Alex Lubin. Souls. Volume 9, Issue 2. 2007.
At the 1955 Asian-African conference held in Bandung, Indonesia pan-Africanists and anti-colonial leaders from Asia and North Africa met to discuss the politics of non-alignment. The conference addressed many themes, including the possibilities for Afro-Asian solidarity, the complexities of anti-colonial struggle within Cold War hegemony, and the enduring colonial occupations of North Africa, parts of Southeast Asia, and Palestine.
Written as part orientalist travel narrative and part journalistic report, Richard Wright’s 1956, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference, rendered the conference themes to American audiences by locating it within the contexts of the Cold War and Pan-African politics. While Wright’s tone was generally celebratory, Curtain was firmly rooted in a Western aesthetic that treated the non-aligned geographies as exotic and irrational. For example, Wright’s reportage lacked serious engagement with the North African and Arab contingents at Bandung and his depictions of the conference as a place where “black Africans mingled with swarthy Arabs” delimited his view of Bandung’s potential (176). Thus, while Curtain illustrates anti-colonial politics in Palestine and North Africa, Wright’s report on Bandung illustrates the ways that Palestine, in particular, was an ambivalent geography in Wright’s imaginary.
During his flight to Bandung, Wright engaged North African delegates who insisted on making the question of Palestine central to conference’s agenda.
[I was shown] photos of Arab refugees driven by the Jews out of their homes. I leafed through the bundle of photos; they were authentic, grim, showing long lines of men, women and children marching barefooted and half-naked over desert sands, depicting babies sleeping without shelter, revealing human beings living like animals. (76)
Shocked by scenes of Palestinian subjugation, Wright was nonetheless reluctant to support Arab anti-colonial politics. Instead, he suggested the question of Palestine was primarily one of religious fanaticism and irrationality, not colonialism.
It was strange how, the moment I left the dry, impersonal, abstract world of the West, I encountered at once: religion.…And it was passionate, unyielding religion, feeding on itself, sufficient unto itself. And the Jews had been spurred by religious dreams to build a state in Palestine.…Irrationalism meeting irrationalism.…Though the conversation about the alleged aggression of the Jews in Palestine raged up and down the aisles of the plane, I could hear but little of it…(77-78)
For Wright, the Arab-Israeli conflict, even as it engage issues of exile and homeland that were central to his own cosmopolitanism, was illegible as a question of colonialism.
As an exile from the United States writing with the support, in part, of the Central Intelligence Agency, Wright conveys a double-ness in his prose, writing both as a Western observer of the non-aligned world and a critic of Western forms of colonialism and racism. In this way, he not only suggests the sort of double-consciousness defined by W. E. B. Du Bois, but also a double-ness related to his status within and outside of the West. For Du Bois, double-consciousness described how Black people lived within and beyond the world of color, “a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” While Wright expresses double consciousness in a Du Boisian sense, he is similarly “double” regarding his status as a western subject who, seeking freedom outside of Western geographies and forms of racial belonging, was nevertheless fully part of the West. In this way, Wright viewed Palestine in ways similar to many orientalists, while also viewing it as an important site for anti-colonial politics.
I am using Edward Said’s term, “orientalism,” with full recognition that African-American relationships to orientalism raise certain problematics. For Said, “orientalism” is the epistemological basis of imperialism, it is a textual formation that divides the world into two uneven entities called occident and orient. The occident defines itself, its notions of progress and modernity through comparison to the orient’s supposed primitiveness and exoticism. Said imagined orientalism in terms of dominant cultural productions; he therefore did not account for the ways subaltern populations within the occident, who lacked access to imperial authority, might relate to orientalism. The concept of orientalism thus obscures the liminality of African-American thought about the orient which was, I contend, simultaneously orientalist and critical of Western modernity’s reliance on Black slaves and anti-Black racism. African-American orientalism thus represents a variation on Said’s definition, suggesting ways that imperial regimes shaped African-American modes of viewing the Middle East, even while those regimes excluded Black subjectivity.
Black political thought concerning Palestine is often understood within a contemporary political context that assumed an inevitable Israeli conclusion to Palestinian history, while also assuming global Jewish belonging to Israel. Moreover, this framework locates Black politics surrounding Palestine within the context Black/Jewish relations in the United States in ways that links Black support for Palestinians to ethnic and racial antipathy between Black and Jewish Americans. This framework elides important routes of Black internationalist politics that extend to the Arab/Islamic world, while also forgetting the pre-1948 history of Palestine.
