Introduction: AfroAsian Encounters Culture, History, Politics / Heike Raphael-Hernandez and Shannon Steen
For a long time, many critics understood W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous diagnosis of the twentieth century as plagued by the problem of the color line as a description of white/nonwhite antagonisms. However, in the aftermath of identity movements on the part of a variety of racial and ethnic groups, as well as saddening clashes between them, it has become impossible to construe the twentieth century as riven by a single color line. Instead, we now conceive of the modern world as having been fractured by a network of lines dividing a range of racial and ethnic groups. How else can we comprehend the identity struggles of South Asian visual artists in the Caribbean, the treatment of the Vietnam War by African American novelists, or the absorption of hip-hop by Asian American youth culture?
AfroAsian Encounters addresses an important connection that until recently has received only scant attention: the mutual influence of and relationships between members of the African and Asian diasporas in the Americas. Across the Americas, these two groups have often been thought of as occupying radically incommensurable cultural and political positions. In this collection, we examine AfroAsian interconnections across a variety of cultural, political, and historical contexts in order to examine how the two groups have interacted, and have construed one another, as well as how they have been set in opposition to each other by white systems of racial domination. We build here on the burgeoning interest in AfroAsian cultural histories reflected in a number of venues. From the conferences hosted by Boston University’s African American studies department (2002, 2003, 2004), to special editions on AfroAsian studies in Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society (2002) and positions: East Asia cultures critique (2003), to the numerous essays and books generated by scholars across a number of disciplines from Gary Okihiro and Vijay Prashad to Claire Jean Kim and Frank Wu, as well as work by contributors we include here, research on black-Asian racial interactions and formations has expanded at a rapid pace during the last decade. We seek to widen the energetic investigations that AfroAsian studies have provided relative to histories of diasporic and racial formations and globalization across a variety of fields, and with this book we hope to offer an important contribution to the ongoing scholarly debate. We have framed our treatment of black-Asian interactions within a neologism—rather, we have altered the typography for the term: AfroAsian. While there have been references to the “Afro-Asian” century and the “Afro-Asian” world, we have decided to drop the hyphen from the term in order to denote a unique, singular set of cultural dynamics that our authors analyze.
This collection constitutes the first interdisciplinary anthology to treat AfroAsian encounters. In keeping with the systems of intellectual inquiry established within African American and Asian American studies, we have gathered here essays that reflect a wide disciplinary range, including literary studies, musicology, history, and performance and visual studies.With this array we follow the recent move in the scholarly academy to allow interdisciplinary analysis to bridge the traditional divides that reflect the specialization of academic knowledge to the detriment of actual cultural and social processes. These essays provide rich, progressive, innovative directions in AfroAsian studies and invigorate the status of current thought on interracial encounters across multiple disciplines. This work does not just present a medley of essays with AfroAsian encounters in the Americas as their only common denominator; rather, we have taken Claire Jean Kim’s discussion of “racial triangulation” in Asian American studies as an invitation to further the discourse of AfroAsian encounters. Moving beyond the traditional black/white binary, the essays claim that to understand historical and contemporary AfroAsian encounters, the third, white, signifier, cannot be separated from a discussion as this signifier has informed or influenced AfroAsian binary encounters in the Americas, often without being visibly or literarily present.
Race in the past century and a half has not functioned within national or ethnic boundaries. The cultural and racial groupings examined by our contributors indicate the ways in which these groups do not exist in isolation but within complicated interactions, and they ask us to reevaluate how we define the category “race” itself. Perhaps the most important contribution of AfroAsian studies lies in its potential ability to disrupt the black/white binary that has so persistently characterized race and ethnic studies.Within the last ten years or so, the stability of the term “race” has come under growing scrutiny. Increasingly, race is considered to be not an ontological, coherent category but a dynamic system of affiliation, exclusion, and disavowal that is constantly being reinvented. This sense of “performing” race, of its contingent, assumed nature, has come to be understood in relation to processes of national self-conception, such that “race” is seen as a category produced by the nation itself. As Paul Gilroy, Lisa Lowe, and Etienne Balibar have pointed out in different ways, national and racial boundaries are concomitant; race subtends dominant nationalist discourses—it extends underneath or functions in opposition to definitions of the nation. While the strategic, tactical fluidity of terms like race and nation in this formula are crucial to our understanding of their unstable, changing processes, the logic of opposition that has underwritten this conception of race has also had the unfortunate effect of reinscribing its terms within binary relations and has somewhat perniciously limited our understanding of “race” to dichotomous models largely cast in terms of black and white. To this point, the great intervention in this binary system has been the assertion by postcolonial theorists of an “interstitial” position that occupies the spaces between these oppositions. But this is not our only option.
