Black Diplomacy and the Road Not Taken

I don’t think anyone would have expected me to go into documentary filmmaking. Although I had always loved films and contemplated going to film school, after I graduated from university I found myself on a pretty set path towards work in international relations. Once I got my master’s from Tuft’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, a career in the Foreign Service or international development seemed inevitable. There I was, a freshly minted master’s degree in hand and a lot of doubt about where I belonged in the world. I decided to take some time to figure it all out, explore, and let my direction unfold naturally. I soon found myself married to a Foreign Service Officer, living in Africa, and, eventually, studying film. But what I soon realized was that this inclination towards an international perspective would be hard to shake. My latest project, Black Diplomacy (working title), a historical documentary about African American diplomats during the Cold War, is in many ways a culmination of the themes and issues that have fascinated me both as a student and as a filmmaker.

Produced by the FLOWSTATE team under the helm of Oscar-nominated Executive Producer Sam Pollard, Black Diplomacy is a one-hour broadcast documentary that explores the story of the unsung struggle of black diplomats in the State Department. The film’s characters include Edward R. Dudley, the first African American U.S. Ambassador who used his experience as a lawyer for the NAACP to break the “Negro Circuit,” the three African hardship posts that were the only posts in which black diplomats could serve; Terence Todman, U.S. Ambassador to Chad, Guinea, Costa Rica, Spain, Denmark, and Argentina, who led the charge for equal treatment, services, and opportunities for African American Department of State employees; and Carl T. Rowan, celebrated journalist and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, who, as the highest ranking black diplomat in the State Department, willingly and controversially lead U.S. efforts to defend America’s image abroad during a time when segregation and racial violence plagued the country.

Carl T. Rowan with Henry Kissinger, 1965

Carl T. Rowan with Henry Kissinger, 1965

The film moves from Truman’s second term marking the end of WWII through the turbulent days of the Johnson administration (1946-1965).  It watches as America battled the Soviet Union in a global military and ideological Cold War, and warred with itself in the streets and in the courtrooms during the turbulent social upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement.  During this time, State Department leadership fiercely maintained an elite and monochromatic character making it one of the last federal agencies to truly desegregate despite the fact that one of the greatest weapons in America’s Cold War arsenal was the cry of freedom. Yet within its hallowed halls, these three African American diplomats pushed past historical and institutional racial barriers to create a lasting impact on the content and character of the U.S. Foreign Service—and literally changed the face of American diplomacy.

For me, this film is essentially about overcoming barriers, it’s about the courage to make change in institutions with deeply entrenched legacies of inequality, it’s about race and identity, and it’s about patriotism. It struck me while researching the project that there could be no truer patriot than a black man or woman representing the United States overseas during the 50s and 60s, a time rife with systemic racism and violence perpetrated against blacks. Because why else would someone take on such a challenge unless they believed deeply in the potential of their country for change, in the power of those American ideals of freedom and liberty and the inevitability of the democratization of those ideals?

I also think this is a timely project. At a time when fear mongering sweeps across the globe, and here in the U.S. presidential candidates call for walls and bans based on religion, we need to hear about the importance of diverse viewpoints in the foreign policy making institutions of this country and we need a deeper understanding of how that representation was won. As an African American woman who almost joined the Foreign Service, and just as an American interested in the lesser known history of our country, I’m fascinated by the stories of these characters and the questions they raise about race, identity, and diplomacy. This project gives me a window into my road not taken and I look forward to further exploring the stories it has to offer.

If you'd like to receive occasional updates on the film, please join our Black Diplomacy mailing list. You can also learn more about the project here.

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