This essay is concerned with charting routes linking African America to pre-1948 Palestine in order to trouble some common assumptions about African-American relationships to Palestine and Israel. For many African-American radicals, Palestine has been a generative site for articulating anti-colonial and anti-racist politics. Because of the parallels between anti-Jewish anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism within the West, Jewish and African Diasporic politics have often overlapped. Many African Americans have viewed Jewish Zionism as an anti-colonial and anti-racist movement; when the State of Israel was created in 1948, African-American radicals like W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and many others firmly supported the creation of the Jewish state. Yet, over time, some African Americans who had supported the creation of the modern state of Israel began to identify Zionism as a colonial discourse, such as when Du Bois criticized Israeli aggression in his poem “Suez.” Locating Palestine in African-American politics prior to the creation of the State of Israel generates an opportunity to examine when anti-racist and anti-colonial politics become rooted in territory and Western forms of governmentality and the ways that internationalist politics work within and against the governing logics of empire.
It should be noted that different groups of African Americans employed orientalism to different ends. For pan-Africanists, Palestine was a primitive geography that spoke to the needs of a new modernity in the orient. In this way, orientalism helped pan-Africanists build a case for settler colonialism in Africa. For civil rights activists Zionist settlements represented progress to the primitive orient and exemplified proof that peoples exiled from the West could find freedom by looking to the nation-state as the most appropriate rubric for redress. Hence, in the Zionist desire for a Jewish state, African-American civil rights leaders saw a model for addressing racial exclusion and terror in the United States. For African-American Christian Zionists the orient was in need of Christian restoration, and this could only be accomplished through Jewish return to historic Israel followed by Jewish conversion to Christianity. This group saw the Zionist movement not in terms of redress for Jewish anti-Semitism, but instead, in terms of biblical prophecy. Each of these views of the orient rested on a form of orientalism, but often for different ends. Moreover, each group of African-American travelers employed Zionism in order to better understand how exiled peoples could imagine home and politically mobilize to reach a “promised land.”
During the second half of the nineteenth century, African Americans, like many other Americans, began to document their travel to “the orient.” The travel narrative was a medium for African Americans to narrate as Western travelers and thereby gain subjectivity and recognition as Western subjects. This writing took place during a ninety-year period that was framed by the end of slavery in the United States, the colonial occupation of “the Levant” in the wake of World War One, and the genocidal Holocaust taking place in Europe. Pan-Africanists, African Americans seeking rights within the United States, and African-American Christian Zionists, each rendered Palestine through orientalism; yet because they were themselves displaced within the West, Palestine was also viewed with a great deal of identification and longing because of its status as the site of exodus. The travel narratives discussed here thus document the presence of pre-1948 Palestine in African-American intellectual and political thought; but more importantly, they illustrate the complexities of Black internationalist politics when framed by orientalism and Zionism.
The first African-American Holy Land travel narrative was written by David Dorr who was a slave brought to Europe and the orient by his master. Born in 1827 or 1828 in New Orleans, Dorr traveled with his master between 1851 and 1854 through Europe and the Ottoman controlled orient. Upon returning to the United States, Dorr fled his master who had failed to guarantee his freedom, and in 1858, he published A Colored Man ‘Round the World. As Malini Johar Schuller has suggested, Dorr’s narrative is marked by a gentlemanly tone that establishes the authority of a slave to speak and define for American readers the non-Western world. In this way, Dorr participates in orientalism through his construction of knowledge about the orient, and through his geographic and cultural descriptions of the orient in comparison to the occident.
For example, after describing a bucolic experience traveling through Europe, Dorr relates his journey from Paris to Egypt by juxtaposing Parisian civility with oriental savagery. “If you have, see me alike, pulling away from the festal abode of Paris’ comfort, and loosening the tie of familiar smiles, for a hard journey over a rough see, dead lands, and a treacherous people” (63-64). In Egypt, Dorr’s accommodations were “sickening” and he was continually appalled by what he considered Arab laziness. While traveling down the Nile, Dorr described “Some places, when the boat was shoving out, some great, fat and lazy Arab would come blowing and panting to the edge of the Nile with one single egg, that he had been waiting for the hen to lay.…To believe what an Arab says when trying to sell anything, would be a sublime display of the most profound ignorance a man could be guilty of” (172-173). Dorr’s frequent allusions to the backward orient gained him entrance into a Western authority to gaze east.
