INDIGNANT GENERATION: A NARRATIVE HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN
Princeton University Press. 579 pages. £24.95. ISBN 978-0-691-14135-0
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Some years ago, around the mid-1990s, there was something of an upsurge of interest in the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, the movement usually characterised as relating to the 1920s. Glancing at my bookshelves I can see several anthologies published, or re-published at that time, and I have a memory of at least one large art exhibition. Lawrence P. Jackson says that the Renaissance started in 1924 and then "collapsed as the economy ground to a halt in the early 1930s and unemployment and breadlines became common American realities." But the fact of a movement coming to an end doesn't mean that individuals stop writing and, in any case, new writers appear despite, or perhaps because of, the economic situation.
By the mid-1930s there was a new generation of writers and intellectuals on the scene, many of them influenced by Marxism and with a tendency to "see the racial problem in economic terms." The number of black graduates rose but employment problems continued even when the economy showed signs of recovery. Blacks with degrees still had to be content with menial jobs if they managed to find work. And, as Jackson puts it: "The unemployed black writers, artists and activists were making a beeline for the political parties and artistic clusters on the left wing." Socialists and communists were not a new breed among blacks in the United States, and black intellectuals had "cut their teeth during the 1910s on the giant issue of the delegation of the resources of society, the kind of leadership group needed to begin the redistribution of power and the involvement of the rank-and-file." He mentions a group mainly made up of West Indians in New York which included Claude McKay, whose Home to Harlem and Harlem Glory point to his radical leanings, including his involvement with the Industrial Workers of the World. McKay published poetry, novels, and other writings, and though often critically acclaimed his "reward for all of this was to live hand-to-mouth for his entire adult life."
McKay always had a deep suspicion of communism, even if he did sometimes work alongside communists, but there's no doubt that, for many other blacks, the American Communist Party had a significant role in their activities. As so often happened, communist policy and tactics were dictated by Moscow, and the "Black Belt thesis" held that "Negro Americans were an oppressed nation, sharing a common land, heritage, and culture, and that American blacks deserved the right to self-determination and their own national territory." Maps were produced which showed the areas that blacks should control. Was this ever a realistic proposition and likely to appeal to the mass of blacks in the United States? It hardly mattered when Stalin gave his approval.
For writers the communists were important because of the existence of the New Masses and the John Reed Clubs that were established in many towns and cities. New Masses had always been sympathetic to blacks from its inception in 1926. I have a somewhat tattered copy of the December 1926 issue which contains four poems by Langston Hughes, a report on conditions in various parts of the South, and an advertisement for Fire, "a quarterly devoted to the younger Negro artists," edited by Wallace Thurman, a leading black writer. Jackson says that, "New Masses was an excellent example of the sort of radical democratic possibility available to black writers in the 1930s." As for the John Reed Clubs, they were based on the kind of literary studios for worker-correspondents created by Prolecult in the Soviet Union. New York and Chicago had the largest clubs and their purpose was both educational and agitational. When Party policy dictated in 1928 that the class war should be taken into every aspect of culture, the slogan "Art is a Class Weapon" emphasised opposition to notions of "art for art's sake." The Chicago club had a mixed membership, including the white novelist Nelson Algren and the black writer Richard Wright. Left Front, a magazine funded by the John Reed Clubs, published some of Wright's early poems. He was later to break with communism and, in 1950, contributed to a notable anti-communist anthology, The God That Failed, but in the 1930s he was a dedicated member of the Party and believed that a union of blacks and whites could be forged to oppose capitalism. Wright's American Hunger, which only saw complete publication in 1977, is a fascinating account of this period of his life.
Party policy changed again in 1934 and the Clubs were dissolved, along with many of the little magazines they had started. Proletarian writers, black and white, were usually unknown and little published, and they were discarded in favour of "a broader coalition that could accommodate already established artists; this new coalition became known as the Popular Front." Few black writers could lay claim to being widely known, but Langston Hughes did have credibility with the Communist Party. He'd spent a year in Russia in the early-1930s and had a publishing record stretching back well into the 1920s. And he was popular with whites. His work had become increasingly radical and was regularly featured in New Masses, By 1934 he was president of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, a communist-front organisation that, according to Eugene Lyons in his 1941 book, The Red Decade, had Earl Browder, William Z. Foster, Gil Green, and Clarence Hathaway, all of them members of the American Communist Party, on its council. Lyons thought that Hughes was "stronger in heart than in mind," and "accepted the shadow of communist phrases for the substance of reality." He also went on to suggest that the League never really meant much to the Negro masses, "attracting largely careerists and black bohemians." Hughes's radicalism tapered off in later years, and Saunders Redding, writing about a 1962 conference in Kampala that both he and Hughes attended, remarked on the fact that Hughes avoided reading any of his radical poems and didn't join in the discussions about anti-imperialist revolutionary activity.
