The final installment in a sequence on the geography of the lost Afro-Asian century. Scroll down for earlier posts. I am looking for a map to everything that comes after the ending. worlds within worlds, each one lost image from...
The final installment in a sequence on the geography of the lost Afro-Asian century. Scroll down for earlier posts.
I am looking for a map to everything that comes after the ending.
* * *
When a world falls, its vision starts to fracture, a whole regime of perception shudders and begins to give way. All you have ever known as justice, blooming over with a lattice of violence.
By the law that binds us, swears the prosecutor, but his actions demonstrate that he imagines its constraints fall on an order of life different from his own. So he must believe he is himself the law, for he will sacrifice a child to preserve the impunity of the law’s agents.
It is cold comfort to know that he is doomed to misperceive this impunity as freedom, enthralled by a wretched shadow. Harder to resist wishing that he might learn for himself what it means to have the agents of justice visit your door.
* * *
* * *
When did the Afro-Asian century end? China is ascendant and India is rising, but whatever this may mean for the world, it does not signify liberation. Neither did the election of the first (openly?) African American commander-in-chief, however it may have seemed at the time, for his term has defined the termination of a narrative rather than its blossoming—national destiny arriving into a globalized world.
(Even the most sophisticated and unromantic analyst of U.S. racial politics at the time of Barack Obama’s first election has much to learn from those younger protestors who came to political consciousness in a world that already had a black president in it, for they are already living in another story.)
(Nor does it matter much that he is at least as Asian American as Bill Clinton was black, born in Hawai’i and raised there and in Indonesia, the first Pacific president since Taft.)
The Afro-Asian century could not survive the end of the American century, but perhaps it was bound as well to the era of the Soviet Union. It was hard to pretend there were three worlds when the Second had fallen, and so perhaps it died in the first U.S. war in Iraq, floating up as the shadow of a now-dominant multiculturalism, the Third World Front rebranded as people of color.
Or had it already ended by the time Japan had risen anew as an economic power? Or with the end of the US-Vietnam War?
Or, as I suggested in the last post, following the logic of H.T. Kealing’s bitter joke in the very journal where he first published Du Bois’s prophecy of the color line, had it ended before it even began?
memory becomes history becomes an almost-
marketable culture; and then, again, only memory
Little Tokyo, LA, 2015
For me, the end of the story is best narrated in the 1940s, when the geopolitical consequences of World War II transformed the Afro-Asian century and the American century from dreamy promise to quickly hardening realities. The ground was shifting rapidly, under the feet of a Bulosan or a Du Bois, and there was suddenly so much of a world to be gained and to be lost.
For me, the end comes most clearly in Chicago,
with the arrests of Elijah Muhammad, Mittie Maud Lena Gordon, and dozens of others on charges of pro-Japanese sedition;
with the agreement between Ashima Takis and federal authorities that he was not Japanese, but a Filipino named Policarpio Manansala, and that the various enterprises calling themselves Pacific or Afro-Pacific or Ethiopian Pacific movements were just penny-ante confidence schemes preying on poor, ignorant black folks;
with the hiring of S.I. Hayakawa as a columnist for the Chicago Defender;
with the resettlement of loyal Japanese Americans into spaces redefined by Southern black migration, and with the quiet decisions that led many Nisei to regroup in Chicago and seek coalitions with black organizations, defying the prescriptions of liberal policy,
with the formation of those Negro-Nisei coalitions on the suppression of pro-Japanese militancy, a shared secret fracturing those coalitions’ very foundation;
and with the arrival of my own grandparents, a young couple from California, via Poston, Arizona and Camp Shelby, Mississippi, who had already witnessed the death of at least two worlds—their parents’ loss of the immigrant’s spectral homeland, their own loss of the prewar Nisei dream of America—and, soon enough, would be welcoming the birth of their first daughter.
By the time she was grown, Japanese Chicago was becoming a vanishing memory, Watts was on fire, and a Berkeley sociologist had singled out Japanese Americans as a model minority in the pages of the New York Times Sunday magazine. Governor Ronald Reagan appointed Hayakawa president of San Francisco State to put down the Third World students’ strike.
They loved Hayakawa so much in California that they made him a senator. The old wartime liberal found he didn’t have to change his views much as a Republican, but when he spoke out against reparations for wartime incarceration, he was widely denounced in Japanese American communities.
My grandfather wrote a little poem about this, which was published in a newspaper. As I recall, the last line rhymed Hayakawa’s first name (Sam) and trademark headwear (tam) with the word “sham.” I would not be surprised if the two had met, years earlier, in Chicago.
* * *
There are worlds within worlds. Who is to say that one is lost and not another?
a visitor from the future
Little Tokyo, LA
* * *
Afro-Asian radical style of the 1960s and 1970s has persisted in African American popular culture, and nothing that lives in African American popular culture is not consumed all over the world. But another cultural phenomenon, perhaps more vibrant still, descends from Afro-Asian radical consciousness of the first half of the 20th century, even if its Asian (or Oriental) signifiers are often eroded away.
