Afro-Asian History: Black Orientalism

My previous post on Afro-Asian alliances earlier today dealt more with the way in which black activists coded Asians as black due to the historical negrification of Asians and Asian Americans by whites. This post is going to be different, and is about the way in which blacks, during the nineteenth century, deployed a form of Orientalism in order to legitimate their claims to citizenship and nativism. 

Since my time is limited, I will be quoting from Race for Citizenship: Black Orientalism and Asian Uplift from Pre-Emancipation to Neoliberal America by Helen Heran Jun. Jun is an assistant professor of English and African American studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago. 

An analysis of black newspapers across the country reveals that Orientalist discourses of Asian cultural differences ambiguously facilitated the assimilation of black Americans to ideologies of political modernity and consolidated black identification as U.S. national subjects. Nineteenth-century discourses of “black Orientalism” can be best understood as a specific formation of racial uplift, generating narratives of black moral, political, and cultural development, which in turn reified the Orientalist logic of the anti-Chinese movement.

In other words, by exotifying the Chinese and deploying Orientalist discourse, blacks were able to assimilate into America and gain a form of national identification and legitimation as citizens. 

Black press representations of Chinese difference engaged with American Orientalist ideologies that in the mid-nineteenth century manifested at the national level as the anti-Chinese movement…In his study of disease and racial classification in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Nayan Shah describes how journalists, politicians, and health officials worked together to produce “a way of knowing” Chinatown as an alien space of filth, disease, and contamination. As Shah argues, “The cartography of Chinatown that was developed in government investigations, newspaper reports, and travelogues, both established ‘knowledge’ of the Chinese race and aided in the making and remaking of Chinatown.” Hence white public officials “scientifically” corroborated the dominant press’s sensational descriptions of Chinatown as “ankle-deep in loathsome slush, with ceilings dripping with percolations of other nastiness above, [and] with walls slimy with the clamminess of Asiatic diseases.”…Images of Chinese men as depraved opium addicts and lascivious sexual predators of innocent young white girls dominated an American Orientalist discourse that constructed Chinatown and its resident as alien contaminants of the white national body.

The black press’s representations of Chinatown ghettos and its inhabitants also consistently construed these spaces and persons as embodiments of premodern alien difference. The number and frequency of articles about the Chinese is noteworthy, in that the vast majority of U.S. blacks never directly encountered the Chinese, who began immigrating in significant numbers in the 1850s and were geographically concentrated in the West. Although much of the coverage in the black press before 1882 concerned legislative/political matters, most were sensationalist human-interest stories, such as those in the New Orleans Tribute which described an exotic Chinatown temple where priests “shout, yell, groan, spin around amid the racket of gongs, orums, and fiddlers, and smoke opium until they are quite drunk.” The Topeka Tribune reprinted an article describing the immoral depravity of an opium den in Chicago’s Chinese quarter, “where some were sprawling on a filthy floor and others had rolled into dirty bunks, and all were contemplating a glorious orgie [sic].” The Washington Bee gave front-page coverage to “The Chinese in New York: Peculiarities of Orientals Described.” In his study of the black press, historian Arnold Shankman observes that “from 1880-1935 almost every time the Chinese were mentioned in the black press, it was in connection with intrigue, prostitution, murder, the sale of opium, or children for money…superstitious practices, shootings, or tong wars.”

Stories about Chinese cultural difference even predated the arrival of Chinese immigrants to the United States. As early as 1827, the first issue of Freedom’s Journal printed an article entitled “Chinese Fashions,” which characterized Chinese foot binding as a “well-known” and “ridiculous” custom in China.

Jun’s historicist work on the black press archive is extremely valuable in understanding the way in which African Americans related to and interjected their nativity by forms of Orientalist exclusion of the Chinese. What she later goes on to discuss is how nineteenth century blacks subscribed to religious ideologies of Christian morality and white supremacist discourse in order to enable their racial uplift.

