Can Shared Histories Bring People Together?

Jan 25, 2014 | Updated Mar 27, 2014

When I was writing a book about Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois several years ago, one of the things that struck me was the depth of conversations both men had with contemporaries representing the expanse of religions, cultures and even philosophical perspectives.

Robeson's friendships with European Jewish intellectuals during his time in London and, later, the Soviet Union shaped his staunch belief that blacks must fight anti-Semitism as fiercely as they should fight racism, though he did believe that all people could be united under communism. Du Bois, meanwhile, was shaped profoundly by his correspondences with Indian and Chinese nationalists at a time when both lands were struggling against colonialism. What made Robeson and Du Bois great was their belief that shared histories could bring people together. Though most of their aspirations turned out to be idealistic, the Bandung conference in 1955 was one of the tangible outcomes of their belief that common histories can make for coalitions.

The Bandung conference and the proposal of black Asian coalitions was short-lived, however, and the postcolonial world has still struggled to come together on a wide range of issues, including human rights, gender equality, and environmental protection. In the United States, the children of immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Africa are also hampered at times in their efforts to work together. Whether it be religious differences, cultural misunderstandings, or even the occasional bout of what some social justice advocates call "victim olympics," we still haven't been able to have genuine inter-community dialogues on how we can move forward as a polycultural nation.

While Bandung might not have become what its organizers had envisioned (two of the co-organizers, Pakistan and India, went to war less than a decade later), its essence could provide a template for different communities to come together here. There are numerous racial and religious dialogue efforts at college campuses across the country, but how many of these efforts exist within corporate America or even among advocacy organizations that ostensibly share similar missions? Would it be out of the question for Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, pagans and atheists to be at the table and have constructive discussions about pluralism? How about conversations between blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos and First Nations peoples, as well as LGBT community leaders, about the contemporary struggles for equal protection?

All of our communities do have shared histories -- some good and some not-so-good -- and can draw upon those past experiences as lessons to inform greater cooperation with each other. This may even involve unpleasant conversations and acknowledgments that we, as diverse communities, will sometimes agree to disagree. Still, it would be a great way to honor the legacies of those human rights leaders who envisioned a world where constructive words could replace destructive weapons. As Robeson, Du Bois, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi have shown, those ideals are worth striving for.