Afro-futurism has been on the rise in the 21st century, particularly after the election of Barack Obama. It is most often grounded, these days, in science fiction and related literary and cinematic genres, and all the practices of fandom associated with them. Afro-futurism is also prominent in the visual arts, both inside and outside the elite institutions of the art world. In a longer view, however, Afro-futurism finds its grounding in the practices and performative mythologies of black musicians Like Sun Ra, Nina Simone, George Clinton, and Janelle Monáe.
To define Afro-futurism in this way, however, is to concede to the processes of description and categorization that anyone familiar with the history of black creative practices should recognize as a prelude to appropriation and commodification. And while Afro-futurism has already been taken down this path, it might also be understood otherwise, not as a category or even as a movement, but as one insurgent dimension of the black radical imagination.
I am looking for a map to everything that comes after the end
The most explicit link between pre-World War II Afro-Asian consciousness and Afro-futurism can be seen in the Nation of Islam traditions teaching about a “Mother Plane,” “Wheel,” or mother ship, likened to a UFO, which derive from Elijah Muhammad’s visions, placing its origins in Japan.
According to Etsuko Taketani, whose scholarship on black interest in imperial Japan is indispensible, a remarkably similar figure appears in an untranslated 1921 novel by the retired Lieutenant-General Kojiro Sato, one of at least two works of speculative fiction by Japanese military officers that imagine crucial African American support in a future war between the U.S. and Japan. In Sato’s novel, ten million African Americans, led by Marcus Garvey himself, take up arms against their government upon the arrival of the fearsome Mother Plane!
A decade earlier, African American writers were already producing similar works of speculative fiction. The journalist John Edward Bruce began a story about a U.S.-Japan race war in 1912, but did not complete it, perhaps learning of another story by the noted writer James Corrothers, along similar lines, published in Du Bois’s The Crisis in December 1913 and January 1914. In both cases, the fantasy of Japanese military superiority to U.S. forces, and of black sympathy for Japan, is initially indulged, before the tide of war is turned by loyal black soldiers won over by the President’s dramatic and personal commitment to civil rights.
Setting aside the potboiler military heroism of Bruce’s and Corrothers’s plots, the analytical point about race relations and transpacific imperial warfare is entirely prescient: Japanese aggression against the U.S. would lead, logically enough, to an unprecedented federal investment in expanding and protecting black civil rights.
But if the Afro-Asian imagination was notable for its geopolitical acuity, the Afro-futurist imagination turns away from the terrestrial altogether. Still, what the two have in common reaches beyond this wretched world. At the most basic level, they express an imperative, not to abandon, but to reimagine blackness in a world beyond white supremacy—to ask, what might racial difference look like if it were finally freed from the dominion of whiteness?
* * *
American wrecking, Chicago South Side
Vincent T. Tajiri Estate
I’ve been fascinated by this photo of my grandfather’s ever since I first saw it, and I’ve been meaning to ask if anyone out there can tell me what that child is holding. A newspaper? a toy or tool?
* * *
This is an essay on the geography of the lost Afro-Asian century, but it is also a personal history. So for me, Chicago is where everything comes for its ending, the capital of boundless lost worlds.
Can I still claim Chicago as my hometown, though I’ve never really lived there as an adult? If I return for good, it will mean surrendering the lost city that I know, I know—but I’d do it, as the saying goes, in a heartbeat.
The President also claims Chicago as his hometown. Unlike me, though not born there, he was formed there—at least in the ways that matter, as a character narrated by the collective imagination, and as an organizer of power. Chicago, capital of an Afro-Asian century surely lost.
Make what you will of the President; I am not particularly interested in him, as an organizer of power, except to the extent that his actions might generate openings beyond his control. And I am not particularly interested in him as a character, except to the extent that it can be recognized that authorship of this character can be claimed by others.
Instead, I want to leave you with this. It is a performance of the music of Sun Ra, arranged by Frederick Tarpley and presented by the Rich South High School Band in Chinatown Square, Chicago, produced by the brilliant filmmaker and artist Cauleen Smith.
It’s just under eleven minutes, and worth every second, for the music, the images, the faces and gestures of the performers and of the onlookers. I don’t think there’s anything more that I want to say about the lost Afro-Asian century. If you watch this, and forget what I’ve written, that works just as well.
* * *
The Afro-Asian century is over. So is the lost Afro-Asian century. But it was always over. And who is to say one world is lost and another not?
This planet is doomed.
Farewell, farewell to the City of Refuge! My time here has been too brief. There is so much more I had wanted to read with you and to write about, and again, I’ve been learning so much in this space. But I’m still eager to hear what you think. A comment section should appear below if you’re signed in to Facebook, but you can always reach me here and here.
—traveling outside Memphis, between New Orleans and St Louis, 2015