar of pan-Africanism in the early twentieth century: the marriage of diasporan politics and labor militancy.

This cross-fertilization not only influenced the character of the pivotal 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England (of which the Pan-African Federation was a chief architect), but also helped stimulate among politically engaged African Americans a strong emphasis on employment.

Another key ingredient in the making of this diasporan community, according to the author, was the manner in which continental Africans studied abroad in the United States. Attending historically Black schools like Lincoln University, and boarding in local Black communities, people like Kwame Nkrumah were able to get a tangible sense of the commonalties among peoples of color.

For the author, it seems the most vital cohesive solidifying diasporan consciousness and solidarity was the “international Black press.” Von Eschen argues that the Afro-American press, then at its apogee, played a critical role in informing its Black readership about strikes across West Africa and the Caribbean during the late 1930s.

More than any other institution, she reveals, Black newspapers heightened a sense of familial unity with people on the other side of the Atlantic-most of whom U.S. audiences would never meet, yet with whom they still could imagine a connection. This was due in large part to the existence of Claude Barnett’s Associated Negro Press, a syndicated news service that “made international reporting widely available to small papers,” as well as regular contributions journalists like Padmore made to the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, and similar outlets. (8)

Beyond her discussion of institutions and social phenomena, Von Eschen offers a clear sense of the centrality of several influential figures—DuBois, James, Padmore, and so forth—in advancing the pan-Africanist project. Throughout the text, their paths intersect frequently, and at dizzying angles.

Further, she demonstrates how her various protagonists traversed the boundaries of labor, journalism, and the pan-Africanist movement. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who became the president of Nigeria, attended Howard University (where he met the ever-ubiquitous Padmore), and contributed articles to the Philadelphia Tribune and Baltimore Afro-American. Upon his return to West Africa, he encouraged Nkrumah and others to similarly pursue their studies at U.S. Black institutions of higher education.

Likewise, Henry Lee Moon, while a member of the Congress of Industrial Organization’s Political Action Committee, was a newspaper journalist who, in Von Eschen’s view, did much to familiarize Black Americans with the struggles of African labor.

Hence, when the convulsions of the Second World War upset existing power relations in the North, West and colonized South, intellectuals and activists were in firm position to rally popular opinion around visions of a more equitable world. Von Eschen is explicit in her contention that the “global dynamics” of World War II animated pan-Africanist discourse. (7)

Antifascism, which ostensibly undergirded the Anglo-American-Soviet “Grand Alliance,” lent legitimacy to demands for democratic freedoms, and buttressed anti-racist arguments. Still, many U.S. pan-Africanists found this wartime antifascism lacking. While opposing Nazism, it left imperialism untrammeled (for instance, the U.S. military presence in, and economic penetration of, Liberia and the Caribbean), and equivocated on the need to end colonialism and overturn the structures of North American racism.

From the perspective of such pan-Africanists, fascism was but an aspect of the same imperialism of which England, France and the United States all were guilty.

Defeat of Radical Internationalism

The CAA played a key role in formulating such analyses during the 1940s, much of it elaborated in written reports by Alphaeus Hunton. This body of work, Von Eschen intimates, proceeded from a framework anchored in political economy, and understood racism as a phenomenon with historical origins in slavery and capitalism.

Surprisingly, Von Eschen asserts, such analyses gained widespread currency in popular journals like the Crisis (published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP) and the Journal of Negro History, and even in conservative Black newspapers like the New York Amsterdam News.

On another, significant note, writes Von Eschen, “1940s anti-colonialism represented a radical departure from the earlier gendered language of, for example, Martin R. Delany’s consistent masculinist positing of Africa as the fatherland and pervasive invocations of the motherland.” (79) In its place rose a more “universalist” notion of rights, presumably inherited from the left internationalism of the 1930s. This paradigmatic shift not only upset “gendered political categories,” but also corresponded to the central leadership roles of women like Bethune and Charlotta Bass.

