A Dancer in the Revolution: Stretch Johnson, Harlem Communist at the Cotton Club

A Dancer in the Revolution: Stretch Johnson, Harlem Communist at the Cotton Club

A Dancer in the Revolution: Stretch Johnson, Harlem Communist at the Cotton Club

A Dancer in the Revolution: Stretch Johnson, Harlem Communist at the Cotton Club

Synopsis

The life of Howard Johnson, nicknamed "Stretch" because of his height (6'5"), epitomizes the cultural and political odyssey of a generation of African Americans who transformed the United States from a closed society to a multiracial democracy. Johnson's long-awaited memoir traces his path from firstborn of a "multiclass/multiethnic" family in New Jersey to dancer in Harlem's Cotton Club to Communist youth leader and, later, professor of Black studies. A Dancer in the Revolution is a powerful statement about Black resilience and triumph amid subtle and explicit racism in the United States. "As I look back, it was a perfectly logical step in my development to join the American Communist Party. Being Black and beginning to look for some solutions to the problem of survival, there seemed to be nothing else to do. American society had excluded us. It was the last years of the Great Depression. Millions of hungry, unemployed, and desperate Americans had made American capitalism's claim to be the greatest society on Earth somewhat suspect. The Depression only served to throw a little more light on the whole Black condition." - Howard "Stretch" Johnson, reflecting on 1935 Johnson's engaging, beautifully written memoir provides a window into everyday life in Harlem - neighborhood life, arts and culture, and politics - from the 1930s to the 1970s, when the contemporary Black community was being formed. A Dancer in the Revolution explores Johnson's twenty-plus years inthe Communist Party and illuminates in compelling detail how the Harlem branch functioned and flourished in the 1930s and '40s. Johnson thrived as a charismatic leader, using the connections he built up as an athlete and dancer to create alliances between communist organizations and a cross-section of the Black community. In his memoir, Johnson also exposes the homoerotic tourism that was a feature of Harlem's nightlife in the 1930s. Some of America's leading white literary, musical, and artistic figures were attracted to Harlem not only for the community's artistic creativity but to engage in illicit sex-gay and straight-with their Black counterparts. A Dancer in the Revolution is an invaluable contribution to the literature on Black political thought and pragmatism. It reveals the unique place that Black dancers and artists hold in civil rights pursuits and anti-racism campaigns in the United States and beyond. Moreover, the life of "Stretch" Johnson illustrates how politicalactivism engenders not only social change but also personal fulfillment, a realization of dreams not deferred but rather pursued and achieved. Johnson's journey bears witness to critical periods and events that shaped the Black condition and American society in the process.

Excerpt

This long-awaited memoir of Howard “Stretch” Johnson, former Communist Party leader and pioneer in the Black Studies movement, is a welcome addition to the rapidly growing literature on the role of the communist left in launching challenges to racism and white supremacy well before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Books like Glenda Gilmore’s Defying Dixie, Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street, and Erik McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom each highlight the experience of African American activists who were in or close to the Communist Party from the early ‘30s in creating movements around issues ranging from lynching and sexual assault to labor organizing and voting rights. Johnson, who had a major role in a number of the initiatives highlighted in these books, has a unique perspective on the Communist Party’s involvement in civil rights activism, both as a party member for more than twenty years and as a scholar and teacher trying to make sense of those experiences with the wisdom of hindsight. But what makes his memoir all the more fascinating is the path that led Johnson to communism. Johnson was the ultimate “insider” in the cultural and political life of the Black community in northern New Jersey he grew up in and his adopted community of Harlem. An athlete, star student, and naacp youth leader who never met a party he didn’t like, Johnson ended up getting work as a dancer at Harlem’s world-famous Cotton Club and also danced on Broadway. When he was recruited to the Young Communist League in the mid-‘30s, he was able to put the full range of his personal contacts, who included . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.