Black Left, Black List

By Kate BaldwinMarch 25, 2015

The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s by Mary Helen Washington

TOWARD THE END of Gwendolyn Brooks’s novel Maud Martha, the title character Maud fights with a chicken. With the battles of World War II not far in the background, Maud contemplates the parallel violence she exerts upon the chicken’s limp corpse. People could do this to other people, she thinks: “feel that insinuating slipping bone, survey that soft, that headless death.” But could they? In Maud’s supple hands, the chicken becomes a “sort of person, with its own kind of dignity.” Limning the boundaries between human and animal, Maud states: “The difference was in the knowing. What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently.”

I thought about this passage as I read Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist. It may seem like a surprising comparison. After all, Washington’s book deals with largely overlooked African American cultural producers of the 1950s (including Brooks), not cooking the evening meal. And yet the issue of domesticated violence hovers at the surface of her book’s chapters. Taking up the marginalization of major African American artists in the 1950s not only by government agencies and white media but also by most African Americans, Washington’s book explores the injustices that came from within the black community.

The Other Blacklist, which takes its name from the famous list of names besmirched by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during its investigation of the entertainment industry beginning in 1947, opens with Washington’s compelling memories of her girlhood in Ohio, where political leftists were treated as social outcasts: decent folks snubbed communists and Catholic nuns prayed for the salvation of the godless. Pausing here to frame its narrative, The Other Blacklist doesn’t so much seek to correct past mistakes than to remember them afresh.

Washington’s book asks how black liberalism came to shun the cultural production of leftist dissent at precisely the moment when civil rights energies could have benefited most from it. Washington seeks to “highlight the ways that a deep animosity to black civil rights struggles ran like a vein throughout US Cold War culture, preparing even those of us who benefited the most from civil rights militancy to be stand-up little anticommunists.” Seeing herself as the product of an “antiblack, self-abnegating form of racial identity based on white tolerance and black invisibility,” Washington situates her youthful subject position as representative of a larger problem. It was easy to hurt what was unreal to you, she implies, and her “stand up little anticommunism” contributed to that violence of cultural silencing, which was also a form of self-loathing. In repressing the Left, she argues, the dominant Cold War mindset, held by the black community as well as white, also sought to recalibrate racial subjectivity to a white tune.

The book queries these recalibrations, and in so doing seeks to reclaim energies that were marginalized not only by the dominant white cultural radar, but also by folks like her. Extending the temporal limits of the Black Cultural Front into the 1950s, Washington argues that from Camp Unity in Wingdale, New York, to the George Washington Carver school in Chicago, the spaces and institutions of this front were enabling for black cultural producers. For it was within “the leftist spaces of the Black Popular Front that African American literary culture was debated, critiqued, encouraged, performed, published, produced and preserved.” These people shared an intimate public; they were known to each other. The Other Blacklist is her “attempt to finally overhear those long-forgotten, repressed conversations.” In this sense, The Other Blacklist is not simply trying to assert the humanity of black lives, but rather to imply that attempts to prove the humanity of people repeats the same identitarian problem that has stymied movements of dissent over and over again. So instead, displays and structures of power, and their subtle and not so subtle shifts, motivate this book. The political thread here is not one that resorts to a politics of identity, but one that seeks to unpack the material infrastructure of black radicalism in the 1950s.

Drawing on archival materials, interviews, biographies, cultural histories, FOIA documents, and close readings of literary texts, The Other Blacklist reconstructs conversations that may have whispered the names of Lloyd Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks, Frank London Brown, Alice Childress, and Charles White. Each of these artists serves as the backbone for a chapter. Washington weaves together the missing remnants of the Left in her subjects, thus “mak[ing] connections that reestablish their relationships with the Black Popular Front,” that have been lost “because these subjects deliberately distanced themselves from their leftist pasts or because of the practices of contemporary literary and cultural histories.” Her aim is to delegitimize the common demonization of communism and the Left, and her hope is that this project will open up the subject for future students and scholars.

So, let’s take up the gambit Washington offers here, and imagine, if you will, a generation of children growing up amidst rich historical narratives in which the aspirations and dreams of social justice as etched in the public works of black artists were framed as positive endeavors. A history in which words like “leftist,” “radical,” and “communist” did not summon instant skepticism if not scorn; a world in which these terms could sustain real dialogue about possibility instead of foreclosure, futurity instead of certain doom. Imagine pejorative assumptions banished while positive connections unfurl in their place. Imagine marginal, fractured lives brought forth and celebrated for their stalwart brilliance and unwillingness to cave to social pressure and the pretty persuasion of dollar signs and covert government support. Just imagine.

