W. E. B. Du Bois famously declared that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line” (1903, vii). Du Bois’s words have been quoted extensively, and it would be hard to find a more cited passage in African American letters. Yet the proverbial problem, as it has been often cited from The Souls of Black Folk, has been routinely deployed as a prophetic observation principally concerned with the domestic plight of African Americans. Hard on the heels of the failures of Reconstruction, the persistence of white supremacy, and the legal codification of Jim Crow, “the color-line” has remained an opening salvo for grappling with the conundrum of race and racial oppression on U.S. soil.
Yet, if one continues to read the adjoining words that follow Du Bois’s most famous utterance, one will note that his declaration extended far beyond the domestic confines of the United States. Indeed, the color-line was “in the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia, in America and the islands of the sea” (1903, 13). The color-line was global and crisscrossed oceans, continents, nations, and empires.
African life in the Western Hemisphere always sat at the vortex of Euro-American empire as it evolved over four tumultuous centuries. The writer Toni Morrison (1992) has astutely observed that the transatlantic slave trade stamped African bodies as the first objectified subjects of the modern world. Without question, slavery made modernity possible, and the expansion of European empires paved the way for the colonization of the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
It is within this context that the field of African American studies (and its disciplinary corollaries: Africana studies, African diaspora studies, Caribbean studies, slavery studies, etc.) has been forced to wrestle with Euro-American empire from its inception. This essay, however, focuses on the mid-nineteenth century up through the twentieth and thematically considers how African Americans confronted and resisted empire at home and abroad.
Although Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folks in 1903, his global conception of “the color-line” was in direct response to imperial expansion in both hemispheres. Across the Atlantic, Germany’s Chancellor Otto von Bismarck organized the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 and formally ushered in the infamous “Scramble for Africa.” Fourteen European nations and the United States sent representatives to Berlin. In the wake of the conference, Germany, Belgium, Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, and Italy succeeded in dividing the continent into various spheres of colonial control.
The United States did not emerge with its own African spoils; however, it had expanded its imperial reach much closer to home. Indeed, U.S. colonialism began on its own shores. Armed with an Anglo-Saxon drive for new territory and an unquenchable thirst for fossil fuels and precious metals, and buoyed by the philosophical justification of Manifest Destiny, U.S. empire took shape through the genocidal wars against indigenous peoples, considered collateral damage in the service of progress. As the U.S. Calvary pushed West, it also turned its barrels south and instigated a war with Mexico in 1846 under the pretense that the Rio Grande marked the true boundary between the two nations. Within two years, Mexico was defeated and forced to cede two-thirds of its land to the United States.
After successive internal wars to subdue the indigenous peoples of North America and codify the settler-colonial edifice of empire, the United States intervened in the Cuban War of Independence in 1898 and emerged a victor in full control of Spain’s colonial possessions. By seizing Cuba and annexing Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam, the late nineteenth century signaled a new day in U.S. empire.
Thus, the “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia, in America and the islands of the sea,” which Du Bois so eloquently addressed in the opening passages of his classic text, were structured by a new imperial cartography of U.S. empire building. The historian Michael Krenn has noted that U.S. expansion in the nineteenth century grew out of a range of factors including economic depressions in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s as a result of overproduction, glutted domestic markets, strained labor relations, and populist resistance to it all. Moreover, U.S. “military strategists, most notably Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, argued that a large navy was the key to power in the modern world” (2006, 36). U.S. naval prowess found justification in ideas of “survival of fittest,” popularized by Charles Darwin’s 1859 study On the Origin of Species. The pseudoscientific application of Darwinism only reinforced long-standing racist practices that facilitated the devaluation and dehumanization of large swaths of humanity, a precursor to Euro-American colonization.
African Americans, along with their counterparts throughout the African diaspora, resisted these practices. This resistance found formal expression through organizations as varied as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). As the U.S. Navy patrolled the Pacific and the southern Atlantic in search of new resources and markets, African Americans continued to endure the racist backlash of Reconstruction’s failures. Thus, U.S. imperial expansion abroad coincided with a renewed regime of racial terror at home, and nothing embodied this crisis more poignantly than the rise of lynching.
At the turn of the century, African American activists devoted significant organizational effort to combatting lynching. No figure embodied this fight more than the activist Ida B. Wells. Wells’s crusade for justice took her across the United States, yet, like the abolitionists before her, she traveled to England to educate and appeal to the moral conscience of the British public, some of whom found lynching reprehensible.
