In the interwar years, Du Bois charted an alternative path, deepening his internationalism and advocating an alliance of the darker nations. Writing in 1936, he argued that “if the coloured world wants to meet the white world on a plane of real equality and effective brotherhood . . . then first of all the coloured world must be a strong world, strong in its own inner organization, strong in its power of thought and defence.” Du Bois sought to build this strength by reframing the American color line as part and parcel of a global pattern of colonial and racial hierarchy. If African Americans could see themselves as part of this larger group of oppressed peoples, they might be able to develop shared political analyses and strategies.
In pursuit of this goal, Du Bois experimented with various fora. As editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, he covered emerging nationalist movements around the world, but especially in India. He also helped to organize four Pan-African congresses and sought to use new international institutions like the League of Nations and the United Nations to advance an anti-imperialist and anti-racist agenda. Despite these efforts, Du Bois never found the appropriate institutional structure for his internationalist ambitions. By 1950, his leftward shift had marginalized him. He was once again out of the NAACP, which he had helped to found in 1909. And in 1951 he found himself the object of the era’s anti-communist fervor as he stood trial for acting as an agent of a foreign nation.
Half a century later, as a new “war hysteria” gripped the country, Du Bois’s hopes for a united “coloured world” including black Americans seemed all but dead. In 2001, as the United States prepared to invade Afghanistan, African Americans occupied the highest offices of the national security state. It is now easy to see how the centrality and visibility of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell in George W. Bush’s administration, as key architects and defenders of the global War on Terror, as well as the passing of the war baton to Barack Obama, the first black commander in chief, represent the apex of national security citizenship.
In recent years, the terrain has begun to shift. The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) has developed an incipient language and vision of black internationalism, building on earlier traditions and identifying a shared field of political struggle with anti-imperial and progressive forces around the world. The promise of this internationalism is far from realized. But emerging out of concrete material connections, especially in shared struggles against state violence, it has the potential to remap America’s place in the world.