New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism between the Wars

By William J. Maxwell | Go to book overview
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1 Kitchen Mechanics and Parlor
Nationalists: Andy Razaf, Black
Bolshevism, and Harlem’s Renaissance

The Negro is “seeing red.”

—Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, Investigation Activities
ofthe Department of Justice
(1919)

Of course, the thinking Negro has shifted a little toward the left with the world-
trend, and there is an increasing group who affiliate with radical and liberal move-
ments. But fundamentally for the present the Negro is radical on race matters, con-
servative on others, in other words, a “forced radical,” a social protestant rather
than a genuine radical. Yet under further pressure and injustice iconoclastic
thought and motives will inevitably increase. Harlem’s quixotic radicalisms call for
their ounce of democracy to-day lest to-morrow they be beyond cure.

—Alain Locke, The New Negro (1925)

The first extended musical allusion in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), perhaps African-American literature’s most insistently allusive and musical novel, involves a bluesy torch song with an axe to grind. Near the climax of the monologue that fills the novel’s prologue, Ellison’s unnamed, invisible narrator reveals a desire that would surely provoke his New York neighbors to violence if he lived anywhere but in an abandoned coal cellar. “I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing ‘What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue,’” he divulges, “all at the same time” (8). One recording won’t do, because “there is a certain acoustical deadness in my hole, and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body” (8; emphasis in original). Yet Ellison’s narrator is excited by more than the sensual pleasures of pumped-up volume. The alchemy to be heard as “Louis bends that military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound” offers this invisible man rare insights into time and history (8). Sampled along with a joint, Armstrong’s

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