Yet Dorr’s narrative is not merely orientalist; it also makes subtle allusions to slavery and, in this way, is critical of Western modernity’s slavery and racial terror. The book is dedicated “to my slave mother.” Dorr writes in the inscription: “Mother! Wherever thou art, whether in Heaven or a lesser world; or whether around the freedom Base of a Bunker Hill, or only at the lowest savannah of American Slavery, thou art the same to me, and I dedicate this token of my knowledge to thee mother, Oh, my own mother, Your David” (Dedication page). This dedication intervenes in the teleology of occidental modernity made possible through the travel narrative. It underscores that this purveyor of the Western gaze is himself the product of an enduring slavery and that travel in the orient signifies a level of freedom unknown to the author in the United States.
Furthermore, Dorr represents the orient as a place of African self-rule when he visits the pyramids of Egypt. There, he notes the similarities in Turkish rule in the Ottoman Empire to the rule of Egyptian monarchs, “though black.” In this way, Dorr exposes the Black origins of Egyptian civilizations thereby locating Blacks within both the orient and occident. This double-ness allows Dorr to assume an authority not only over the orient and its indigenous populations, but also over the Christian sites of the Holy Land. Because he claims parts of the orient as his ancestral homeland Dorr is critical of Christian tourists who cannot “know” what he can. For Dorr, it was the Western tourist and not the Black slave who was a foreigner. In Jericho, for example, Dorr scoffs at a guide who explains that the source of a spring is “because the jawbone that Sampson fought so bravely with was buried here.” Since he imagines a privileged place for himself in the biblical landscape of exodus, Dorr “was not inclined to believe anything I heard from the people about here, because I knew as much as they did about it. I came to Jerusalem with a submissive heart, but when I heard all the absurdities of these ignorant people, I was more included to ridicule right over these sacred dead bodies, and spots, than pay homage” (186). Dorr makes clear his belief that members of the African Diaspora are not foreigners to Palestine when he compares the consistency of the waters of the Jordan to that of the Mississippi; both rivers share in the Black imaginary as sites of emancipation and the comparison links Dorr to the orient.
By engaging the legacy of slavery in the context of an orientalist travel narrative Dorr’s story takes on the political significance of a slave narrative, but one routed not South to North, but internationally, West to East. As Schuller has noted, Dorr challenges slavery through cultures of taste; his ability to assume Western respectability and to narrate the orient enables him an authority to challenge slavery. Ultimately, however, Dorr’s travel narrative is a call for a new modernity in the United States, one that locates exodus and the acknowledgement of Black civilization at the center of the West, rather than the orient. In this way, Dorr’s internationalism is rooted in the West, even while it is staged in the orient.
Subsequent African-American travel writers would employ orientalist travel accounts to similar ends; but those published after 1890 had only to look to the growing Zionist movement as a touchstone around which criticism of slavery could be elaborated. In 1896, Theordore Herzl, responding to anti-Jewish anti-Semitism in France, published his treatise on Jewish Zionism called The Jewish State. Although Herzl set eyes on Palestine as the only homeland for the Jewish state, some Zionists were less committed to Palestine as homeland, and would settle for any territory where Jews could establish self-rule.
Arguably, the most sophisticated articulation of the territorial Zionist position was not by a Jewish intellectual, but by an African intellectual from the Americas named Edward Wilmot Blyden. Blyden had also witnessed the Dreyfus affair (as had W. E. B. Du Bois), had grown up among Jews in the Danish colony of St Thomas, and became one of the founding fathers of Pan-Africanism and a supporter of Liberian colonization. Blyden’s travel narrative suggests ways that Black travel to the orient could deploy orientalism in order to post a new modernity. As a pan-Africanist, Blyden was interested in articulating an internationalist politics for all Blacks as well as in advocating setter-movements in Africa.
Blyden’s travel narrative From West Africa to Palestine (1873) along with his essays “Mohammedism and the Negro Race” (1877) and “The Jewish Question” (1898) convey the complex alchemy of orientalism, Zionism, and Pan-Africanism in Blyden’s writing. From West Africa to Palestine, like Dorr’s travel narrative, is orientalist in the ways it establishes a Western authority to gaze at the orient. For example, the travel narrative is filled with geographic descriptions of the orients’ barrenness as well as its exotica. Blyden is “struck with the bareness of the mountains of all forest trees of natural growth” while also taken by the “sublimity of scenery—the overpowering charms of the tout ensemble of a summer-evening view from the summits of Lebanon.” These geographic observations helped Blyden establish a hierarchy of the orient’s inhabitants, with native Arabs on the bottom and recent settlers, including missionaries at the American University of Beirut, at the top. The orient was, for Blyden, disorganized and poorly ruled. “There seems to be no law or order to regulate the tumultuous and boisterous crowds which overwhelm the new comer to these Oriental ports” (154).
