The Communist roots of the “Black Cultural Front”
The Other Blacklist:
In her introduction to The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, Mary Helen Washington describes growing up in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1950s where Cold War ideology made unimaginable the idea that “communism ever meant Black people any good.” Nonetheless, she continues, “If I had listened carefully to the adults, I might have overheard them talking of unions, Paul Robeson, and civil rights.” Recovering these “long-forgotten, repressed conversations” is the central project of The Other Blacklist.
Washington’s immensely rich and readable book contributes to a growing body of research that seeks to recover a history that has been purposely erased from the history textbooks taught in schools. At its heart, it seeks to restore the history of a radical Black Left in the post-war era—one in which writers and artists played a pivotal role—that was deeply engaged with Marxism and the US Communist Party.
The expurgation of the history of the Black Left in this period has led to a false vision of history in which a caricatured “white Left” during the Cold War
era exists entirely separate from the history of civil rights activism. Washington’s book debunks this idea arguing instead that the Left was “the most racially integrated movement of the period” and that the Communist Party was the only political party in the United States to take a formal position against racial discrimination and to devote itself to anti-discrimination campaigns. Today, when the Left remains all too often caricatured as white and male, hopelessly out of touch with an emerging generation of antiracist activists, this history is all the more pertinent and timely.
Washington focuses on the specific history of the Left in African-American cultural production during the post-war period. As she argues, “nearly every major Black writer of the 1940s and 1950s was in some way influenced by the Communist Party or other leftist organizations.” As a cultural beacon in the Cold War fog, the Left provided not only the political inspiration for some of these artists, but the spaces that nurtured their talent and creativity and the institutional structures and support necessary to the dissemination of their work: from the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago to the progressive American Negro Theatre. Newspapers and left-wing presses—including Paul Robeson’s Harlem-based radical newspaper Freedom and the Marxist journal Masses & Mainstream—also provided a forum for the publication of Black leftist writers and reviews of their work.
Drawing on the idea of the Communist Party’s Popular Front strategy of the late 1930s, Washington argues that the continued influence of a “Black literary, cultural and political left throughout the 1950s” constituted a “Black Popular Front” or what she calls a “Black Cultural Front.” “During the Cold War,” she argues, “when blacks were not even a blip on the white American cultural radar, it was in these leftist spaces of the Black Popular Front that African-American literary culture was debated, critiqued, encouraged, performed, published, produced, and preserved.”
In an era in which the Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized the nation at the same time as a KKK-endorsed megalomaniac has ascended to the presidency, a book that explores the important history of Black writers and activists who created and resisted at the height of McCarthyite repression is of vital importance. It restores a missing link in a long history of Black political activism, which is inextricably linked to the history of the radical Left.
The absence of this history from our textbooks is far from accidental, as Washington makes clear through her use of FBI files retrieved via the Freedom of Information Act. For the FBI, there was no division between civil rights activists and the Left. Indeed, the poet Langston Hughes, today a staple of high school English curricula, was on the FBI list starting in 1925, and his poems judged “communistic.” Nearly every writer cited by Washington in her study—with the notable exception of Gwendolyn Brooks—was under the watchful eye of J. Edgar Hoover and his web of FBI surveillance.
That these files are critical to Washington’s reconstruction of the history of the Black radical cultural Left of this period is no small irony. And yet, however limited their biographical use, they are a crucial tool to “excavate the half-buried history of the Black blacklist.” They are also a testament to the political commitment of these artists, Washington argues, and “a proud record of their refusal to be completely silenced by the intimidating power of the state.”
For the vast majority of readers unfamiliar with this history, each chapter opens up a forgotten (or purposefully erased) history of Black leftists, intellectuals, writers and artists whose names should easily fall off our lips but as members of the “other blacklist” have been all too often forgotten, ignored, or suppressed from the historical record—or their connection to the Left downplayed and denied: Lloyd Brown, author of “procommunist novel” Iron City; Charles White, a Black leftist visual artist; Frank London Brown, author, activist, and trade unionist whose 1959 novel Trumbull Park chronicles the battle to desegregate a Chicago public housing project; the dramatist Alice Childress; the poet Gwendolyn Brooks; and the novelist and radical activist, Julian Mayfield.
