Mao Tse-tung greets W. E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois | 1959
Shirley Graham Du Bois wrapped both hands around Chairman Mao’s as her husband, W. E. B. Du Bois, smiled by her side. An award-winning writer and activist, Graham Du Bois had devoted her life to the socialist ideals the leader of the Chinese Communist Party so charismatically espoused, while W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the most influential intellectuals of his time. In 1903, reflecting on the long history of racism and resistance in the United States and elsewhere, he turned to the dawning new century and predicted “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”
Nearly sixty years later, Chairman Mao welcomed the Du Boises to his villa in Wuhan, during their eight-week tour of China. With a snap and flash of light, a photographer captured the meeting of two of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century, brought together by Shirley Graham. This photograph reveals a significant moment in global history and the history of U.S.-Chinese relations. Yet it was not published in newspapers or magazines. Like the meeting itself, it was soon forgotten in the United States, buried for decades amidst thousands of documents and photographs in a dusty archive box in Massachusetts. Its neglect raises broader questions about how leaders in both countries sought to control the public image of their nations during the ideological battles of the Cold War.
As 1959 began, revolutionaries across Asia, Latin America, and Africa were declaring independence from European colonialism. In China, Mao and premier Zhou Enlai capitalised on growing anti-colonial sentiment and emerging Afro-Asian solidarity. After the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, Mao positioned the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the leader of the emergent Third World.
By the time of the Du Boises’ visit, U.S.-Chinese relations had worsened. Just a few months earlier, in August 1958, military tensions had flared in the Taiwan Strait. The PRC was also beginning a painful split from its one-time partner in communism, the Soviet Union. As a result, Mao increased his focus on the Third World, especially Africa, presenting his model of communism as the true anti-imperial alternative to both superpowers.
As the father of Pan-Africanism, which championed international solidarity and collective self-reliance among African peoples, Du Bois helped further Mao’s goals for an Afro-Asian alliance. On February 23, he addressed a crowd of thousands at Peking University, which Peking Radio broadcast around the world. Speaking directly to African leaders across the Indian Ocean, Du Bois proclaimed, “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.” Soon thereafter, Ghana established diplomatic relations with the PRC. Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Sudan had just recently done so, and dozens of other African nations soon followed.
Many black radicals in the United States looked to Maoism in the 1950s and 1960s as a powerful intellectual weapon against racial injustice and the Du Boises’ visit was a tangible sign of shared solidarity. This photograph captures a moment of intimacy as well as diplomacy. All three smiled, not just for the camera, but for each other. The shared warmth and joy evidenced in their eye contact, body language, and facial expressions reflected the personal ties forged during their meeting. Graham Du Bois recalled that as Mao and W. E. B. Du Bois went for a stroll among the cherry trees, “back to us came the sound of laughter…as carefree and wholehearted as that of a couple of schoolboys.”
The Eisenhower administration would have been pleased that this photograph was not published. Just months before the Du Boises’ visit, Eisenhower sent the National Guard to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect nine black students from white mobs at the newly desegregated Central High School. The last thing he wanted was images like this one circulating the globe, which suggested that solutions to racial inequality lay with communism.
Throughout the Cold War, the State Department and other agencies tried to control the image of race relations in the United States, especially as television footage of violent white segregationists sparked international outrage. The State Department funded African American cultural ambassadors: musicians and artists who performed around the world and demonstrated the United States’ purported commitment to racial equality and democracy. But many did not comply with State Department demands, using their platform to instead publicly criticise American race relations. The State Department responded by cancelling their passports, banning them from travel altogether. In fact, the State Department confiscated the Du Boises’ passports for eight years and had only returned them a few months before their trip to the PRC.
It was not just this photograph that went unseen by the American public. The visit itself was hardly noted in the mainstream media. Graham Du Bois published two articles on 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 did its own reporting on the trip. But by and large the U.S. media ignored the visit (this included black newspapers). This in part reflected the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the broader public’s distancing of themselves from Du Bois in the late 1940s and 1950s, when the FBI accused him of being a communist agent.
The invisibility of the Du Boises trip also reflected the State Department’s isolation and containment strategy, imposed on the PRC since the Korean War. The Truman administration had cut off all political, economic, and social ties with the PRC—an embargo even stricter than that for the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a number of activists joined the Du Boises in resisting the U.S. government’s isolation of the PRC, either through the court system, Congress, or by simply ignoring the travel ban altogether. But diplomatic isolation did not end until 1972. By this time a different image—of President Nixon shaking hands with Zhou Enlai—was spread in news outlets across the globe, celebrating what Nixon deemed as the “week that changed the world.”
Yet the Du Boises trip to the PRC also captures the tensions between the transnational appeal of Maoism and its lived reality. Chinese chaperones ensured the couple did not see the starvation that was sweeping the country as a result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. This agricultural transformation led to the deadliest famine in history: a mass murder that Mao was not only aware of but encouraged. While the Du Boises may not have been aware of these horrors, the invisibilities of this photograph lie also in the tens of millions of ordinary Chinese people for whom the promise of revolution led instead to death from starvation, torture, or exhaustion.
Robeson Taj Frazier. The East Is Black: Cold War China in the Black Radical Imagination. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.
Mary Dudziak. Cold War Civil Rights. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Thomas Borstelmann. The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Gregg A. Brazinsky, Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry During the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
Matthew D. Johnson. “From Peace to Panthers: PRC Engagement with African-American Transnational Networks, 1949-1979.” Past and Present 218, no. 8 (2013): 233-57.