Not Such A Lonely Crusade
— Graham Barnfield
The Black Cultural Front:
Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation
By Brian Dolinar
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, Margaret Walker Alexander Series in African American Studies, 2012/2014, 288 pages, $60 hardback, $27 paperback.
BRIAN DOLINAR WANTS to know when and whether African-American cultural workers were able to combine politics and popular culture. A tantalizing conclusion to The Black Cultural Front: Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation treats contemporary author Walter Mosley and The Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder as present-day successes in this endeavour, both standing on the shoulders of giants.
Dolinar’s comprehensive and fascinating account sets out exactly how this legacy was established. Although the author is concerned with “the Depression Generation,” this cohort is deliberately loosely defined. Established figures from the 1920s pass through and sometimes lend their celebrity to a growing movement, whereas younger writers and artists drew political inspiration and sustenance from this movement as their own creative powers increased.
The moral and institutional center of this movement is the National Negro Congress. In turn, this organization is treated as the precondition for the maturing ideas of the book’s three protagonists: Langston Hughes, Chester Himes and Ollie Harrington.
Sometimes each cultural worker can end up reduced to a single trait in shorthand accounts of their times — Hughes’ modernism, Himes’s crime writing and Harrington, when remembered, as a casualty of the Cold War. Like parts of Alan Wald’s trilogy of the U.S. literary left(1), Dolinar’s book shows that these well-known biographical facts form a fragment of a wider, richer picture.
Whereas the writers are often presented as abandoning left-wing commitment, Dolinar indicates its continuing influence across Hughes’s Semple stories and Himes’s post-war noir alike.
Investigating Writers and Communism
The Black Cultural Front is a significant addition to post-Cold War scholarship concerning the relationship between African Americans and the radical left and Communist Party USA. Gone is the (much) earlier emphasis on what Eugene Lyons called the Red Decade, all “typewriter fronts” and communist infiltration.(2)
In contrast to the conspiratorial approach, scholarship concerning culture has benefitted from a “liberal paradigm,”(3) which treats worthwhile writing as appearing despite the profile and prestige of the Communist Party at the time. For African-American writers, this discussion was typically conducted under what Bill Mullen calls Richard Wright’s “Long Black Shadow,”(4) meaning that Wright’s narrative of disenchantment with the left, worked through in the 1944 essay “I Tried to Be a Communist” and extended in American Hunger (published in 1977), exercised a significant influence.
Shifts in the scholarly discussion of the relationship between African Americans and the Communist Party took shape in the 1980s thanks to a growing emphasis on rank and file histories, pushing “Moscow Gold”-based explanations to the margins. History from below demonstrated the exemplary work of Harlem or Alabama Communists, sometimes at odds with the Party’s national and international priorities.(5)
Before too long, the same sensibility animated investigations of the Black cultural trends that coincided with this political upheaval. Given the increasing volume of scholarship filling in the gaps in our historical knowledge,(6) one might quibble with Dolinar’s characterization of a missing period between the New Negro Renaissance, better known as the Harlem Renaissance, and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s.
It is to the author’s credit that he draws out the continuities between the earlier period, with a stronger avant-garde emphasis, and the more accessible forms of modernist culture which follow. Some of the links are personal: for instance, a youthful Ollie Harrington’s meetings with Rudolph Fisher and Wallace Thurman are presented as an early influence on his art. (172)
With African-American cultural politics, Dolinar does not particularly dwell on the idea of a break between a “Third Period” (early 1930s) and “Popular Front” (beginning in the mid-1930s)’ artistic left, since the many of same figures keep on contributing their time, resources and reputations to the cause, often well into the grim McCarthy years at growing personal cost.
While the hard demarcation of the two phases of Communist strategy and tactics characterized top-down “Negro work” in the inter-war years, the realities on the ground were often driven by local conditions and alliances, and by the dynamics of organizing against de jure Jim Crow and de facto segregation in the North.
The National Negro Congress
The starting point for Dolinar’s analysis is the National Negro Congress. Founded in 1935 and launched the following year, this organization combined grassroots campaigning with various strategies towards other cultural institutions, from the official arts bodies of the New Deal administration to the Hollywood film studios.