Because Blyden viewed Arabs as irrational and Ottoman rule as insufficient, he advocated Western imperial administration of Palestine.
When one…visits [Palestine] and perceives how, under the misrule of the Turks—a misrule rather of negligence and omission than of elaborate design—everything lies waste and desolate—how the land is infested with thieves and robbers—how some of the most interesting localities cannot be visited without a strong and expensive guard—when he sees sacred places under the surveillance of Turkish solders who have no respect for that which the Christian venerates—he wonders why it is that the land has not passed long ago into the hands of one of the Great Christian Powers…the land is desolate and overthrown by strangers. (192-193)
Blyden’s orientalism rests on his assumptions about the beneficent role of occidental imperial administration.
Yet, Blyden also sought to challenge how Western cultures had assumed Blacks’ inability to be fully modern and to assume self-rule. Thus, he supported Zionism and embraced Pan-Islamism in order to show how, without the racial slavery and racial terror of the West, Blacks were fully capable of being modern and establishing self-rule. To this end, Blyden was especially interested in identifying the African origins of Egyptian civilization. In Egypt, Blyden finds himself most capable of expressing the possibilities for a new and African modernity. “I felt lifted out of the commonplace grandeur of modern times; and, could my voice have reached every African in the world, I would have earnestly addressed him in the language of Hilary Teage—‘Retake your fame’” (105).
Blyden sought to illustrate how Egyptian civilization was central to Western civilization and then to show how, because Blacks were of the West, they were capable of ruling Liberia. “Now that the slave-holding of Africans in Protestant countries has come to an end…it is to be hoped that a large-hearted philosophy and an honest interpretation of the facts of history, sacred and secular, will do them the justice to admit their [Black Egyptians] participation in, if not origination of, the great works of ancient civilization” (106). If Blacks originated “the great works of ancient civilization,” Blyden argued, they were certainly capable of participating in the civilizing authority of colonial administrations.
Blyden’s case for self-rule in Liberia thus rested on the racial logic of colonialism and orientalism. His case for Liberia was made through an orientalist travel narrative touting the benefits of Western colonialism in the Levant. Moreover, Blyden looked to settler-colonialism in North America as a useful model for African American colonization of Liberia.
While the American Indians, who were, without doubt, an old a worn-out people, could not survive the introduction of the new phases of life brought among them from Europe, but sunk beneath the unaccustomed aspect which their country assumed under the vigorous hand of the fresh and youthful Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic races, the Guinea Negro, in an entirely new and distant country, has entirely delighted in the change of climate and circumstances, and has prospered, physically, on all that great continent and its islands, from Canada to cape horn. (109-110)
African Americans, unlike American Indians, had prospered in North America and other slaveholding regions; thus according to Blyden, they were fit to rule.
From 1885-1919 the British and French Empires acquired vast areas of Liberia’s original 1821 boundaries. In Zionism, Blyden likely saw a useful model for Black self-determination during a time when Liberian independence was in question. In order to develop his case for Liberian independence, Blyden turned to Jewish Diasporic history. In his 1898 essay, “The Jewish Question” he links the Jewish and black Diasporas as having “a history almost identical of sorrow and oppression.” In Zionism Blyden saw a movement of suffering people to a national homeland, and given his interest in bringing African Americans to Liberia, Zionism seemed to him a “marvelous movement.”
The question [of Zionism] is similar to that which at this moment agitates thousands of the descendants of Africa in America, anxious to return to the land of their fathers.…And as the history of the African race—their enslavement, persecution, proscription, and sufferings—closely resembles that of the Jews, I have been led also by a natural process of thought and a fellow feeling to study the great question now uppermost in the minds of thousands, if not millions of Jews.
Although Blyden believed “[all] recognize the claim and right of the Jew to the Holy Land” he did not believe that the Zionist movement required settlement of Palestine. Importantly, he therefore did not support imperial intervention on behalf of Jews. “The ‘ideals of Zion’ can be carried out only by the people of Zion. Imperial races can not do the work of spiritual races.”
For Blyden Zionism was not an imperialist movement, but a pan-humanist that could, “bring about the practical brotherhood of humanity by establishing, or rather propagating, the international religion in whose cult men of all races, climes, and countries will call upon the Lord under one name.” Blyden was not merely a Zionist, but also part of a Black Atlantic tradition that looked beyond the nation-state in order to find freedom. Therefore, while he saw the nation-state as the most appropriate rubric for Black self-rule, Blyden also believed that the Zionist movement did not need to be rooted in a particular geography; indeed, he advocated African settlement for Jewish Zionists. “If what I have here written should have no other effect than to attract the attention of thinking and enlightened Jews to the great continent of Africa…I should feel amply rewarded.”