In 1935 the New Deal programme established the Federal Writers' Project which aimed to provide work for at least some unemployed writers, though there were always arguments about who qualified as unemployed or as a writer. Leaving aside the differences of opinion the Project did offer employment to a number of black writers, among them Sterling Brown and Richard Wright. Brown produced some work for a guidebook to Washington that Jackson describes as "among the most arresting analyses of an African American urban community, from privies to lace curtains, ever written." He was also involved with interviewing ex-slaves, "arguably the most important research undertaken by the entire Federal Writers' Project", and invaluable to scholars studying the history of slavery.
Richard Wright was hired by the Chicago branch of the Project as a field reporter for the state guidebook, though he also benefited from having time to write a novel. Other black writers on the Project included Willard Motley, who later made a name with the novel Knock on Any Door, and Frank Yerby, who also succeeded as a novelist but with potboilers that had white heroes and heroines cavorting in the old South. Prior to success with The Foxes of Harrow and The Vixens Yerby had contributed to little magazines but had grown tired of earning little and reaching only a small audience. It's easy to dismiss a writer like Yerby but, as Jackson points out, his "apparently innocuous historical romance had the capacity to touch an audience that a 'professionally liberal' book might never have reached. Yerby used the pulp narrative to present without pleading the common sense arguments in favour of ending racial segregation."
Jackson performs a useful service by devoting a great deal of attention to Chicago in the late-1930s. Writers like Arna Bontemps, Frank Marshall Davis, William Attaway (author of a social-realist novel, Blood on the Forge, which focused on working conditions and racism in the steel mills around Pittsburgh) and Margaret Walker were active in the city, though the most successful was Richard Wright. His Uncle Tom's Children (1938) and Native Son (1940) were critically acclaimed and commercially popular, at least when compared to books by other blacks. The four stories in Uncle Tom's Children revolved around racism and, as one critic put it; "In each story, the main character experiences a traumatic event that takes him or her from childhood innocence to hardened militancy." Native Son was an even bigger success, though Wright had to agree to a certain amount of editing and censoring to make it acceptable to the Book-of-the-Month Club readership. Even so, it was remarkable that a novel as hard-hitting as Native Son, with its stark message of racial divisions and their consequences, could be made available to a wide audience.
Native Son also had a political effect: "The new breed of young blacks - exposed to college, seeking Marxism and relationships with Communists but not in awe of them, highly critical of white liberals and the traditional black middle-class, and violently impatient with segregation - converted Native Son into a catalyst for political organisation." Jackson points out that Ralph Ellison, then a "young Marxist radical, decided that Bigger's 'indignation' - the violent eradication of the idea of moral and ethical justification in favour of Marxist 'necessity' was Wright's paramount achievement." The entry of America into the Second World War found white liberals like Archibald MacLeish attempting to persuade black newspaper editors to play down calls for racial equality so as not to rock the boat during wartime. Young black writers were still pushed towards left-wing publications or obscure little magazines if they wanted to see their work in print. A significant publication was Negro Quarterly which Jackson says "was largely shaped by Communists," though it disagreed with the Party's policy of soft-pedalling on demands for an end to segregation in the armed forces. Negro Quarterly struggled to attract readers and wartime paper shortages also affected its capacity to maintain a regular publication schedule.
Young black writers didn't hold with curtailing their calls for racial equality and instead saw the war as an opportunity to push their demands even harder. After all, wasn't it meant to be a war for democracy and against fascist ideas of racial superiority? Chester Himes, not long out of prison, and already published in Esquire and New Masses, wrote an article in which he said: "Now, in the year 1942, is the time; here in the United States of America, is the place for 13,000,000 Negro Americans to make their fight for freedom in the land in which they were born and where they will die. Now is the time and here is the place to engage and overcome our most persistent enemies. Our native American fascists." It was enough to start the FBI keeping a check on his future activities.
The Communist Party, or people with links to it, still played a part in getting black writers into print. Edwin Seaver had worked for The League of American Writers, a front organisation, and the Daily Worker, and in 1944 he edited the first Cross-Section, a large anthology with a definite left-wing slant and contributions from several black writers, including Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Carl Ruthven Offord. What Jackson says was obvious from the work by black writers was that the kind of consensus between blacks and white liberals that had typified the 1920s and 1930s was breaking down: "By 1944 the fiction writers were imagining black identity in the same terms that Horace Cayton had predicted - one that did not rely on white liberals." Cayton was a black activist in Chicago who encouraged people to look to their own communities for support rather than relying on white liberals. Like Chester Himes he attracted the attention of the FBI when he questioned why blacks should be fighting in a war that would only benefit whites.
Jackson states that by 1945 it was obvious that a second "Renaissance" was in sight. Wright, Ellison, Ann Petry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, the critic Saunders Redding, and many more, were being published regularly and given serious attention. One problem that arose, though, was that as the war ended and an anti-communist mood began to build up, writers displaying what could be called un-American tendencies were looked on with suspicion. Discussing some events at the writers and artists retreat at Yaddo, Jackson remarks that "few blacks outspoken on racial issues were invited as guests." When Chester Himes's Lonely Crusade, his novel about politics and prejudice in an aircraft factory, was published in 1947 it got some unfavourable notices because it seemed to be sympathetic towards communism, or at least didn't show communists as simply evil characters bent on destroying the American way of life. Jackson thinks that readers "would not gravitate to a book that showed Communists as wise liberators," and he adds that the book sold poorly. Some of Himes's fellow-writers thought he'd made a mistake by publishing his novel at a time when the "Red Scare" was mounting in intensity.
