The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s

Overview

Mary Helen Washington recovers the vital role of 1950s leftist politics in the works and lives of modern African American writers and artists. While most histories of McCarthyism focus on the devastation of the blacklist and the intersection of leftist politics and American culture, few include the activities of radical writers and artists from the Black Popular Front. Washington's work incorporates these black intellectuals back into our understanding of mid-twentieth-century African American literature and art ...

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The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s

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Overview

Mary Helen Washington recovers the vital role of 1950s leftist politics in the works and lives of modern African American writers and artists. While most histories of McCarthyism focus on the devastation of the blacklist and the intersection of leftist politics and American culture, few include the activities of radical writers and artists from the Black Popular Front. Washington's work incorporates these black intellectuals back into our understanding of mid-twentieth-century African American literature and art and expands our understanding of the creative ferment energizing all of America during this period.

Mary Helen Washington reads four representative writers -- Lloyd Brown, Frank London Brown, Alice Childress, and Gwendolyn Brooks -- and surveys the work of the visual artist Charles White. She traces resonances of leftist ideas and activism in their artistic achievements and follows their balanced critique of the mainstream liberal and conservative political and literary spheres. Her study recounts the targeting of African American as well as white writers during the McCarthy era, reconstructs the events of the 1959 Black Writers' Conference in New York, and argues for the ongoing influence of the Black Popular Front decades after it folded. Defining the contours of a distinctly black modernism and its far-ranging radicalization of American politics and culture, Washington fundamentally reorients scholarship on African American and Cold War literature and life.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 01/27/2014
In this groundbreaking book, University of Maryland literature professor Washington uncovers and recovers the “minimized, or omitted... influence of the Communist Party and the Left” in African-American arts and letters during the 1950s. FBI informants, she observes, were often “far more enterprising and thorough than most literary historians,” thus enabling Washington to retrieve details of “Black-Left history” absent from current anthologies. Focusing on six artists—novelist Lloyd L. Brown, graphic artist Charles White, playwright Alice Childress, poet and novelist Gwendolyn Brooks, novelist Frank London Brown, and novelist Julian Mayfield—her work aims to recast who we read and transform how we read. Her analysis of Brown’s Iron City as, in aspects, a parody of Wright’s Native Son, for example, illuminates both works, and her countering of the “force fed… tale of sudden and unprecedented conversion to blackness and radicalism” with “her earlier left-wing radicalism” adds fresh insight. Washington attends to the “range of relationships with the left,” from Communist Party membership to “idiosyncratic radicalism” and “silences and self-censorship.” “What if you put the black literary and cultural Left at the center of African American studies during the Cold War?,” Washington asks. Her thought-provoking reply opens a conversation. Illus. (Apr.)
Robin D. G. Kelley
Alice Childress, Lloyd Brown, Julian Mayfield, Frank London Brown... these ought to be household names in American letters and politics, as well as African American Studies. In a brilliant work of historical reconstruction and (re)vision, Mary Helen Washington not only rescues these critical artists/intellectuals from obscurity and restores them to history, but in doing so re-writes that history — recasting the 1950s as a period of black radical critique, revolutionary fervor, political non-compliance, state repression and surveillance, and a flowering of black artistic imagination. This book will force us to rethink the "Dark Ages" as the other "Red Decade."
Mari Matsuda
Why wouldn't a people who were 'buked, scorned, bled, and defamed by capitalism develop an incisive critique of it? The Cold War erased red politics from our reading of mid-century Black art. Dr. Washington brings it back with eloquence and dense documentation. If you believe in freedom, read this book.
Booklist (starred review)

[A] compelling look at artists and writers who became part of the vanguard of the progressive politics and civil rights movement of the 1960s.

James Smethurst

A wonderful combination of careful research, adept historicizing, and insightful close reading. Mary Helen Washington's book brings needed critical attention to understudied figures and helps readers rethink the careers of others whom they believe they already know.

James Smethurst
Mary Helen Washington's study is a wonderful combination of careful research, adept historicizing, and insightful close reading. Her book brings needed critical attention to understudied figures and helps readers rethink the careers of others whom they believe they already know.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231152709
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 12/31/2013
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 500,949
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Helen Washington is a professor in the English Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. She has been a Bunting Fellow at Harvard University and has taught at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is the editor of Black-Eyed Susans: Classic Stories by Black Women Writers; Midnight Birds: Stories of Contemporary Black Women Writers; Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women; and Memory of Kin: Stories of Family by Black Writers.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

List of IllustrationsAcknowledgmentsList of AbbreviationsIntroduction1. Lloyd Brown: Black Fire in the Cold War2. Charles White: "Robeson with a Brush and Pencil"3. Alice Childress: Black, Red, and Feminist4. When Gwendolyn Brooks Wore Red5. Frank London Brown: The End of the Black Cultural Front and the Turn Toward Civil Rights6. 1959: Spycraft and the Black Literary LeftEpilogue: The Example of Julian MayfieldNotesWorks CitedIndex

Columbia University Press

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