Ain't Got No Home: America's Great Migrations and the Making of an Interracial Left

Ain't Got No Home: America's Great Migrations and the Making of an Interracial Left

Ain't Got No Home: America's Great Migrations and the Making of an Interracial Left

Ain't Got No Home: America's Great Migrations and the Making of an Interracial Left

Excerpt

In May 1940, while on his honeymoon in Mexico, Richard Wright joined left-wing documentary filmmaker Herbert Kline and his screenwriter, the famous novelist John Steinbeck, in boozy planning sessions for the film The Forgotten Village. Both writers were basking in the glow of literary success. Steinbeck had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath; Wright’s Native Son had just leaped ahead of Grapes to reach the number one slot on the New York Times best-seller list. The poverty and injustice they witnessed during the Great Depression outraged Steinbeck and Wright. They wrote novels that put a human face on this suffering, identified capitalism as a root cause, and looked to Marxism for a revolutionary solution. Wright identified with Steinbeck as a fellow member of what he called “the latest literary generation” that was united by “its great political preoccupation.” Even so, during their visit in Mexico, the two authors fought bitterly over the political implications of their art. Steinbeck accused Wright of having tunnel vision, of viewing the whole world solely through the problems of black men.

For many scholars, this quarrel between Wright and Steinbeck is emblematic of the fraught relationship between African Americans and the Old Left. Steinbeck’s accusation subordinated race to class. It implied that Bigger Thomas’s experience of segregation and alienation was a problem particular to black men rather than a central issue in Left-labor politics. To make matters worse, Steinbeck’s charge was hypocritical. One could argue that he viewed the whole world through the problems of white families. When Ma Joad famously proclaims, “We’re the people, we go on,” in one of the most memorable scenes in The Grapes of Wrath, she presumably speaks for the poor and downtrodden everywhere. Steinbeck’s assumption of default whiteness has prompted cultural critic Michael Denning to characterize the novel as “racial populism that heroized the plain people.” In light of this quarrel, it is perhaps not surprising that many African Americans felt that the white Left did not give enough priority to civil rights. Black radicals like Wright were particularly critical of the Communist Party’s (CP) . . .

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