This May 19, we again celebrate the shared birthdays of Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X.  Their friendship has become a symbolic bridge between Asian Americans and the African American communities. 

We can’t oversimplify the complexities that exist in building friendship and solidarity between our two communities. However, it is important to remember the historical interactions that Yuri reminded us of — to give direction and fortification to our struggles. 

The rest of this article is Yuri’s own words, as this occasion is most befitting to hear what she wanted you to know. The following is from a talk Yuri gave at the “African/Asian American Roundtable” at San Francisco State University on Oct. 1, 1997.

“African/Asian, Black American/Asian American Interactions in History Bring Linkages of Diverse Peoples and Areas”

Yuri Kochiyama on the occasion of her 88th birthday, San Francisco, June 2009. Yuri is surrounded by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren (on stage behind her) and friends. (Photo by Mary Uyematsu Kao)

There has been much history where people have interacted without violence and bloodshed; exchanged resources through friendly and peaceful relationships; especially between China and Africa from about the 11th century. This story is not well known.

True history has often been hidden, obscured, lied about, distorted. It is up to students, progressive scholars, and truth seekers to “dig into history” and find the gems. It will be an exciting task. And many young people, filmmakers, and researchers are doing it.

Several years ago I had the good fortune to run into Steve Wong, who once owned the People’s Bookstore in San Francisco, and who graciously let me borrow two eye-opening books. “Smoked Yankees”1 has letters from Black soldiers in all of America’s wars. The section about Black soldiers who were sent to the Philippines and how they felt is enlightening.

The other book is the “Star Raft: China’s Encounter with Africa,”2 about the time before Christopher Columbus. Yes, history is important!

Remember, Malcolm X used to admonish: “Study history. Learn about yourselves and others. There’s more commonality in all of our lives than we think. It will help us understand one another.” But history, according to the way it is told, can be used as a weapon to divide us further.

The East African slave trade was the slavery of Africans and Asians on European ships in the Indian Ocean, carrying trade that took Asian slaves from Bengal, South India, Sri Lanka, the Indonesian archipelago, the Philippines, China and Japan to Dutch and Portuguese possessions in Asia and Africa.

Between 1870 and 1890, when Congress was debating the infamous Chinese Exclusion Bill, Black leaders like Frederick Douglass and Augustus Straker spoke out against it. They declared that opponents of the Chinese were opponents of Blacks. One lone courageous senator, Blanche K. Bruce, the only African American senator, challenged the bill on the Senate floor. He voted against limiting the rights of the Chinese.

At the turn of the century, there arrived in the U.S. from Japan, a man by the name of Sen Katayama. He is considered the first Asian who attended a Black college in the South. Together with the highly acclaimed Black writer of the Harlem Renaissance period, Claude McKay, he organized the Communist Party in New York. And they went to Moscow together.

Katayama made an indelible mark on the history of ethnic laborers in the U.S., but is sadly unknown even among Asian Americans.

By 1920, another Asian arrived, interacted with Blacks, and in the course of his own nation’s liberation struggle, rose to international fame. He was Ho Chi Minh. Ho lived in the ghettoes of both Chicago and Harlem, became an admirer of the formidable Black leader Marcus Garvey, and supported him. He wrote probably one of the earliest books on racism in the U.S., and racism in Africa, both printed in the Soviet Union in the 1920s.

Considered one of the world’s greatest leaders, Ho struggled unrelentingly for the independence of his nation. He was forced into self-exile for 30 years, but he became the inspiration for anti-Vietnam War activists around the world in the ’60s and ’70s.

In the 1930s, another giant, a Black man, W.E.B. Du Bois, historian, writer, teacher, political leader, this time crossed the water traversing the other way to Asia. He visited China, Manchuria, and Japan. DuBois met Mao and other Chinese leaders. Other famous Black Americans have visited the People’s Republic of China — Langston Hughes, Vickie Garvin, Robert Williams, and several members of the Black Panther Party. Asian American activists who traveled with the Black Panthers to China and North Korea were Pat Sumi, who passed away, and Alex Hing, still an activist in New York.

