Cold War charades begin anew as America and Russia quarrel

First of a two-part series

Gregg Reese | 10/19/2017, 3:57 p.m.
Autumn in America typically brings with it the arrival of football season, completion of harvest time...

—from the Claude McKay essay “Soviet Russia and the Negro,” 1923.

Some of the USSR’s visitors of color eventually had their expectations let down. Their extended stay in the Soviet Union made them realize that their hosts suffered under the same universal stereotypes of the age, regardless of geography. Hughes himself found the script for the proposed film, to be titled “Black and White,” repugnant. In short order the production was cancelled, although an animated short with the same title was completed with the assistance of activist, athlete, and entertainer Paul Robeson (he served as musical director but did not sing on the soundtrack, as commonly believed).

Using the Negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child,” as a touchstone, the film short is an indictment of racism on a South American sugar plantation. Easy to find on the Internet (see https://www.youtube.com /watch?v=CzAwmcA R8c), it is an intriguing 5:52 minute long vignette of the mindset of a bygone era, and is eerily reminiscent of the just released Jay-Z animated video “The Story of O.J.,” promoting his latest album “4:44.”

The break between Soviet and Black sensibilities may be perused from the literature producedduring the period. Jamaican-born poet and writer Claude McKay was one of those accompanying Thompson to Russia in 1922 and was treated as a celebrity on the strength of his recently published “Harlem Shadows,” and given access to wide swaths of the country to read excerpts from his work. The ability to tweak Western authority while expounding on the merits of his own culture was liberating.

The recent discovery of a “lost” novel written by McKay from 1941, “Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem,” may provide a more balanced view of the scribe’s relationship with socialism. As historian Henry Louis Gates notes, it touches on “…the tensions between Communists, on the one hand, and Black nationalists, on the other, for the hearts and minds of Black Americans,” a theme covered in the 1949 classic “Invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison.

Second thoughts

“No minority group in the country within the past 10 years has made the advances scored by the Negroes … and we would have made even greater advances-if the communists didn’t deliberately try to confuse the issue and stir agitation.”

—Ed Sullivan, 1951.

Not everyone found communism a comfortable fit. Richard Wright became exposed to Marxism in Chicago’s Southside in the 1930s, and documented his passage of consciousness in the 1940’s novel “Native Son,” and articles like1944’s “I Tried to Be a Communist,” for the Atlantic Monthly,” which was collected in a volume of essays entitled “The God That Failed” in 1949.

“I wanted to be a communist, but my kind of communist,” he once said ruefully.

None-the-less, Wright remained a lifetime Marxist, with reservations, a commitment that led to speculation that his 1960 death was, in fact murder staged by agents of the capitalist elite.

Like many other public figures (regardless of race) in the mid-20th century, Wright came under the scrutiny of “red-baiting,” the practice of persecuting undesirables by labeling them as sympathetic to the communist, Marxist, or socialist ideology. This “Red Scare” actually had its roots in the years after the 1917 Russian Revolution. In the U.S., race riots (which had long been a staple of the American tradition) in the wake of World War I were coupled with a new twist: Black resistance.