Art and Politics
The Other Black List: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s
By Mary Helen Washington
Reviewed by Dayo Gore
In 2006, the 79-year-old singer and activist Harry Belafonte, while participating in a delegation to Venezuela, called out President George W. Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world” and announced his support for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The controversial trip and pronouncement gained national attention—in part, because such sharp political positioning seemed out of place coming from a voice most people associated with the popularizing of calypso music in the United States. Belafonte’s polemic is less surprising, however, if viewed through his lifelong connection to the black left and the Communist Party (CP)-affiliated milieu that shaped the politics and cultural productions of a number of black artists and writers active from the 1930s well into the 1960s.
In The Other Black List, an insightful, densely researched, and engaging study, Mary Helen Washington illuminates the context, cultural work, and complications that influenced the array of left alliances, CP affiliations, and progressive politics embraced by this diverse group of black writers and artists during the early cold war. As such, she says, her work seeks to “continue the effort to delegitimize the demonization of communism and the Left” and “encourage further investigation of other writers and artists on the Left.”
Washington begins her study with a personal account of her own “imbibing” of cold war anti-Communism as a black Catholic school student in Cleveland during the 1950s. This introduction highlights the pervasiveness of cold war anti-Communist rhetoric, which linked Communism and black civil rights activism. The cold war fear of being labeled a Communist, she explains, “shifted the focus of civil rights struggles away from the more militant economic- and labor-based civil rights struggles of the 1940s.” All too often, studies of the cold war ignore the black left, instead placing at the center the blacklist of progressive white activists and artists.
Focusing her attention on what she terms the Black Popular Front or the “Other Blacklist,” Washington presents a counternarrative that examines the continuing influence of leftist and CP politics on black art and culture. As a literary scholar and professor of English at the University of Maryland, Washington also seeks to challenge “the stunning absence of cold war history in many African American literary and cultural histories,” which, she warns, “normalizes 1950s New Critical assumptions that literature was suppose to be preserved from ideology and dismisses the socially conscious literature of the 1930s and 1940s.”
Presenting her study as part recovery and part re-evaluation, Washington builds on and extends the work of a number of literary scholars, including Alan Wald, James Smethurst, William Maxell, Aaron Lecklider, Cheryl Higashida, and Michael Denning, and a wave of recent histories of the post-World War II black left, including Nikhil Pal Singh’s Black is A Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (2005); Martha Biondi’s To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (2003); Kate Weigand’s Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women's Liberation (2001); Erik McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (2011); and my own Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (2011).
In conversation with these studies, Washington brings together a range of primary archival research, secondary sources, and close textual readings to construct a critical analysis of the “richness (and messiness) of the literary and political debates of this period,” and reveal the “literary and cultural history” “represented by debates, conferences, symposia, institutional affiliations, political commitments, FBI investigations, and government spying networks.” She aims to make visible the leftist spaces where “African American literary culture was debated, critiqued, encouraged, performed, published, produced, and preserved,” situating black artists in “a moment when the Black Left continued to work despite the pressures of the Cold War.”
Throughout the book’s six chapters, introduction, and epilogue, Washington critically engages a number of understudied or depoliticized works by crafting portraits of five artists, who had various relationships with the left and degrees of mainstream success: the novelist and essayist Lloyd Brown; the visual artist Charles White; the author and playwright Alice Childress; the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and novelist Gwendolyn Brooks; and the novelist Frank London Brown. Embracing “portrait as methodology,” Washington analyzes her subjects’ “intimate lives,” “intellectual and institutional networks,” and cultural productions, deploying oral histories, archival records, biographies, rich textual analysis, and even creative readings of at times extensive Federal Bureau of Investigation files, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Her textual analyses push against viewing these artists solely within a social- realist framework, highlighting the ways their left political affiliations and investments “did not preclude modernist experimentation.”
In addition, Washington uses her portraits to explore how the artists employed “literary and visual texts” to challenge the “conservative race narratives” of the period, by covering “the radioactive subject of racial violence as a product of white supremacy.” She intends, she writes, to make the connection between “US race issues [and] international systems like colonialism” and to represent “[t]he Left, including the Communist Party, in complex ways—often, but not always positively.” She is particularly attentive to the moments in which the five artists articulate “resistant notions of black subjectivity” that pushe against conservative and narrow constructions of blackness to “address issues of class, gender, and race that had been declared politically subversive during the Cold War.”
The monograph’s first two chapters “Lloyd L. Brown: Black Fire in the Cold War” and “Charles White: ‘Robeson with a Brush and Pencil,’” set the tone for the study. Brown and White, with their well-established ties to the Communist Party and left-affiliated organizations, demonstrate that the “embattled Left” as Washington writes, was nevertheless “actively involved in the production and defense of African American culture.” Brown, who counted black left stalwarts such as Langston Hughes and Esther Cooper Jackson as his comrades, was ubiquitous among black literary left and CP-affiliated organizations. During the 1950s, he wrote for and served as an editor of the leading left journal New Masses (later Masses & Mainstream) and published his novel Iron City (1951) with the Masses & Mainstream Press. He worked closely on Freedom newspaper with the activist, actor, and singer Paul Robeson, who faced government surveillance and persecution for his open support of the Communist Party. According to Washington, “CP aesthetics were, for [Brown] as for many radical leftists, ultimately more liberating than limiting.” She builds this argument through an incisive reading of Iron City, which traces its indebtedness to social realism and leftist propaganda techniques of the 1930s such as the Living Newspaper, as well as to Brown’s embrace of “modernist techniques” and “formal experimentation”—as demonstrated in the novel’s final scene, which deploys a surreal dream sequence to highlight a moment of collective working-class triumph.