In the early 1940s, one of the Black leaders who was sent to jail because he would not support the war against Japan was Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam. He and other NOI leaders were all sent to prison. Some years after Elijah Muhammad came out of prison, a wealthy Japanese businessman by the name of Seiho Tajiri was so impressed with Elijah that he joined the Nation of Islam. Tajiri opened two offices called the Japanese/African American Society, one in Chicago and the other in Atlanta, for the purpose of friendship and commercial cooperation between the two people.

One of the most significant events in modern history was the 1955 Bandung Conference, led by Ahmad Sukarno, head of Indonesia. It was the first conference of its kind, attended by Third World leaders, predominantly Africans and Asians, on a diplomatic level. The U.S. government was irked not being invited, but many prominent Blacks attended, like Adam Clayton Powell, Bill Worthy, and Margaret Cartwright, who was the first Black reporter assigned at the U.N.

Malcolm held him in high esteem because Sukarno would not accommodate himself to the white man. Sukarno flung out the words “To hell with U.S. aid!” The U.S. had Sukarno ousted in a coup. Sukarno never regained his position of power, but he brought about the converging of Africans and Asians on world issues.

Also in the ’50s, just as America became embroiled in the Korean War, which the U.S. called a “police action,” a distinguished, charismatic Black spokesman, Paul Robeson, declared at a rally at Madison Square Garden that “it would be foolish for African Americans to fight against their Asian brothers.” (Yes, he called the Koreans his “Asian brothers”). He urged Blacks to resist being drafted for the Korean conflict, adding that if we don’t stop our armed adventures in Korea today, tomorrow it will be Africa. “The place for the Negro people to fight for their freedom is at home.”

Despite Robeson’s multi-gifted talents and dynamism as a football hero, lawyer, actor, singer, and speaker of world reknown, he became a threat to the U.S. Robeson was a lover of humanity; precursor to the revolutionary Black internationalists of the ’60s. You can see why he became such a target for red-baiting and vindictive assaults. And sure enough, there are American troops in Africa today.

The ’60s brought many pertinent events. One that received media attention was the declaration of support for Blacks in America in their struggle by none other than Mao Tse-tung, the highly recognized leader of the emerging People’s Republic of China. During the 1968 riots, he publicly declared: “On behalf of the Chinese people, I hereby express resolute support for the just struggle of the Black people in the U.S.”

The most charismatic Black leader who made an impression on Asian Americans was Malcolm X. His universal appeal was his love and pride of his race, respect for all peoples of color, his strength in his conviction for self-determination, his pursuit for equality, human rights, human dignity, and truth. Young Asian Americans of the ’60s were as much in awe of Malcolm as were other Third World activists.

We must break down barriers and phobias; building working relationships; but also understanding, recognizing that each ethnic group has its own primary issues, and need ethnic privacy and leadership. However, as a united force, together, we can challenge the system where those with wealth and political power live high off the toil and desperation of the marginalized. We must see one another as friends and neighbors and sincerely be concerned of one another’s plights and problems.

If we want to change society, we can first begin by transforming ourselves; learning from one another about one another’s history, culture, dreams, hopes, personal experiences. We’ll find that we seek the same lofty principles and values and visions of the best in society. We must become one for the future of society.

1.  Yuri Kochiyama, “Passing It On—A Memoir” (UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2004)

2.  Willard B. Gatewood, editor, “Smoked Yankees and the Struggle for Empire:  Letters from Negro Soldiers, 1898-1902”(Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 1971)

3.  Philip Snow, “The Star Raft:  China’s Encounter with Africa”(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989)


Mary Uyematsu Kao is a retired publications coordinator of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She published her photography book “Rockin’ the Boat:  Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement” in June 2020. Comments and feedback are welcome at

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