As literary and cultural history, Washington’s book offers a vast resource for fulfilling that promise. Readers who are eager to place the postwar period in the context of 1930s and ’40s historiography of the left as well as the period of black nationalism that followed in the 1960s will rejoice in these pages. Washington’s prodigious research leaves virtually no stone unturned, and readers will enjoy rich discussions of heretofore woefully under-researched figures. For example, Alice Childress hardly holds the name recognition of Lorraine Hansberry, and yet they worked together and their pieces appeared side by side in Paul Robeson’s Freedom between 1951 and 1953. Alice Childress’s column “Conversations from Life” offered the witticisms and bold critiques of the black domestic Mildred, a character whose inflections can be heard throughout Hansberry’s best-known play, A Raisin in the Sun. Washington’s appraisals of Childress help to move her from the margins of black literary history of the 1950s to a more certain artistic center.

And yet, persuasive as this move is, methodologically the book’s strategies might be termed daring. Seeking “clues” to “establish relationships” and examining “intimate lives and networks” in detail, to prompt “further investigation,” The Other Blacklist feels at times as if it is inadvertently borrowing tactics from the entity from which it most wants to distinguish itself: the FBI. Part of the difficulty of piecing together a past that doesn’t necessarily want to be known, let alone exist, is that it presents an epistemological dilemma. For example, although she hung out with popular fronters and was active in the milieu of the Chicago left, Gwendolyn Brooks adamantly disassociated her work with the leftism of her peers. To press Brooks’s history in this direction pushes the reader to confront one of the book’s dilemmas as historical scholarship: to call Brooks a leftist because she associated with leftists evokes McCarthyite tactics. Because the ends are more altruistic in The Other Blacklist, are the means justified?

Part of the obstacle here may be inherent in Washington’s creation of what she calls “portraits.” Seen in this light, each of the chapters has a predisposition toward the left, a named perspective that is offered as a “way of illustrating the unique relationship between each of the artists […] and the Left.” The goal is to remove the scare quotes of communism and the Left (which, by the way, are often used in this book interchangeably). Could this be the only way forward into a future of dissent, a future so pressing that we can feel its breath on our cheeks?

I troubled over this question for some time. In the end, I decided that we might need to bracket Audre Lorde’s declaration that the master’s tools can never be used to dismantle the master’s house. Doing so — using the master’s tools, as in effect Washington does — might invite criticism. And, to be sure, The Other Blacklist does name names. It calls people out. It creates a blacklist. But it does so in the name of black futurity, not black death. If that future generation is going to grow up amidst positive associations with the left, it may as well start right here, with Washington’s book.

To that end, Washington’s finest moments come in a late chapter, “1959: Spycraft and the Black Literary Left,” the one chapter that uses a year in place of a grounding, central figure. In 1959, the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) hosted the First Conference on Negro Writers in New York City. Modeled on the Présence Africaine conferences in Paris in 1958, the conference sought to negotiate slippery terms of black cultural production in the late 1950s — race, agency, the publishing industry, and aesthetics. With the prominent exceptions of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Robert Hayden, and Paule Marshall, the conference gathered some of the best-known black American writers of the era — including Langston Hughes, Saunders Redding, Julian Mayfield, Lorraine Hansberry, Frank London Brown, Sarah E. Wright, Harold Cruse, and Alice Childress — all figures addressed in The Other Blacklist.

In her revisionary history of the conference, Washington argues that the volume of proceedings edited by AMSAC President John A. Davis, and titled “The American Negro Writer and His Roots,” obscures the work of the more radical speakers of the conference, setting limits on black subjectivity through conservative ideas of integration. In his introduction, Davis touts dominant Cold War ideology, implying that racial troubles are on the wane. The work of the participants, however, tells a different story. Julian Mayfield remains suspicious of integration, seeing in it the demise of black life. And Langston Hughes exhorted his audience: “until you get white — write,” warning them against the crass racism of the publishing industry. For Washington, 1959 is a crossroads wherein the black left vied with conservative integrationists, many of whom wrote for publications that were government subsidized. In Washington’s hands, Davis’s volume thus becomes a microcosm of public memory of black cultural production of the 1950s, full of edits, omissions, rewritings, and government-sponsored corruption. And Lorraine Hansberry, who gave the conference’s keynote, which is absent from the text, sits in the middle of these contested spaces.

