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

By William J. Maxwell | Go to book overview
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3 The Proletarian as New Negro;
the New Negro as Proletarian:
Mike Gold Meets Claude McKay

Let the man of color distrust those false friends who mingle with him to get his
money, who seek an alliance with him on the alleged common ground of “oppres-
sion,” and who expose their whole hand when they urge him to that kind of Bol-
shevism found only in Moscow and on the East Side of New York.

—Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent (1923)

After a benefit for the Communist Party’s Daily Worker at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in 1937, Mike Gold used his column in the newspaper to bestow two of the highest compliments he knew on the African-American social worker he had asked to jitterbug: “She could dance like a dream, and she was a Communist!” (“Doing the Big Apple” 7). As the second compliment indicates, Gold had been moved to praise by more than his partner’s lessons in intoxicating rhythm. Unlike other white tourists who trekked to the Savoy to see what had become of the Lindy Hop, he had arrived raring to answer Sinclair Lewis’s charge that Communists were as lifeless as their dreary proletarian literature.1 In the bubbly atmosphere mixing Popular Front antifascism and a swing band that may have featured a young Dizzy Gillespie,2 Gold had decided that the dance-floor skill of the social worker and other African-American comrades was not really evidence of the kinetic capacities of black folk. Rather, it was proof that rank and file party members stopped being alienated from their humanity the minute they left the workplace. His column praising the moves of the social worker went on to crow that the “floor [was] crowded with our comrades. Communists do the Lindy Hop, too, Mr. Hill Billy Sinclair Lewis. Communists laugh, breathe, drink highballs, kid each other, and even read your books. If you prick them, they bleed. If you spit on them, they feel insulted” (7). Black Communists performing black dances to black music at a ballroom built to capitalize on the black renaissance were emblems of the life of the party.

-95-

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