Affirming Humanity: Palestinian Views of African-American Struggles in the 1950s and ‘60s

By Maha Nassar
Submitted to Session P4667 (Compassion, Morality and Intersubjectivity, 2016 Annual Meeting
Cultural Studies;
A number of recent scholarly works have shed new light on how Palestinians and African Americans have compared their respective struggles for freedom with one another. This scholarship has focused mainly on the period prior to 1948 and the decades after 1967. Less attention has been paid to the crucial period in between these two watershed years. Moreover, given the dominance of English-language sources in this body of scholarship, important Palestinian perspectives have not yet been brought to the fore. In particular, the writings of Palestinian intellectuals in Israel who saw clear parallels between their own positionality as minority citizens and the positionality of African Americans have not yet been adequately investigated.

I address this gap in the literature by tracing the ways in which Palestinian intellectuals in Israel engaged with multiple facets of the African-American struggle for freedom. I do so through a close reading and analysis of the three main Arabic publications of the Israeli Communist Party: al-Ittihad, al-Jadid and al-Ghad. In particular, I examine al-Jadid’s translation into Arabic of works by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and W.E.B. Du Bois; al-Ittihad’s coverage of the Civil Rights movement; and al-Ghad’s discussion of the portrayal of African Americans in Hollywood movies. I also provide a careful reading of Mahmoud Darwish’s 1966 two-part essay, “Letter to a Negro.” Through a textual analysis of these writings, I argue that Palestinian citizens of Israel understood that they, like African Americans, faced a racialized system of oppression that had similar internal logics, albeit with different external manifestations. More importantly, I argue that these Palestinians drew upon the experiences and perspectives of African Americans in order to reaffirm their own sense of humanity, as well as to affirm the humanity of others who were likewise struggling against systems of oppression.

By tracing the vicissitudes of these discourses, this paper elucidates the interconnectivity of political and cultural formations among Palestinian citizens of Israel and African Americans during an important—and often overlooked—period of history. By focusing on Palestinian writings in Arabic, this paper also provides fresh insights that can contribute to important and timely discussions developing among scholars in Middle Eastern studies, cultural studies, critical ethnic studies, decolonization studies, and American studies.