Blyden embraced Zionism as an internationalist movement operating within and against the West; hence for him, Zionism was not incompatible with advocating Islam as a humanistic faith in Africa. Blyden recognized that Arab colonial powers for whom Islam was the main religion created relative equality among their colonized subjects. In his 1877 essay, “Mohammedism and the Negro Race,” Blyden challenged the Christian teleology of empire embodied in the Crusades and British and French Empires and wrote to a Methodist audience about Islam as a humanistic faith. Moreover, he argued that colonial powers guided by Islam were far less oppressive, at least in Africa, than were those guided by Christianity. “Wherever the Negro is found in Christian lands, his leading trait is not docility as has often been alleged, but servility. He is slow and unprogressive…there is no Christian community of Negroes anywhere which is self reliant and independent.”
On the other hand, Blyden viewed Arab colonial powers, and Islam, as less degrading to Africans.
If the Mohammedan Negro had at any time to choose between the Koran and the sword, when he chose the former he was allowed to wield the latter as the equal of any other Moslem; but no amount of allegiance to the Gospel relieved the Christian Negro from the denigration of wearing the chain which he received with it, or rescued him from the political and, in a measure, ecclesiastical proscription which he still undergoes in all the countries of his exile. (115)
For Blyden, who learned Arabic but never converted to Islam, Arab-Islam was less violent in its administration of colonial rule. Moreover, even for Blyden, the Christian minister, embracing aspects of Islam and Zionism were not contradictory; each discourse spoke to Western forms of racial violence and terror.
Although, for Blyden, Zionism could be embraced as a Diasporic movement that spoke to African-American settler projects in Africa, to Christian Zionists, Jewish Zionism could be embraced as the first stage in Christian restoration in the Holy Land. African-American Christian Zionists’ eschatological view of the Holy Land employed orientalism and Zionism to different ends than Blyden and Dorr. Indeed, one year prior to Herzl’s inauguration of the Zionist movement, an African Methodist Episcopalian minister named Daniel P. Seaton published a travel account espousing Jewish return to Palestine following Jewish conversion to Christianity. Seaton’s 1895 The Land of Promise: The Bible Land and It’s Revelation offered readers a history of the Bible’s geography. Seaton, who had traveled to Palestine on at least two occasions, sought to render biblical stories through geographic descriptions of Palestine; yet Seaton also sought to locate African-American Christians as the beneficiaries of Zionism. In doing so, Seaton narrated as an orientalist by describing Palestine and its people as primitive, exotic, and in need of Western intervention. Seaton’s disdain for Palestine’s inhabitants included the Jews he encountered there. His advocacy of Jewish return to Palestine was directed at European Jews who had received the benefits of Western civilization; moreover, Jewish resettlement of Palestine was merely the first stage in Jewish conversion to Christianity.
Palestinians were, according to Seaton, primitive. “These farmers have lived too greatly isolated from the modern people and so far behind the march of civilization they would not know how to use the farming implements used in modern times.” Seaton believed the natives required colonial intervention in order to improve their lot. “[In Joppa] the stranger finds himself in a most repulsively filthy place, with a wild looking people, of all complexions, among whom ignorance is dominant, excepting those who have settled there from countries of progressive civilization, and you can find but few natives who have been taught to appreciate a higher state of manhood” (48). Only at the American Colony did Seaton find any relief from the primitive landscape. “It should be stated concerning the American Colony at Joppa they are doing well, and have done much to change the habits of many of the natives, who, at the time they landed, were not far above the average heathen: they have built a commodious little village to themselves in the most healthy section of town, and have organized a church and school, which has done an incalculable amount of good” (46).
Although the Zionist movement had not yet formed, Seaton drew on a history of Christian Zionism that viewed Jewish return to Palestine as the precursor to the return of the Messiah. Thus, while he regarded the Jews he encountered in the same contemptuous way he did the Arab Muslims, Seaton nevertheless saw them as redeemable, especially as more European Jews settled in Palestine.
[Jews] have a hopeful future; the time is coming when they will fully accept Christ, whom their fathers nailed to the cross, and reverently come before Him in devout worship, return to their own land, and pay Him their tribute on the very summit where the pathetic prayer was offered by the Lord Jesus, in their behalf, while the arrows of death were piercing His soul.…If we have noticed the predictions concerning the future of this people, we cannot be otherwise then inclined to the opinion, that a restoration of the Jews will take place.…What a glorious time, what a blessed period when the people, once dispersed and unsettled, shall again ‘sing the Lord’s song’ in their own land!” (140-143)
Seaton sought to participate in a Christian Zionist movement that could return “the people” to “their own land.” In this way, Promise‘s engagement with Zionism enabled Seaton to imagine a future promised land for all Christians, even as that future was based on Western colonialism and Jewish conversion to Christianity.