Christianity was critically linked to nineteenth-century discourses of black citizenship, in that the Christian conversion of the African heathen was understood as the foundation of moral development and ethical citizenship. Subsequently, ideologies of racial uplift seeking to produce “civilized” black subjects promoted Christian propriety and moral self-improvement to refute the dominant characterizations of blacks as depraved and immoral savages. Racial uplift constituted black Christian subjects, therefore, as a part of larger effort to represent the modern development of blacks under Western civilization. The developmental ideologies of American modernity demanded Christian morality as the precondition for transforming the primitive salve into the modern political subject. This imperative later had profound implications for black understandings of Chinese racial difference.

The heathenism that the Chinese came to signify in nineteenth-century America was a powerful Orientalist trope for black Americans, whose assertions of humanity and claims to citizenship had been largely predicated on discourses of Christian morality. Appeals to Christian ideologies have been crucial to black critiques of white supremacy since the eighteenth century. 

The following news story shows the fundamental connections between black Christian morality and political aptitude in the nineteenth century…This article from the Pacific Appeal, a black newspaper in San Francisco, argues explicitly for black rights of testimony and uses an antiracist critique that distances black development from the heathen Chinese and Indian:

In the same oppressive spirit they deprived the Indian and Mongolian of their right of oath…they oppressed them and reduced them to the same social and political level of the Negro. This was inhumane, barbarous, and unjust, but a more plausible excuse might be offered for depriving the Indian and the Chinese of their oaths than the Colored American: they being heathens and not comprehending the nature and obligation of our oath or affirmation….The Negro is a Christian: there is a strong religious sentiment in his nature, a feeling of awe and reverence for the sanctity of an oath which renders his judicial testimony sacred to him…perjury is abhorrent to his soul;—he looks upon it as the unforgiven sin. 

[…] Emphasizing the Christian formation of the black national subject is an ideological imperative in narrating black fitness for citizenship, which, by consequence, Orientalizes, or discursively disciplines, Chinese and Indians as inadequate subjects of political modernity…This next article, from Frederick Douglass’ Paper, was submitted by a San Francisco correspondent and chronicles the “progress made by the colored people in this city,” describing the three black churches, school, and literary association that have “given tone and character to Society.”…The narrator shifts abruptly from the black community’s “large number of respectable ladies and their influence” to conclude the report with an ethnographic description of Chinese immigrants:

San Francisco presents many features that no city in the Union presents. Its population is composed of almost every nation under heaven. Here is to be seen at a single glance every nation in minature [sic].—The Chinese form about one eighth of the population. They exhibit a most grotesque appearance. Their “unmentionables” are either exceedingly roomy or very close fitting. The heads of the males are shaved, with the exception of the top, the hair from which is formed into a plaited tail, resembling “pig tail tobacco.” Their habits are filthy, and their features totally devoid of expression. The whites are greatly alarmed at their rapid increase. They are very badly treated here. Every boy considers them lawful prey for his boyish pranks.

[…] Discourses of the Chinese as a racial problem were not confined to California, as evidenced by the New Orleans Lousianian, which stated that “the Negro question was being replaced by that of the Chinese.” As the anti-Chinese movement gained political momentum throughout the nation, it became increasingly necessary and commonplace that black claims to citizenship articulate Orientalist dis-identification with Chinese immigrants. The formulaic narration of black military service, Christian morality, and nationalist identification to represent blacks as unambiguously American subjects became a repetitive and frequent refrain with respect to discourses of Chinese exclusion.

While certain blacks such as Frederick Douglass did speak in solidarity with Asians, Afro-Asian solidarity did not really occur in great numbers until World War II, when many prominent blacks, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright, spoke out against the Japanese Internment. And as I’ve already discussed in my previous post, the history of Afro-Asian alliances since the 1940s through the 1980s is extremely complex and rich. 

Most people these days, however, if they do think about Afro-Asian relations, tend to think of Afro-Asian relations as generally negative, and tend to gesture towards the 1992 LA Riots and the Korean-Black conflict as evidence. But our entwined histories, as you can see, are very complex — they have not always been positive, but they also were not purely negative, either. And as Jun pointed out in her book, it is important to understand the complexity behind black thought during this period of time that made possible such Orientalist beliefs and anti-Chinese activity by blacks — and not perform the work of finger-pointing or blaming, because what it really comes down to in the end is white supremacy. 

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