Autumn in America typically brings with it the arrival of football season, completion of harvest time, and perhaps the anticipation of Halloween and the rest of the holiday season.
This year autumn is important because it signals the wind down towards the first anniversary of the presidency of Donald J. Trump. While it is too soon to make any objective assessment of the present administration, the Trump White House has distinguished itself by its ability to sustain multiple controversies (allegations of conflict of interest, discord with the press, and staff infighting) simultaneously, much like a circus performer juggles various objects at once before a spellbound audience.
Within the past few months, the chief executive has replaced his Communications Director (Anthony Scaramucci with Hope Hicks), his Chief of Staff (Reince Priebus with John F. Kelly), and his Secretary of Health and Human Services (Tom Price with Don J. Wright). He fired his National Security Adviser (Michael Flynn, replaced with H.R. McMaster), his Attorney General (Sally Yates replaced in 10 short days by Dana Boente, who in turn was succeeded by Jeff Sessions), and swapped out his FBI Director, James Comey with Christopher A. Wray.
Along the way—in between snide remarks about the middle stream news media—the president has taken time to indulge in spats with prominent members of his own party, Sen. Bob Coker (R-Tenn.,) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). In addition, he seems to have broken with his principle political strategist, Steve Bannon.
These administrative musical chairs were conducted at the same time Trump engaged in saber rattling, notably in the Korean peninsula, the Middle East, and in Venezuela. Throughout the course of all these machinations, the one constant has been lingering questions about his connects to the Russian Federation, and the possibility of this Communist entity’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign that brought Trump to power. A cursory glance at modern history, however, reveals that this is the latest chapter in a saga of collusion and entanglement between Russia and the United States, a connection often directed at America’s population of African descent.
The Russian Federation was preceded by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which in turn grew from the ashes of the Bolshevik (left-wing majority) over throw of the aristocratic Romanov Dynasty in 1917. Officially created in 1922 after a three-year civil war and its position in “Mother Russia” secured, the party faithful embarked on Karl Marx’ belief in the inevitability of world communism by subsidizing the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) to target the “wretched Negroes” of this country, above all those in the Jim Crow South.
Three-hundred thousand dollars was reportedly earmarked towards effort by the newly formed Communist International or “Comintern,” (see Paul Kengor’s “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism,” 2017) which was dedicated to spread Soviet doctrine internationally “…by all available means.” To its credit, the CPUSA was at the vanguard of efforts to better the plight of Negroes, via the organization of sharecroppers and other menial laborers, and notably, intervention in the Scottsboro Boys rape trial in 1931 Alabama.
Meanwhile, the Soviets made overtures to some of the leading artistic and cultural figures of Black America through the patronage of University of California at Berkeley alumnae and leftist sympathizer Louise Thompson. She arrived in New York City just as the arrival of the phenomenon the “New Negro Movement” or better-known Harlem Renaissance was reaching its zenith. She quickly formed a Harlem branch of the Friends of the Soviet Union, an organization with ties to the Comintern, and then organized a trip to the USSR for a group of intellectuals that made up a “whos who” of Negro progressives, including the journalist, novelist and poet Langston Hughes. Once there, they became involved in the production of a motion picture depicting conditions for Blacks in the American South.
The expatriates saw this as an opportunity to counter the negative racial stereotypes projected in the Hollywood productions of the day. For the Soviets, it was a golden opportunity to showcase the negative inequities of the capitalist system. For the remaining decades of the 20th Century, racism would be a strategic tool to use to highlight the flaws of Western society as the frigid legacy of the Cold War chilled the globe.
You lynch Negroes, don’t you?
“There are a lot of killers. You got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
—Donald Trump’s response to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly’s observation of his friendship with Valdimir Putin and his KGB past
Both sides engaged in a form of “one-upmanship,” in which each touted the merits of their own system while underscoring the failings of the opposition. In this, conflicting sides might blunt the criticisms of an antagonist with the tool of hypocrisy without going through the hassle of disproving the charges directed their way.
Thusly, American accusations about abysmal Soviet human rights abuses, the treatment of political dissidents, and the horrors of the “gulags,” (forced labor camps), could be contradicted with the mention of economic and employment disparages among the United States labor force. The woefully unbalanced U.S. criminal justice system was/is another invaluable instrument of propaganda, serving as an overwhelming indictment in and of itself, and if all else failed, there remained the ultimate “trump card” of global diplomacy: the lynching of Negroes.
The technique is derived from a ubiquitous schoolyard insult, witnessed on any playground but updated for use on the (adult) international stage. The practice became a staple of Russo-American exchange during the era of Joseph Stalin, and remnants continue to this very day. Russian President Vladimir Putin is noted to be an avid practitioner of this modus operandi, as is our own chief executive when cornered in televised press conferences and other public settings. This practice of dealing with allegations or tricky questions is also known as “whataboutism.”
Visions of utopia
“A friend of mine, a member of the Moscow intelligentsia, repeated to me the remarks of the lady respondent of a Danish newspaper: that I should not be taken as a representative Negro for she had lived in America and found all Negroes lazy, bad and vicious, a terror to White women.”
—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.
“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.
Fear mongers and reactionaries linked this retaliation with organized agitation by communist interlopers in the aftermath of the “Red Summer” of 1919, in which riots occurred in dozens of American cities throughout the Midwest, northeast, and the South (elements of the U.S. Cavalry’s 10th Regiment “the Buffalo Soldiers,” were set upon by White policemen in Bisbee, Az., in a melee called “the Battle of Brewery Gulch,” that same year).
The second Red Scare achieved a higher profile due to advances in media technology and the charisma of central figure Sen. Joseph “Tail Gunner Joe” R. McCarthy (D-WI), who catapulted the nation into a frenzy of terror about communist subversion (one of his right-handed men, attorney and dirty trickster Roy M. Cohn, served as an early mentor to Donald Trump in the latter’s formative years).
Scores of artists and performers such as Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Canada Lee, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, Hazel Scott, Fredi Washington, and others were affected in one way or another. Other creators, especially attendees of the 1959 First Conference of Negro Writers (funded by CIA front organizations) actually benefited from the Cold War, as did Jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie who embarked on world tours as “Goodwill Ambassadors” to promote American culture.