Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise

By Joy Gleason Carew | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Early Sojourners Claude McKay
and Otto Huiswood
SHAPING THE “NEGRO QUESTION”

The label of propaganda will be affixed to what I say here. I
shall not mind; propaganda has now come into its respectable
rights and I am proud of being a propagandist. … Those
Russian days remain the most memorable of my life
.1

—Claude McKay (1923)

The Bolshevik Revolution was cataclysmic. Russia was completely remaking itself, and the ripples of this social change were exciting millions of other frustrated and neglected people. As news of the revolution spread, poet Claude McKay, like so many other blacks who had looked to the Soviet energy with envy, began to wonder—Why not me, too?

A pained McKay, responding to the riots of the “Red Summer” of 1919 in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Elaine, Arkansas, wrote, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs/… If we must die, O let us nobly die/… Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack/ Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”2 He, too, chaffed at the limitations of being black in the United States. Seven years earlier, filled with anticipation and expectation, he had moved north in search of increased opportunities. He had been attracted by the work of Booker T. Washington and went to study agriculture at the Tuskegee Institute. The United States for him was “a new land to which all people who had youth and a youthful mind turned,” and he thought, “Surely there would be opportunity in this land, even for a Negro.”3

But McKay could not tolerate the stultifying existence under the statesponsored terrorism of Jim Crow. Comfortably middle class in Jamaica, he was suddenly plunged into the detritus of society. His stay at Tuskegee was short, and after a few years at Kansas State College he found his way to New York. McKay finally located his milieu. There were outlets for his poetry and a progressive community that sympathized with his discontents. Most important, he met John Reed, and because of Reed he was able to make his “magical pilgrimage” to Soviet Russia.4

-15-

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