Stanford Literary Scholar Vaughn Rasberry Tells History of the Cold War from a Black Perspective

W.E.B. Du Bois is among African American writers whose Cold War views are explored in a new book by Stanford Assistant Professor Vaughn Rasberry. (Image credit: Cornelius Marion Battey / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons)

In the American imagination, Soviet totalitarianism conjures thoughts of repression, violence and deprivation.

During the Cold War, black writers and activists took a different view, challenging the United States to reconcile its message of liberty abroad while upholding Jim Crow laws at home.

This provocation lies at the heart of research by Vaughn Rasberry, assistant professor of English at Stanford, that tells the story of how African Americans challenged policy in the United States during the Cold War – with race at its core.

An intersection of two phenomena
Rasberry’s research focuses on the rise and fall of two 20th-century phenomena: the color line – domestically in the form of segregation and globally in the form of colonialism – and totalitarianism, including fascism, Japanese imperialism and communism.

Sifting through novels, essays, films, newspaper articles, propaganda and government documents, Rasberry examines how African Americans navigated the political waters of the mid-20th century living under segregation.

These findings appear in his book, Race and the Totalitarian Century: Geopolitics in the Black Literary Imagination, which highlights the cosmopolitan spirit African Americans had at the time and the commonality between struggles at home and those abroad.

Rasberry cites the Suez Canal crisis as a case in point. In 1956, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Zone, wresting control from the British and French. This act of defiance against colonial powers became a flashpoint for African Americans, who saw their own struggle mirrored in Egypt’s resistance to colonialism.

“When you think about the sheer remoteness of this event, which had very little direct impact on African Americans, it says something that black America rallied behind Nasser,” Rasberry said. “There was a sense among people who were persecuted on the same basis that their fates were linked: a victory for Nasser was a victory for people of color worldwide.”

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Source: Stanford University News