Washington argues that the Black Belt thesis, and the call for “selfdetermination for the Black Belt”—whatever its theoretical flaws—was influential among Black radical left writers from the 1930s to the 1960s who saw “its focus on Black folk culture as the basis for a national, oppositional culture.” While more analysis of the limitations of the Black Belt thesis might be warranted here, Washington’s analysis is particularly incisive when it comes to the aesthetics and formal innovations of the Black Cultural Front.
Washington refuses to accept conventional divides between social protest writers and modernists. Alice Childress and other artists discussed in The Other Blacklist can be understood as “social modernists,” Washington argues, insisting that their formal experimentation was like their political and social experimentation, inspired by the Left. Washington’s analysis of the tension between modernism and social realism in the visual art of Charles White is particularly astute, as she argues that this tension compelled him to create “a Black modernism that is accessible, deeply racial, and rooted in an African American aesthetic.”
The chapters on Alice Childress and Gwendolyn Brooks are fascinating, highlighting the history of Black left feminism. Most famous as a dramatist, Childress was also one of the founders of Sojourners for Truth and Justice, a radical movement of Black women. She also wrote over thirty columns for Freedom, titled “Conversations from Life” which featured the fictional Mildred Johnson, a Harlem domestic worker, a character whom Washington argues was inspired in part by Claudia Jones and her influential essay, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman.” Childress’s 1952 Gold Through the Trees also gave voice to many of the concerns and campaigns of the period, featuring a cast of characters that included Harriet Tubman, a man in jail in Martinsville, Virginia (based on the Martinsville Seven trial), and young activists in South Africa.
The chapter, “When Gwendolyn Brooks Wore Red,” is a masterful exploration of the radical roots of the poet’s politics. Washington argues that Brooks’s political activism did not begin with her 1967 public identification with the Black Arts Movement, but was nurtured in radical left communities of Chicago’s South Side in the 1940s and ’50s. Washington’s reading of Maud Martha makes a compelling case that Brooks’s consciousness of race, class, and gender is a sign of her deep engagement with the Left, arguing that “the work of Black Marxist feminists such as Claudia Jones, Alice Childress, and Lorraine Hansberry, writing in Freedom, created the feminist space for this political bildungsroman.”
Washington concludes with an incisive analysis of the historical distortions of the cultural and literary debates of the period through an analysis of the 1959 conference sponsored by the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) in New York City. Billed as the “First Conference of Negro Writers,” it included among its participants all of the featured artists in Washington’s book with the notable exception of Gwendolyn Brooks. The conference featured a fairly contentious debate between leftist radicals and anticommunist liberals.
But no record of this debate remains in the official narrative of the event published the following year: The American Negro Writer and His Roots edited by AMSAC President John A. Davis. To hide the role of the Left at the conference, the Roots volume left out a panel on social protest, specifically the papers by Alice Childress and Frank London Brown. Likewise, the closing address by Lorraine Hansberry, perhaps the most radical speech of the conference, was excised. Seeking undoubtedly to capitalize on Hansberry’s success, Davis did include photos of her under the caption, “The Conference Closes with a Note of Success.” These photographs serve as a stark reminder of erasure of the Left and the heavy-handed influence of the CIA, which, it was later discovered, funded AMSAC.
Washington closes with Julian Mayfield, author of the semi-autobiographical The Grand Parade that chronicles his protagonist Lonnie’s break from the Communist Party. Like many other Black leftists, Mayfield fled the CP as it became increasingly distorted by the oppressive rule of Stalinism. While much more could be said about the political shifts of the CPUSA under Stalinism and its resulting decline, Washington’s reading of Mayfield’s work underscores that, here too, authors of the Black radical Left sought to contest dominant narratives of the CP’s failures, such as those published in the CIA-funded The God that Failed.
Lonnie’s “greatest regret,” according to Washington, “is knowing that the loss of the Communist Party insures that some of the greatest organizers and fighters will not be a part of the civil rights struggles.” Thus, Mayfield writes: “At last there was mass struggle among the Negroes but the Communists had been scattered to the four winds.” In closing with Julian Mayfield and his reflection on the loss of a generation of radicals and militants, Washington highlights the cost of the erasure of this history and the silencing of the writers and activists who make up The Other Blacklist. This is an essential history to read, remember and learn from as we build the struggles of the present.