I have been immersed in these spaces as I work on my own project about 1959. Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun debuted that year, a few months after the AMSAC conference. As Raisin makes clear, the crossroads of 1959 were also indelibly global. In this close-post era of Sputnik, Fidel Castro became president of Cuba, and Hawaii joined the US as its 50th state. It was also the year that the USSR opened its doors to the US for the first time since World War II, welcoming the American National Exhibition in Sokol’niki Park. ANEM became the site of the famous “kitchen” debate between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon, a debate that turned heads toward the smooth surfaces of consumerism, the arts of blenders and blending in. With State Department authorized and funded ways of representing black subjectivity, ANEM became a mouthpiece for the multiple wonders of market capitalism.[1]

This was a period when US officials deployed race as part of a national narrative of inclusiveness in order to counteract Soviet propaganda that alleged US hypocrisy along racial lines. From Brown v. Board to the four African American guides on the ground at ANEM, narratives of progress in race relations and interracial cohesion began to feature African Americans. Rather than showcasing capitalism as an evil in concert with white supremacy, this kind of racial progressivism proclaimed the future as bright with cross-racial solidarity.

The proximity of Raisin’s debut and Hansberry’s contributions to AMSAC necessitate rethinking this moment as a shaping one for the confrontation of black radicalism not only with integrationists at home, but also with the global staging of a cultural front as a site for Western triumphalism. Nixon’s rhetoric in Moscow presented a one-sided view of the mechanics of the American kitchen. The push-button features of this kitchen were far removed from the manual labors of Maud Martha’s kitchenette. Forgotten in Moscow were the day laborers who toiled in the kitchens of middle-class whites, and the structural links between these lives.

Similarly, as Washington points out, the account of AMSAC recorded in the proceedings was distorted. As with the suppressed meanings of Raisin’s more potent critiques of racial inequality, the sexual division of labor, and coloniality, in the published AMSAC proceedings, conversations are lost; addresses, photos, and papers are hidden, manipulated, and entirely missing. Held at this critical juncture in global history, the AMSAC gathering put forth what was to be erased later that year in Moscow and elsewhere as African Americans circled the globe, some in search of better options, some representing the US. It’s important to remember that dissenting voices of the left were erased not only in the State Department–authorized publication of the conference’s proceedings, but also in government-sponsored cultural tours that promoted inter-racialism as a defining conceit of US democracy.

What interests me beyond the historical proximity of AMSAC and ANEM, however, is the warping of the relationships between Moscow and New York, and between the intellectual vibrancies at work in both places in the received accounts of these events. We need to reactivate the conscious and unconscious longings — the deferred dreams, as Langston Hughes wrote in the poem that became the inspiration for A Raisin in the Sun’s title — displaced by progressivist accounts of history for which A Raisin in the Sun has served as a pivotal marker.[2]

How can you grasp a legacy of dissent from erasure? Washington’s best lesson is that we can’t move forward unless we work through our complicity in the violences of the past. If things are going to change we need to live amongst those we have not been willing to consider fully human: to live amongst chickens, as it were. Until then we are all just wrestling with ignorance, and indulging in our own selfish appetites — licking our lips at the thought of our next succulent meal.


[1] I explore these ideas more fully in The Racial Imaginary of the Cold War Kitchen: From Sokol’niki Park to Chicago’s South Side (Dartmouth UP).

[2] The late critic Richard Iton describes the popular reception of Raisin as marking a shift in the movement from Popular Front politics to those of liberalism’s integration: this reception’s “downplaying, and in some instances suppression, of themes related to anticolonialism, diasporic consciousness, and intraracial class distinctions, along with the implicit engagement of gender relations, mark her creation as a significant turning point in both black politics and popular culture.” See In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Oxford, 2008).


Kate Baldwin is the author of Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters between Black and Red (Duke UP).

LARB Contributor

Kate Baldwin is a writer and Associate Professor of American Studies and Rhetoric at Northwestern University, where she is Director of the Program in American Studies.  She is the author of Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters between Black and Red, (Duke UP 2002).   Her writing also has appeared in Huffington Post, Truth-Out, and Global Post. Her book The Racial Imaginary of the Cold War Kitchen: from Sokol’niki Park to Chicago’s South Side is forthcoming from Dartmouth University Press.


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