Two Events: Shanghai on the Eve of Pearl Harbor & Pre-WWII Black Internationalism in Asia
In September I get to present alongside people whose work I admire at two Rumors from Shanghai-related events. What a boon for a China nerd!
More about the programs below, but first: some observations almost six months post-launch date...
As I've mentioned elsewhere, various strands of history and aspects of real people's lives inspired characters in Rumors from Shanghai.
Having now given a number of talks about my research, I've been struck by a difference in reactions by white and Asian people from that of Black people.
Following a presentation by me about the real early Black Seattleites who inspired aspects of my characters, such as William McDonald Austin, William Grose and Susie Revels Cayton,
a question will often be posed along the following lines: “Tolt Gross seems almost [superhuman / magical] in his abilities and the way he succeeds in Asia. How realistic is he?”
That question has yet to be posed by a Black person.
Rather, Black people have been curious to know about the actual Seattle-based figures who inspired characters in Rumors.
They’ve expressed interest in the Black Americans I’ve written about elsewhere who engaged with Asia in the period between World War I and II, as well as the broader question of Black Americans who during the Jim Crow period sought and found opportunity outside the borders of the United States.
This question from white and Asian people seems revealing about how ideas of subjugation and suppression can crowd out the possibility of the insistent exercise of autonomy. Accepting the reality that the Jim Crow-era was cruel should not foreclose us from acknowledging, and indeed, honoring, individuals who managed despite such terrible odds to pursue their dreams, often in ways requiring risk and engagement far beyond the borders of the United States. Individuals like
W. M. Trotter (journalist/activist),
Henry W. Furniss (physician and diplomat),
Valaida Snow (musician, dancer and vocalist), and
Frederick Bruce Thomas (international businessman and entertainment impresario)
And so many more. Their accomplishments in the face of a system designed to dehumanize and foreclose achievement were superhuman. And also real. Let us recognize as well that for these real ' people, the end of their story too often involved some retribution/foreclosure or diminution exacted by the forces of white supremacy.
Professor Keisha Brown, a historian of modern China, who has a research interest in Sino-Black relations, has a fascinating perspective to share about the history of Black internationalism. I’m honored to be doing a program on September 28 with her on the topic “Blackness and Interwar Asia: A Mobius Strip of Identity Building”:
Join Asia Society Southern California in partnership with Asia Society Center For Global Education for a discussion on the interplay between Blackness, Asia, and identity formation in the Interwar period with author Amy Sommers and historian Keisha A. Brown, who will discuss fields where Black Americans’ engagement was sought in Asia from 1920-1941. Professor Brown will further explore the context for how anti-imperialism and Black internationalism of that period shaped both Black Americans’ sense of identity, as well as emerging ideas of Asian nationalism and identity.
Registration link is here.
Professor Andrew Field is another China historian whose work I admire. In writing the Rumors' scenes set amidst Shanghai's rollicking nightlife, Professor Field's superb research into Shanghai dancing and cabaret culture provided much inspiration. If you're interested in that era, both his book “Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919–1954” and his blog are very worth your time.
On September 10, China time (evening of September 9 in the United States), I will be doing a program for the American Chamber of Commerce Shanghai, for which Professor Field will be the moderator.
I will be discussing life in Shanghai on the eve of that history-changing event. With his deep knowledge of the city and that period, the program will benefit from Andrew Field's contributions. So, if you want to hear about how ‘normal’ (or not!) Shanghai was in the weeks leading up to the full-scale deployment of Japan's forces across all of Asia, tune in!
Registration link is here