Promising also were the development of the Atlantic Charter and United Nations, both of which created international vehicles for redefining the meanings of freedom and rights. In the fluid context of early postwar multilateralism, activists employed a variety of international strategies aimed consistently at raising “issues of discrimination and colonial representation,” and arguing for an economic reconstruction in Africa along the lines of that proposed for war-ravaged Europe. (84)

This “race against empire,” however, was derailed by a chain of events, including heightened tension between the Soviet Union, and Britain and the United States; the articulation of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, both of which asserted U.S. guardianship of the “free world” against a perceived communist threat; conservative backlash against the wave of labor strikes in the late 1940s; and in the United States, a growing preoccupation with internal “security,” and mounting repression of dissenting voices.

Public criticisms of U.S. policy abroad, once a domain of Black anti-colonial activists, became strictly off limits. In this hostile climate, political elites were able to easily conflate civil rights issues with communism. Liberal activists like Powell and Bethune, and mainstream civil rights groups pragmatically supplanted criticism of U.S. foreign policy with an exclusive focus on domestic discrimination.

Seeking refuge in the burgeoning anticommunist consensus, political actors like the NAACP’s Walter White contended that racial discrimination undermined the United States’ justified battled against the Soviet Union. Similarly conceding the high ground to anticommunism, many CIO unions and most Black newspapers jettisoned activists with real or imagined ties to the Communist Party, and journalists like Padmore whose militant anti-imperialism previously was in vogue.

Parallel to this, coverage of African affairs declined precipitously. In an atmosphere of hysteria conditioned by the communist revolution in China, the Korean War, and the Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg cases, the CAA soon found itself burdened with lawsuits filed by the Attorney General’s Subversive Activities Control Board. Members like Hunton, DuBois and Robeson likewise found themselves imprisoned, harassed or barred from travel abroad. By 1955, its coffers empty, the CAA folded.

Detaching Africa from Afro-Americans

Von Eschen skillfully documents how this chain of events reverberated through U.S. Black political culture. Significantly, she writes, “one of the consequences of the later collapse of the politics of the African diaspora was the reinscription of gender in discourses on Africa and anti-colonialism and, arguably, within Pan-African politics”—paving the way for a return to the old masculinist discourses and renewed gender hierarchies. (79)

Black civil rights and anti-colonial agitation became, in popular circles, separate spheres. Racism, once tied to the workings of political economy, was reconceptualized as a psychological, moral problem that gave birth to slavery, instead of the other way around. Issues of racial oppression, once internationalized, were confined to the limited horizons of U.S. “race relations.”

Black identity in the United States similarly was reconfigured, as even the Black popular press encouraged audiences to think of themselves as “Americans” separate and distinct from the rest of the diaspora. Von Eschen proffers that this Afro-American “exceptionalism” went hand in hand with a reinvigorated belief in African primitiveness, a condition to be overcome through Western tutelage and development schemes.

Thus, the author contends that anti-colonialism, while it persisted, changed dramatically in its core assumptions. She implies that just as civil rights was separated from anti-colonialism, anti-colonialism was itself severed from anti-imperialism. The two, though related, were not the same.

The making of African Studies, though largely overlooked here, was no less important to the climate of reaction Von Eschen highlights. An emergent superpower, the United States sought to advance its knowledge about the African continent—part of a larger schema for both securing Africa’s further integration into global capitalist accumulation, and winning its peoples’ allegiance against the Soviet Union.

In North America and Western Europe, the study of Africa was effectively transformed as an enterprise. This transformation, according to Michael West and William Martin, rested on a “teaching and research endeavor focused on sub-Saharan Africa; organized by extra-disciplinary research programs; dominated by faculty and staff at Historically White Universities (HWUs); and funded by ties to private foundations and public agencies.”

Such changes consolidated, on the one hand, a division of the continent between a “Black” Africa in the south and a more “Caucasian” Africa in the north; on the other, a division between Africa as a focus of study, and the rest of the diaspora.

The consequences of these shifts were numerous, and by no means limited to North America. The work of Afro-American scholars like DuBois and Hunton was severed from the field altogether. This undoubtedly accompanied their growing marginalization within U.S. Cold War politics.