A prototype civil rights organization, it built on the example set by interracial defense campaigns, including those of the Scottsboro Nine and Angelo Herndon. Membership peaked at 20,000, with A. Philip Randolph elected President and John P. Davis of Roosevelt’s “black cabinet” as its National Secretary.
In cultural terms, NNC campaigns were concerned with questions of representation, such as bringing pressure to bear on radio stations for their racist content (Amos ‘n’ Andy, 1928-43) and employment practises. Yet they also provided an entertaining environment for Black audiences and their white allies, drawing upon music and entertainment industries talent to raise funds and building solidarity for numerous causes.
Dolinar opens the book by citing one Mrs. Lynch who claimed that “the cultural things … keep us from going stark crazy” (3), which neatly captures this intersection of politics and culture.
Elements of the NNC project “worked” because they engaged with a popular audience. African-American writers, dramatists and musicians created and contributed to a distinctive social space for entertainment and education.
Creativity and Pluralism
What Dolinar terms the “Black Cultural Front” made use of an African-American vernacular, yet it also complemented the wider, forward-looking currents around at the time. Following Michael Denning, Chris Vials has presented this as a creative relationship between aesthetics and “Popular Front Pluralism.”(7)
In short, while Black creativity could flourish on its own terms with a distinctive audience, it could also be found on a continuum where a fair proportion of mainstream entertainment and mass communications — from Broadway to the photojournalism magazine — appeared sympathetic to broadly social democratic goals and a dialog with “the people.”
This also illustrates a major difference in how the “Black Cultural Front” and the Communist-inspired cultural movement, with which it coincided and overlapped, are remembered.
Literary histories centered on 1930s radicalism tend to start with the John Reed Clubs and their promotion of younger, typically Communist authors but end with the more liberal, semi-celebrity oriented League of American Writers. One of Richard Wright’s protracted complaints is that he was abandoned in this manner, although he would later volunteer as a public representative of the League (which also made various provisions for helping new writers).
In contrast, the scene around the National Negro Congress seemed capable of nurturing youth and working alongside established talents simultaneously — with productive results.
World War II and After
This process was not free of tension. In 1940, A. Philip Randolph resigned in protest over the Nazi-Soviet Pact, indicating he could no longer work alongside Communists. The “Double V” campaign during the Second World War — for victory abroad over fascism and at home over racial oppression — was opposed by the Communist leadership, indicating at the very least that Black demands for equality would have to wait.
Communist trade unionists backed a no-strike pledge and were of little help to African-Americans, including Chester Himes, moving northwards or west into the burgeoning war industries.(8)
If wartime pressures tested the resolve of the NNC, post-war reaction would help to dismantle it. Ongoing federal and Congressional harassment and investigation in the early Cold War ensured that the organization was finished by late 1947 — although as Dolinar shows us, its legacy would live on.
Most immediately, the Committee for the Negro in the Arts provided a network of support for Black artists menaced by HUAC (the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee) or blacklisting, while continuing to provide a cultural focus, in the style of its fraternal predecessor.
Does Dolinar fudge the issue of Communist Party? One criticism of the “Cultural Front” argument developed by Denning and others is that it produces a “donut” comprised of all-important fellow travellers who surround an empty center vacated by the C.P. (an argument that comes in both left-leaning and anticommunist versions).
Within the NNC Communists tended to operate openly where their reputation as anti-racist militants did them no harm among African Americans. Yet as the Red Scare intensified, against a record of wartime errors and backsliding, the scope for this style of organizing was greatly reduced.
Dolinar rightly argues against biographers who downplay the leftist politics of inter-war Black writers, yet remains rather vague on the most controversial political commitments, namely whether individuals were recruited to the Party.
Granted, the NNC and its milieu made an indelible impact on the major protagonists of the final two-thirds of Dolinar’s study. But was that impact also expressed in the membership that would seem consistent with the campaigning responsibilities they assumed?
Starting with Langston Hughes, the author issues a steady rejoinder to biographers and critics such as Arnold Rampersad who treat Hughes as having broken decisively with the Communists after what, in effect, was a youthful flirtation with the Left, ending in 1941.
Dolinar counters this with a close reading of the Simple Stories, which grew out of Hughes’s 1940s Chicago Defender column featuring Jesse B. Semple. This Harlem-based character made comical observations regarding the often absurd consequences of living in a divided society, bringing a “Double V” sensibility to commentary on domestic and international affairs.
