To Be Black, Gifted and RedCold War period yields new, provocative ground for contemporary scholars
By Crystal L. Keels
Today’s climate of supercharged patriotism and apparent intolerance for comment or critique calls to mind an earlier period of U.S. history. The Cold War that began in the mid- to late-1940s, along with McCarthyism and the anti-communist movement in the early 1950s, created an atmosphere of national hysteria and paranoia.
For the past decade, academic interest in this period with its complicated convergence of activity has grown tremendously. Of particular interest is the influence of the period on the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“The civil rights movement arose just about the time the issue (anti-communism) was fading,” says George Mason University Professor Roger Wilkins. “Joe McCarthy was being diminished and ultimately driven out of power. So Blacks and their allies were consumed with the enormous opportunities and challenges of the civil rights movement; it consumed our imaginations and our energies.”
Wilkins, the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of American History and Culture and a 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning writer explains that civil rights leaders — like his uncle, former NAACP president Roy Wilkins — wanted to avoid the additional burden of being labeled communist.
“Conservatives and racists sought the upper hand by branding civil rights activists communists and thereby discrediting them,” Wilkins says. “So the mainstream of the civil rights movement, just like the mainstream labor movement, didn’t want anything to do with communism — they knew that would hurt their causes.”
The consequences of speaking out were dire during this period of extreme paranoia. Careers were lost and reputations ruined. Wilkins remembers White academicians whose careers were derailed for suspicion of “communist activity.” African American activists, writers and other Black intellectuals arguing for the end of racial injustice were often forced to censor themselves for fear of a similar fate.
Dr. Mary Helen Washington, professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park, and author of the forthcoming, The Other Blacklist: Black Writers, Civil Rights and the Cold War, concurs with Wilkins’ assessment.
“Anything communist in the 1950s was labeled dangerous and not to be touched,” she explains.
Washington notes her own special interest in the period as a person who lived through what she describes as a major shift in Black identity.
“I experienced first-hand what it meant, first of all, to be Negro in that period (and the acceptance) of an unequal structure. We were ‘Negro’ before the 1960s, and then we were ‘Black.’ That kind of convergence from a conservative period to a more militant one, that shift has always been a powerful part of my consciousness.”
Washington explains that Black writers who were part of the Left wanted people to understand that the problem of segregation was not one of Black inferiority. The real problem, these intellectuals argued, was White supremacy. But these voices were hard to hear.
“There were very radical voices writing at that time,” Washington says. “If I had access to them I would have experienced myself very differently.
“We had a slang saying in the 1950s, ‘You know you ain’t ready.’ What it meant was that you were not ready for integration. As I look back, it was a kind of satirical, sarcastic humor about getting ready for integration. Part of this was a very strong sense that you were somehow not equal, that you had to prove your readiness.”
But Black intellectuals and writers such as A. Phillip Randolph and Lawrence Reddick, Washington says, were presenting a radical Leftist viewpoint. “The kind of militant language (they used) would have given us a very different sense of ourselves as people involved in a struggle against the evils of White supremacy as opposed to the belief that Blacks had to prove their worthiness to Whites.”
The Best-Kept Secret
Dr. Barbara Foley, professor of English at Rutgers University, notes the centrality of writing and literature to African American experiences during the Cold War.
“In general, the relationship between U.S. writers and Leftist politics has been very much obscured by mainstream tendencies in literary study, or at least until the last decade or so,” says Foley, author of Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941 and the recently released, Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro. “In addition to that general kind of insufficiency, the extent to which a significant majority of African American writers — at least up until the 1960s — have gravitated to one degree or another toward the Left is probably the best-kept secret of U.S. literary history. I felt it was important to sort of set the record straight and start investigating this question.”
The question is multifaceted because the near
simultaneity of McCarthyism, anti-communism and the civil rights movement demanded discretion, even in private conversation.
“I remember as a child hearing names such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. I could hear the hush in my parents’ voices,” Washington recalls. “That was how widespread anti-communism was. Du Bois was arrested in 1951; Paul Robeson had his passport taken away. Hughes and Robeson were called up for the McCarthy hearings.
“Every place there was this radical discourse, it would be labeled suspicious,” Washington says.
Many Black writers initially attracted to the espoused philosophies of the Left and/or communism would later become disillusioned, especially those who came to understand that these ideologies were not race-neutral. Yet their prior connections could continue to haunt them. Writers, such as playwright Alice Childress, as Washington points out, worked to erase traces of their political pasts. Foley points to Ralph Ellison and his 1952 novel Invisible Man as another example. Her current research involves early drafts of Ellison’s novel.
“What I’ve found — in brief, because I don’t want to simplify a very complicated question, is that Ellison was significantly around the Left for a significant period of time, from the late 1930s to the mid-1940s. But when he started drafting Invisible Man in 1945, the novel he had in mind was originally quite sympathetic to a Marxist understanding of race and class. It was only through a process of self-muzzling that he finally produced the definitively anti-communist novel that is the published 1952 text.”
“He had been a very political man,” Dr. Carol Polsgrove, professor of journalism at Indiana University, says of Ellison. During a recorded discussion of her recent work, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement at a May 2001 Cambridge Forum at Harvard, she explains, “Just as (Ellison) sat down to write Invisible Man, he was a passionate Marxist, and yet you would never know that from what he was saying publicly in the mid-1950s.”
