More following on from this. Trying to work out what I want to try and argue.

A great many African Americans paid attention to the Spanish situation. Basically everyone did who was a radical or progressive at the time. I want to argue that some African Americans had a unique view on the situation, as expressed in their attention to the Moorish troops deployed by the fascist General Franco.

African Americans who served as volunteers in Spain and who supported the Spanish cause outside of Spain regularly said that part of why Spain mattered was because it was imperative that fascism be stopped. In this they were not unique, many people were anti-fascist at the time. African Americans involved with Spain argued, however, that they already had experience with fascism. They decried the segregation and violence in the United States as fascist in nature. Having experienced fascism, African Americans in the Spanish cause claimed a special knowledge and special commitment to winning the war. Arguably, Spain served as a sort of proxy battlefield. Unable to take up arms against fascists at home, African Americans could do so abroad.

African Americans who served in Spain did not got to Spain as a proxy for fighting fascism at home. Rather, they saw it as way to strike back at an enemy who attacked the African diaspora. Black volunteers routinely cited Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia as part of their motivation for fighting. The volunteers saw Mussolini’s attack on Ethiopia as an attack on black people around the world. Unable to fight Italy in Ethiopia, black radicals rushed to fight Italy in Spain.

Commentators on African Americans in Spain, including African American volunteers themselves, frequently pointed to a lack of racism in Spain. This speaks to the black volunteers’ experience of racial equality in Spain. This experience and the degree of difference from the United States should not be discounted. African Americans in the International Brigades experienced an integrated military composed of people from all over the world. The first African Americans to command integrated military units were commanders in the International Brigades. As volunteers against Franco’s forces, African American brigaders found the Spanish people enthusiastic at their presence, a far cry from the color line they had known at home.

Still, descriptions of Spain as free from racism were simply not true. Spain had a long standing history of oppressing ethnic minorities such as the Basque, as well as racism against Moors. Anti-Franco propaganda sometimes had a racial cast. Drawings portrayed Moorish troops in exaggerated and dehumanizing ways. Loyalist propaganda made allegations of Moorish troops raping Spanish women. While soldiers serving under Franco no doubt committed atrocities including sexual assault, highlighting Moors as particularly sexually predatory spoke to anxieties about inter-racial sex as well as racial stereotypes of the Moors as dark savages. All of this would have been familiar to African Americans who lived under Jim Crow. Anti-fascism could contain an element of racism.

Anti-fascism could sometimes include an element of colonialism as well, or at least be insufficiently anti-colonial. Spain’s government rebuffed a request from Moroccan nationalists to give independence to Morocco. This might have undermined the willingness of Moroccan troops to fight under Franco.

The explanation for these insufficiencies on race and colonialism may have their explanation in the popular front. Spain had a popular front government. The Communist Party in the United States and the Communist International also pursued a popular front strategy. The popular front stemmed from the view that fascism presented a grave threat and one which the radical left alone could not defeat. According to this view, radicals were to set up coalitions including the more progressive capitalists and small business owners, and the political parties which represented their interests. This approach led radicals to avoid rocking the boat too much so as not to alienate coalition partners. In the United States, the popular front vision resulted in part in limits to the Communist Party’s external opposition to racism. In France and in Spain the popular front governments never achieved an adequate colonial policy.

In this context, Amany African Americans had a different view, one which expressed itself via attention to Moorish soldiers. Attention to the Moors and to the need for the liberation of Morocco opposed prevailing Spanish views on two counts. On the one hand, against Spanish racism, African American commentators expressed solidarity with the Moors as part of a global black community. On the other hand, against the popular front inattention to national liberation, African American commentators wrote of the need to liberate Morocco, which meant the liberation of Morocco from occupation by Spain, and by extension meant self-determination for everyone across Africa.

At the same time, African Americans involved in the Spanish cause retained no small measure of the popular front strategy, or at least aspects thereof. One such aspect included the use of propaganda messages appealing to the interest of a given constituency in the attempt to knit that constituency into the popular front coalition. I have already discussed the claims to the total lack of racism in Spain. Even if African Americans really thought this, which is doubtful, expressions of this sort served three valuable propaganda purposes. They could be used to attempt to embarrass the United States, by showing that the United States was behind other parts of the world in terms of race relations. These claims could be used to bolster the credibility of the Communist Party among African Americans. If Loyalist Spain were truly free of racism, and the Communist Party was a chief defender of Spain, then the Party could be credibly held to be an important anti-racist organization. These claims could also be used in the attempt to marshal more support for Spain within African American communities, as a source of volunteers and donations.

African Americans in the Spanish cause displayed a second aspect of the popular front, it’s do not rock the boat sensibility.
Attention to the Moors as members of a diasporic community with African Americans and attention to the needs for Moroccan self-determination differed from the prevailing views. At the same time, this difference never came to a head and the implicit criticisms of the Spanish and Communist International leadership remained just that, implicit.