Despite current attempts to distance Hughes from his radical past, the laid-back criticisms of the U.S.A. to be found in his comic character were reinforced by the analysis found in his op-ed writing.
Hughes the journalist and Hughes the creative entertainer back each other up. A shift into more commercial forms of writing after breaking up with his white patron did not signal a retreat from politics; rather, his changing politics were typically expressed with a lighter touch than his earlier more agitational (yet modernist) poetry.
To his credit, Dolinar does not rely on simply a close reading of the Simple Stories to highlight the continuities in Hughes’ outlook. A Freedom of Information request allowed him to access Hughes’ private testimony before the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations (March 21, 1953).
Whereas a second, public hearing saw a more deferential Hughes feigning ignorance and claiming to have changed his mind, the initial meeting is revealed as a stormy and more confrontational affair. To this poet and author, his changing ideas — best summarized as a gradual shift to a more social democratic stance, in contrast to his early 1930s pro-Soviet radicalism — were a matter for himself and his readers, and not the Wisconsin senator.
With Hughes, the Cultural Front model holds up: broad enough to encompass his most militant and more moderate thinking, it describes a social movement that fights for equality but was found wanting under wartime and Red Scare conditions. It also proved conducive to developing a popular approach to communicating his ideas with a general readership.
Chester Himes’ Odyssey
Chester Himes represents a tougher case. Not only in his life history — the ex-convict whose first two novels were a commercial failure — but also because his reputation is also one bound up with being distanced from youthful radical politics.
An early novel Lonely Crusade (1947) indicates real disillusionment with Communist shopfloor organizers and racism in the labor movement, yet is fiercely hostile to capitalism and white supremacy. By the time Himes had re-established himself in Paris as a commercially successful crime writer, his radical past seemed behind him. While this is asserted by biographers such as James Sallis(9), the picture Dolinar paints is more complicated.
In prison, Himes was able to sell short stories to several publications, including Esquire. Again, being part of the Black Cultural Front seems to require a popular touch, as demonstrated by the second phase of Himes’s career as a major writer of Serie Noir detective fiction for a French publisher.
As with Hughes, other recognisable hallmarks of Cultural Front writing are part of Himes’ biographical story: friendships with Richard Wright and other significant Communist-influenced figures (Jo Sinclair in the Cleveland WPA Federal Writers Project; a brief spell amid the Hollywood Left); writing opinion pieces for Black periodicals like Opportunity and Crisis; time spent in self-styled “exile” under conditions of menacing state surveillance.(10)
Compared to the chapters on Hughes and Harrington, there’s not as much new biographical information regarding Himes. Instead we have a running commentary on the Harlem cycles of novels, with textual analysis used to indicate the way Himes stayed true to his 1930s beliefs, despite breaking with his Communist affiliation.
Anger at the 1943 “Zoot Suit riots” continued to fester throughout the novels; Himes’s iconic detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones are shown as answerable to white superiors who can only imagine law enforcement as a military occupation. In Himes, it is claimed, the 1930s radical sensibility lives on.
Dolinar’s judgments about the political meaning of the work are not always entirely convincing. It is clear from Himes’ pronouncements on the Vietnam War that he was not becoming a neoconservative in his old age, unlike some of his erstwhile comrades. But there is a case for seeing the riotous novel Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), one of Himes’s last major works of fiction to be published in his lifetime, as embracing a sense of despair about the future of Harlem and the abandonment of a progressive politics.
Of course, this was a potentially popular novel which Himes explicitly linked to his own financial security, meaning that its entertaining qualities could well dampen down its political stance. Yet by talking up the revolutionary continuity in Himes in a final book that seems to address young Black militants rather than the older, NNC style outlook, Dolinar stretches the argument.
The same goes for Plan B, a posthumously published incomplete manuscript that descends into full-scale race war, culminating in Grave Digger executing Coffin Ed. While we’ll never know what the finished Plan B would have looked like had Himes completed it, its pessimistic content indicates something of a change of direction.
More convincingly, Dolinar sets up this incomplete manuscript as being in a kind of dialog with 1967 bestseller The Man Who Cried I Am by John A. Williams (1925-2015), about the prospects for change and a pending Black rebellion. If the self-destructive absurdities of Plan B were one point of terminus for the Black Cultural Front, it’s hard to see how we move from there to Walter Mosley in the present day. A more likely literary linkage is with the nihilistic potboilers of Donald Goines.