Scholars in Asian American studies have mounted energetic campaigns to move beyond the conceptual limitations of the racial binary in the last decade or so—we might think here of Claire Jean Kim’s above-mentioned discussion of “racial triangulation,” Gary Okihiro’s question “Is Yellow Black or White?,” and Frank Wu’s assertion that Asian American identities constitute something “beyond” either. For the most part, this work has demanded that we begin to understand race in terms of a polymorphous, multifaceted, multiply-raced immigration diaspora in combination with the histories of the African slave diaspora. However, race scholars still struggle to produce a flexible model that answers calls to move “beyond the binary.” In AfroAsian Encounters we contribute to this dialogue around racial formation by moving away from the focus on black-white interactions; moreover, we do so by examining the interactions of two racial groups now set up in opposition to one another within, for example, contemporary U.S. racial systems. We hope that the essays gathered here can intervene in these binary systems—methodologically, in terms of expanding the objects of race studies and, conceptually, through the expansion of the reigning paradigm of race studies away from blackness/antiblackness and whiteness/antiwhiteness schemas.
To understand contemporary U.S. racial systems, we must step more boldly into Europe’s past, as Paul Gilroy urges us. He writes:
We must be prepared to make detours into the imperial and colonial zones where the catastrophic power of race-thinking was first institutionalized and its distinctive anthropologies put to the test, above all, in the civilizing storms of colonial war. . . . That redemptive movement must be able to pass beyond a compensatory acknowledgement of Europe’s imperial crimes and the significance of its colonies as places of governmental innovation and experiment. The empires were not simply out there—distant terminal points for trading activity where race consciousness could grow—in the torrid zones of the world at the other end of the colonial chain. Imperial mentalities were brought back home . . . and altered economic, social, and cultural relations. . . . Europe’s openness to the colonial worlds it helped to make, might then be employed to challenge fantasies of the newly embattled European region as a culturally bleached or politically fortified space, closed off to further immigration.
With this mindset, Europeans “created” their “New World,” and the Americas became their dream, their geographically locatable paradise. That their creation contained problematic cross-cultural and cross-racial encounters from the start was not problematic for white ideology and imagination; the European colonial color hierarchy was designed to regulate such problems. Racial divisions were arranged according to the white/nonwhite binary. In his Letters from an American Farmer (1782, 1793) John de Crèvecoeur provided a definition of the only true American “race”:
What, then, is the American, this new man? He is neither a European nor the descendant of a European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced . . . and the new rank he holds. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men. . . . The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared…
…Key to the history of interaction between the two groups is the process by which their intermixing was made possible. The first AfroAsian contact can be traced back to antiquity through the great spice routes that we normally think of as a characteristic of the Greco-Roman cultural world. These routes also provided the conditions for cultural and economic exchange between what we now refer to as Tanzania, Somalia, Egypt, Persia, India, and China, as these empires traded precious commodities such as cinnamon and myrrh (in fact, the archeological record is unclear as to whether the AfroAsian routes preceded the Greco-Roman involvement in the spice trade). Two millennia later, the early- to mid-nineteenth-century abolition of the slave trade produced the context of AfroAsian encounters of modernity. In the wake of the British abolition of the trade in African lives, cheap labor sources were needed to fuel British colonial industries around the globe. Indians were transplanted to southern Africa to build railroads, and Chinese were taken to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations. A similar economic necessity drove the importation of Asian labor to the United States. As the national debate over slavery grew over the course of the early nineteenth century, and more states (especially western states) were added to the “free soil” roster, the need for cheap labor did not abate. The early development of new states like California happened to coincide with the massive displacement of peoples in Guangdong province in the wake of the Opium Wars. As John Kuo Wei Tchen has pointed out, prior to the construction of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 it took two to three months to travel overland to San Francisco from Boston or New York, but only two weeks to travel from Canton by clipper ship, creating circumstances that made Chinese immigrants the perfect candidates to step into the labor shortage caused by booming industries in mining, shipping, transportation, and agriculture in California. AfroAsian relations, then, are the issue and, potentially, the subversion of the European dream of “the new world.” Given the extraordinary richness of AfroAsian interactions of modernity, particularly those created within the shadow and against the force of this colonialist history, we have chosen to focus the volume within the period beyond emancipation. The colonial processes that created the Americas made possible the very connections our authors investigate.
For these AfroAsian encounters in the Americas, the twentieth century invented another problematic triangulated concept—the “model minority” myth. This construct enabled white society to pit Asian Americans against many other groups, not just African Americans. Yet, for the Afro-Asian mutual perspective of each other and for their encounters, the concept has carried additional problems: while Asian Americans have been constructed as model minorities, their economic success heralded as proof of the availability of the American Dream to all, African Americans have continued to be plagued by negative associations and to be systematically excluded from the American political economy.