Literature in the Shadows

— Bill V. Mullen

The Other Blacklist:
The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s
By Mary Helen Washington
New York: Columbia University Press, 2014, 368 pages, $35 hardback.

MARY HELEN WASHINGTON’S brilliant, intimate and highly readable new book capstones an important era of post-Cold War scholarship of the legacy of American Communism and African-American literature.(1)

More than 12 years in the making, fortified by a passionate dedication to setting records straight, Washington’s book tells us many new things about the Leftist sympathies of African-American writers we thought we knew. The book also reorders the canon of African-American literature, recovering the lives and careers of writers formally or informally blacklisted by literary scholars and anthologies.

Along the way, Washington revises the story of the making of the African-American scholar. Beginning the book with a confessional about growing up Black in Cold War America, where even among family and friends anti-racist Communists were feared and demonized, Washington confides that the battle to tell the truth about African Americans and the U.S. Communist Left requires reflection on the deepest scars left by the HUAC hearings, McCarthyism, and witch hunts.

Only by looking in the personal mirror of America’s anti-Communist obsession, Washington tells us, can scholars themselves be free to write the whole truth about both their subjects and themselves.

Washington is well positioned to tell this story. A leading scholar of African-American women’s writing, social justice advocate, and past-President of the American Studies Association, Washington has long helped champion canon reform in her scholarship.

In her 1997 ASA Presidential Address “Disturbing the Peace: What Happens to American Studies When You Put African-American Studies at the Center?” an essay I often teach in my seminars, Washington argues that a tradition of political dissidence in the U.S. beginning with figures like W.E.B. Du Bois should be at the heart of American Studies scholarship.

Her own work has likewise interrogated the limits of “consensus” scholarship that seeks to define by exclusion or through ideological means test.

A Black Popular Front

The Other Blacklist has a simple, original and persuasive thesis: that between the 1940s and the 1960s, a “Black Popular Front” existed in the United States that drew African-American writers and artists and the U.S. Communist Party into active, productive collaboration.

The term “Black Popular Front,” or what Washington also calls “Black Cultural Front,” hearkens to the “Popular Front” strategy of the Communist Left after 1935 to foster interracial collaboration in the fight against fascism. Washington argues that even after the formal “end” of the Popular Front strategy in 1939 (usually marked by the Hitler-Stalin Pact), Black writers and artists found on the American Left a supportive, intellectually productive milieu for their work when few mainstream organizations would pay them notice.

As Washington puts it, “during the Cold War, when blacks were not even a blip on the white cultural radar, it was in these leftists spaces of the Black Popular Front that African American literary culture was debated, critiqued, encouraged, performed, published, produced, and preserved.” (17)

There are two building blocks of Washington’s argument. First, she argues for the enduring appeal for African Americans of the Communist Party’s “Black belt” or “Black nation” thesis first articulated at the 1928 Sixth World Congress of the Communist International.

The Black Communist Harry Haywood and the Jamaican poet (and immigrant to the U.S.) Claude McKay helped craft the Soviet thesis that African Americans constituted an “oppressed national minority” in the United States and were entitled to self-determination. The thesis helped the CP establish the Alabama Sharecroppers Union in 1931 and to organize steelworkers and longshoremen in other cities.

Especially appealing to artists, Washington argues, was the “Black belt” thesis “focus on black culture as the basis for a national, oppositional culture.” (15) She argues that a generation of African-American writers beginning in the 1930s came to see the CP’s commitment to Black culture as reason to join or act as fellow travelers to the Party.

A second dimension of Washington’s argument is that the Communist Left’s commitment to Black culture inspired aesthetic and formal experiment among a generation of writers and artists seeking to inject strong class analysis, anti-racism or anti-imperialist themes into their work. Here, Washington offers stimulating “close reading” combined with biographical analysis of the lives of writers affiliated with what she calls a “left-wing support system.” (15).

Life-Size Portraits

Washington offers life-size “portraits” of individual writers whose relationship to the Left has been noted but left incomplete or suppressed. Their stories serve as symbolic case studies of a wider “Black Popular Front.”

Novelist Lloyd Brown, painter Charles White, playwright and fiction writer Alice Childress, poet Gwendolyn Brooks and novelist Frank London Brown are each the subject of individual chapters sketched out in vivid, dynamic political color.