For the Reverend W.L. Jones, Palestine was not merely a metaphor for African-American Diasporic longing, it was the actual scene of African-American restoration. Jones began his 1907 travel account, The Travel in Egypt and Scenes of Jerusalem, “For a long time, yes fifteen years, I have had a desire to visit the old world. I first felt that it was my calling to Africa, and for several years I was troubled with that thought; afterwards my mind was disabused of that idea, for a new one, that of Jerusalem. And for more than ten years I have had a restless desire for the Holy Land and especially for Jerusalem” (5). Jones left for Jerusalem in 1897. Like Seaton’s Promise, Jones’s travel account represents Palestine through orientalist tropes. “There is nothing beautiful about the little city Joppa. The streets are narrow and not as clean as they ought to be, and full of Arabs, Turks, Bedouins, donkeys, and camels” (71). The conflation of the native with the natural—people with animals—was a staple of orientalist travel literature.
Orientalist descriptions of geography also shaped Methodist Episcopalian Bishop William Sampson Brooks’s 1915 travel narrative Footprints of a Black Man. Brooks was a pan-Africanist born in Maryland. During the first half of the 1920s, Brooks served as the Bishop of West Africa who contributed to the construction of Monrovia Normal and Industrial College in Liberia. By the time of Brooks’ travel narrative, Jewish Zionists had begun establishing colonies in Palestine. Brooks observes these colonies and applauded the settler-colonial movement, especially the German colony he encountered in Haifa. “It owes its progressiveness and beauty to the indefatigable industry and thrift of a small Germany colony nestling at the foot of the mountain.” According to Brooks, the inhabitants of the colony were German Americans who combined “their American ideas, methods and tools with the incompatible German spirit for progress, and they have accomplished the salvation of the city. They have revolutionized the city from the filth and squalor of the Turks to its present condition” (123).
Brooks also supported European Jewish Zionists who were creating colonies in Jerusalem and other parts of Palestine. He distinguished between the “native” Jews who had lived in Jerusalem for centuries and the new settlers from Europe. “The [Jewish] quarter reeks with filth. About ten thousand men, women, and children live in its wretched tenements in the most abject squalor and wretchedness” (185). This native Jewish neighborhood, however, was described in sharp contrast to the Zionist settlement outside the old city walls. There was, by the time of Brooks’ travel, the “‘Zion Suburb,’ a new settlement of Jews who live in comfortable homes, and commodious tenements, and enjoy real cleanliness and sanitation.” Whereas the Jewish settlers were “making themselves respected in the business and commercial life of Palestine, in spite of the great obstacles and restrictions the Turkish Government place in their path.…The Moslems of Jerusalem are among the most fanatic and rapacious in Palestine, and derive great profit from brisk traffic in souvenirs of the Holy Land and in showing tourists places of interest connect with the life of Christ and the days of the kings…” (186). To Brooks the Arabs he encountered were a people without history, merely there to provide a service industry for Christian travelers. While he looked forward to Jewish conversion to Christianity, he also believed that European Jewish settlement of Palestine would improve the land and make it more hospitable for Christian tourists such as him. Thus as the Zionist movement became a settler movement in Palestine, some African Americans saw it as an opportunity to create a new modernism in a primitive landscape. As an ideal, the new modernism of Palestine, or, in the case of Blyden and Brooks, Liberia, would replicate forms of colonial governmentality yet would challenge Western forms of racial belonging and violence. However, as facts on the ground challenged this hopeful vision, and as racial politics in the United States changed, African-American relationships to Zionism and modernism were transformed.
By the 1920s, the context for African-American travel narratives had dramatically changed. In the wake of the imperial First World War British and French empires expanded their reach in the Middle East. Moreover, the Zionist movement gained momentum by the outcomes of the war, as many Zionist Jews fought on behalf of the British army in Palestine. In 1914, the Jewish population in Palestine was estimated at 7.5%. In 1922, the year of the British Mandate over Palestine, the Jewish population was at 11.1%. This percentage grew steadily to nearly 30% in 1941. While these changing demographics meant many different things to different groups in the region, to the West’s travelers, it appeared that Palestine was becoming more Western and, by extension, more modern. Many African-American travelers saw Jewish return to Palestine, especially in the wake of World War Two, as the just solution to racial terror. Yet even with the belief the Jewish return to historic Israel was a just solution, African-American writing about Zionism and anti-Semitism was saturated by orientalist tropes and Diasporic longings that had structured African-American writing about the region prior to a large Western Jewish population in Palestine.
