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

By William J. Maxwell | Go to book overview

4 • Scottsboro Delimited: White Bait,
Red Triangles, and Interracialism
Between Men

White-black relationships were very close among the communists…. I thought it
was pretty funny myself, being from the South. I found it strange that every cou-
ple, almost, was a mixed couple one way or the other. That was the age of unity.

—Dizzy Gillespie, To Be, or Not…to Bop: Memoirs (1979)

Messin’ white woman

Snake Iyin’ tale

Dat hang an’ burn

An’ jail wit’ no bail

—“Death House Blues,” reprinted in Proletarian Literature in
the United States: An Anthology
(1935)

Surely, I said,

Now will the poets sing.

But they have raised no cry.

—Countee Cullen, “Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song” (1935)

At the opening of the last chapter, I suggested that when the white Mike Gold jitterbugged with an African-American social worker at the Savoy Ballroom in 1937, he was hoping to discover vivid evidence of Communist humanity. I want to begin the present chapter by proposing that this dance of interracial partners also may have been fueled by in-house criticism of party interracialism. During the second half of the 1930s, years in which over two thousand black Harlemites spent time as party members (Naison 279), African-American women in the Harlem branch came to question an unplanned, uneven result of the Old Left’s exceptional intolerance for segregation. By then, the Black Belt Nation thesis and the Depression’s

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