From the Deep Roots of Afro-Asia, to Mumbai’s Tata Empire, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Keisha N. Blain
African American Intellectual History Society
More often than not, when my students hear the terms “Afro-Asian solidarity,” they usually point to the Rush Hour movies, featuring the talented duo Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. When I taught a group of high school students last summer, their faces lit up when they suspected I might show a clip from one of the movies. They were wrong. I showed a video clip of Fred Ho and his Afro Asian Musical Ensemble instead. I wanted my students to think about Afro-Asia as part of our ongoing conversation about the meanings and functions of black internationalism. Since none of them had heard of Fred Ho (1957-2014), I was also excited to introduce them to this musical genius, writer, and activist.
My students were astute to draw a connection to Rush Hour. Our popular memory continues to associate Afro-Asia with a myriad of cultural productions including novels—i.e. Frank Chin’s Gunga Din Highway and Ishmael Reed’s Japanese by Spring—and films such as Unleashed, Cradle 2 the Grave, and Rising Sun. The Rush Hour movies, first released in 1998, certainly exemplify the cultural manifestations of Afro-Asia even as they perpetuate racial and ethnic stereotypes.1 Describing Rush Hour 2, in particular, Crystal Anderson argues that the film “embraces interethnic male friendship, but only on the basis of a reductive notion of national identity, which reinforces the distance between the African American and Chinese leads.” 2 This is true but I also think the portrayals of two police detectives—one African American and the other Chinese—working in tandem to fight crime in the United States and abroad symbolically allude to a richer, deeper, and dynamic history. [continue reading]
A Victorian author of ripping yarns about great figures from history and plucky empire-builders is enjoying a renaissance thanks to a children’s ‘audio theatre’ series and the growth of the Christian ‘homeschool’ movement in the US. G A Henty (1832-1902) was a novelist and war correspondent who wrote historical adventure stories such as The Dragon and the Raven, Through Russian Snows – about Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812 – and Under Drake’s Flag. Henty was a firm believer in the virtues of the British Empire and set a template for uplifting stories which was followed in journals such as the Boys’ Own Paper and Chums. Authors such as Frederick Brereton and Percy F Westerman, author of The Wireless Officer, also wrote in the ‘Henty tradition’.
In December, Presidents Barak Obama and Raul Castro announced that they would be taking steps to normalise US-Cuban relations thereby ending decades of animosity between the two governments. In a public statement, Obama declared it time ‘to cut loose the shackles of the past’ and do away with the enmity that brought about the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Although Cuba is currently in the headlines, the Caribbean island does not figure as prominently in US politics as it once did. During the Cold War, developments in Cuba had a profound effect on US policy towards Latin America as a whole. In particular, Washington officials feared that the Cuban Revolution would pave the way for other communist governments, allied with the Soviet Union, to emerge throughout the region. For President John F. Kennedy, this prospect made Latin America ‘the most dangerous area in the world’. [continue reading]
Zareer Masani and Vibeke Venema
Towards the end of the 19th Century, Indian businessman Jamsetji Tata walked into one of Mumbai’s most expensive hotels – but, so the story goes, he was told to leave because of the colour of his skin. Legend has it that he was so incensed he decided to build his own hotel – a better one that would welcome Indian guests.
And so, in 1903, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel opened its doors on the waterfront in Mumbai. It was the first building in the city to have electricity, American fans, German lifts and English butlers. It’s still the height of luxury today. Jamsetji was born in 1839 into a Parsi family – many of his forefathers had been Zoroastrian priests. He had made his fortune trading cotton, tea, copper, brass and even opium, which was legal at the time. He was well-travelled and fascinated by new inventions. [continue reading]