In the wake of the First World War, Zionism changed from what Blyden identified as a humanist anti-nationalist movement, to one operating within the imperial logics of the West. As Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has noted, Zionists joined the imperial movement in the Middle East and would adopt a western framework, the settler colonial nation-state, as the rubric for achieving its goals. Zionism was less about exile and pan-humanism and more about the possibilities of the nation-state as a rubric for redressing anti-Jewish racism. Moreover, as Zionism became tied to the geopolitical question of Palestine, there was growing international concern about the Nazi party’s massacre of Jews and many others. These, and many other factors, transformed how African Americans took up the question of Zionism.
Similarly, major changes were shaping Black politics across the Atlantic in the United States. The 1920s and 1930s witnessed the development of a variety of internationalist, Diasporic, and anti-colonial movements, including the rise of the negritude movement routed through Paris, and Marcus Garvey’s Black-nationalist movement in the United States. Many African Americans, especially those participating in what would be known as the Harlem Renaissance, organized politics that were not only based on inclusion and equality within the U.S. nation-state, but that were also Diasporic and spoke to the shared experience of Blacks across the globe. Within this context of Black internationalist politics, the question of Palestine, now framed as a solidly “Jewish question,” took on new importance in African-American intellectual thought.
In her 1928 book, My Trip Through Egypt and the Holy Land, the African-American writer Carolyn Bagley illustrates the growing presence of Western amenities in the Holy Land. While traveling across Palestine, she encountered a fellow passenger who shares his personal story. “I learned that he was a Jew living in the Jewish city of Tel Aviv near Jaffa.…Here the business was not so remunerative as before but he felt free and a man of an equal chance with others.…Passing along a ridge overlooking large plains below, we passed several villages containing many stone houses with pretty red tops, surrounded by a background of green hills and fertile, well-kept farms. All these belonged to the new Zionists districts, which America has done so much to promote.” Bagley viewed Jewish settlements as European transplants in a primitive landscape. Yet, she also believed that Jews “felt free” and had “equal chance with others” in Palestine. Like many African-American travelers to British controlled Palestine, Bagley saw stark differences between the primitive and the modern; moreover, Zionism, while replicating Western forms of colonialism, also promised freedom for those excluded and terrorized within Western metropoles.
It was within a context Black internationalist politics and civil rights activism that the famous pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., traveled to Palestine, a country then under the British mandate and wrote a travel narrative. Contained in a two-book volume titled, Palestine and Saints in Caesar’s Household, the narrative is framed as a challenge to the growing trend of anti-Semitism sweeping the European continent. Powell was especially interested in understanding how Zionist settlements in Palestine had created spaces of freedom for Jewish victims of anti-Semitism. He believed that the Balfour declaration clearly established a Jewish national home in Palestine, yet he was critical of Western imperial rule in Palestine and believed it had created animosity between Jews and Arabs that had not been in force prior to WWI. He thus looked to Zionism in order to criticize Western racism and imagine possible routes of Black American liberation in the United States.
The preface of Palestine frames the travel narrative in orientalist terms as Powell attempts to dispel for his readers any romantic notions they may have had about the Holy Land.
Before he had spent a week in the Holy Land, he had met people characterized by all the bad qualities possessed by the worst in New York and in the mountains of Kentucky. That little strip of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean produced more holy characters and more holy literature than any one of the five continents, but the men and their literature have had more influence for good upon the citizens for Chicago than upon the natives.
If Powell was unwilling to write a romantic story of the orient it was because to him, the orient was geography of liberation, and not merely an historical landscape. The orient’s significance was in its sacred history as the site of exodus and thus, as a counter-example to Western racism. Powell punctuated his travel narrative with references to anti-Semitism and the regular abuse of African Americans in the U.S. and he framed his travel narrative as an intervention into the west’s disregard for Jewish victims European racism.
The second reason for writing…this book is to help stem the world’s rising tide of fierce, ungodly anti-Semitism.…The colored people should be the last, even by their silence, to give consent to the brutal persecution of the Jews. For if this campaign of inhuman cruelty against the Jews should succeed, show knows by what the same evil forces would next attempt to put the colored people on the rack. (viii)
Powell develops authority as an orientalist narrator while also locating racism and violence at the center of Western imperialism. He therefore embraced Zionism as representative of a new modernism within a primitive landscape. As he describes his interaction with “the Zion movement” in Tel-Aviv, for example, he represents Jewish settlements in terms of modernity—the neighborhoods’ technology, cleanliness, and civility. “The Zion movement, one of the most significant in the world today, is made up of Jews in all parts of the world, some of whom are moving back to Palestine to live the remainder of their lives. These settlers, who have met with such bitter antagonism, are more prosperous in the Jaffa section than in any other part of Palestine” (24).
