Popular Fronts: 'Negro Story' Magazine and the African American Literary Response to World War II
Mullen, Bill, African American Review
Critical accounts of African American literary history and U.S. radicalism of the 1940s have often viewed the decade as an apocalyptic turning point in the formation of a radical black politics. Books such as Wilson Record's The Negro and the Communist Party, Harvey Klehr's The Heyday of the Communist Party, and Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual have helped to create a dominant political narrative that views the end of the 1930s, typically punctuated by the Stalin-Hitler pact and the well-publicized disaffection with organized Communism of the preeminent 1930s black literary radical Richard Wright, as moments when African Americans realized the futility of working with organized radicals in their struggle for emancipation. This narrative is often buffered by restricted focus on individual moments in the 1940s of disaffiliation or dissent within and between the organized left and more specific African American political practices: Wright's and Ralph Ellison's break with the Communist Party; A. Philip Randolph's split with the National Negro Congress because of reputed Communist domination; the 1944 reorganization of the Communist Party into the Communist Political Association, a move frequently viewed as a "softpedaling" of racial issues by American Communists in an attempt to defend the Soviet Union; and the emergence during and after World War II of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and McCarthyism, whose dragnet allegedly silenced or destroyed many black and white radicals, such as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and countless others.(1)
Yet despite the perserverance of this view, many works have appeared in recent years to challenge it. Gerald Horne's Black and Red: W. E. B. Du Bois & the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944-1963; Maurice Isserman's Which Side Were You On?; Robin D. G. Kelley's Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Depression; and most recently George Lipsitz's revised and updated study Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s have each demonstrated numerous examples of successful affiliation between black and "left" radicals in the 1935-1950 period. These range from progressive collaborations of black sharecroppers and Alabama Communists in the '30s, to the continuation of Communist Popular Front politics in African American literary culture into the early 1940s, to the remarkable insurgency of black labor unionism and anti-fascist, pro-black organizing during the war years. Cumulatively, these works suggest a need for close re-reading of the political, cultural, and literary record of relationships between African Americans and the U.S. left in the post-Depression era. More importantly, they suggest that black and left are not mutually exclusive terms in this period, and that African Americans did much to construct and re-constitute central definitions of American "radicalism" up to and through the beginnings of the Cold War.
This essay examines one heretofore ignored source which complicates, challenges, and adds to conventional wisdom about the plight of black and white radical writers and intellectuals of the 1940s. Negro Story magazine first appeared on the newsstands of Chicago in May of 1944. Sixty-three pages long, plainly adorned, the magazine announced itself as a bimonthly "magazine for all Americans" dedicated to the publication of short fiction about African American people. In "A Letter to Our Readers" in the inaugural issue, founding co-editors Alice C. Browning and Fern Gayden explained that in their own attempts to write short fiction, "the idea struck us that among thirteen million Negroes in America, there must be many who were eager to write creatively if they had a market" (1.1: 1). The editors also voiced a desire to use the short story as a tool of social uplift for black readers, and as a way to involve black literature in the national and international crises of the war:
We believe good writing may be entertaining as well as socially enlightening. …