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

By William J. Maxwell | Go to book overview

5 • Black Belt/Black Folk: The End(s)
of the Richard Wright-
Zora Neale Hurston Debate

Farmers are bad medicine for Marxians.

—John Crowe Ransom, “The South Is a Bulwark” (1936)

Is it true what they say about Dixie?

Does the sun really shine all the time?

Do sweet magnolias blossom at everybody’s door,

Do folks keep eating possum, till they can’t eat no more?

Is it true what they say about Swanee?

Is a dream by that stream so sublime?

Do they laugh, do they love, like they say in ev’ry song?…

If it’s true that’s where I belong.

—Lyrics to “Is It True What They Say About Dixie?” (1936),
popular song written by Irving Caesar, Sammy Lerner, and
Gerald Marks, borrowed by Richard Wright for an epigraph
to Uncle Tom’s Children (1938)

By now, the following story of literary conflict might as well be engraved on the sort of tablets featured in Moses, Man of the Mountain. In a 1938 piece at the back of The Saturday Review, Zora Neale Hurston administered a stern talking down to a younger, relatively obscure African-American writer who had panned Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) in The New Masses, then U.S. Communism’s cultural journal of record. While admitting that some of newcomer Richard Wright’s “sentences had the shocking-power of a forty-four” (“Stories” 32), Hurston protested the heavy gunplay in his story collection Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), named for the defiant offspring of Stowe’s prototypical Old Negro. Wright had devoted his considerable talent to spectacular scenes of interracial violence rather than to the “fundamental phases of Negro life” and had thus fabri

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