Wells made her first trip to England in 1893 under the invitation of English Quakers. After failing to raise money to support her activism on that trip, she returned to England in 1894 as an international correspondent for the Daily Inter-Ocean, a Chicago-based Republican newspaper opposed to lynching. Wells’s public speaking and incisive journalism moved British audiences and catalyzed some people to create antilynching organizations in England and beyond. Like abolitionists had decades earlier, Wells moved between an older empire (Britain) and an emerging one (United States), making the fight against lynching a global issue and placing the grievances of African Americans at the center a new geopolitical order that saw the United States emerging as a global superpower with colonial bounty scattered across the hemisphere.
Yet as U.S. empire expanded, others crumbled in the aftermath of World War I. By 1918, the German, Austrian-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires were no more. Against the backdrop of this massive geopolitical shift, black folk around the world continued to resist racial capitalism, white supremacy, and colonial domination. Drawing on older traditions of resistance rooted in Ethiopianism and Christian Revivalism, African people around the world found political refuge in redemptionist visions of Africa grounded in providential sensibilities that crisscrossed the black world.
It was within this context that the Jamaican migrant Marcus Mosiah Garvey established the headquarters for the UNIA in Harlem, New York, in 1916. Garvey’s arrival coincided with the first wave of the Great Migration that saw black southerners and Caribbean migrants pouring into northern cities in search of jobs, opportunity, and reprieve from Jim Crow and colonialism. Garvey’s Pan-African vision and unprecedented organizational acumen resonated with the hopes and desires of a determined people committed to principles of self-organization and self-reliance. Indeed, the Negro World, the UNIA’s newspaper and primary organizational tool, circulated globally through the hands of black sailors and railroad workers both formally and informally.
The UNIA was monumental in the fight against Euro-American empire that gripped and constrained black life in every corner of the globe. It would be a mistake, however, to measure its power and transformative gravitas by its organizational growth and decline or the life of Garvey himself. As Garveyism became localized, its presence could be felt in trade unions, religious organizations, and cultural celebrations that edified and reified black pride and dignity. As one scholar has noted, the global organizing efforts of black folk during the interwar years might be best understood as “the age of Garvey” (Ewing 2014).
Garveyism invigorated grassroots organizational activity among black working peoples around the world. During the World War II, the U.S. black press used its pages to link the African American fight for democracy to larger anticolonial struggles in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Black writers, activists, and intellectuals engaged in solidarity initiatives rooted in the common experiences of aggrieved communities directly shaped by slavery, racial capitalism, and colonial domination. Thus, the African American freedom struggle’s universalism grew out of a recognition of the inextricable linkages between Jim Crow, anticolonialism, and the global fight against Euro-American colonialism as it recalibrated during World War II.
World War II was unquestionably a watershed period in the history of African Americans’ quest for full citizenship in the United States. Once the U.S. entered the war following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s largest black newspaper, inaugurated its “Double V Campaign,” taking aim at ending fascism abroad and racism at home. In addition, fighting in the Pacific theater proved to be more complicated for black combatants in the U.S. Army. Unlike their white counterparts, African Americans had a long-standing affinity for the Japanese that stretched back to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, in which Russia was defeated by a nation of color.
African American literature is replete with narratives of sympathy and adoration for Japan. In rereading these narratives, the literary scholar Etsuko Taketani suggests that we might conceptualize black participation in World War II as part of the “black Pacific,” which projected “a community imagined contrapuntally to [the] regional order in the making, in which a sense of belonging is manufactured by the performance of black narratives that invent history, one that African Americans imagine they share with the colored peoples of the Pacific Rim, especially Asia” (2014, 6–7).
With Europe in shambles and Japan decimated by the atomic bomb, the United States ascended to world supremacy. African American journalists were careful to note that following the war, the United States began to extend its imperial reach into the Caribbean and South America. New military bases were established in Trinidad and Jamaica. The Jamaican Bauxite Company, a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America, garnered greater market share on the island. U.S. military presence in the region only reinforced the power and might of huge conglomerates such as United Fruit Company in such places as Surinam, where they had had a hold on national economies for decades.
For much of the rest of the century, African Americans resisted U.S. empire and called into question the ways in which U.S. foreign policy and militarism reinforced racism and bigotry at home. African American activism has remained critical to challenging American exceptionalism and underscoring the shortcomings of the professed virtues of American democracy.