The Ties that Bind: The Transnational Trick of Immobilizing the Mobile

Pure Distillation

Few words in historical discourse (outside of the word discourse mind you) elicit cynical responses more than transnationalism. If definitions remain murky for some, others argue transnational connections are falsely constructed via sophisticated argumentation and careful selection of evidence. After all, we can all agree that Kung Fu movies broadcast over superstations in Chicago and New York influenced metropolitan young people of all stripes in the 1980s, such that rap collectives like Wu Tang Clan reimagined Staten Island as Shaolin. The Wu Tang refracted these experiences through the prism of Eastern martial arts (see GZA’s Liquid Swords for a precise example). However, the pervasive effect and meaning of this appropriation remains much harder to determine quantitatively or qualitatively. After all, Wu Tang’s Asian fetish seems to have proven less influential than its internal “rap collective” organization, which appears to have been duplicated in some ways by current Pitchfork darlings Odd Future.Regardless, academics have pounced on these kind of Afro Asian connections. In Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity, Vijay Prashad points out that there exists a long history of transnational cultural diffusion. In the book’s final chapter, he discusses how Kung Fu operated to unify Black and Asian communities and led to a further intertwining of cultures culminating in a “third world solidarity” that had been building well before the 1960s:

That Ho Chi Minh once hung out in Garveyite halls in Harlem should perhaps be part of this story, as should the Maoist inflections in both the National Liberation Front (of Vietnam) and Black Panther politics. In 1965, Ho Chi Minh and the black radical Robert F. Williams spent an evening together during which they “swapped Harlem stories; Ho recounted his visits to Harlem in the 1920s as a merchant seaman and claimed that he had heard Marcus Garvey speak there and had been so inspired that he “emptied his pockets’ into the collection plate.” (141)

Yet, some might suggest the evidence remains interesting but historically flimsy. Despite this criticism, when executed correctly, transnational approaches reveal surprisingly insightful observations regarding perceived nationalisms and identities that often push back against tropes like American exceptionalism. For example, in Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History (2006) noted scholar Thomas Bender explores familiar American historical events, often examined in isolation with little regard to international context, and places them in dialogue with transnational forces of the day. Though the Civil War is often portrayed as uniquely American, Bender connects the language of politicians like Charles Sumner and Abraham Lincoln and average soldiers to a broader set of transnational ideas regarding nationality and freedom. Lincoln and others employed rhetoric and concepts related to contemporary European nationalists and revolutionaries:

However particular and central slavery and emancipation were to the Civil War and to American history, part of the cause of this central American event came from outside Ameican history, from larger history of ideas and conflicts over nationalism and freedom and about the proper balance of central and local authority. (Bender, 122)

In this way, Bender illustrates that the Civil War was not as purely American as it has been portrayed, but part of a larger transnational struggle to define nation, individual, and freedom that had already exerted itself in part during the failed European revolts of 1848.

Likewise, Andrew Zimmerman looks to reevaluate the relationship between the Tuskegee Institute, German sociology and the burgeoning Chicago School in the age of late nineteenth and early twentieth century empire. In Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, The German Empire and Globalization of the New South, Zimmerman uncovers the complex network of ideas and connections that linked Booker T. Washington’s vision of Black America, the Chicago School of sociology, the construction of a new globalized South, and German intellectuals like Max Weber. Zimmerman argues that the transnational triangle connecting the American South, Germany, and Togo helped not only to spread racial ideas about Blacks through colonialism and German sociology, but also contributed to the creation of a capitalist structure that arose between Reconstruction and World War I and prefigured “our own era of globalization.” (12)

Throughout, Zimmerman clearly delineates the kind of racial logic that afflicted not only Blacks and Africans but also Poles in Central Europe suffering under German rule. German observers including Max Weber, viewed Poles as almost racially distinct. The very capitalism that drove German growth also upset ideas of “racial purity and domestic stability,” as the economic need for migrant Polish labor overcame nationalist reservations regarding Polish settlement. As result, laissez faire capitalism emerged as a dirty word among many a Prussian nationalist and intellectual. Meanwhile, as Germany coalesced into a coherent nation-state, Polish workers proved problematic. “The politics of nationalism in Prussia involved a struggle about proper households, a struggle of what Germans imagined as a dissolute, sexually irregular, and reproductively uncontrollable Polish horde with monogamous, heterosexual, and patriarchal German families,” writes Zimmerman. (88)