Charles White’s path reveals a more unusual left trajectory. His development as a visual artist was shaped in spaces influenced by Black Popular Front politics in Chicago, including the renowned South Side Community Arts Center (SSCAC) and the local office of the federally funded Works Progress Administration (WPA). By the early 1940s, White and his wife, the artist Elizabeth Catlett, were both working closely with CP-supported organizations such as the National Negro Congress and embracing the radical influence of the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Orozco, and David Siqueiros. Washington charts White’s very public commitment to Marxism and his affiliation with the CP, which, she points out, emerged at the same time that he began to use stylized techniques that pushed the boundaries of social realism in his visual representations of black struggle. Then in the 1950s, White’s work took a surprising turn away from formal experimentation and toward a stricter social realism. Apparently the emerging cold war, his renewed commitment to leftist communities, and his “desire for an art that would reach ordinary people” led him closer to the CP’s increasingly rigid political aesthetic. In tracing White’s shifting affiliations into the 1970s, Washington notes that despite real tensions and constraints, he found among his left comrades a life-long community that sustained him both as an artist and as an activist.
Washington’s third and fourth chapters center on the left investments and work of the writers Alice Childress and Gwendolyn Brooks, and also highlight the influence of a left black feminist politics on both authors. The chapter on Childress provides a rich analysis of her work as a journalist and playwright. Like Brown’s and White’s, Childress’s left affiliations were well- known. She was active in Popular Front organizations such as the American Negro Theatre and other black left and CP-affiliated organizations throughout the 1950s. She was on the staff of Freedom and held leadership roles in the black feminist group Sojourners for Truth and Justice, an all-black women’s civil rights group, and in the Committee for the Negro in the Arts. Washington presents Childress as eventually moving toward an “idiosyncratic radicalism” that “allowed her to incorporate black cultural traditions and a critique of race, gender, and sexuality” with “radical international-socialist views.” The core of her politics emerged from her work among a community of black women radicals that included, among others, the leading CP member Claudia Jones and the writers Lorraine Hansberry and Beah Richards, who theorized and organized at the intersections of race and gender as they also pushed CP-affiliated organizations to take seriously black women’s politics. Washington traces these political leanings in a close reading of three of Childress’s cold-war works: the 1952 musical Gold Through the Tree; a collection of short stories that were originally published in a column in Freedom newspaper and later as Like One of the Family; and her 1966 play Wedding Band. Such insights challenge Childress’s efforts, in the 1980s, to distance herself from her earlier work with CP-affiliated groups.
In the cleverly titled chapter “When Gwendolyn Brooks Wore Red,” Washington seeks out the poet’s submerged left affiliations. Brooks’s ties to Chicago’s black left formations are more tenuous than those of the other writers, but they include participation in the SSCAC and close connections with individual leftists, such as her longstanding friendship with the writer Margaret Taylor Burroughs. These affiliations fuel what Washington defines as Brooks’s “black left sensibility” which, Washington finds, predates Brooks’s noted turn to black nationalism following the second Black Writers Conference in 1967. Critically reading Brooks’s novel Maude Martha (1953) and her poetry collection The Bean Eaters (1960), Washington highlights Brooks’s embrace of a “left race radicalism,” committed to voicing black women and black working class subjectivities, balanced by an “investment in modernist poetics.”
In her penultimate chapter, Washington analyses Frank London Brown’s novel Trumbull Park (1959), about black families struggling to integrate a Chicago housing project. She sees the book as an endpoint of cold-war black cultural production and believes it is a significant example of the continuing influence of the black political and literary left during the emergence of civil-rights activism. Brown’s eclectic politics would lead him into civil rights, internationalist, and black nationalist politics. He explicitly aligned himself with “progressives” who were “not Communist,” writes Washington, even as he participated in the CIO-affiliated United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA). Washington reads his renunciation of Communism as “tactical.”
In the book’s final chapter, “1959: Spycraft and the Black Literary Left,” Washington details the contributions to the 1959 American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) conference in New York City of “outspoken Left speakers,” including Alice Childress; the editor of Freedom, Louis Burnham; the writer and actor Julian Mayfield; Lloyd Brown; and the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who presented the keynote. Washington says that their presence marks the conference not as a moment of decimation but as one of “struggle” and contestation “between conservatives, liberals, radicals, and government spies” (In 1967, it was revealed that, unbeknownst to most of its members, AMSAC had been funded by the CIA.) Washington marks these as important moments of sustained black left continuity, even as by 1960 many black activists turned away from formal affiliation with the US Communist Party, as it turned away from its investments in black struggle.
In charting a history of 1950s black left cultural and literary productions through this dynamic group of artists, Washington resoundingly demonstrates the importance of the Black Popular Front to the postwar black literary tradition. Moreover, her nuanced and contextualized readings of these artists’ work, lives, and politics reveal that “they critiqued the Left even as they believed in [it]” and were “experimenters and protestors in both their activism and their art.”
Dayo F. Gore is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies and the Critical Gender Studies program at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (2012) and editor of Want to Start of Revolution: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (2009). Her current research projects include a book-length study of African American women’s transnational travels and activism in the long twentieth century.