Ollie Harrington ‘s Dark Laughter
The final figure in Dolinar’s trinity is the cartoonist Ollie Harrington (1912-1995). Largely forgotten today, at least in comparison to Hughes and Himes, Harrington contributed Dark Laughter, a recurring single panel cartoon, to the Amsterdam News.
After a while its protagonist became Bootsie, a chubby, good-natured man passing comment on the frequent discrimination he faced. A visual counterpart to Jesse B. Semple, Bootsie’s dialog described many of the burning injustices of the day to a wide readership.
Harrington’s work as a war correspondent meant that he was particularly adept at portraying the plight of the African-American veteran, returning home from a nominally anti-fascist war and being treated as a second-class citizen.
Like his comrades, Harrington put his reputation on the line in support of a broad range of campaigns and causes. Noting the growing reaction at home, he moved to Europe — more evidence of the role of the Red Scare in undermining the Black Cultural Front. His sense of unease grew when he came to suspect that Richard Wright had been assassinated by U.S. agents.
Harrington’s final years were spent in the German Democratic Republic, motivated in part by the fear of persecution in the United States. Whereas this could be read as the most “Stalinist” action by one of the book’s protagonists, there’s little in the way of biographical detail to help us evaluate whether Harrington saw much virtue in the GDR’s brand of “actually existing socialism,” other than a port in a witch-hunting storm.(11)
Harrington’s organizational commitments in the United States and his employment as a cartoonist on an official Eastern Bloc newspaper all indicate that he was more than just the proverbial “liberal in a hurry.”
It could seem churlish to question Dolinar’s concluding leap into making Mosley and McGruder the present-day custodians of the Black Cultural Front. Both have shown considerable principle and courage in the face of the War on Terror, to the extent that McGruder’s strip was temporarily dropped from syndication.
Yet in terms of their politics, there also seems to be a step down from the heady days of the thirties and forties. After excoriating capitalism on the eve of the new millennium, Mosley set out his program of admittedly “pedestrian suggestions for change”: make a list of your own demands and switch off the television(12).
Part of the legacy we have to come to terms with today is one of bravery and resistance, which allowed Hughes, Himes and Harrington among others to keep the faith and uphold a social justice-led civil rights style movement. Yet we can also learn from their examples, each spreading this message to a popular audience in clear and accessible language.
- Wald, most recently American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
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- This has continued in the ongoing discussion of espionage, bolstered intermittently by the availability of Soviet-era archives — typified by Harvey Klehr et al, The Secret World of American Communism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), whose Cold War preoccupations seemed to intensify with the end of the Cold War.
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- See Alan Wald “Introduction,” in Daniel Aaron’s Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism (New York Columbia University Press, 1992).
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- See Mullen, Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935-46 (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 19-43.
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- Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression (New York: Grove, 1985); Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of N. Carolina Press Fred W. Morrison Series in Southern Studies, 1990).
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- For instance William Maxwell, New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism Between the Wars (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999).
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- Vials, Realism for the Masses: Aesthetics, Popular Front Pluralism and U.S. Culture, 1935-1947 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009). Readers could well be disheartened by the contrast between the forward-looking 1930s and a present-day emphasis on human destruction throughout popular culture, as detailed in Evan Calder Williams, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Luciferian Marxism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2011).
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- James Heartfield, Unpatriotic History of the Second World War (Winchester: Zero Books, 2012), 242-251.
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- Sallis, Chester Himes: A Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2002).
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- William J. Maxwell, F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015).
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- Contrast this to the recent autobiography of “Zen Stalinist” performance poet Attila the Stockbroker (John Baine), whose frequent tours of the GDR won him round to a critical appreciation of its welfare model, partly due to learning German alongside local “Ossis.” Arguments Yard: My Autobiography (London: Cherry Red, 2015), 145-176.
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- Walter Mosley, Workin’ on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History (New York: Ballantine, 2000), 91-93.
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Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Mark Beachill, Robert Brenner, Dianne Feeley, Mark McNally and Alan Wald for their comments on an earlier version of this article, and discussion of some of its broader themes.
January-February 2016, ATC 180