In America, Blacks long endured similar, almost identical stereotypes. The parallels between a labor force of serf-like Poles and newly emancipated African Americans were undeniable to observers, as Zimmerman points out that “aristocratic” authorities in Prussia were forced to “refashion themselves politically and economically [to] cooperate with new bourgeois allies and ideological and scientific experts,” much like Southern plantation owners in the Reconstruction South. (89) Notably, Zimmerman acknowledges that Germans, though discriminatory, never resorted to the type of physical violence and terror that freedmen and women found themselves subject to in the American South. Nonetheless, through the efforts of white Southerners, German intellectuals, and Washington’s Tuskegee Institute among numerous others, American Blacks came to be seen as uniquely qualified for the industrial harvesting of cotton. Though the number of white cotton growers eventually exceeded their African American counterparts in the early years of the twentieth century, Zimmerman argues experts “continued to assert that cotton could only be grown profitably with Black labor.” (21) When Germany looked to colonize Togo, in the hope of establishing a foothold in international cotton production, its leaders looked to Washington for guidance.


Of course, this gets at the age old conflict between two of the most famous Black leaders in this period of American history: Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Zimmerman explores the tension between Washington’s public persona, one that downplayed racism and catered to white interests, and his personal, more militant beliefs regarding the future of Black America. In fact, Zimmerman suggests that Washington never meant to condone segregation with his Atlanta Compromise speech, as he related in a private letter, “If anybody understands me as meaning that riding in the same railroad car or sitting in the same room at a railroad is social intercourse they certainly got a wrong idea of my position.” (50) Granted, Washington still accepted society as hierarchical and even went to great lengths to illustrate the superiority of Black American workers to newly arriving European immigrants, but nor was he quite the racial sellout modern observers have sometimes suggested.

Along similar lines, Zimmerman also discusses the famous rift between W.E.B DuBois and Washington, arguing that in their early years, the two men shared similar visions. Both viewed racial uplift in gendered and elitist terms and each believed, at least in this early period, that African Americans served as a sort of international working elite that Africans and other Blacks should emulate. While DuBois came to reject this belief, he like Washington did promote it for some time. It was as if, to paraphrase the book’s author, the two men’s least radical phases overlapped for a period. For Zimmerman, the true ideological break between the black leaders came due to European colonization of Africa. “The split between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, which has become a canonical feature of narratives of American intellectual history, emerged only in the twentieth century as result of the new political engagements of each thinker with European imperialism,” Zimmerman argues. (58)

Sans MGs

In partnership with the German government, Washington sent four Tuskegee experts to Togo: Nathan Callaway, John Winfrey Robinson, Shepard Lynn Harris, and Allen Lynn Burks. Germany’s plan consisted of establishing an internationally viable cotton industry to compete with American production. Togolese had long harvested and traded cotton internally, but efforts to expand this production into a profitable export industry had failed.

Imperial Germany

Germany’s imposition of cotton served to disrupt gender roles and local economies. Traditionally, women harvested cotton in Togo, thus, German plans to employ male Togolese in cotton fields conflicted with ideas regarding the gendered workplace. Moreover, German authorities attempted to reform Togolese sexuality and marriage (which permitted polygamy) along more familiar (to the Germans) Western norms that coincidentally would aid in cotton production. German authorities and Tuskegee experts promoted a patriarchal monogamous domestic structure. In this way, the family became the basic labor unit and the more children each unit could produce the more workers German imperialists could exploit. Unfortunately, these efforts accomplished more to undermine the extended families of Togolese than to create a burgeoning mass of patriarchal monogamous households. (169)

During Reconstruction, American authorities attempted similar forms of discipline through the Freedmen’s Bureau. In Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2000), Nancy Cott explores efforts to shape the intimate relations of African Americans that ultimately undermined women. Other historians have explored the role of the Freedman’s Bureau in regard to marriage and domesticity. Rebecca Edwards (“Domesticity versus Manhood Rights – Republicans, Democrats and Family Values Politics, 1856 – 1896” in The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History) supports much of Cott’s argument, pointing out that Republicans “introduced policies to support husbands and fathers as breadwinners,” she adds that “they used state payments as a substitute for certain absent or incapacitated men. They sought to control male and female sexuality, reflecting their desire to ‘protect’ good Christian women and discipline male irresponsibility.” (Edwards, 176) According to Edwards, the protection and reshaping of the black family occupied the central concerns of officials. The agency issued “’marriage rules’ that listed the ‘duties of husbands’ and the ‘rights of wives and children’.” (Edwards, 179)

