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

By William J. Maxwell | Go to book overview

Introduction: Black and Red All Over?

Howard “Stretch” Johnson, a charismatic Harlemite who graduated from Cotton Club dancer to Communist youth leader, once claimed that in late-1930s New York “75% of black cultural figures had [Communist] Party membership or maintained a regular meaningful contact with the Party” (qtd. in Naison 193). He stretched the truth, but barely. Between the world wars, Harlem salons increasingly rang with talk of Communist drives against lynch law, “white chauvinism,” and less immediate, imperial enemies of black freedom. Especially during the Great Depression, it was not always easy to distinguish Communist Party rolls from lists of prominent Harlem artists, the recurring names on the cultural pages of The Daily Worker from those in the black-owned Amsterdam News. This book examines why so many interwar African-American writers in particular moved to the “Old,” Soviet-allied Communist left and what they created once there, in and beyond black Manhattan. Unlike most previous takes on the subject, it assumes that these questions cannot be pursued without acknowledging both modern black literature’s debt to Communism and Communisms debt to modern black literature. The Old Left, normally sketched as a dire scene of white connivance and black self-cancellation, in truth promoted a spectrum of exchanges between black and white authors, genres, theories, and cultural institutions. Red interracialisms of word and deed, I argue, opened two-way channels between radical Harlem and Soviet Moscow, between the New Negro renaissance and proletarian literature. Without conjuring up an Edenic red past for happy-family multiculturalism, I propose that Communism’s rare sustenance for AfricanAmerican initiative and crossracial adventure was an urgent reason why scores of literary “New Negroes” became Old Leftists—and the major reason why the disillusion of a canonical handful would be so outspoken. Ultimately, I suggest that recognizing black volition and interracial education on the Old Left is crucial to understanding weighty developments in the history of U.S. racial and radical cultures, from the stumbles and small victories of American anticapitalism, to the mapping of African-American writing onto modernity, to the intimate contact between black and white American modernisms.1

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