Reflection on “No Exit: From Bandung to Ghana” by Charlene Obernauer

By on April 17th, 2018 in Blog Posts

 

In Race Against Empire, Penny M. Von Eschen’s chapter, “No Exit: From Bandung to Ghana,” highlighted various international conferences that occurred throughout the world in the mid-1950s. She highlights conferences as gatherings among people of color to deliberately operate outside of the Cold War debates and to forge a new space to discuss issues of importance for so-called “Third World” countries of color; and conferences that were sponsored by and engaged with the communist/capitalist divide. Mainstream conferences were populated by African Americans that the State Department deemed legitimate representatives of African Americans. For the international community, the importance of African Americans to legitimize the United States government was essential – African Americans were needed to show that American democracy and racial equality was not a myth or a fairytale. However, despite the State’s attempts to tokenize their way to equality, this tokenizing also proved the limitations of the American experiment.

Von Eschen writes about the Bandung Conference in 1955, which took place among neutral states. Ceylon’s John Kotelawala said, “Moscow and Washington must realize that there are others, too, in the world and that the main concern among these others is peace” (168). This conference was seen as an indication that the world was not as concerned about the fighting between the United States and Russia as many may have thought. Rather, the concerns plaguing a wide variety of communities of color all over the world was of higher importance – the creation of policies of peace. Washington expressed concern and disdain over the conference, clearly threatened by the prospect of other countries aligning over their own common interests instead of the supposed universal morality and freedom that the United States contradictorily proclaimed was fighting for.

Harlem’s Congressional representative, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. attended the conference despite the protestations of the U.S. Department of State and contradictorily defended the country’s progress in race relations, despite the fact that both Robeson and and Du Bois were banned from attending. Powell attempted to stamp out so-called anti-American sentiment in the conference and prided himself with successfully doing so by holding a mere press conference. The Congressman’s attempt to negate the importance of the conference resonated among the political establishment in the U.S., but it was removed from reality.

However irrelevant the United States wanted the conference to appear, at the United Nations to follow, several issues that emerged from the conference were discussed as a result. “The white people of the Western world laughed last spring when the dark nations sat down together for a conference at Bandung, but the darker nations… are now having a last laugh,” reported James L. Hicks (173). The “last laugh” came from the influence that this conference had, not on the Cold War or communism as had been the fear, but on other issues that had lasting impacts on “third world” countries.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi Charlene, thanks for this thoughtful blog post. I am intrigued by the complexity of historical voices we hear in both the von Eschen book and in the Robeson movie. It’s clear that communism had Black and white adherents and detractors, there was no unitary position, and that, as Robeson’s son notes, once confronted with Stalinism, his father had to make compromised choices and thought Soviet communism superior to alt-right white supremacist racism–but he himself did not join the CP and did not call himself a member of the CP. Sometimes, in hindsight, history flattens. Not in this case!

  2. Charlene,

    There certainly were many actors on the world’s stage during this period, all of whom with their own motives and perspectives with respect to the Cold War. I love your comment about how “[t]his conference was seen as an indication that the world was not as concerned about the fighting between the United States and Russia as many may have thought. Rather, the concerns plaguing a wide variety of communities of color all over the world was of higher importance.” Truly with so many countries liberating themselves from the chains of colonization, why should these self-described “non-aligned” and “Third World” countries bother with the feuding happening between the United States and the Soviet Union? These conferences were vital in imagining a different world outside the present and previous hegemonic structures. I wonder what could have happened had there been a chance for more conversation – and action – to occur?

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