Granted, German leaders based some of their concerns regarding Togolese sexuality on their parallel fears of Polish workers in Prussia. However, the similarity to Reconstruction era American policies points to one of Zimmerman’s central arguments: through Tuskegee Institute organization, German imperialists imposed the economy of the New South onto Togo. Obviously, consequences were not confined to local economies. The construction of an imperial Togolese economy required “a new project of colonial identity formation.” The conflation of cotton production with American blackness and the presence of the Tuskegee Institute (along with the various unspoken connections that came with it) “imposed a ‘Negro’ identity form New South ideology, first on the Ewe and later on Africans throughout Togo,” argues Zimmerman. “New South ideology provided the German government in Togo with a set of practices based on the racial identity ‘Negro’ (the German word is Neger).” (133) By conceiving the Togolese in “starkly racial terms,” Germany implied that any population of Black people anywhere “might easily adopt the agriculture, and assume the subordinate political and economic positions, ascribed to African Americans in the New South.” (133)

Togolese 1904

Throughout Alabama in Africa, Zimmerman explores the conflict between mobility and coercion. The emerging cotton markets the Germans hoped to exploit through their nascent cotton industries in Togo required capital mobility but also necessitated coercive labor. German authorities praised the figure of the free small farmer, all the while taxing Togolese who refused or failed to grow cotton. As in the American South, notes Zimmerman, “industrial cotton depended on the economic unfreedom of farmers, for it became profitable only through the extreme exploitation and coercive supervision made possible by sharecropping and other forms of semi-free farming.” (170) Though Tuskegee experts believed they brought uplift to Africans (which of course was based on a racial model in which American blacks remained superior to Africans), in reality, their efforts retarded Togo’s economic growth. While an export based cotton market was established, it forced the Togolese backwards in nearly all areas “from literate office work to agricultural labor, from domesticity to social disintegration, from prosperity to poverty from skilled work to forced labor, and from freedom to domination,” writes Zimmerman. (170).Ironically, despite its obvious use of coercion, the German Togo state soon emerged as a symbol of European beneficence. In comparison to the Belgian Congo which had been subject to a widespread human rights campaign, German imperialism came to be held up as a model for future imperialists. Congo critic and Liverpool journalist E.D. Morel savaged King Leopold and his cronies but applauded Germany’s efforts. “For Morel the collaborative work of the Tuskegee Institute and the German Government in Togo represented a humanitarian answer to the humanitarian catastrophe of Leopold’s Congo,” notes Zimmerman. (177) Washington received plaudits for his role and himself praised the German Togo example for its “treatment of Negroes in Africa.” (182) As result, white leaders in the US came to view the New South as the answer to international colonialism.While Germany and Tuskegee were busy disrupting the lives of the Togolese, German sociologists imbued their discipline with a racial logic that soon proved pervasive. When Washington held the 1912 “International Conference on the Negro” at Tuskegee, it brought together, among others, American, German, and Black intellectuals in one place. Many German and American observers credited the New South as a vast improvement over European imperialism. While some African attendees credited Washington’s efforts, many questioned the industrial education it promoted. However, their reservations were largely ignored. Instead, as Zimmerman points out, the conference served as a point of intersection combining “racial thought by white colonial elites like Morel and Evans with New South ideology represented by Tuskegee Institute and with the sociology of the University of Chicago.” (187) Ultimately, this interaction reverberated for decades as it shaped the “theories and practices of racial divisions of labor.” (187)

Within this matrix of beliefs, the Chicago School of sociology grounded much of its teachings. Max Weber continually compared Poles with Blacks, a comparison Robert Park furthered as each group came to occupy urban areas (in the case of Poles this was occurring in both Europe and America). The Polish seasonal worker and the Black sharecropper existed as parallel archetypes. The sociology grew around each archetype as each group escaped the “savage untouched by civilization model” but remained clearly inferior to native born whites. As Zimmerman notes, “this sociological racism was a racism of exploitation and subordination rather than a racism of conquest and annihilation.” (206) After all, nation states like Germany and the US increasingly found themselves with large numbers of internal minorities. If Weber argued the world was organized into a “patchwork of civilizations each with a unique standard of labor,” Park formed similar ideas but on a smaller scale, using Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods as his quilt of imperial racism.