Polsgrove has written about the disenchantment both Ellison and Richard Wright experienced with communism after World War II. She explains that even though these writers cut any ties with the Left and communism, there were repercussions from their prior activities. In Wright’s case, like Hughes and many more Black writers red-baited because of real or imagined connections with the Left, his reputation as a communist precluded various publishing opportunities in popular magazines. Ellison avoided a similar fate, Polsgrove explains, with his turn to literature and the anti-communist overtones of Invisible Man.
Most scholars taking interest in the Cold War era emphasize the international aspects of the Cold War, anti-communism and the civil rights movement in the United States.
Indiana University history professor Dr. Claude Clegg, whose research focuses on the political context of the civil rights movement, says the Cold War both hurt and helped the civil rights movement.
“On the one hand, the U.S. government, concerned about its image abroad and looking for allies in the Third World including Africa, was very sensitive to criticism that its Black minority did not enjoy first-class citizenship, though African Americans had participated in the second World War to save other peoples from fascism, Nazism, genocide and intolerance in general,” he says. “Thus after the world war ended in 1945, successive U.S. administrations took incremental steps to improve the plight of African Americans, if only to protect the country from international censure.”
“The United States was trying to become the leader of the Free World,” explains Dr. Brenda Plummer, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of history and author of Rising Wind: Black Americans in the 1950s and the Cold War. “It was difficult to convince other countries that our way of life was superior when Blacks were being lynched here. Furthermore, with new African countries becoming independent, the way that Blacks were treated became an international issue.”
Regardless of international attention, however, one explosive issue that contributed to what Polsgrove describes as the “muffled discourse” of the period was the notion of economic equality.
“If you talked about economic equality then you walked right into the communist camp in the views of those who opposed economic equality,” Polsgrove points out. “The Cold War did some interesting things to the discussion of race.”
“The civil rights movement largely addressed the economic conditions of the Black community in circuitous ways, such as insisting upon nondiscriminatory employment practices, access to public accommodations and desegregated schools, and the franchise,” Clegg says. “The consensus-coercing politics of the Cold War made probing critiques, especially of an economic nature, off limits for civil rights activists and others.”
Foley echoes similar sentiments and claims that struggles against racism were seriously hampered by this inability to link politics and economics. She cites the contemporary implications of that schism.
“I think we have to understand generally the absolute centrality of racism to capitalist hegemony,” Foley says. “I think racism is absolutely imbedded in the political economy of capitalism, at least as it has developed in the United States, and certainly just about every where in the world at this point. A deep understanding of the nature of racism, both in terms of political economy and in terms of culture, is essential to human liberation.”
Is the Past Really Past?
Scholarship about the Cold War period has been slow to develop. And academics cite a number of reasons for this, including the passage of time in general, as well as the collapse of the Soviet bloc. To examine the facts of the period is easier, some argue, now that several decades have passed and fear of communist infiltration has faded.
But some contend that this past isn’t really past.
“Communism can still be used against you,” Washington says. “It is still operative because it is a very revolutionary thing that stands against a great many evils of a capitalist society and deals with issues that others avoid. How does this class structure keep people poor? And why are so many of the poor people of color?”
These lingering issues are reason enough for many contemporary academics to proceed with caution. Washington says that her research is complicated because some who were involved with the Left still want to hide their connections for fear of possible consequences. One woman recently expressed concern that her political interests might be detrimental to her children’s careers — her children are both academics.
As scholars delve deeper into how the pressure of the political climate shaped the work of writers and intellectuals of that period, some speak of the relevance of that period to the present.
“The Cold War does indeed demonstrate that democracy is a fragile, malleable thing that can be eroded, even destroyed, by political and social currents of both foreign and domestic origin,” Clegg says. “(It) amply demonstrated the willingness of successive U.S. administrations to use their policing agencies and punitive power to diminish opposition to government policies and the guiding ethos of the state,” he says, noting the timeliness of Cold War research with national security issues increasingly encroaching on civil liberties.
Likewise, Plummer says there are a number of “hard lessons” to learn from the Cold War era. “The surveillance and atmosphere of fear that it helped to create had a negative impact on constitutional freedom,” she says, adding that it is imperative that people are critical in their assessment of the political issues we face today.
Wilkins points out that now people like former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland can be unseated with charges of being unpatriotic — despite the fact that he is a wheelchair-bound veteran of the Vietnam war — and Sen. Edward Kennedy can be called unpatriotic because of his criticism of the war in Iraq. “If they do it to Ted Kennedy and Max Cleland,” Wilkins says, “You know they’ll do it to a Black person.”
Still, the greatest tragedy, Wilkins says, is the suppression of the legacy of so many gifted people who, because of their desire for freedom from racist oppression, identified with the Left. “They are not remembered for the fullness of who they were, and what their gifts were, what their contributions to our society were. That’s a great tragedy.”
Wilkins says in our contemporary political climate it is important to join forces with people who object to limited debate and continue to fight for civil liberties.
“People have to recognize the dangers and keep on attacking; point out how illegitimate and dangerous that kind of debate-limiting tactic is,” he says. “People have to be courageous and keep saying what they need to say. That’s what Martin King did, that’s what Thurgood (Marshall) did, and that’s what my Uncle Roy (Wilkins) did.”
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