Because he understood the Zionists movement as an anti-racist movement, and one that could be emulated by African Americans, Powell was unable to understand Arab protest as anything but anti-Jewish. He witnessed daily violence between settlers and indigenous Arabs, yet he interpreted Arab animosity toward Jews only as anti-Semitic, without recognizing how the process of settler-colonialism in the region shaped Arab responses to Jewish colonization. “Arab after Arab said to me, ‘Before we will let the Jews come back here and rule the Holy Land they desecrated, every one of us will die with our shoes on.’ They say this with a look of cruel murder on their faces and the hiss of serpent in their voices” (29).
Yet, Powell also understood that prior to the British invasion of Palestine “the Jews and Arabs lived side by side, in Palestine and other countries, without experiencing any serious trouble” (29). Moreover, Powell noted that “For 450 years under the powerful reign of Arab princes in Spain, the Jews experienced the happiest and most prosperous era of their racial existence” (16). Here Powell suggests that the orient, and the Arab world in general, had not created the sort of racial horrors one could claim were central to the occident. Embracing Zionism converged, for Powell, with his commitment to illuminating the acts of racial terror underpinning occidental modernity. For example, Palestine‘s conclusion firmly establishes Powell’s political project of describing Palestine as a means critique anti-Black racism in the United States.
As I stood there [in the Holy Land], I could not help but recall that both Moses and I represented an enslaved, persecuted and despised race. Moses was born a slave; he tramped and traveled and sacrificed for forty years to reach Canaan, but died without attaining the overmastering ambition of his life. I was born in a one-room log cabin in Virginia, twenty-six days after the chains of slavery were broken from the black man’s wrist and the white man’s conscience. (91-92)
To a Black American writer struggling with the daily abuse to Black subjects, Zionism seemed an intervention into Western notions of progress and modernity; in fact, what Powell sought was a new form of modernism, one distinct from “the orient,” but also distinct from the West.
There is a relationship between African America and Palestine that is at once orientalist and internationalist. Prior to 1948 African-American travel writers represented Palestine as an exotic destination in need of colonial intervention; yet they were also attached to the region as geography of liberation. For these writers, Zionism, orientalism, even Islamic humanism were narrative tropes as well as political movements that spoke to the needs for African Americans to engage anti-Black politics globally. Palestine was an ambivalent space in African-American travel writing because it was at once non-Western yet was also the scene of exodus, and for some, an extension of Northern Africa.
The pre-1948 travel narratives help give nuance to Richard Wright’s ambivalent writing about the region; but they also reveal some of the complexities of African-American engagement with the Arab-Israeli conflict after 1948. African Americans who embraced the creation of the State of Israel in the wake of World War Two—W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson among them—were likely enthusiastic supporters of the promise of Diasporic politics culminating in the formation of a homeland. In order to understand why most African-American radicals embraced the creation of the State of Israel, one must consider how African-American political struggles have been rooted within and against notions of the national and international. As Nikihl Singh shows in Black is a Country, Black Americans have waged struggles that have been shaped by the desire for international and Diasporic movements and by the desire for redress within the framework of the nation-state. When the modern State of Israel was created in 1948, African-American radicals were committed to a civil rights strategy in the United States that looked to the nation-state’s logic of inclusion as a rubric for the movement; this may have led some African Americans to see the formation of a Jewish state as the most appropriate means to challenge anti-Jewish anti-Semitism. Ralph Bunche, for example, a communist internationalist during the 1930s, was the United Nation’s representative in charge of administering the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel. Bunche’s role in the creation of Israel illustrates the complexities of African-American anti-colonial politics that were themselves operating against and within the logic of empire.
As scholars contemplate what Earl Lewis has called “overlapping discourses of Diaspora,” they will need to attend to the complexities of Palestine in the African-American global imaginary. A complex alchemy of orientalism, Zionism, and Pan-Africanism structured African-American internationalist politics centered in Palestine. The Middle East is therefore a generative region for examining the possibilities and limits of Black internationalism. Moreover, these complexities speak to the critical need to locating the Arab/Islamic world and the question of Palestine in African-American political and intellectual thought.