African American Writers and Communism
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0023
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0023
The magnetic appeal of communism for African American writers proved widespread throughout the middle of the 20th century. The chief attraction was the frontline role of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) in fighting racism and colonialism, combined with the Communist movement’s cutting-edge support of radical multiculturalism in the arts. While the published literary record is potent and compelling, the documentation of writers’ personal involvement and the theorization of the impact of ideology and commitment on their fiction, poetry, drama, and criticism remain partial and murky. To address what persists as a huge gap in the narrative of the cultural history of the United States, the black Marxist past still needs to be worked through. The breach in knowledge that we have inherited results from the impact of anti-communist Cold War repression and demonization, the opacities of the Communist experience itself, and the diminishment of original biographical research in recent theory-driven literary scholarship. Apart from Richard Wright, few of the fifty or more black creative writers and critics diversely associated with communism conceded any allegiance in public. They wished to protect themselves from harassment, repression, and pigeonholing by employers, the government, and the literary establishment. This article provides a basic guide to essential resources for comprehending the political attraction of these writers to communism as well the artistic import of that fact.
The Political Background
The use of “Communist” in this article refers to those novelists, poets, critics, and dramatists variously drawn to the political activism and general outlook of the CPUSA, which was wedded to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from the party’s founding in 1919 until the collapse of the USSR in 1989. A smaller number of writers chose to identify with rival strands of communism, especially Trotskyism in the 1930s and 1940s and Maoism after the Sino-Soviet split in 1961. As documented in Solomon 1998 and McDuffie 2011, the African American (and frequently Afro-Caribbean) attraction to US Communism, however, is hegemonic and operative from the earliest days of the party. Moreover, Record 1951 and Naison 1983 illustrate from contrasting perspectives that African American allegiance exponentially increased as the pro-Soviet movement, often pressured by black members as well as the early congresses of the Communist International, began to advocate an orientation combining class struggle with black nationalism. Baldwin 2002 and Dawahare 2003 provide detailed discussions of the impact on writers of the Soviet Union and the centrality of deliberations about nationalism. The books listed in this section are among the chief studies in historical background and political analysis, but no single volume covers all of the critical moments. New data about indispensable episodes such as expatriates in Ghana, the struggle in the South in the 1930s, and the effect of the Scottsboro case are treated in Gaines 2006, Kelley 1990, and Miller 2009, respectively, while Robinson 1999 provides an analytical and comparative perspective.
Baldwin, Kate A. Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters between Black and Red, 1922–1963. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
Although the focus of the study is on four customary figures, this is a book that expands the approach to African American Communist cultural workers by engaging black transnationalism through the significance of their literary encounters with the Soviet Union.
Dawahare, Anthony. Nationalism, Marxism, and African American Literature between the Wars: A New Pandora’s Box. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.
Focusing on the “Red Decade,” Dawahare argues for the superiority of what he sees as the class struggle and antiracism of Marxist writers over those “enmeshed in nationalist and racialist discourse.”
Gaines, Kevin. American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2006.
A pivotal text in the new intellectual history of the radical African diaspora, Gaines’s study includes outstanding material about Julian Mayfield, Richard Wright, and others.
Kelley, Robin D. G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
A riveting demonstration of the ways in which mainly African American activists shaped the Communist movement in the South, with exciting implications for cultural analysis and the interpretation of political agency.
McDuffie, Erik S. Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of a Black Left Feminism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
An extensive survey of African American women and their diverse connections with Communism, from 1919 to the 1970s.
Miller, James A. Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
A wide-ranging examination of how the renowned Scottsboro case became a lens for perceiving US racism in poetry, drama, fiction, and film, with a special emphasis on the role of black writers favorable to Communism.
Naison, Mark. Communists in Harlem during the Depression. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
With nuance and clarity, Naison traces the rise of Communism in Harlem to a point where the Communist Party’s membership broached a thousand and its influence was palpable in unions, community groups, and cultural organizations.
Record, Wilson. The Negro and the Communist Party. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1951.
This is a well-researched, widely cited study of the theory and practice of the African Americans and Communism from the Communist Party’s origin until 1950. The author is a white sociologist writing unabashedly from a liberal anti-communist perspective.
Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. 2d ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Originally published in 1983. Although critical of Marxism, this ambitious tome of research and theorization offers a fresh perspective on African Americans and communism, especially in relation to the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and Richard Wright.
Solomon, Mark. The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917–1936. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
This volume sets a mark that is high and bright in its careful deployment of original materials, treatment of national and international dimensions of the topic, and sober perspective on achievements and failures.
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