Also negated was the role of Black colleges and universities, publications, and institutions (like the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History) as longtime reservoirs of African scholarship. This allowed a new breed of white “experts” the space to claim paternity of the study of Africa. Thus, the creation of Northwestern University’s African Studies program in 1948, and the formation of the African Studies Association in 1957, came to be viewed as “firsts” in the development of the field.

Second, the broad “civilizational” questions raised by pan-Africanist scholars in the United States and the Caribbean were supplanted by calls for “modernizing” and “developing” a backward Africa with no presumed past glory.

Third, the making of African Studies further disengaged study of the continent from any notions of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle.

Fourth, the separation of pan-Africanist themes and scholars from African Studies meant that continental students traveling to North America did so under the aegis of the State Department, white foundations, and white universities. The interactions with African Americans, possible for Azikiwe and Nkrumah, no longer had an institutional basis.

Subverting this aspect of pan-African community-building perhaps helped reinforce the growing African/Afro-American estrangement the book discusses. At the same time, many of the old colonial discourses about African infancy and Western stewardship made their way intact into African Studies as then conceived. This buttressed the widespread exoticization of the continent that Von Eschen details.

Rebuilding Connections

However, the author views the 1950s as a period not merely of tragedy, but also of continuity in the struggle. She reveals that even as the CAA fell into disrepute, new avenues opened for challenging the “liberal consensus” via the assertion of diasporic identity.

These alternative spaces included the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung, which challenged the legitimacy of a bipolar, Soviet-U.S. world; the Nation of Islam, which advanced its own “anti-American critique of the Cold War” (p. 174); and the “goodwill ambassador” tours of Afro-American jazz musicians, which subtly promoted pan-African solidarities despite State Department sponsorship.

For Von Eschen, it also seems clear that the independence of Ghana in 1957 (and Nkrumah’s All African People’s Conference in 1958) ushered in a new era of African nationalism and diasporic solidarity, principally by giving pan-Africanism the backing of state power.

By the mid-1960s, the internationalization of Afro-American civil rights, and an explicit critique of U.S. foreign relations, once again were in full bloom—thanks in part to the developing anti-imperialism of Malik El Hajj Shabazz (Malcolm X), the anti-Vietnam War stance of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the revolutionary internationalism of organizations like the Black Panther Party.

By 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr. publicly declared his opposition to the war in Vietnam. In doing so, like activists in SNCC, he violated the taboo against civil rights leaders criticizing U.S. diplomacy.

A Timely Contribution

In its scope, Von Eschen’s book complements works like Gerald Horne’s Black and Red: W.E.B. DuBois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944–1963, and Bernard Makhosezwe Magubane’s The Ties That Bind: African-American Consciousness of Africa. However, one might have expected from her book more attention to the specific political and economic struggles against racial apartheid in the United States.

Similarly, her discussion of pan-Africanism’s shifting, gendered subtext seems far too understated. Some scholars might rightly criticize Von Eschen for glossing over serious, deep-rooted antagonisms among left activists during this historical period, and failing to ground the book more in a discussion of the Popular Front period.

Others may disagree about whether the potential truly existed for a genuine transformation of global power relations, even the immediate post-World War II moment. Yet Von Eschen convincingly demonstrates that history is rarely the story of the inevitable: The course of historical events may often appear linear and preordained to those reviewing them in the here and now, but arguing from this perspective results in reading the present backward into the past.

On the whole, Von Eschen paints a riveting portrait of a time when radical anti-colonialism and domestic Black civil rights marched arm in arm, before weathering the challenges of the Truman and Eisenhower years. In the process, she helps illuminate the origins of the long-running “primacy debate” among historians of the Black slave experience. The debate continues as to which preceded which: Racism or slavery? Color prejudice or capitalism?

Race Against Empire is important finally for the immediacy of its subject matter. As the twenty-first century begins, we now may be witnessing another moment of disjuncture, one that has created renewed possibilities for a radical “politics of the diaspora.”

For instance, a number of African Americans, in criticizing U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba, have “rediscovered” a diasporan connection to its people, a vast majority of whom are of African descent. Several months ago, Randall Robinson, head of the Washington, D.C. lobbying group TransAfrica, led a delegation to Cuba as part of a public appeal to lift the blockade.