Weber clearly respected Dubois and Washington intellectually, Weber’s respect for leaders like Washington and DuBois stemmed from what he saw was an incorrect classification as black. Instead, Weber suggested each man was of mixed heritage trapped in America’s rigid racial classification. Thus, Weber suggested that the two men were somehow redeemed by their partial whiteness. Though a student of Weber’s, Dubois differed from the German sociologist on the issue of exploitation and oppression. Dubois pointed out that despite rampant racial discrimination, African Americans had advanced in numerous areas from homeownership to occupational mobility. Racism argued Dubois, not inherent inferiority, whether cultural or biological, explained Black poverty. Weber believed The Souls of Black Folk to be a superior work, but for different reasons than Dubois. Weber wanted socioeconomic explanations for his theories regarding race and labor rather than depending on biological ones. He argued cultural factors and social structures accounted for racial differentiation. As result, his conclusions helped to construct an archetype in which Blacks remained inferior in to whites.

Chicago School partisan Park

Through German thinkers like Weber and the work of Washington, Robert Park developed many of his theories regarding urban sociology. It goes without saying the Chicago School of sociology remains a foundational influence on the discipline in the United States. Park merged German and southern traditions of sociological thought and brought them to the University of Chicago. Influenced by Weber and especially by Washington and Tuskegee, Park critiqued urban communities, promoting the idea of stable rural areas. Polish immigrants and Black migrants to Chicago, both felt the sting of Park’s conclusions.

Park’s own interest in African Americans grew out of a desire to ameliorate “colonial atrocities in the Congo,” thus did Park come to focus so extensively on American blacks. Developing a problematic construct of Blacks, Park viewed them in Heart of Darkness terms: clairvoyant, irrational, outside of civilized time. When large scale migration to Chicago by Blacks unfolded, Park sought ways to maintain the city’s vast network of segregated neighborhoods and predictably looked to the rural South. According to Zimmerman, Park favored accommodation, “in which social groups lived separately but in harmony.” Park argued that this “represented the highest social good, and would prove desirable” in a myriad number of ways. (232) Zimmerman points out that “the multiracial structures of empire” supplied Park with normative and empirical models of society. (232)

Ultimately, Park and many others in the Chicago school, believed each group discrete such that the best structure for society rested in a separated interdependence. While Park and several others rejected hybridity as a positive (to be fair others saw hybridity as superior but only because it imbued some level of whiteness in blacks so it was a circumscribed support), the very forces of capitalism threatened such ideas. Just as German intellectuals eschewed laissez faire because it led to increasing labor mobility by non German ethnic groups, Park and many in the Chicago school believed it disrupted discrete ethnic communities and encouraged hybridity. Of course, not all of Park’s students agreed. E. Franklin Frazier and Charles S. Johnson viewed Park’s conclusions with a great deal of skepticism. Each rejected Park and Weber’s sociology and the “political, economic, and pedagogical projects of Tuskegee Institute.” (236)

Though T of M lacks expertise in all things transnational, in Alabama in Africa, Zimmerman provides a precise account of how imperialism led to the intersection of three distinct Western institutions and the ideologies each promoted afterward. Zimmerman’s insights on the Chicago School alone seem revelatory. His arguments regarding the split between Dubois and Washington prove provocative. If the book at times relies too much on theory, Zimmerman backs it up with solid social and intellectual history. Perhaps, most importantly, Zimmerman illustrates how today’s globalization looks eerily familiar to that of the post Reconstruction Global South. Though the institutional actors may have changed, the ultimate edifice remains the same. Zimmerman notes that today’s globalized economy continues to depend on “forms of immobility” that still allow capital, commodities, labor, and ideas to “move across a vast landscape of differences and to remain stable across vast geographical distances.” (249) This fixed category of difference enabled various political elites to manage mobile labor pools. Though people moved more and more easily, this movement came attached to a social, economic, and political immobility enforced by difference. All the while, argues Zimmerman, capitalism both fed and challenged this difference, “the dynamism of capitalism simultaneously contradicted, supported and depended upon, static identities and stable commodities.” (250) Global elites had (and have) much to gain and much to lose; balancing a fixed labor force on the knife’s edge of difference, then and now, remains a primary aspect of globalized economies.

Ryan Reft