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Six O’Clock Series: Chinese portrayal of African-Americans discussed

02/18/2014
Jaimi Dodson
Contributing Writer

During her research experience in China in 2001, an African-American doctoral student at the University of Southern California said she may have been the only black person that the Chinese people ever saw.

Keisha Brown traveled to China four times in the last 12 years to research “China’s media depictions of and diplomatic exchanges with African-Americans during their struggle for freedom and equality from 1949-1972,” according to the Six O’Clock Series pamphlet.

She said that while she was there, a group of Chinese people pulled her out of a crowd and asked if they could take a picture with her simply because she was black. That interaction could have created the view of the entire African-American race for those people, Brown said.

Brown discussed her experiences of “traveling while black” at the Six O’Clock Series Monday night, titled “My Experiences as an African-American Woman Researching China” in the Hadley Union Building Ohio Room.

“There was a huge interest in Africans in China until ’72 and then after that it dropped off, and I’m trying to figure out why,” Brown said as the starting point of her talk.

Brown said her interest in Sino-Black relations, or Chinese culture in general, began with a high school teacher of hers who taught Chinese.

“It was she who got me to China for the first time in the summer of 2001,” Brown said.

Brown said she learned Mandarin because this woman broke down the language for her and made it easy for her to comprehend. She wasn’t fluent the first time she went, but she had a good foundation to succeed.

Brown explained the importance of the African-American people who made the way for Sino-Black relations, such as Eslanda Goode Robeson, who Brown said was “in terms of timeline, the first African-American to visit the PRC (People’s Republic of China).” Singer Aubrey Pankey was also instrumental in this movement toward Sino-Black relations by performing classical songs and Negro spirituals for PRC events during his time.

“Some of the Negro spirituals had Chinese translations as well as a paragraph synopsis of the meaning of the songs so that the audience could follow along,” Brown said.

These people were so influential because during that time, and even today, hardly any African American people live in China, Brown said. Living there, she said, was a burden on her to realize how much her professionalism and character influenced the way Chinese people could stereotype African-Americans.

Brown said she finds the Chinese culture fascinating because of the cultural blending. She recounted pictures of a traditional rickshaw with McDonald’s advertising on it.

“[It] was a nice mix of the old and the new,” she said.

She also said she was shocked when she realized that the parrots in China speak Chinese and not English, a trivial fact that offered a big perspective shift.

In providing some history into Sino- Black relations, Brown showed posters of propaganda from the PCR supporting the struggle of African-Americans. One of the posters from 1963 read, “Firmly support American Blacks in their righteous struggle!”

The PCR wanted to side with the African-Americans to bring down American imperialism.

Brown said that it is a “Maoist ideal that a successful struggle against racism will lead to a class struggle that would hopefully evolve into the implosion of American imperialism.”

After an hour of Brown’s experiences, history and reasons behind her studies, she revealed her future plans to study the relations of the Chinese and African-Americans in the 1980s and possibly even today. She also wants to study interactions between them on individual level, such as how they are treated personally by the Chinese.

“I also want to teach, so hopefully I can start to work on that now,” Brown said.

Amanda Rose (junior, applied anthropology), an African-American with an Asian studies minor, said she attended the series because she would like to study abroad in China.

“A lot of African-American students are afraid to study abroad, but the talk gave me another view. It really was relevant to my life and what I want to do,” Rose said.

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