Just as striking as its campaign was the fact that this group had a broad political and ideological composition characteristic of 1940s-era anti-colonialism. Among those accompanying Robinson were actor Danny Glover, a vocal human rights activist; Johnnetta B. Cole, former president of historically Black Spelman College; and Bill Fletcher, Jr., education director for the AFL-CIO, and national organizer for the Black Radical Congress.

The goal of this mission dovetails with ongoing calls to dissolve the African debt, which a number of observers (including the late Julius Nyerere) contend has been paid several times over. Along these lines, vocal opposition to U.S. trade policy in Africa has put a new generation of Black activists in conflict not only with the Clinton Administration, but also with the Black professionals and managerial elites operating within his “New Democrat” alliance.

Moreover, now that the Cold War is over and “Area Studies” are becoming superfluous to the State Department and vulnerable to university budget cuts, many scholars are exploring how to bring African Studies to new constituencies. Or rather, they are examining how to return the study of Africa to institutions, actors, and constituencies in Black community life-going “back to the future,” as historian Paul Tiyambe Zeleza terms it.

A reading of Von Eschen’s book reveals it is difficult to appreciate today’s pregnant historical moment without comprehending its origins in the contested political terrain of the 1940s and ’50s.


Notes on African Studies

On the highly contested domain of “African Studies” and its relation to the political struggles documented in Race Against Empire, readers may wish to consult the following sources.

Michael O. West and William G. Martin, A Future with a Past: Resurrecting the Study of Africa in the Post-Africanist Era, Africa Today, Vol. 44, No. 3 (1997): 309.

William Martin and Michael West, The Decline of the Africanists’ Africa and the Rise of New Africas, Issue, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1995): 24–26.

William G. Martin, Constructive Engagement II, or Catching the Fourth Wave: Who and Where are the ‘Constituents’ for Africa?, The Black Scholar, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Spring 1999): 21–30.

Gerald Horne, Looking Forward/Looking Backward: The Black Constituency for Africa Past & Present, The Black Scholar, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Spring 1999): 30–34.

Lisa Brock, Questioning the Diaspora: Hegemony, Black Intellectuals and Doing International History from Below, Issue, Vol. 24, No. 2 (1996): 9–11.

Melina Pappademos, Romancing the Stone: Academe’s Illusive Template for African Diaspora Studies, Issue, Vol. 24, No. 2 (1996): 38–39.

Stanley J. Heginbotham, Rethinking International Scholarship: The Challenge of Transition from the Cold War Era, Items (Social Science Research Council), Vol. 48, Nos. 2–3 (June–September 1994): 33–40.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, The Perpetual Solitudes and Crises of African Studies in the United States, Africa Today, Vol. 44, No. 2 (1997): 193–210.

Zeleza, Manufacturing African Studies and Crises, (CODESRIA, 1997); Herchelle Sullivan Challenor, No Longer at Ease: Confrontation at the 12th Annual African Studies Association Meeting at Montreal, Africa Today, Vol. 16, Nos. 5–6 (October/November/December 1969): 4–7.

Idrian N. Resnick, The Future of African Studies After Montreal, Africa Report, December 1969: 22–24.

Audrey C. Smock, A Critical Look at American Africanists, Africa Report, December 1970: 23–24; Guy Mhone, The Case Against Africanists, Issue: A Quarterly Journal of Africanist Opinion, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Summer 1972): 8–13.

John Henrik Clarke, The African Heritage Studies Association (AHSA): Some Notes on the Conflict with the African Studies Association (ASA) and the Fight to Reclaim African History, Issue, Vol. 6, Nos. 2–3 (Summer/Fall 1976): 5–11.

Victor C. Uchendu, Africa and the Africanist: The Challenge of a Terminal Colonial Order, Issue, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring 1977): 5–11.



  1. For the sake of consistency, “Black” will be capitalized throughout this essay when referring to the African-American nationality, despite spelling variations in original sources.
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Clarence Lang is a Ph.D. candidate in history at hte university of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the St. Louis Organizing Committee of the Black Radical Congress.

ATC 84, January–February 2000