Old Negro, New Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars by William J.
Maxwell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) 254 pages, .50 paperback.
The focus of three of the books is on culture, but together they provide a wealth of new detail and conceptual propositions that need to be critically assimilated by those committed to building an interracial movement for social transformation.
The indispensable foundation for appreciating this body of new scholarship is Mark Solomon’s stunning narrative of the absorption of revolutionary Black Nationalists and other Black radicals into the post-World War I Communist movement.
This is achieved through the success of Peoples Front policy in Harlem and the creation of the National Negro Congress, a multiracial organization under Black leadership.The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946 by James Edward Smethurst (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) 288 pages, hardcover. Only a few prominent African-American poets, fiction writers, playwrights and critics-such as novelist Richard Wright-publicly boasted of party membership. Du Bois, and Harold Cruse were among those organizationally affiliated in individualized ways.Yet it seems likely that Margaret Walker, Lance Jeffers, Claude Mc Kay, John Oliver Killens, Julian Mayfield, Alice Childress, Shirley Graham, Lloyd Brown, John Henrik Clarke, William Attaway, Frank Marshall Davis, Lorraine Hansberry, Douglas Turner Ward, Audre Lorde, W. A list of other African-American cultural workers who were, to varying degrees and at different points, fellow travelers, would probably include Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Theodore Ward, Countee Cullen, James Baldwin (as a teenager), Richard Durham, Alain Locke, Willard Motley, Rosa Guy, Sarah Wright, Jessie Fausett, Owen Dodson, Ossie Davis, Dorothy West, Marion Minus, Robert Hayden, Waring Cuney, and Lonne Elder III.For five decades, students of the left have had access to the reasons why some Black cultural and intellectual figures were eventually dismayed by Communism, through novels such as Chester Himes’ The Lonely Crusade (1947), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and Richard Wright’s The Outsider (1953), reinforced by Harold Cruse’s brutal polemic The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967).(See note 1) Less available were richly documented, independently critical, yet compelling explanations of just how and why the Communist movement wielded the attractive power that it did, despite all the obvious disadvantages of being regarded as a “communist” for Blacks as well as whites.Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935-46 by Bill V.Mullen (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999) 242 pages, .95 paperback. Communist movement was a significant pole of attraction in African-American political and cultural life.He has been a participant in the anti-racist and radical movement since he was a teenager in the early Cold War years, and is the author of an earlier published doctoral dissertation from Harvard University called Red and Black: Communism and Afro-Americans, 1929-1935 (1988).Solomon’s approach is deftly elaborated in a short Introduction explaining his motivations for recreating the story of how the Communist movement “broke free from isolation and ideological abstractions to achieve a significant place in the battle for racial justice.” In contrast to recent liberal discussions, such as President Clinton’s “conversation on race,” Solomon is pledged to review the early history of the anti-racist left because The pivotal issues then were neither tactical nor sentimental; they involved the basic character of American society.Within this daunting framework, Solomon presents many discrete episodes worthy of at least a brief survey.From the very first sentences of the first chapter, Solomon meticulously corrects the record of previous writings on Blacks and Communism, with the kind of scrupulous research only possible from the pen of a scholar committed to learning what really happened because the record matters for life and death struggles.