Lloyd Brown joined the Communist Party in 1929. He worked as a union organizer in the 1930s and in 1933 traveled to the Soviet Union on behalf of the Scottsboro Nine. He was sent to Pittsburgh by the Party to organize steel workers, where he was incarcerated for seven months in Allegheny County Jail for trying to get communists on the ballot.

The Party’s Masses & Mainstream Press privately published Brown’s novel Iron City set in the Allegheny County Jail and based on events there. Washington focuses on what she calls “modernist revisions” in Brown’s book inspired by his Left cultural milieu: documentary technique borrowed from the Leftist “Living Newspaper” theater, and parody of Richard Wright’s own modernist novel Native Son.

Washington also makes a compelling case that Brown’s 1951 essay “Which Way for the Negro Writer?” is a crucial totem of the African-American literary Left, a brilliant and uncompromising manifesto attacking the (bourgeois) literary establishment for its own “blacklisting” of Black literature.

The painter Charles White, dubbed by Washington “Robeson with a Brush and Pencil,” is perhaps the most successful African-American visual artist to affiliate with the American Left throughout his career. White first received acclaim in 1940 for his mural, “A History of the Negro Press,” exhibited at the South Side Chicago Coliseum.

The mural reflected the influence of proletarian artists like Morris Topchevsky, who helped to circulate the political ideas of Mexican revolutionary artists Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco through Chicago’s John Reed Clubs. According to Washington, from 1940 to 1956, White was “involved with the institutions that the Communist Party led or influenced.” (73)

With his first wife, the brilliant sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, White taught classes at the communist-led Abraham Lincoln School in Chicago. He was a member of what Washington calls “Chicago’s Black Radical Renaissance” before moving to New York in 1950.

He was active in the Left-heavy Com­mittee for the Negro in the Arts, which chose White to represent the organization at the World Youth and Student Festival for Peace in East Berlin. Throughout the 1950s, White aligned himself with social realism advocated by the Party, but developed a signature style perhaps best described as modernist internationalism.

Washington’s two landmark chapters, for this reader, rediscover Alice Childress and Gwendolyn Brooks. African-American literary history has been especially slow to recover Black women of the Left lost in the shadows not just of anti-communism but the imposing masculinism of the likes of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison (Washington has herself done much to sustain the place of African-American women writers throughout her career).

Alice Childress is best known for her 1973 adolescent novel A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich. Washington deftly reconstructs Childress’ much earlier rise through the New York theater world and the Black Left beginning with a production of her musical Gold Through the Trees at the left-wing Club Baron in 1952.

A regular contributor to Paul Robeson’s Freedom newspaper, Childress won an Obie Award in 1955 for her play Trouble in Mind. Communist historian Herbert Aptheker helped publish her astonishing novel Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life with International Publishers.

Washington smartly locates Childress in a Black, Red and Feminist milieu in New York where Trinidadian CP member Claudia Jones was becoming the Left’s leading voice on Black women’s oppression and exploitation. Washington characterizes Childress’ own formal experiments in theater and fiction as “social modernist.” Her chapter is the single most significant study yet of Childress and the Left.

Un-erasing Gwendolyn Brooks

Likewise, Washington’s chapter “When Gwendolyn Brooks Wore Red” is a tour de force interpretation of the Black literary Left’s wiliest — and most formally decorated — radical.

Washington shows how Brooks was from her earliest days as a writer nurtured and mentored by the American Left. She was a member of the Communist-led League of American Writers, was published in anthologies by Marxists like Edwin Seaver, and considered among her closest friends fellow travelers to the Communist Party like Margaret Burroughs and Jack Conroy.

Washington brilliantly interprets Brooks’ 1953 novel Maud Martha as what Michael Denning calls a “ghetto pastoral,” merging proletarian outlook with sociological observation of race and, especially in Brooks’ case, gender.

Brooks is also Washington’s best example of Leftist “erasure” by literary critics who have failed to see the politically radical content behind her modernist poetic form.

Finally, Washington provides the most convincing case yet made by a scholar that Brooks’ open association with the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s owed to her radicalization during the Popular Front period 30 years earlier.

In her final “portrait” chapter, Washing­ton describes the novelist Frank London Brown, author of the anti-racist housing novel Trumbull Park, as a case study of the “end of the Black cultural front.” The competing political influences in his life and work of civil rights coalitionism, insurgent Black nationalism and interracial alliance make Brown a pivotal figure in the turn away from mid-century Left influence to autonomous and semi-autonomous Black politics.

