The CRUSADER Monthly's Black Nationalist Support for the Jazz Age

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The CRUSADER Monthly's Black Nationalist Support For The Jazz Age

The relationship of political to cultural radicalism continues to be a much debated issue in the Afro-American freedom struggle. A better picture of how these relationships were handled in the past would be helpful. For instance: in the absence of documentation, the attitude toward the "Jazz Age" music revolution on the part of the black radicals of that period has been made without an appraisal of one important segment of the radicals. This segment could be called "the Crusader crowd," the contributors to the Crusader monthly of 1918-1922, perhaps the most outspoken of the "New Negro" monthlies published in Harlem in those years. Less than half a dozen Crusader issues were retained in libraries. Consequently, opinions as to what editor Cyril V. Briggs and others of his "crowd" stood for, on cultural and other issues has been left largely evidence from those people's lives in later years, in different socio/political settings.

Fortunately, a contributor and subscriber to the Crusader, J. Ralph Casimir of the island of Dominica, carefully saved a nearly complete set of the magazine. Thanks largely to the careful preservation by the aged West Indian poet and political militant, a complete run of the Crusader was published in 1987 by Robert A. Hill, director of the Marcus Garvey Paper's Project at the University of California at Los Angeles. Finally, a long overdue assessment of this magazine and its distinctive socio/political circle is possible. The article which follows here addresses the cultural question by analyzing how the Crusader approached jazz and blues - those music forms which at that time were considered by many to be without artistic merit, in bad taste, or, down right immoral.

To understand the Crusader is to first know something of Cyril V. Briggs, its editor and founder. He is probably best remembered for his black-only para-military African Blood Brotherhood, which was founded early in 1919 and disolved sometime in 1925. The ABB had a secret membership, a "blood ritual" initia- tion, amd advocated blacks be armed for self-defense and that they keep physic- ally fit through "calesthenics." From its inception in 1919, the ABB grew in the early 1920s to include about 7,000 members in its secret cadres. By the mid-1920s Briggs was moving away from his nationalistic organization to become a prominent black member of the U.S. Communist Party. A bitter falling out with his former ally, Marcus Garvey, excellerated the change.(2)

In effect, Briggs evolved through a militant political nationalism during World War I into a militant marxist. During the transition period of 1918-1921, Briggs's Crusader magazine was a sounding board for the social circle of intel- lectuals who didn't fit in the European-focused mold of the "Harlem Renaissance" elite that contributed to the NAACP's Crisis monthly and various white-left and bohemian journals. Most of intellectuals who graced the pages of Briggs' Crusader also contributed to black nationalist Marcus Garvey's Negro World. This was a circle including Hubert H. Harrison, Arthur A. Schomburg, John "Grit" Bruce, T. Thomas Fortune, W. A. Domingo, sports and theatre writer Romeo L. Dougherty, and the poets Lucian B. Watkins, J. Ralph Casimir, Claude McKay, Ben Burrell and Andy Razaf.

The "jazz age" was barely underway when the Crusader first appeared in September 1918. What was to become extensive Crusader support for jazz and blues was hinted at in that first issue. Displaying an unselfconscious pro-black chauvinism, Briggs urged all to adopt his "Race Catechism" - a pledge declaring loyalty to one's race the most important part of the struggle for freedom. Another early issue carried a tribute to the superiority of black women over all other women, the black woman being not only more beautiful, but also, more "full of life and female vanity." Historical articles on the glory of ancient African civilizations were plentiful in the Crusader. …