Facing the Rising Sun: African Americans, Japan, and the Rise of Afro-Asian Solidarity by Gerald Horne
Volume 3, Cycle 4
© 2018 Johns Hopkins University Press
During World War II, Malcolm Little, who would eventually become the charismatic minister and spokesman for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, dissembled his true feelings toward war so successfully that he was banned from service. He found clever ways to avoid the draft. Malcolm Little played a “pro-Tokyo Negro” and acted crazy. He spread the word that he “was frantic to join . . . the Japanese Army,” and hoped that his words would reach army intelligence soldiers in Harlem (1). He whispered into the ear of the army psychiatrist in the induction center, “I want to get sent down South. Organize them nigger soldiers, you dig? Steal us some guns, and kill up crackers!” (1). His dissembling performance got Malcolm Little exactly what he wanted: a military classification of 4-F, not acceptable for military service, on his registration card.
Gerald Horne offers this anecdote from Malcolm X’s posthumous autobiography as an entry point for readers of Facing the Rising Sun, an absorbing study of Afro-Asian solidarity. Horne’s prodigious archival research is ingeniously framed by questions that challenge some of the assumptions made about African American civil rights struggles in the twentieth century. Why did thousands of African Americans refuse to comply with the Selective Service Act and face imprisonment? Why did a fight against the Jim Crow South (at least potentially) accommodate pro-Japanese sentiment? Why did pro-Tokyo rhetoric raise suspicions among wartime state authorities? Last, but not least, Horne asks why scholars should study pro-Japanese views among African Americans, which were “translated into meaningful action only intermittently” (15).
Based on exhaustive archival research, Horne crafts a compelling argument that Japan’s (abortive) challenge to white supremacy—and, albeit misguided, those African Americans who were supportive of it—contributed to the retreat, if not demise, of Jim Crow. Horne’s story does not reproduce the familiar arguments that the edifice of Jim Crow began to crumble under the combined pressures of the Cold War and the civil rights movement. Instead, Horne pushes his chronology back to the Pearl Harbor attack or even earlier, contending that “the seeds for this epochal trend were watered vigorously during the Pacific War, when so many Negroes expressed solidarity with Japan at a time when it was engaged in a death match with the United States” (18). The book’s principal subjects are black nationalist groups that adopted a pro-Tokyo position: Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, as well as other lesser-known groups, such as the Allah Temple of Islam (the precursor of the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad), the Pacific Movement of the Eastern World, the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, the Ethiopia Pacific Movement, and the Moorish Science Temple. These groups lived under wartime police-state surveillance and suspicion.
Horne’s book is most usefully read in conjunction with his previous scholarly masterwork Race War: White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire (2004). Like Race War, Facing the Rising Sun is a powerfully argued book; perhaps, it is even too powerful. In his Introduction, Horne includes a caveat against identifying the author with the book’s protagonists. He cautions: “Readers should be aware that if I had been alive during the Pacific War, I would probably have clashed ideologically and otherwise with the leading African American characters in this book” (19). Indeed, one of the book’s notable achievements is its commitment to “a more complicated reassessment of U.S. history” (22). Horne puts “the global correlation of forces” at the center of his analysis (17) and successfully argues that “because slavery and Jim Crow—and the malignant attitudes both embodied—were so deeply entrenched in U.S. society, it required external forces, global currents, to alter profoundly this tragic state of affairs” (11).
Horne’s eight chapters trace the roots and routes of how Afro-Asian solidarity, geared toward a pro-Tokyo sentiment, developed from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1960s. A standard history of United States-Japan relations would begin in the year 1853 when American Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s fleet of warships, dubbed “the black ships” by the Japanese, arrived in Japan to demand that Japan be opened to Western trade. A “template” for racism against Japan, based on race relations in the land of Dixie, was established by former President Ulysses S. Grant, who journeyed to Japan as a private citizen in 1879 (25). In contrast, the book’s narrative arc starts with “U.S. Negroes [who] had preceded him in traveling to Japan and seeking to establish ties there” (25).
Horne’s second chapter then shifts to exploring the development of ties between US black nationalists and Japan. It posits Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded in 1914, as an organization that set “a template for the Black Nationalist groupings that were to emerge in the 1930s, with varying levels of devotion to Addis Ababa [Ethiopia] and Tokyo” (41). The subsequent five chapters map out the actions, attitudes, and discourses of African American individuals and groups that fostered pro-Tokyo sentiment during World War II, following the Pearl Harbor attack.
Horne’s chapter on the Pacific Movement of the Eastern World is particularly illuminating, both for its biographical contextualization and its treatment of neglected archives. It provides detailed accounts of the grand jury and trial transcripts of U.S. v. Pacific Movement of the Eastern World (1943). These transcripts allow readers a glimpse of “ordinary African Americans and their feelings about Japan, world events in general, and life in the United States in the early twentieth century” (57). Horne next examines the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, the Ethiopia Pacific Movement, and the Moorish Science Temple, providing an important discussion of why “pro-Tokyo and anti–white supremacist sentiments were merging” in the early stages of the Pacific War, when Japan’s war appeared to be humbling the white imperialist powers in Asia (76).
The fifth chapter addresses how African Americans who expressed pro-Japanese sentiment were viewed as threats to national security, and Horne details how US authorities arrested and imprisoned people. His sixth chapter places a special emphasis on the government’s maltreatment of Japanese Americans, imagined to be “Tokyo’s proxy,” who were interned in concentration camps on US soil (120). Horne observes that the poor treatment of American citizens resonated with black soldiers and made some African Americans “inflamed to the point of attempting sedition” (118). The seventh chapter recounts the crucial role that Jim Crow played in complicating the meaning of the Pacific War, in which Tokyo turned America’s racism into propaganda (as the Soviet Union would do during the Cold War era). Following the war, Washington felt pressured to undertake “a concerted effort to erode Jim Crow” (131). The book concludes with a superb discussion of the aftermath of the war, charting the trajectory from “‘race war’ with Tokyo to ‘Cold War’ with Moscow” (149).
The story of Facing the Rising Sun is compelling. But at times Horne’s premises are not convincing, which calls into question the arguments that follow. Did Japan, for instance, make “aggressive overtures to win over the beleaguered U.S. Negro community,” as Horne claims in his text (1)? The wartime Military Intelligence Division of the Army and Federal Bureau of Investigation would say it did; the former prepared a report on the subject of “Japanese Racial Agitation among American Negroes” (1942) and the latter launched a nationwide investigation resulting in a Survey of Racial Conditions in the United States (1943) with a section titled “Japanese Influence and Activity among the American Negroes.” But I see little evidence that Tokyo systematically operated official or unofficial programs targeting African Americans prior to and during the Pacific War. Still, Horne makes a persuasive case for his interpretations of African American civil rights struggles in the twentieth century. Scholars should seriously consider the views of pro-Tokyo black nationalists and their contributions to the dismantling of Jim Crow laws.