Newer black writers were less directly-political than their immediate forerunners. Willard Motley's Knock on Any Door was certainly written in a social-realist style but its central characters were white and its theme was one of social reform of the kind that would solve the problem of juvenile delinquency. It had a good liberal message and, perhaps not surprisingly, was picked up by Hollywood and turned into a powerful film. The book sold reasonably well and it's interesting to note that Motley was assumed to be white until his photograph appeared in newspapers and magazines.
Another writer who began to surface in the post-war years was James Baldwin and he started to make a name for himself with reviews in New Leader, Commentary, and Partisan Review, publications that were inclined more to the centre than the left. They certainly weren't the kind of magazines most young black writers would normally be associated with. Jackson also mentions Anatole Broyard as another black who managed to enter the world of prestigious intellectual journals, but he is something of a special case in that he could pass for white and usually tried to do so. Baldwin was dark-skinned but knew how to turn white sympathy to his advantage, according to Jackson. He had been a member of the Young People's Socialist League and a Trotskyite, but it's doubtful if radical politics were ever his main interest, and he soon distanced himself from writers like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison with his article, "Everybody's Protest Novel," which ended with an attack on Wright. In Jackson's view Baldwin said that "wallowing in bitterness and indignation was flawed because it led to violence and self-destruction, either of the black self, of the black people, or of the American nation."
Baldwin and other black writers moved to Paris, where the city seemed to offer an environment largely free from racial prejudice, though they soon learned that it was only their American passports that ensured they weren't harassed too often by the police. They couldn't help noticing that other coloured residents were treated differently, particularly when the Algerian War of Independence started. Baldwin, Chester Himes, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, William Gardner Smith, and others, were all in Paris at one time or another. Interestingly, the early-1950s saw the publication of what Jackson refers to as "four key works of African American highbrow modernism," namely Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Ann Petry's The Narrows, Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha and James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain. And he claims: "These works, all of them major achievements in narrative form and psychologically complex black characters, would signal the successful acceptance of blacks into American life."
Richard Wright's The Outsider was also published in the early-1950s, though Jackson says that "the public never warmed to it," and he relates the response to it to that which greeted Norman Mailer's Barbary Shore, which he describes as "trying to work through the communist-capitalist-existentialist morass and using elements of detective fiction as well." With anti-communist hysteria at its height (black writers in Paris were convinced that their conversations were being reported to the CIA) it wasn't a time for any kind of book that didn't seem to adhere to conventional notions of politics. The American Communist Party was starting to fall apart as its members were hounded, lost their jobs, and in some cases went to prison. Its influence on black writers was in decline, though a few still gave it their support. Lloyd Brown, author of the 1951 prison novel, Iron City, pointed out that white liberals were quick to distance themselves from communism in the Cold War atmosphere of the 1950s, "while glossing over the actual hard work that had been conducted by the Communist Party in defending black rights and black lives since the 1930s."
As the 1950s developed new black writers got their novels published. Jackson brings in Herbert Simmons, whose Corner Boy he describes as "a gritty novel of black urban life," in which Simmons "graphically revealed the institutionalisation of narcotics and gang violence in urban America." New black poets appeared, among them Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, and Leroi Jones, all of them linked to the Beat movement. And James Baldwin continued to produce important books, including Giovanni's Room, set in Paris, and Another Country, which moved to New York and especially Greenwich Village. In an interesting aside, Jackson says that Seymour Krim, who had written a couple of provocative essays about white attitudes towards blacks and his own experiences in Harlem, "was nearly a double for the character James Baldwin would name Vivaldo in the 1961 novel Another Country." Jackson's discussion of Krim, Norman Mailer's The White Negro, hipsters, and the whole question of how and why many whites wanted to identify with black experiences and life-styles is well worth reading.
There are a few minor errors in this book. A sentence is repeated on page 182, and elsewhere Eugene McCarthy is confused with Joseph McCarthy. Norman Podhoretz's famous attack on the Beats, "The Know-Nothing Bohemians," comes out as "No Nothing Bohemians." And Jackson seems shaky when he touches on jazz. Charlie Parker died in 1955, not 1956. He gets Thelonious (as in Thelonious Monk) wrong several times. And he refers to "Duke Ellington and his band's great soloist voice on the trumpet, Roy Eldridge." I don't think Eldridge was ever a member of the Ellington orchestra, certainly not on a regular basis, and it's probably true to say that he became best known to many jazz fans for being featured with the white bands led by Artie Shaw and Gene Krupa.
Minor quibbles apart, The Indignant Generation is a splendid book, succinctly argued and packed with information about writers, books, magazines, and organisations. Jackson provides some useful critical comments on various novels, short stories, and poems. And he rightly indicates how the American Communist Party played a significant role in getting black writers into print, even if its influence wasn't always completely benign.