Politics

Remembering When China’s Chairman Mao Met With WEB Dubois


It may not be well known, but in 1959, civil rights activist, pan-Africanist and Black socialist W. E. B. Du Bois traveled to China to meet with Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung. A communist revolutionary, Chairman Mao was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He ruled as the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party from the establishment of the PRC in 1949 until his death in 1976.

When Du Bois and Mao met, the two men were photographed smiling and laughing together on various occasions. Many might have thought it was odd for them to be friendly, after all, the U.S. at the time was not on good terms with Communist China. But Chairman Mao and Du Bois seemed to be on the same page.

By the time of Du Bois’ visit, U.S.-Chinese relations were deteriorating. The region was in chaos and a few months earlier, in August 1958, military tensions had flared in the Taiwan Strait with a brief armed conflict between the PRC and the Nationalist Republic of China in Taiwan. Also at this time, the PRC pulled away from its one-time partner in communism, the Soviet Union. Because of this split, Mao turned his focus to the Third World, especially Africa, “presenting his model of communism as the true anti-imperial alternative to both superpowers,” Voices and Visions reported.

In a sense, Mao and Du Bois had parallel thinking. Pan-Africanism championed international solidarity and collective self-reliance among African peoples. “Du Bois helped further Mao’s goals for an Afro-Asian alliance.”

Du Bois was one of many Black activists who had socialist or communist leanings. In fact, other Black American radicals built ties with Chinese communists.

Some Black Americans shunned capitalism and once looked to “Red” China as a “vision of Utopia,” said Keisha A. Brown, an assistant professor of history and Asian studies scholar at the Tennessee State University, according to The Economist. Du Bois wasn’t the first Black notable to visit China. Renowned poet Langston Hughes wrote his anti-colonial poem, “Roar China!” after visiting Shanghai in 1933.

Du Bois traveled to China with his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, an award-winning writer and activist. She was the one who spearheaded the trip. Chairman Mao welcomed the couple to his villa in Wuhan during their eight-week tour of China.

In 1961, at the age of 93, Du Bois joined the Communist Party and moved to Ghana. On Feb. 23, 1961, he addressed thousands at Peking University. His talk was broadcast on Peking Radio. Du Bois encouraged a relationship between African counties and China. “Africa arise, and stand straight…Turn from the west and your slavery and humiliation for the last 500 years…China is flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood,” he said.

The visit was so friendly that Shirley Graham Du Bois later described the interactions between her husband and Mao as that of two carefree “schoolboys.” Photos of the Du Bois with Mao that were taken but not published in newspapers or magazines sat buried for decades among thousands of documents and photographs in a dusty archive box in Massachusetts.

The mainstream media may have ignored the trip, but Shirley Graham Du Bois had two articles published about the trip in the Pittsburgh Courier, a Black newspaper. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote a piece for the National Guardian, and the labor newspaper Daily Worker reported on the trip. Shirley Graham Du Bois was dedicated to encouraging a relationship between Black Americans and China. She traveled there after the death of her husband died in 1963 died of cancer while in China.

Some Black people shunned Du Bois for his visit to China and there was a backlash from the U.S. government. When the FBI accused him of being a communist agent in the late 1940s and 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for example, distanced itself from Du Bois.

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Despite the potential scrutiny, many Black American radicals looked to Maoism in the 1950s and 1960s as a philosophical weapon against racial injustice.

“Du Bois’ performativity of race in Maoist China not only pushed the limit of pre-1949 understandings about the lives, histories, and experiences of Black Americans but also reinserted Black agency into Chinese narratives concerning African Americans,” wrote Brown.

Even after Du Bois’ visit, Black activists connected to China.

A connection to communist China played a role in the Black Panther Party’s early successes. “With a capitalist streak that might have got them purged in China during the Cultural Revolution, they bought battered copies of Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ in Chinatown for 20 cents each. Then…they sold them to Berkeley students for a dollar,” The Economist reported.

Photo: Mao Zedong welcomes W.E.B. Du Bois to his villa in South Central China, 1959. Image: University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries Special Collections and University Archives





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