When Yao Hoke Glover recently traveled to China, the 40-year-old didn’t expect his trip to reflect the state of affairs between Asians and African Americans.
He was among 40 educators traveling abroad as part of an exchange initiative while representing elementary, middle, secondary and primary schools in both the U.S. and Canada to train English teachers in China’s Jiangsu province.
While there, the D.C.-based professor stayed in a four-star hotel, saw the sights and taught at various schools throughout the province. The lesson of his trip, however, wasn’t in the 13-day curriculum Glover taught in 10 days. In fact, it didn’t come from the professor himself but from the Chinese in Jiangsu’s cities including Nanjing, Suzhou, Pizhou and Xiangshui.
“One town I was in only had six foreigners and only one of African descent. Yet, they know hip-hop and the face of African American people,” Glover, a Bowie State University professor, said in an interview. He chronicled his 35-day trip, from June 30 to August 5, in a 10-page report for his university. “There is little dialogue beyond the entertainment—kung fu films and Chinese food for us and basketball, hip-hop and Michael Jackson for them.”
Glover’s comments come seven months after the National Urban League led a delegation of African Americans to Beijing China, according to a Feb. 7 press release posted on a politics and culture blog. The purpose of the trip was to engage Chinese and African Americans in a discussion of possible partnerships and investments with each other.
The National Urban League’s action can be explained in the book The African American Encounter with Japan and China by Marc Gallicchio. “African American interest in world affairs can be traced as far back as the abolitionist movement of the pre-Civil War era. That interest and the resulting desire to shape international events took on a new life when the United States obtained its overseas empire and Europe partitioned Africa,” writes Gallicchio, PhD professor and chairman of the Department of History at Villanova University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “During the years when much of the world came under the sway of Europe or the descendants of Europeans in the United States, black Americans developed a view of world affairs that drew a connection between the discrimination they faced at home and the expansion of empire abroad.”
“Black internationalism…was an ideology that stressed the role of race and racism in world affairs,” the professor added. It “…provided African Americans with a comprehensive explanation for world affairs that placed their own experience during one of the darkest moments of their history”—slavery and Jim Crow—“into a global context. It reminded them that they were not alone in the world and that others, indeed the majority of the world’s inhabitants, suffered a similar fate.”
For the Chinese, President Barack Obama’s election sparked their interest in developing ways of doing business and exchanging cultural and educational ideas with African Americans, according to the release. The National Urban League’s mission is an extension of an effort by the Los Angeles Urban League a year before. In 2006, Los Angeles Urban League President and CEO Blair Taylor took a 12-member delegation to China to visit Beijing and Shanghai.
“African-Americans are a force to be reckoned with,” Tung Chee-hwa, chairman of the China-United States Exchange Foundation, was quoted telling the delegates at the 2007 reception. “The Chinese people want to be friends with America. We want to understand African-Americans better and we want for you to understand the Chinese people better. We want to know about your historic Black colleges and universities, corporations, non-government organizations, and the many Black owned newspapers.”
Ambassador Liu Guijin, former Special Envoy on African Affairs for the People’s Republic of China, alluded to the Bandung Conference in 1955, which had a twofold goal that included promoting Afro-Asian relations and combating neo-colonialism. “China’s support for Africa can be looked at in three stages,” he was quoted saying. “The first, 1949 to 1978, China built a solidarity with African countries who we felt were justified in their struggle against colonialism. We supported Africa’s economic independence at time when the Chinese people were very poor.”
The ambassador added, “In 1978, China opened its doors and adjusted its foreign policies, encouraging Chinese companies to go to Africa.”
However, Ndubisi Obiorah, a Nigerian human rights lawyer and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Action, noted that the origins of the China-Africa relationship were not a one-way street, with Africa responding to China’s demands. “On the contrary, African individuals and governments of their own motion, initiated contact and sought relations with China,” Obiorah writes in his essay “Rise and Rights in China-Africa Relations.” “African liberation movements sought assistance from China from the 1950s and post-independence leaders such as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kenneth Kaunda looked to China for models of political and socio-economic organization as the emergent African states embarked on nation-building in the 1960s.”
After three decades of reform, China’s considered to be the driving force behind world and regional growth, according to various sources. Ambassador Liu Guijin noted that Chinese finance currently goes to funding large infrastructure projects, including hydro-power generation and railways. “More than 35 African countries are engaging with China on infrastructure finance deals, with the biggest recipients being Nigeria, Angola, Sudan, and Ethiopia,” he said.
Danny Bakewell Sr., chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper publisher, was among the 40 National Urban League delegates, the press release stated.
At the 2007 reception, Bakewell noted that Chinese officials could utilize the power of America’s black press to directly market to and speak to African Americans–a suggestion the Chinese considered at the time.
But Glover, the Bowie State professor, was on another mission. Unlike the delegation, he didn’t visit China’s giant cities, Shanghai or Beijing. Instead, he traveled through the small towns, which he noted as “a place where history meets the modern.” “It is the sense of civility, the kindness and of course the fascination with the new and unfamiliar that dominated our interaction with the inhabitants of the small towns,” he stated in his report. “The small towns are the point of entry for many people into the hustle and bustle of the modern world.”
Glover’s report also noted the significance of studying Chinese language and culture at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, such as Bowie State. “After all the University, as its name suggests, is a place where we must study the universe-all that is known to human beings-on the earth and in the space that surrounds us,” he stated. “China should increasingly become more of a part of our studies and curricula…as a HBCU it is important that we begin to think about cross-cultural connections between our traditional African-American population and the larger world.”
Despite the effort of the National Urban League delegation, Glover noted that the 2007 discussions barely touched the surface on potential benefits for both parties in the Chinese-African American relations.
Another benefit, Glover noted, was that China’s limited perspective of African-American culture outside of entertainment could be a reflection of what’s happening to black people in America. “There are portions of our history and culture that have been consistently negated and ignored by the larger society [America],” he said.
“Many of us [African Americans] are uncertain and uninformed of our own history and culture.” Understanding that, Glover added, “can help bring into perspective how unfamiliar this culture is to the Chinese.”