Spycraft and Surveillance

Brown was also, like all of the writers Washington showcases, under FBI surveillance, a fact which provides transition to Washington’s final chapter on what she calls “Spycraft and the Black Literary Left.”

Here, Washington culminates her superb use of FBI files throughout the book by analyzing the influence of state-sponsored anti-communism on a single event, the 1959 conference of “Negro Writers” in New York sponsored by the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) and its purpose.

All the writers in Washington’s study save Gwendolyn Brooks attended the conference. Washington combs internal AMSAC documents to disclose how ex-Communist Harold Cruse attempted to displace what he called the “Marxist oriented sphere of cultural activities” at the conference. (244)

A published conference volume subsequently edited out papers in support of social protest given by Alice Childress and Frank London Brown. Later disclosure revealed that AMSAC was receiving support from an “umbilical cord of gold” provided by the CIA. (264)

Washington’s epilogue concerns the life and work of Julian Mayfield, a participant in the AMSAC conference deeply disturbed by revelations of its CIA ties.

Mayfield’s 1961 novel The Grand Parade recalls his own traumatic break with the Communist Party. Yet Mayfield’s sympathetic and empathetic account of the Communist Left also represents for Washington a powerful legacy her book single-handedly sculpts from the lives of the “other blacklist”:

“Whether they were ambivalent communists, reluctant radicals, wary fellow travelers, and/or committed leftists, they linked themselves to the passion and power of a radical vision and radical activism. Their work was animated by and enabled by a vision that refused the terms of race liberalism promoted by the U.S. mainstream.” (273)

Mary Helen Washington’s book poses at least three important challenges to U.S. literary historians. The first is to extend the “other blacklist” of African-American writers on the Left to those whose names and work are similarly in need of further restoration and reappraisal.

A short list of those would include Elizabeth Catlett, Richard Durham, Charlotta Bass, Margaret Burroughs, Theodore Ward and Rosa Guy, among others. While some of these figures are beginning to receive overdue attention, full-ranging biographies of the kind Washington hints at here would do much to flesh out contours of the African-American Left.

The second is to revise appreciation of the aesthetic aspects of Left literature in the United States. Alice Childress’ remarkable use of dramatic monologue, Gwendolyn Brooks’ experiments with the sonnet form, and Charles White’s modernist internationalism should be viewed as of a piece with other efforts by 20th century artists, both modernist and non-modernist, to enrich the formal vocabulary of revolutionary art.

The artists in Washington’s book, in other words, were as much a part of an aesthetic as a political vanguard still in need of naming and definition by scholars.

Sticking with the Left

The third challenge involves periodization. Washington’s appellation of a “Black Popular Front” extending from the 1930s to the early 1960s begs us to understand more completely why African-American writers and artists refused to disavow the Left, including the Stalinist Left, when others did.

Part of the answer lies, Washington observes correctly, in the durable appeal of Left anti-racism. But the unique fidelity of African-American writers and artists to Marxist principles and ideas should reanimate our readings of figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Claudia Jones, C.L.R. James and others who likewise strove valiantly to keep alive the kernel of revolutionary aspiration even in the face of domestic repression and Stalinist betrayals around the world.

In large part this was due to the incremental internationalization of the Black Left as it found solidarity with anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa, and warm reception in Communist countries. Washington’s study then should become an anchoring point for new scholarship tracing out political radicalism in the Black diaspora.

Beyond that, Washington’s book should be a bedrock of our understanding of the relationship of academic scholarship to anti-communism. Indeed, no book in recent memory more boldly confronts and dismantles the political apparatus of literary commemoration.

As she has throughout her career, Mary Helen Washington has “disturbed the peace” by asking us, “What happens if you put the black literary and cultural Left at the Center of Scholarship on the Cold War?” (13) Readers should run to her answers.

Note

  1. Since the late 1990s a number of scholarly works have appeared reassessing the relationship of African-American writers to the Communist Party. These would include among others Alan Wald’s trilogy of books on the American Left, including his most recent American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), which includes discussion of Lloyd Brown; James Smethurst’s The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry Between the Wars, 1930-1946 (London: Oxford University Press, 1999); William Maxwell’s New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism Between the War (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999); Bill V. Mullen, Popular Fronts: Chicago and African American Cultural Politics, 1935-1945 (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); Barbara Foley, Wrestling with the Left: Ralph Ellison and the Making of Invisible Man (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); James A. Miller, Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
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