Digging through a stack of ragged old papers in one of Beijing’s open-air markets in June 2006, history professor Harry Williams was looking for posters documenting W. E. B. DuBois’s historic 1959 meeting with Mao Zedong. He was amazed to discover instead heavily stylized posters from the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution depicting African Americans and people of other races the Chinese considered to be oppressed by the West. The accompanying text often endorsed the African American freedom struggle.
“The message on these posters seemed to be that Chinese communism would be a force to unite all oppressed people of the world,” says Williams, the David and Marian Adams Bryn-Jones Distinguished Teaching Professor of History and the Humanities. “I had no idea of the extent of Chinese interest under Mao in people of African descent.”
Those images have become the basis for a new course Williams is developing with the support of a grant from the Mellon Faculty Development Fund. The class will explore the ideological and visual connections between the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Black Panther Party in the United States, specifically comparing the imagery of the Chinese posters to the depiction of African Americans in cartoons and photographs in the newspaper Black Panther Speaks. That visual comparison, Williams says, is a new way of teaching for him, and will complement the written narrative of the two movements the students will study. The course also will examine similarities between identity and cultural issues affecting the black urban underclass in the United States and Chinese ethnic minorities in southwest China.
Students will investigate three major historical questions: What was the global influence of Maoism on the ideological praxis of the Black Panther Party? What were the ideological, historical, distribution, gender, and aesthetic considerations of poster production? What were the attitudes toward minorities in China and the United States during this time?
Over the course of his career, Williams has traveled to various parts of the world to learn about black people’s lives in a particular community. He uses those experiences to illuminate history for his students. “Many of my students are surprised to learn that there are black communities outside Africa and the United States. For instance, they are amazed to learn there were blacks imprisoned in the European concentration camps during World War II,” he says. “I want my teaching to give my students a deeper and more nuanced understanding of black internationalism.”